A clear warning - Hebrews 5:11 - 6:12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
On September 21, 1938, a hurricane of monstrous proportions struck the East Coast of the United States, at Long Island, New York State. As the torrential 40-foot wave approached, some Long Islanders jumped into cars and raced inland, only to be overcome as the enormous wave caught up with them. For some reason the weather men who should have known what was coming and should have warned the public, seemed strangely blind to the impending disaster. Either they ignored their instruments or simply couldnít believe them. And, of course, if the forecasters were blind, the public was too. But one incident in particular that night shows the utter folly of ignoring the warnings. For just a few days before, one Long Islander had bought a barometer in a New York store. It arrived in the morning post on that fateful day September 21, and to his annoyance the needle pointed below 29, where the dial read, ĎHurricanes and Tornadoes.í Thinking it was broken, he shook it and banged it against the wall; but the needle wouldnít budge. Indignant, he repacked it, drove to the post office, and mailed it back. While he was gone, his house was totally destroyed, and many lost their lives. For so many on that island that day, ignoring the warnings and refusing to take action was disastrous and fatal.
There are some warnings in life that are just too important to ignore. And the passage that is before us today from Hebrews 6 is one such warning. To my mind itís one of the most sobering passages in the New Testament, because it shows us the very great dangers of giving up on the Christian faith and forfeiting the salvation that can be ours in Christ. But itís a warning that is set in the context of loving encouragement. If youíve been with us over the last few weeks, youíll remember that the writer is writing to his friends to urge them to keep going in the Christian life. Heís writing to Jews who have become Christians, who have trusted in the Messiah Jesus. But these new Christians are under intense pressure. They are tempted, because of persecution, to chuck in their faith in Christ and go back to the more comfortable option of Judaism. For there they are accepted and they can practise their religion freely without fear of hostility. But the writer writes what he calls a short letter of encouragement, to urge them to stick with Jesus. Because he is the one in whom all the promises have been fulfilled. Through Jesus they can come to the promised land of heaven. Through Jesus they can be totally forgiven and set free. And to go back would be to return to paganism, to forfeit their salvation, in short to condemn themselves to judgement.
And that is why our writer writes with such passion and commitment to his people. Because whilst this is a great letter of encouragement, yet sandwiched all the way through are several passages which contain very clear warnings about what will happen if they go back, if they give up on Jesus. And Hebrews 6 is one such passage. And the wonderful thing about this letter is that you donít have to be a first century converted Jew to be able to understand its message. For this letter is about living as a Christian in 21st century Hull. For we too are under pressure to give up. We too need the encouragement to press on. We too must hear the warnings about the dangers of turning back. Because I doubt there is not one person who is a Christian here this morning who is not sometimes tempted to chuck it all in. So whatever we are feeling this morning, whether we are encouraged, joyful, weary or burdened, we all need to hear this word of warning. Because by obeying this word we will keep walking on the road to the promised land. So the writer gives us three very punchy lessons this morning to keep us keeping on:
1) Grow Up (5 v 11 Ė 6 v 3)
2) Wake Up (6 vv 4-8)
3) Look Up (6 vv 9-12)
1) Grow Up (5 v 11 Ė 6 v 3)
So, first he says to his readers, grow up. Now the writer has just been explaining about Jesus as the High Priest and he says in verse 11 that he has much more to say about this. Heíd love to teach them more. But, he goes on: "It is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!" These guys are still in their spiritual nappies. They should by now be strong in the faith and mature. In fact, he says they should be teachers. I donít think he means that they should all be preaching every week. Rather he means they should be teaching those younger in the faith. There should be a mutual teaching ministry going on in this church. These people should be Homegroup leaders, they should be wise elder brothers and sisters to whom new young converts can go to for advice and wisdom. But they are nowhere near that level. They should be a lot further on than they are spiritually speaking. But instead, they need to be taught the basics again. Itís as if spiritually speaking they are in Scramblers, our youngest childrenís group. Our Explorers could teach this people a thing or two. And that is a spiritual tragedy. For there is always something wrong when people donít grow up.
