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Teaching the Elementary Principles

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Hebrews 5:11-6:3

Elementary Principles

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.  And this we will do if God permits.[1]

F

irst Baptist Church of Dawson Creek drafted and adopted a statement of foundational Christian truths to guide members in matters of faith and practise.  Foundational truth is, well, foundational.  This is truth that underpins all that we teach and believe, but it is foundational and not comprehensive.  Though the foundations are necessary, they are nevertheless foundations that permit us to go on to more and to ever-greater truths.  Each Christian is to be advancing in the Faith, building on the Foundations of the Faith.

All teaching has some sort of foundation.  The instruction we receive will be either true or false.  Errant instruction will ensure eventual ruin and disaster.  Truthful teaching will permit us to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, thus ensuring that we become ever more pleasing in the sight of our God.

Teaching truth is a primary responsibility of the church.  Elders are required to be able to teach [1 Timothy 3:2], to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine [Titus 1:9].  However, the responsibility to teach elementary doctrine extends to each confessing Christian.  What is trumpeted from the pulpit is to be echoed through the words and through the lives of each member of the congregation.  The whole of the labours of the church as the collective Body of Christ may be described by the requirement to teach.

Christians are to be lifelong learners; and they are to be lifelong teachers.  Someone is watching the way you live your life, and the impact of your life is either adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour [see Titus 2:10], or it is disgracing His Name.  Either people are being challenged to consider Christ as Lord through the way you live, or they are being confirmed in their rejection of the Faith because of your life.  Each of us, through the life we live and through our daily activity, are likely to be the only Bible that most people ever read.

The unknown author of the book we have received as the Letter to the Hebrews registered frustration at the lack of maturity displayed among the people to whom he wrote.  I have frequently commented that it does not matter how long you have been on the journey, but it does matter how far you have come.  The expectation that an elder is to be able to teach [1 Timothy 3:2] is a mark of maturity incumbent upon each Christian.

Drink Your Milk — You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  The goal of Christ’s Spirit for His people is their growth.  Peter concludes his second missive with the admonition for believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ [2 Peter 3:18].

It is indisputable that in order for a child to grow, that child must have sufficient rest, adequate exercise, nurture and protection, and especially does the child require proper nutrition.  This is the reason Peter urges us, like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation [1 Peter 2:2, 3].

The Shepherd’s Psalm may be viewed as a primer on pastoral responsibility.  Though the Psalm is a study of Christ’s role as the Great Shepherd over the flock, the model for each undershepherd is the Great Shepherd.  The Psalm states that the flock is refreshed through rest.  The Lord makes His flock lie down in green pastures [Psalm 23:2].  He restores the soul of His people [Psalm 23:3a].  He moves the flock to pasturage for their benefit, leading the flock in paths of righteousness [Psalm 23:3b.  He nurtures His flock, anointing each head with oil [Psalm 23:5].  He protects His people, His rod and staff comforts the flock [Psalm 23:4].  The flock lies down in green pastures and walks beside still waters, not simply in order to rest, but also to enjoy the rich fare found in the green pastures.  No shepherd, and certainly not the Great Shepherd, labours with the flock without expectation of growth.  The flock of God, and each individual member of that flock, is expected to grow.  Especially is each member expected to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ the Lord.

What is not readily seen in many of our translations is that the concern expressed in our text is not an issue of stunted growth, but it is an instance of regression.  One translation pointedly states, you have gone back to needing milk, not solid food [verse 12].[2]  That is a literal representation of the Greek underlying the translation.  A baby does not become dependent upon milk; a baby is born with the need for milk.  The only person who would become dependent upon milk is one who is regressing.  The author is addressing people who are regressing into spiritual infancy!  Through neglect and through deliberate hardening of their hearts, they had arrived at a place where they were only capable of handling milk.  Strong food would ensure spiritual dyspepsia.

Whatever brought the writer to this point of frustration?  What teaching was so difficult to understand that he became exasperated with the people of God?  He was trying to teach the doctrine that presents Jesus as our great High Priest [Hebrews 5:1-10].  The Priesthood of Christ is far more than mere ceremony, entailing His intercession on our behalf, the presentation of His perfect sacrifice for us despite our helpless condition, and communicating the mind of the Father to our hearts.  The Priesthood of Christ the Lord lies at the heart of His position as God’s Messiah.

