Each phase of life is an opportunity for either growing or drifting in our spiritual lives.
One of the pleasant facts of living in a multi-generational church is that you see people in all phases of life. And if you live in community long enough you can walk with people as they move from one phase of life to another. It could be going from childhood to adolescence, young adulthood to mid-life or mid-life to retirement. Almost everyone is either about to move into a new phase of life or dealing with that change. Each phase is an opportunity for growth — in understanding, in greater love and contentedness, service and holiness. Doesn’t that sounds great, that you could grow in peace and contentment, in true goodness and service, ultimately in love for God and love for people throughout your life? But every opportunity for growth, each new phase, is also an opportunity to get sidetracked, to drift in your spiritual life or perhaps to abandon it altogether.
Today as we continue our series in the Book of Hebrews we see that the author is concerned that the congregation he is writing to is drifting. He is concerned that they have become lazy in their spiritual lives. So he addresses them directly, stopping his train of thought to call them out.
You are not moving forward in your spiritual lives but have become lazy. You have stopped understanding righteousness as well as right and wrong.
The author of Hebrews tells his audience “You are not mature and it is not because you haven’t heard but because you are lazy.” This is what the word translated “no longer try to understand,” or “slow to learn” (NIV 84) means. It says they are sluggish or negligent and this is important for this reason: There is nothing wrong with a baby being a baby or a preschooler being a preschooler. In the same way there is nothing wrong with someone who is new to the spiritual search, who is just trying to figure this out and looking for God not knowing anything. Most of the time someone in that phase has more questions than answers. But that is not who Hebrews is addressing. The author is talking about people who should know better. There is a pretty consistent theme in scripture that people are held accountable for what they know what they have been given. This challenge is directed to people who should be further along in their spiritual development because they have already been given the elementary truths of the faith.
This is like the difference between a football commentator saying “A rookie QB is going to make a mistake like that he is a rookie and rookies make mistakes” and “he has been an NFL QB for a six years now; he should not be making mistakes like that.
There are two thing that he mentions about immaturity. The are immature because they do not know the teachings about righteousness and they struggle with right and wrong. These two are related. There is a reason that those who are immature don’t understand righteousness and the mature know right and wrong
You can see this in the list of what he considers the “elementary truths” of the faith. These are the foundations of the faith –
Repentance from acts that lead to death –
Faith in God
Cleansing rights — which probably mean understanding baptism
Laying of hands – which probably has to do with receiving the Holy Spirit
Resurrection of the dead
Notice that he calls these the foundations and as I look at them they seem to have to do with the beginning of our spiritual lives and the end of our spiritual lives.
The first step is repentance from acts that lead to death followed by faith. This is how we begin our spiritual lives. We recognize that we cannot run our own lives. When we ignore God we become addicted to something else, like work or shopping or attention from others. This ends up bringing pain to us and the people around us which is why the author uses the term “acts that lead to death.” Sometimes we are ashamed, other times we just know that our actions are wrong, destructive, hurtful to others. Underneath all that is the reality that we are living our lives separated from God and so we repent of that and put our faith in God. This involves accepting what Jesus did on the cross for us, but not just in theory. Each of us, as individuals, need to accept that truth. We are forgiven and now rightly related to God: this is righteousness. It is all ok between him and me.
When we receive that forgiveness we become part of a community of other Christians, which involves baptism and other people praying for you and beginning to serve. All this is how we start our spiritual lives. That sense of being accepted, forgiven, declared not guilty, is righteousness. So in one sense righteousness is part of our early lives.
The second grouping is about the end of our lives or what happens after death: resurrection from the dead and final judgment. This surrounds the truth that all people will face God and give an account for their lives. As Christians we know that our sins have been forgiven but we need to give an account for how we lived our lives. For other they have to give an account for the wrongs they have done. And for a lot of people, this is where it stops. I know I m forgiven; I know I will have eternal life because God will accept me because it is all okay between me and him.
But then there is the rest of your life. A few people make their peace with God, receive forgiveness, have a chance to repent right before they die. But most people will live after they become Christians. In fact, I would guess that more people become followers of Jesus not because they fear death but because they need life. They want their lives to matter. They need direction. They follow Jesus and receiving his forgiveness is one big part of it.
But then after a while that desire to live a new life fades and being a Christian is about fire insurance, about knowing where you will go when you die not what you will do as you live – and more than that, you begin to think that is all there is, just wait to die, muddle through until then.
