New week, new day, new mercies. Welcome back to the podcast on this Monday. We are going to start the week talking about nicotine — pipe smoking, specifically. But I think this topic, and this question, is likely to open up a much broader conversation about other stimulants — caffeine, sugar, amphetamines, cannabis, and THC for some — substances that provoke the central nervous system.
The question is from a listener named Robert in Goldwater, Mississippi. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast! Eighteen months ago, in APJ 1702, you published an episode titled ‘On Cigarettes, Vaping, and Nicotine.’ It proved helpful to me. But I have a follow-up question for you. Many years ago, when I chewed smokeless tobacco, I discovered that my concentration for reading was improved. Apparently, the nicotine did something to my mind and body to increase my focus. Today I am considering taking up pipe smoking, something like C.S. Lewis did. I would continue this only if it improved my concentration. Pastor John, would you address the use of nicotine for the purpose of improved concentration?”
Well, I come into a question like this basically in the same category as everybody else. I am simply not an expert in all the possible effects — medically, socially, psychologically — that nicotine or other drugs might have on the human person. I have to do my simple research online just like everybody else does. That’s how I get ready for this podcast. I do what everybody else can do. I look for definitions and I go to Wikipedia. I go to medical websites and I try to get up to speed. So don’t put me on any kind of pedestal here like I’ve got some authority on how to answer a question like this. I’ve got my Bible; you’ve got your Bible. I’ve got Wikipedia; you’ve got Wikipedia. Here we go.
But here’s what I can do. What I can do is highlight some possible outcomes — just like anybody else can — of the use of various drugs, and I can point to some biblical guidelines and then pray that God’s people, myself included, would have great wisdom, and great self-control, and great passion for holiness and purity, and great love for others as we make our way through these days when more and more natural and artificial stimulants are available.
As I think about this question that he’s asking — about nicotine in particular — I’m going to broaden it out, because here in Minnesota a far more urgent question concerns cannabis (the constituent of marijuana) and the relatively recent upsurge of cannabis-infused drinks on sale for anybody wherever they have them. And they’re increasingly available, with all different percentages of cannabis.
The marijuana-like substance that goes into these drinks is called THC, which is short for an unpronounceable, long scientific word, which you can see in Wikipedia. That’s the psychoactive constituent of cannabis, and that’s what’s getting infused into all kinds of drinks and foods. If you read about the effects of THC, what you read is that there is a wide range of possible effects, from heightened sensory perception — I think that’s what Robert’s talking about — to relaxation, sleepiness, dizziness, dry mouth, euphoria, depersonalization, derealization, hallucination, paranoia, decreased or increased anxiety.
Now, the difference between smoking marijuana and drinking THC-infused drinks is that, when the drug is inhaled into the lungs, it passes quickly into the bloodstream, peaking in about ten minutes and wearing off in a couple of hours, while cannabis-infused foods and drinks may take hours to digest, and their effects may peak after two or three hours and persist for up to six hours. So says Wikipedia. You think I know things — I don’t know anything. This is just all learned for this podcast.
Of course, cannabis and nicotine are just two of many psychoactive stimulants, including sugar, caffeine, alcohol, opioids, betel nut, and not to mention the hard drugs that are illegal. Now, Robert says he used to use chewing tobacco as a way of getting better concentration, and he’s thinking about taking up pipe smoking if it works for the same reason. And what’s surprising in his question to me is that he didn’t raise any of the downsides of tobacco.
I mean, if you go to the Health and Social Services website online and just ask about that, here’s what you read:
Chewing tobacco can cause many types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, tongue, gums, stomach, esophagus, and bladder. Heavy users might also notice that their teeth can start to get worn down and stained by the chewing tobacco, which can also cause the gums to recede. Regular chewing-tobacco use is linked to higher heart attack risks too, since it is known to raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
And there are similar warnings for pipe smoking. So, for example, “Cigar and pipe smokers are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and lung diseases than those who do not smoke.” So you can do your own simple research, just like I do on sugar (I mean, how serious is that?) or caffeine or alcohol or various preservatives in drugs and foods — all kinds of things that worry people these days.
Eight New Testament Guidelines
The New Testament does not solve these ethical problems of what we should eat, what we should drink — how much or not at all — by giving us a list of foods and drinks that are lawful. It couldn’t. It didn’t even foresee what was coming down the pike. The New Testament writers weren’t given that kind of prescience.
It addresses these things much more profoundly than by giving us a list of foods that we should avoid or drinks that we should avoid. It deals with the nature of what goes into the body or comes out of the body, the nature of who we are as Christians, the nature of our body and our soul, the nature of our calling as Christians and what life in the body is for, and how we personally relate to other people in regard to what we eat or drink.
“It isn’t foods that defile. It’s the motives and aims that come out of the heart.”
So here’s my summary of biblical realities in the form of eight guidelines. Now, I’ve never listed them like this before; this was all fresh for me as I thought about getting ready for this particular question, and I found breaking them out like this was helpful for me. I hope it will be for others. I’ll state it simply and give you the place that I get it from the Bible.
Foods or drink, material things that go into the body, are not in themselves spiritually contaminating. It is the motives and the aims and the effects that make food and drink become morally significant.
Jesus said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” (Mark 7:18–20)
That’s principle number 1. It isn’t foods that defile. It’s the motives and aims that come out of the heart.
Therefore, food and drink are God’s good creation and are meant to be enjoyed as an occasion of thanksgiving to God.
[False teachers] require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:3–5)
The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We should let that have a very profound effect on us. Keep the temple holy because it’s inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Keep the body properly set apart for God’s habitation. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Your body is a member of Christ. Our bodies are part of Christ’s body. So we not only are inhabited by the Holy Spirit; we’re part of Christ. We bring him into every habit we form with our bodies. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15).
Christians don’t use their freedom just because they have it; they ask about what is helpful for their faith and the faith of others. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Christians don’t just use their freedom because they have it; they seek to avoid freely walking into a habit that enslaves. That happens. People really do use their freedom to get enslaved. Don’t do that. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be [enslaved] by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Your body does not belong to you. God bought it with the blood of Christ. God owns your body — it’s his. His purpose is that you make your choices about your body in order to make God look valuable, beautiful, satisfying. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
Christians don’t make food and drink and stimulant decisions in isolation. They walk in love and take into account how their habits will help or hurt others. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
By the Spirit, Not Lists
So this is the way God wants us to live: not by lists, but by the Spirit. Paul put it like this in Romans 7:6: “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” And the new way of the Spirit is to let these passages inspired by the Spirit shape the way we see God, the way we see Christ, the way we see the Holy Spirit, the way we see our bodies, the way we see food and drugs, the way we see freedom, and the way we see love and the good of other people. The new way of the Spirit is a whole new conception of God and Christ and Spirit and life and body and love, and that’s how Christians live.
So may the Lord take Robert and me and all of us deep into his word and Spirit, and may he be your teacher so that you and I and we would all walk in freedom, in joy, in holiness, for the glory of God.
