1. A School Room Drama
Good morning class… (Good morning Brian). That’s Mr Curtis to you. Now I’ve been looking through your homework, and needless to say I’m not pleased with what I’ve seen. Adam … Your handwriting is appalling. It’s like a spider has crawled all over your work. Christine… I said a thousand words, not five hundred. You can do it again. Have it on my desk first thing Monday morning. Jeremy, Catherine and George… I don’t know what book you’ve used, but you could have made it a little less obvious you were copying out of the same book.
Now I don’t know where you have all been for the last few years, but the standard of homework this week may have been acceptable in grade 7, but it’s not good enough for grade 10. Indeed I’m very tempted to tell you all to do it all over again. Except what’s the point? You clearly haven’t learnt a thing that I’ve taught you. So with that in mind I’m going to abandon today’s lesson, and instead we’re going back to basics. You may want to be treated like adults, but you are behaving like babies …
2. The Writer of the Letter to the Hebrews
Now you’re probably thinking, “Brian’s gone mad. This is supposed to be a sermon. We’re in church, not school.” And you’re probably right. Except for the fact that the frustrations of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are encapsulated in the frustrations of the Grade 10 teacher.
After all, here was a group of people who had been Christians for a while. But in many respects they still behaved as infants in the faith. They hadn’t moved along; they hadn’t grown very much in the faith at all. And that’s why the writer interrupted what he was saying in his letter.
Indeed he had presented the Gospel in terms of the person and work of Jesus Christ—Jesus being far superior to anyone who had come before. And now having introduced the subject of Jesus being the great High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek, he comes to a halt.
He realises that the topic is far too complicated for an immature audience to understand. That’s why he comes to a stop; that’s why we have this interlude.
B. THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
So what was the problem?
1. The Problem of Immaturity (5:11-14)
Well the problem was that the people were hanging back from their responsibilities in regards to the Christian faith. Yes they had learned the basics, but they were relying on others to do the work—to put the faith into practise.
As a consequence the author chastises them. He points out that they’d been taught the basics some time ago, but since then had made very little progress. Indeed he points out that rather than hanging back, they should all be teachers by now.
But worse than that, because they hadn’t progressed, they had in fact gone backwards, not forwards. They couldn’t distinguish right from wrong. And the implication is that they had rejected aspects of the faith that they had found unpalatable. So in many ways they needed to begin their Christian education all over again.
Now that’s a pretty damning indictment on any Christian church. And yet as we look around the state of the church today, what do we see? Do we see people who have been taught the basics of the faith? Do we then see them then grow, and take on leadership roles? Or do we see the same people sitting in the pews year in year out, making very little contribution to the life of the church?
Well I guess the answer to that question will depend upon which church we’re in. But for me the alarm bells that were ringing for the writer of this letter are in many ways the same alarm bells that are ringing in many of our churches today. And that’s a major reason why the Christian church is in such decline in the western world.
2. The Problem of Being Stuck On the Basics (6:1-8)
Now of course, accusing a particular church of being immature, of needing milk not solid food, is a pretty brave thing to do. And there are obvious risks attached to what the writer felt that he had to say.
Nevertheless the interlude isn’t all bad. Indeed he encourages them in the things they have learned, and he encourages them to move on—to build on the basic building blocks of the faith.
But what he acknowledges they had learned makes some very interesting reading. Because by listing six things—in three groups of two—he actually defines what he means by them being immature in the faith. And the list might surprise you. Because he lists: The need for repentance—as in the need to turn away from the life that leads to death—and the need to have faith in God. The need to be clean before God (symbolised by baptism), and the need to receive the Holy Spirit (symbolised by the laying on of hands). The need to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the need to look forward to judgement in the age to come.
Now you or I might think, “Immaturity? What’s so immature about that? Surely they are the very basics of the gospel.” And you’d be right. Except for the fact that the readers were stuck there. And because they hadn’t progressed any further, they had started to dismantle even these six basic blocks of the Gospel.
That’s why the writer goes on to suggest that these six aspects of the faith represent only the milk; they are only the basic building blocks. And to become mature in the faith we need to learn a whole lot more.
In stopping his letter part of the way through his argument about Jesus being the great High Priest, in the Order of Melchizedek, he was effectively saying that Jesus’s ministry didn’t end with his death and resurrection. And there wasn’t going to be a large gap where Jesus did nothing, and then at some stage in the future he would be coming back to judge the world. No! He wanted them to recognise that Jesus was even then continuing his work in heaven at God’s right hand. And if Jesus hadn’t stopped working, then neither should they.
What he was saying, then, was there was nothing wrong with the basic teaching. But the test of maturity was the continual need to grow in the faith and to practice what they believed. And any refusal to go on with the faith puts a believer in danger, not only of stagnating in their faith, but of actually falling away to the point where it is impossible to come back.
And I guess in that is a lesson for us too. Because I can’t remember how many times I have heard the Gospel explained in terms of the six things mentioned in this part of the letter: repentance and faith; being clean before God and receiving the Holy Spirit; and believing in the resurrection, and in the judgement to come. Indeed I can’t remember how many times I have explained it in those terms either. And yet trying to move a congregation on—to learn more, and to practice what they believe—well that is another thing altogether. And yet learning more about God and ourselves, and applying our faith, are the very things the writer says we are supposed to do.
3. The Need to Persevere In the Faith (6:9-12)
As a consequence, our writer encourages his readers to move on. Indeed he suggests that they avoid the traps of inertia—being selective in what they believe, and rejecting the aspects of the faith they are uncomfortable with—and that they embrace the community of the faithful.
They are to get on with being a Christian. They are to use the gifts that God has given them, and they are to recognise that what they do for one another they are actually doing for God. Indeed they are to demonstrate the same zeal and excitement for the Gospel that they had at the very beginning. And if they needed a role model to follow, they need look no further than the men (and women) of faith in the Old Testament.
