The Study of Salvation
By James T. Bartsch, WordExplain.com
"Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity ..." Hebrews 6:1
What is the "Elementary Teaching" about the Messiah the Writer Wishes to Leave?
This is the second installment of a larger treatise entitled,
Does Hebrews 6:1-8 Teach Us We Can Lose Our Salvation?
by James T. Bartsch
The writer of Hebrews, at the beginning of this chapter (Heb. 6:1) states, "Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity ....." What does he mean? Predictably, there is a divergence of opinion among commentators as to what he means.___________________________________________
Without a doubt, a commentator's interpretation of what "the elementary teaching about the Christ" means is nuanced by his interpretation of the identity of the people described in Heb. 6:4-5, their "impossibility" in Heb. 6:6, and their fate in Heb. 6:7-8. Those who believe the people described in Heb. 6:4-5 were not Christians at all interpret the "elementary teaching" one way. Conversely, those who believe (I among them) the people of Heb. 6:4-5 were Christians, interpret the "elementary teaching" differently. First of all, let me illustrate what I believe the "elementary teaching" about the Messiah is not -- or at least, not entirely.
John MacArthur, in his commentary on Hebrews, p. 135, identifies the people described in Heb. 6:1-8 as follows:
People can go to church for years and hear the gospel over and over again, even be faithful church members, and never really make a commitment to Jesus Christ. That kind of person is addressed here. The writer is specifically talking to Jews who had heard the gospel and not accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, but the warning applies to anyone, Jew or Gentile.
Essentially, MacArthur takes the view that the subjects of Heb. 6:4-5 are pretenders. They have tasted Christianity but never really trusted in Jesus. Because of his view of who these people are, MacArthur (p. 135) takes a somewhat restrictive view of what the "elementary teaching about the Christ" means. And he certainly takes a far different view of what it means to "leave" the elementary teaching about Christ than I do. Let me quote him:
The elementary teaching about the Christ (Messiah) that the unbelieving Jews were to leave was the Old Testament teaching about Him—another indication that it is not immature Christians ("babes") that are being addressed. We are never to leave the basics, the elementary teachings, of the gospel, no matter how mature we grow in the faith. Remember, the issue here is not that of growing in spiritual maturity as a Christian, but of coming into the first stage of spiritual maturity by becoming a Christian. It is a matter of dropping, leaving, putting away, that which we have been holding onto and taking up something entirely new. Therefore it can only be a reference to unbelievers, because at no time does the Word of God suggest that a Christian drop the basics of Christianity and go on to something else.
It is the provisions and principles of the Old Covenant, of Judaism, that are to be dropped. It is not a question of adding to what one has. It is a question of abandoning what you have for something else.
I, on the other hand, am convinced that the people described in Heb. 6:4-5 were genuine Christians, albeit not mature. Consequently I have a different view of what the "elementary teaching" about the Messiah is, and certainly a different view of what it means to "leave" that "elementary teaching." Let me explain.
The writer, up to this point in his treatise, has gone to great lengths to explain who the Messiah is. (1) He is God's ultimate communication to man, (2) Son, (3) appointed heir of all things, (4) the One through whom God created the ages (Heb. 1:2). The Messiah is (5) the radiance of God's glory and (6) the exact representation of God's nature. (7) He is the One who upholds all the created order by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). (8) He made purification for our sins (9) and then sat down on the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3). Some of these themes about the Messiah the writer has introduced here, he expands a few paragraphs later, documenting his introductory statements with supporting Scripture.
(10) The Messiah is superior to the angels (Heb. 1:4 - 2:18).
(a) He has a better position than they do inasmuch as He has inherited a far better name (Heb. 1:4). As Messiah (Heb. 1:5), He is designated Son (Psa. 2:7). As descendant of David and beneficiary of the Davidic Covenant, God is a Father to Him and He, Son of the Father (2 Sam. 7:14). No such pronouncement of sonship was ever stated for the angels. 1
(b) Moreover, at Christ's incarnation, the angels were commanded to worship Him (Psa. 97:7; Heb. 1:6).
(c) While angels were assigned to materialize as winds and flames of fire (Psa. 104:4; Heb. 1:7), the Son was assigned the office of Messiah, to reign on God's eternal throne with a scepter of righteousness (Psa 45:6-7; Heb. 1:8-9). God anointed Jesus as Messiah with the oil of gladness (the Holy Spirit) above His companions (Isa. 11:2; 61:1, 3; Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34; Heb. 1:9).
(d) The Messiah was the Creator who, in the beginning created both the earth and the heavens (Psa. 102:25; Heb. 1:10). But while the heavens and the earth will decay and perish (Psa. 102:26; Heb. 1:11-12), the Creator / Messiah will remain unchanged, never passing away (Psa. 102:27; Heb. 1:12)
(e) While God has authorized the Messiah to sit at His right hand awaiting the time when He is to set up His kingdom upon earth when God subjugates His enemies under His feet, God has never said that to any angels (Psa. 110:1; Heb. 1:13). Instead, angels are merely ministering spirits, sent forth by God to serve those who will one day inherit salvation (Heb. 1:14).