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The Rock Was Christ: How Paul Read the PentateuchBy Jim Hamilton — 7 months ago
ABSTRACT: “And the Rock was Christ.” Some have interpreted Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 10:4 as a departure from grammatical-historical exegesis, or even as evidence that Paul gave credence to unhistorical Jewish myths. A close reading of his words against the backdrop of the canon, however, shows that Paul was reading Moses the way Moses intended. In the Pentateuch, Moses identifies the two water-giving rocks in the wilderness with Yahweh himself. Later in the Old Testament, the psalmists and prophets further identify the rock with Yahweh and look forward to a new exodus. In the Gospels, Jesus fulfills Old Testament expectations for that new exodus, with himself as the bread from heaven and water-giving rock. And in 1 Corinthians, therefore, Paul embraces the united perspective of the biblical authors. In drinking water from the rock, the Israelites drank from a type of Christ, who now lives as the thirst-quenching spiritual Rock of the church.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Jim Hamilton, professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to explain Paul’s typological exegesis in 1 Corinthians 10:4.
Peter Enns identifies his “aha moment” — when he realized that what he was taught about the Bible and how to interpret it in his evangelical background was untenable — as coming to his understanding of 1 Corinthians 10:4: “They drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Enns relates how Professor James Kugel explained in a lecture
that water coming from the rock twice — once at the beginning of the wilderness period (Exodus 17) and again toward the end of the 40-year period (Numbers 20) — led some Jewish interpreters to conclude that the “two” rocks were actually one and the same, hence, one rock accompanied the Israelites on their 40-year journey.
To help his readers feel the force of the problem, Enns asserts,
Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did. Paul says something about the Old Testament that the Old Testament doesn’t say. He wasn’t following the evangelical rule of “grammatical-historical” contextual interpretation. He was doing something else — something weird, ancient, and Jewish.
I am going to argue in this essay that we should regard this moment as an “oops” rather than an “aha.” That is, Enns’s conclusions do not stand up to examination. While the apostle Paul has interpreted the Old Testament in accordance with the intentions of its authors, Peter Enns has not.
Before we look at the Old Testament contexts and New Testament claims of fulfillment, let us observe that Paul does not say exactly what Enns says he does. Enns claims that Paul says the rock moved, and he takes that as conclusive evidence that Paul believed an ancient Jewish myth that was not, in fact, true.1 Note, however, that Paul identifies the rock as Christ, in which case a possible interpretation is that Paul does not endorse the Jewish myth at all but rather says that the people drank from Christ, their rock, and that Christ followed them through the wilderness.
In what follows, we turn our attention to the Old Testament contexts of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, and move from there to how the ideas developed in the rest of the Pentateuch and later Old Testament writings. We will then consider the way Jesus seems to present himself as the fulfillment of the water-from-the-rock episode, before returning to Paul’s treatment in 1 Corinthians 10.
Water from the Rock in Exodus and Numbers
Michael Morales has persuasively suggested that the whole of the Pentateuch is chiastically structured, centering on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, with the two episodes of water from the rock standing across from one another in the literary structure.2 This suggests that Moses, author of the Pentateuch, intended the two episodes to be read in light of one another.3
Given the topic under discussion, it seems particularly significant that the first of these episodes entails Yahweh standing before Moses on the rock that Moses is to strike, from which the water will flow for Israel to drink: “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). It is almost as though, by placing himself on the rock that Moses is to strike, Yahweh means to identify himself, in some sense, with the rock, so that when Moses strikes the rock he implicitly strikes Yahweh, as a result of which the people’s need for water will be met.4
Some points of contact between the contexts of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 are worth observing. For instance, after the water from the rock in Exodus 17, Israel defeats Amalek, and Moses builds an altar and names it “Yahweh is my banner” (Exodus 17:15), the term rendered “banner” reflecting the Hebrew nēs. After the water from the rock in Numbers 20, Israel defeats Arad (Numbers 21:1–3) but then speaks against God and Moses (verse 5), in response to which the Lord sends fiery serpents so that many Israelites die (verse 6). When the people repent, the Lord instructs Moses to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole” (verse 8), and the term rendered “pole” in Numbers 21:8–9 is the same as the term rendered “banner” in Exodus 17:15, nēs. The only other place this term is used in all the Pentateuch is Numbers 26:10, making its presence in the contexts that immediately follow the two water-from-the-rock episodes all the more noticeable.
Given the myth of the moveable well that supposedly followed Israel from Exodus 17 until they entered the promised land in Joshua, it also would seem noteworthy that they come to a well in Numbers 21:10–20. In terms of narrative space, Israel has the rest of Numbers 22–36 and all of Deuteronomy before they enter the land. This includes the defeat of Sihon and Og (Numbers 21), the Balaam oracles (Numbers 22–24), and the sin at Baal Peor (Numbers 25), followed by the war against Midian (Numbers 31). So it would seem that they still face some time before they enter the land of promise, which is to say, the Pentateuch itself shows that the rocks Moses struck were not Israel’s only water sources during the forty-year wilderness wandering.
“At no point does Moses indicate that a literal stone or a moveable well followed Israel through the wilderness.”
The two narratives in question, Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, stand in literary relationship to one another, but at no point does Moses indicate that a literal stone or a moveable well followed Israel through the wilderness.
Water from the Rock in Deuteronomy
Note again that the apostle Paul does not, as Peter Enns suggests, endorse the Jewish myth of the moveable well. That is, Paul does not say that the rock from which the water flowed in Exodus 17 followed Israel through the wilderness, giving them water across the forty-year period. Rather, Paul says that Israel drank from the “spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). Why does Paul call it a “spiritual Rock,” and where would he have gotten that idea? As a step toward an answer for why Paul would refer to a “spiritual Rock,” I make two related observations. First, Paul identifies this “spiritual Rock” as Christ. Second, the KJV and ESV capitalize “Rock” in the phrase “spiritual Rock,” which seems to indicate that these translation committees understand Paul to be calling God the “spiritual Rock,” with Paul then identifying Christ with God.
As to where Paul might have gotten these ideas, I contend that he got them from the Old Testament itself, beginning with Moses. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses calls God “the Rock” five times (all with the Hebrew term ṣūr *for “rock,” which is also in Exodus 17:6, whereas Numbers 20:8–11 uses *selaʿ):
Verse 4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Verse 15: “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”
Verse 18: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Verse 30: “How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up?”
Verse 31: “For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves.”
Perhaps reflecting the incident in Exodus 17:6, when Yahweh stood on the rock, so that when Moses struck the rock it was as though he struck through Yahweh to smite the rock, in Deuteronomy 32:13 there seems to be an identification made between Yahweh, Israel’s “Rock,” and the “rock” from which they drank:
32:13: “He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock [selaʿ], and oil out of the flinty rock [ṣūr].”
Since both terms for “rock” appear in Deuteronomy 32:13, the one from Exodus 17:6 (ṣūr) and the other from Numbers 20:8–11 (selaʿ), it seems that Moses means to reference both passages.