Just imagine for a moment that you go and visit a family in the parish. But when you get there you discover that the husband is in the corner of the lounge wearing nothing but a large nappy. Heís sitting crossed legged sucking milk from a large babyís bottle. Heís got a whole host of childís toys around him and he looks in seventh heaven. And when he throws the bottle down and opens his mouth, all you hear is a stream of strange babbling, just like a small baby would do. What do you do? Laugh or weep? Well if that is a tragedy, then how much more of a tragedy it is in the spiritual realm. When Christians do not grow up. They may have been Christians for years, but they grow very little in their understanding, they never make much progress in holiness and all they ever do is go round and round in circles talking about the same things over and over again. Theyíve never grown up.
And our writer tells us how it happens. First such people donít listen. Verse 11, he says they are slow to learn. Literally they are sluggish in hearing. Itís not that they are stupid or find the concepts hard to grasp. Itís that they donít listen properly. They are lazy listeners. Itís the sort of attitude that turns up on a Sunday, listens to the sermon and then shrugs the shoulders and says: "Well that was nice. Whatís for lunch?" There is no rigorous thinking through of the issues. No pondering the Word of God. No wrestling with the Bibleís message to apply it to their lives. And the second reason people stay in their spiritual nappies comes in verse 13. They donít obey. "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." Do you see the way to maturity? Itís not just about listening to the Word. Itís about obedience. The mature have taken in the solid food of the word and are putting it into practice. They have trained themselves to distinguish between good and evil. The Word has a practical affect on them on Monday mornings.
So thatís why these readers are so immature. They donít listen properly and they donít obey. And itís vital we ask ourselves the same question. Are we still in our spiritual nappies? Are we making progress in the faith? Now it needs to be said that the writer is not wanting to make young Christians feel uneasy. It may be you have only just come to faith in recent weeks or months. Well thatís terrific, and itís vital you lay the foundations of the faith through courses likes Christianity Explored or Firm Foundations. But for those of us who have been Christians much longer, then we need humbly to examine ourselves and see if we are making progress. And the way to test yourself is by asking whether you are good at listening and good at obeying. Are you someone who carefully listens to the Word taught and then thoughtfully and prayerfully seeks to apply it to your life? Well thatís the way to maturity. But if the word goes in one ear and out the other and it makes no impact on your life, then that is a sure fire way of remaining in your spiritual nappies. So what does the writer say in chapter 6 verse 1: "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity." Itís not that we move on from Jesus. Rather we put deeper roots into him. Itís the difference between being a weak sapling and a giant oak tree. Youíve not moved. Just that you have been totally transformed and your roots go much deeper. And I know which Iíd prefer to be. So the writer says to us: Grow up.
2) Wake Up (6 vv 4-8)
But the thing is the command to grow up carries with it a very serious warning. Because not to grow is actually to put ourselves in grave danger. And that is why the writer goes on to give us his second command. Wake up, in verses 4-8. Now in the original at the beginning of verse 4, there is a word which our NIV translations miss out and that is the word "for" or "because". In other words these verses 4-6 give the reason why not growing to maturity is so dangerous. And the answer is that if you fail to grow in the faith then you are putting your faith in danger so much so that you might in the end turn away from Jesus thus condemning yourself to eternity with out him. You could well find yourself deliberately turning your back on Jesus Christ. And if you do, says our writer, then it is impossible for you to come back to him again. Thatís the very serious nature of the warning. There is no such thing as treading water in the Christian life. You are either growing in maturity or you are drifting away. And the writer urgently appeals to us not to be the sort of people who seem to start well in the Christian life but then drift away and publicly deny Christ. So letís see what the writer says in verse 4: "[For] it is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace."
So who are the people he is talking about? Well these people seem to have some sort of Christian experience, but without having become true genuine Christians. They have once been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift. Enlightened but not come into the light. Tasted but not fed fully on the banquet of the Lord. These are people who have heard the gospel, perhaps who come to church regularly, they know the truths of the faith and can explain it with crystal clear understanding. Theyíve perhaps had some sort of experience whereby they have seen the Spiritís work or witnessed his power. These people may well seem on the surface to be believers and to be part of the Christian community. But if these people fall away, that is if they have a change of heart and reject the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ, and they do so decisively and clearly, then the writer gives them a very grave warning. If they turn away from Christ, it is impossible to be brought back to repentance. Why? Because in publicly turning from Christ, itís as if they are crucifying the Lord Jesus all over again. They are driving the nails into his hands and humiliating him again. They are spitting in the face of the one who died for them.
