Coming from the great high priest theme, the author wants to expand on the idea of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. But because his readers are “dull of hearing” and did not press on to maturity, the author writes the third warning passage (6:4-8) of this book.
“About this” (peri hou) in verse 11 has been understood in different ways (cf. Ellingworth, 299) without going into detail we think that the author wanted to continue writing about Jesus as being a high priest, but instead had to refer to another topic first, because “it is hard to explain.”
This clause “it is hard to explain” does not refer to the subject matter, but refers to the dullness of the readers’ hearing. This has not always been the case which is conveyed in the perfect tense “have become” (gegonate; cf. Hughes, 189 n. 21). At some time the readers have become sluggish in their Christian walk. Lane sees an interesting link between “sluggish in understanding” (“dullness of hearing”; vōthoi gegonate tais akoais) and the statement back in verse 9 where Jesus is said to have become “the source of eternal life to all who obey” (tois hupakouousin). Lane then comments, “[d]eafness or dullness in receptivity is a dangerous condition for those who have been called to radical obedience” (136). And we already have seen (especially in 3:18-19) that faith is closely tied to obedience. It is the reluctance or their unwillingness to hear which the author fears.
The Christians whom the author of Hebrews is writing to are not young in faith (verse 12). They have walked with their Lord for a considerable time that by the time the author is putting his pen down to write this letter, the readers should have been teaching others about the gospel and all its implications. But as it is, they themselves need someone to teach them the ABC “the basic elements of the beginning of the oracles of God” thus implying that those being addressed are not in need of starting again at chapter one, but as it were, with the basic of reading itself – i.e., the ABC.
The picture of “solid food” in contrast to “milk” (verses 13-14) is not foreign to the biblical account (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1ff); the solid food representing maturity and milk infancy. “To go on living on milk, mere baby-food, is indicative of arrested development” and thus the audience seem to have “relapsed into spiritual infancy” (Hughes, 191). Lane argues against such an interpretation on the entire passage (vv. 11-14) and sees strong usage of irony of the author (135ff.). Since the readers do have advanced knowledge (cf. the entire treatment of deep theological issues in 1:1-5:10), Lane’s argument is valid at this point. According to this view the author uses such device (i.e., irony) to shame his readers and to “recall them to the stance of conviction” they once had (cf. 6:9-12; Lane, 135).
Two more issues have to be dealt with: the expressions of (1) those “unskilled in the word of righteousness” and (2) those who have their “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” The question concerning both phrases is: Are these seen more in an ethical/moral or in a theological manner? We think that in taking both into account we establish a good balance, since the author of Hebrews does not distinguish so harsh between theology and our way of living (if he does so at all!).
Again we will turn to Lane who observes concerning phrase (1): “what was involved in the regression of the community was a failure in moral character, rather than in keen theological insight. The phrase [“unskilled in the word of righteousness”; apeiros logou dikaiosunēs] acknowledges a basic moral weakness aggravated by the fear of violent death (cf. 2:14-15)” (139). And in verse 14 he switches to a more theological interpretation of the expression of those who have their “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (cf. also Hughes, 193). Thus moral and theological implications can be found in the combination of the issue at hand. The theological distinguishing of good and evil and our way of living has to be in proper combination.
O’Brien (cf. also Ellingworth 305) observes the literary pattern and sees the one who is “not proficient in word of righteousness” is one who is unwilling to discern God’s oracles, to further work out the “deeper implications of the gospel” (O’Brien, 209).
Recently we had the privilege of sharing the gospel with someone dear to our heart and after explaining, talking, hoping, and praying, this dear friend said: “If that is the case, it changes everything!” Exactly, that’s the point. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ changes everything! But let us continue with the first three verses of chapter six.
After the author’s ironical admonition of his reader’s he urges them to something about it (6:1-3); hence the reason for the phrase “therefore”. “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity” is the medicine against the sluggishness of the readers. In writing that the readers are to “leave” those doctrines, does not mean that they are insignificant but that they are so well established in that community, that a repetition of those are not of necessity (here we see that the author does not view them as spiritual babes). But what is the “elementary doctrine of Christ”? The author answers in a six fold manner:
a. “repentance from dead works”
b. “faith towards God”
- “instruction about washings”
- “laying on of hands”
- “resurrection of the dead”
- “eternal judgment”
We will not go into detail about the meaning and background of those phrases but take a look what the meaning of maturity is. It is not abandoning of the simple faith in Christ but the holding on to it even if that means to physically give up one’s life for his Savior’s sake. Under some pressure of possible persecution, Jewish Christians must have been tempted “to give up more and more those features of faith and practice which were distinctive of Christianity, and yet to feel that they had not abandoned the basic principles of repentance and faith, the realities denoted by religious ablutions and the laying on of hands, the expectation of resurrection and the judgment of the age to come” (Bruce, 143).
The author wants to press on to maturity together with his audience (verse 3), but as of right now he cannot do so. He first needs to utter a stern warning which we will examine in the next post.
Together with the author let us go on to maturity. Let us deeply think and live out the implications of the gospel on our personal lives as well as the impact it must have on the community we live in. The gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything!
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.