For those of us who attended elementary schools as children (rather than ‘primary’ or ‘grade school’), “elementary teachings” might conjure our earliest subjects: mastering the alphabet, then phonetics; learning to add, subtract, and multiply; memorizing the national anthem or the Lord’s Prayer; and making the loopy leap from printing to cursive writing. If these basics weren’t solidly in place, we risked certain failure in the advanced subjects ahead, be it algebra, essay writing, or memorizing heavier content. To this very day (and I’m a boomer) I still have nightmares about not graduating high school, held back by my tenuous grasp of “the new math”. Without laying a solid foundation, our ability to grow in our weaker domains can be severely compromised. Some of us still count on our fingers or shrink from writing anything longer than a text message!
The same is true of spiritual learning. Consider our passage for today:
Therefore, let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgement. And God permitting we will do so. (Heb.6:1-3)
Since you’ve hiked this far with me, I assume you’re eager to go on to maturity—especially since there’s no “old age” on the Christian journey, but rather a constant transformation as we become more like Jesus—more beautiful—with every passing year. IF, that is, we’re actually growing, and not withering, shrinking back, or drying on the vine.
The Hebrew writer seems disappointed with his listeners. He keeps bringing up stuff he wants to explore with them, the mystery and majesty of Melchizedek, for example, but he fears they aren’t ready. They haven’t mastered the basics. Their foundation is shaky.
What do YOU consider to be the basics? Many would cite the simple “gospel message”, prepackaged in the convenient (and nutritionally lacking) “Sinner’s Prayer”: a simple request to ask Jesus into one’s heart, believing he died for our sins. I challenge you to find a single example of the sinner’s prayer in the Bible, or an example of even one conversion in the New Testament that follows this formula. You won’t find either. The basics, according to this passage and similar supporting scriptures, are much deeper and challenging. Let’s take a closer look.
Repentance from acts that lead to death. John the Baptist preached repentance. Jesus preached repentance. Peter preached repentance in the first gospel message at Pentecost. Nowhere does the Bible indicate that “faith alone”, apart from a changed heart and lifestyle, saves us. We’re all called to a radical inner and outer change, a “metanoia” (literally, “change of mind”) about our life, our sins, our choices, affections, and priorities, as part of our conversion. Most important is the complete turning away from “acts that lead to death”.
What are those acts? you might ask. The Bible gives us lots of sin lists to check ourselves against. Romans 1:20-32; Mark 7:20-21; I Cor. 6:18-20; Eph.4:17-32; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5-10; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; I Pet. 4:3-4; and I John 2:3-6 shed plenty of light on what God hates, judges, and considers evil. If you aren’t familiar with these passages, or if you’ve drifted from earlier convictions, you’d do well to test yourself against these verses.
Sadly—and shockingly—true conversion isn’t widely taught these days. I’ve met too many self-described Christians who continued in the same lifestyle after their ‘conversion’ as they lived before. They wonder why their faith is weak, why they’re not growing, or what makes them any different from their pagan neighbor next door, apart from attending church. (Not much.) Deep and ongoing repentance is vital; without it, we’re not born again: we’re stillborn.
Faith in God: Much can be said about what constitutes basic faith in God, but let me say this. Faith in God means we understand who he is, his absolute supremacy, holiness, authority, and power. We understand who Jesus is: not simply a great religious teacher, but the eternal Son of God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. We understand that God is everything, that nothing and no one should come before him in our hearts—not our children, our spouses, our careers, our dreams…nothing. We also understand that nothing is impossible for God, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb.11:6).
Yes, the depth of our knowledge of God will grow over time, but an inadequate view of God, even starting out, makes for a shaky foundation. We’ll all be tested as we grow, and if we aren’t sure about God—what he can or will do on our behalf, what he blesses or condemns—we’re bound to stumble on our way and remain spiritual infants.
Instruction about baptisms: The Bible tells us there’s ONE baptism (Eph. 4:4-6), and it’s the baptism accompanied by faith and repentance that unites us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, imparting forgiveness and the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38-39; Romans 6:3-6; Matt. 28:18-20, and many more.)
I used to wonder why this verse refers to “baptisms”, in the plural. Now I believe it’s because of that generation’s confusion over baptisms that took place BEFORE Jesus rose from the dead (referred to as “John’s baptism”, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins), and those performed from Pentecost onwards— baptism into Christ, also for the forgiveness of sins, but now bestowing the amazing gift of the Spirit. We have incidents in Acts that demonstrate this confusion (Acts 18:24-26; 19:1-5), and how the misinformed were corrected. Since we know that “the whole countryside came out to be baptized by John” (and Jesus also baptized others, John 3:22), we can safely assume that many former Jews needed instruction about both baptisms to get it right.
The laying on of hands: From my studies, I see a consistent pattern in this early ministry. Initially, only the apostles had the ability to lay on hands and perform miracles (see Acts 8:14-19). They could also impart this ability to others, through direct contact, but I see no cases of ‘second generation’ hand layers passing this gift further. These miraculous gifts were given to confirm the message as the gospel was first preached (Heb.2:3-4), and were no longer needed as the apostle’s teachings were consolidated into the New Testament scriptures we now have. In a time of false apostles and false teachers, referenced by Paul, Peter, John, and Jude, I imagine the subject of miraculous gifts, received through the laying on of hands, was a necessary teaching for new believers.
The resurrection and eternal judgement: These subjects seem self-evident; after all, if there is no resurrection, we are of all people most to be pitied (I Cor. 15:12-18). Some people erroneously believe that reciting a sinner’s prayer and going their merry way exempts them from future judgement. But Paul says we will ALL stand before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account for our actions (2 Cor.5:10).
Such are the elementary teachings of Christ, according to Hebrews. How is your foundation? Was it solid to begin with? Or were you poorly taught, and hatched in ignorance? I’ve packed more scriptures into this post than any so far, hoping anyone who senses their foundation is weak will look up these verses and dig deeper. It’s never to late to shore up your foundation, as long as the walls (your life) are still standing!