RPM, RPM Volume 16, Number 18, April 27 to May 3, 2014

First Warning: The Consequences of being "Dull of Hearing"

Hebrews 5:11-6:3

By J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 5. Hebrews 5, let's review briefly. You remember the argument of the book so far. Over and over the superiority of Christ has been set forth. Christ is superior to the angels (Hebrews 1 and 2). Christ is superior to Moses (Hebrews 3). Christ is superior to Joshua (Hebrews 4). And then finally at the very end of Hebrews 4, a new idea is introduced and that is that Christ is superior to Aaron. In fact, He is superior to all the Old Testament priests. He is the great High Priest. And that theme is picked up in Hebrews 4:14 and continues for a number of chapters through the central section of the book. And so this idea of Christ's priesthood is related in Hebrews 4 and Hebrews 5 to the priesthood of Melchizedek. You remember Hebrews 10, the last verse we read last time, we are told that He is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Many of you came up after the service and mentioned that the order of Melchizedek has always interested you and you want to know more about it and I feel the same way that you do. I want to say that the very fact that your thinking was along those lines indicates that you understand precisely the flow of argument that the author of Hebrews is giving us here and that this aside that he is getting ready to enter into is not something that is aimed directly at your heart because what happens is after Hebrews 5:10 and that mention of Melchizedek, what you expect to happen in Hebrews 5:11 is for the author to begin immediately a discussion of what that means, that Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. But when we get to chapter 5:11, it is not what he discusses. We will talk about why in just a moment. Let look at God's holy word in Hebrews 5:11 through Hebrews 6:3:

Hebrews 5:11 – 6:3

Our Lord, we do thank You for this word. We ask that You would give us great concentration as we follow it through, phrase by phrase, verse by verse, that we might not only understand the flow of the argument, but that we would understand its implications, its application to us. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Now as we said, as you read from Hebrews 5:1 all the way to verse 10, you are being told about the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, culminating in the statements that begin in Hebrews 5:6 about the priestly order of Melchizedek. And you are expecting an enlightening treatment of Christ's priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek to start in Hebrews 5:11. But, surprise! Instead an admonition is waiting. Why is that admonition waiting there? (After taking up this idea of Christ's superior priesthood (you remember the idea of the priesthood had been mentioned at least in passing all the way back in Hebrews 2, now it has been taken up in full focus at the end of Hebrews 4 and the beginning of Hebrews 5. After introducing this idea of Christ's Hebrews, the author of Hebrews pauses to deliver a serious admonition to his hearers.) Because he is concerned that they are not grasping what he is saying and he is concerned that they are not mature in the faith. At least they are not as mature as they ought to be and he says it is because of their dullness of hearing.

I. A warning against spiritual immaturity.

And so in the process, in verses 11-14, he issues a warning against spiritual immaturity. The author of Hebrews knows that truth is designed to transform our lives — the way we live, our character from the inside out. And he is concerned that he has not seen an adequate transformation in the lives of some of the people in this congregation.

I would like to direct your attention to the very last verses of Hebrews 5:11-14 where he gives this warning against spiritual immaturity. Now the logical thing for discussion after Hebrews 5:10 would have been a discussion of the order of Melchizedek. The problem is, the author tells us point blank in verse 11, is that some of his readers are dull of hearing. In other words, he is saying that we are not in a position to appreciate the richness of the teaching about Christ being a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. He is basically saying, "You are not in a position because of where you are spiritually to appreciate the full significance of the teaching about Christ as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. They don't seem to have grasped what they have already heard, what they have already read, and so they are not able to fully appreciate this deeper, profounder, more complex teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.

