- Your fundamental problem is that you’re stuck at the basics of Christianity when you should by now have been delving deep in the mysteries of Christ. (vv. 1-3)
- If some abandoned your gatherings because of discouragement, anger, doubt etc. it’s hard to get them back. They’re as good as lost. (vv 4-8)
- Although you behave like spiritual babies you still are children of God and He still works his miracle in you. So stop being lazy and start living out your faith like many people you personally know (vv 9-12)
- Don’t panic. Remember that it is God’s promise that keeps you safe. So be encouraged by this. It’s not up to you to earn salvation. It is anchored in God’s promise. (vv13-20)
In the previous five chapters we saw the preher calling the people to keep their eyes focused on Christ, to not forget the Gospel, not to lose heart while facing problems because Christ is the Great High Priest who understands suffering, and is able to deal with their sins.
Now, in Chapter 6 however, he’s taking a different idea: Move beyond the basic teachings of Christ(ianity) and get set to embark on a road that leads to perfection so that you too may enjoy the peace of God (Shalom) that transcends understanding.
Vv 1-3: You’re stuck in primary school, time to move on
Although some translations use “maturity”, the text more closely is calling us to leave the basics and strive for perfection. Perfection is a life of haves, not of have-nots. It’s a life full of goodness vs a life without sin.
This is contrary to what many church-going people are raised to believe in. Most of the time, churches will describe a perfect life as a life that is fully devoid of sin. But having no sin in life doesn’t mean having good deeds in life. And even though we’re here called to perfection, taken into context (sofar Perfection was a word closely related to Christ, not people), what we’re called to do is to be imitators of Christ. And we know from the gospels that most of the information about Jesus isn’t that he lacked sin, but that he was full of mercy, love, understanding, willingness and Ability to respond to people in need etc.
The call to move past the basics of Christianity onto deeper truths is similar to a call for a pupil to move past primary school and pursue a PhD. The pupil may be great at knowing the basics, but if he/she remains stuck in 8th grade, he/she is missing the point of pursuing a doctorate. In that regard, although he/she’s not doing explicit wrong, being stuck in primary school is active rejection of the call to do a PhD. If you don’t move forward, you fall back, back in growth, back away from the perfection we are called to aim at.
We’re not really called to moral perfection. We’re called to live as Christ lived: fulfill the calling (Be the salt and light, make disciples) in order to enjoy the peace that transcends understanding.
The foundation of Christ’s perfection as we saw in Chapter 5, is not his moral conduct, but His unwavering dedication to his mission to take up the cross first and only later to get to the crown. During the temptations, Christ had a very reachable option to skip the cross and move on to the crown. But the faith in the plan of salvation, the faith in God’s plan, is what empowered Christ the man to endure all suffering. So through the suffering, He was proven to be perfect. We’re called to that kind of perfection here, to move past the basics, and onto a life marked by following of Christ.
The other interesting conclusion here is that in our pursuit of perfection, we’re not called to be inventors, but only followers. Christ is the pioneer. He set the route and showed us how to walk the walk. All we’re called to do is to follow His example in not shunning ministry on earth, but embracing it.
Vv 4-8: Church leavers: they’re as good as gone (?)
This passage is among the hardest ones to interpret in the Bible. There are tons of people quoting these verses to prove the possibility of losing one’s salvation. That’s very easy to do when you take out the passage from the wider context of the epistle. However, there’s no text without a context, and this text too derives its meaning from the immediate and broader context.
So what’s the context? The immediate context is underlined with v. 9 that explains the previous verses as: 1. A hypothetical situation and 2. As a personal experience of the preacher-pastor who has seen that when people decide to leave the church, it is close to impossible to bring them back.
The wider context is that Hebrews is a pastoral letter sent to a church, so it’s got everything do do with ecclesiology, and very little to do with soteriology. As such, we can’t force any of the verses to have a soteriological meaning. What we can and should do is read the verses from an ecclesiological standpoint since the entire letter is written from this perspective.
There are tons of ways/reasons for people to get disappointed from churches. Some will be discouraged by all the hypocrisy that is nothing different from all the “unholy” people. Some will be annoyed by shallow friendship and plastic smiles. These people walk out with some noise. You will notice them and you will hear their objections. Yet some people, most people I’ve talked with, left the church because the teachings weren’t useful, weren’t relevant, or were completely confusing and borderline heretical. For those who leave the church, it’s a dry and hard life because to some extent, turning the back to the local churches also means turning your back to God. Once they’ve been in church and didn’t find what they were looking for, it makes no sense for them to go back, just as it makes no sense for a window shopper to return to a store he/she didn’t find interesting. This quiet immigration, if it becomes a pattern for any local church, speaks more about the church itself rather than about the people’s lack of interest for spiritual matters.
