Don’t be Unfruitful
Hebrews 5:11 – 6:20
John 10:22 – 30
Don’t Be Unfruitful
Stealing my own thunder!
It’s not very often that I would steal my own thunder so to speak, and tell you at the beginning, where we’re going to land at the end of the talk!
But I am today, and here’s the thing I want us to have in our minds all the way through;, A true Christian cannot lose their salvation.
I realise that now having told you what I’m going to say, there’s a risk that you might all just take out your phones and start looking at Facebook or something!
But if for some reason we don’t get to the end, if the fire alarm goes off or something, I want you to know that!
The early part of Hebrews 6 is considered one of the most difficult or controversial, passages in the whole Bible, because it seems to suggest, that a Christian person can find themselves in a situation where they are no longer saved. See verse 4 of chapter 6, It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, etc etc, 6 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance
And we’re going to unpack that later, but in case I drop dead before we get to the end, I want us to be clear, and have great assurance about our forgiveness and salvation!
Grow up! (5:11 – 14)
Well, if you were with us last week, you’ll remember that we read from Genesis 14, when Abraham encountered this strange figure of Melchizedek, but having mentioned Melchizedek in verse 11 of chapter 5, the author then interrupts himself, to tell his readers that he wants them to grow up.
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand,
You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, and so on.
He’s saying, “I’ve wanted to paint for you this parallels between Melchizedek and Jesus,
To show you that how God acted in the past, prepares the way for Jesus,
That an eternal high priest interceding for you has always been God’s plan;, Jesus wasn’t plan B, and you can learn something of that through what the Scriptures tell us about Melchizedek.
But you need to grow up.
Perhaps when you were younger, being told you were “too young”, or “too little” may have been just about the most frustrating thing you could be told.
Your older siblings, or whoever, are allowed to,
Stay up late,
Watch that TV show,
Play on that equipment,
But you weren’t, because, “You’re too young”,
And as if it was any kind of consolation, you’d be told “Well, when you grow up, you’ll be able to do it as well.
Well, here the frustration, the shoe is on the other foot, isn’t it?
The author is frustrated, concerned at the spiritual immaturity of those he’s writing to.
But it’s not just that they’re baby Christians, that they haven’t been around long enough to learn this stuff, You know, they’re not quite sure how to find Haggai in the Old Testament, or whatever
It’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of effort.
Verse 11, it’s hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand
“You’re not putting in the effort to understand these things”, the writer says,
You’re spiritually immature, actually because you’re spiritually lazy when it comes to understand God’s unfolding revelation in the Bible.
See verse 13, Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Milk’s good, if you’re a baby, an infant! But if you don’t want to stay a baby forever, then you need to train yourself, by constant practice.
Are you able to distinguish good from evil?,
Or think about a Christian person who maybe comes across like they know a lot of stuff,
Are they person able to discern what’s right?
Do they have a good understanding about how their Christian faith shapes their life,
How they spend their money,
How they think about their career,
How do we grow up?
That’s what a mature Christian will be able to do. But we don’t get like that overnight,
Our minds and our faculties get to that point, by constant use, having trained ourselves to distinguish good from evil.
Sadly I often met Christians, who think of themselves as mature, They imagine themselves to be downing steak, not milk, but actually they’re not.
They’re not putting in the effort, to grow in their faith. They no longer try.
And if I see it so often in others, then it makes me think it’s a common trap, and I need to be on guard against it myself.
‘cause it is a danger for us, I think,
We look grown up,
We’ve been around church for a while,
But actually we’re not making decisions, distinguishing good from evil, in a way that a mature Christian should.
But perhaps we need milk, not solid food.
There’s a danger that perhaps we’re not as mature as we think we are.
We may have grown spiritually lazy, and therefore unfruitful.
One of our kids’ favourite movies is called The Boss Baby, and I haven’t yet grasped all of its intricacies, but it seems to be about someone who wears a suit and carries a briefcase, but is actually a baby!
Thinks he’s a grown up,
Is actually a baby.
It made we wonder, what would it look like?
The author says to his readers, you no longer try to understand, and so I wondered, what did he see in their lives, that made him think they need to grow up, they need to put in the effort.
Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered getting to church. But if anyone in their family had, well, anything else on, maybe they didn’t bother coming to church. We know he warns them later on in the letter about that. Maybe their lack of effort showed itself in that way.