And he goes on to say in verse 12, that by now "you ought to be teachers." He is not saying that in a professional sense. He is not implying that everyone in the congregations of the Hebrews or any other congregation for that matter ought to be elevated to the professional level of being a teacher. Nor is he saying that everybody ought to be striving to be ordained in the congregation. That's not his point. He is using the term teacher in an informal way. We know, for instance, that the Stoics thought that anyone who had mastered true learning was in a position to convey that true learning to another person. It doesn't have to be in a formal classroom setting and it doesn't have to be an ordained minister speaking that to the congregations. All of us grow in the faith, learn certain truths which we can share with other believers who may be chronologically younger than we are or spiritually younger than we are, or our spiritual peers, and yet we have learned something that they haven't learned. And so we share that. Many of the things that my father taught me, he taught me over a Coca-Cola at his desk, not behind a lectern. My father, though he was a ruling elder and not a bad speaker at all, was usually terrified to get behind the lectern. He didn't like it. But he was a good teacher in an informal sense. He didn't like to lecture, but he could teach you a lot with a 25-cent Coca-Cola over his desk at the office and he did that regularly.

And so the author of Hebrews is saying, "Look, you ought to be at the stage in your spiritual lives where you are turning to younger Christians, spiritually speaking and helping them along in the basics of the faith and yet you are not there." In fact, he says in verse 12 that they seem to be going backwards. They are going from a point where they have attained to a level where they ought to have solid food. They are going back to milk. It is like a child who has come off the bottle and has come to solid food and suddenly he reverts to the bottle. So the author of Hebrews says there is something wrong here, you are going backwards. The author is asserting that these people are stuck on the elementary truths.

Now he is not implying that they have a grasp of the elementary truths. We are going to talk about what these truths are in a few minutes, because he lists some of them. But remember again that this congregation is made up of people who are what we would call Jewish Christians. They have come out of the Jewish faith into belief of Jesus as the Messiah. As such, they still share love for the Old Testament, their Bible, with Christians. But they are apparently stuck on some of the areas in the Old Testament which the Essenes taught a lot about, which the rabbis taught a lot about, which other groups that were not distinctively Christian focused on with regard to their teaching. And they are not learning how to adeptly handle and apply the Word of God because of their spiritual immaturity.

Look at his words in verses 12 and 13: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe."

These two metaphors, adult and babe and milk and spiritual food, are designed to talk about their spiritual immaturity and the kind of teaching that they are ready for. Milk representing elementary teaching, solid food representing more profound teaching. Babe being spiritually immature and adult being spiritually mature. So he says to them something very interesting in verse 14: solid food is for the mature. That is, those who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. So again solid food refers to more advanced teaching, especially teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And he says that kind of solid food is for more mature Christians. Then he basically gives a definition of a mature Christian. A mature Christian is someone who is practically and experientially realize the implications of that basic teaching for life. And because they have realized the implications of that basic teaching, it has transformed their lives, their commitment to Christ has been strengthened and when they are given more profound teaching, they realize that that more profound teaching is not simply to interest them intellectually; it is designed, in fact, to transform their lives still yet again. And so the author of Hebrews is challenging this congregation about its spiritual immaturity. And there are a number of applications of this truth that we can meditate on tonight.

Let me say this. This congregation seems to be confusing similarities between Judaism and Christianity and thinking, "You know, this stuff that the Christians are talking about is not that different from the things we learned as Jews in our childhood. And I wonder why it is so important that we go on and believe other things. Why can't we just stay with these things that we had already learned as we grew up in the Jewish religion and not bother about these other things that are being taught about Christ and about Christianity?" They are stagnating at certain basic principles, many of which were drawn out of the Old Testament and they were not looking with Christian eyes at that truth or striving for a deeper understanding of Christ and commitment to Christian teachings. This again reminds us of the link between understanding and spiritual maturity. It is impossible to obtain spiritual maturity without any understanding of doctrinal truth. Often time, doctrine is something that is safe to leave to the experts. "I don't need to study doctrine." As far as the author of Hebrews is, there is an interesting relationship. Their lack of understanding of doctrine has been a part of their stunted growth and their stunted growth keeps them from being able to grow in doctrinal understanding. You see how that goes in both directions with this group? He has said already, in verses 13 and 14, that mature Christians, because they have experienced Christian truth, they have grasped certain Christian truth, have an ability to discern morally right and wrong in a way than an immature Christian who does not have a grasp of doctrinal truth would not be able to do. Again, he is showing you how spiritual truth flows into practical life decisions. So if anyone ever tells you, "Well, you know, Christianity is not a doctrine, it's a life." Tell them that that's a dichotomy that the author of Hebrews or the Apostle Paul or our Lord Jesus Christ would never allow. Christianity is a doctrine and a life. In fact, life cannot be lived without the doctrine and the doctrine cannot be understood apart from the life. They go together; they have a symbiotic relationship.

