Hebrews 5:11-14 - It's Time To Grow Up...Again
Our text this morning is found in Hebrews 5:11-14. It says,
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
John Owen was the pastor in London from 1667–1683. His aim was to promote growth in his congregation in righteousness and holiness. Sadly, although this was his aim he saw that these things were not improving.
After Owen’s death, David Clarkson spoke at his funeral and addressed his congregation. He stood before them and said, “It was Owen’s great design to promote holiness in the life and the exercise of it among you.”
Perhaps Owen’s congregation heard these words and nodded their heads in affirmation. Many of them may have believed that Owen had accomplished that lofty goal. However, Clarkson goes on to say, “It was Owen’s care and endeavor to prevent spiritual decay, or cure spiritual decay, in his flock. But it was his great complaint that its power declined among professors.”1
Owen wanted to see the grace of God expressed in his congregation as it manifested itself through increasing holiness and righteousness in every area of their lives. Owen wanted the grace of God to enrich them in every way: in their speech, their thoughts, their affections, the actions, and in their love for Christ and their love for others.
I wonder if the words of David Clarkson helped to awaken Owen’s congregation to the concern that their pastor had had for them? Or would everyone have looked at themselves and said, “That is not me he is talking about!”
I wonder if Owen’s responded well to the words of David Clarkson and repented? I wonder if they experienced what Owen had hoped to see in them but never got to witness?
The author of Hebrews writes to these believers and confronts them because of their lack of growth, spiritual immaturity, their lack of skill pertaining to the word of righteousness, and their inability to distinguish between good and evil.
As I consider these things I often thought about Isaiah 6:1-10. In that text the prophet writes of something that he experienced when his generation experienced a significant death. We read,
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
When King Uzziah died Isaiah saw the holiness of God and when this happened he immediately realized his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the people that he lived among. God cleanses Isaiah and then He sent him to speak to a people who are described as ‘hearing, but not understanding; they were seeing, but not perceiving.’ We are told that their hearts were dull, their ears heavy, and their eyes were blind. (This sounds like the believers in our text)
The message that Isaiah preached to his generation would harden their hearts. We read in Isaiah 6:10, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
In our text the author of Hebrews is confident that these believers will respond better than they did. He will say in Hebrews 6:9, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.”
The author of Hebrews knows that a Christian’s heart may become timid, lazy and indifferent. Their hearts may be distracted, despondent, and lukewarm. However, it should not remain that way when it is confronted by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
The Baptist Faith and Message Statement of Faith reminds us of the importance of regeneration and the necessity of the Christian to strive towards maturity. It states,
Christianity is the faith of enlightenment and intelligence. In Jesus Christ abide all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. All sound learning is, therefore, a part of our Christian heritage. The new birth opens all human faculties and creates a thirst for knowledge. Moreover, the cause of education in the Kingdom of Christ is co-ordinate with the causes of missions and general benevolence, and should receive along with these the liberal support of the churches. An adequate system of Christian education is necessary to a complete spiritual program for Christ’s people.
Isaiah was commissioned by the LORD to speak to His people. John Owen was called by God to be a gifted theologian and pastor to his congregation. However, the people that they ministered to did not always flourish under their ministries. The gospel that they preached was not always received. The people did not always pay attention and apply the message by faith. These people had grown dull under their faithful teaching and their thirst for knowledge and growth was drying up.
Something similar was happening to the believers. Their ministers were faithful and they were eager to preach a Christ-centered message. Even their lives were examples that the people could follow.
Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
There are several reasons why people may not be growing spiritually. First, their ministers may not be establishing their hearts in grace by mixing the law and grace together, or by not making clear distinction between justification and sanctification. Or maybe there are some who teach false doctrines. Maybe some ministers were only feeding the congregation milk and not the solid food of righteousness.
Secondly, perhaps the things that are being taught to a congregation is a challenge for them to understand and too difficult to grasp. Perhaps the pastor is teaching them doctrines when they are not ready for until the foundation is laid. Instead they need to be given the milk doctrines until they can handle other things (6:1-3).
Thirdly, it could be that the people’s hearts are hardened and their ears have become dull. If a congregation does this over a period of time they will become infants in their understanding. As they drift away from the Gospel they may start listening to strange teachings and destructive doctrines. Because of these very things this congregation is exhorted in Hebrews 13:9to ‘not be led away by diverse and strange teachings’, but to have ‘hearts that are strengthened by grace…’.
The ministers and the message they taught was not the problem among these believers that received this letter. The problem was that this congregation had become ‘dull of hearing’. Therefore, the author of Hebrews, like David Clarkson, confronts their lukewarmness, their laziness, their lack of consistent discipline which resulted in their spiritual dullness.
You know what amazes me about the author of Hebrews?
He is not with them at this time. He is not there to see their responses to the words of this teaching. He is not able to see their frowns, or their yawns, or their disinterest in what he has to say. He is not there to see their consistency in gathering together. But, somehow he knows that there is a problem. In fact, there is a serious problem.
We have seen the authors concern for this congregation already. For example he has said,
2:1 – We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
3:1 – Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, Consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession...
3:8 – Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion...
3:12 – Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to turn away from the living God.
4:1 - ...let us fear lest any of you should have seemed to have failed to reach the rest that has been promised.
4:11 – Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
4:14 - ...let us hold fast to our confession.
As we come to Hebrews 5:11he writes, “About this we have much to say but it is hard to explain...”. He has been talking about Jesus being our great High Priest. More specifically, he has been showing them how Jesus was kept by the Father throughout His life. How Jesus had entrusted Himself to the Father by praying with loud cries and tears. Because of Jesus’ reverence He was heard and He was kept perfect and has now become our great High Priest.