And that could be a danger for us, couldn’t it?
We no longer put in the effort to gather with God’s people on Sundays, if anything else comes up, that’s what we do instead.
Maybe they expected someone else to feed them spiritually, with no effort on their own part. So, “I’ll listen to the sermon,
But I won’t read the passage ahead of time to help me get the most out of Sunday,
Won’t set aside time for personal Bible reading,
Don’t need to talk to other people about what I’m learning in the Scriptures,
Don’t need to ask someone, if I find something that I don’t understand.
And we can fall into that, too, can’t we? Like a baby who doesn’t even have to prepare its own food, we can take what’s given to us, appreciate that, sure, but not take any responsibility for feeding ourselves.
Our year 6 students are coming to the end of their time in the Junior Youth Bible Study on Sunday mornings, so in a few weeks’ time, their leaders are going to teaching them some simple tips, on how to take notes, as they’re back in here, hearing the Bible explained on a Sunday.
It would be a pity, wouldn’t it, for our 12 year olds, to be more diligent in their care and feeding of themselves, their trying to understand, than the rest of us.
I’m not saying you have to take notes, but I was intrigued to learn that the single biggest increase in people learning to write in shorthand, happened during the Great Awakening of the 18th Century, as people were determined to take away what they were hearing from the Scriptures.
Friends, let us make sure we don’t stop putting in the effort, to grow to maturity.
If the author of Hebrews were to write to us here at TMB, would he say, you no longer try to understand, or would he see in us, followers of Jesus who depend on God’s grace, and who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil, so that we may be taken forward to maturity, 6 verse 1.
The other thing I’ve noticed from the glimpses of The Boss Baby movie that I’ve seen, is that some of the babies, the ones in suits, carrying their briefcases and all that, they drink a special baby formula, so that they stay babies, and don’t grow up.
That is, they deliberately choose, to stay babies.
I reckon it’s easy, as a Christian, to choose to stay immature,
To not, try to understand.
There’s a certain appeal in that!
Let someone else do all the hard work!
Let’s not be spiritually lazy,
Let’s not be the babies who chose to stay as babies, but be willing to put in the effort to be taken forward to maturity.
It might be a good issue to talk about over morning tea today. I reckon some here would have really good ideas about how to guard against spiritual laziness.
Someone here had obviously been thinking about this passage during the week, and they sent me a quote, “If you’re tired of not being fed at your church any more, it might be time to take off your bib, and put on an apron!”
Ouch! But it’s not bad, is it?
We want a good foundation, there’s no doubt about that, but we also want people to be so well equipped by these elementary truths of God’s word that they’re able to teach them to others.
Don’t be satisfied with just your foundation (6:1 – 3)
Which might make us wonder about ourselves?
Am I equipped, to teach the elementary truths of God’s word?, or do I have a foundation, but nothing else?
Verses 1 and 2 of chapter 6 are one big long sentence which tells us what those elementary truths are. And they’re grouped in pairs, A pair looking at the past,
A pair in the present,
And a pair looking at the future.
repentance from acts that lead to death, faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands,
And the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
the laying on of hands is to do with recognising people’s gifts, and setting them apart for ministry, the others there are pretty straight forward, aren’t they?
That is, straight forward in terms of knowing what they refer to, and yet it’s easy for us to very caught up in these isn’t it?
Christians get tied up in wanting to argue with each other about what God’s eternal judgment of sin is going to be like,
How we’re going to be raised from the dead, and who’ll go first.
The ritual washings of Judaism, what the author calls cleansing rites there, they’re not really a big deal for us, but any kind of external religious activity,
How and when we baptise people,
What the shape of the Sunday gathering looks like,
If we find ourselves, always wanting to talk and argue about these elementary truths, it’s probably a warning to us, that we’ve got our foundation in place, and that’s good, but maybe there’s nothing built on top of it.
Are you only ever interested in discussing the same handful of basic truths about Christianity?
Do you have the same conversations, after church every Sunday?
Do you say the same thing in Bible Study Group each week, no matter what the passage is?
When you get together with your Christian friends, do you like to argue the same points over and over,
Never getting stretched,
Never learning anything new,
Never having your understanding shaped,
Never being taken forward to maturity?
During the 7 years that I lived in Darwin when I was a kid, we would often drive past a house that had been destroyed by Cyclone Tracy. Everything was gone, except the floor. And of course most Darwin houses in those days were elevated, so the floor was a couple of metres above the ground.
