August 4, 2017.
I apologize for writing about this so late, I hit a particularly busy stretch last week. Fortunately (at least in terms of time), we will not be having class this week due to the gospel meeting that is going on at church, so I have some time to write about last week’s class. Unlike the classes to this point, this class focused less on the Old Testament and Second Temple context of the book of Hebrews, and more on a distinct section that spans parts of Hebrews 5 and 6. I’m hoping that this focus prepares us for the next three lessons, which could tend to be a little more technical: The priest/sacrifice/ritual system, Jesus the great High Priest, and The Old and New Covenants.
The passage in Hebrews 5:11-6:8 is one of my favorite passages in the epistle, and I think it could speak a lot to us if we have ears to hear. In context, the Hebrew writer is in the middle of a discussion about how Jesus has become the great High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek (a section that we will return to later). He’s explaining deep theological concepts, that necessitate a good command of the Old Testament and contemporary thought concerning the Old Testament, and he interrupts his discussion to chide his audience for not being ready to hear and understand what he is trying to tell them.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
If we are being honest, I think we would need to say that this is a rather harsh statement. The author is admonishing his audience because they are “dull of hearing” and are “unskilled in the word of righteousness.” The honest question that I think we should ask ourselves today is if the Hebrew writer would choose the same words if he were writing to us personally.
Here’s the kicker: the subject that the Hebrew writer is reproving his audience about not being at the point where they understand and could teach is that of Melchizedek- a character that is the subject of all of four verses in the entire Old Testament- four verses. Three of these verses come from a passage in Genesis and one from Psalm 110. We will talk about this in more detail in a future lesson, but the point that I want to make here is that this doesn’t seem like a subject that one could easily understand from a casual, or even a moderately in-depth reading of the Old Testament. The Hebrew writer is likely influenced by contemporary interpreters of the Old Testament in the second temple period that have begun to focus much more attention on Melchizedek and how he might pre-figure, or even be the Messiah. To make a comparison to today, that’s like saying that not only do we need to read the book of Romans in detail, making connections on our own, but we also need to read contemporary scholars in the material, such as N.T. Wright. Not necessarily to agree with them, but to know the material well enough to have an informed discussion and have our own convictions on the matter based on reason. When we bring it into our day, I think it’s easier to see whether or not the same words could apply to us.
The next section is particularly interesting to me, as I think it lays down the groundwork for us to gain two valuable insights.
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
The two insights that I think we would be amiss to overlook are as follows:
- There are fundamentals of the faith that we should know, understand and agree upon, but not dwell upon, hindering our path to maturity. The fundamentals are important, but we cannot stay at this level- we have to move on past the fundamentals if we are going to mature in Christ.
- Though the Hebrew writer is listing the fundamentals in effort to get his audience to move on past them, we are nevertheless provided with a list of what the fundamentals of the Christian faith are according to the book of Hebrews. It would serve us well as a comparison with the early church if we compared what we think are the fundamentals of the faith with what the Hebrew writer thought were the fundamentals of the faith. We would also be wise to ask if we fully understand each of the fundamentals, and if we didn’t think it was a fundamental of the Christian faith, to explore why we have diverged from this concept in early Christianity. Some of the fundamentals listed here might actually surprise you.
The section that follows (6:3-12) continues the authors admonishment and leads into encouragement. With this background in place, for the rest of the post I am simply going to ask the questions I asked (or wanted to ask) in class, and give my answers for what they are worth.
Milk to Meat (5:11-14)
- Is there profit in learning about and understanding things “hard to explain” in Scripture and faith? What is the value?
I guess it’s obvious where I’m going with this question and that I am going to answer “of course it is.” I think this is the whole point of this section, that we need to move on past the fundamentals that the Hebrew writer is going to lay out next and press on towards maturity. We should be learning, discussing and trying to understand deeper matters of faith. I think that this is especially vital for our kids and the younger people in the church, as they will be met with hard questions as they journey through life. There are certain questions and topics that seem like they are barred from church and discussion in class- maybe they are potentially controversial or perhaps they might imply someone is questioning their faith. We ought not to steer away from these questions, but rather embrace them and explore them. As Christians, we should be seekers of truth, and no question that asks about truth should scare us. If we aren’t talking about these things with the youth (or even the older for that matter), someone else will likely do so in the world. It is better to explore the questions now, even if they make us uncomfortable, than for someone’s faith to get wrecked along the way by encountering a question or piece of evidence that they were never told about. The further I have gone into the word of God and the study about it, the deeper my faith has become- not because I proved all my previous convictions true (I certainly did not), nor because I now have all the cookie-cutter answers, but rather because I see how much I don’t know, and how big my God is. The more you learn, the more you know that you don’t understand everything, and its this kind of faith that is flexible and able to withstand questioning.
- What are the basic principles of the oracles of God? What are the oracles of God for that matter?
Sometimes I ask a question that I don’t have the answer to. This seems to be one of those questions. I ask it because I don’t want us to skip over some words in scripture like we inherently understand them without taking a minute to step back and ask if we really know what the writer is saying. Here, I think the Hebrew writer is going to lay out the basic principles of the oracles of God at the beginning of chapter 6; as to what “oracles of God” means… I guess its the revelatory teachings of God through Jesus and the apostles. But don’t quote me on that. I’ve read that it is a reference, or simply means, the words of God. I think we can understand the concept from these definitions.
