Maturing in Christ

Hebrews 6:1-8

Maturing in Christ is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight. Unfortunately, some people never get there. They regress rather than progress. Hebrews 6 warns believers in Jesus to forsake practices that hinder their spiritual growth and urges them to advance to full maturity in Christ.

Speaking to Jewish believers in particular, the author first unfolded Christ’s glorious priesthood. He started to explain how it related to that of Melchizedek, the king of Salem in Abraham’s day. But he abruptly changed the subject to address the callousness of believers who had become slothful in their spiritual growth (5:11–14). Rather than mature in their faith, they were in danger of returning to the Levitical system from which they had been delivered.

Progressing in Faith
The author listed the elementary principles these believers needed to move past:

Therefore, leaving [putting away, not repudiating ] the discussion of the elementary principles [literally, “beginnings”] of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits (6:1–3).

Scholars disagree on whether these items are Christian teachings, elements of Judaism that these new believers still practiced, or both. Six “elementary principles” appear in three sets of two each.

(1) Conversion. The first pair of principles addresses conversion: “not laying again the foundation of [1] repentance from dead works and of [2] faith toward God” (v. 1). At the time of their salvation, these people evidenced repentance from dead works and faith toward God. Repentance is only acceptable to God the Father when one turns from his or her old life and embraces Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. In fact, the Levitical system never provided salvation (cf. Heb. 10:1–4, 10). It provided an awareness of sin. Salvation has always been through faith. Since Christ’s death and resurrection, true “faith toward God” is experienced only through receiving Jesus Christ.

(2) Ceremonial Cleansing. The second set of principles addresses ceremonial cleansing: “the doctrine [teaching] of [1] baptisms [washings], of [2] laying on of hands” (v. 2). Because the word baptisms is plural, it could refer to the Levitical system’s ceremonial rites of cleansing. Judaism incorporated many ceremonial washings, both in worship and daily living. Jewish believers probably carried some of these practices into their Christian experience, and now they needed to put them away.

“Laying on of hands” may refer to a practice connected with presenting an offering in the Temple. An Israelite typically placed his hands on the sacrificial animal’s head as a symbol of identification. A twofold identification took place: The Israelite’s sinful life was committed to the animal, and the offering’s acceptability was transmitted to the Israelite (Lev. 1:4; 3:8, 13). New believers may have continued offering Levitical sacrifices in Temple worship.

This phrase may also refer to the early church’s practice of laying on of hands during believer’s water baptism. The laying on of hands was used as a symbolic act of identification, authentication, and confirmation of the apostles’ ministry when the Holy Spirit was initially poured out in the early church (Acts 8:17).

(3) Coming Events. The third set of principles addresses (1) “resurrection of the dead” and (2) “eternal judgment” (v. 2). These doctrines were first taught to new believers at the time of their salvation, and their importance cannot be overstated. Before their redemption, Jewish people believed in a resurrection from the dead (Job 19:23–27; Dan. 12:1–3), but their understanding was extremely limited. In the apostles’ preaching, the resurrection finds full meaning in Jesus Christ who is “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). Although understanding the resurrection is extremely important, believers must mature beyond this basic teaching.

Jewish people also believed in eternal judgment as taught in the Old Testament, but their knowledge on this subject also was fragmented and limited. They learned a great deal more about eternal judgment as revealed through Jesus Christ, and they needed to embrace this more thorough teaching.

Confident that his readers would progress to maturity, the author wrote, “And this we will do if God permits” (v. 3). The phrase if God permits does not ask if it is God’s will to mature in Christ but, rather, assumes it is His will.

Perils in Faith
The author then issued one of the strongest warnings in the New Testament:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame (vv. 4–6).

This passage has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied; and it rates among one of the most controversial texts in the New Testament. The most predominant interpretations are these: (1) These people lose their salvation. (2) These are professing believers who never possessed salvation. (3) This is a hypothetical situation that could never happen. (4) Those who received enlightenment about salvation, tasted the heavenly gift, and became partakers of the Holy Spirit never received Jesus Christ as Savior. (5) These are saved people who lost their rewards.(6) These are saved people being exhorted to mature in Christ. This last interpretation best fits the context of Hebrews 5:11—6:8.