Here again, we see the importance of truth and teaching and doctrine for Christian living and for a heart embrace of the truth. The author of Hebrews recognizes that when we grasp truths with our hearts, it has a profound impact on our Christian living and on our ability to take in further doctrinal truth. If there is anything that we can learn from this admonition given to this congregation, it is that we all ought to be deliberately aiming to grow in the knowledge of the truth. There in no one in a congregation of Christians who can safely say, "You know, I'm just not interested in doctrine." Or, "I'm just not interested in learning the Bible. I'll leave that to the Sunday School teachers or I'll leave that to the people who are so much smarter than I am and I will just sort of rest on these things that I know." There is never a time in the Christian life where we stop being students of the word. We all have to continue to grow in that area.

In fact, it has been my experience that I have become a more avid student as I have grown. I have appreciated more my teachers. I can remember as a student thinking about some of my professors. "Boy, these things that you are saying really aren't practical and they are really not related to day-to-day life; and besides that, they are a little bit boring." I can remember looking back three or four years later at my notes, when I have grown a little bit more, and thought, "Boy, what a goldmine I wasted." Every point along the line where I needed help, this guy had it right here in this paragraph and I didn't even understand what he was saying. I think as we grow in the Christian life, we continue to be students, no matter how much we know. In fact, the more you know, the more you benefit from hearing the truth taught as a student. Because you are more appreciative of the significance of the truth. You see how it relates to life. Sometimes it takes a little bit of living before you can even appreciate what happened in the context of someone teaching you the truth in the setting of a classroom or in a worship service or somewhere else. So this passage reminds us that we need to be growing in the truth lest we be spiritually stunted.

II. A call to spiritual growth.

In verses 1-3 of Hebrews 6, he goes on to make a very bold call for spiritual growth. These words are actually the preface to a very stern warning that we are going to look at the next time we study together. He calls us in Hebrews 6:1-3 to spiritual growth. Notice his words:

Therefore, leaving the elementary teachings about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, He is not saying to move on from Christ to something else. That's not his point. His point is that we are going to leave these elementary teachings and we are going to move on to more profound teachings. It's not a matter of leaving the doctrines behind. It's a matter of deepening our understanding of the doctrine of Christ, leaving some of the elementary teachings that they ought already to have a grasp of.

It's very interesting how he says this. Notice that there are two parts to his exhortation. There is the leaving and there is the pressing on. Look at the words: "...leaving the elementary teachings about the Christ, let us press on...." So there is a leaving behind and there is a pressing on. And the flow of his argument is very interesting. You have just heard him in the last verses of Hebrews 5 say basically, "Many of you don't understand these things and you are slow of learning. You are spiritually immature. You don't understand what is being taught about this." What would you have expected him to say before he moved on to a more profound section of teaching? Well, you might have expected him not to move on to more profound teaching at all. If he has just said, "You're immature, you don't understand the basics." You might have expected him to say, "We're going to go right back to the basics and I am going to run through them again." You might have expected him to say, "Well, I'm just going to stick with the basics since you don't understand that." That's not what he says. "Therefore, let us leave behind the elementary teachings and press on." Now you might also have expected him to say something like this: "Since you don't understand, since you are immature, despite that immaturity, I'm going to go on and teach something more profound." But notice he doesn't say, "Despite your immaturity, despite the fact that you don't understand, I'm going to teach these things." What is his argument? "You are immature, you don't understand these things, therefore, I'm going to press on." Isn't that an interesting argument? As a teacher, don't you find that interesting? You don't understand, you are immature, and because of that I'm going to press on to more profound things.