Note, too, the proximity of the “rock” statements to one another in the poetry of Deuteronomy 32 — Yahweh is the rock whose work is perfect (verse 4), and he suckled his people with oil from the flinty rock (verse 13), but they were unmindful of Yahweh, their rock (verse 15). It also seems significant that Moses does not speak of prosaic and historical water from the rock but rather speaks poetically in verse 13 of honey from the crag and oil from the rock. Hereby Moses accentuates the life-giving provision the Lord made for his people, and simultaneously he forges a connection between the identity of Yahweh as the Rock for Israel and the physical rock, struck by Moses, from which water flowed.
I want to point out here as well that teasing out the sophisticated metaphorical and theological implications of the kinds of statements Moses makes does not entail a departure from grammatical-historical interpretation. No, understanding all the fullness of what Moses has written across the Pentateuch demands that we understand his grammatical constructions and the historical meaning of his terms in their literary context. We get at poetic, symbolic, metaphorical meanings by going through grammatical-historical interpretation in canonical context, not by departing from these necessary interpretive controls.
Before moving on to references to the water-from-the-rock episodes later in the Old Testament, we should make two observations on what Moses meant to communicate in the Pentateuch. First, we have no indication that Moses intended his audience to understand that the rock he struck in Exodus 17:6 became mobile and followed Israel through the wilderness all the way to the second incident in Numbers 20:8–11. In fact, the use of different Hebrew terms for “rock” in Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:8–11 seems to indicate that Moses did not intend his audience to understand that he struck the same object on the two occasions.
Second, there are indications that Moses meant for his audience, at some level, to identify Yahweh with the rock. Moses clearly distinguishes between Yahweh and the rock, and yet by relating how Yahweh stood before Moses on the rock he was to strike (Exodus 17:6), and then by referring to Yahweh as Israel’s Rock in close proximity to his rehearsal of the water-from-the-rock episodes in Deuteronomy 32, Moses seems to say that Yahweh is the real source of Israel’s provision, the real solid ground and stable shelter. Yahweh is the Rock for his people.
Water from the Rock in Later OT Writings
There are a number of references to the Lord providing water from the rock through the rest of the Old Testament. Consider the following:
Isaiah 48:21: “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock [ṣūr]; he split the rock [ṣūr] and the water gushed out.”
Psalm 78:15: “He split rocks [ṣūr] in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.”
Psalm 78:16: “He made streams come out of the rock [selaʿ] and caused waters to flow down like rivers.”
Psalm 78:20: “He struck the rock [ṣūr] so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?”
Psalm 78:35: “They remembered that God was their rock [ṣūr], the Most High God their redeemer.”
Psalm 81:16: “But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock [ṣūr] I would satisfy you.”
Psalm 105:41: “He opened the rock [ṣūr], and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river.”
Psalm 114:8: “. . . who turns the rock [ṣūr] into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.”
Job 29:6: “. . . when my steps were washed with butter, and the rock [ṣūr] poured out for me streams of oil!”
Note three observations on these texts. First, just as Moses never indicates that the physical stone he struck in Exodus 17:6 followed Israel through the wilderness for forty years, so also later Old Testament authors never indicate that during the forty-year wandering in the wilderness Israel relied upon a moveable well to provide them with water. That is to say, the myth of the moveable well does not derive from exegesis of the Old Testament.
Second, in the same way that Moses identified Yahweh with the rock, later Old Testament authors regularly speak as David does in Psalm 18:2: “The Lord is my rock [selaʿ] and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock [ṣūr], in whom I take refuge.” In the bullet-pointed list above, I included the references to the water from the rock in Psalm 78:15, 16, and 20, and in that same psalm we see the assertion, “They remembered that God was their rock [ṣūr]” at verse 35. Similarly, in Psalm 42:1 the psalmist likens God to the streams of water for which the deer pants, and then in 42:9 he says, “I say to God, my rock [selaʿ].”
Third, these references to the water-from-the-rock episodes in later Old Testament texts often point back to the way God saved his people at the exodus in order to point forward to the way he will save them at the new exodus. In other words, once the two water-from-the-rock episodes in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 have been narrated, when water from the rock is mentioned in later Old Testament texts, these later authors are contributing to the typological expectation of a new exodus.
I contend, then, that Moses, the prophets, and the psalmists all treat the water-from-the-rock episodes in the same way: Moses narrates the historical events of the exodus, and because he has presented similar patterns of events in the lives of Abraham (Genesis 12:10–20; 15:7–16) and Jacob (Genesis 28–32), while also indicating that the conquest of the land will be a new exodus (Exodus 15:5–10, 13–17), the historical correspondences generate an escalating sense of expectation.5 That is to say, Moses intends his audience to understand that the exodus (including related wonders like manna from heaven and water from the rock) typifies the way God will save his people in the future. The prophets and the psalmists have learned from Moses and been led by the Spirit to understand the exodus and water from the rock in the same way, and thus they too present Israel’s past experience of salvation as typifying what God will do for them in the future.
Moses and the Old Testament authors who followed him did not indicate that the literal stone followed Israel through the wilderness, but they did indicate that insofar as Yahweh was Israel’s real source of protection and provision, he was their Rock. Further, they also indicate that the exodus and God’s provision for his people in the wilderness typify the way God would save his people in the future. I contend that the New Testament authors learned this same perspective from Moses, the prophets, and the Lord Jesus.
Water from the Rock in John’s Gospel
In his Gospel, John everywhere presents Jesus as the one who brings about the typological fulfillment of the exodus from Egypt.6 As part of this, in John 4:10–14 Jesus presents himself as the source of living water. Then in John 6, Jesus is the prophet like Moses (verse 14) who feeds the people in the wilderness in the season of Passover (verses 4–13). Then having miraculously crossed the water (verses 16–21), Jesus identifies himself as the true bread from heaven that gives life (verses 32–33), going so far as to assert, “I am the bread of life” (verse 35).
Whereas the feast of Passover celebrated the exodus from Egypt, the feast of Tabernacles celebrated the way God provided for his people through the forty-year wilderness wandering, when God led his people by the pillar of fire and cloud and gave them water from the rock. These two aspects of Israel’s experience likely inform the famous candle-lighting and water-pouring ceremonies that came to be celebrated in the feast of Tabernacles (cf. m.Sukkah 4:9–5:3). In keeping with this, Jesus not only presents himself as the light of the world (John 8:12), but he also presents himself as a rock-like source of water, only he offers something better than water: the Holy Spirit (7:37–39). In the same way that Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the manna from heaven and the pillar of fire, he is the fulfillment of the rock from which the water flowed.
Thus we read in John 7:37–39,
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
I submit that John intends his audience to understand this statement along the following lines: In the same way that God saved his people from Egypt then provided for them in the wilderness, God is saving his people through Jesus and will provide for them in him until they reach their destination. In the fulfillment of the exodus accomplished by Jesus, however, God gives something better than manna from heaven and water from the rock to sustain his people on their life-journey through the wilderness to the fulfillment of the land of promise, the new Jerusalem in the new heavens and new earth. God gives his people Christ himself as the bread of life, and Jesus gives to his people the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the water from the rock.
