Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 23, June 1 to June 7 2008

Hebrews 5:11-6:3

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

So there you are, explaining something to a group of people before you and, at first, they seem to be tracking with you. Things are going along just fine. But then, after a while, you notice that they are starting to look around a little bit. Then you notice that they are beginning to shift restlessly in their chairs. Then their eyes begin to glaze over as they look ahead with a blank stare, occasionally nodding their head or uttering a vague, "un-huh." At that point, you know you have lost them. Now matter how hard you try, nothing is going in. And the problem is not that they are not capable of understanding you. The problem is that they are not applying themselves in the moment. They have a brain. It just is not in gear.

Ever been there? Have you ever been on either side of that equation? Sound familiar?

That scenario is not too far removed from what is happening in the text before us this morning. The writer of Hebrews has been working hard to encourage his readers to hang on to Jesus and not drift back into their former practices in Judaism. To do that, he has been showing Jesus' superiority to whatever it is that they might be tempted to trade Jesus for. This has included showing the superiority of the revelation that he brings, his superiority to mere angels, his superiority to the prophets in general and to Moses in particular.

Most recently, the writer has turned his attention to showing Jesus' superiority as high priest to all the high priests that had come before. Now this particular argument will take him about five chapters to make, so we have a ways to go. We have already taken two looks at the beginning stages of this argument and have seen how Jesus is a better high priest, for several reasons:

... because while the earthly high priests only worked in a temple which was a symbol of heaven, Jesus has entered into the heavens themselves.

...and whereas the earthly high priest was only able to come into God's presence for a brief time, Jesus remains eternally at the right hand of God the Father.

...and whereas the high priest had to repeat the same sacrifices year, after year, Jesus made one, and only one sacrifice, that was completely sufficient, for all time.

...and whereas the high priest could identify with the people in terms of their facing sin and temptation, because he too was a sinner he never knew the full power of evil and temptation that only one who had never given in would know - like Jesus.

...and whereas the high priest knew something about the sufferings that one experiences in this life because of sin and disobedience, Jesus' suffering was far greater because of his obedience, which caused him to bear the full brunt of God's righteous anger against sin...

Those are just some of the preliminary things we have seen in this comparison between the former high priesthood, and the high priesthood of Jesus Christ.

However, after making these initial points, the writer shifts gears for a moment at verse 11 of chapter 5. In the midst of his elaborating on some important and deeper truths about Christ, it is as if he senses that he is losing his readers attention. He is suddenly aware that the things he is saying may be falling on deaf ears. Even though he is not physically with them as he writes this letter, he must have known enough about them personally to have a good "feel" for where his readers were, in terms of their spiritual maturity.

Therefore, before he goes any further on the subject of Christ's high priesthood, he pauses here to issue some timely and much-needed warnings to his readers. This week we will look at the first of those warnings - centered around this concern that his readers have become "dull of hearing" and, Lord willing, next week we will look at a second and more serious warning that some of his readers might actually be worse off than that. Before we go any further, however, let us pray together.

Pray and read text:

Hebrews 5:11-6:3 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

The writer of Hebrews is clearly concerned about his readers. As has already been said, he is concerned that they have become "dull of hearing" - that they are, or may be incapable of understanding what he is saying to them.

Now, precisely how he has come to know these things is not clear from the text. Either he has had some face to face, personal exposure to them and has seen, first hand, the sort of thing he is talking about. On the other hand, perhaps he has received eyewitness reports from reliable friends and fellow disciples of the Lord Jesus who have painted a very accurate picture of what was going on. The reality is that we just do not know. However he has come to know it, the writer has come to know these things and thus writes with a great deal of certainty and concern about this thing he calls being "dull of hearing."

Now it is important to be clear on what the writer means by this. He is not saying that his readers' inability to understand is because of the difficulty of the subject matter. That is not the problem. Further, he is not saying, or suggesting that his readers are stupid or do not have the necessary mental faculties to grasp his meaning. That is not the problem either. The problem is not what his readers are as much as it is what they have become. They have become "dull" or "sluggish" or "lazy" or "complacent."

I would think that most of us can think of examples of people that we have known, or even currently know, who are very capable people, who have lots of natural abilities and gifts - people with lots of "potential," as we say - but who consistently live well below that potential. Things that ought not be difficult for them have become so over time.

