It’s about time we grew up!
by Jack Wald | October 8th, 2000

Hebrews 4:14 – 6:12

One of the reasons the letter to the Hebrews has always attracted me is that there are such wonderful gems to be found. You read through Hebrews and there are parts of the letter that make you want to hurry through because the logic doesn’t seem to connect or the discussion assumes things we don’t know. But then as you dig your way through, up pops a gem. I don’t know how to explain it but there is a thrill I experience when I read certain Scriptures and Hebrews contains some of my favorites.

The first part of today’s scripture is one of those gems.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.  16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

This passage sings! It needs to be written on the sky! I’ve been so tempted to stay with this passage and preach from here today.  “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” I love this verse and the thought that we can boldly approach God, the creator of the universe, with confidence. And that when we boldly approach the throne, we will receive mercy (not getting what we deserve) and find grace (getting what we do not deserve). I am much in need of God’s mercy and grace and grateful for those gifts to me. Maybe that is why I like this passage so much.

If not for the fact that this theme is developed more fully in Chapter 12 when the writer of Hebrews says we approach God with confidence because we come to Mount Zion, not Mount Sinai, I would preach on this text today. But we’ll come back to that theme in November.

For today it is just enough that we see once again that the writer of Hebrews is elevating Jesus to the heights, showing once again that Jesus is without equal. Jesus has broken through the barrier that keeps us separated from God. He has gone through the heavens. It is because of the divinity of Jesus that he has broken through the heavens for us and it is because of the humanity of Jesus that we know he understands what it means to be human and live a life in this world.

This is great news! Jesus is our high priest who made a sacrifice that not only atoned for our sins for one year until the next sacrifice. He has made the sacrifice that atones for our sins for all time. Because of this we are able to approach God with confidence.

Last week I mentioned that the writer of Hebrews follows up these pictures of the supremacy of Jesus with a warning. Today’s scripture is no exception. There is a brief interlude between the picture of the supremacy of Jesus and the warning, but the pattern is still there. We are going to come back to this interlude, but let me move on to the warning.

As I pointed out last week, the picture of who Jesus is grows and grows as we move through Hebrews but so do the warnings get stronger and stronger and this is a very powerful warning.

4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,  5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age,  6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.  8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Remember that it is to Jewish Christians in Rome to whom this letter is written. They are tempted to revert back to their Judaism because of the persecution they are facing from the Roman emperors because of their Christian faith.

The writer of Hebrews works them over pretty good. Over and over he reminds them of who Jesus is and then hits them on the side of the head with a stick to tell them to start thinking about the implications of their decision to drift back to Judaism.

In this warning, he makes the point that when we become Christians, there is a transaction that takes place. We are all sinners and it is our sin that keeps us from being able to exist in the presence of God. We are under a sentence of death then, because of our sin. After this life is over, if we are unable to exist in the presence of God, we will have to spend eternity outside the presence of God. That is our sentence of death that results from the sin in our lives.

But when Jesus died on the cross, he paid the price for each person’s life. He died on our behalf. He died in our place. A transaction was made. The death that had to be made because of my sins was transferred to Jesus and the righteousness of Jesus was transferred to me.

The writer of Hebrews says that once this has been done and we walk away, drift away from God, how can we presume to think that Christ must be sacrificed all over again? This is impossible, he says, “because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

This is not enough warning for the writer of Hebrews so he then rubs in this warning with an image. He talks about a field that accepts God’s blessings and perseveres with God. This is a piece of land that prospers and produces a useful crop. But there is also a field that produces thorns and thistles and is useless. In the end, this field will be burned.

This is a big stick, a strong warning. He is telling the Jewish Christians in Rome to get with it, persevere with Jesus, or face eternal damnation, being burned as a useless field.

Why does Hebrews contain such contrasts of glorious pictures of the supremacy of Jesus and such vivid warnings and threats to the readers of this letter if they do not follow Jesus? I get the sense that the writer of Hebrews is using every trick in his bag to get these Jewish Christians who are drifting from Jesus to turn around. He uses the carrot of Jesus to lure them back and the stick of these warnings to drive them back

The writer of Hebrews uses more than pictures of the supremacy of Jesus and warnings to get these Jewish Christians to turn back to Jesus. In the interlude in today’s text, between the picture of Jesus who dispenses mercy and grace and the threat of being burned up like a useless field, comes a section that uses chastisement along with mockery and ridicule to turn these Jewish Christians back to a focus on Jesus.

To get the flavor of this section, let me read it from the Eugene Peterson translation, The Message. You can follow with me, if you like, starting in Chapter 5:11

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one – baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the pre-school finger painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgement. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!

Basically he tells them to grow up – stop practicing baby Christianity and begin to act as mature Christians.

So what is Baby Christianity?

In a newcomers class for people new to the church certain things are taught. Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who is the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be a Christian?

This is the list presented in Hebrews. Elementary truths that a new Christian needs to understand: what it means to trust God, what it means when you are baptized, why it is we lay hands on people and what it means to do so, why is it Christ had to die and what it means to us that he was resurrected, what comes after this life for those who follow Jesus and for those who reject him.

This is basic knowledge. This is important knowledge. But if this knowledge does not lead to obedience, to perseverence, to action, what good is it?

If this knowledge does not enable the Jewish Christians of Rome to persevere through harassment and persecution, what good is it?

The writer of Hebrews urges these Jewish Christians to move pass Baby Christianity to mature Christianity:
9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation.  10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.  11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.  12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Why is the writer of Hebrews confident of better things than eternal destruction in the case of the readers of this letter?