John has asserted that Christ is the Word made flesh (John 1:14) and that the Word was in the beginning, was with God, and was God (1:1–2). John thus identifies Jesus with Yahweh, and his presentation includes Christ, the one who has promised living water, being struck: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (19:34). After testifying that he tells the truth (verse 35), John immediately asserts that the fact that the legs of Jesus were not broken (verses 32–33) fits with his death being the typological fulfillment of the death of the Passover lamb in the fulfillment of the exodus pattern of events: “These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’” (verse 36).
From the Gospel of John, we can make the same three points about the idea of water from the rock that we have made about this theme in Moses and the Prophets. First, at no point does John present Jesus or any other character in his narrative suggesting that a literal rock or moveable well followed Israel through the wilderness across the forty-year wandering. Second, Yahweh, and in John’s case Jesus, whom he identifies with Yahweh, is symbolically and metaphorically presented as the one who abides with, provides for, and protects his people, and like Moses, John presents the Lord as the stricken water-giver. And third, God’s deliverance of his people at the exodus and through the wilderness typifies the future salvation, which John claims is fulfilled in Jesus.
Given the claims made by Peter Enns, we can engage in a thought experiment at this point. Which is the more likely scenario, that Paul perpetuates what Moses, the prophets, the psalmists, and the evangelist John indicate about water from the rock, or that Paul picks up a relatively obscure Jewish myth7 — a myth unsubstantiated by exegesis of the Torah, unsupported in the Prophets and Psalms, and unattested in any tradition of what Jesus taught — and perpetuates it in 1 Corinthians 10:4?
It is not as though there were no careful thinkers in Paul’s earliest audiences, and it is not as though all his letters were recognized as having been inspired by the Spirit and included in the New Testament. I suspect that if the believing community had understood Paul to be perpetuating that myth, which was in fact false to history, they would not have received what we now refer to as 1 Corinthians into their growing collection of New Testament Scripture.
So what did Paul say, and what does it mean?
‘And the Rock Was Christ’ in 1 Corinthians 10:4
Paul has addressed the identity issues, sexual immorality, and idolatry plaguing the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 1–9. The identity issues manifest in members of the church making themselves notable through their claims about whom they follow, whether Paul, Cephas, or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12), and in his opening words in chapter 10 Paul continues to reshape their understanding of who they are with his typological application of Scripture. He addresses the Jewish and Gentile congregation as his “brothers,” and he refers to the exodus generation as “our fathers”: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea” (10:1). Paul speaks to the church as though they belong to the family of faith.
In the reports that have come to him (e.g., 1:11; 5:1; 7:1), Paul may have heard that some members of the church thought that because they had been baptized and had partaken of the Lord’s Supper, they could engage in sexual immorality and/or idolatry with impunity — or he could be anticipating this unacceptable response. He seems to address this mindset with his typological explanation of what happened to Israel in 1 Corinthians 10:2–5.
Paul’s view appears to be that Moses presented a recurring pattern in which Noah was saved through the floodwaters of judgment, then baby Moses was saved in his ark-basket through floodwaters of judgment, and then the nation was saved through the floodwaters of judgment when they crossed the Red Sea (there are verbal connections between these narratives that signal Moses’s intent to link them).8 The Lord Jesus seems to allude to this “salvation through the floodwaters of judgment” theme when he speaks of his looming death as a baptism he has to undergo (e.g., Mark 10:38–39). Paul explains in Romans 6 that when believers are immersed in water, they are plunged into a symbolic union with Christ in his death, that they might then symbolically rise from the waters with him (Romans 6:1–11; cf. Ephesians 2:5–6).
Thus, when Paul speaks of Israel being “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” in 1 Corinthians 10:2, he words it this way to highlight the pattern of salvation-through-the-waters-of-judgment that typify Christian baptism. Paul moves to address the presumption that baptism allows one to sin with impunity by rehearsing how “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (verse 5). The point being: Israelites “were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (verse 2), and God judged them for their sin, so do not think that having been baptized into Christ allows for continuing in sin with impunity.
Before we proceed to discuss 1 Corinthians 10:3–4, we must note the thoroughly typological way Paul is dealing with the events of the exodus from Egypt. The Greek rendered by the ESV “examples” in verse 6 and “example” in verse 11 is the root we transliterate to form the English term type. We could just as well translate these statements as follows:
Verse 6: “Now these became types of us . . .”
Verse 11: “Now these things happened to them typologically . . .”
The point I am trying to emphasize is that just as Moses indicated that the exodus typified future salvation, just as the Prophets and Psalmists learned that view from Moses, and just John presented Jesus as the one who brought the exodus pattern of salvation to typological fulfillment, so Paul applies the exodus and wilderness narratives typologically to the Corinthians. On this point, Paul’s understanding is consistent with that of Moses, Isaiah, Asaph, John, and Jesus of Nazareth.
When Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 10:3–4 of the exodus generation eating “spiritual food” and drinking “spiritual drink,” he clearly has in view the manna from heaven and water from the rock. He seems to refer to these as “spiritual” as opposed to “natural” (cf. the same contrast in 1 Corinthians 2:14–15) because, unlike normal food and water obtained in the usual human way, this food and water were provided through the direct intervention of God. The fact that Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper in 10:16–21 and again in 11:17–34 fits with the idea that he sees the manna from heaven and water from the rock as prefiguring types of the Lord’s Supper. In the same way that, having saved Israel from Egypt, God provided for them through the wilderness on their journey to the land of promise, so now, having saved Christians through the fulfillment of the exodus in Christ, God provides the Lord’s Supper to sustain his people through the wilderness to the fulfillment of the land of promise in the new heavens and new earth. Paul’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper thus matches the way that the Lord Jesus provided himself as the fulfillment of the manna from heaven in John 6 and the fulfillment of the rock from which the water flowed in John 7.
This brings us to Paul’s explanatory comment in 1 Corinthians 10:4b: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” The fact that Paul calls this a “spiritual Rock” argues against the idea that he means to refer to a literal stone that supposedly followed Israel around in the wilderness. That he proceeds to identify this Rock with Christ amounts to the assertion of a conclusion that naturally follows from the premises he has established, and neither the premises nor the conclusion has anything to do with the myth of a moveable well.
Rather, Paul’s premises are those that we have seen in the Law, Prophets, Writings, and Gospels. First, this is a “spiritual Rock” for the same reason the food and drink were “spiritual” — because it is not a naturally occurring physical stone as a source of water but something that results from the direct intervention of the transforming work of God. Second, just as Moses identifies Yahweh with the rock, and just as John identifies the Christ with Yahweh, so Paul identifies the rock with Christ. Third, just as the point of identifying Yahweh as the rock was to communicate his presence with, protection of, and provision for his people, so also Paul asserts that the people of Israel experienced the presence, protection, and provision made by Christ. This affirms the inseparable operations of the members of the Godhead — what the Father does the Son does — and it matches Jude referring to “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5).