Now itís important to understand that our writer is not talking about those of us who slip up occasionally and sometimes in a big way. All of us are in that category. And just because we sin and will continue to sin, and sometimes in massive ways, does not mean necessarily we have fallen into this category. All you have to do is remember the men of the Bible and reflect on their stories. Abraham had a catalogue of disasters but was brought back again. David committed adultery and murder but was brought back to repentance. Peter denied Christ three times. But he was restored. But in those cases they knew their sin and sought repentance and forgiveness. In this case, the person deliberately turns their back on Christ and hardens his heart, having at first seemed so keen. And if you do that, then you are in no position to receive forgiveness. You have deliberately removed yourself from the sphere of Godís saving grace. And there is no hope. And that is an awful, awful position to find yourself in.
Now itís not just this writer who talks about it. Jesus himself warned in his teaching about those who would seem to be his, but who in time would be shown to be frauds. In the parable of the sower he talks about those who receive the word initially with joy but who then give up because of persecution or other pressures. In the Sermon on the Mount he warns of those who even prophesy in his name or do miracles in his name, but they are not his. You see this is a very serious warning to the complacent, to those who think they are OK, to the half hearted. If you do not take heed to the warnings, if you do not take care of your spiritual health and get serious about following Jesus Christ, then you could find yourself hardening your heart and falling away. And if you do that, then you will find yourself in this situation.
And itís not as if the writer is arguing hypothetically or because heís had an argument at the supermarket about whether professing Christians can fall away. Itís because he has a loving pastorís heart and he is seeing his people heading for danger unless they do something about it. And I can tell you nothing breaks a pastorís heart more than seeing people who were once keen falling away. I remember some years ago I was speaking to a student who some months before was one of the keenest of the many hundreds who attended the particular church where I was involved. You name it, he came to it. He was feverish in his study of the Bible; passionate about telling his friends about Jesus; he served the Lord on Christian young peopleís holidays in the summer; he went on Christian conferences and read loads of Christian books. But after a while, he began to drift. He stopped what heíd been doing and began to give up all his activities. He stopped coming to church and reading the Bible and praying. And some weeks later I met him and warned him about the dire warnings of Scripture about those who fall away. I urged him to repent while there was still time. I even showed him this passage to show him the worse case scenario. And do you know what he said to me: "Yes, he said. I know all the passages. Iíve heard it all before. And I even know what youíre trying to tell me in Hebrews 6. But if God exists, he said, I will answer to him for what Iíve done. But I just donít care about it anymore." Itís one of the very few times my blood has run cold in a conversation about spiritual things. Never before and never since have I met someone who has so obviously and wilfully hardened their heart after such spiritual blessing.
Now of course, you and I cannot see into someoneís heart. I cannot tell you whether that young man will or wonít repent. But I do know what this passage says and I know there are no guarantees. And if you allow yourself to drift to such a degree that you harden your heart against God, then you will only have yourself to blame for Godís judgement upon you.
There is though one thing that many people say in response to a passage like this, and it goes something like this: "What about all those passages which talk about God keeping Christians to the end? What about Jesus saying that those whom the Father has given me no-one can snatch from my hand? What do you do with those passages?" Well of course, there are wonderful passages throughout the Bible which do point us to Godís promise to keep us and to his ability to hold onto us. And those should be read by Christians as wonderful promises of reassurance. And if you need encouragement today that God will keep you, then those are for you. But at the same time, there are many passages which remind us too of the responsibility we have in the race of faith, many indeed in this letter. And we need to hear the warnings as well. We are not just to say "thanks God for saving me" and then sit back and enjoy the ride. No we are called to work out our salvation, to make every effort to press on. Itís not just about letting go and letting God.
One illustration I sometimes use for this is rock climbing. Now itís by no means a perfect illustration, but it does capture one point of this tension between God keep us and us keeping ourselves in Godís love. You see when you go rock climbing you are tied on to a rope which is held by someone at the top who will not let go. Usually the rope is tied to him and he is tied to an immovable object like another rock. Now you could say to the chap at the top. "OK, Iím tied on- can you pull me up please!" But that is not what is supposed to happen. You are to climb up using your skills of agility and strength. But if you fall, then you have someone at the top who is not going to let you go. Now with God, he is not going to let you fall. But he is also not just going to drag you up the rock face. You need to work too. But when you get to the top, you realise that there is no way you could have done it without him watching over you and showing you where to go and catching you when you fall.
