We are in Hebrews chapter 6 today, so let me read vv. 1-3.
1 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, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
This is part of a larger section starting back in chapter 5, verse 11 and going on through 6:20, in which the author is warning the people of this faith community about moving back into Judaism, into dependence upon their own good works, instead of believing in Jesus Christ for their salvation.
In these three verses the author is saying: “We’re not going to go back over the basics, “the elementary doctrine of Christ” but rather we are going to go on to maturity, which in this context means complete trust in Jesus Christ.
There were six facets of their catechism that he mentions in verses 1 and 2, teachings that were familiar to early Jewish Christians because they were in common with what they had been taught from the Old Testament.
Both “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” are Old Testament requirements for a relationship with God. They also formed the basic response to the gospel—repenting and believing in Christ. However, here the author says their faith is “toward God,” meaning that they had rudimentary faith in God, but not necessarily faith in Jesus Christ.
These first two elementary teachings—repentance and faith—have to do with one’s relationship with God. The next two—baptisms and laying on of hands—have to do with one’s inclusion in a community of faith.
It is “instruction” about these last four items that needs to be left behind. That foundation has been laid.
Now, the Greek word here in verse 2 is baptismoi, baptisms, plural. It is unlikely, therefore, that this is speaking about Christian baptism, but rather the multiple ritual washings that Jews went through for purification.
Of course, even baptism itself, the initiation rite into discipleship, was a Jewish concept, or at least it was very common in Jewish culture of the first century.
F. F. Bruce makes this comment:
“’Instructions about ablutions’ (RSV) or ‘instruction about cleansing rites’ (NEB) expresses the sense more adequately than ‘the teaching of baptisms’ (ERV/ARV). There is no lack of instruction about ablutions in the Old Testament, and this provided a further foundation on which the Christian truths could be erected. Later in the epistle (9:13) the ritual of the red heifer in Num. 19, one of the most important of the ceremonial purifications prescribed in the Old Testament, is treated as a counterpart in the temporal order to the cleansing efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ in the spiritual order. The prophet Ezekiel in earlier days had used the terminology of the old ceremonial ablutions to describe God’s inward cleansing of his people in the age of restoration: ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you’ (Ezek. 36:25)., In language like this the Baptist groups which flourished in Judaism at the beginning of the Christian era found scriptural authority for their ceremonial washings…” (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 141).
Hebrews 9:10 uses this same word and shows that it had to do with ritual cleansing—”but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.”
The ”laying on of hands” was part of the Jewish sacrificial practice, a way of placing one’s sins upon the sacrificial victim. In early Christian practice it symbolized the sharing of some blessing (Luke 24:50; Acts 19:6) or the setting apart of a person for ministry.
It is likely that this refers to the Levitical system. Leviticus 1:4 says, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Although this was an important aspect of the Mosaic system, we now have a New Covenant. Christ is our one, final sacrifice, and the writer exhorts the Jews to leave the Old Covenant behind, and believe in the New Covenant.
The final two items have to do with the future—the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. Jesus, of course, gave special importance to the doctrine of resurrection for the church, but the doctrine was no new innovation in the New Testament times. It was held, as we know, by the Pharisees (Acts 23:8), who found in it the guarantee that Israel’s ancestral hope would be realized in perpetuity; it was taught expressly in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2 and possibly Psalm 16:9-10), and, as Jesus pointed out, it was taught implicitly at an even earlier stage, when God, who is the God of the living, not of the dead, proclaimed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6; Mark 12:26f).
Martha also held out this hope when she said, regarding the deceased Lazarus, “”I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She had an expectation of a resurrection.
Finally, our author speaks of eternal judgment. The Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body was closely associated with the expectation of judgment to come. That the God of Israel is Judge of all the earth in general and of his own people in particular is an essential part of Old Testament revelation (Genesis 18:25; Isaiah 33:22); his recurring judgments in history will be summed up in the eschatological judgment of Daniel 7:9-14.
In Christian belief the “one like the son of man” through whom the eschatological judgment is carried out is identified with Jesus (Matt. 25:31ff; John 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31).