“The God who saved Israel at the exodus and in the wilderness is the Christ who has saved Christians.”
Paul’s point here is to warn the Corinthians. He urges them not to think, wrongly, that they can sin with impunity since they partake of the Lord’s Supper. His proof against this is that even though the Israelites partook of the type of the Lord’s Supper, God judged them for their sin. Why does Paul assert that the rock was Christ? By doing so, he affirms that the God who saved Israel at the exodus and in the wilderness is the Christ who has saved Christians.
Paul the Biblical Theologian
How would the affirmation of the little-known myth of the movable well have helped Paul to make this point with his Corinthian audience? Would it not have been a confusing distraction from the point he sought to make? Would it have helped him to establish typological identity between Israel and the church? Would it have helped him to warn the church in Corinth away from the sexual immorality and idolatry that tempted them? Would it have helped them to relish their experience of the fulfillment of the manna from heaven and water from the rock as they partook of the Lord’s Supper? Would it have established him in the church as a sound interpreter of the Law and the Prophets, as a faithful exponent of the message of the Lord Jesus? Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 4:6, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” Bringing in the myth of the moveable well undoubtedly goes “beyond what is written,” and such interpretive moves more likely characterized Paul’s opponents in Corinth rather than Paul himself.
“Christ is the Rock. Let all who thirst go to him and drink.”
The fact that the moveable well would not have helped Paul in any of these ways does not establish that he did not reference the myth. That he did not say it has already done that. Paul did not say something like, “Forty years did he rain bread from heaven for them, and he brought them quails from the sea, and a well of water following them” (Ps.-Philo, L.A.B., 10.7). Paul did not teach that the miracle that happened in Exodus 17:6 kept happening across the forty years in the wilderness because the well from which the water flowed actually followed Israel through their journey. No, Paul did what Moses did. He treated the exodus and wilderness narratives typologically. He identified the rock with God, and for Paul that includes God the Son, Christ. And hereby we see the brilliance of Paul as a biblical theologian. He has succeeded in the task of understanding and embracing the perspective of the biblical authors,9 and the church recognized that Paul’s success was due in no small part to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Further, they recognized that the Spirit had inspired Paul’s writing of what we refer to as 1 Corinthians, as attested by its presence in the New Testament.
Christ is the Rock. Let all who thirst go to him and drink. And those who go to him shall never hunger, those who believe in him never thirst, for what he gives is better than mere water. Indeed, he gives the Spirit. And those who eat this bread and drink this cup proclaim his death until he comes. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
You Won’t Find Yourself WithinBy Brian Rosner — 10 months ago
A gym near where I live advertises itself with the slogan “Be Fit. Be Well. Be You.” A new apartment complex around the corner, offering high-end luxury designs, carries the line “An Unlimited You.” One school’s marketing gave this advice to its current and prospective students: “Be Inspired. Be Challenged. Be Excellent. Be You.” People everywhere say, “Be true to yourself,” “Follow your heart,” “Be yourself,” “You do you.” We live in an age of unprecedented interest in the subject of personal identity.
Most people today believe there is only one place to look to find yourself, and that is inward. Personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. All forms of external authority are to be rejected, and everyone’s quest for self-expression should be celebrated. You are who you feel yourself to be on the inside, and acting in accordance with this identity constitutes living authentically. This movement is sometimes called expressive individualism.
Dangers of Self Focus
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with looking inward. Personal exploration and self-reflection are valuable (2 Corinthians 13:5). The desire to see many marginalized groups in society, whose identity markers differ from the mainstream, given appropriate dignity is commendable. And authenticity as a moral ideal is a good thing.
However, notwithstanding these benefits, there are fatal flaws with the strategy of only looking inward to find yourself.
First, the focus on self generates a fragile self, easily destabilized and lacking in genuine and lasting self-knowledge. Receiving her honorary doctorate from New York University, Taylor Swift summed up the identity cultural moment in this way: “We are so many things, all the time. And I know it can be overwhelming figuring out who to be. . . . I have some good news: It’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: it’s totally up to you.”
“The cruel irony is that while it’s never been more important to know who you are, it’s never been more difficult.”
Along with the exciting opportunity to find yourself comes the daunting possibility of not succeeding — or of not liking what you find. The cruel irony is that while it’s never been more important to know who you are, it’s never been more difficult. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “The human race is suffering from a collective identity crisis” (The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 158).
Looking inward to find yourself also fails to lead to the good life. Many widely reported societal trends suggest that life is getting worse rather than better for many people: rises in cases of anxiety and depression, an explosion of narcissism, the absence of compassion in our society, our culture of reflexive outrage, and (by any measure) a fall in happiness and well-being.
People point in many directions for an explanation of such trends: not enough mindfulness, technology addling our brains, crowd behavior, the failure of major institutions (politicians, churches, media, banks), loss of shared values, absence of community cohesion, and so on. However, some of these are symptoms rather than causes. I suggest that a big part of the problem comes from where we’re looking to find ourselves. And that means the solution includes a broader perspective.
Where to Look to Find Yourself
Being social beings, we look around to others; we know ourselves by being known, intimately and personally, by those around us. The limitations of self-knowledge are impressed upon me every time I shop for clothes and the change room has more than one mirror. Or when I listen to my voice on a recording. In both cases, I think, Who is that?
You and I might like to think of ourselves as boldly expressing our individuality in order to find our true selves, but the truth is that rather than a being a single soaring eagle, eyeing our prey from a great height, we are more like a honking goose in a tight V-shaped flight formation. Like geese, we humans are also wired to be interdependent, secure in a network of relationships, with invisible connections and indissoluble ties.
Being storytelling beings, we also look backward and forward to our life stories. Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it’s not an individual story: we live in shared stories. The metanarrative, or big story, in which each of us lives is a combination of defining moments, goals, and expectations of life. These can be related to the stories of our families, nations, ethnicities, social classes, and religious faiths.
Being worshiping beings, we also look upward to God. This third direction is of course the most controversial, given that not everyone professes faith in God. Yet looking up, one way or another, seems to be an irrepressible human urge. The confronting truth is that we will serve the true and living God or dumb idols (Joshua 24:14–15), gods that fail. And as Peter Leithart contends, “Personal identity cannot be anchored convincingly without transcendence” (Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 131).
You Are Known by God
We are profoundly social, deeply story-driven, and we have eternity in our hearts. To find ourselves, we look around, back and forth to our stories, and upward to God. According to the Bible, all three are important, but looking up is the key. And the cross of Christ makes all the difference.
Being known by others has its limitations, given the imperfection and impermanence of our relationships. One blessing of the gospel is that those who trust in Christ not only know God, but are also known by him, intimately and personally, as his children. This gives our lives comfort and significance and a stable sense of self: “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God . . .” (Galatians 4:9).
And this identity is a gift that shapes our conduct and character as God conforms us to the family likeness: “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
You Belong to God
The gospel teaches that “you are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In the age of expressive individualism, a more countercultural statement is hard to imagine.