It was a bit of a local attraction;, the funny house that has a floor and nothing else!
And when we left Darwin, nearly 20 years after Tracy, the funny house was still there, it’s got a foundation, but nothing else, and it’s only good for people to gawk at, and wonder, what went wrong?
Why is it still like that?
Why has nothing been built on that foundation?
Why has nothing come to fruit there?
What a terrible series of questions, for someone to ask of a Christian.
There are some who will never be fruitful (6:4 – 8)
Because the author is acutely aware, that there are times when spiritual maturity doesn’t occur,
There are some in the church, who will never be fruitful.
Let me read verse 4, through to the beginning of verse 6, 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 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance
Now you can see the difficulty.
Some will never be fruitful.
You can get so far from God, that you never repent.
What do we do with this?
3 Possible ways to think about this warning
Christians today tend to think about this warning in 3 different ways .
1 – An actual danger: Christians can be lost forever
The first possibility is that the author is warning about an actual danger that describes the situation of his recipients; The Christians that he’s writing to, may find themselves at a point, where, having fallen away, wandered from the faith, they are unable to be brought back to repentance.
And if our faith is all about how strongly we hold it, or the things we do to maintain our faith, then this would be a possibility wouldn’t it?
Don’t hold on tight enough, fall away,
Don’t do enough good stuff, you’re out.
No possibility of repentance.
And any Christian could be lost forever.
2 – A Hypothetical danger: No one can ever do this
The second possibility, is that this warning doesn’t apply to the readers of Hebrews, in fact it doesn’t apply to anyone. It’s purely hypothetical.
No one has ever been in this situation,
No one will ever be in this situation. But what the author pictures here, according to this line of thinking, is a kind of sin that is impossible to commit.
No one will ever find themselves, fallen away, and unable to repent, but this is here to make us ask, “What if?”
What if this were possible, How bad would it be?
The problem with that line of thinking, as you can tell, is what’s the point of warning people about a sin that’s impossible to commit?
The author’s no idiot, he warns his readers about actual dangers, not about dangers that can never apply to anyone!
It just doesn’t make sense.
3 – An actual danger: People who look like Christians but are not
The third possibility, is that the people being pictured here, are not true Christians, but people who look like Christians,
Certainly people who are part of the church, or churches, that this letter is written to,
But people who are not genuine followers of Jesus.
This would certainly fit with what we know of the historical context of Hebrews, that there were many Jewish people who had heard about Jesus, perhaps been drawn into the church, found some aspect of the Christian message, or the Christian life attractive, but had never really taken it to heart, in a way that made a decisive break from their previous life in Judaism,
So when life got tough,
When the Christian life got hard,
When being seen as someone who was connected to Jesus meant you started facing persecution and opposition, then, because they weren’t really committed, they started drifting back into Judaism.
And the whole point of Hebrews is to hold up Jesus as someone who is worth persevering with, worth following with all your heart and life.
This approach to these verses, that understands them as a warning about people who have never truly committed to Jesus, also makes sense of what we heard from Jesus in John’s gospel.
Jesus says My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;,
no one will snatch them out of my hand.
Because our salvation from sin is not about us, but about what Christ has done for us, the issue is not how well we hold onto Jesus, but how well he holds on to us. And what does he say about the kind of grip he has on us?
no one will snatch them out of my hand.
It is impossible, for one of Christ’s people, those of whom he says, verse 27, I know them, it is impossible for them to be snatched out of his hand.
He says it a different way, too, doesn’t he? they shall never perish.
And just to make sure that we’ve got it, he says it again, My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
If you’re a Christian, then both God the Son, Jesus Christ, and God the Father, are holding onto you, so that you will never be snatched away.
God the Holy Spirit doesn’t get a mention there in John 10, but we’d only have to turn to somewhere like Ephesians 1 to see that he’s involved in this as well, as a deposit, guaranteeing, our heavenly inheritance.
As we packed up to move out of the TMB offices this week, I was moving a piece of furniture that I had built, and in the process, got myself absolutely covered in that expanding adhesive. It’s still all over the clothes I was wearing that day 5 years ago, and it’s the closest I’ve ever got to having bits of my body glued together!
That’s the kind of grip that Jesus says he has on those who are his;, glued to him, never to be removed.
