We’ve noted several times in our trek through the book of Romans and now through Hebrews that Psalm 2:7, which says, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” is a text about the Father appointing the God-man, Jesus, as his king. Moreover, we’ve noted that Jesus is installed as the human king and given authority to reign over the world at his resurrection, which is why Jesus says in Matthew 28:18, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” just after he’s been raised from the dead.
So how do we respond to that? How do we respond to this glorious truth that Jesus is the resurrected king? Obviously we celebrate and rejoice and praise God. Jesus reigns over death, and he has freed us from condemnation. That’s worth celebrating and rejoicing and praising God. But what’s interesting is that when the Bible notes that Jesus, by his resurrection, is living and reigning and installed as God’s king with all authority, there is also another response. We see it in Psalm 2:10-11. After noting that God has installed his Messiah, his human king, over all of the earth (again, via his resurrection from the dead), the psalmist writes, “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”
We might not have anticipated gathering with the saints on this resurrection Sunday to think about being warned or trembling with our rejoicing, but the Bible certainly speaks in these terms, and it speaks in these terms because Jesus is the resurrected king. And so I think that it is more than fitting on this day in which we especially remember and give thanks for the resurrection and reign of our Lord Jesus Christ that we consider one of the strongest—if not the strongest—warning texts in all of Scripture, Hebrews 5:11-6:12.
If you’re visiting with us, I’ve not simply chosen this text for us this morning, though I do think it’s fitting to preach on Easter, as I’ve argued. Rather, we’ve been working our way through this letter in which the author writes to a people who want to walk away from Jesus and go back to some OT practices that were always meant to be temporary. In fact, they were meant to be temporary because they were pointing to Jesus, and now he’s come. So, throughout this letter, the author argues that this is no small matter. Choices they’re making right now will affect their souls. That is, this is a salvation issue, and there’s no place he warns more strongly than in our text this morning.
Our text breaks down into three sections. In 5:11-6:3 you see the dangerous situation in which the hearers find themselves, in 6:4-8 we see a severe warning, and in 6:9-12 we see an encouraging and hopeful word. So, let’s take these one at a time. First, we see the dangerous situation.
Their dangerous situation
The dangerous situation is this: they have become a bit hardened in their hearts and spiritually resistant to the Word of God, with little eagerness to obey what they’re hearing. Consequently, the author tells them that he had much more to say to them concerning Jesus’ priesthood, something he’d started really diving into in 5:1-10 and that he’ll pick back up with in chapter 7. But in the meantime, he’s going to pause and interject a reminder of the seriousness of their situation. He writes in 5:11-14, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Now, it can be easy to misunderstand the situation here. The problem isn’t their intellectual abilities. For crying out loud, if that were a problem, our author has made a crucial error in chapters 1-5 because Hebrews isn’t easy stuff. There have been many detailed and complex arguments so far. No, the reason it’s hard to explain is because they have a moral problem. They’re not eager to obey the Scripture. That’s not their posture when they hear the Word. Their hearts have been in a pattern of neglecting obedience to God’s Word, and that affects their ability to see and understand the Word of God clearly. That’s what he’s saying when he notes that they haven’t been in constant practice of distinguishing good from evil.
D. A. Carson has noted in his time as a pastor that if someone came into his office saying that they simply didn’t accept he truths of the Bible anymore or were greatly questioning the reliability of Scripture, he would make his first question, “Who are you sleeping with besides your spouse?” Now, that’s not because an intellectual struggle with God’s Word is always, without exception, preceded by a heart that is running into sin. But these two realities often are connected. The more we harden our hearts through the deceitfulness of sin, the less glorious and beautiful and clear God’s Word appears in our minds. Even the proclamation of God’s Word can become as merely a dull sound in our ears.
Therefore, the author wants to push them beyond where they are. He writes in 6:1-3, “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, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
What is going on with this? Is the author of Hebrews suggesting that as believers we need to move past and not keep repeating foundational truths such as the death and resurrection of Jesus or justification by faith alone? If so, Paul didn’t get the memo, did he? He spends a good portion in nearly every letter he penned, retracing again the glories of Christ’s work, our justification by faith, and sureness of our salvation. He even told the Philippians that it was of no trouble to him to go over justification by faith alone again and was safe for them (Phil 3:1). He scolded the Galatians for thinking they could move beyond faith in the finished work of Christ, noting that the reason the Spirit was working miracles among them was because they were hearing the gospel and responding in faith (Gal 3:5). That’s not what the author of Hebrews is saying here. And you can tell by the first five chapters of Hebrews that the author hardly wants them to move on from considering the work of Christ for them.
I think this list of “the elementary doctrine[s] of Christ” he gives us are actually a list of Jewish, Old Covenant beliefs and practices. Now, for most of these things that is hard to see. After all, in the New Covenant, we preach repentance from dead works, faith toward God, laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment. But there is one element there that obviously would be specific to practices under the Old Covenant. He mentions in the list “instructions about washings.” And that’s a good translation. The word is similar to the word regularly used for baptism in the NT, but it’s not exactly the same, and it’s in the plural. And in the NT, it is clear that there is one baptism. So, as the ESV translates, this is a reference to washings.