Yet even in our day of insisting on the priority and benefits of personal autonomy, there are some contexts in which belonging to someone else is still seen in a positive light. A young child lost in a shopping mall makes no complaint when his mother turns up and claims him as her own. Likewise, while it is open to abuse, true romantic love has at its heart a mutual belonging. Countless love songs, starting with the Song of Solomon in the Bible, contain refrains along the lines of “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16; see also 6:3).
Indeed, given the social animals that we are, nothing gives us more of a sense of value and worth than being loved to such an extent that we belong to another. Far from distressing or oppressive, such an embrace reassures and liberates us. Indeed, love is the context of Paul’s startling assertion “You are not your own.” The words following Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy explain why you belong to another: “You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
“In losing yourself and belonging to one who loves you with an everlasting love, you will find your true self.”
To all who are in Christ, the cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his very own; you belong to him. But surrendering yourself in this way does not lead to the eradication of your self, or any kind of oppressive subjugation. In losing yourself and belonging to one who loves you with an everlasting love, you will find your true self.
You Cannot Define Yourself
Looking up gives us a new and better story in which to live: the story of God’s people. This story also offers the ultimate indictment of expressive individualism. It asserts that you don’t have it within you to define yourself. You need an intervention from outside of yourself. It is both the bleakest and the brightest story on offer, pessimistic about human nature, but instilled with glorious hope.
Intriguingly, this story is based on the life story of Jesus Christ: “You died, and your identity is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life story, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3–4, my translation). As Colossians 3:5–17 goes on to explain, putting on the new self is at the heart of the Christian life. Believers in Christ are those who have died with Christ, who have been raised with him, and whose destiny is tied up with his glorious appearing.
Do Christians Leave Behind the Basics? Making Sense of Hebrews 6:1–2By David Mathis — 12 months ago
ABSTRACT: In Hebrews 6, the author charges his audience to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.” Most commentators read this command as a summons to advance beyond basic Christian teachings. A close look at Hebrews 6:1–2 within the context of the whole letter, however, uncovers several problems with the typical interpretation. The writer’s use of the words baptisms and foundation, the lack of distinctly Christian teachings, the dire warning in Hebrews 6:4–6, and especially the meaning of the word maturity all point to a different meaning: the author charges his audience not to leave behind Christian basics, but to leave behind old-covenant ways of relating to God.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, David Mathis takes a fresh look at the meaning of Hebrews 6:1–2.
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 judgment. (Hebrews 6:1–2)
Does Hebrews teach its readers to “leave behind” the basics of the Christian faith in order to press on to maturity?
In the past generation, a chorus of voices, including Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and John Piper, have encouraged their audiences, in various ways, toward a “gospel-centered” or “cross-centered” faith. Rather than leaving behind Christian basics such as the cross and Christian gospel, they would have us go deeper into them, and find true Christian maturity in these basics, not beyond them. The origins of such a gospel-centered Christianity are found in the pages of the New Testament, drawing most explicitly from the epistles of Paul, John, and Peter, as well as Hebrews.
It is Hebrews, after all, that opens with a stunning celebration of the uniqueness and centrality of God’s eternal Son, made human as the long-awaited Christ — an opening that culminates in the charge in Hebrews 3:1 to “consider Jesus.” This directive, programmatic for the entire epistle, then leads to a striking focus on Jesus’s person and work (as high priest and sacrifice) at the heart of the letter (chapters 7–10), and recurs in Hebrews 12:1–2, at the climax of the great tour of the faithful (11:1–40), in the charge to “run with endurance . . . looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:3 then follows immediately with the reprise, “Consider him . . .”
‘Leave the Elementary Doctrine’
However, readers today might find, at least on the face of the text, an exception to this gospel-centered focus in Hebrews 6:1–2. Before advancing to make his Melchizedek argument (in chapter 7), Hebrews pauses, from 5:11–6:20, to freshly secure his readers’ attention because, he says, they “have become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). “Though by this time you ought to be teachers,” he explains, “you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12). Most commentators then take the list of six items in Hebrews 6:1–2 as Christian basics from which Hebrews’ audience should “move on” (or “leave behind,” Greek afentes, 6:1) in order to advance to Christian maturity:
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 judgment.
We can understand why most commentators would read this as a summons to leave behind the Christian basics. Nevertheless, when read in light of the full text of Hebrews, an apparent problem surfaces. Commentators generally agree that Hebrews addresses Jewish converts to Christianity pressured (and persecuted) by non-Christian Jews to discard Christianity’s distinctive faith in Jesus (as Messiah and eternal divine Son) and return to the emphases of their former Judaism.1 Within this understanding, viewing the list as basic Christian teachings fits less cogently (though not impossibly) with the design of the letter as a whole.2
Stirred by this tension, I undertake in this essay to newly examine Hebrews 6:1–2, and make the case that the six items in this list are not Christian basics, but pre-Christian (Jewish) teachings.
Usual Reading: Christian Basics
One caution to take in revisiting Hebrews 6:1–2 is that we are working against a long-established majority opinion. As we’ll see, however, several voices acknowledge some (serious) problems with the typical interpretation.
Andrew Lincoln sees the list in 6:1–2 as a reference to basic Christian teaching,3 as does William Lane, author of the magisterial two-volume commentary.4 Lane argues elsewhere5 that the list refers to “the firm foundation of Christian truth they had received when they first came to faith. . . . The men and women of the house-church had received catechetical instruction concerning these matters of Christian conviction when they first came to faith.”6 Harold Attridge finds that “the phrase [“elementary doctrine of Christ”] refers to the proclamation that Christ himself delivered. The phrase may allude to the same schematic view of the development of Christian preaching that was evident in 2:3.”7 Yet Attridge also concedes an enigma about the claim: “It is striking how little in this summary is distinctive of Christianity. This suggests that the formula was at least inspired by, and is, in fact, a catalogue of Jewish catechesis.”8 Importantly, Attridge adds, “Most conspicuously absent is any explicit Christological affirmation.” So too John Owen (1616–1683) catalogues another hesitation. He sees the list as basic Christian teaching, but acknowledges, “There is no little difficulty by the word ‘baptisms’ being in the plural.”9
Leon Morris10 and David deSilva11 both view verses 1–2 in reference to Christian basics.12 Interestingly, F.F. Bruce, finding something amiss with the usual reading, points out how surprising it is that verse 1 begins with therefore rather than nevertheless.”13 In the end, though, Bruce concludes that the list represents basic Christian teaching, but he notes how such basic teaching would correspond to Jewish teaching:
When we consider the “rudiments” one by one, it is remarkable how little in the list is distinctive of Christianity, for practically every item could have its place in a fairly orthodox Jewish community. Each of them, indeed, acquires a new significance in a Christian context; but the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.14
Overall, the mainstream of Hebrews commentators take the items in 6:1–2 as a list of Christian basics that the author is challenging his audience to “leave behind” or “leave standing” (afentes) so that they might be carried (ferometha) into Christian maturity (teleioteta). However, as we have seen, several observe some latent difficulties in this majority view, difficulties that I hope to show are better explained by a different interpretation.
