NOTES on Hebrews 5:11-6:3 (click here for study)

In this passage the writer of Hebrews issues another warning to the Jewish converts. He has just introduced the idea of Jesus being a priest in the order of Melchizedek, but he's frustrated with them because, he says, they are being spiritually lazy. He can't talk to them about the implications of the New Covenant because they are refusing to grow spiritually.

"Though by this time you ought to be teachers," he chastises them, "you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness." (v. 12-13)

Although these Jewish converts have a background that's completely different from that of the Corinthians, they are experiencing some of the same problems. "Brothers," Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3a, "I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you are still not ready. You are still worldly."

Both sets of new believers are not moving beyond their initial understanding of the gospel. They are refusing to grow and are not actively pursuing spiritual depth and maturity. The context of both the 1 Corinthians passage and also of this passage in Hebrews 5-6 makes it clear that the recipients of these letters are actually believers. They are not, however, actively seeking to grow in Christ and be changed by the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual infants still behave in worldly ways. I Corinthians 3:1-4 describes the Corinthians as harboring jealousy and quarreling among themselves. "are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?" Paul chides.

Hebrews 5:11, 13 describes the letter's recipients as "slow [or lazy] to learn" and "not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness."


Elementary Teachings

The Hebrews were steeped in Jewish ritual and tradition. Their temptation was to slide backward into Jewish religious requirements. They had the prophecies and the symbols of the Messiah as part of their heritage.

After hearing the gospel, these Hebrews had become believers. Verse 12 confirms their status by stating that they ought to be at a stage of spiritual growth where they could teach the truth of the gospel. They are not, however, able to teach. They have been "slow to learn", lazy about growing in their understanding of the New Covenant in which they find themselves.

Just as the Corinthians' post-conversion temptation was to continue to fight among themselves and to grasp power and status in the ways they were used to behaving as pagans, the Hebrews post-conversion tendency was to be complacent about the gospel and to interpret it through Old Covenant understanding. They were understanding the rudiments of salvation essentially the same way they had understood them in the Old Covenant.

In Chapter 6 the author calls them to "leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity." He then identifies these teachings by asking them not to lay again "the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment."

All of these rudiments of the Christian faith were present in the Old Covenant, although in the Old Testament these rituals were foreshadowing Christ. The Hebrews now understood that Jesus had come, but they were not moving beyond the understanding that Jesus was the object of these teachings. They were not embracing the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit that would lead them to understand the spiritual truths of the New Covenant and take them to spiritual maturity. Apparently they were still seeing the basic teachings about how to come to Christ through Jewish, legalistic glasses. Instead of these elementary teachings becoming springboards to further growth through the power of the Holy Spirit, they instead became stopping places for these Jewish converts who superimposed Jesus onto their Jewish understanding.


Elementary Teachings Examined

The phrase in v. 6:1, "not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death," can also be translated, "not laying again the foundation of repentance from useless rituals." These Hebrews had an inheritance of useless rituals. Apparently they continued to be drawn to them.

The author states that they need someone to teach them the "elementary teachings of God's word all over again," (v. 5:12), and then he urges them "on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from [useless rituals]." He is apparently frustrated because his readers are teetering on the margin between their comfortable heritage and their new understanding of salvation through Jesus. By now the Hebrews should have settled the issues of repentance from works, faith in God, Christian baptism, resurrection, and judgment. These teachings should be transformed for them by their new births. They should not have to keep revisiting the basic steps of salvation. The Hebrews should be growing in Christ and maturing in the Spirit.

Another "elementary teaching" was the laying on of hands. The Israelites had a history of this practice. It accompanied bestowing a blessing (Gen. 48:13-20), the transfer of sins (Lev. 1:3-4), and setting someone apart for special work for God (Numbers 27:22-23)

In the New Testament the laying on of hands continued with expanded significance. It accompanied physical healing (Acts 28:8; Mark 1:41), bestowing blessing, (Mark 10:16), commissioning a person for special work for God (Acts 6:5-6; 13:2-3), and filling with the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; 19:1-7)

After Pentecost the laying on of hands often accompanied the gifts of the Spirit. Certainly the Old Testament understanding of it as an act of setting apart continued, but in the New Covenant believers understood the power of God that made the act significant. For immature Hebrew Christians, still partially stuck in their Old Covenant understandings, the laying on of hands in a Christian context might have seemed more like a familiar work with new power rather than a divine appointment mediated through a believer. For people still needing repentance from their works, the laying on of hands might have simply been another powerful work they could do.


