Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Anchor of the Soul (Hebrews 6.13-20)

If you want to live a Christian life, it’s important to ask: How do you do it? Are you responsible to just do it? Or, does God live it through you?

Our topic the last few weeks might cause you to ask that question. I have said that perseverance in the faith — continuing to trust in Christ as you journey on your Christian pilgrimage — is the mark of the reality of salvation. And I’ve noted that we are promised by God that he will preserve in the faith those whom he draws to himself. For example, it says in 1 Peter one that our eternal inheritance is being:
1 Peter 1.4–5: “kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
You might gather from that verse and others like it that God is seeking to live the Christian life through us — he is the one guarding us through faith for salvation. If we will only get quiet enough, calm enough, and submissive enough, he will do it all through us. We are like a glove and God is the hand. The glove does nothing; it merely is still, waiting for the hand to come and act through it.

Well, that’s one view on one end of a spectrum. It’s called quietism. But the problem with this view is two-fold. First, there are too many verses that contain commands that require real effort on our part. And, secondly, you aren’t a lifeless object waiting to be used. You are an image-bearer of God, given intellect, emotions, and will and expected to act.

On the other extreme there is activism. Many people consider the Christian life to be summed up simply in the words: “God commands; I obey.” After all, the whole Bible, even the New Testament is filled with commands. What are they there for except for us to take them seriously and put them into practice? The problem is, there is too much in the Bible that tells us that unaided human power is incapable of doing what God requires. The Christian life requires supernatural enablement.

Here’s a verse that gives us the balance:
Romans 8.13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes that we often fall into. This verse tells us that “by the power of the Spirit, you must obey. The only way to live the Christian life is to actively seek to follow God’s commands in continual reliance on God’s enabling power. This means the Christian life requires intense effort on our part. That’s why, in the Christian life, we are often wavering between two poles — “Let go and let God,” and “Hang on!”  That struggle is designed to help us continually seek a balance.

So, “What motivates a person to run the Christian race? If Christian discipleship involves an earnest effort to live a Christian life, an effort that we can only truly fulfill by reliance on God’s power, then what will sustain us to continue in that race?” That’s the subject of this paragraph that acts as a bridge back to the discussion of Melchizedek.

Let me remind you of where we are in the book of Hebrews. Five Sundays ago, we began in Hebrews 4.14 with the introduction of the theme of Jesus, the Great High Priest. This is the theme of chapters 5–10, but after introducing the idea that Jesus is a priest in the priestly order of Melchizedek (a mysterious figure only mentioned twice in the Old Testament), the writer breaks off and inserts one of the five warnings in the book. “About [Melchizedek] we have much to say,” he writes, “but we can’t go on because you have become dull of hearing.” Then he goes into a serious warning about the fate of potential hypocrites and counterfeits within the church body. After a encouraging them to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” he then gives them this exceptional example of one who did just that — Abraham.

According to Genesis 12, God called Abraham to leave his native land in Ur of the Chaldeans (present Iraq), and go to the land of Canaan (present day Israel and Jordan). There, God gave Abraham a multifaceted promise out of which all of redemptive history unfolds. This promise is basic to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. God’s promise to Abraham has at least three facets: He was promised…

·      Now, the story of Abraham’s life is his persistent reliance on these promises despite all appearances to the contrary. So, our passage says:
      Hebrews 6.13–15: For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
      Note that our writer only mentions the ‘seed’ promise — an uncounted multitude of descendants. This is the only aspect of the promise Abraham’s experienced any fulfillment of — he never owns the land; he merely lives there as an alien and stranger. He blesses some individuals but he never becomes a source of world-wide blessing. But he does have one son.

The story if quite remarkable. Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless… until he is 99 and she is 89. Though far past normal childbearing, she becomes pregnant and bears a son whom they name Isaac (meaning ‘laughter’ since they both laugh when God tells them). Then, years later, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac in sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham, despite knowing child sacrifice is wrong, prepares to do what God has told him but at the last minute, he is spared and a ram caught by his horns in a bush is substituted.

God says to him:

Abraham doesn’t live to see the fulfillment of the promises, only the fulfillment of the one key promise on which all the others depend: a son out of whom the ‘great nation’ will come. And careful Bible readers among the Jewish people had noted these words very carefully, “By myself I have sworn.” You see, God’s command to sacrifice Isaac put the whole promise in jeopardy. Abraham’s obedience was, then, a tremendous act of faith. So, God confirmed the promise by swearing an oath.
Hebrews 6.16: For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.
In a fallen world, words have lost their authority. Words were meant to be binding statements, but people are not truthful. So, they swear oaths to prop up their statements. They swear by something greater than themselves, usually God, in an attempt to supply their words with the kind of certainty they don’t have on their own. God didn’t swear by himself to prove his reliability — his word is true by its very nature; he is source of truth. But, as the writer says, to “show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise,” which means to underline with double assurance how serious his word is, he swore and oath. This promise combined with an oath I’m going to call God’s ‘sworn promise.’

The heirs of the promise are Christians. The New Testament makes it crystal clear that everyone who believes the promise, now fulfilled in Christ, is part of the seed of Abraham. Abraham, you see, has both physical descendants and spiritual descendants. God took his promise and then combined it with the integrity of his own character by swearing an oath — and, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore it by himself — thus confirming his intention to fulfill it.  

Abraham’s example is presented to us as both an example and a source of our motivation. The first thing we see is that God’s sworn promise to Abraham convinces us of his reliability to fulfill all of his promises.