Arguments for Pre-Christian (Jewish) Reference
The following five observations and arguments lead me in a different direction: that the six items in this list are not Christian basics, but pre-Christian (Jewish) teachings. This reading is both preferable exegetically and more coherent with the thrust of the letter as a whole.
1. ‘Washings’ (baptismōn) in the Plural
Hebrews’ use of baptismōn (“baptisms” or “washings”) is one of the reasons, on the surface, why this passage appears to offer a list of Christian basics. Our English baptism so closely resembles the Greek baptismōn that we might be prone to overlook two important realities.
First, as observed by John Owen, among others, baptismōn is plural, not the singular that would be expected in a Christian (new-covenant) context, where, as the apostle Paul notes in Ephesians 4:4–5, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Second, and more significantly, as noted by Bruce, “It may be significant that our author does not use baptisma, the Greek noun regularly employed in the New Testament to denote Christian baptism (and the baptism of John), but baptismos, which in its two other indubitable New Testament occurrences refers to Jewish ceremonial washings.”15 The other two occurrences are Mark 7:4 and Hebrews 9:10.
In Mark 7:4, Jesus refers to “many other traditions that [the Pharisees] observe, such as the washing [baptismous] of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” The reference to the Pharisees gives to this use the plain association of Judaism and the old covenant, not of Christianity and the new. The same is true for Hebrews 9:10, which is, of course, even more important for our purposes since it occurs within the same letter.
Hebrews 9:9–10 reads, “According to this arrangement [namely, the old covenant], gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings [baptismois], regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” Not only are these “washings” in Hebrews 9:10 unmistakably associated with the old covenant, but also they have an important “expiration date,” so to speak, in the temporal marker “until the time of reformation,” which has now come in Christ and corresponds with Hebrews’ underlying chronological and redemptive-historical framework throughout the letter.
2. No Distinctly Christian Item
Second, no explicitly Christian reference appears in the list of six — and this in a letter that is at pains to show the distinctiveness of the new covenant with reference to the old. This is the concern Attridge captures: “Most conspicuously absent is any explicit Christological affirmation.”16 Thus, he concludes, “This suggests that the formula was at least inspired by, and is, in fact, a catalogue of Jewish catechesis.”17
Most notable, in this regard, is the mention of “faith in God,” rather than in Jesus.18 Also, “repentance” is said to be “from dead works,” which Hebrews clearly associates with the terms of the (pre-Christian) first covenant in Hebrews 9:14. “Laying on of hands,” “resurrection from the dead,” and “eternal judgment” — while all having a place in Christianity — were all taught and established in the first-covenant milieu as part of the Jewish preparatory period for the coming of Christ.19 They each arise in the pre-Christian (Hebrew) Scriptures and serve to prepare the way for the Christ, rather than being a distinct development that came with him and his apostles.20
3. ‘Maturity’/‘Completion’ (teleiotēta)
Third is the appearance of teleiotēta in verse 1. Most translations render this word as “maturity,” which may be a desirable alternative to “perfection” in this context; however, what’s lost is the linguistic connection with a central theme in Hebrews — namely, the movement toward “perfection” (or “completion,” as in eschatological “fulfillment”) bound up with the Greek verb teleioō and related words.21 As D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo write, “Perfection in this epistle is essentially a matter of completion — in particular, the completion of God’s plan of salvation.”22
Varying forms of the verb teleioō appear nine times in Hebrews (2:10; 5:9; 7:19, 28; 9:9; 10:1, 14; 11:40; and 12:23) — with only thirteen other occurrences in the New Testament. Additionally, we find two related nouns in 7:11 (teleiōsis) and here in 6:1 (teleiotēs), the adjective teleios in 5:14 (in the same context) and 9:11, as well as the unusual noun teleiōtēs (“perfecter”) in 12:2. In all, fourteen occurrences of the telei- word group in Hebrews contribute to what is one of the letter’s major themes.23
Moisés Silva provides the following “cursory examination of the contexts” of the fourteen usages in Hebrews in this summary:
Old Testament saints are perfected only with us (11:40; cf. 12:23), for only the divine arrangement mediated by Christ, who is the perfecter of our faith (12:2), may be called perfect (7:11, 19; cf. 9:11), and consequently only his blood can perfect the conscience (9:9; 10:1, 14); further, the author calls Christians to perfection (5:14; 6:1), and even Jesus, we are told, experienced perfection through his sufferings (2:10; 5:9; 7:28).24
The theme of “perfection” or “completion” unfolds in what we might see as three main streams in Hebrews — Christological, redemptive-historical (or covenantal), and ethical — all set against a profoundly eschatological backdrop. It may be most helpful in addressing 6:1 that we summarize these three avenues in that order, and make the connections as needed to what Silva calls an “eschatological interpretation of perfection in terms of fulfillment.”25
By “Christological maturity,” I mean the God-appointed maturation of Christ, as man, in his human life in preparation for his salvific work as both priest and sacrifice. While never being “imperfect” in the sense of being a sinner, Jesus was “made perfect” or “complete” by what he endured in life leading up to, and at, the cross. Karen Jobes writes, “Understanding the sense of perfection in Hebrews must begin with how the word is applied to Jesus in 2:10; 5:9; and 7:28.”26 The author’s first two uses of teleioō are 2:10 and 5:9, both contributing to memorable claims about Jesus’s being “made perfect” (and demonstrating how difficult is it to render teleioō in English). “Made perfect” is unideal given the implicit sense of previous “imperfection” it might convey about the one being “made perfect.” “Made mature” is no obvious improvement. Perhaps “made complete” carries the least baggage, but still, there’s no easy English equivalent.
In 2:10 and 5:9, Jesus is “made ready” or “prepared” for his role as “founder” (archēgos) and “source” (aitios) through suffering.27 Hebrews 12:2, where Jesus is said to be “the pioneer and perfecter (teleiōtēn) of our faith,”28 functions at least in this Christological sense. More than that, though, Hebrews 12:2 may bring all three lines together and thus demonstrate that the three are profoundly tied together eschatologically. Silva notes the parallelism between 2:10, 5:9, and 12:2 and rightly comments, “Any interpretation of teleiōtēn in 12:2 that is not consonant with teleioō in 2:10 and 5:9 stands self-condemned.”29
Redemptive-Historical (or Covenantal) Maturity
In addition to the overtones in 7:28, a redemptive-historical context is the backdrop for 7:11:
Now if perfection [teleiōsis] had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?
Here may be some reference to the eschatological “completion” of the individual (connected with what we will call moral or ethical maturity below), but the main force, confirmed by 7:19, comes along the redemptive-historical axis. The Levitical priesthood (and indeed, the whole law-covenant) was “incomplete” (unfulfilled) and pointed forward to a redemptive-historical “completion” (fulfillment) in Jesus, his priesthood, and new covenant. There are ethical implications to 7:19 (“the law made nothing perfect [eteleiōsen]”), but the covenantal and salvation-historical concerns are central.