Resurrection and Judgment

The Pharisees believed there would be a resurrection; the Sadducees did not. The Greeks believed in an immortal soul but not in a bodily resurrection. The Hebrews were familiar with the concepts of a resurrection and judgment, but their belief in Christ expanded their understandings of those phenomena.

The fact that Jesus rose from the dead promises us that we, too, will have bodily resurrections. Even more, his resurrection is a promise that his power will also change us while we're still in our sinful flesh. The Holy Spirit in us will "give life to your mortal bodies." (Romans 8:11) We are born dead; Jesus' resurrection brings us to spiritual life now, even before our own physical resurrections.

The resurrection promises that we can have eternal life now, and it promises that we we, in resurrected bodies with living spirits, will spend eternity with the resurrected Jesus. His resurrection is our promise of a new life now and eternity to come.

Jesus also expanded our understanding of judgment. Whoever does not believe Jesus and accept the new birth he offers will be subject to eternal judgment. (see Hebrews 9:27; 10:27; Matthew 25:34-46)

The Hebrews understood the teachings of resurrection and judgment. The author of the book, however, is calling them beyond the simple teaching that they will live again and the wicked will die. He's beckoning them to the full New Covenant implications of resurrection: they can live now with the power of the Holy Spirit. They can be born again and live changed lives now! They can become spiritually alive now so the can discern spiritual truths. (1 Corinthians 2:14)


Call to Embrace Our New Heritage

The writer of Hebrews is calling these new Jewish Christians to move joyfully out of their Jewish heritage of shadows and symbols into the full reality of Christ: the Word, the Light, and the Life. He's warning them not to fall back into their habitual rituals and formulas for religious observance. He's calling them to embrace what's new to them: the Holy Spirit and the spiritual wisdom that the New Covenant brings. He's asking them to leave the Old Covenant behind and to see the elementary teachings about Christ-which they had understood in a symbolic way as Jews-through new eyes.

He's asking them to stop being spiritually lazy. He's asking them to wake up and to embrace spiritual maturity. If they give in to the familiar and comfortable rituals of their past and simply try to superimpose Jesus over those "dead works", they will be saying in effect that Jesus is not enough. If they hang on to their legalism and their Judaism, they will be adding to the gospel. They will be insisting that their own works are part of their salvation.

He's asking them to actively seek a growing relationship with Jesus. If they profess Him but do not live actively with him, they will be spiritually lazy, and they will not be able to mature.

Many of us grew up in rigid legalism. Jesus is asking us not to fall away from our new understanding of the New Covenant. This warning in Hebrews is also good for us. If we are spiritually lazy, we will default to what's habitual and familiar; we will not grow in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We will begin to do our own works.

God calls us to fully leave our pasts behind. He asks us to trust him and to risk embracing him only. He asks us to give up the things we cherish most about ourselves: our identities as we perceive them; our self-generated dreams for ourselves; our control over our lives; our intellectual pride; our spiritual smugness; our complacence.

He asks us to make him our only identity. He asks us to do the work he gives us, to dream the dreams his Spirit plants in our hearts; he asks us to let him give us a new heart, a new birth, and a new paradigm. He asks us to let go of our lives so he can give them back to us-healed and redirected.

Jesus wants us to grow in him and to pursue a dynamic relationship with him. He wants us to understand spiritual things and to glimpse eternity. He wants to change us with his Spirit. He wants to be our peace, our rest. He wants us to trust him when our lives seem out-of-control. He wants us to experience rest and peace even inside the storms.

God is calling us out of spiritual infancy into maturity in him. Jesus is asking us to let his Spirit heal our laziness and empower us. He is asking us to let him transform us with his love.

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