10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

Knowledge is important. But it is what we do with the knowledge that we have that allows us to move beyond Baby Christianity.

The work and love we show God as we help his children and continue helping them is practicing mature Christianity.

As Christians we are called to love people, but especially we are called to love our Christian brothers and sisters. We are called to do this not just once but to continue to love and to persevere in our love for one another. To love one another especially when it is difficult to do so.

In a prelude to Chapter 11 and the great list of men and women of faith, the writer of Hebrews calls us to follow the example of those who did not give up when it got difficult but persevered. We will return to this theme in November as well.

The difference between Baby Christianity and Mature Christianity boils down to this, will you persevere when it becomes difficult? Will you obey God when it costs you something?

The history of the church in North Africa in the first three centuries is a very rich history. There were several waves of persecution in these first three centuries followed and preceded by times of peace when joining the church was not terribly difficult. In these times of peace, many joined the church but when persecution came, many in the church worshiped the emperor of Rome to save themselves from difficulty.

When it came to a choice between Baby Christianity and Mature Christianity, they chose Baby Christianity, believing without having to pay the cost of believing. When they were challenged to make a sacrifice in worship of the Emperor of Rome or face imprisonment, torture and death, Baby Christianity won out for many in the church.

I don’t want to sound too abstract and unsympathetic here. I have never faced the choice these early Christians had to face. When it comes to me losing my life for what I believe, that is the ultimate test, isn’t it? But when Mohammed, our Somalian brother in Christ who was under sentence of death in Yemen because of his conversion from Islam to Christianity, resisted denying his faith, it was Mature Christianity he practiced.

If Mohammed had denied his faith, he would have followed the example of the Apostle Peter, the first leader of the church. That is a difficult test. But how many of us face that ultimate test? Aren’t our struggles much less rigorous? As the writer of Hebrews later writes to these Jewish Christians in Rome when he urges them to persevere under the difficulties they face, they have not yet come to the point of shedding blood.

We struggle at a much less intense level.

I return tomorrow to the US for two and a half weeks. I’ve talked before about having struggles with some of my sisters who hurt me. I have a choice before me. I can continue to hold on to my anger and practice Baby Christianity or I can decide to be a Mature Christian and forgive and love my sisters as Christ loves them. I don’t want to do that. Every part of me rebels at doing that, but that is the choice before me.

Just in the nine months I’ve been in Rabat, I have discovered Christians who did not come to church on Sundays for a variety of reasons. One person came for a few Sundays and discovered that the music was not up to his standards and did not return to church for the two years he was in Rabat. That is Baby Christianity.

Other people decide that they prefer the worship style of the church from which they came and so do not come to RPF. That is Baby Christianity.

We are meeting this morning in our house because with the Pro-Palestinian Demonstration in Centre Ville, worshiping in our church building could potentially be dangerous. That’s OK. For one Sunday it is kind of fun. But what would happen if we were prohibited every week from meeting in the church building? What is we had to meet in homes week after week? Would we continue to meet for worship? Baby Christianity gives up, Mature Christianity continues to seek out the fellowship of other believers.

The world is full of Baby Christianity. In the US, 1 out of 3 Americans say they are born again (defined as reading the Bible daily and going to church weekly) and yet this group does not differ from the general population in terms of divorce rates, cheating on income taxes and other measures of moral behavior. That’s Baby Christianity, prompting Chuck Colson to say that Christianity in the US is 3,000 miles wide and ½ inch deep.

The church in Africa was growing so fast that in the 70s and 80s it was being called the Christian Continent and now the bottom 30 countries in the world as rated by the United Nations in terms of health and life expectancy are all in this “Christian Continent”. The “Christian Continent” is filled with corruption, promiscuity that leads to AIDS, violence and war. Christianity in Africa seems, like the US, to be only a couple centimeters deep.

I’m told a lot of people are praying to receive Christ as their Savior in the ports coming into Morocco. In our church people from time to time raise their hands when an invitation to follow Jesus is given. I’m pleased at these reports and with the people who respond in our services. But I want to see people make Jesus their Lord, not just their Savior. I want to see changed behavior. When 1 out of 3 people in the US say they are born again Christians, I expect to see a culture that drifts toward Biblical values, not away from them.

When the church grows as rapidly as it was growing in the continent of Africa, I expect to see the church have a positive influence on the culture, not participate with the violence and promiscuity and corruption that is destroying the countries of this continent.

I don’t really care how much you know about Christianity. I want to see you living out your Christian life. What do your friends say about you? Do they praise you for how much you know about Christianity? If that’s the best thing your friends can say about you, how sad. You can know the Bible backwards and forwards but until you are able to put into practice what you know, it has no value to you. Do your friends say you know a lot about the Bible or do they say that you are a person in whom they can see Jesus?

To the Jewish Christians in Rome, the message is that Jesus suffered and died for you and you talk about leaving him? Grow up!

The message to us is similarly that it is time we grew up. What is the area of struggle in your Christian life this morning? Where are the points of pressure you are facing that prevent you from following Christ? Work through strained relationships. Persevere through doubts and fears.

Look, I know it is difficult and I am not unsympathetic. I know that as hard as we try we will not always succeed. But hold in front of you the picture of Jesus who stands in heaven having died in your place so that you can have eternal life. Hold in front of you the picture of Jesus who loves you.

And then allow the warnings of Hebrews to be what it takes for you to move forward in obedience.