I meet people all of the time who think that the Bible is just a messy jumble of stories with no unifying theme or central story — that is a part of today’s view of life in general: there is no metanarrative, no primary storyline that unites the whole thing together. But, the ‘promise–fulfillment’ theme of the Bible, which begins in earnest in Genesis 12 provides the interpretational key to the Bible. Tracing what is almost always called in the singular — “the promise” — as it grows and develops through the Old Testament and then as it begins to be fulfilled with the coming of Jesus in the New Testament is a provides a very coherent sense that you are dealing with an unfolding story, no matter how complex the storyline becomes or how many subthemes it develops.

That’s his first point here: Abraham is the one who held on to the promise in all of its multifaceted splendor. He held on tenaciously despite all opposition, doubt, and uncertainty. And in the end, he experienced the fulfillment of one tiny facet of the promise: the promised heir through whom he would bless the world. He becomes for us the example of what it means to continue to trust God through all of the storms of life.

He reminds us that we do not have to see the fulfillment of all of our hopes and dreams in order to cling to him until death.

But note that in verse 18, he turns his attention to a second way that God’s promise to Abraham is relevant to us:
Hebrews 6.18–19: So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
The “two unchangeable things” are God’s promise and God’s oath — put together, these form an unbreakable confirmation that God will do what he has promised.

It’s interesting here that we are invited as careful readers to reflect on the theme of Melchizedek, the Priest-King who was mentioned in chapter 5. He’s now going to turn his attention back to him. As is so frequent in this book, he mentions something without developing it; in the next chapter, he will develop at great length the parallel between Melchizedek and Christ. We who have trusted in Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the ‘Seed’ promise to Abraham — the Seed, the descendant through whom all of the promises have been fulfilled — also have our part of the promise confirmed by an sworn promise. The promise that Christ would be the great high priest who would provide the final and completely acceptable sacrifice for sinners was also accompanied by an oath:
Psalm 110.4: The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In other words, not only does God’s sworn promise to Abraham convinces us of his reliability to fulfill all of his promises, but God’s sworn promise in Christ motivates us to persevere in our Christian race.

The writer’s admonition that we continue to hold on to Christ is not only rooted in the promise to Abraham in the distant past but also to what we now experience as Christians. It gives us “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”

So he concludes with this powerful word:
Hebrews 6.19–20: We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
There’s a potent point here that is based on a powerfully emotive image: Our individual lives (our ‘soul’) is pictured as a ship adrift in the sea of this world; the storms of life toss us to and fro. But in our troubles, we have an anchor — our hope is anchored in Jesus himself (after all, he is “our blessed hope” (Titus 2.13). Having won the prize and gained a people through his death on the cross, he has been raised from the dead. And in his glorious resurrection body he has returned to heaven triumphantly. He has gone into the Most Holy Place in the true tabernacle in heaven, into the very presence of God to fulfill his duty as the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Our hope, anchored in Christ, means that in this storm-tossed and ship-wrecked world, we are anchored by faith in Christ to a destiny firm and secure.  

And to all that he has promised, God has affixed his oath, based on his character, that he will fulfill it.
Today, as we come to the Table to taste and see that the Lord is good, we are simply affirming our faith in the Messiah, Sin-bearer, Savior. We are acknowledging that cable that runs from our individual souls to the mighty anchor of our hope in heaven; Jesus himself, who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Full Assurance of Faith (Hebrews 6.9-12)

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War Two for harboring Jews in Amsterdam. She wrote these few words about contentment in life:
If you look at the world, you'll be distressed.
If you look within, you'll be depressed.
If you look at God, you'll be at rest.

Turning your eyes outward to the world or inward to your soul will not be very reassuring because you’ll find plenty to be troubled about. But if you look to God who in Jesus Christ sustains all things by the word of his power, you will find contentment and security.

This morning, I’d like to demonstrate the truth of this statement.

In our journey through the book of Hebrews, chapters five through ten, this summer, we’ve been looking at a section in chapter six that is very troubling to people. And last week, we looked at the stern warning that the writer gives to his readers: If, despite all the blessings they have experienced within the community of the people of God in the church, they let go of Christ, they will fall under the judgment of God and be eternally lost. It is not that they will lose their salvation; it is that they will reveal themselves as hypocrites and self-deceived about their spiritual state.

This is a sobering passage! The fact that there may be spiritual counterfeits in the church may cause some to ask, “Am I such a person? Am I a true believer? How can I continue to trust in Christ through the storms of life?”

This little paragraph at the end of the is meant to provide both a word of encouragement and point to the “full assurance of hope until the end” that he is encouraging them to seek.

The text begins with a warm note of pastoral encouragement:
Hebrews 6.9: Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.
This is the only point in the letter where the writer uses the close title, ‘beloved,’ as one may use with a family member. Despite the clarity and sternness of his warning, his review of their lives leads him to conclude that they are not in the position he has warned about. But, he says, you need to seek the “full assurance of hope until the end.”

It appears that what the writer calls “the full assurance of hope” here he will later call “the full assurance of faith” in chapter ten. It has to do with the assurance of what we hope for and what we believe will be ours in the future.

Let’s use this passage to explore two questions: What is the “full assurance of hope”? And, what would a person have to do to have it? What is it and how to you obtain it?  

Before exploring that in the passage, let me give a brief overview of the subject of the assurance of salvation.

The assurance of salvation is a personal conviction that one possesses God’s forgiveness now AND that one will be saved in the end. By its very nature it involves a subjective ‘feeling.’ Since we do not have access to the ‘book of life’ that will be opened at the final judgment, we have no black-and-white, words-on-the-page proof of our own destiny. Yet, the Bible's teaching indicates that, though it is a ‘feeling,’ it is apparently one that is meant to provide for us some certainty about our relationship to God.