You’ll know that this past week we’ve celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. But if you’ve read much about the Reformation, you might have come across the acronym TULIP, well the P in TULIP is this, the perseverance of God’s people.
Christ holds us, and the Father holds us. We will never be snatched away.
But there is a danger, a real danger, not a hypothetical danger that we’re being warned about.
Who are those being warned here?
Let’s do a little grammar. And if the thought of grammar sends shivers down your spine and makes you think you’re back in school, then consider this your putting in effort, towards your growth in maturity!
There are 4 verbs, doing words here. They’re translated as,
Having once been enlightened,
Having tasted the heavenly gift,
Having shared in the Holy Spirit,
And having tasted the goodness of the word of God.
Then there’s a conditional clause, if they, fall away, which is a little obscured in our English translation of verse 6.
I take it that verbs 2, 3, and 4, are supposed to unpack for us, what verb number one is all about.
Later on in Hebrews, the author uses the same idea of being enlightened, to speak of people who have been exposed to the Christian message and what the life of a Christian person looks like.
It’s the idea of having some understanding of the kindness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
Having tasted the heavenly gift, speaks of, not just knowledge of God’s kindness, but actually some experience of it. And in the early days of Christianity, this was often taken to mean these people had shared in the Lord’s supper, and had been baptised.
And there’s probably people we can think of, who look to all intents and purposes like they’re part of the church, they join in with the things that we do, but then turn their back and walk away from the church.
Having shared in the Holy Spirit is perhaps a bit tricky to work out. Clearly the author here can’t be speaking about the work of the Spirit in the same way as Paul does in that bit in Ephesians 1 that I mentioned earlier, where he calls the Spirit a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. If they’re talking about the work of the Spirit in the same way they’re contradicting each other.
But it seems here that it’s possible to have some experience of the work of the Spirit of God, not the indwelling of the Spirit and regeneration by the Spirit that Paul has in mind that sees us through to the end and enables us to persevere, but it’s possible to receive some benefit from the Spirit of God, perhaps even to be equipped with a particular gift by the Spirit of God, but not to have a personal relationship with Christ through the Spirit.
And then the warning is about those who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age.
It’s possible to come under the sound of the gospel,
To find the gospel message appealing,
To think that what the gospel message promises sounds good, and exciting, and worth looking forward to, and still not be one of Christ’s people, to still not have trusted in Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation with God,
To be still trusting in yourself, and your own goodness, and your own grip, to hold onto God, rather than entrusting yourself to Jesus’ grip, which never fails.
Matthew Parris, Times journalist in the UK, and a proud gay atheist has emphatically stated that the solution to the multiple crises facing the continent of Africa where he grew up, are Christian missionaries, and the God of the Bible they speak of.
In Matthew 7 Jesus speaks of people who prophesy in his name, and in his name perform many miracles, and yet they haven’t ever become true disciples of him.
King Herod, we’re told in the gospel accounts, liked hearing John the Baptist preach the Word of God, and had wanted for a long time, to meet Jesus. tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and yet he presided over the death of both John the Baptist and Jesus.
Those are the 4 verbs,
Then the conditional clause, if they fall away, if they reject the Word of God,
The enlightenment that comes from the gospel,
If they want nothing to do with the work of the Holy Spirit,
Well then it is impossible for them, to be brought back to repentance.
Now, let’s make sure we understand, God has not set a trap, and waited for people to fall in, like Road Runner and Wile E Coyote, “Ah, no repentance for you, you’re out!”
No, the reason they cannot be brought back to repentance, verse 6, is because if you turn your back on the enlightenment that comes from the gospel, verse 4,
If you reject the good gifts that God gives,
If all you want is just a smattering of the Holy Spirit, not entire inward renewal,
If you refuse to hear the Word of God, and deny its power and its authority,
You’ve put yourself outside the realm of where God is at work.
Of course there’s no repentance possible! There’s nowhere left to go!
If you reject everything that God’s done, including the means he’s provided for repentance, the crucifixion and public disgrace of his Son, there is no other way! Jesus can’t get crucified again just because you don’t want to take hold of his first crucifixion.
You’ve cut yourself off from the only means of repentance and reconciliation, and these people had every opportunity to respond to it.
But they showed, through their falling away, by their turning the back on the hope of the gospel, that they had never truly taken hold of it.
If someone falls away, as it’s pictured here, it demonstrates that their faith was not genuine.