In short, re-evaluating what they believed to make it consistent with the basics of the Gospel was the first step in solving the churches dilemma. But then moving on with the faith—demonstrating an eagerness to learn more—accompanied with active participation in the work of God’s church, was to be the second. There were to be no excuses for not doing one’s part.
Now I think the writer of the letter was a very brave man. He was given a task by God which wouldn’t have been easy to do. The church he was writing to was in trouble, it needed correcting. But it is never easy to put yourself in a position where you face rejection because of the things you have to say.
Nevertheless, I think we can be grateful for the writer’s boldness, particularly as the background to this letter seems to ring so many bells for the church today.
So what can we learn from this passage? Well I think it raises a series of questions that we need to answer. But we can only do that if we approach this letter with some kind of maturity too.
1. Are We Babes Or Adults In The Faith?
And the first question is, “Like the original recipients of the letter, are we babes or are we adults in the faith? Where are we spiritually? Are we lazy and rely heavily on others, or are we eager to learn and take an active role in the faith?”
Now I guess one of the ways we can answer this question is to compare our spiritual life at different parts in our spiritual journey. And of course everyone will be different. But if where we are today, is the same as it was five years ago, ten years ago, and twenty years ago, then that is an indication that we haven’t moved on. And that is an exercise that can be done by congregations as well as individuals.
Another indication would be to whether our basic beliefs are any different to the basics of the Gospel. After all, amongst us there are bound to be some things that we don’t like—some things we find unpalatable. But have we rejected aspects because there are things we don’t like? And have we rejected things because they are beyond our understanding? Because if we have, then our beliefs will not conform to the Christian faith, and we will have some evidence that we have adjusted the faith to suit ourselves.
Spiritual inertia happens when we restrict God to only the things we like and the things we can understand; when we refuse to build on a solid base; and when we refuse to fulfil our role in the life of the church. So are we babes or adults in the Christian faith? Are we immature or mature?
2. What Exactly Do We Believe?
The second question is, “What exactly do we believe?”
Now clearly the writer to the Hebrews laid down six principles that he believed his readers had accepted, at least to start with. But are they things that we accept today? Is repentance and faith; is being clean before God and receiving the Holy Spirit; and is believing in the resurrection and in the judgement to come—are these the basics that we clearly believe? And more than that, have we then gone on beyond that, to grow our beliefs—to learn more about ourselves and our God, and to do the work he wants us to do?
Now one of the comforting things about this letter, I think, is that the writer was sure that his readers had learned the basics. But then he lived in a day where the congregation would have consisted of a majority of people who would have claimed to have faith. But these days I wouldn’t be so sure—the makeup of our churches is so very different. Indeed I have had many conversations over the years with people who have come regularly or semi-regularly to church who have admitted that they don’t believe. I have also had many conversations with people who claim to be believers, but state there are aspects of Christianity that they cannot accept. And the most common of these have to be: Christian ethics, the miracles, the resurrection and the place of the Old Testament in the Christian faith. So the question remains, “What exactly do we believe?”
Because deny God’s principles of living and you deny sin. Throw out the miracles, and you remove certain proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. Throw out the resurrection, and you deny life after death. And throw out the Old Testament, and you not only reject God, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but you deny that Jesus died for our sins, or in any way fulfilled any of the Old Testament promises.
Being faithful to the Gospel, then, no matter what we think of particular aspects of it, is an essential part of our faith and the faith of the community to which we belong. Accepting the basics on which we can build and express our faith, then, is essential for a healthy Christian life.
3. Are We Willing To Move On?
And the third question is, “Are we willing to move on?”
Now the remarkable things about the writer of this letter, was that he may have been a very frustrated teacher, but at no time does he laud it over his readers. Indeed he had the spiritual welfare of his readers at heart. He wanted the best for them, and he wanted the best for God. And that’s why he encouraged them to sort out where they were spiritually, and encouraged them to move on. But is that something that we are prepared to do too?
Because whether we are stuck in the past, and falling apart; whether we have issues with aspects the Gospel; or even if we are in the process of learning more, and willingly put our faith into action, we still need that motivation to move on.
Now doubtless at the time this letter was being read, there would have been a few objections. “How dare he speak to us this way?” And yet I see no malice in what he had to say. On the contrary, I see only good.
Now we don’t know who wrote this letter, and we don’t know to whom it was addressed. As a consequence we don’t what their response was to its contents. We can only guess. What we don’t have to guess, though, is our response.
So should someone suggest to us, or to our church, that there is something wrong, don’t you think that we should at least be prepared to listen? We may not like what they say—but then how many of us like to be told that we are wrong. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean that it is not in our interest to listen and learn. And that’s particularly true of the implications for us in this “Letter to the Hebrews”
Our response shouldn’t be to get our backs up, and stubbornly refuse to budge. On the contrary, my hope would be that we should take the advice that was being given, and we should take it in the way it was meant to be received. And if there is a problem with our faith, and our church, then we should accept the chastisement that is being offered. We can then, with God’s help, fix up the problems that we have, and accept the encouragement to move on—to become the mature Christians that God intended us to be.
Now I began today pretending to be a frustrated school teacher. And I did so, because I thought it was a good illustration of the frustration of the writer to the Hebrews, who stops the lesson he has prepared, in order to pull his pupils into gear. And that’s how I’d like to conclude. So let’s go back to our fictitious class.
So class, what’s it to be? Shall I get you all to redo your homework? Shall we spend the rest of the year catching up from where you were in Grade 7? Do you want to be treated as babies or adults? What’s it to be?
Well… Times up, we’ll continue this next time. Class dismissed.
Posted: 31st July 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis