Stalled on the Highway to Heaven
In Hebrews 6:1, the author of this epistle sounds a rallying cry to Christians who are at the crossroads of their faith. He exhorts them by saying, "Let us press on to maturity." This letter was written to Christian Jews in the first century who had begun to follow Jesus in a burst of enthusiasm, but were growing weary because of various challenges to their faith.
They longed for the majesty of the rituals connected with Judaism, as well as the tradition and the acceptability of this religion with their countrymen. They missed the festivals and parades during the Jewish feasts, and the grandeur of the temple. These were in stark contrast to the meager observance of the Lord's supper or the humbling confession and submission demonstrated in baptism. They were outsiders twice removed. Alienated as Jews from a Gentile society and rejected as Christians by their Jewish countrymen.
This burden, coupled with normal worldly temptations, had stopped their progress in the faith and saw them either:
- Looking back longingly at their former religion and its familiar practice.
- Looking around at the enticements of the pagan world beckoning to them in their confusion.
These Jewish Christians were stalled in their faith and floundering in uncertainty. In response to their dilemma, the Hebrew writer sends them a letter that does two things:
- He demonstrates to them the superiority and excellence of Christ. From beginning to end Jesus is shown to be better than anything they had known in the Jewish faith: better than Moses, the Law, higher than angels, more effective than the priests - and for this reason worthy to be believed. The simple message of the letter was, "Don't Go Back!"
- He exhorts them to "press on" to maturity. If Christ is the better way then keep going, don't quit, continue the struggle to reach Christian maturity which was their goal, as it is for Christians today, regardless of cultural or religious background.
In this Mini Book, therefore, I'd like to use Hebrews 6:1-12 in order to explain what "pressing on to maturity" means for us as individuals, in our day and age. We are not in a similar situation as the Jewish Christians were in the first century, but as Christians our goal is exactly the same - only our obstacles are different.
In Hebrews 6:1-12, the writer talks about Christian development in terms of maturity. Development is on a continuum, a line that has immaturity at one end with its identifying signs and maturity at the other with its own characteristics. Maturity (in some Bibles the word used is "perfection") is that state where something is complete, finished, or ripe. Like a house that begins as a design and a blueprint then moves through various stages of construction until it is finished, complete, perfect or mature (in biblical language).
The Bible teaches that the image of maturity that each Christian strives for is already present in the mind of God. Our lives are the building process that will ultimately finish with completion / perfection / maturity according to God's image of us when Jesus returns. Paul writes:
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.
It is to this "maturity" that the writer refers when he encourages his readers to move with him towards this goal, away from the immaturity where they seemed to be stalled.
1Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3And this we will do, if God permits.
- Hebrews 6:1-3
In this passage, immaturity is described in terms of what one is learning about. One is immature when one is learning:
- The basic teachings about who Christ is and His role in salvation (vs. 1a)
- The need to repent from sin (vs. 1b). Not a complete victory over sin, but the understanding that one's attitude towards sin is that when it is recognized in our lives we begin the process of repenting from it (not justifying it, playing with it, hiding it, or ignoring it). We hate sin and want to eliminate it.
- The necessity of faith and trust in God as we face each day (vs. 1c).
- Christian doctrines relating to baptism (although the author references "washings" because Jesus related to it in this way), various reasons to lay on hands, and the teachings concerning the end of the world and Jesus' return (vs. 2).
These were all things that they needed to know in order to become Christians and understand what they were going towards. They were also teachings that needed repeating in order to build a good base, and the writer says that he was willing to review these if necessary and if time permitted (vs. 3).
Immaturity is not a sin. It is not a bad thing or something to be ashamed of. It is the beginning point of Christianity and is a necessary stage in our development. The danger is being stuck there for too long. Learning but not fully believing. Knowing about sin but not dealing with it, and so on. In the next verses he explains that the danger of being stalled too long at this stage is that the immature Christian will lose what little weak faith he has and eventually fall away.
Dangers of Immaturity
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,
- Hebrews 6:4-5
In verses 4-5, the author describes the experience of Christianity by using various terms. The person he uses as an example here is one who has truly become a Christian in that:
- He has understood and accepted the divinity of Christ. This insight into the "mystery" of the gospel as Paul refers to it in Romans 16:25 is true enlightenment (Jesus is the Son of God = true enlightenment).
- He has experienced the "power" of the gospel in his life as the Word and the Spirit begin to transform him into a new man in Christ producing spiritual fruit and moving him towards maturity.