Now, the author’s not talking about Christians falling into sin,
Christians struggling with sin,
Christians battling over and over with the same patterns of sin,
Nor is he talking about people who, for a time, walk away from church, live as is they’re not a Christian, and perhaps even describe themselves, as “no longer a Christian.”
Many of us will know people who kind of tick those boxes, but then perhaps came back to church, re-kindle their Christian life and once again start living with Jesus as their Lord.
How do we ensure we’re not unfruitful? (6:7 – 8)
No, the warning here is to people who aren’t Christians, But who look a lot like Christians.
And it’s a real warning, because, well, we look a lot like Christians, don’t we?
And so we’re urged to examine ourselves, to make sure that we’re not one of these people who looks like a Christian, who’s experienced some of the really great blessings of the gospel and of being among God’s people, but not actually ever trusted in Jesus.
The things that mark out these people, those 4 verbs, these are things that all Christians experience, but they’re not the defining mark of a Christian. The defining mark of a Christian is someone who Christ enables to persevere to the end.
The reason we’re given this warning, is so we see the danger of simply being among God’s people, of receiving some of the blessings of God’s kindness to us, but we never actually repent or trust in Jesus.
When someone we know decides they’re going to stop prioritising meeting together with God’s people,
They stop putting in the effort of growing to maturity as a Christian,
Maybe they deliberately choose to disobey God, and ignore his pattern for life, Hebrews tells us, not just to sit back and say, “Well, it’s OK, they can’t be snatched out of Jesus’ hand, so they’ll obviously come back in the end.”
No, these verses shake us out of our complacency, and say perhaps their falling away is a sign that they never actually trusted in Jesus in the first place,
Maybe their falling away demonstrates that they’ve never understood the gospel of Jesus,
And so we need to gospel them!
We mustn’t take this warning lightly!
Whether we see it in our own lives, or in the lives of others around us, this warning says, don’t be satisfied with people just looking like they’re part of the community of God’s people,
A good start, or a promising beginning, or a high profile role is not enough.
Whether someone continues in their faith is what demonstrates the reality of their faith.
That’s the point of the little agricultural illustration in verses 7 and 8 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.
A farmer’s got 2 fields, at the beginning of the season he or she prepares both fields,
Sows seed in both,
As the year progresses, both fields are watered,
Both maybe fertilised.
At harvest time, one produces a crop, the other produces thorns and thistles.
They both had the same beginning,
They both had the same inputs, but what’s the difference? What they produce at the end.
The land is proved worthless, when it’s fruitless.
What’s important in agriculture, is what’s important in the Christian life; How you get to the end.
And part of the way that God gets us to the end, is through warning passages like this, that cause us to examine ourselves.
Because those who are just along for the ride, but ultimately reject God’s revelation of himself in Jesus, and the means of salvation offered in Jesus, they’ll find themselves unable to repent, because they’ve rejected the one means open to them.
And how do you know?
How can you tell if you’re one of those who can never be brought to God because you cut yourself off from repentance?
Well, will you repent?
Will you turn to Jesus?
Will you throw yourself on his mercy?,
Take his offer of forgiveness?,
And trust in him to hold you firm and bring you to God?
If you’re willing to repent, then clearly you’re not one of those who cuts themselves off from repentance.
Even if you have, up until this point, been content to simply be among God’s people, today you can turn to Jesus, and begin a life of fruitfulness that continues to the end.
At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, the day of the Marathon race was unseasonably warm. 69 runners started, less than half finished, and one competitor collapsed and died during the race. But the name of one competitor lives on in sporting history, and you may well have heard of Shizo Kanakuri
Kanakuri suffered terrible heatstroke and exhaustion during the race. He gave up, caught a train back to Stockholm, and returned to Japan, all without telling the Olympic officials what he was doing. So for the next 50 years Kanakuri was officially listed as a missing person in Sweden!
But quitting is not what made him famous. He’s a household name in Japan, because in 1967 when it was discovered that he was alive and well, Kanakuri was invited back to Sweden to complete his race, and as such, he holds the record for the longest ever marathon time;, 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds
Why is he famous?
Why is he an encouragement?
Why do people love the story?
Because he didn’t just start, like the 68 others. He finished.
It took just about everything he had,
He had a lot of help, and he relied on a lot of other people,
But he finished,
He did what his country sent him to Stockholm to do.
He made it to the end.