Now, the most basic line of reasoning has to do with hearing Jesus’ promise to those who trust him and then asking if one meets the conditions. Here’s an example. This is a verse I used in 1991 in Athens, Greece with a young Albanian illegal alien in the city named Gregor Menga as I explained the gospel to him. Jesus is speaking here and he says:

If we break this sentence down, we find that Jesus states two conditions and then gives three results. First the conditions:

  • “Whoever hears my word…” — first we must hear the message about him; that he is the God-Man whom the Father sent into the world to die in the place of sinful people. Then Jesus adds, 
  • “…and believes him who sent me” — the other condition is that we believe that God the Father sent him to be the Savior.
Note that there are no other conditions for gaining eternal life — he doesn’t say, “Hear…and believe… and go to church every week,” or “be baptized,” or “read the Bible and pray every day.” Those are all important to a life of discipleship. But, his initial promise is simply, “Whoever hears the message about me and believes that God sent me to save.”

Two conditions, and then three results:

  • “Has eternal life”
  • “Does not come into judgment”
  • “Has passed from death to life”

With Gregor, I asked: “This says that the person who hears and believes ‘has eternal life.’ Does that mean right now or later?” Right now, he said, because he noted (as a person for whom English is not his first language) that the verb is in the present tense  — has eternal life. Not "might have," "will have," or "should have" — has!

So, I asked, “Today you’ve heard his message — that he is the God-Man sent into the world to be the Savior. The second condition is ‘And believes him who sent me.’ So, my question is, do you believe that God the Father sent Jesus to die for your sins and rise from the dead?”

He thought about it and said “Yes.” Then I asked him: “So, do you have eternal life?”

And I’ll never forget his response. He sat back in his chair and pondered and then began to groan in thought as it sunk in. Uhmm. Uhng. I could almost watch the gears moving in his mind as he reasoned out what this verse meant:
·         Jesus gives eternal life to all who believe in him;
·         I believe in him;
·         I have eternal life.
I asked him what he was thinking and he said, “This is a very important day for me. I never knew that I could have eternal life through faith in Jesus. This is a very important day for me.”

There’s more to the story I wish I had time to tell. It is on the basis of that rational deduction that Gregor Menga has built a life of discipleship — he has planted churches in Albania and Kosovo and is now in Macedonia in a very difficult situation seeking to establish another. But my point is this:  the only secure foundation for the assurance of salvation is the witness of the Scriptures themselves. They promise eternal life to all who trust in Christ alone; we ought to have some degree of confidence in his promise when we initially trust in Christ.

Now, while that is basic and essential and must always come first, it is not the only source of assurance. Part of the reason is that verses like this assumes a degree of knowledge about Jesus — they don't state everything required. For example in this verse, “hear my word” (or message) does not lay out but assumes the content of the message. A person must be sure that he actually hears the whole message and not something different or an inadequate part of it. In addition, the word ‘believe’ is itself a subjective word — it describes an inner state of confidence that we may sometimes have and sometimes not. Temporary belief, and temporary assurance may just be self-deception.

Because of that, the Bible gives us a second kind of assurance. This one can be called “the witness of the Holy Spirit” because it is based on the following verse:

This says that the Holy Spirit whispers inside the heart of the believing person telling him or her that, in fact, they belong to God, he is their loving Father, and they are his son or daughter.

Now I personally believe that this form of assurance goes along with the first. For example, the first form of assurance - the testimony of the Scriptures - may be inadequate. This goes back to the need to fully "hear his word." I have met people who have said they ‘believe in Jesus’ but when we explored it, it was evident that they were not believing him for salvation — they believed in him as a good teacher who showed them how to live; they believed in him to save them from some personal difficulty in life; they believed he was a kindly friend who tolerate their failings. But not as their Sin-bearer! In that case, they are believing an inadequate sliver of the gospel. Jesus presents himself most essentially as our crucified and risen Savior. That's the gospel.

I think the witness of the Spirit is what a person experiences when God penetrates their hearts with the truth in such a way that they connect Jesus death with their own sins. The Holy Spirit is the one who effectively links our heart with the truth so that we know our own sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.

It is the kind of assurance we have when the witness of scripture and the witness of the Spirit come together in our experience. Then, what we may have recited in the Apostles’ Creed every week in church — “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; on the third day he rose again” — is no longer merely a statement of creedal affirmation but a joyous declaration of personal trust in Christ — he did those things for me!

Those are the two foundations for assurance. The Bible adds a third. We can call this the witness of a changed life. There are several verses about this but a clear one is this:

This kind of assurance is very important and it is spoken of throughout the Bible. But, it is not foundational. It can never be primary. Why? Because it will never be undisputable and definite. It is almost completely subjective and based on self-evaluation.

For example, one of the ways we obey God is by loving others — 1 John makes that clear: You can’t really love God whom you have never seen if you don’t love your brother or sister whom you have seen (1 John 4.20). But, if I ask myself, “Do I sacrificially love my brothers and sisters in Christ?” I will always get an indefinite answer: “Yes!... wel,l maybe... well, most of the time... well. sometime.” You see what I mean?  But, if I already have the testimony of Scripture and the testimony of the Spirit, then my feeble attempts at obedience can add in an important and subjective way to my sense of assurance.

Thus, you might think of these three sources of assurance in this way:

The witness of the Scriptures and the witness of the Holy Spirit go together as indispensable, foundational elements of assurance. Then come to witness of a changed life. Without the first two, the witness of a changed life may only be an indication that you’re self-righteous, that you are a moral person, or just a rule-keeper.

Now with that understanding, let’s look again at our passage: Hebrews 6.9–12.

The writer gives a reason for his persuasion that he is dealing with believers who have a secure relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. He states that reason in verse 10:
Heb. 6.10: 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.
In the past, he discerned that their service was motivated by their love for God’s name. Later in the later he will list what some of ways they showed that love which convinced him that such actions could only be motivated by true faith.