The author reviewed five spiritual truths that believers experience when coming to the Lord. First, they “were once [once-for-all] enlightened” (6:4). At the time of their salvation, these people were spiritually permeated with the light of the gospel and clearly perceived, understood, and appropriated it for their salvation.

Second, they “tasted the heavenly gift.” The word taste means more than to sample something; it speaks of full participation. The author used taste to refer to Christ’s death (2:9). Christ did not merely sample death; He experienced it. Throughout the New Testament, the word gift is used to refer to the blessings associated with salvation and eternal life. These are saved people who received the gift of eternal life when they received Christ.

Third, they “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” The word partakers means to share or participate in something. The author used this word concerning the Incarnation of Jesus Christ who partook of “flesh and blood” at His physical birth (2:14). Consequently, these people were not simply associated with the Holy Spirit; they were actually indwelled with the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation.

Fourth, they “have tasted the good word of God” (v. 5). That is, they heard and received the spoken Word that they knew came from God.

Fifth, they tasted or experienced “the powers [miracles] of the age to come.” They were eyewitnesses to the miracles Christ and the apostles performed (2:4), and they believed those miracles were from God. Christ will manifest these same powers more fully in the “age to come,” meaning in the Millennial Kingdom.

The evidence indicates that those mentioned here are not merely professors but possessors of salvation. Wrote Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost: “All the words the writer uses—enlightenment, tasted, become partakers—are never used in the New Testament of empty profession, but always of an actual experience. Thus there can be no question that the apostle viewed the recipients as believers.”1

Speaking of people who were redeemed but might later decide to return to Judaism, the author wrote, “For it is impossible…if they fall away [deviate, turn aside, or wander from the true faith], to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (vv. 4, 6).

What does verse 6 mean? First, verse 4 says it is “impossible” for believers to do what is mentioned in verse 6. Second, the phrase fall away is an aorist participle in Greek and refers to a point when one might abandon his faith, but no specific reference to an actual abandonment is given. The words fall away cannot mean a loss of salvation because it is not possible to lose one’s salvation; and if it were possible, the text would mean such individuals could never again become saved.

Third, the word if in the phrase “if they fall away” is absent from the Greek text; the verse should read “and then have fallen away.” Thus, the verse contains no hint of a conditional element. Fourth, should a person return to Judaism, “it is impossible” (v. 4) to “renew [restore] him again to repentance” (v. 6).

In other words, those who willfully defect from Christianity after receiving its great spiritual privileges could never be brought back to repentance. Why? “Because to their loss [with respect to themselves] they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (v. 6, NIV).

Such attitudes and actions amount to a public rejection of Christ and an affirmation before His enemies, who condemned and crucified Him, that His death was deserved. To renew such people to repentance (not conversion but recommitment) would be almost impossible because of their extreme hardness of heart. If such people remained so indifferent after being chastened by the Lord, they would be at a point of no return and would remain perpetually in a state of spiritual immaturity.

Parable on Faith
The author used an agricultural analogy to further clarify his argument: “For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned” (vv. 7–8).

Rain here is compared to God’s provision for creation and is symbolic of His spiritual blessings on all believers. Believers are compared to a field upon which the rain falls. The field that is properly sowed and tilled receives rain and produces fruit.

Another field receives rain but produces only thorns and briers. What the unfruitful field produces is “rejected,” meaning disapproved (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27). It is “cursed” and its produce is gathered to be “burned” (v. 8). The field itself, however, will survive. In other words, the person’s works will be burned at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11–15; 2 Cor. 5:10), but the individual will not (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15; Jn. 15:6). Anyone who refuses to grow spiritually or returns to a system of good works will be disapproved, resulting in the loss of reward.

This warning is to all believers today. Those who have become dull of hearing, callous, or stagnant in their faith must leave spiritual infancy behind and move on toward maturity in Christ.

ENDNOTE
  1. Dwight Pentecost, Faith That Endures (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1992), 104.

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