Their minds which were once sharp and alert, have become weak and slow and muddled. You know the sort of thing I am talking about, right?

That is the sort of thing that seems to have happened among the people to whom this letter was originally written. They were once in a much better place than they are now. There was a time when the writer of Hebrews would not have wondered whether or not they were able to grasp the importance of what he is now saying about Christ's priesthood. However, that is no longer true.

Please do not miss what this is saying. The problem is not just that they have stopped growing and learning. The issue here is not just that they have gotten to a certain point, and then gotten stuck there, unable to move forward. Yes, they have stopped growing but it is worse than that. They are not stuck. They have gone backwards. As the writer of Hebrews says:

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.
They are in the place now where they need to have the basics taught to them all over again. They have to go back to the fundamentals, back to the "drawing board", so to speak.

Like the famous coach (whose name now escapes me) who came to the conclusion that he needed to rebuild his team from the ground up and so sat them down one day and said those now famous words, "Men, this is a football...." The writer of Hebrews says that this is the situation in which his readers now find themselves. They have to go back to some foundational truths in order to be re-grounded in the basics of the Christian faith and life. That is how far backwards they have gone.

How did they get in such a pickle? Well, judging from what is said about what maturing believers are like, in verse 14, it would seem that these immature readers have been very inconsistent and inconstant in their study and application of the "principles of the oracles of God" - which is simply referring to the revelation of God, given to his people for their encouragement and edification, most specifically, the scriptures. Apparently, the revealed truth of God is not something that had occupied a great deal of their time and thought. Now there does not seem to be any suggestion here that they have overtly or dramatically rejected the truth of God. The vibe here is not one of open rebellion but passivity.

Like the person who thought she was secured firmly to the dock who then suddenly looks up and sees that she has drifted far, far from shore - that is the sort of dynamic that I would suggest has been taking place amongst the readers of this letter. Remember, that dynamic of drift is the very thing that this letter was written to fight and prevent. That is the sort of thing that the writer seems to be getting at here. His readers have, through lack of application and lack of discipline, drifted away to the point that even the basic things are difficult for them now.

There are other consequences. As verse 14 suggests, their powers of judgment have been impaired such that their ability to discern good and evil has been weakened. In other words, they are making poor moral choices. Situations in which the better path would have once been crystal clear to them, are no longer so, and, predictably, they are finding themselves in situations that God's people ought never be in.

There is a further consequence, briefly suggested in verse 12, when it says, " this time you ought to be teachers..." Now, of course, the passage does not mean by this that everyone in the church has, or ought to have the gift and office of teaching. But it does mean, as one writer puts it, that:

...they ought by now to be sufficiently advanced in their comprehension of Christian doctrine to be able to instruct and edify those who are still young in the faith.....
In other words, one of the consequences of their becoming "dull of hearing" is that the work of the kingdom is being hindered. Situations in which they might have been able to explain the gospel to unbelievers, or respond helpfully to a skeptic's question, or encourage another believer on some particular matter, or even rebuke a brother or sister who was headed in a wrong direction — all sorts of situations in which they might have exercised a ministry of the word - applying God's truth to life - all of those opportunities have been squandered and lost. The ministry of the church has been significantly weakened.

Well, if that is the problem, and those are the consequences, what is the solution going to be for them? Well, verse 12 suggests at least part of the solution, 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...
What his readers need is to go back to the basics, to be re-grounded in some of the fundamentals, but then they need to keep going, to go deeper and go further to give themselves to this task with consistency and discipline so that, as verse 14 says, "by constant practice" they will have their powers of discernment trained and they will not remain "unskilled in the word of righteousness" - which is Bible shorthand referring to the central reality of what it is that God has done and is doing to make us right with him and to reconcile his fallen creatures, and restore his broken creation. The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to give themselves to this, to apply themselves to knowing God through what he has revealed of himself, most especially through the revelation of His Son, and then to move beyond mere knowledge to application of these things to life, and putting these things into practice.

As always, this analysis and these warnings and encouragements are for the church in every age, including and especially for the church today because we too, by God's design and preservation, are also the intended recipients of this letter. These words are for us. If there was a problem of God's people becoming "dull of hearing" back then, there is surely the same problem among us today, if not more so.

