By Simon ManchesterSunday 29 Nov 2020Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 18 minutes
We’re travelling through Hebrews, and we come today to chapter 6, and for those who know their Bibles, this is probably the most famous warning in the New Testament about losing salvation. It’s the most unsettling paragraph for Christian people. It’s also interestingly followed by the most powerful comfort and unbeatable encouragement and the two interestingly sit together next to each other.
I suspect this is because the writer is a very skilful pastor and knows that there are times where we need serious warning, and there are times where we need profound encouragement. He’s trying to make sure we don’t drift into carelessness or despair to fall off either side of the road.
It is a skill to get somebody who is in a precarious situation to stay watchful and wise without becoming paranoid, desperate and pessimistic. Recently a man in America was tragically struck and killed by lightning on a family picnic. The sad irony was his father had been killed 48 years before struck by lightning. The man said to the friends around him – “Don’t worry lightening never strikes twice” and that essentially was the last thing he said.
How do you say something to somebody and prevent them from being either careless on the one hand or terrified on the other? It’s the skill of the writer of Hebrews in chapter 6 that he walks between the two, and we are going to watch and see how he does that in Hebrews Chapter 6.
The writer of Hebrews is seeking to prevent new Christians who have converted from Judaism into giving up on following Jesus because things are getting too difficult. The writer has spent five chapters presenting the splendour of Christ so that the people will see that he has got the majesty and the power and the authority to do what needs to be done. But also the compassion and care and love for people which prompts him to do what is needed.
So there’s this beautiful balance or connection between:
- Jesus as the Divine King, the human Priest
- the one who is able, the one who is willing
- the one who can do it, the one who wants to do it
and it’s all set out so that we will say in the words of Peter “Well why would we go anywhere else – Lord to whom should we go?” You’ve got the words, you’ve got the strength, and you’ve got the grace and so why would we walk away?
The punch of the chapters is that people who do go elsewhere, i.e. they move away from Christ are not threatening Christ. It’s not as though by voting against him he suddenly loses office, the great damage and danger is for us when we turn our back on Christ who has all the power and all the grace that we need.
I thought we would look at the chapter under the two clear headings which are Serious Warning (verses 1-8) and then Serious Comfort (verses 9-20).
I hope you know that when I pray for you and you are let’s imagine on the roll to be prayed for, that I am praying that God will encourage you, support you, provide for us but I am also praying that you will go forward and make progress.
There is nothing more encouraging for a pastor or perhaps a parent than to see people who are in their care make some progress and mature. That’s a cause for great joy, and there’s nothing of course more discouraging and stressful than watching people who are in your care either make no progress or go backwards.
Now, this pastor in Hebrews wants his readers to go forward and make progress. You see this in chapter 6 verse 1
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity”.
What he does immediately is to list six things that all seem to belong to basic Christianity 101. He says “come on – let’s move on from this primary school Christianity, and he mentions the six things:
- Repentance – turning away from sin
- Faith – putting your trust in God
- Laying on of hands
- Resurrection and
Many commentators point out that these six things could all belong to the Jewish faith, and so the writer may be saying ‘let’s leave behind the Jewish faith’, but it seems to me in verse 1 that he is speaking of the things of Christ. So these are probably the very beginnings of Christian commitment, Christian devotion, and Christian involvement. And he wants them to go on to maturity.
I wonder if I was to come down with a microphone and say to you who have been here for the last few weeks, what is the number one sign of maturity according to Hebrews that we have seen so far? I wonder whether you would pick this up?
The number one sign of maturity is not necessarily that you know a lot or that you have been around a lot or that you are old or especially clever, but it is that you are being governed by the Word of God even as you live in the world. That’s the mark of the maturity according to Hebrews. You are in the world but the Word of God governs your brain.
It’s clear as you read the chapters he says:
- “God has spoken.”
- “we must pay careful attention.”
- “today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts.”
- “the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword.”
- “This is solid food.”
The mark of being mature is the Word of God governs your thinking even as you live in the world.
It’s as if a parent should one day pull a little child aside and say ‘do you know something, we are moving soon, we are moving from here, into a bigger and better house’ and once that message from the parent has gone into the ear of the child, everything begins to change. The child looks at the present and says ‘well this is where I am and this is where my responsibilities are but I am not here forever – I am moving somewhere else’ and that message which the child trusts governs about the way they think about the present and the future.
