This past week, I heard about a Gambian man who’s just come to faith in Jesus. And on hearing about it, his Muslim family had him severely beaten. So he’s moved away and is trying to survive independently. I don’t know whether his family will threaten him with worse. I do know that the temptation to renounce Jesus and go back to Islam will be strong.
And that was the kind of situation faced by the people that Hebrews was originally written to. They were Jewish – i.e., Hebrews – but they’d then come to faith in Jesus, which their Jewish family and friends saw as a betrayal – as that Gambian man’s family did. And if you read all of Hebrews you find that they were suffering persecution, loss of property, imprisonment and probably death-threats. Which caused them to waver massively in their faith.
And if you’ve been trusting in Jesus for any length of time, you won’t sit in judgement on them. Because you may know what it is for friends and family to be really hostile to your faith. Or more generally, you’ll know what it’s like for obedience to Jesus to get difficult, maybe really difficult. And the difficulty of obedience can leave you thinking, ‘I almost don’t want Christianity to be true anymore – it would be so much easier if it wasn’t and I could just walk away.’ And difficulty of circumstances can have similar effects. I think of one Christian couple who lost their son in a car crash. And in the aftermath, they said, ‘We just can’t go on believing in a God who lets this kind of thing happen.’
So difficult obedience makes us think, ‘I don’t want this to be true any more.’ Difficult circumstances make us think, ‘I can’t believe it’s true any more.’ And that’s where the Hebrews were. And they were tempted to relieve the difficulty by going back to Judaism –whilst telling themselves that there really wasn’t much difference between Judaism and Christianity, so they really wouldn’t be losing anything. And most of all, they were tempted to think, ‘Judaism has sacrifices and priests to deal with our sin – i.e., wrongdoing – so we can still be forgiven and put right with God without Jesus.’
To which Hebrews says, ‘No you can’t.’ It says, ‘You’ve got to realise that the whole Old Testament – i.e., Judaism – was pointing forward to Jesus. So, eg, all those animal sacrifices could never really take the punishment for people’s sins – they were just a visual aid of what Jesus would one day do for people on the cross. And all those priests could never actually forgive anyone – they were just a visual aid pointing forward to the one Person who can, namely the risen Jesus, who on the basis of his death on the cross can now say to anyone, ‘I’m willing and able to forgive you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.’
So Hebrews says, ‘If you go back to Judaism you lose everything. Because, no Jesus and no cross means no forgiveness and no relationship with God. And that’s why the bulk of Hebrews is all about Jesus being our great high priest. And I know that because (mostly) we’re not Jews and the Hebrews’ issues are not exactly our issues, we find this letter hard. But bear with it – especially as we come to a tricky passage today.
So would you turn to Hebrews chapter 5 and look down to v8, to revisit the last bit we did:
Although he [Jesus] was a son [the Son of God], he learned obedience from what he suffered [on the cross] and, once made perfect [that’s talking about his resurrection], he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (vv8-10)
Now read on:
We have much to say about this [ie, about Jesus being the only priest who can really deal with your sins], but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. (v11)
Literally, the ‘slow to learn’ bit says ‘sluggish in your hearing’ – which means unresponsive – hearing, but not really wanting to hear, like a child playing in the garden being told, ‘It’s supper time.’ The difficulty of obedience had left them thinking, ‘I almost don’t want it to be true anymore – don’t want to hear it – because it would be so much easier if I could just walk away.’
And that’s how many of our slides into disobedience begin, isn’t it – as we stop reading the Bible for ourselves; as we stop listening to other Christians – at least, only listen to the ones who’ll say what we want to hear; and as we ultimately stop coming to church.
So what does Hebrews say next to these Jewish background Christians – and us? Three things:
Firstly, YOU NEED TO GRASP THE BASICS OF THE GOSPEL AFRESH (5.11-14)
Look down to v11 again:
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (vv11-14)
So, v12, the writer of Hebrews says:
You need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. (v12)
I.e., you need to be taken back to the basics of the gospel – the kind of thing our Christianity Explored course does (which is why it does so many Christians good – not just people looking into Christianity). And that’s what Hebrews does. I know it doesn’t seem basic – because it’s dealing with the issues of Jewish background people and full of references to the Old Testament (OT). But actually, Hebrews just takes you back to the basics of:
• Who Jesus is – the Son of God; and
• Why he died and rose again – to forgive us back into relationship with God, and ultimately bring us to be with him in heaven.
Once you’ve cut through the OT undergrowth, that’s really all Hebrews is about. Because when we’re struggling with the difficulties of obedience or circumstances, it’s grasping the basics of the gospel afresh that will sustain our faith. Or putting it more God-centredly, it’s as we grasp the basics of the gospel afresh that God sustains our faith.