Surely if the writer of Hebrews were to examine the landscape of contemporary Christianity he would say that many professing believers today do not understand things that they should understand. Surely, he would look at our own situation and say that the problem is not the difficulty of the material, but the density of the Christians. Certainly, he would see among us today the same sort of sluggishness, and complacency and lack of application, lack of a desire to go deeper. Unquestionably he would see lots of people who were quite happy to be spoon fed at every available opportunity, but at the same time, not very interested in getting out the shovel and doing some digging around themselves.

Just as surely as he would see those things, he would see the consequences of those things; consequences disturbingly similar to the ones found in Hebrews 5, including:

...rampant immaturity in spiritual things,

...a woeful lack of discernment among professing believers - so much so that when sociological surveys are done in this area, there is little and often no difference between the moral choices of professing believers and avowed un-believers,

...a shallow, non-reflective understanding of many things - a sort of doctrinal "house of cards" that gets blown over by the slightest breath of wind,

...christians who are poorly equipped to reach out to unbelievers, or serve fellow believers, by explaining and applying God's word.

Indeed, the writer of Hebrews, if he were here today, would see all these things, and more, as some of the sad consequences that plague the church today because we too, by and large, have allowed ourselves to become "dull of hearing."

So, what do we do? Well, firstly, we need to admit that there is a problem. There is a problem. Secondly, we need to understand that the diagnosis is not terminal, or at least it does not have to be terminal. Ground that has been lost can be regained - and then surpassed. Doing so will require a renewed desire to pursue the knowledge of God ever more deeply. And that desire will have to come from the right place and with the right motivation.

In other words, our renewed pursuit of God needs to be grounded in an assurance of his grace and mercy toward you in the gospel and in a desire to pursue these things, not because of what you think it will do with regard to your position before God, or his acceptance and approval of you, but because of what it will do with regard to your love for God and your consequent willingness and ability to serve his kingdom and others.

As part and parcel of this, we need to take heed of what the writer of Hebrews says about the way forward for his original readers. Many of us, I am convinced, need to go back to the "basic principles of the oracles of God." We need to be re-grounded in these things, at a fundamental level, and then we need to move on toward maturity which, in the end, does not move you so much past these fundamental things as much as it moves you deeper into them.

What are these "basic principles of the oracles of God"? Looking ahead in Hebrews, in chapter 6, verses 1-3, we see what some of the basics were that the writer of Hebrews seems to have had in mind. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but it is a helpful place to start. Let me read those verses to you:

...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. And this we will do if God permits...
Now, as has often been the case, the writer of Hebrews assumes a certain level of understanding among his readers such that he can very briefly and with few words, refer to matters in a fairly summary fashion. However, the sorts of "basics" that the writer is highlighting here include:
1) When he talks about "not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God" he is referring to the fundamental reality they would have learned as new believers that the pursuit of God is not a "religious" matter in the sense of being about our making ourselves acceptable to him by our works, but is, rather, a matter of his grace and sovereignty and of our faith in him and in what he has done to make us acceptable to him by his Son.

One of the clearest signs that begins to manifest itself in believers who have become sluggish and complacent in their pursuit of God is that they forget about what it means to have a relationship with God that is based upon his grace and mercy, and begin to think and act and speak as people in non-Christian religions do - as if their relationship with God was a function of their self-righteousness. This happens a lot in believers who are adrift.

2) The writer also talks about "instructions about washings" which, most likely, is referring to the significance of baptism and how that particular "washing," so to speak, compared to the washings that were part of their previous way of living, and which were very much a part of their former practices in Judaism, which involved a number of different ritual washings, at various times and places. In other words, the writer is likely referring here to some of the things they would have been taught, at the very beginning, about baptism and what it signified and the implications of all that with regard to the community of faith with which baptism identified them.

This too is a significant part of what it means to re-learn the "basic principles of the oracles of God" since the neglect of these things - the distancing of oneself from the community of faith and the symbols that define it is another sign that commonly manifests itself in those who have become "dull of hearing" in our own day.

3) The writer also talks about "the laying on of hands" which, again, is a cryptic reference but which most likely is referring to their receiving of the Holy Spirit and all that that entailed. In the early days of the church, when God was revealing his Son Jesus Christ and when God's people were moving from relating to him on the basis of the OT sacrificial system to relating to him on the basis of Jesus as the fuller reality to which that system pointed - in those early days of the church, during that time of transition, a number of things happened that were unique in the history of God's redemptive purposes. A number of things had to happen, and they had to happen in a certain way, in order to make it clear that this new development in the history of God's dealings with his people was in fact valid, and good, and right, and in perfect continuity with all that God had done and said before.