The Word of God, the gospel comes to us, and it says – you are not here forever, you are here for a certain time but because Christ has died, and Christ has risen, and he has brought you eternal life, you are moving eventually to a bigger and better place – think like that – plan like that and live like that.
Imagine how sad it would be for a child who has been told that they are moving if they locked themselves into this house that is marked for “Demolition” and doesn’t prepare or move to the place which is going to be a proper home.
This is the longing for the people that the writer is writing to – a longing that you will think by the Word of God about the whole pilgrimage plan of God and that you will see your life in perspective and now comes the warning.
There are blunt warnings, and there are harmless warnings. We have some warnings around our property at the moment telling us about how to walk and where to go, which doors don’t work and which doors do work but there are blunt warnings like the pictures of sharks on the beach of Botany Bay that basically say ‘swimmers will be eaten’ or something like that.
One of the bluntest that I have ever seen was a proper poster in Perth next to the railways and it says in very nice classy writing
‘IF YOU TRESPASS ON THIS TRACK DON’T BOTHER ABOUT HAVING YOUR REMAINS SCATTERED – WE WILL BE DOING THAT FOR YOU! ‘
That’s about as blunt as I have seen! But verses 4-6 are in a very unusual category in the New Testament because they are so searching and unsettling. Let me read them for you:
“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”
I can imagine a Christian, a converted Christian with a sensitive conscious reading those verses at a time of failure or sin and thinking that is terrifying. There will be others who will read those verse and say ‘well that’s not me – that’s pretty forgettable and harmless’ but you see the writer is injecting the verses at a very key part of the letter because he wants them to be serious about falling away.
Because the readers are getting sleepy, this is a very good wake-up call.
The obvious questions that we ought to ask ourselves when we read these verses are questions like this:
- Is he speaking of Christians who have eternal life? If he is, can eternal life be stopped?
- Are these people that he is writing to just on the fringe? Are they tasters? Are they visitors? Are they the sort of people who see Christianity from a distance but they never get reborn, they never get converted?
Peter O’Brien for example in his excellent commentary thinks that this is the language of conversion. And another question we might ask is:
- What does impossible mean? Does it mean it’s impossible for the person to repent?
- Does it mean it’s impossible for the church? We know it’s very difficult to get people to come back who have turned their back on Christ and gone away. Is it impossible for God?
Surely it’s impossible for it to be impossible for God!
Well, I want to suggest to you that this warning is meant to squeeze out of you a cry to God that he will keep you safe, wise and faithful.
If you take these verses and just say, ‘well that’s not me’ you’ll miss the blessing. However, you take the verses and say ‘this is desperate, this is pessimistic, this is fatalistic, there’s no hope for us’, and you’ll miss the blessing.
But to walk between the two and say these are verses which are prompting me to lift up my cry to God to be faithful and safe, you’ve grasped what is there. There is enough warning as Spurgeon says
“If God is saying ‘there’s the precipice don’t go near it’, ‘there’s the poison don’t drink it’ so that you will lift up your prayer to God – please keep me safe to the end”.
I want to say a little bit more about these verses because some of you like to think hard about them. There are some comforting things in these verses. You will see for example that they are written in the 3rd person. There are ‘those who have fallen away’ but verse 9 ‘you’ says the writer ‘are probably not those people’. There are some people who think that these readers are tasters.
John Owen, the great Puritan, thought they were tasters. Don Carson suggested that they are tasters. But we just need to be careful that we don’t see this warning as being therefore irrelevant and feeble and weak.
There are some chilling things about these verses. It says ‘these people have fallen’. It doesn’t say ‘if’ as our translation puts it – it says ‘they have fallen’. Some people think these Fellowship Dropouts are like the thorny soil, that is there was some growth going on, something was happening but then the judgment of God has come on for their sinfulness, and it is the judgment of God that makes it impossible for them to repent because it’s the plan of God that they don’t.
That’s a chilling aspect, but I want to say again – the writer is not trying to paralyse the readers with these verses. And the genius of the verses is that they don’t allow you to fall into boredom on the one hand or into some pessimism on the other but they prompt you and me to send up a very wise, safe and healthy prayer which says to God ‘please don’t let me fall away – I want to go through to the end – I want to get to the finish – I don’t want to drift or fall away before the great day of seeing you face to face’ – that’s a healthy prayer.