But they need to continue. So, in v. 11, he tells them clearly what he wants them to do:  
Heb. 6.11–12:  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.
His counsel to them is clear: I desire for you to intently seek the full assurance of hope.  Now, we can answer our first question: What is the full assurance of faith? The answer would be that the full assurance of faith is what you have when all three of the tests of assurance agree — the witness of Scripture, the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the witness of your life.
·         The first is rational deduction,
·         the second is a spiritual experience, and
·         the third is related to active obedience.
Then, if that is the meaning of “full assurance,” what is the writer’s instruction on how to obtain it? What is he telling them to do in order to have this full assurance? 

There are some words in the passage that focus on actions — v. 10: your work, your service to the saints; v. 11: faith and patience. We might be tempted to think that he’s merely telling them to try harder — work more, serve more, be more faithful and patient! While those are worthy actions, the passage views them as the results of something else, and that ‘something’ is centered around the word ‘show’ in both verses 10 and 11.
The verses point in two directions — past and future:
·         v. 10: In the past, you showed your love for God’s name by your work and service.
·         v. 11: In the future, you need to continue to show that same love for God’s name by your active and persevering faith and imitation of those who went before. 
In fact, note that in v. 11, “we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness” and ask, “the same earnestness as what?” the answer is in v. 10 — the same earnestness that you showed in your past demonstration of love for God’s name.

In other words, the key words are “the love you have shown for his name.” What does it mean to show love for God’s name? What is this love for his name that they have shown in the past and he encourages them to continue to show in the future?

The phrase God’s name is used throughout the Bible to indicate God’s character. To us a name is merely a label that attaches to a person; it usually has no further significance. In the Bible, names often have tremendous significance, especially if God changes someone’s name. When God reveals the significance of his name to Moses in Exodus 3, he makes this very clear: His personal name — YHWH in the Hebrew Bible — is from the “to be” verb in Hebrew and it points to the fact that God IS in the fullest sense of that word. He is the only independent, self-existent, being there is or could be; everything else is created. He is creator.

Later, when Moses asks God, “Show me your glory,” God condescends to do that. In Exodus 34 God says that Moses cannot see his face (God’s essential person in full); rather he will see his back. So, the Lord covers Moses with his hand, and we read:

God’s name reveals his covenant faithfulness. He is, for those people he has drawn into covenant relationship with him, merciful, gracious, forgiving, and (twice!) full of "steadfast love."

To show love for God’s name is to rest contented in his character, to delight in his promises, and to serve him out of that contentment and enjoyment of him.

Our experience of Christian faith is so weak today — it is centered on learning more and doing more for God. And we need to learn more and do more! But the Bible commends the enjoyment of God as the only basis of anything else we do and most of us don’t even know what it means to rest on his character. Without that, learning and serving are just getting on a Christian rat-wheel and running as hard as we can.

Showing love for God’s name means learning to be in his presence alone and reflecting on his character as it impacts your experience — love, provision, nurture, even guidance, correction and discipline. That requires seeing your experiences of life not as merely disconnected fragments of what events but as an indication of God at work in your life. It means then thanking him for them, praying about them, even struggling with them.

Showing love for God’s name means seeking God as your greatest treasure in life. It means resting content in his character as the One who has undertaken to care for you and provide for you all that you need in order to draw near to him and conform your character to his. This means learning to speak warmly to him — as a child to a loving Father, in words of adoration and honor. It even means seeking to learn to do this with others in small groups or with your children around the table. We’re not used that but we need to go outside our comfort zone.

And it means thinking through every aspect of your life — including coming to worship services or small group, service to God, Bible reading and prayer — as expressions of love for his name. Not as a list of things to do to make him like you, or to impress someone else. It means seeking to make sure that ‘love for his name’ is the motivating factor in your life.

So, what Corrie Ten Boom said is true:

If you look at the world, you'll be distressed.
If you look within, you'll be depressed.
If you look at God, you'll be at rest.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Peril of Spiritual Insensitivity (Hebrews 5.11-6.8)

Last week, we set a backdrop for looking at this passage by exploring what the Bible means by using the word ‘salvation.’ This teaching forms the backdrop for understanding this passage. We found that this word has a clear meaning and we established three points that help to understand it’s meaning: 
  1. In its proper and full sense, ‘salvation’ refers to God’s whole work from beginning to end of rescuing sinners from sin and bringing them into his eternal presence.And we looked at some of the steps in God’s application of redemption to an individual. They include effective calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification.
  2. While salvation describes the whole work of God in delivering sinners, it may also be used to describe the individual steps themselves. Each one is a limited but true experience of God’s saving work. For example, sometimes ‘Justification’ is called salvation because it is one significant aspect of God’s saving work, salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin.
  3. When God initiates his saving work in a person’s life, he promises to carry it on to completion when he brings us out of this life into his very presence.

Now, to last week’s overview, let’s add one more thought. This is about ‘perseverance,’ which means to continue in the faith, to continue to believe in Jesus Christ as the only Savior.

Perseverance, in the Bible, is one link in the chain of God’s saving work. It is not simply that we are commanded to continue in the faith as though it is our responsibility by our unaided human power to do that — of course, it IS our responsibility, but it is a part of God’s promise and we can only do it by his power. 1 Peter 1.5 says that we are “being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Though perseverance requires that we exercise our faith, it is promised as a part of God’s preservation of us in Christ.

The following principle expresses our writer’s concern in this passage:

This teaching is found throughout the Bible. Let me just note a few verses. Jesus said:

Paul wrote in Colossians:

Or, take Hebrews itself:

And the verses could be multiplied. Perseverance is the mark of salvation.