In other words, all of these are doctrines that a conservative Jew who had no belief in Jesus as the Messiah would have practiced in that day. They would have preached repentance and faith, would have practiced ceremonial washings and the laying on of hands, and would have taught about the resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were famous for believing and teaching these things. But they didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ.
And I think this is what the author of this letter is saying. He’s telling them that those practices in the OT were a foundation that was pointing us to Christ. And now they’re trying to go back and dive back into these foundational things as if they weren’t always pointing us to him. But the foundation has been laid, and Jesus has come.
Let me give you an example that might help us think through this better. Last week as we looked at Hebrews 5:1-10, and I spent a good amount of time laying out how the priest functioned in the OT—the fact that he represented the people, interceded on their behalf, sympathized with them, offered sacrifices, etc. And the reason I did that is because without the foundation of the priesthood in the OT, we would never understand the work of Christ rightly. To say that Jesus is our high priest means very little unless you understand these things from the OT. They are the foundation upon which our understanding of his work is built.
But imagine you wanted to forget Jesus and go back to all of those practices that were for the purpose of giving us categories in which to understand the glorious work of Christ. We would say, “Don’t try to go back again and lay the foundation. That foundation was laid so that we might consider Jesus and the glory of his work.”
Well, that’s what the author is saying here. Preaching repentance is good. Talking about the resurrection of the dead is good. But to try to go back and consider those things without Jesus is forgetting that they were always about Jesus. And now that Jesus has come, for example, we cannot talk about eternal judgment without talking about Jesus because it’s the risen king who will judge all men on the last day.
Consequently, the author tells his readers that they are immature, not wanting to hear that the Scripture is screaming to them to look to Jesus. They’ve become dull of hearing, and it has made it so that they’re like infants, needing someone again to go over how all of these foundational truths and practices point us to Christ, whom we are to believe and obey. It’s as if they are craving this milk but no longer ready for the solid food about Jesus.
So, that’s the dangerous situation they’re in. They’ve not practiced obedience to what God’s Word has pointed them to, and it’s had the effect of hardening their hearts a bit. They’re no longer eager to hear God’s Word with a desire to obey, and so it’s not seeming as glorious as it should be. That’s their dangerous situation. Now, let’s consider this serious warning.
A serious warning
We read in verses 4-8, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
Well, this famous warning text has caused some problems, hasn’t it? One problem it’s caused for some is that it looks like it’s directed toward believers, and if it is, how does it square with the consistent teaching of Scripture that the one who is justified will definitely be glorified (Rom 8:29-30) or the number of other references that teach us that God preserves his children?
Some have then opted for saying that this isn’t talking to believers. It’s merely talking to unbelievers. But that’s hard to if you pay attention to the language, right? I mean, he refers to his hearers as those who have “once been enlightened” (v. 4). And in case you’re tempted to say, “Well, that isn’t common language for saying once has been saved,” you can turn to Hebrews 10:32 and see that it is in this book. In that verse the author will write, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” When he says, “After you were enlightened,” he’s saying, “After you came to faith.”
But we might say, “Why would he say, ‘Have shared in the Holy Spirit?’ That’s odd language that could mean something less than salvation, couldn’t it?” Well, you could argue that, but then when you look back to 3:14 and realize he used the same language there, saying, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
But if you were persistent and said, “But tasted the heavenly gift? Surely that means less than actually experiencing the gift of salvation from heaven. I mean, tasted? Who says ‘tasted’ to mean experience fully?” Well, in 2:9 we were told that Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels so that “he might taste death for everyone,” and surely we’re not prepared to argue that he only kind of died. No, he actually died. What we celebrate today is that Jesus rose from the grave after really being dead. You see, I admit that the language used in 6:4-5 may not be the language we’re familiar with when we describe experiencing salvation, but it is the kind of language the author of Hebrews uses throughout the book. So, it seems clear that this warning is being directed toward believers, people like you and me.1
This warning is directed toward believers, and I think the warning is about facing judgment on the final day. Now, yes, we can say that if anyone actually does end up being condemned on the final day they were never justified in the first place. John himself says that in 1 John 2:19, saying, “They went’ out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Believers are those who by definition persevere in repentance and faith, and if someone doesn’t, then that person was never really a believer.
So then, if believers persevere, they why does the author of Hebrews go to such great lengths in noting that he’s speaking to believers and warns them strongly of a judgment that they’ll never face if they’re really believers? For two reasons. One is that many who profess faith and truly think themselves Christians aren’t. So, there are some no doubt who heard these words and died and faced God’s wrath because they turned away from Jesus. The warning in that case became a reality. There will be many, Jesus tells us, who profess faith in this life but never really know him. But there is another reason.
The other reason is because God’s severe warnings to his children, when they are in the midst of flirting with sin, are used by our God to turn us back from our sins and preserve us in the faith. Let me give you an example of this happening in another setting in the Scripture, and then I’ll try to apply this text to us. In Acts 27 Paul was traveling on ship and they were in the midst of a storm, had been without food, and people were panicking. And Paul stood up and said to them, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island” (Acts 27:21-26).