The author of Hebrews was not struggling to understand the truths for himself. He wasn’t struggling to find the right words to express these truths to these believers. But he says, “...it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”
At one time they were zealous to learn these things and they came together with hearts that were prepared to hear the Word of God. At one time they were quick to apply these truths to their hearts and lives but this was not the case any more. They no longer have ears to hear, minds to understand or the hearts to accept and embrace these things!
Instead of drawing near to the LORD in their struggles they were being tempted to return to Judaism. If the false teachers came in and began to speak about the Levitical Priests, the Temple, the sacrifices and the Law of God their eyes would light up. If they spoke to them about Aaron, Abraham, Moses, or angels they would lean forward and listen closely. But if you were to mention the grace of God, or Jesus, His high priesthood, or speak of His kingdom, or forgiveness, justification and our great hope in Christ they probably did not show much interest in such things.
A.W. Pink uses strong language to describe the disposition that these believers had. He said that these things had become ‘unpalatable to the Hebrews’.2Matthew Henry speaks in a similar way when he comments on Hebrews 6:1-2concerning the elemental doctrines, “They must not lose them, they must not despise them, they must not forget them.” A Christian cannot let their hearts be careless, negligent or loathsome of holy and righteous things.
Some other words that would describe the Hebrews at this point is ‘slothful’ (6:12), ‘effortless with regards to spiritual things’, ‘mental and spiritual sluggards’. They had become ‘cold and lethargic’ towards the grace of God.
These believers are being exhorted that they need to make progress and mature. They need to be able to distinguish between good from evil. Because they are immature they are prone to listen and believe many false teachings. They are being drawn away by these things and they can no longer understand the Word of God or discern good from the evil.
I appreciated how Hywel Jones speaks of the condition of these Christians and says, “Two features of infancy are highlighted and applied to those addressed. The first is related to diet and the second discernment. An infant is neither able to chew nor choose. Mud goes into the mouth as well as milk. Similarly, immature Christians can show an aversion to spiritual food saying ‘I don’t like it’ and an absence of moral principle saying ‘What’s wrong with …?’”
These believers had become sluggish and lazy concerning the Word of God and they needed to grow up through constant use of the Word of God. Louis Berkhof describes the effort that is required to acquire knowledge of the scriptures which will lead to maturity, “It can be obtained only by the wearisome process of perception and reflection, reasoning and argumentation, and therefore depends on the voluntary direction of the will and on the persistent efforts of men and women.”3
These believers needed someone to teach them because they were not learning the Word, living out the Word, or teaching the Word of God to others. Enough time had passed that they should have been teaching, discipling, and instructing their families in the faith. We read, “...you ought to be teachers”. However, the author of Hebrews goes on to say, “... you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
The author of Hebrews encourage them to engage in ‘constant practice’.
What first steps should these believers take?
What daily practice should all believers engage in so that they mature and become skilled in the word of righteousness?
Let me give you two ways to start approaching your discipleship.
First, recently I was talking to a nurse who said that at their work they are told to practice three steps. She used this phrase to describe it: Learn One, Do One, Teach One. They are expected to learn something, do it, and then teach it to someone else. She talked about how she did not always like that this was the expectation at her work, however, it did cause her to grow and mature in her job more quickly than if this was not done.
What if this was our goal as a church and as individual believers? It actually is our goal. The phrase: Learn One, Live One, and Teach One is no different than what we say in our discipleship training that we use here at Community Church. We often say, ‘Learn It, Live It, and Pass It On’.
One of the scriptures that we use for this is seen in Ezra 7:10, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ezra set his heart to study, to apply it and to teach it to others. This is the conduct that would have benefited these immature disciples.
Secondly, Ray Haas showed me text a few weeks ago that I have often thought about. He spoke to me about Matthew 15:10-15. In Matthew 15:10 Jesus said to His disciples, “Hear and understand…”. Jesus gives his disciples two commands. They were to hear and they are to understand. Every time we come to the Word of God we ought to say to ourselves, “I need to hear this and I need to understand these things.”
The command to hear seems easy but is it really?
We can come to hear the scriptures by coming to the Word in our devotions, by attending bible studies, by listening to sermons, by going to Sunday School classes. However, the disposition and practice of our heart ought to be inclined to really hear what the scriptures are saying. The problem that is diagnosed in our text today is that these believers were ‘dull of hearing’.
The second command seems even harder for us to accomplish. We are told that we must understand what is said. Peter gives voice to the difficulty of this second command five verses later when he says in Matthew 15:15, “But Peter said to him, ‘Explain the parable to us.” This reminds us that we must hear God through His Word but we should pray before and after that the Holy Spirit will explain these Scriptures to us and open our hearts and our understanding.
Earlier I quoted Louis Berkhof. He described the effort that is required to acquire knowledge of the scriptures which leads to maturity. He said, “It can be obtained only by the wearisome process of perception and reflection, reasoning and argumentation, and therefore depends on the voluntary direction of the will and on the persistent efforts of men and women.”4
As believers we are to mature in the faith. Let’s not deceive ourselves by thinking that this is always supposed to be fun and easy. No, it is a wearisome process. We have to do this daily by a decision of our will. Yet we have the promise that these persistent efforts will make mature men and women of us in the faith.
1Searching Our Hearts In Difficult Times, John Owen, Preface VII
2Exposition of Hebrews, Pink, p. 263
3Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, p. 17
4Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, p. 17