When the writer says his readers have become dull of hearing [verse 11], the term actually means that they had grown lazy.  They simply gave up the hard work of training themselves.  Laziness led to ignorance.  They surrendered reading the Word and they no longer meditated in the Word and they ceased praying.  Laziness has consequences!

It is not a pastor’s responsibility to make people learn.  It is the pastor’s responsibility to carefully study the Word, discovering what God meant in a given portion of the Word, and then make the appropriate application.  It is the responsibility of his listeners to actually put into practise what is taught.  It is the responsibility of each Christian to constantly study the Word so that they will continue to grow.

If you are not studying the Word, it is impossible for you to be progressing in the Word.  If you are not studying the Word of God—discovering the will of God and applying what you learn in your life—you are regressing.  There is no possibility of standing still in the Christian life.  When you cease strenuous study of the Word of God, instead of being spiritually mature you will become spiritually infantile.  You will become a pupil when you should be a teacher.  You will become a Christian in need of help when you should be a help to others.  Tragically, Christendom is full of regressed Christians—Christians who were once growing in the Faith and excited in the warm glow of newfound faith, but who have now become dull of hearing—sluggish and lazy—as they eschew the hard work of study and following after the Lord Christ.

This condition of spiritual infantilism is more common than we would like to believe.  Paul said something similar to the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:2, 3.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?  Even now—despite time and anticipated growth in Christ—the Corinthians had attitudes that should not be found among Christians.

Let me remind you of what it means to be fleshly, to be worldly, to be ungodly.  Jealousy or strife reveals a spirit identified as worldly.  Jealousy is from the Greek term zêlos, from which we get our English word “zeal.”  However, when used as it is here, it speaks of envy.  Strife translates a Greek term that spoke of discord or quarrelling. 

Paul teaches, the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions (irreverence, a lack of self-control, spiritual rootlessness, preoccupation with self-love, a changeable nature, gossiping, addiction to alcohol or drugs—all marks of the worldly life [Titus 2:1-10]), and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works [Titus 2:11-14].

In the Galatian letter, Paul identifies other works of the flesh.  The life that is characterised by these works, or even by some of these works, is a life that is fleshly.  The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these [Galatians 5:19-21].  The tragedy of this list is that the infantile Christian slips back into just such actions, and even seeks to involve others in participating in such actions, thus justifying his or her own rebellion against grace through fleshly practises.

Spiritual ignorance results in carelessness.  People who have not mastered the ABCs of the Christian life (basic principles) cannot hope to enrich the lives of others.  Their own lives are too insecure to communicate confidence and assurance to those requiring those precious commodities.  What is far worse is that such people are actually a detriment to outsiders who are seeking the truth.  Those needing help are denied the help they might otherwise receive, all because of infantile Christianity.

Believers are to be skilled in the word of righteousness [verse 13].  Moreover, they are to have their powers of discernment trained by constant practise to distinguish good from evil [verse 14].  The word of righteousness has been variously interpreted as “‘right speech,’ ‘moral teaching,’ ‘general teachings of Christianity,’ or ‘the theological instructions on Christ as the believer’s righteousness.’”  On the whole, it seems best to understand that the word of righteousness refers to advanced theological instruction that stresses the cost and responsibilities of discipleship. [3]  The writer is urging readers to count the cost.

Maturity is one of the constant themes in Paul’s letters.  He encourages believers to be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature [1 Corinthians 14:20].  He teaches that the gifted men given to the churches—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—were given to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the Faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes [Ephesians 4:12-14].

Indeed, the goal of Christ is that believers speak the truth in love, growing in every way into a reflection of His glorious Person [see Ephesians 4:15, 16].  Mature believers are to be singular in their determination to move toward a life that reflects the presence of Christ and glorifies His Name [see Philippians 3:13-15].  The need to grow in maturity must be taught among the churches by pastors and teachers [see Colossians 1:28]; and it is to be the prayer of all who would honour Christ the Lord [see Colossians 4:12].