So how do the basics – of Jesus and his death and resurrection – help when obedience difficulties make you wish it wasn’t true? Well, they say, ‘But it is true. Jesus really did live, really did die for you, really did rise from the dead. And you’d have to deny all that, disprove all that to yourself, unpick it all in your mind in order to walk away.’ And that line of thinking has often sustained me. I haven’t kept going because it’s comfortable or convenient – it’s not. I’ve kept going, by God’s grace, because it’s true.
But then how do the basics help when circumstances make you feel you can’t believe it any more – or could never believe it in the first place? Well, they say, ‘There are many things we don’t know – sadnesses and losses we just don’t understand. But they don’t change the truth of what we do know – in Jesus. So his life – as God’s Son on this Earth – tells us that God really is there, even when today makes us doubt that. His cross says he does love us, even when today it’s not obvious how he’s loving us. And his resurrection says he is in control, even when today looks out of control. So as someone’s put it: being a Christian is like standing under a street lamp on a dark night. And in the light of Jesus and his cross and resurrection, you can see some things – that God is there, and that he’s loving, and that he’s in control. But there’s a whole lot around you that you just can’t see, can’t understand – you have to say it’s a mystery, you’re in the dark. But that doesn’t change the reality of the light. And in many ways Hebrews is one, long call to hold on to what we do know in the perplexity of what we don’t.
Then this passage says to these Jewish Christians,
Second, DON’T THINK YOU CAN REJECT JESUS AND STILL HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD (6.1-8)
Look down to chapter 6 and v1:
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation... (v1)
So he wants them to leave ‘the elementary teachings about Christ’ (literally that says ‘the word of the beginning of the Christ’) and go on to maturity. But that seems to contradict what he’s just said – which is that you need to grasp the basics afresh. And you never ‘leave’ the basics in the sense of leaving them behind.
So to clarify what he means he uses the picture of a house and its foundation: And in v1 he says, ‘Look, I don’t want you knocking down the house and going back to just the foundation again.’ So look down again to v1 to see what foundation he’s on about:
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (vv1-2)
Now at first sight those foundation things look Christian, don’t they?
E.g., repentance and faith. But that was also the response God called people to in the OT. So in one sense there’s nothing distinctively Christian about it – it could just as well be Jewish repentance and faith. And in fact there’s nothing distinctively Christian about any of this list. E.g., the OT teaches ‘the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.’ But what about ‘instructions about baptisms’? Isn’t that talking about Christian baptism? Well I doubt it, because nowhere else does the NT talk about baptisms plural – it says there’s one, unrepeatable baptism – which symbolises that we’re forgiven through Jesus’ one, unrepeatable death for all our sins – past and future sins. And in fact you could equally translate that bit ‘instructions about washings’ – and Judaism was full of repeated, ritual washings – to symbolise the fact that without the cross they had no assurance of once-and-for-all forgiveness based on a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sins.
So I think he’s saying to these Jewish background Christians, ‘Look, you were brought up in the foundation of the OT. And that foundation pointed forward to Jesus. And now that Jesus has come, you’ve built faith in him on top of that foundation. And I don’t want you knocking down the house and going back to just the foundation again – because the foundation cannot put you right with God.’
The point is: foundations are good – as far as they go. So they can support a house but they can’t keep the rain off or keep you warm or keep out burglars. And Hebrews (here and throughout the letter) is saying to these Jewish background Christians, ‘Your OT foundation is good – as far as it goes. But it can’t really deal with the problem of your sin and God’s judgement against it and your need for forgiveness. Only Jesus can do that.’
So the lesson is that another religion – Judaism above all – may say a lot of true things about God; but it can’t put you right with him. Because all other religions reject Jesus as the New Testament (NT) presents him – and you can’t reject Jesus and still have relationship with God; you can’t reject the Forgiver and still be forgiven.