“This judgment, eternal in its effects, means the complete elimination of evil and its consequences from God’s creation and the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13)—the glorious fulfillment, in other words of all God’s purposes in creation and the absolute vindication of His gracious and sovereign lordship” (Philip Hughes A Commentary on the Epistles to the Hebrews, p. 205)
All these are common Old Testament beliefs or current practices among the Jews. When these readers were evangelized and converted, these things, it seems, had been made foundational as a way of helping them understand the work of Christ. Christ is the goal and fulfillment of all these things. So when verse 1 says they should leave the “elementary teachings about Christ (or literally: “the word of the beginning of Christ”), what I think it means is that they should not occupy themselves so much with the pre-Christian foundational preparations for Christ that they neglect the glory of the gospel and how to use it to grow into maturity and holiness. (John Piper)
The problem is that some were not moving beyond the basics and therefore were in danger of slipping back into Judaism and self-salvation.
The Hebrew Christian milieu made that especially easy, because whereas a pagan convert’s apostasy was so obvious, a Jew who was sliding back to his old faith was less apparent. It was possible for Hebrew converts to yield gradually to hostile pressures from the old life and give up more and more of the distinctives of their new faith without much notice—and some were doing just that.
“If a convert to paganism gave up Christianity and reverted to paganism, there was a clean break between the faith which he renounced and the paganism to which he returned. But it was possible for the recipients of this letter, yielding gradually to pressures from various quarters, to give up more and more of those features of faith and practice which were distinctive of Christianity, and yet to feel that they had not abandoned the basis principles of repentance and faith, the realities denoted by religious ablutions and the laying on of hands, the expectation of resurrection and judgment of the age to come. For the writer to go on insisting on these things, therefore, would not really help them; it would be better to press on to those teachings which belonged to spiritual maturity, in the hope that maturity would come with the teachings” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 143-144).
Like all sincere teachers of the Scriptures, this author is hoping that by going on to more meaty teaching on Melchizedek, that it will produce the desired result—of going on to maturity. But he knows that this is in God’s hands.
It is no pious nod to God to say they will need God’s help to do this, for without God it will be impossible.
The verb translated let us press on (pherometha) is in the passive voice. We could render it: Let us be carried on (i.e., by God’s Spirit). Spiritual maturity does not come merely by striving with our own self-effort but by cooperating with God as we do His will while depending on His help. It comes as we follow the Holy Spirit who leads and empowers us (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:16).
This is a warning and call for all of us to make progress in our faith. The undeniable spiritual axiom is, where there is life there is growth! If we are not more knowledgeable in the faith now than a year ago, if we are not growing in holiness and commitment, we had better check what is going on inside. Even more, if we are sliding, losing our grasp on things that were once clear, caring less about God and holiness and the world, we had better drop everything and tend to our souls.
“And this,” he says, “we will do,” and then, there is that terribly grim prediction, “if,” if he says. “If God permits.” “If God permits!” How could there be any question about that? Surely, God would permit us to go on, everyone to go on to maturity. Isn’t that true?
Well, there is one condition, our author feels, in which it might be necessary for God to close the door on an individual, and that is apostasy.
Going on to maturity happens at God’s good pleasure.
“We may take the affirmation, ‘this we will do,’ then, as an expression of confidence on the part of the author in the reality of his readers’ experience of grace and therefore in their capacity for instruction and spiritual progress. At the same time, however, as the ensuing verses plainly show, they, or at least some among them, are in serious danger of falling right away if they do not stir themselves and give proof that they are what they profess to be” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 206).
I’m going to close with some insights about spiritual progress and maturity that come from John Piper, specifically addressing the statement “if God permits.” I think these five implications are very instructive.
Here are five implications of these words. And this is what it means for God to be God and that we are not God.
1. God governs the progress of sanctification (or maturity).
In other words, he has final say in whether we overcome our bent to sinning and make progress toward maturity. We will press on to maturity if God permits it. That is, we will make progress in our sanctification and holiness if God permits it. He decides ultimately if and how fast we advance in holiness.