You see at the end of the day, true Christians persevere. Itís the end of the race that will reveal who are truly Christís. And at the moment, the question for you and me is: "Are you still running? Are you pressing on? Are you trusting Christ today and walking with him today? Not yesterday or last year, but today?" Because if you or I are slacking or drifting out of the running, then beware, you might well drop out of the race altogether. You need to come back and get stuck in again. If your church attendance is slacking, if Bible reading is non existent, if holiness is not much of an issue for you, then please heed the warnings. You are in danger. And that is why the writer ends this section with verses 7-8. Because his point is that real Christians show their true colours by bearing fruit for God and keeping going: "Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned." Thatís the mark of authentic Christians. They keep going and they bear fruit of holiness for God in their lives. So heed the warning and wake up.
3) Look Up (6 vv 9-12)
But thereís one last thing that the writer says to his people in this passage and that is look up. Because he ends by encouraging them. And although he has given some very serious warnings in this passage, yet he doesnít think they are about to go down that track! Verse 9: "Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case- things that accompany salvation." The fact is, says the writer, I donít think you are I this situation that Iíve been explaining. Iím confident that you are OK, that you are true Christians who are pressing on. Although itís interesting that even when things are going well we still need to heed the warnings. And why is the writer confident in his people? Verse 10. They have been pressing and bearing fruit in their Christian lives. "God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them." They are a people who are putting their faith into practice. They are working hard for the gospel. They are encouraging one another on. God has seen their work and will reward them.
But just because they are pressing on today, does not mean they must rest on their spiritual laurels. No instead, they should keep pressing on and look up. Look up, that is, to that wonderful future hope which will be theirs if they keep going. Verses 11-12: "We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." They should not get lazy spiritually. But they should diligently press on. They should remember those who have gone before and who had made it to the end of the race. And that wonderful future hope should be a great incentive to keep going in the race of faith. Itís not that we earn our salvation if we keep going as Christians. Rather perseverance in the race shows that we are truly Christís. And when we look back on our lives from the joy of heaven, we will see very clearly that it is the Lord who has kept us throughout the ups and downs of the race. But the challenge for us in the middle of the race is to keep going.
And that is a challenge you and I need to keep obeying every day of our lives. We need to keep battling with sin. We need to keep wrestling to be distinctive for Christ at work or home or uni. We need to keep coming to church and encouraging one another because we need each other. And if the Christian life feels like a constant struggle every day, then take heart and be encouraged. Itís a great sign that you are still in the race. Because the Christian life is a struggle on every level. And that is why we need to look up and see the future hope, to keep looking forward to that wonderful future inheritance which will make everything worth it. Indeed all our struggles and pains and sorrows will be like a blink of the eye compared to that wonderful experience of being with Jesus forever in his perfect place. Thatís what keeps us going in the race as we keep looking up.
But if you are not struggling and battling, if you are becoming lazy and giving up, then beware. You are slowly beginning to drift and you need to get back on track. And it may be that there are some here this morning who know they are beginning to drift. In fact, if you are honest, you have almost sat down by the side of the track and pulled off your running shoes. Things are not good. You can barely stand. Or it maybe that you are aware of something you know is wrong in your life that must be dealt with. Well if so, then please hear the warnings this morning and come back to Christ. Ask him to forgive you and give you the strength to keep running. Because today is the day of salvation, and he will have you back if you admit your sin and come to him. Itís not yet too late if you address the issue today. However much you have slipped, he will have you back if you will allow him to work in you.
Which is why I end this morning with the story of Robert Robinson. Robert Robinson was an English clergyman who lived in the 18th century. Not only was he a gifted pastor and preacher he was also a highly gifted poet and hymn writer. However, after many years in the pastorate his faith began to drift. He left the ministry and finished up in France, indulging himself in sin. One night he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite who had recently been converted to Christ. She was interested in his opinion on some poetry she was reading. She read it to him: "Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise." When she looked up from her reading the socialite noticed Robinson was crying. "What do I think of it?" he asked in a broken voice. "Well, I wrote it. But now I've drifted away from him and can't find my way back." "But don't you see," the woman said gently, "The way back is written right here in the third line of your poem: Streams of mercy never ceasing. Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight." That night Robinson recommitted his life to Christ.
You see the thing to do when you hear a warning is obey. And nothing could be more important than hearing and obeying these warnings from Hebrews, wherever we stand with Christ this morning. So please, let not one of us harden our hearts this morning. Instead, let each one of us entrust ourselves to him and keep running the race in his strength. For then one day we will inherit what has been promised.
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