So, take your Bible up once again, and look at 5.11–6.12. This unit is broken into three paragraphs which may be labeled with the words Concern, Warning, Counsel. 
  • His Concern is found in 5.11–14 and may be summarized in the words, “You have become dull of hearing” (v. 11).
  • His Warning follows in 6.1–10, and especially in vv. 4–6, which we might summarize, “If you turn away from the faith, it will impossible to restore you again to repentance.”

His Counsel follows in 6.9–12. We will look at this next week, so this morning his concern and his warning.   

He first expresses his concern by clearly identifying their chief problem. What exactly is their problem? What is the deficiency that he is pointing out to them, the defect that may have drastic consequences? He states it clearly in v. 11:
Heb. 5.11: “About this (apparently, about Melchizedek about whom he has just finished speaking) we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”
Now, the words that follow seem to indicate that their problem is spiritual immaturity — they appear to be staying at the childhood stage of the faith and failing to move on. He says that by this time they ought to be teachers, but they need to be taught.  They need milk (like infants) not solid food (like those who have progressed beyond infancy). Many conclude from this that their problem is spiritual immaturity but that would be a mistake. He has already identified their problem and it is spiritual insensitivity: “You have become dull of hearing,” unresponsive to spiritual truth and to responsibility. You are acting immature, he says ironically, but you’re not.

How do we know they are not really immature? Well, for one thing, they’ve handled very mature themes up to this point. Everything he’s said has required a good bit of understanding. And then, we have to add, despite saying that they “need milk, not solid food,” he never goes back and gives them milk. In fact, he’s about to go on to say, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…” (6.1).

They are not immature, though they are acting that way. In fact, they have progressed but now they have become dulled to the realities of their spiritual responsibilities. They are becoming unresponsive to spiritual truth and to the duties that ought to motivate them. That’s their problem! It’s captured in the words, “You have become dull of hearing” (5.11).

Look at the next paragraph, 6.1–10. This is the warning proper: In their spiritual insensitivity in which they are no longer being responsive to spiritual truth, what is it that they might do, and, if they do, what would the consequences be?

Now remember, these are former Jewish people who, some years before, had become Christians and began to worship Jesus Christ as a Christian community in Rome. They are now in danger of lapsing from the faith. This is the meaning of the word ‘apostasy’ in the title of the section. Under the pull of past loyalties (family ties) and the pressure from social hostility (the demands from a hostile society), they are becoming spiritually insensitive and aren’t awake to their spiritual responsibility to continue to confess Christ. They are in danger of denying Christ, denying the gospel, turning away from that which they confessed and returning to their ancestral faith in Judaism.

And, we must clear, their danger is not ‘sin,’ in the sense of being caught up in some sinful behavior. Their danger is not that they woke up one day and didn’t feel very spiritual. Their problem is not simply feeling spiritual lazy and missing a meeting now and then. It may include one or more of those symptoms, but those symptoms are not the real danger. The danger is apostasy: denial of the gospel.

Now, in giving this warning, he presents two lists:
  • In vv. 1–3, he lists what he calls the “elementary doctrine (or ‘teaching’) of Christ;” then
  • In vv. 4–6, he lists a series of experiences.

These obviously become important in seeking to understand the passage.

The first list, we’ll call Christian initiation. What I mean by that is, here are the elements of instruction that converts would be taught before being received into the membership of the church.

Note how he divides the list into two parts. First, the foundation is repentance and faith; then the teaching is about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Of course, ‘repentance and faith’ is the foundation of all Christian experience. When Jesus first began to preach publicly, after his baptism and temptation, his first words were: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1.15).

That was the foundational teaching. But why does he say, “Repentance from dead works”? Why that particular phrase? Well, this foundational teaching could be given to either Jewish or Gentile converts and the wording of these three verses shows that it is slanted towards what a Jewish convert to Christianity would need to hear.

The besetting sins of Gentiles in the New Testament world were immorality and idolatry — for those outside of influence from Christian faith, they still are. The besetting sins of Jews in the New Testament were not those things — the law forbade them and faithful Jews stayed away from them. Their besetting sins were self-righteousness and hypocrisy — for religious people, they still are!

Now here he refers to “dead works” which points the useless rituals of the Old Testament system. It’s not that the rituals were wrong; they were commanded by God, after all. But the rituals, rather than serving as an outward symbol of an inward reality, became the reality itself. The worshipers in the temple so easily engaged in the ritual without engaging their hearts with God and figured the ritual made them acceptable. That’s why the Lord said: “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29.13). When a religious person comes to Christ, he must start by admitting that outward conformity is not enough; sin is in the heart! And sin in the heart is something only the Son of God can deal with. 

Or, the third one: “Instruction about washings.” Why does it say ‘washings’ rather than baptism? The Old Testament contained ritual washings and the Rabbis and Scribes had added more. But those washings didn’t accomplish what they symbolized. And, again, the Old Testament rituals all pointed to Christ and were made a reality in him. The only ‘washing’ that was truly and eternally effective was the cleansing of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ, which was symbolized in Christian baptism. That’s basic Christian instruction.

The laying on of hands, in the Old Testament was the symbol of imparting the Holy Spirit to specific leaders — priests, prophets, kings. All fulfilled in Christ. In baptism, the laying of hands is again symbolic but now of a reality fulfilled under the new covenant, not simply promised and pictured as under the old covenant. The Spirit is given to all who repent and believe the gospel.