And I think that the reason he is arguing that way is this. He is saying, "Look, it's not going to do me any good to go back to those basics that you still don't understand. I mean, you didn't understand them the first or the second time. You haven't grasped them in those times as Christians. So I'm going to move on to profound teaching about Christ to impress you with the absolute significance of your allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. And to convince you of the spiritual significance of committing and growing in grace.

Now what are these basic or elementary truths that he is going to leave behind. Look at them listed in verses 1 and 2. The foundation of repentance from dead works, faith toward God, instruction about washings, of laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. So there are six basic teachings that he says "You all already ought to have grasped the truth about that. I'm going to leave those behind and move on." Now before we leave those behind and move on, let's think about what he is talking about because all of these just jump off the page at us and say, "Oh, I understand why he is saying that's a basic teaching."

Repentance — most of us as evangelicals recognize that that's very basic. Repentance is at the very heart of the first steps of our walk with the Lord. He speaks here of repentance from dead works. That's an interesting term; it's not used elsewhere in the New Testament. He is speaking about the turning from the old way of life and walking along the way of life that the Lord has set forth. He is not just talking about rejecting the ceremonial system of Judaism. He is talking about turning away from the way of wickedness and following in the way of godliness. Just like Psalm 1 talks about. I want you to remember that repentance was not a doctrine to the early Christians. Who else taught a lot about repentance? John the Baptist's preaching focused on repentance. And the Essenes. Now get inside their minds for a second. These people are Jewish people who may be being influenced by the Essenes. Do you see why he would say to them, you need to move on from repentance to these other more profound spiritual teachings. Why? Because they might fixate in their Essene or Jewish understanding of repentance and never move on to a distinctively Christian grasp of spiritual truth. The Essenes believe in repentance. The Essenes called themselves, "The Repentant of Israel." That's one of the titles they gave themselves. They may not have understood true repentance, but they talked about it a lot.

Notice also he speaks about moving on from faith toward God. Again, he is not saying you ever get to a point in the Christian life where you leave behind faith or repentance. But remember, the Old Testament, itself, speaks much about faith toward God. When Paul wants to tell you what faith is like, he goes back to the story of Abraham. He goes right back to Genesis to explain faith. Again, there would have been much teaching by the rabbis, by the Essenes, by the Jews, about faith. So he is saying, "Look, you are still stuck in a basically Jewish outlook here and you need to move on to specifically Christian understanding of the truth."

Notice the third and the fourth things he talks about in verse 2. Instructions about washings and laying on of hands. He uses a term a term here, washings, which in its singular form in the New Testament is a noun that speaks about baptism. But in its plural form, it usually refers to ceremonial washings. So what is he talking about here, instructions about washings, about baptism? There has been a mound of speculation as to what he is talking about. This is not one of the phrases that jumps off the page at us and we say instinctively, "Oh, I know what he is talking about there." My guess is that he is talking about a combination of two or three things. He may be talking about the ceremonial washings spoken of in Leviticus. In addition, he might be talking about the various types of ceremonial washings common in the Judaism of the day. And in addition to that, he might be talking about the distinctive kinds of baptisms which were practices in those days.

Remember there were at least three different kinds of baptism which these Christians had been aware of. Jewish proselyte baptism — if you were a non-Jew, being brought into Judaism as a God-fearer, you would have been baptized — Jewish proselyte baptism. Then there was the baptism of John the Baptist which was a baptism of repentance. And then there was the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and it was a baptism far richer in its significance than John the Baptist's baptism.

