Who Is Sufficient for These Things? Thoughts on Preaching

We hear a lot about Christ-centered preaching these days, and I, for one, am glad of it. In the last article we saw that if we’re to adopt the strategy of the preacher to the Hebrews in our teaching, we’ll need to give our listeners something better than the idols that tempt them. That is, we’ll need to give them Christ. As we hear this preacher wax eloquent about the superiority of Christ, we conclude that he would be happy with the current emphasis on Christ-centered teaching as well. But one thing he says gives us pause. We back up the recording and listen again. No, our ears weren’t playing tricks on us. He really did say, “Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1).[1] Is Christ-centered teaching something we’re supposed to grow out of?

No, it is not. As usual, the key is to hear the preacher’s statement in context, and that means taking a look at Hebrews 5:11-6:3. Doing so clarifies three crucial questions:

What Are They To Leave?

They are to leave “the elementary doctrine of Christ,” or, more literally, “the doctrine of the first principles of the Christ.”[2] The teacher goes on to explain what basic principles he has in mind. He’s talking about “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” (6:1-2). Many have noticed how these items fall into three pairs:

  1. Repentance from dead works and faith toward God
  2. Teaching about washings and the laying on of hands
  3. Teaching about the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment

The second pair clearly does not refer to elements of the gospel, but to OT ceremonial washings and to the hand-laying rites associated with animal sacrifices.[3] We immediately notice that the first and third couplets can similarly be read as OT truths. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with warnings to repent from sin (“dead works” doesn’t refer to good deeds here) and to turn to God in faith. They also taught old covenant believers to hope in a coming resurrection and to fear eternal judgment. “There is nothing in this [list] that an ancient Jew (other than a Sadducee) could not accept.”[4] When the writer spells out what he means by the “elementary doctrine of Christ,” he actually says nothing about Christ.

In What Sense Are They To Leave It?

What he’s exhorting his listeners to leave, then, are not the truths about Jesus Christ concerning His Person and work. No, he’s thinking about their OT foundations. These teachings about washings, laying on of hands, future judgment and hope are foundational truths. And this in turn clarifies what he means by leaving them. They are to leave them the same way a builder leaves a foundation: not by abandoning it, but by building upon it. If building on an inadequate foundation is foolish (Mat 7:24-27), so is an adequate foundation with nothing to support.

What Are They To Leave It For?

Children “leave” kindergarten to go on to more challenging studies. So the Hebrews are to leave elementary teachings that they had in common with Judaism and move on “to maturity.” What does that mean?

The previous paragraph of the sermon is helpful. There the author scolds his listeners for having become lazy listeners (“dull of hearing,” 5:11). They’ve been saved for so long they ought to be teachers by now. Instead, they need someone to teach them again “the basic principles of the oracles of God” (5:12). This phrase is similar in Greek to the expression we’ve looked at in 6:1 (“the elementary doctrine of Christ”).[5] The writer then goes on to contrast milky teaching with meaty teaching. These connections suggest that the basic principles and milk of 5:11-14 are more or less the same as the elementary OT doctrines of 6:1-3.

If so, then the maturity he wants them to move on to is the “solid food” and “word of righteousness” of 5:11-14. And what are they? Well, the preacher has just begun his sermon’s main theme – the Lord Jesus’ Melchizedekian priesthood (5:6,10).[6] He wants to get on with this Christ-centered theme, because he knows how much it could help them. But he’s finding it tough going, not because the material is complicated, but because his listeners want to linger on the “ABC of God’s revelation” (5:12 Phillips) instead of pressing on to Christ, the A to Z of their lessons.

“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.” Is Christ-centered teaching something for us to grow out of? No, this verse is actually saying the opposite. It’s something we are to grow into. It’s what we grow by. We never graduate from the gospel nor outgrow our need for Christ and His priestly ministry.

The Apostle John faced a different problem. Unlike the Hebrews, who were tempted to revert back from Christ, he was aware of some who wanted to run on past the teaching of Christ (2Jn 1:9). True progress is to stay put in Christ (Joh 8:31-32). Every other direction is backwards. This is why our preacher is willing to warn the Hebrews in 5:11-6:8. Christ-centered teaching isn’t so focused on Christ that it never warns the saints. But like the preparatory OT truths we’ve discussed, such warnings serve only to get our focus back on to Christ.

Let’s “go on to maturity,” the preacher exhorted. A few moments later he adds: “And this we will do if God permits” (6:3). The Christ-centered preacher knows that progressing in appreciation of Christ comes by nothing less than the power of God Himself. And that itself is a proof that we’re not to grow out of it.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] David Gooding, An Unshakeable Kingdom: Rock Solid Truth in Uncertain Times (Port Colborne, ON: Gospel Folio Press, 2002), 138-39.

[3] Dennis E. Johnson, “Hebrews” in ESV Expository Commentary Vol. XII: Hebrews – Revelation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2018), 83.

[4] Gooding, 139.

[5] Johnson, 81.

[6] Johnson, 79.