(f) The word spoken through angels (i.e. the Old or Mosaic Covenant) was unalterable, and infractions were worthy of a just penalty. It will be impossible to escape if we neglect the great salvation offered to us by the Messiah (the Lord), and confirmed to us by the Apostles who heard Him, God Himself testifying with them through signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit as He willed (Heb. 2:1-4).
(g) God did not subject the coming inhabited earth to angels, but rather to the Son of Man, the Messiah, as the chief representative of mankind, who had been promised sovereignty over the works of God's hands. This is true though even for a little while, the Messiah was made lower than the angels (Psa. 8:4-6; Heb. 2:5-8).
(h) Though Jesus, the Messiah, was made for a little while lower than the angels, even suffering death for everyone, it was fitting for God, who wished to bring many humans into the position of existing as glorious sons of God, to perfect the author of their salvation through suffering. God does not give help to angels, but in this whole process of redemption, God gave help to Jesus, the descendant of Abraham so that He could be made like His redeemed human brethren in all things, serving as their merciful and faithful high priest (Psa. 22:22; Isa. 8:17-18; Heb. 2:9-18).
(11) The Messiah is Superior to Moses (Heb. 3:1-6). The readers are asked to consider Jesus, the "Apostle and High Priest" of our confession (Heb. 3:1).
(a) Though Moses was faithful in all His house, so Jesus was faithful to Him who appointed Him (Heb. 3:2).(12) The readers must continue to place their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Otherwise they will fail to enter God's rest (Heb. 3:7 - 4:13).
(b) Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses. While Moses was faithful in all his house as a servant, the Messiah was faithful over His house as a Son (Heb. 3:3-6).
The writer introduced this theme in Heb. 3:6, where he stated that Messiah existed as Son over His house -- whose house we are if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope.
Tragically, the generation of Israelis who wandered in the desert for forty years had hardened their hearts and did not enter God's rest (Psa. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11). The readers of the epistle, described as "brethren," must be careful that there be not in any one of them "an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God." They must encourage one another. The writer asserts, "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (Heb. 3:12-15).
The first generation of Israelis, those who exited Egypt under the leadership of Moses, did not enter God's rest of Canaan because of unbelief (Heb. 3:16-19). The writer urges his readers to enter the "Sabbath" rest of God (Heb. 4:1-13). He exhorts them to "be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" (Heb. 4:11).
(13) The Messiah is Superior to Aaron (Heb. 4:14 - 10:18).
(a) He is the ideal high priest (Heb. 4:14-16). In the person of Jesus, the Son of God, we have a great high priest who has passed into the heavens. Let us hold fast our confession in Him (Heb. 4:14). Our high priest is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses. Rather, though tempted in all areas just as we are, He was yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). The writer his readers, "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).
(b) He is a better priest in essence (Heb. 5:1-10). In contrast with the Messiah / High Priest, who had no sin, ordinary high priests must offer sacrifices for their own sin (Heb. 5:1-3). Though Aaron was called by God to be high priest, so also was the Messiah. But the call of the Messiah is greater than the call of Aaron. The same God who spoke to the Messiah authorizing Him as King (Psa. 2:7; Heb. 5:5) also stated to Him, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psa. 110:4; Heb. 5:6)! So the Messiah is greater than Aaron because He is King as well as High Priest, because he is priest after a different order, the order of the King-Priest Melchizedek, and because His priesthood, unlike Aaron's is eternal! Though a Son, Jesus learned obedience through His sufferings. Having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 5:7-10).
(c) The writer would dearly love to say more to his readers, but considered it a difficult task since they had "become dull of hearing" (Heb. 5:11). By this time they ought to be teachers, but they stood in need of someone else to teach them "the elementary principles of the oracles of God" (Heb. 5:12). They needed milk, not meat (Heb. 5:13-14).
And that brings us full circle to Hebrews 6:1, where the writer states, "Therefore leaving the elementary teaching" (literally, "the beginning message about the Christ"), let us press on to maturity." So in answer to the question, "What is the beginning message about the Christ?", we should answer, "That which the writer to the Hebrews has just finished discussing about the Messiah." In other words, the thirteen points listed above are an accurate and fairly extensive summary of what the writer meant when he spoke of "the elementary teaching about the Christ" or better, "the beginning message about the Christ" (Heb. 6:1).