This is the taste of the heavenly gift, the sharing in the Spirit, the effect of the Word in the new believer. Here is a person born again, beginning to take the first exciting steps as a Christian. In verses 6-8, however, the author goes on to describe the state of one who stops growing, who falls away (the danger faced by his readers in the "stalled" condition).
and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
- Hebrews 6:6
The author explains that to have experienced Christ and the new life, and then reject it, makes one's heart hard and unable to repent again. The words "fallen away" refer to a complete falling by the wayside (not just stalled, but completely broken down). This is not the normal Christian's slip, weak moment, doubt, fear, or on-going struggle with sin. This is a complete break from Christ and His church.
The idea is that someone becomes a disciple and then, for some reason or other, openly rejects Christ and becomes antagonistic towards the church (like a disgruntled former friend/partner who puts down the ex with an intimate knowledge of that person so that the remarks are especially cruel and hurtful).
We see an example of this in church where a former member who has left the congregation now puts down the church and its work. These people do more damage to themselves because their remarks harden their own hearts and make it impossible to come back.
This is the idea of putting Christ to open shame and re-crucifying Him.
For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
- Hebrews 6:7-8
The final result for those who once were faithful but have fallen away is the same as those who are lost because the Law of reward and punishment will be executed by God on everyone. Those who are faithful when Jesus comes will be saved and those who are unfaithful when He comes will be lost (regardless of the fact that they may have been faithful for a time in between).
...but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
And so, the writer of Hebrews warns his readers concerning the dangers that threaten those who refuse to move ahead towards the goal to which they have been called. He finishes the passage by telling them how they can "jump start" their faith once again and get back on the road to maturity.
But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.
- Hebrews 6:9-10
The author tells them that God remembers their work in the past and how they ministered to the saints: Apparently, in 64AD the Emperor Nero accused the Christians living in Rome of setting the fires that destroyed city (some scholars believe that he himself set the fires and conveniently blamed the Christians who were not popular with the pagan citizens of Rome). Nero then used this excuse to persecute them in terrible ways. These "Jewish" Christians were spared much of the persecution and none of them were martyred because they were still considered as "Jews" by the Romans. They did, however, help and minister to those Christians who were being persecuted and the writer refers to this good work his readers had done in the past, and were doing presently.
His exhortation is brief and to the point:
And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end,
- Hebrews 6:11
Keep working; keep ministering. The way to repair a stalled faith is to be active in ministering to others.
The Hebrews were growing weary, they were in unfamiliar territory and far from their comfort zones. The writer tells them to keep busy in service in order to revive the engine of faith which would carry them to maturity, completion, and the final goal of heaven. They weren't the first to feel this way. In verse 12, he reminds them that all those who had made it in the past had done so by keeping their faith alive through service, despite the obstacles they faced.
so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
- Hebrews 6:12
Two thousand years ago Hebrew Christians began the walk of faith with enthusiasm, good works, and great hopes. After a time, when trials came their way, they paused and began to question their faith. God sent them a message of warning and encouragement:
- The Lord Jesus is worthy to be believed. He is far superior than anyone or anything. Don't be ashamed of Him, don't be afraid to trust Him with your life - after all He gave His life for you.
- Be careful of falling away, it can happen. Simply look around your own church assembly and count the empty pews where once faithful Christians sat and worshipped, but for various reasons have fallen away. As sure as God will reward the faithful, He will condemn those who disbelieve and fall away.
- The way to demonstrate faith and keep it alive until the end is through service.
Developing and increasing our service is the way we press on to maturity.
2,000 years later our task as Christians continues to be that we press on to maturity. This will mean something different for each person:
- For some it will mean taking the first steps of faith by confessing Christ, repenting of our sins, and being baptized while learning the "elementary teachings of Christ" (Acts 2:38-42).
- For many it will mean that certain sins, habits, and attitudes will finally have to be faced and dealt with because they are blocking our path to maturity (Romans 6:1-6).
We must not delude ourselves, a habit or attitude that keeps us back may also keep us out in the end. We have to deal with our sins today!
Everyone, however, needs to begin serving the Lord as they know how. This includes young and old, women and men, mature and immature. Pressing on to maturity requires every Christian to avoid stalling on the way to heaven by keeping their faith alive and effective through Christian service in the name of Christ because there is no growing if there is no serving (Matthew 20:28).