And the events of the end — resurrection and judgment — these were taught in the Old Testament. But the Jewish convert needed to understand how the resurrection of Christ had filled out and informed the Old Testament teaching with a fuller revelation of God’s eternal purpose.
These are all matters of Christian initiation. They are the things a baptized person today should be instructed in, at least in a rudimentary way. I would think over time a person would hear these things in this church — though I must admit this passage has challenged me about the instruction we give prior to baptism as to whether it is adequate.
“And this we will do if God permits” are the chilling words that end this list. Why would God not allow Christian initiation to be followed by maturity? That’s the second list.
The second list is different — these are a list of experiences, not of doctrines. And vv. 4–6 are the heart of the warning.  This slide lays out the verses:

The words in these verses can be a bit hard to follow. So, let me first note that the words, “It is impossible…” are not completed until v. 6 in the middle: “It is impossible… to restore them again to repentance.” In between, is a list of the characteristics of those for whom a second experience of repentance is impossible. Six elements.  They have once:
  1. Been enlightened
  2. Tasted the heavenly gift
  3. Shared in the Holy Spirit
  4. Tasted the goodness of the word of God
  5. Tasted the powers of the coming age
  6. And then have fallen away.

These (with the exception of the last) are a description of the experience of life within the covenant community of the church according to the New Testament. A person initiated into the life of the people of God in a local church become a part of the community in which the coming age is operative — as a local church, seeking to worship and witness in conformity with the New Testament teaching, God describes us as the present form of the kingdom of God. We experience at one and the same time life in ‘this present world’ and life ‘in the age to come’ — that’s what it means to be part of the people of God in this world.

Of course, churches represent that with varying degrees of faithfulness, some more, some less. And churches grow or decline in their experience of it over time. But God’s views the church of the Lord Jesus Christ as the people of God, the new covenant community. What he is describing here is the full experience of life in the covenant community.

Now, the question is: Are these experiences a description of a truly saved person OR is this a description of the possible experience of life in the covenant community of the church? In the first case (if this describes a truly regenerate Christian) then the danger is the loss of salvation. In the second case (if this is a description of life within the covenant community), then the one who experiences these things and (# 6) “then falls away” is a hypocrite, a counterfeit Christian.

Well, consider this: It is possible for a person to experience Christian initiation but not be a Christian, right? The Christian community cannot see a person’s heart. We can only accept a ‘credible profession of faith.’ That means that we allow a person to express what God has done in his or her life and, if they appear clear enough to be confessing personal, saving faith in Christ, and they are not living a life which contradicts their testimony, we accept them. Churches should be careful about this. Church leaders are responsible to seek to maintain a membership of genuine Christians. Yet everyone knows that there are false confessors in churches — Jesus said there would be, Paul said there would be.
  • A young man may grow up in a youth group and experience all the church offers — a program free from immorality, greed, petty jealousies, and so forth. He may go on mission trips, feel emotional at songs and testimonies, express feelings of enjoyment in the relationships they find, even be baptized. BUT… if he goes off to college and chucks it all for the purely secular worldview completely turns his back on all he believed, this says he is lost. He was never saved at all; he is a counterfeit.
  • A young woman may grow up in a non-Christian home and wander into a life of immorality and drugs. She may come to the church and find a new way of life. To her amazement, she may experience acceptance without abuse, enjoyment without alcohol, life without the Kardashians. She may be baptized and lead Bible studies and testify to the purity of the gospel. But she may also become cold and disappointed and angry with God that her life-situation hasn’t changed. And she may slowly return to her old lifestyle and decide to live there and give up on Christ and say, "Oh yeah, I was a Christian once." This passage says she was never saved at all; she was a counterfeit.

Does that ever happen? Yes. As a pastor I can tell you that Yes, it does. And, in a living church over a generation it may happen many times over. Emotional singing, awe of God, understanding of scripture, enjoyment of Christian relationships, even a profession of Christ and a pure life are wonderful things — we may experience that among the people of God. But listen: they are not necessarily saving faith. Being in the sphere of the Holy Spirit’s influence is a wonderful thing but temporary faith is not saving faith. Saving faith continues.

And what is the result?
Heb. 6.6: “[It is impossible] to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Rather than looking to Jesus Christ and his cross as the only God-ordained way to be saved, they are holding him up to ridicule and contempt, just like the unbelieving world. Jesus is God’s only way to be reconciled to him — they are turned aside from it. There is no other way. They are lost.

So, here is the danger for the hearers: If despite full participation in the new covenant community, the church — where there is the gospel, purity of life, the presence of the Spirit, the word of God, and spiritual worship — if, they then reject Christ, they will be exposed as spiritual counterfeits without saving faith and be lost forever.

This is God’s word for us today. 

Three simple lessons:

First, there is such a thing as a counterfeit Christian. Churches must take this seriously. If one of the twelve — Judas Iscariot — participated in all of the advantages of the presence of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, in his life on the earth, and yet in the end showed himself to be a counterfeit, no one should expect that any church would be immune to such a thing. In fact, it tells us that no amount of spirituality, teaching, prayer could ever protect a church from this happening. Like the old saying, “If you put a roller skate in a garage, it doesn’t make it a car,” in the same way, no amount of external blessings changes the heart of the sinner.

Second, perseverance is the mark of the reality of salvation. When God begins his work of salvation in the heart and life of an individual, he continues it to completion. Continuing to trust Christ, even in the midst of difficulties, trials, disappointments, and sins, is promised by God’s preserving us in our faith for that day. Temporary faith is not saving faith.

Lastly, what is our responsibility as Christians? The writer has already outlined this is the second warning, back in chapter three:

We must help each other to fight against the spiritual insensitivity which may deaden our souls to our responsibilities and privileges in Christ. This is the responsibility of every Christian toward his brothers and sisters, and it requires relationships beyond the casual and routine. Talking in the lobby, dinner with others, one-on-one relationships, small groups, and even ministry together is not just a way to take up time; it’s the necessary environment in which we exhort one another to maintain “our original confidence firm to the end.”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Things That Belong to Salvation (Hebrews 5.11-6.12)

This passage is the third of five warning passages that punctuate the letter to the Hebrews. The letter is a written sermon meant to be read in the public meeting of the church. Each section of the letter maintains that ‘Jesus is Better’ than the Old Testament system — better than angels, better than Moses; we’re in the five chapters that stresses that Jesus is better than the Old Testament priesthood and everything that went with it — covenant, temple, worship system. In between his exposition of Old Testament passages, the writer inserts pointed warnings to his readers about how this exposition relates to their need.