But Hebrews is warning against a very specific kind of rejection of Jesus. Not by Muslims in Gambia, who’ve had no chance to hear about him. But by professing Christians, who publically, deliberately, decisively renounce their profession of faith in Jesus. That was the temptation for these Hebrews, to relieve the difficulties of persecution they were facing. So look down to chapter 6, v4, which is one of the strongest warnings in the Bible:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (vv4-6)
Now that begs the question, ‘Is it really possible for a Christian to fall away? After all, there are other places in the NT which promise that God will sustain the faith of genuine believers to the end, through thick and thin – which is a massive reassurance when you feel weak, when you feel you could stop believing any minute now. So, eg, Paul writes to the Philippians that he’s (quote):
... confident... that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1v6)
But doesn’t Hebrews contradict that? After all, the people described in v4 sound like the genuine, born-again article: e.g., they’ve ‘been enlightened’ and ‘shared in the Holy Spirit’. But just look on to v7 which gives an illustration of what these people are like:
Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. (vv7-8)
So the picture is of land being rained on but producing nothing. And that illustrates God raining spiritual privileges on people who in the long run turn out totally unresponsive. So I think verses 4 and 5 are talking about the spiritual privileges these people have received, not their spiritual state. Eg, it doesn’t quite say they’ve ‘received the Holy Spirit’ (which is how the NT elsewhere describes a genuine conversion) – but that they’ve ‘shared in him’. And if you’ve been part of a church where the Holy Spirit is bringing people to faith and changing them and where there’s real spiritual life and experience of God – then I think you’ve shared in the Holy Spirit; you’ve tasted something of the things of God – even if you’ve not closed with God personally.
So the Bible does teach that a genuine believer cannot fall away. And Hebrews doesn’t contradict that. It just says: we don’t know who the genuine believers are. So there will be people who look genuine but, in the long run, turn out not to be. They may get involved in church, do all the courses, make positive noises, adopt Christian values – but never really close with God personally, so that in the long run, at some point, they walk away.
Now let me say again: Hebrews is talking about a very specific kind of rejection of Jesus: namely publically, deliberately, decisively renouncing your profession of faith in Jesus. And it’s warning that people in the process of doing that are heading spiritually beyond the point of no return. But we should never think we know that someone has reached that point – only God does. And we shouldn’t confuse this kind of rejection of Jesus with other spiritual wanderings or collapses. Eg, one student here in the past came from a Christian home but threw himself deliberately into a totally non-Christian lifestyle. He finally came here for the first time in his second year, and he told me, ‘I’ve spent the first half of my university career being a complete fool.’ But he hadn’t done what Hebrews is warning about. He had been a fool – as we all are at times or for seasons – but he hadn’t renounced Jesus. And the proof of his genuineness was that he couldn’t keep wandering like that.
Which gets us to a final quick point:
Third, KEEP GOING IN FAITH AND OBEDIENCE AND YOU’LL FIND ASSURANCE ABOUT WHERE YOU STAND WITH GOD (6.9-11)
Any thoughtful Christian will be disturbed by this passage. And God meant it to disturb anyone who’s getting anywhere near to walking away from Jesus. But it ends by explaining how you can find assurance if you have been disturbed – if this has left you wondering, ‘Could I ever do that?’ or, ‘Am I currently on that path?’ or, ‘Am I really a genuine believer?’ Look down to v9:
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. (v9)
So the writer knows they’re wavering massively and (see chapter 10, vv24-25) that some have already dropped out of church. And he’s warned them of where that ultimately leads if nothing changes. But he’s not saying they have gone all the way up that path and proved themselves not genuine. Rather, in v9 he says he does think of them as genuine believers – even though they’re currently living in great inconsistency – like that student in his first year and a half. And he says that because of the evidence of their lives. Look on to v10:
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. (v10)
So they have worked at making the gospel known, and they have stood publically for Jesus because they love him and they have helped their fellow-Christians – and continue to do so. And the writer of Hebrews is saying: that’s all evidence of genuineness, even though it’s presently mixed up with great inconsistency. So then in verses 11 and 12 he says, ‘If I’ve disturbed you, and you want to find fresh assurance about where you stand with God, then set yourself to keep going in faith and obedience. Look at v11:
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure [i.e., in order to have more assurance of where you stand with God – not because keeping going earns your standing with God, but because it’s evidence of a real relationship with God and sustained by God. Verse 12:] We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (vv11-12)
So, eg, that student I mentioned, for that first year and a half up here, had no assurance of forgiveness or of God’s acceptance – because God has no intention of assuring us when what we need is disturbance. But as he got back on track and set himself to keep going again in faith and obedience, assurance returned.
And that’s always how it works. Because, as someone’s put it, ‘God wants to disturb those who are comfortable in their sin, and to comfort those who are disturbed by it.’ And whether you need to be disturbed or comforted by this passage, I don’t know. But God does. And I hope, after looking at it, you do, too.
Thank you that, as it says earlier in Hebrews, you sympathise with our weakness in the difficulties of obedience and circumstances. But thank you, too, that when in our weakness we begin to act unbelievingly and foolishly, you warn and disturb us. And whatever proportion of disturbance and comfort we’ve each needed this morning, I pray that you would help us to accept it, and to trust you for mercy to cover our past failings, and to seek you for grace to start or to continue again.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.