- “…by this time you ought to be teachers…” Is this of universal application?
I do think that we will all be teachers in some capacity, but not necessarily in an authoritative position (such as implied in James 3:1). Here, the Hebrew writer could be saying that there should be some teachers among his audience that were prepared to teach these things, but there were none. More generally, I think he is addressing the whole audience saying that they should at least be at the point where they are ready to hear or understand what he is trying to say, but they are not- perhaps because they don’t have teachers that are able to lead them into the meat of the word.
- Does verse 14 teach the “age of accountability”?
No. “Discerning good from evil” here is directed at maturing Christians, not a young person “coming of age” to realize sin and thus be accountable for his/her sin. I don’t know if you have heard this verse to teach “age of accountability”, but I believe that I have, which is why I point it out here.
The Fundamentals of the Faith (6:1-3)
- How important are fundamentals? Why do we teach people the fundamentals (such as in sports or academic training)?
Fundamentals are vital to mastering any discipline. I don’t want to imply from this lesson that they are unimportant, because that is certainly not the case, nor is it the point that the Hebrew writer is making. We teach the fundamentals because they are the foundation of everything else we learn. Without them, we stand on nothing. The point that the writer is making here, however, is that we cannot stay at the fundamental level. We have to move on past the fundamentals towards maturity. This is true in any sport or academic discipline. We may always go over the fundamentals from time to time, but we cannot dwell on them and not discuss/think about anything else (I see this happen in our churches sometimes, when it seems that every lesson is about one of the fundamentals of the faith). That being said, we should spend some time looking at what the Hebrew writer thinks are the fundamentals, and if we are in line with his thinking. We must have them down first to move on past them.
- For each of the fundamentals listed here, do you agree with the author? Why is each considered a fundamental?
Most of the fundamentals will likely need little explaining why they are fundamental to the faith. There’s only a couple that I think might give us some pause, and we will spend a little extra time on them when we get to them.
- Repentance from dead works
- Acts 2:38, 3:19
Repentance is called for from the beginning. John’s early message to prepare the way for Jesus was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2) Jesus likewise had this message when He begins His ministry (Matt. 4:17). It is clear that the Christian faith is not something that one can simply give mental assent to, or one in which someone can just check a box to say “I’m a Christian” (though certainly many people do). The Christian faith begins with a call to a higher way of life, to turn away from a life that is live like the world, and to turn to a life following Jesus. This is not a light call, and its one that I think sometimes we overlook; Christianity is not just your religion- it should be your new world view. Repentance is a fundamental because the Christian life should be fundamentally different than a life without Christ.
- Faith toward God
- What is faith?
Perhaps faith is the one fundamental that we all will see as fundamental, and one that needs little explanation. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Here I only want to say that faith is more than mental assent, more than just believing that Jesus is the Son of God. The demons do that (James 2:19). Faith is about trust and commitment to this Jesus. Faith is surrendering to Christ, giving up your old life (repentance) and committing to a life of following Christ (Luke 14:25-34).
- Instructions about washings (baptism[s])
- John the Baptizer
- Why is this plural?
- Daily washings at Qumran, Mikvah (Jewish ceremonious washing/purification rituals)?
- Catechism? (Didache) Instructions before baptism?
This is the first fundamental that might give us a little pause, not because baptism isn’t readily seen as a fundamental of the faith, but rather because baptism (or washing) is plural here. There are different ideas that people have put to this to answer why this is plural, but before we get into that, I want to point out that baptisms, or immersion into water, isn’t a uniquely Christian concept. The practice of ceremonial washing is found in Judaism, and during the time of Jesus and John the baptist, baptism was a common practice. That’s why you don’t hear anyone say, “what do you mean by ‘baptism'” when John, Jesus or the apostles talk about baptism. Secondly, whereas there is a small possibility that the Hebrew writer here could be referencing the different types of baptism here (such as water, Holy Spirit, or fire), I think this reference would most likely have been taken as water baptism, as the word washing here implies water. If it were a different type of baptism, I think he would have specified, or rather I think it would be necessary to specify, as the audience would have thought of water by default. So, why is it plural? It could very well be that the Hebrew writer is referring to instructions given to the baptizer or to the one being baptized before the baptism or about how to do the baptism, such as those found in the Didache. For more information about this, I would suggest listening to this fascinating lesson: http://www.bethimmanuel.org/audio/instructions-about-washings
- The laying on of hands
- Blessings: Gen. 48:12-20, Mark 10:13-16
- Ordination: Num. 10:5-13, 27:16-23, Deut. 34:9
- Healing: Mark 6:5, Luke 13:10-13
- Giving of gifts: Acts 8:18, I Tim. 4:14
- Special tasks: Acts 6:3-6, 13:2-3, I Tim. 5:22
This is perhaps the most shocking of the fundamentals of the faith for me, as my tradition typically places little to no importance on the laying on of hands. How could it be a fundamental of the faith if we don’t even practice it any more? When doing a little research, I found that the laying on of hands is not just in the context of passing on spiritual gifts, but rather is found in a range of contexts (as listed above, though the lists are nowhere near comprehensive). Both healing and commission are seen to be conferred through the laying on of hands in scripture. It could have been a ritual of discipleship, or appointing elders. I think that this practice deserves much more study from those of us who might not think it is a fundamental of the faith, as it perhaps can open our eyes to how different we just might be from the first century church. Sometimes our own traditions get in the way of an objective look at scripture.