The author is writing at a time of intense persecution, and considering this warning in light of that fact, it is likely that moral failure in the face of persecution was the result of failure to apply the instruction already delivered.  “Milk drinkers” are in danger of abandoning the Faith because they neither understand the deeper issues of the Faith nor have an inclination to move toward an understanding of those truths.  They hear that Jesus saves, and they never move beyond that glorious truth.  They have no understanding of where God wishes to lead His people, nor the reason for His leading.  Faced with a choice between good and evil, immature saints are incapable of making the right choice because they are unskilled in the word of righteousness; they have failed to train themselves through constant practise.  In contrast to this dismal state, the mature are able to make the right choice when confronted with a critical decision.

Constant practise leads to mature strength.  A week ago, I managed to slip away one day to hunt elk.  We walked down into the bottoms along “Notellum Creek,” which is near to “Close-mouthed Ridge.”  My hunting partner and I walked throughout the morning, penetrating the deep spruce thickets that elk love to call home, and sometime after noon we began the trek back up the steep path to find our way home.  I found it necessary to stop frequently to rest my legs and to catch my breath.  A long season of inactivity was telling.  The expanding girth of my middle, coupled with a lack of exercise, ensured that I could no longer jog up the hills.

Just as my failure to constantly practise told on me in the crunch, so that I could not do what I have done readily in previous years, so the immature believer who fails to constantly practise distinguishing between good and evil will fail when confronted with a choice.  When the crunch comes, the immature believer will fail.

What seems to distress the writer most of all is that the recipients of this letter are in their regressive state despite long-term involvement in the Faith.  I said earlier, and I must stress again, that it is of no consequence how long you have been on the journey.  All that matters is how far you have come.  Some, having travelled but a short time, have made great progress toward maturity.  Others, perhaps tiring of the constant challenge, have ceased constant practise in exercising discernment; they have begun to regress.  Tragically, we have witnessed too many individuals who have failed to continue to grow in the knowledge of the great truths of Christ and are now regressing.

In fairness, a measure of responsibility rests upon those of us who are preachers for the widespread infantile attitudes among the membership of churches in this day.  It is de rigueur among religious intelligentsia to preach topical sermons or to provide narrative sermons to tickle the ears of listeners.  There is a dearth of solid food.  Too many preachers refuse to present strong doctrine that might force their hearers to think, or they focus on evangelism to the exclusion of teaching about the word of righteousness, telling people over and over how to be born from above and into the Kingdom of God.  It is the responsibility of preachers to provide sound exposition of the Word.

Don’t Stop — Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ … not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.  The words of this writer should be disconcerting to modern followers of the Risen Son of God.  He says that repentance and faith, baptism, appointment to ministry, and eschatology are all elementary.  These are truths that early Christians expected “baby” believers to master.  Mature believers are expected to move beyond these issues.

Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity is certainly an adequate translation of the Greek, but it fails to capture the intent of the writer, as the first readers would have understood what was being said.  One translation of the New Testament that does an exceptional job of bringing the force of the verbs into English is that of Charles Williams.  He translates the opening words of this verse as follows: let us once for all quit the elementary teaching about Christ and continue progressing toward maturity.[4]

The writer asserts that mature believers have left some elementary doctrines behind.  He is not asking readers to dispense with these elementary teachings, but rather he is encouraging them to move forward, to build on what they already have.  Without knowing the alphabet, it is impossible to read.  Without knowing the multiplication tables, it is impossible to master calculus and analytical geometry.  In the same way, without these elementary doctrines, it is impossible to discover the deep things of God.  Without a firm grasp of these truths, it is impossible to disciple others.  These elementary doctrines are necessary if we are to continue toward maturity.  What doctrines does the writer consider to be elementary?

Repentance from dead works and faith toward God point to the initial step of Christian commitment.  Repentance and faith are the two sides of the truth that leads to salvation.  Repentance speaks of turning from pursuing our own desires and turning to Christ as Master of life.  Repentance is a change of mind about who we are and about who God is.