There’s a Christian songwriter called Sarah Groves who has written a song called “Stir My Heart”. She wrote it when she was only 19 years old but this is what she put in the song, these are some of the sentences:
If circumstances should blind me
If fear and doubt should bind me
If trials mean, I don’t stand strong
If fools persuade me truth is wrong
Stir my heart – take me back – renew me
She goes on to say in the song
I swear it won’t happen
But what do I know
Peter swore the same
Hear the cock crow
Is that not a very healthy thing to say to God? If things get to the point where I am getting sleepy and careless and hard-hearted, and sin doesn’t matter, please intervene because I need your help to be renewed and refreshed and revived and restored and not fall away.
There are many people who tragically have fallen away. People, who have sat in these pews, sung the hymns and said the Creed and shaken hands and listen to sermons would now describe themselves as ‘unbelievers’.
I know a pastor who has entirely given up the Christian life. A man wrote to me this week who said he was a Satanist and had listened to the talk on the Radio and said ‘Good for your flock; I am past that’ and enclosed some Satanic verses for me. So you see that it is possible, we’ve seen it in experience, the people to apparently make progress and then to give up and that’s not a gain, that’s not a small thing. Eternity will show that that’s a terrible thing and a tragic thing and that’s why we must lift up our prayer every now and again that God would help us to stay and keep going and be faithful.
Some have been restored, wonderfully brought back. There are people here this morning who have been restored by God at certain times, and maybe you are one of these people. You feel the weeds around your feet, and they are creeping up your body, and they are choking your faith and sermons are not getting through to you as they did in the past. It’s time for you to lift up your voice and say ‘help me – please restore me because I don’t want to fall away and become one of those almost impossible to restore’.
That’s why verses 7-8 are also very helpful, aren’t they?
“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”.
This can’t be a reference to producing sin because we all produce sin. No this is the sort of person whose life is marked just by thorns and thistles and no longer by anything which is the sign of faith, hope and love. We need to send up a wise prayer that God would help us. Who better to listen than Jesus who has got the ability and has the compassion who can provide mercy and grace in time of need?
The only thing that will prevent us from sending out a cry up to him is some unbelief or foolishness on our part. He’s able and willing to help us. So let’s hear the warning.
The second section is Serious Comfort (verses 9-20). I remember many years ago reading Hebrews for my quiet times, and I was in quite a sinful period of the Christian life. I realised I was coming to Hebrews Chapter 6 and I thought to myself ‘ah here we go, we are going to have this passage which is going to belt me around the head’ and in a kind of masochistic kind of way I opened the passage as if to say ‘come on Hebrews 6 do your worse, beat me up, come on, wack me around, I know I am hopeless’ and then I got to verse 9 and it really did melt me.
Because he says
“Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation. 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”.
This is a lovely section where he called them ‘beloved’ (verse 9) the only time in the whole letter he calls them ‘beloved’ and how interesting it is that he does it at this particular point after the warning. And he says ‘we are confident of your salvation’. Why does he say this (verse 10)? Because he has seen some crops appear which are faith and love.
I don’t know how long ago he saw the faith and the love but he has seen it and that’s enough for him to have some confidence that God is at work.
He is therefore in a very pastoral way fanning the embers of their faith. He’s not criticising the poverty of their fire-place – he’s fanning what’s there. It is a very beautiful pastoral section.
And it’s fascinating when he says ‘God won’t forget’ (verse 10) because he doesn’t mean that God now owes you something as if you did some faithful stuff and now he’s obligated to bless you or something like that.
What he is saying is God is at work because he has been and I am praying that you will be fanned into flame. That’s basically what he is saying. He’s not saying God has confidence in you or God believes in you as some crazy Christians seem to say because God knows what we are like.
He knows the sinfulness of our heart. Jesus did not trust himself to people, but he did love people, and he did give them the confidence to come out of their cave and find compassion and help and strength for the particular need that they were going through.
This writer seems to have similar affection. It’s not as though he sees great potential in these readers (that’s always I think depressing when people say that you have got great potential because what they are basically saying is that you’ve now got to come up now with all the future strength and productivity) but what the writer sees is God at work, signs of salvation.