So you see if you don’t mature, you never work through what it means to live as a follower of Christ. You never understand how being radically forgiven by God affects your attitude toward others. You will never how to serve in light of serving someone who died in your place, someone who left heaven to come to earth. If you never really grasp that love, you will never really function as his follower in your day to day life. On the other hand if you understanding “righteousness” — what it means to be accepted and forgiven — then that becomes the basis for all your behavior here on earth. If you don’t grasp that, consider that, grow into that, you will never live as a Christian. You will be immature – you will be immature at best.
For example – you can never really forgive until you understand your own forgiveness. If you think Jesus died for you because you are a pretty good person, then you will be respectful of other pretty good people. But of they wrong you, you will turn against them, hold a grudge and never let it go. You will think this is a good way to live, in bitterness and anger and un-forgiveness, because you really don’t understand what Jesus did. Only those who have been forgiven can forgive. And that is just one example.
So the author of this ancient letter says you have to grow up into spiritual maturity.
There is no alternative to moving forward and the danger is extreme – that you will never come back
These next two verses are some of the most difficult in the whole book of Hebrews. They have caused a lot of debate among scholars and theologians and just ordinary people reading the Bible and thinking about it.
He describes people who participate in everything that is part of being a Christian and being in a community of people following Jesus. They have tasted the Holy Spirit, they have seen answered prayer, they have heard and appreciated the word of God – the scriptures, the Bible. He say if people who have experienced all this, fall away they can’t be brought back. It is impossible.
Now much of the debate has been about whether these people are real, forgiven believers who then walk away from the faith. Some say yes absolutely, look at how they are described. Others say no real believer can lose his faith or his salvation so this must mean something else. And of course the reason there is such debate is because there is some ambiguity here. They certainly sound like real followers, but he never says “some of you have fallen away.” He says “some” people are like this.
But either way – whether you think they are real believers who have “lost” their salvation or people who never had it, the most troubling thing is that it is impossible for them to come back
He says – it is impossible to bring these people back to repentance. What can that mean?
Well, first it means, there is only one way to live your spiritual life and that is moving forward. You can’t go back. It is impossible to go back to repentance and start your spiritual life over again. If you have received the forgiveness of Christ there is no restart – he is the start. You cant go back and crucify him again. You must move forward, aware of that radical love
And it also means that if you do turn away there is no where else to go. The Holy Spirit, forgiveness, the goodness of God, answered prayer, peace and purpose – these come from following Christ. If you see that and turn away, there is nowhere else to go. You cant find that elsewhere. And you cant be brought them back while you are rejecting God’s own Savior.
And there is also a sense here – perhaps the biggest mystery of the passage –that God chooses not to work in the life of one who continue to reject him. Remember this is not someone who has just heard a snippet, or never heard. This is a warning for someone who has heard the message, marinated in it, experienced it and walked away. God may just let that person go, which means there is no hope, because when God stops working on you, that is when all hope is gone. Who will save you who will rescue you?
That sounds harsh but the next explanation shows that it is the same thing you would do.
For example he says this is what you would do with your land. He reminds them that when you cultivate land by seeding and watering and then see that land produce a crop, you consider that a blessing from God. But if land is cared for and cultivated and it still does not bear a crop, you consider that land worthless, cursed. You put your fire pit where the grass refuses to grow. So if that is how you treat land how do you think God treats a person who has been instructed, loved and cultivated and still chooses to reject him?
But I have better hopes for you, so carry on – and keep moving forward
I don’t think many of us are in danger of cashing in the whole faith thing – it is warning that needs to be heard and felt, but the author is pretty sure they haven’t gotten to that point. In fact he is encouraged by their spiritual lives because he can see God at work in them. So he finishes this section with encouragement.
What I see in you is not emptiness but things have to do with salvation. He has seen them work for others and show their love. You can look at their lives and see their love. He says God can see it to, so don’t be discouraged or worse, don’t be lazy.
So the warning in this difficult passage needs to be heard. We cannot understand all of it, but we also must be careful not to explain all of its warnings away. This is meant to be a scary passage. We need to ask ourselves if we are adrift in our spiritual lives and where we would be if God gave up on us. We cannot go backward in our spiritual lives, so we must get serious about growing. We can check our own maturity by asking if our lives show the evidence of Jesus. Do we understand righteousness? Do we live our lives out of a deep understanding of what God has done for us, of his love and acceptance of us as we are? Or do we think that we made a bargain with God based on good behavior? Do our lives show a clear conviction between right and wrong or do we lives just as those who have no commitment to Chris? And finally do we love others?