The context of Heb. 6:1 is an intermezzo, from 5:11 to 6:20, in the author’s teaching about Jesus’ high priestly ministry. He finds it hard to give this instruction, because the readers have become sluggish, “dull in hearing” (5:11).
This is not a new observation. The author has already pressed the same charge against them in different words and has already warned them a few times about what will happen if they continue in this state (
cf. 2:1-4, and the whole of chapter 3 and 4). See, e.g. 3:7-8, about hearing.
Although the situation is serious, there are plenty of good things to say about the readers and the author is sure that God has not given up on them (6:9-12). After all, they have gone through hard times in which they have shown the right attitude of persevering faith. They have learned to “lay up treasures in heaven”, to speak with the words of our Lord Jesus (10:32-34, Matt. 6:20).
But for some, at least, the pressure seems to be too high and they succumb to sluggishness. The effect is visible in their lives. They may try to hide it, but that is useless. God discerns “the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:11-13). It has already effected their moral standard (5:14, by implication). Although they have known the Lord for quite some time, have gone through tough tests and have stood these tests and therefore are mature Christians, they now behave immaturely.
The author himself is well aware that this danger is very real. The temptation to yield under high pressure and naturally impossible situations, is part of the normal course of the life of faith. “We have such a great cloud of witnesses!” (12:1). But the author also knows the remedy. He knows which elements of Jesus’ ministry can counter this threat. In fact, it is the absolute completeness of Salvation in Christ that is the answer, summarized by, “We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (8:1).
This is the author’s τελει
της, translated with maturity in 6:1 (ESV), or perfection (KJV). It can mean at least three things: 1) the teaching concerning Jesus that belongs to spiritual maturity, 2) the teaching concerning Jesus in relation to the “perfection”, the eternal inheritance, that believers are awaiting, beyond their mortal existence and 3) the teaching concerning Jesus in relation to the completion of a believer’s walk in faith, in other words, perseverance to the end. In any case, it is not the ABC, not the elementary things. It is advanced teaching. There is no excuse for the readers’ immature behaviour (there is a wordplay with terms of maturity) and the author is going to prove and underscore that (“… if God permits”, 6:3). There is no excuse, for Jesus, as a man, has been made perfect, on our behalf, and provides every help that is necessary for us to enter glory. He knows exactly what we need, because He has learned by experience what it means to be a man (2:10-11, 4:14-16, 5:6-10).
Some translations read, “Let us press on …” for φερμεθα in 6:1, but, surprisingly, the verb is in the passive voice (although it can be read as a middle voice, with “we” as both subject and object, so “let us move ourselves …”). That is why the NIV renders, “let us move beyond … and be taken forward …” The Greek verb has an element of quick forward movement and the author has chosen it to contrast the dullness or sluggishness of the readers. To say, “Let us press on unto full growth” (RV, margin) may give the idea that we (christians) all have to see to it that we grow spiritually, from infancy to maturity, as fast as we can. But this is not the author’s idea. Here is a confrontation with culpable immaturity which has to be corrected immediately.
The solution of the problem is not giving elementary teaching again, but “what belongs to full growth” (Darby), the instruction about Jesus’ high priestly ministry. The use of the passive voice (or middle) of quickly moving forward towards something gives a notion of being directed, which fits in the author’s metaphor of a school or class situation, as to quickly turn to the right textbook: “You would need to be instructed from the very beginning again, but we are not going to do that. You ought to know better than that! That is why we go straight to the final lessons about what it means to be spiritually mature” (option 1), “… that is why we turn to our book about the eternal rest” (option 2), or “… that is why we are going to learn now why God cannot tolerate it if we do not persevere to the end” (option 3). In all three cases it implies a quick adjustment of the mind. “Let us …,” he says, with which he does not want to say that we are all immature, but that we, teacher and students together, are now going to be occupied with the right instructions.
The author hopes to continue with this advanced teaching (6:3). He is not completely sure if or when there will be another opportunity. For some reason he can only be brief at the moment (13:22). If God permits, he will come back to them on the subject. It is quite impossible that “And this we will do if God permits” refers to “Let us press on unto full growth” if the latter phrase means that we should get to spiritual maturity as quickly as possible. That would imply that we should fear a premature death and that our chance to attain spiritual maturity is subjected to the will of God, which is too far-fetched.
“Perfection” here (6:1) can mean “that which concerns perfection”, referring to the eternal rest, the hope that lies before us, the unshakable Kingdom. But the instructions the author is going to give and hopes to keep on giving is not about the Kingdom itself, but about “before and after”, before Jesus and after Jesus (see 1:1-2). It is Jesus who makes all the difference. The big temptation the “Hebrews” were succumbing to is to start asking the question, “What difference?! I can’t see any difference! Why should I suffer?” And the author wants to explain to them now that this “not seeing” is exactly what they need.
So in the exegeses of the letter it seems preferable to let “perfection” in 6:1 contrast “the first principles of the
oracles of God” and to not mix it up with the many references to “perfection” in other parts of the letter. τελειτης is quite a unique term (only used here in the New Testament and in Col. 3:14 and two or three times in the LXX, translated with sincere or sincerity). If the author has spiritual maturity in mind it cannot mean the same thing as in 11:40, for instance, where τελειω is used, meaning to make perfect, to complete or finish. The perfection God is going to give us together with the great cloud of witnesses does not refer to the spiritual growth of a believer. It is very difficult to imagine that Moses, for instance, could not get to spiritual maturity without us. Here, in 11:40, the author means the eternal inheritance. Our forefathers of the faith (before Christ came to this earth) could only see the outside of the treasure box, as it were, but that is now unlocked, opened, made freely accessible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perfect, eternal salvation is based on a perfect sacrifice (9:24-10:25) and the perfect ministry of a perfect High Priest (7:25-28). “To be made perfect” by God is something to be received as His pure grace; it is not something to be attained, and yet, if a believer becomes bitter against God and apostasizes, he cannot be made perfect, for the very reason that he has not lived in all the benefits of Gods free gift of grace, forgiveness of sins and the abundant support of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The author may have had the eternal inheritance in mind with “let us go on unto perfection”, but in that case not as the final stage of a believer’s growth, but as the instructions that concern the eternal inheritance (option 2). In other words, Heb. 1:6 is not a call to utter sublimation of one’s life style nor a call to an utter cultivation of intimacy with God, but a correction that is necessary to understand what is the essence of the Christian life.
Interestingly, the use of the word τελει
της, perfection, in Colossians 3:14, is in the context of the corporate life of the Christian community, connected with love as the “upper” virtue. That thought may throw light on what is said in Hebrews 6:1 and on the letter as a whole. On the one hand the exhortations and warnings should be applied by the individual “Hebrew”, but on the other hand they cannot be separated from a “communal” context. In the case of 6:1, the whole community is addressed. And throughout the letter, the “Hebrews” are urged that no one among them will fall away. They have to care for one another. They have to exhort one another daily. They should not neglect their gatherings. In other words, maturity is a corporate matter, or maybe it is better to say that maturity concerns the whole community of believers in Christ. The same thought is found in Ephesians 4, where Paul is talking about the spiritual growth of the body of Christ unto full measure. And again, love is the main ingredient (Eph. 4:16).
Exegesis by Hugo de Jong, with the help of George Guthrie, Scot McKnight and the commentaries of Donald Guthrie (TNTC) and F.F. Bruce (NICNT).