To repent is to change one’s mind about God and about what He says about us.  Repentance is synonymous to agreeing with God.  To repent is to confess that Jesus is Lord.  When Paul calls us to confess that Jesus is Lord in Romans 10:9, he uses the word homologeō, which means “to agree,” or “to say the same thing.”  In repentance, we are agreeing with God that He is right about us and that we have been wrong.  We were dead in trespasses and sins, but we are called to come to Him who dwells in unapproachable light.

Of course, turning from our own self-willed way to obey God’s will demonstrates faith in Christ as the Lord of life.  In the exercise of our faith we are accepting and acknowledging that He was sacrificed because of our sin and raised for our justification.  It is not only that we are turning from that which is old and characterized as dead, but we are also turning to that which is new and characterized by life.

After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee and His message was, the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel [Mark 1:14].  The Apostle Paul summarised his ministry in Ephesus as one in which he preached repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ [Acts 20:21].  Repentance and faith are necessary for the Christian life; but they are elementary.  Without them, there is no Christian life.  Having repented—having turned from the past, and having faith in Christ, let us go forward into ever-greater truths concerning the Lord’s will for us.

The first two truths named—repentance from dead works and faith toward God—address our relationship to God.  The next two items in this list of elementary doctrines—instructions about washings and the laying on of hands—speak of our relationship to the local assembly.  The word “washings” is literally “baptisms.”  Perhaps we could make a distinction in the Greek term used, but what seems most likely is that the writer is referring to the need to correct baptismal errors that were prevalent even at that early date.  He was writing Jewish believers, and many of the Jewish converts would have been familiar with proselyte baptism required of Gentiles in order to become a Jew.  Believers would need to be warned against thinking that baptism could in some way make them acceptable to God.  Remember, also, the account of Paul when he encountered some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus.  They had failed to connect the baptism they had received to the coming of Messiah.  Hence, they had not been baptised, since they had merely performed a ritual instead of declaring a vital truth concerning their faith.

In the New Testament, those who believed were baptised.  In baptism, those who believed identified with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, and they confessed that their old nature was dead, and they also confessed that through faith in the Risen, Living Son of God they were made new, having been born from above.

Though you may think the laying on of hands to be out to place, it was a common sign of blessing [Matthew 19:13-15], and also a sign for healing [Mark 7:32].  It signified acceptance by the Apostles on behalf of the congregation in the selection of the Seven [Acts 6:6], and it is used to this day among the churches as a sign of acceptance of God’s gift of deacons, just as it was a sign of separation to a special task [Acts 13:3] and of acceptance of the appointment of a man to eldership [1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6].  In each instance where we are provided an example of the laying on of hands in the New Testament, prayer accompanied the act.  This was an important act demonstrating the initiation of Christian service and testifying to the blessing received.  As such, it is to this day associated with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit among His people and the anointing that accompanies appointment to service.

The first two elementary doctrines are identified with the initiation of the Christian life, and the second two elementary doctrines are identified with the initiation of Christian service.  Now, the writer speaks of resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement, providing a theological marker related to the end of the age.  He is pointing forward to the hope of the Christian and providing a warning to sinners against rejecting Christ.

Let me stress that these six teachings are elementary doctrines—they are basic principles.  Though the preacher is charged to do the work of an evangelist [2 Timothy 4:5], his ministry must lead the people beyond a constant repetition of how to be saved.  Believers are responsible to be always speaking about Christ to those living about them, telling of His mercies and of His power to save.  It is through the people of the church that sinners come to faith.  There should be no quarrelling over the ordinances of the church.  Either we submit to the Word of God, doing what is taught therein, or we reject it for some other authority.  Just so, eschatology—the teaching about Christ’s return and judgement of sinners—is foundational and not advanced theology.

Let me be pointed in asking if you are comfortable teaching another—a colleague at work, a friend enjoying the hospitality of your home, your own children—how to become a Christian and about biblical baptism?  Do you know what ministry among the people of God you have received?  Are you able to articulate your eschatological position?  Do you live in anticipation of the imminent return of Christ Jesus the Lord?  If so, let me encourage you to go on toward maturity.  Build on what you have and grow.