Now, what did the writer mean when he talked about "leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ"? The word for "leaving" is aphiêmi (863). It can be used in a variety of meanings, including the following: a legal or technical term for divorce (1 Cor. 7:11); the forgiving of sins (Luke 7:47); a granting of permission (Mark 11:6); a letting go (Matt. 27:50); an abandoning, or leaving behind (Matt. 26:56); and neglecting (Mark 7:8). 2 Here, he simply means "discontinuing" or "bringing to a conclusion". The point is that the writer has completed his discussion of his beginning message about the Messiah. Now he wishes to go on to the maturity that he sees lacking in his readership.
In fact, contrary to abandoning "the Old Testament teaching about" the Messiah, as MacArthur would have us believe, the writer of Hebrews is going to double down on the OT teaching. After his exhortation in Hebrews 6:1-19, he will insist on going back to the OT teaching about Jesus being a superior high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:20). In fact, Melchizedek will come up again and again in Hebrews 7:1-28. The writer will continue to discuss the superior priestly ministry of Jesus the Messiah in Hebrews 8:1-6. In Hebrews 8:7 - 9:28 he will emphasize that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant. In Hebrews 10:1-18 he will discuss the fact that Jesus, the Messiah, is the inaugurator of a better sacrifice. My point is that, far from abandoning the Old Testament teaching about the Messiah, the writer capitalizes on and expounds upon that teaching.
The writer wants to give his readers, who are thinking about abandoning their confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, good reason not to do so. And his teaching does not abandon the Old Testament. It correctly interprets it in a Christological setting. All this is designed to bring his readers, eventually, to a rational decision to uphold their previous confession about Jesus being the Messiah. (See the writer's application in Hebrews 10:19 - 13:25.)
Spiritual maturity is the goal of the writer for his readers. His goal is not salvation, but rather he wishes them to arrive at a stage of completeness in their Christian life. The word is teleiotês (5047), used only twice in the NT, in Col. 3:14 and Heb. 6:1. In Colossians 3:14, Paul states that love is, literally, "the uniting bond of completeness." In other words, in the Christian life, differences of opinion, hurts, and grievances inevitably arise. But Christians are to forgive one another. Love is the balm that brings perfection, or completion in Christian unity and harmony. Similarly, in Hebrews 6:1, the writer wishes for his readers to arrive at a settled conviction, a completion, a perfection in their faith in Jesus. They were wavering. They were contemplating reverting to Judaism. He wants them to make good on their initial confession of faith (Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:23).
I personally can identify with that need for maturity, for completion, for perfection in my faith. I was saved as a young child. I attended a Bible Club in the basement of my own home as a four-year-old. The teacher taught on heaven and hell. I was petrified of going to hell. She asked if any of us would like to make certain that we were going to heaven and not to hell. I raised my hand up vigorously. I wanted to make certain!
My mother took me aside and explained the way of salvation. I don't remember the exact words she used, but I made a positive response of faith in Jesus at that point.
Later on, as an older child of eleven or twelve, I can remember having doubts about my salvation. I couldn't remember the exact process I had gone through seven or eight years earlier. So in my childish way I "made sure." I went through the process again of trusting in Jesus. That lasted until I was in high school. There I remember struggling with the existence of God. I couldn't prove God existed, and that bothered me greatly. My high school geometry teacher, a solid Christian, reminded me that in geometry, we assume certain things to be true that we cannot prove. We assume that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, even though we cannot prove that to be true. We call a truth like that a theorem. My teacher suggested we could do the same thing in theology. We can't prove God exists, but we can assume He does. He suggested that we make as our starting point "The God Who Has Revealed Himself in Scripture." If we do that, all of life makes sense. Having recently completed geometry, I could see the wisdom of his analogy. I did as he suggested and assumed God's existence. The tension in my soul melted away and I was greatly relieved.
My faith was challenged one final time. I was a freshman at then Grace College of the Bible in Omaha, Nebraska (then Grace University, now defunct). I was seated in the library in the basement of Suckau Chapel one Saturday morning. Doubt once again reared its ugly head. Had I really trusted in Jesus? What had those earlier decisions really meant? Once again, I decided to make certain. I bowed my head at the library table and said something like, "Jesus, if I never before really trusted you as my Savior, I do so now. I acknowledge my own sinfulness. I place my trust in You for forgiveness of sin and eternal life." I'm sure I read some Scriptures, such as Romans 3:23; 6:23; John 1:12; 3:16. Whatever the case, that was the last time that I have struggled with my faith in Jesus. My faith in Him has gone on to maturity. I no longer doubt my salvation. I would not think of reverting back to life without Jesus.
Similarly, the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to reach a stage of perfection, of completion in their faith in Jesus. He will have a lot of work to do, even teaching his readers some truths about Melchizedek that they had never before considered. The rest of the book of Hebrews will flesh out the writer's efforts to lead his readers to maturity in their faith in Christ.
1 This is true even though five times angels are designated as "Sons of God" (bene Elohim) - Gen. 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7.
2 Adapted from Friberg Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament.
(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB 1995.)
Initially published December 23, 2013
Updated February 26, 2022