Now this warning passage is often particularly troubling to people because it appears to say that a Christian can lose his or her salvation. In order to promote an understanding of the passage and how it is meant to impact our Christian lives, I’m going to spend two weeks on it. This week, I’d like to give you some background to what the main topic is in the passage and how we should think about that topic.

Let’s look at that passage together. This passage falls into three sections so that the title in the ESV, “Warning Against Apostasy,” contains three paragraphs.

·         First in 5.11–14 that author states his concern: His readers have become “dull (or, literally ‘sluggish’) of hearing” His concern is that their capacity to receive instruction has become lethargic; they’ve become dulled to the realities of their spiritual responsibilities.

·         Then, in 6.1–10, the author states the consequences that will follow if in their spiritual listlessness and apathy they let go of faith in Christ. If they ‘fall away’ (v. 6), it will not be possible to “restore them to repentance,” which appears to mean they will be lost.

·         Finally, in 6.9–12, the author states his conviction that this is not what will happen. “Though we speak in this way, yet, in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation.”

The way he ends seems to indicate that his intent is not to frighten them but to embolden them to hold fast to Christ. He wants them to shake off their spiritual lethargy and live by faith.

Hebrews is a good example of the fact that any part of the Bible must be understood as a whole. By that I mean, you can’t simply understand each paragraph on its own; each one is part of an extended line of reasoning; it unfolds one part of a full explanation of a subject. It’s being written out of a worldview that conforms to all of the Bible’s teaching. So, let’s take a few minutes and sketch the theological backdrop for this passage.

If you have ever watched a stupendous sunrise, you know how incredible it is to watch the sun slowly move up from below the horizon. Though you can’t look directly at it, you can observe the sun actually moving and count the seconds from the first appearance of its rim to the full appearance. In certain conditions it appears like a huge red orb — four times its normal size. And then it begins to make its way across the sky on its daily journey. It’s breathtaking!

But, of course, we all know that what I just described is an illusion, right? The sun doesn’t rise or set! It doesn’t really move, at least not in relation to us. That’s how it appears to us but in reality, the sun remains at a fixed point and we move. We don’t feel the earth move. And when the sun comes up over the horizon, we don’t even have the sensation of the earth moving. In fact, so strong is our perception that nearly 500 years after Copernicus conclusively demonstrated that the earth moves around the sun we still refer to sunrise and sunset.

Let’s use that comparison of experience and reality to illustrate the meaning of ‘salvation’ according to the Bible’s teaching. When I was nineteen years old, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) got me involved in a Bible Study on my university campus. Over a period of about nine months, I began to read the Bible, attend Bible study groups and go to various churches. In the summer of 1973, I was on a retreat and a man was explaining what it means to have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. I had been thinking about these things for several months and, for some reason, that night something ‘clicked’ in my brain. I trusted in Christ and I felt certain that God had forgiven my sins and accepted me into relationship with him. At that time, I wouldn’t have said that had been ‘saved’ — that word wasn’t really in my vocabulary but later I came to realize that the Bible would use that word to describe my experience.

Now if you had asked me that night to describe what had happened I imagine I would have said that for several months I had been thinking about these things, learning different truths from the Bible, and comparing my experience to others I met who said they had a relationship with God. And finally, on that particular night, my mind put it all together and I accepted that Jesus came to save me. And I have scripture to back me up: Paul told the Philippian jailer in Acts 16.31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” I believed on the Lord Jesus and I was saved. That was my experience.

From my human perspective, I could have explained my experience this way: Jesus died for my sins and God stored up the benefits of his death in a bank so to speak — those benefits are then available to any sinner who will apply to God’s bank for a transfer of funds. When I believed in Jesus, God took the benefits of Christ’s death and applied them to my account. The benefits of his death for my sins — forgiveness and restoration of relationship with God — was activated by my faith and I was ‘saved.’

My view, based on my initial experience, might look like this:

My experience is that God provided salvation and I received it by faith — I ‘appropriated’ the benefits of the death of Christ. But as strong as my experience is, as I read the Bible and consider my experience in light of the Bible, I didn’t find that it explained my experience in those terms. Rather, in those passages where the Bible explains how God words to save a person, it describes God’s action as both supplying the benefits of Christ’s death AND applying them to individual sinners by effectively calling them to faith.

So, the Bible’s own view looks more like this:

We tend to think we are the key actor in gaining the benefits of Christ’s death by our faith; the Bible views God as the key actor in applying to us to benefits of Christ’s death.  In the biblical teaching, God provides salvation AND he applies it.

With that in mind, here’s a biblical definition of salvation:
The Bible in fact describes at least the most important of the steps that God takes in applying the benefits of Christ’s death to the individual. One important passage that does this is Romans 8.30:
Note that I left out ‘predestination’ not because it’s difficult but simply because it is the one that is in eternity past in the mind of God, so to speak, while the others are the outworking of it in our experience. These include the following elements:
  • ‘Calling’ is often called ‘effective calling’ — this describes what occurs when God draws a person to Christ. The word ‘call’ is used many times in this way in the New Testament to express this idea; not just the proclamation of the gospel which goes out to anyone who will listen, but the proclamation of the gospel accompanied by God’s internal work by his Holy Spirit enabling the person to repent and believe the message.
  • ‘Justification’ is God’s acquittal of that person from the guilt of sin through faith in Christ.
  • ‘Glorification’ is God’s bringing that believing person into his eternal presence in glory.

