The Difficult Message of Hebrews

Hebrews 5:11-14 describes the message of the book as difficult, chides the readers/listeners for not being ready for a meaty message, and then goes on to the more difficult message nonetheless. So what is basic, what is difficult, and what is it that makes the difficult message difficult? (OK, I take the 1,000 point deduction for using the word “difficult” too many times in one sentence.)

Since I believe that the first 14 verses of Hebrews 6 are the heart of the message of the book. Once a person has been enlightened and set off on the Christian journey, can they turn back? Once they have turned back, can they repent yet again? This is a complex way of stating the more basic point: Endurance is required for the walk of faith. (For some previous thoughts on this topic, see Hebrews 6:4-6: Can Those who Fall Return?.)

The author outlines these basic foundation items in 6:1–repentance, faith, baptism, laying on hands, resurrection, and eternal judgment. All of these elements are, of course, in the early stages of the proclamation of the good news. I’ve been reviewing material in the gospel of Mark, and one can find all of these elements, though the very specific “laying on of hands” is only fully developed in the early church. Nonetheless Jesus identifies people, empowers them and sends them out (Mark 6:6-13). These basic elements identify the key points of coming to repentance believing in Jesus and in turn going out to make disciples.

To many of us in the church today, I’m sure this sounds like it’s not so basic. One of the biggest struggles I encounter in churches is getting members past the point of just being there and on to the point of making disciples. I wonder if the audience didn’t have a similar reaction to this letter when they first heard it.

I can hear the chatter out in the congregation now. “What does he mean, ‘basic.’ That’s a serious message he’s preaching there. What more do you need if you’ve gone from repentance to being sent out again.”

But again my study of Mark reminded me of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-9). It’s interesting that the author of Hebrews brings in plants as well (verses 7-8), though in a somewhat different context. I don’t want to suggest interpreting Hebrews 6 according to the parable of the sower, but there are some similar points. I do, however, think that the seed metaphor can be used to help understand the point in the Christian experience described by Hebrews 6. It’s not just the seeds that never sprout at all that fail in the parable. Out of the four categories of seed, three sprout. Only one fails completely (the birds eat the seed), while one succeeds completely (grows and produces fruit). The other two raise some of the same questions we have here. Can you fail after you receive the word? If you do fail, can you return? The parable of the sower makes no attempt to answer the second one.

Two categories of seed start to grow but don’t finish, and both fail because of the hardships of the journey. It seems to me that this illustrates that the advanced material has to do with advancing on the Christian walk. The entire book of Hebrews bristles with the challenge not to give up, turn back, go off track, or fail to enter God’s rest. Most of us have experienced this sort of thing. We hear the gospel message and are excited, but we then encounter the actual church, warts and all and we become a little less enthusiastic. All too often, the cares of this world, or even the cares of Christian ministry choke us off, and there is no fruit.

This is a hard saying. We can get into some terrible debates over the perseverance of the saints, or the perseverance of Christ on behalf of the saints. I discussed this once with a Calvinist student. We were discussing a person who had left the church after having been an enthusiastic Christian. I was interested in our vocabulary. We both agreed that this person had once publicly confessed Jesus Christ as savior. We both agreed he had set out on the path of discipleship. We both agreed that his love had grown cold and that he had forcefully rejected the life that he once knew. Where we differed was on vocabulary. I used the vocabulary of accepting Christ (being saved) and falling away. He stated that the man had apparently accepted Christ, but as it turned out it must not have been for real, as demonstrated by his falling away.

It seems to me that those two positions are separated by vocabulary and not by practical reality. What apparently happens is the same. How we describe it is different. The author of Hebrews seems to me to describe this much more as a present danger to every believer. “Keep on going toward maturity (or perfection),” he says. “Don’t fall back!”

Good advice, but advanced advice. It’s much easier to start a race than to finish it. The author of Hebrews knew that, and thus challenged Christians to run the race to completion (Hebrews 12:1-3).

[This post deals with the answer to question #6, Lesson 7, Page 41 of my study guide to Hebrews]

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  1. Excellent! It’s rare that I see anyone making this point, but I agree wholeheartedly. Calvinists (and others who adhere to the perseverance of the saints) must insist that someone can internally be convinced that they’re saved and yet turn out not to persevere. Allowing that doctrine to serve as an excuse for not following Christ is not just spitting in the face of Christ. On the Calvinist view, it may just be a sign that the person isn’t saved to begin with, and therefore the doctrine cannot justify a feeling of safety.

    One place where there may not be complete parity, however, is the other side of the coin. Can someone who denies perseverance of the saints accept that God will continue any salvific work of grace in someone’s life? I don’t think so. But then it’s not the salvific work of grace that matters on that view but persevering as a result of the salvific work, and those people will turn out to be saved. It’s just that you can never be absolutely sure you’re one of those people. But I think Calvinists ought to say the same thing.

  2. I did a diagram based on the work of Albert van Hoye (1956) and came to the conclusion that the heart of the epistle is in chapter 10. The conceptual framework is linked from here also:

    As an aside, I have changed my blog to remove automated blogrolls. They seem to slow down instantiation and I have to admit I did not visit the philopronous blogs very often :(. I keep you on my aggregator so I will see your many threads linking other tranditions than my own.

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