For example, look at Hebrews 13:20–21,
Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Either God works in us what is pleasing in his sight or he doesn’t. That is, either he permits our progress toward maturity or it doesn’t happen. He governs the progress of sanctification.
Another example is from Hebrews 12:16–17 where the writer tells about Esau who squandered his birthright and his blessing and then tried to repent and couldn’t.
[Let] there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it [repentance] with tears.
Esau was rejected. He had so profaned the grace of God that he was no longer able to repent even though he wept and looked like he was sincere. God had forsaken him utterly and there was no more patience. This is the precious and terrible warning behind the words, “We will press on to maturity, if God permits.” Beware of being like Esau, he says. God governs the progress of sanctification, and he is not obliged to grant repentance to anyone. Which leads to the second implication of the words ” . . . if God permits.”
2. Permitting us to advance to maturity is all grace, and not permitting it is righteous judgment.
We are by nature rebellious against God and guilty for it. God does not owe any of us the grace to conquer our rebellion. If God leaves us in our rebellion, he is righteous and just to do so. He owes us nothing. We are rebels by nature, and deserve only punishment, not rescue. If you are saved this morning, it is all of grace. And if you persevere and make progress toward maturity, it is all of grace. “This we will do, if God permits.” And if he chooses not to permit it, he is not hindering our good will, he is leaving us in our bad will. If we have a good will toward God, this is the work of grace and we will make progress. And we should tremble with gratitude.
3. God sometimes wills that something come to pass which he forbids us to bring to pass.
That is, he sometimes decrees what he forbids. In this case, for example, he may not permit someone to press on to maturity. Nevertheless he commands us to press on to maturity. So he is decreeing immaturity while commanding maturity.
The clearest illustration of this in biblical history is God’s plan for the death of Jesus. God forbids murder: “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And he decrees that his Son be murdered. Acts 4:27–28:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.
What Herod and Pilate and the Roman soldiers and the crowds shouting, “Crucify him,” did was all predestined to occur by God, and it was all sin. Thus God sometimes forbids what he decrees: he forbids murder, and he decrees the murder of his Son for the salvation of his people.
This does not mean that God is a sinner, because there is a difference between sinning and choosing for wise and holy purposes that sin be. The cross of Christ is the clearest place for seeing this mystery. There are infinitely wise and holy reasons for willing that his Son be sinfully killed. And in the same way there are wise and holy reasons for why he might not permit someone to press on to maturity.
4. Nevertheless it is our duty and our delight to press on to maturity.
This whole book is written as incentive and help to press on to the holiness without which we will not see the Lord. God’s sovereignty in sanctification does not remove our obligation. It enables it. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). God’s sovereign work in us is our only hope that we will press on to maturity.
5. Finally, God’s absolute sovereignty is a sweet place to rest.
This writer is bending every effort to help these people persevere in faith (6:12) and hold fast to their confession (4:14) and fight the evil heart of unbelief (3:12) and pursue the holiness without which they will not see the Lord (12:14). He warns and argues and pleads. And he is hopeful that God is at work in them, as he says down in verse 9. But that is not finally where he rests.
His final place of rest is the sovereignty of God. And I commend this resting place to you. He is doing all that he can do. And he is calling them to vigilant action. But in the end he looks up and says, “Thy will be done concerning their perseverance and maturity.” He rests in God’s sovereignty: “This we will do, if God permits.”
He is like Joab going into battle with his brother Abishai. He makes every preparation and plan and then says to Abishai,
Be strong, and let us show ourselves courageous for the sake of our people and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what is good in His sight. (2 Samuel 10:12)
We have done all that we can do in preparation. We will fight with all our might. But in the end not we, but the Lord, will advance the victory or not. So there is where we rest: “May the Lord do what is good in his sight.”
That is where God calls you to rest this morning. Life is complex and full of uncertainties. We work hard. We make preparations. We plan. We preach. We persuade. We write. We try every way that we know to do all the good we can do for a perishing, God-profaning world. And when all is said and done, we say, “This will bear fruit, if the Lord permits.” “May the Lord do what seems good to him.”