Because he sees God at work, he wants them to go forward, and the best way to go forward is to have new faith in Christ. And it’s not to stir yourself up to produce faith that you can’t possibly produce – it’s to have another look at how great and good God is. And that’s what he does from verse 13. He takes his readers (including us) back to the day where God spoke to Abraham at the time when Abraham was being asked to sacrifice his son. And when Abraham had been faithful, trusting God and getting ready to commit his son to sacrifice, you remember that God turned around in Genesis 22 and he made an unbelievable promise to Abraham.
And this is what he said – it’s not recorded in Hebrews 6 – the actual oath so I will read it to you from Genesis 22.
“God said to Abraham – I swear by myself that I will surely bless you and I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore”.
That’s a powerful promise. If God had said to Abraham ‘I’ll bless you that’s enough’. If God said I’ll bless you, he’ll bless you. Nothing will stop it, but the Bible tells us that God did something more than make a promise – he gave an oath with the promise.
Now you know when people give oaths today they swear by something. And the New Testament, of course, warns us again using oaths when we are indicating that our word is inadequate and we, therefore, need to prop our honesty.
But here is God who does not need to prop up his honesty and who could simply make a promise and that would be everything. God is deciding to make an oath deliberately, and because there isn’t anything greater than him to swear by, he swears by himself and therefore gives a promise with an oath.
As Bill Dumbrill helpfully says in his commentary “he doesn’t do this to bolster his credibility because his credibility cannot be improved upon, he does it to strengthen our weak faith” so that we have two reasons for trusting him.
One is he has made a promised, and he never breaks his promise, and the other is that he has given an oath by himself which is for the sheer purpose of giving us confidence that he will do it.
The writer is not saying please would you believe, please would you believe, everything will happen if you just believe – I know it’s very difficult to believe, but I am asking you to believe anyway, nothing of the sort.
The writer is saying, God has spoken, he’s given his word, and he’s added an oath. Therefore his promise to create uncountable descendants is going to happen. You can sit on that promise, you can hang on that promise, and you will travel right through. The promise is unstoppably sure.
That’s why he says in verses 19-20 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek”.
You see what the writer is saying? Whether you believe this or not it’s going to happen because Christ has gone through the curtain to the other side, and therefore we have an anchor through the curtain, and all you need to do basically is wrap that rope around yourself and you will be there because it is as sure as the faithfulness and the power of God.
So what could this writer say more to these wayward Hebrews or of us this morning who are perfectly capable to falling into danger or sometimes falling into despair?
The writer could not say much more because the warning is designed to make sure we lift up our voice to God “please keep me”.
The promises are designed to say to us that whatever your condition, whatever your performance, whatever your feelings, whatever your doubts, God will do what he says he will do and therefore ‘sit on the promise’. You don’t have to produce it. You don’t have to make it happen. It will happen.
So let’s summarise to finish. There is someone called Jesus Christ who has come into the world. He made the universe, but he came into the world. We are not owed anything, he doesn’t have any obligation to us, but he has freely and wonderfully died on the cross so that we might have an open door into the family of God and one day into the glory of God.
He has given us his Word so that we have promises to live by and encouragement to go by as we walk through this world as his pilgrims. But we are very capable of drifting, and doubting and getting dissatisfied and so he has placed careful warnings in place because he loves us and he doesn’t want us to walk into danger.
When we do lift up our voice and say ‘please keep me from danger, please keep me from drifting and falling away’, then we discover the secret of our security is not that we are going to be faithful (although that’s pleasing to him and he certainly deserves it) but the secret of our security is that he is faithful. That he is going to do what he has promised to do and that the person who lifts up their voice in response to his promises will find themselves helped and saved and carried and one day delivered right into the home. And that friends, is an excellent set of reasons why we should not turn our back on Christ.
Let’s pray. Our Father we lift up our thanks to you for all that you have done for us but also for all that you have said to us. We thank you for giving warnings, and because we have seen people fall into great danger, we ask today that you would help us to follow to the end faithfully.
We thank you also for giving great promises, and we ask that as you have given promises which you will fulfil that you would ensure that we are part of those promises, believing, trusting and following right to the end. And in all the circumstances which we are going through at the moment, we pray for our Father that we would enjoy above and beyond our salvation, the joy of fellowship with you on the path.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.