So, at this point we know that no one to whom Paul is speaking is going to die. God has made it clear. There will be no loss of life but only the ship. Paul got that word directly from an angel of God.
Then, as they were nearing land, they became afraid and some of the men were seeking to escape from the ship, lowering the ship’s boat into the water, getting ready to get in it and go. And Paul said to the men who were still on the ship, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” And so we read, “Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go” (27:30-31).
Now, here you could say, “Hold on a second, Paul. You just told them that no one would die but all would be saved, and now you’re warning them, saying that unless these men stay in the ship, you’ll die”? How can you warn them they’ll die if they don’t do something when you’ve already assured them they’ll live? The answer is that Paul gave them a very real warning, and that warning was used to lead them to do the very thing that kept them alive. In other words, God preserved their lives by using Paul’s warning to keep them on the ship. It’s like how parents used warnings of discipline with their children to help them obey. If all your kids obey and don’t get that discipline you were warning about, it didn’t mean the warning was an empty or idle threat. It meant the warning did its job.
That is how this warning text functions here in Hebrews 6:4-8, written to believers like you and me. It’s telling us that if we become dull of hearing, not practicing obedience to God’s Word, and hard in our hearts, we could come to the point that repentance isn’t even possible for us. Our hearts will be so hard toward the Lord that we won’t have any desire to repent. And if we get there, we’ll face God’s judgment on that final day. We’ll be like a field that hasn’t borne the fruit of a believer is supposed to bear and is fitting only to be burned.
I preached this very text sixteen years ago, and I remember at that time telling the story of a woman I met with who was considering leaving her husband of twenty-two years because she wanted to be with another man. She would have told you she’s a believer. She’d given evidence of being a believer. And I remember sitting with her in a coffee shop right here in Jackson and telling her that if she made this decision to leave her husband and chase after this other guy, that this might be the point of no return in hardening her heart. It may be that she is thinking now, “I’m going to get what I want, and I’ll just repent later,” and that later day may never come because her heart would become so hardened to the Lord and dull toward obeying that repentance would never be her desire. So, I pleaded with her and she walked away, determined to do what would make her happy.
Brothers and sisters, I’m hopeful that that won’t be any of us this morning. I’m hopeful that this strong and severe warning will be God’s means to take hold of some of you this morning. I’m praying that if you’re pursuing sin, maybe even planning it out right now, that this word makes your heart race and you think, “I can’t do it. I’ve got to obey Jesus.” And if that’s your response, then you’ll show that God has used this warning to say, “See, you’re mine. I’m not letting you go, even if I have to issue a terrifying warning to get hold of your heart.” Unlike that woman that day, I’m confident that will be your response this morning if you’ve been tempted with sin, which brings us to our final section, an encouraging and hopeful word.
An encouraging and hopeful word
After this strong warning of people facing God’s wrath as his enemies on that final day the author of Hebrews ends, writing, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:9-12).
Do you see what he’s saying here? He’s saying, “But I’m confident you’re going to respond by repenting and turning back to Jesus, who lived, died, and was raised for you. I’m confident because I’ve seen earnestness in you before to obey Jesus, and I think this warning is going to jar you back into showing it again.” And then he tells them what he wants for them. He wants them to be a people who have full assurance of hope before God the rest of their lives.
That is, he wants them to know the rest of their lives at any moment that they belong to God and have eternal life and will be with Jesus. But his implication there is that the only people who can have that assurance are those who are willing to repent when confronted with our sin. If we are in the midst of turning from Jesus toward sin, we don’t need assurance but a word of warning. But if your heart this morning is saying, “I want to turn from sin,” then rest in full assurance before the Lord and continue to walk in repentance and faith because he wants that for you.
Our Lord is risen. He is the king. He is the coming judge. And you and I get to live our lives in full assurance that when he comes to judge, he will come to get us as his own beloved people. This is the only place in the letter the author of Hebrews calls his hearers “beloved” (6:9). He wants us to know we are loved and treasured by God. But those loved by God are those who keep walking in repentance and faith toward the crucified and risen Lord. So, let’s let that be our response this morning to God’s Word, and let’s come rejoice as we come to the table this morning. Amen.
Some have then countered by saying that, “Sure, he’s talking about believers, but the warning in this text of falling away is really only a warning about losing our rewards.” And they may even point to the metaphor used in verses 7-8 of this land that bears thorns and thistles and ends up being burned in support of this argument. After all, Paul can speak in 1 Corinthians 3 about our work as believers (and perhaps specifically as pastors in that text) shown to be futile on that final day so that our work will be burned up (1 Cor 3:15), even though we’re saved. But there’s no way this text can merely be discussing our works. For one, the metaphor doesn’t speak of the crops being burned on this land that hasn’t produced much but the land itself being burned. Moreover the text speaks of crucifying against the Son of God, which is hardly language fitting of one who is saved but doesn’t produce more work in his life.