However, once these things had been established, and once certain realities were made clear, then the need for some of the things that were happening in that day ceased to exist. One of these things that was going on, and which was unique to that time of transition, was the fact that the pouring out of God's Spirit on his people was often, though not always, effected through the laying on of hands - specifically by the Apostles. This, among other things, had the important effect of validating them and their message and work, and thus validating the revelation that would later come through them and which we know as the New Testament scriptures. It also had the important effect of validating the reality that through Christ God had broken down the cultural and ethnic barriers such that both Jews and Gentiles were shown to be in possession of the same, identical Spirit.

The thing that was unique in that period of God's redemptive history, and which eventually become un-necessary, was this link between the laying on of hands, followed by a demonstrable work and movement and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That pattern of God's working served its purpose well and since then, with the legitimacy of the Apostolic Church being fully established and embraced, there was no more need for that link to be demonstrated and so we in the church today know that the reception of God's Spirit by God's people does not require the laying on of hands but is the necessary accompaniment, and even pre-requisite, of the salvation that God provides for his people.

All that being said, by means of this rather cryptic shorthand referring to "the laying on of hands," the writer wants his readers to recall some of the fundamental principles and realities that they were taught at the beginning with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. They needed to be re-grounded in the understanding that salvation was not just something that happened to them, it was something that was happening in them. It was not just a declaration about their position before God but also involved their disposition toward God, and the fact that the Spirit of God had come to dwell within them and was producing both gifts and fruits that were proof of that fact.

Once again, this is a significant part of what it means to learn again the "basic principles of the oracles of God" as this too is yet another area in which those who have become "dull of hearing" will often struggle. The fruits of the flesh, as seen in Ephesians, will become strong. The fruits of the Spirit will become lean and spare.

And the longer this goes on, the more the drifter's theology will begin to warp itself around these realities such that it less and less resembles the truth of the Bible and more and more denies the internal, surgical, on-going work of the Spirit of God within his people.

4) Finally, the writer talks about "the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" as another aspect of the "basic principles of the oracles of God." With these words the writer is referring to the implications of Christ's resurrection for his people - that they too will one day be resurrected - and that there is life beyond this life, that a day of reckoning is coming. He is calling to mind the dual reality that while this life certainly matters, it is not the only thing that matters, and it is not all there is.

Once again, losing sight of these fundamental truths is another common denominator to be found amongst those who have grown sluggish, and who are adrift in their Christian life. Christians who have wandered into this path will typically live in ways that are identical to those who make no profession of faith. They will live as people who do not really believe that there is life beyond the grave, as if this world is all that there is. Their decisions, their values, their time commitments, the affections that take their hearts captive - all of these things will betray a seeming ignorance of the most basic things that God has said to us about the future, and the relation of this life to it.

Well, all of these basic realities, these fundamental truths that God has given to us — these are the sorts of things that the sluggish original recipients of this letter needed to be re-grounded in, at a basic level, and they are things that many of us, I believe, need to be re-grounded in - and then move past by moving deeper. Our sinful tendency will be to avoid this, to put it off, to not see it as important. Our tendency will be to say it is too hard, and too time consuming, and to look for something easier. Our desire will be to hide behind assertions that "We're just not very good at understanding these sorts of things" which, when translated often means, "I can't be bothered to even try", as one writer puts it.

To be sure, as this same writer (Wright) says, "It's one thing for people who are genuinely young in the faith, or are genuinely tired out and need a good rest, to say, "let's keep it simple and easy". It's quite another thing for people who have been Christians for some time, and show every other sign of being capable of learning and growing in the faith to say, or imply, "I'm just too lazy to do that".

Moreover, as all of this is going on, we will keep telling ourselves that we are okay, and that we are not going backwards when, in fact, that is precisely what we are doing. You may exist in that mode for a while, but one day the bills will come due. Because sooner or later, we all sit down to enjoy - or not - the banquet of our consequences.

Let me encourage you to not grow weary or complacent in your pursuit of God. Listen to your Creator. Speak to your Creator. Love what your Creator loves. Hate what your Creator hates. Live as your Creator lived - faithfully, self-sacrificially, expectantly. Note that was can come out of the drift "If God permit."

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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