If you cannot answer these questions in the affirmative, I urge you to grow up.  Drink your milk—read the Word of God.  Study it to discover the mind of the Spirit.  Mine the treasures of the Word, making them your own.  Begin now with your children to memorise Scripture and to begin the noble task of mastering the Bible.  As you strengthen yourself with the milk of the Word, through constant practise push yourself to distinguish good from evil.  Apply what you are learning, humbly accepting what God is teaching you and making it real so that you grow stronger, ever stronger.

Grow Up — Let us … go on to maturity.  Clearly, in light of the issues that brought the writer to the point of confronting the Jewish Christians, we would say that moving toward maturity must entail understanding the doctrine of Christ.  Especially important to the writer was the teaching of Christ’s eternal priesthood [see Hebrews 4:14-5:10].  His function as our Eternal High Priest will be important if we are to hold fast our confession [Hebrews 4:14].  Whether we are strong in the face of adversity or whether we crumble in the face of pressure, is determined by the level of our Christian maturity.

We have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  Those were undoubtedly hard words for the readers to receive, but they are mitigated by the gentle urgency of the writer as he insists on moving them forward toward maturity.  Speaking to John, the Risen Christ repeats one phrase at the conclusion of each message to the seven churches, he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says [e.g. Revelation 2:7].

Are you listening to the Spirit today?  Do you hear Him calling you to move forward?  Is He making you restless?  Is the Spirit of God making you discontented with your understanding of Christian truth?  Now is the time to prepare for growth.  Now is the time to prepare to move forward, individually and as a congregation.  Either we can mark time, seeing the odd person come to faith and growing ever more content in our spiritual senescence, or we can begin to grow in our spirits.

God rebuked Jeremiah on one occasion because he was complaining that his ministry was hard.  Opposition was growing to his ministry and the message he delivered seemed only to generate anger from those who heard him.  God, however, did not sympathise with Jeremiah, but instead reprimand him to stay at his assigned task.  His warning must have truly intimidated the prophet.

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you,

how will you compete with horses?

And if in a safe land you are so trusting,

what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?

[Jeremiah 12:5]

God warned that the pressure Jeremiah was then facing—pressure arising because the nation was turning from righteousness, pressure including threats and opposition to his message—was but a footrace.  However, the prophet would soon be racing against horses.  If he was having difficulty in a safe land, what would he do when he wandered into the thickets of the Jordan.  There, the dense underbrush would trip him and ensure that he could not move freely?  In other words, God is saying, “Jeremiah, buck up!  Things are tough now, and they are about to get tougher.”

I am not a prophet, and I don’t purport to know what the immediate future holds, but I do know that some who have shared our services will shortly be confronted with challenges concerning their faith—if they have not already been challenged by the world.  Some that have worshipped with us have already faced such challenges, with discouraging results.  The failure of faith is seen in the lack of faithfulness to the cause of Christ.  The failure to grow is seen in the fact that some have deliberately stepped back from the white-hot faith that once burned in their soul.  The retrenchment from righteousness, calling mediocrity “wisdom” and saying that nonchalance is boldness, testifies to spiritual retreat.

Now is not the time to retreat.  The pressure against us as Christians will only intensify.  The battle of the ages has begun.  It is not a battle as men fight battles, but it is a battle in which we will either demonstrate the goodness and mercy of Christ our Lord, or we will quietly retreat from the fray for men’s souls.

I note the transition the writer makes a few short verses beyond our text.  Listen to 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 describes what I believe of you.  I have spoken freely to warn all who hear me this day, and yet in your case, I feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.  I will urge you to move beyond the elementary doctrines, studying the deep truths of God.  I will urge you to stand firm in your faith, holding fast to the cause of Christ the Lord.  I will urge you to openly confess the faith that has given you life.  I will urge you to continue living holy and godly lives to the glory of God.

Those who are outsiders, who have somehow failed to receive this gift of life, I now urge to believe the message of life that is delivered.  Hear again the Word of the Lord.  If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9, 10, 13].


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[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.  Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, 2001.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] The NET Bible, New English Translation Bible (www.netbible.com), (Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C., 2001)

[3] George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1998) 202-3

[4] Charles B. Williams, The New Testament: A Translation in the Language of the People (Moody Press, Chicago, IL 1937, 1965, 1966)

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