Nine years ago, I was pushed out of my church as unwanted and unsuitable to preach. The funny thing is that I became unsuitable to preach while I was 1000km away. Church politics. And money. But the thing is that I was disappointed by the local church, and my leaving was a quiet one. I’ve then realized that while I do trust God, there’s no reason to trust the local church with my life and future. While there were some attempts to sway me back to be interested in being a part of a church, the idea never really stuck. I did go to countless other churches to preach, but there wasn’t much desire to even consider being a part of any of them.
That went on for years. Only in 2013 I started considering going back to church because after 7 years of no spiritual life, I realized that being alone is no way to live a Christian life. After the decision, things started rolling in the right direction and in September 2013 my wife and I decided it’s time to become a part of this local community. We both got disappointed over hypocrisy and plastic smiles, and we both got won back by honesty, plain and simple honesty. I stand here today to stress the validity of v. 9 as an explanatory verse of these “loss of salvation” verses. It’s not that people that walked out of a church have done that for good. Eventually, I’d dare to say that each one of them will find their way back to a church somewhere. Some will do it in 7 days, some in 7 years. Yet some may keep on wondering for 70, but eventually, they will come back. Why? Because God will not allow anyone or any thing to snatch any believer from His hands.
So this isn’t a passage about losing of salvation. It’s a pastoral warning that we who are in churches shouldn’t be stubborn in our resentment/disappointment/indifference, because this stubbornness makes it impossible for us and others to move past some issues and get back in a church setting where we are all called to “grow in perfection” through serving others.
Vv 9-12: You’re not kids. Get up, shape up and start serving others. That’s how you’ll get the peace of God
The tone of voice in v9 is that of understanding and encouragement. The preacher here switches from a stern hypothetical talk about sluggish attitude for church gatherings toward an encouraging and affirming speech about security in salvation and the justness of God.
What’s interesting is that v10 doesn’t go “God is not unjust to forget all your moral supremacy over those who abandoned your meetings” but it says “God is not unjust to forget your WORK and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and still ministering to the saints.”
I was reading a book called New Testament Theology written by Leon Morris (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 1990) and in going through the Gospel of John and the ideas there on God the Father, Morris writes on pg 254:
“Many people today think of prayer as a prerequisite for bearing fruit: if we are praying people we will have fruitful lives. But Jesus here [John 15:16] says for the disciples it is the other way around: fruitful lives will enable prayer to be more effective”
I did try to have somewhat of a regular prayer life during these seven years of wandering in my spiritual desert… but it didn’t work. Reading the Bible also didn’t really work. It took me getting back into a church setting where I can minister, so that prayer and devotion would come natural to me once again.
Again, in vv 11-12 the text mentions the importance of work as a prerequisite for getting the peace that transcends understanding. It’s not (only) prayer, fasting, chanting, levitating, sitting under a palm tree or even performing miracles that will get us to this peace of God. It is what we do on a daily basis for the brothers and sisters in Christ that radiates the love of God, and sets us on a path for the Shalom of God.
Understandably many churches that have grown up thinking that it is the spiritual stuff that count will find this idea threatening. Some may even call it heretical because it’s pushing the idea of work. But the point here isn’t about eternal salvation. It’s about experiencing that peace of God that stretches downward from heaven into our linear existence.
Vv 13-20: The hope for this peace that transcends understanding is anchored in the heavenly realm.
Reading this last section contextually will help us set the stage for understanding this promise of God and the imagery of the heavenly realm.
God makes a promise to us to provide a way for us to partake in his peace that transcends understanding. This rest, this Shalom is what we all strive for. Many falsely pursue peace by passive seclusion, some by sticking to prayer alone… but the text here throws a challenge at us saying: God did promise you peace, but to achieve it, skip the basics and get to the real deal which is ministering to others.
The idea about this promise being an anchor for the soul is an interesting one because it loops back into knowing the promise of peace in the heavens. This peace penetrates our linear existence and in helping others, in being the salt and light, in making disciples, we get rewarded with this peace that transcends understanding. And this anchor, this hope, is firmly set on who God is: he will see through his promise for peace that transcends understanding.
It is in this peace, after the work has been completed, that our hearts are somehow more open to receive, and souls more prone to offer prayers and praise reports.
Summing it all up
Chapter 6 is an interesting material. It starts with a stern call to move past simplistic faith and move on to deeper truths. Then it reminds us that these deep truths are not the goal itself. The goal is for these truths to set our minds to not abandon communal meetings, saying that those who do abandon our meetings find it very difficult to return. But as we aren’t such blockheads to walk away, we do need to keep in mind that Christ is the one we follow, and this following is not by sitting under a palm tree but it’s an active, engaged ministry to others. It is this dedicated ministry that counts, and we are so dedicated because of the promise to be welcomed in God’s Shalom, here and now, as well as in eternity.