Hebrews 9–10 develops this redemptive-historical fulfillment introduced in chapter 7. In 9:11 (“Christ entered through the greater and more perfect tent”), the reference is clearly objective and covenantal, whereas 9:9 (“gifts and sacrifices are offered [in the old covenant] that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper”) introduces the idea of “completing the conscience” (or “fulfilling the conscience”) which is echoed again in 10:1 and 10:14. Here completion is cast more in terms of the ethical (than, say, in 9:11), but only as an explicit effect of the covenant. Thus, eschatological fulfillment remains in view. Silva notes that “the perfecting of human conscience (9:9; 10:1, 14) is not a reference to forgiveness or fitness to approach God, which Old Testament saints did experience (cf. Psalm 32 and Romans 4), but to the enjoyment of the time of fulfillment, the new epoch introduced by the Messiah through his exaltation.”30
Finally, Hebrews 11:40 and 12:23 develop the perfection/fulfillment theme in terms of the completion of the believing individual. In 11:40, God has arranged history, in the coming of his Son and the inauguration of a new covenant, such that “apart from us they [i.e., old covenant saints] should not be made complete.” Perhaps most difficult of all to see in terms of eschatological fulfillment is 12:23 and the reference to “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made complete [teteleiōmenōn].” Silva explains that “if the reference is indeed to those who have died, perhaps the author intends us to understand that finally they too have received the promises; that is, they have now, though in heaven, been perfected together with us (11:40), and thus the eschatological note is present here too.”31
This brings us back to Hebrews 6:1 and its neighboring appearance of the telei- word group in 5:14.
Eschatological Maturity in 5:14 and 6:1
Silva has 5:14 and 6:1 in view when he observes that “the author of Hebrews in some contexts may restrict the meaning of perfect to those who are giving proper manifestation that they belong to the age of fulfillment.”32 Then he adds, “Indeed, the danger faced by the recipients of the letter was that of going back to the old, obsolete, pre-eschatological (!) covenant.”33 In other words, this “completeness” or “maturity” in 6:1 is not mainly a kind of moral or ethical maturity but eschatological fulfillment, as we’ve seen with the other uses of the telei- word group in Hebrews. Jobes says, “This eschatological understanding of perfection . . . makes good sense of the claims that the Christian believer is ‘perfect’ in Hebrews 10:14; 11:40; and 12:22–23.”34 Such a meaning also applies to the summons to be carried along to “perfection” in 6:1.
“Far more is at stake here than greater or lesser maturity within the new covenant.”
This, then, entails that the negative images in 5:11–14 (dull of hearing; not teachers; needing milk, not solid food; unskilled in the word of righteousness; children, not discerning) are not references to two stages of Christianity (beginning and advanced), but to two stages of redemptive history (the old covenant and the new). The old covenant is the milk; the new, solid food. But regardless of how the particular imagery works out in 5:11–14, the other usages of the telei- word group, alongside the arguments we have already rehearsed, prove sufficiently persuasive with regard to 6:1.35
4. ‘Foundation’ (themelion)
This fourth reason is far briefer than our treatment of the third. The use of themelion, well captured in the English foundation, better corresponds to the reading we’ve been developing of moving from old covenant (Jewish) to new covenant (Christian), rather than from beginning Christianity to advanced Christianity. There is an organic unity in the new covenant between new Christians and longtime, “mature” Christians that makes the foundation metaphor less appropriate than in the context of moving from old covenant to a distinct new covenant. “Foundation” is a fitting metaphor for the eschatological fulfillment anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures and which will be embodied in Jesus and his new covenant. The metaphor would be more strained in an intra-covenantal comparison of the neophytes and the well-versed.
5. The Nature of the Warning in 6:4–6
A fifth and final argument concerns the dire nature of the warning in 6:4–6, which comes immediately subsequent to our passage. Apparently far more is at stake here than greater or lesser maturity within the new covenant. Rather, what is in the balance is the abandoning of the new covenant (or the demonstration that one is not, in fact, a final partaker of the benefits of the new covenant, which include the grace of perseverance).
“The danger is the temptation to ‘go back’ to the first covenant, forsaking Jesus as its fulfillment.”
Now we return to the composite of the audience we get from the rest of the letter and ask, What is the specific case in Hebrews that threatens apostasy? The answer is not that the readers have been merely coasting or not taking their “growth in grace” seriously enough. It’s emphatically not that they know the gospel all too well, but are proving stubborn in “moving on” to other, more “mature” topics. Rather, the danger is the temptation to “go back” to the first covenant, forsaking Jesus as its fulfillment. Under pressure, the readers are seeking to return to the types, while minimizing (if not abandoning) the antitypes, and in doing so they are relativizing the exclusive sufficiency of Christ and his work.36
These five reasons, arising from the exegesis of 6:1–2, its context, and related passages, lead to the conclusion that the contrast intended by the author of Hebrews in 6:1–2 is not ethical (immature-mature Christianity), but redemptive-historical (old-new covenant). The “beginning-of-the-Christ word” (ton tēs archēs tou Christou logon), then, is not a reference to the basic Christian gospel but to “the beginning word” about the Christ/Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures and the old covenant that prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah and what we might call “the finishing word” of the new covenant. The author of Hebrews would have his readers “leave standing” or “leave behind” (afentes) the old covenant and its practices (now “obsolete,” palaioo, twice in Hebrews 8:13), which pointed forward to the Christ, and acknowledge the coming of this promised Christ and that with his coming an eschatological fulfillment (“maturity”) has come from which there is no viable going back.
Deeper in the Gospel
This reading of Hebrews 6:1–2 guards Christians today from finding in this text any encouragement to somehow “leave behind” the basic Christian gospel and attempt to “move on” to some form of “maturity” that assumes the gospel. Such an understanding would create pronounced tension, if not contradiction, with clear emphases in the epistles, and the New Testament as a whole. Christian maturity does not consist in leaving behind Christian basics, but rather in moving more and more deeply into the good news about Jesus and all God is revealed to be for us, at present, in him.37 And specifically, as we noted above, Hebrews itself is perhaps as good an example as any New Testament document of such “gospel-centeredness.”
“Christian maturity does not consist in leaving behind the basics of the good news about Jesus.”
While, on the one hand, the argument from Psalm 110 about Christ as our great high priest (in the order of Melchizedek, not Aaron) is complex, the subject manner at the heart of the letter is Christ’s person and work (chapters 7–10). The basics (stoicheion, 5:12) that the epistle clearly moves beyond, again and again, are readings of the Hebrews Scriptures with pre-Christian eyes. The “maturity” into which Hebrews hopes God will be pleased to carry his readers is, in essence, a Christian understanding of the Old Testament as fulfilled in Christ.
Hebrews’ concern is not that his readers are plenty familiar with gospel basics and now need to advance to other deeper Christian teachings. Rather, his concern is that in toying with the idea of returning to Judaism, they are demonstrating that what they lack is precisely an understanding of the gospel itself, the exclusive sufficiency of Christ and his work, and that the Old Testament Scriptures themselves testify to Christ as the great high priest and final sacrifice.