- The resurrection of the dead
- Christ and us, bodily resurrection (I Cor. 15, Phil. 3:20-21, Rom. 8:21-23, Isa. 65:17-25)
- Acts 17:31-32
It seems to me that one of the main topics that the apostles had to fight against in the first century was a form of proto-gnosticism that taught that the body was inherently evil and the greatest goal would be a separation of body and soul. Paul spends a good amount of time in his letters (referenced in the verses above) detailing the bodily resurrection of the dead. Another sect said there was no resurrection at all, which Paul again goes against in I Cor. 15. Perhaps the most compelling reason why resurrection of the dead is a fundamental of the faith, however, is the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christianity. If the resurrection didn’t happen, then we are of all men most to be pitied and our faith is in vain.
- Eternal judgment
- John 5:25-29, Dan. 12:2
Finally, the last fundamental we see from the Hebrew author is that of eternal judgment. Certainly, if there is no accountability, no justice, then God is not a god of justice. A fundamental teaching of Christianity is that in the end, things will be set right, and this cannot happen without a judgment, for without this accounting, all basis for morality deteriorates. Who cares if you aren’t supposed to do something if there is no one to answer to in the end? On the flip side, the judgment is also where those who have chosen to follow Christ will receive the promise of salvation.
Pressing on to Maturity (6:4-12)
- What practical steps can we take to press on to maturity?
Sometimes the hardest part of any task is taking the first step. If we want to grow and mature, we cannot let fear or distraction keep us from taking those key initial steps. The practical side of maturing in Christ can vary in many ways and can look different in different situations. I think the first thing that most of us will have to do is admit where we are, why we believe what we do and resolve not to let fear of the unknown or change keep us from examining positions that we have held for a long time in light of the evidence we find. We should be truth seekers, not those who think we have already found truth. The next steps will be prayer and a deeper look into scripture. I suggest getting into the literature of contemporary thinkers, such as commentators and scholars. I have a bias towards scholars, but I think good can be gleamed from many different facets. There are a growing number of scholars that make it a goal to write to a lay audience, such as Michael Heiser, N.T. Wright, John Walton, Pete Enns, etc.. Commentators tend to be more entrenched in certain traditions of thought (not that scholars are immune from this), but still worthwhile to read. I also think it is crucial that you get into a small group and start to discuss the different things you are learning and the questions you are asking. Christianity is meant to be understood in community. I think one of the most important steps we have to take is a simple resolve to do so. A resolve to grow, to challenge ourselves and our convictions, to take uncomfortable questions head on. It is this resolve that will carry us through, second only to the grace of God.
- Why is it impossible to restore those who have fallen away to repentance? How does this apply to us?
- Are there allusions to the Israelite story in v.4-5?
This can be a hard passage to interpret, especially in the light of the abounding and overflowing forgiveness of God. However, I think the situation here are those who were once enlightened, who once submitted to Christ and were following after Him, but now are living in continual sin. I believe that’s what the phrase “since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” implies. It seems to be an ongoing process from which they are unwilling to repent. This section reminds me of the parable of the Sower told by Jesus in Matthew 13, particularly those who comprise the thorny ground that grows for a while but then is choked out by the cares and the deceitfulness of riches. I do believe that there are echoes of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, eating the Manna and following the pillar, yet still grumbling and complaining, turning away from the God that they could so visibly see. We should be weary of their folly, and head the example given.
- How is the land tested in v. 7-8? How does this apply to us?
The land is tested by what it produces, whether that be useful crop or thorns and thistles. I think that in the same way that the Hebrew writer applied this analogy to his audience it can apply to us. How is our faith tested, if not by what it yields? James has a lot to say about this in James 1-2, as does Paul in I Corinthians 3. I’ll leave it up to you do discern what the fruit of our labor may be.
- What is the “full assurance of hope” and how do we hold on to it until the end?
I believe the full assurance of hope involves complete trust in the promises of God, that in the end He will set the world right, that we may live in a renewed creation, where God dwells with man (Rev. 21-22). This makes sense in light of the next section where the Hebrew writer will go on to talk about the security of the promises of God. We can trust in our God that He will deliver on His word, and it is to this hope that we should cling to the end.
I hope this lesson has helped you and has provided encouragement to press on to more complicated issues of the faith that should ultimately lead you into a stronger relationship with our Lord. Please don’t take offense to what the Hebrew writer has to say, but rather use admonishment for it’s very purpose- to encourage us to a deeper understanding (though admittedly not perfect) of God and His Word.
Suggested Reading: Hebrews 5-6.
Press on toward maturity.