In fact, there are examples in the New Testament of people being confused over those baptisms. Let me turn you to one passage briefly. Turn with me to Acts. This by the way is a great passage for showing that from the earliest times, baptism was administered in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Turn to Acts 19. You will find Paul at Ephesus speaking to some disciples who were a bit confused and one of the things they were confused about was baptism. Acts 19:1:

"It came about while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed though the upper country came to Ephesus and found some disciples, And he said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said to him, 'No we have even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.' He said, "Into what then were you baptized?' And they said, 'Into John's baptism.'"

Boy, that's a fun passage and we will have to do that sometime. But let me point to two or three things. He asked them, "Have you received the Holy Spirit?" And they said, "We have not even heard of the Holy Spirit." What is his immediate question? "Well, what were you baptized into." Unless baptism was in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, why in the world would you ask that question after someone just told you, "Well, I've never heard of the Holy Spirit." He knew instinctively that the baptism that they had received was not Christian baptism because they had never heard of the Holy Spirit and if you have had Christian baptism, you have heard of the Holy Spirit. Because you are baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So at that point they say, "Well, we were baptized into John's baptism." He says, "Aha, well now I've got some teaching to do, I've got some explaining to do, and we've got some baptizing to do." Because John's baptism was not Christian baptism. A precursor perhaps. Points of continuity perhaps. But not Christian baptism. And so what we see there is an example of various baptisms.

This may well be what he is speaking about in Hebrews 6. You need to move on from these basic discussions. Perhaps people were aware of John's baptisms. Some of them had received John's baptisms and then they had been baptized into Christ and then they had been taught the differences between the two. You need to move on from that teaching about various baptisms and ceremonial washings. And again, you need to move on from teaching about the laying on of hands. The laying on of hands in early Christianity is a sign of the impartation of the Holy Spirit and was apparently part of the very way that people were baptized. There was usually a laying on of hands the Thursday prior to the Sunday on which new converts were baptized. That was a rite which was designed to show the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Then again, in verse 2, we see two last things. We are going to move on from teaching about the future resurrection of the dead and we are going to move on from teaching about the final judgment.

Notice the three categories of these six different things we are going on from. We're going to move on from teaching basic Christian conversion, faith and repentance. We're going to move on from teaching about the Church and the sacraments, ceremonial washings, and baptisms and the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant and those things. And finally we are going to move on from fundamental doctrinal beliefs like the resurrection from the dead and the final judgment. Remember the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Paul used that to get out of a fix once. All of these things, the Christians could believe and really not be all that different from their Jewish and Essene friends. What was their temptation? To say, "Well, what's the difference if we stay Jewish? Why do we have to take on all these extra things? Can't we stay where we are?" You see again the problem here. People are being tugged back into something that is culturally and religiously familiar and comfortable to them, but which is not full orbed, authentic Christianity. Now my guess is that we have tugs on us like that too. There is a temptation to settle into the culturally comfort and not to take on those things about Christianity in the Christian life which are counter-cultural. But that is what we are called to in the Lordship of Christ. The author says it for us in verse 3. "Our goal, God willing, is to move beyond these things into that Christian commitment and understanding of truth which makes for mature spiritual believers.

You see, these Hebrew Christian believers were facing different challenges than the Pagan convert. The pagan convert knew that he was making a sharp break with his past. It would not be unlike being an evangelical Christian in the northeastern United States or not. You know, in the South sometimes people aren't sure whether they are evangelical Christians or not. But if you are in Massachusetts, you know whether you are an evangelical Christian because there are lots of people who will tell you about it. You're weird. You're a culturally minority in the backwater. In the South, however, you may belong to an evangelical church and you are part of the cultural mainstream and you may not feel a great deal of difference between you and the cultural mainstream. This was a very similar problem to that which these Hebrews were facing. Unlike pagan converts who knew that they had stepped from paganism to something completely different. There were many things about Christianity that looked familiar and they were tempted to say, "Well, why don't we just stay where we are? Why should we change? And the author is going to explain the consequences of that to them in no uncertain terms in the following verses which we will look at, God willing. Let's look to Him in prayer.

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