Now, this is just a brief synopsis. If we were to draw out from other passages in the New Testament what some of the other steps are in God’s application of salvation to the believing sinner, it would look more like this:
We can’t take time to look at each of these in detail. Yet these are the steps in the application of salvation by God to the individual from initiation to faith in Christ to final deliverance into the presence of God.

The most important point to grasp is this: ‘Salvation’ describes God’s whole work of rescuing sinners from the guilt, penalty, and power of sin, and bringing them safely into his eternal presence in glory. That’s ‘salvation’ in its fullest sense.

But here’s a second important point:
This is why, the word ‘salvation’ or ‘saved’ may at times be used to refer to one of these steps and, as a result, may be viewed as already completed, as going on right now, or as not yet complete.
Three examples will help:

Salvation is sometimes viewed as PAST
Notice this views ‘salvation’ as something that has already occurred for the believer — “you have been saved.” It has already occurred by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Technically, this is describing justification — the acquittal of sin. This is God’s declarative judgment on the believer: Justified… now. Not guilty. Set free. God doesn’t say, ‘Let’s wait and see how the rest of life goes whether he does what is right.’

However, ‘salvation’ is sometimes viewed as PRESENT
Properly speaking, this verse is referring to ‘sanctification’ which is the process of being rescued from the power of sin in this life as we seek to walk with God in faith and obedience. That also is ‘salvation’ even though it’s referring to one aspect of the work of God in the believing sinner’s life.

Lastly, a few times the word ‘salvation’ refers exclusively to the future event of being glorified — brought safely into the eternal presence of God in glory.
In this sense, ‘salvation’ is not complete and cannot be completed until the end.
All that we’re seeing here is that technically or in its fullest sense, the word ‘salvation’ refers to God’s whole work from beginning to end of applying the benefits of the death of Christ to a person. It’s not improper, however, to use the word to describe various links in the chain that may either be viewed as past, present, or future in God’s work of saving the individual.

Finally, there’s one more point that needs to be made to tie this together. From the viewpoint of the Bible,
Now this explains why the word ‘salvation’ can be used to apply to the individual elements in the outworking of salvation. Each is in reality a link in the chain that God himself is working out in the believer’s life. Before explaining this, let me show you a verse that indicates this:
So, when God initiates this saving work by effectively calling the individual to faith in Christ alone, he begins to apply the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross. The first step is the believing sinner is ‘justified,’ acquitted to of the guilt of sin; she is ‘adopted,’ or made a child of God. This happens when God places eternal life, his quality of life inside her. Then he begins to work in her as a loving Father in such a way as to promote her growth in Christ so that she begins to be more and more aware of what sin is and what grace means and she begins, slowly and imperfectly, three steps forward–two steps back, to turn from sin and to obey God. God is also at work enabling her to continue to trust in Christ as she moves through life with all of its difficulties. And, either when the Lord returns, or when she dies, she then experiences the completion of God’s work in being brought into the eternal presence of her saving God in glory.

Now, this is an important point.
  • If we saved ourselves by living good enough for God to accept us, then it would be our work for God. Many people in churches assume that’s what their church teaches. The first step of the gospel is accepting that we cannot save ourselves.
  • If God did some things and we did the rest, then our salvation would depend on our cooperation with God. It would be the result of something God did plus something we did. It would be difficult to square that with the words of Paul in the letter to Titus: “…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy” (Tit. 3.5), or the words of the psalmist, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Ps. 37.39).
  • If God did some things for our salvation and then we completed it by believing the gospel, growing in holiness, and continuing in the faith, then also we could never be sure of our salvation until the end — yet scripture clearly teaches that the believer may have assurance of salvation in this life. 
  • But, if God is the only Savior and he promises to complete the work that he begins, then we look to him to complete his work.

Now, that is an overview of the Bible’s teaching on salvation.
  1. In its proper and full sense, it refers to God’s whole work from beginning to end of rescuing sinners from sin and bringing them into his eternal presence. In this complete sense, it involves a number of steps.
  2. While salvation describes the whole work of God in delivering sinners, it may also be used to describe the individual steps themselves. Each one is a limited but true experience of God’s saving work.
  3. When God initiates his saving work in a person’s life, he promises to carry it on to completion when he brings us out of this life into his very presence.

Next week, what I intend to do is apply this understanding of salvation to this passage and see if it helps us to understand why the writer writes as he does. But let’s note why this is the teaching that is needed as a backdrop to this passage.

In Hebrews 6.9, the writer says,
Heb. 6.9: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation.”
So, the subject at hand is salvation or, at least, some aspect of salvation. And, we can even identify what aspect of salvation is of concern to the writer. He ends with these words,
In the different elements of the application of salvation, the concern centers on what is called ‘perseverance’ or continuing in the faith, continuing to believe the gospel by the keeping power of God.

Now, again, consider the sunrise. Our distinct and powerful sensation is that we are a fixed point and the sun is moving around us. Yet we have accepted that our perception is not reality. We are, in fact, hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour AND turning on our axis at 1000 miles per hour. No wonder there was reluctance to accept that we move and the sun remains stationary!
In the case of the sun, our perception is not reality. But in the case of salvation it is not the same — our perception that the gospel is presented to us and we believe it and are saved is reality, but it is not full reality. The Bible fills us in on so much more that is going on and we become aware that God was at work inside of us from even before we were born — God was working to arrange the place and circumstances of our birth, the experiences of our upbringing, our joys and disappointments in life, to bring us to himself.

Remember: There’s only one hero in the divine story… and it’s not us!