The Christian is always either growing up or going backward; he is never merely static in his spiritual development. As the late Leon Morris noted, “Always in the Christian life, one either moves forward or slips back. It is almost impossible to stand still.”1 It was this very concern that prompted the writer to the Hebrews to interrupt his treatise on Christ as the believer’s High Priest in order to exhort his readers to grow up. In fact, as the wider context (6:1-12) makes clear, this was of great concern to the writer. Andrews comments, “One of the classic evidences of life (of any kind) is growth. When something ceases to grow it is usually dead, and this is the Writer’s great concern.”2
Though I say “interrupts,” and though on the surface it appears to be an abrupt interruption in the flow of the argument, in fact it fits very well it into what has already been said and what will be said.
The writer has warned of the danger of neglecting so great salvation. The readers have heard the truth and it is now their responsibility to embrace the truth. Sadly, they have been sluggish in doing so, and so, rather than advancing in the faith, they are now regressing.
This, of course, is always a lurking danger for the Christian, for if we are not like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress then we may find ourselves like Demas in a pilgrim’s regress. These verses, and the passage that follows in chapter 6, make this abundantly clear. The goal of this study is to encourage, exhort and equip us to grow up in Christ, specifically by a willingness to openly identify with Christ, regardless of the cost.
We will learn what it means for Christians to grow up by looking at the dangers of not doing so and how to overcome these. We will do so under three major headings.
The Detection of Dullness
The author has just introduced Melchizedek, “of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (v. 11).
Sometimes, when preaching, one gets the distinct impression that those hearing have lost interest and have become what our writer calls “dull of hearing.” Though this man is writing rather than speaking to an audience, he nevertheless seems to be having one of those moments. And so he pauses to challenge them, among other things, to pay attention and examine their interest in Christ.
The writer has been speaking of the High Priesthood of Jesus and has just begun to draw a parallel between Melchizedek and Him (vv. 6-10), but he then says that further exposition would be “hard to explain.” It is not that the subject matter is difficult to explain, but it will be difficult for them to grasp because they are “dull of hearing.” “The difficulty . . . arises not wholly from the nature of the subject, but rather from the unpreparedness of the readers.”3
The problem, in other words, was not intellectual but ethical. As I will explain later, their behaviour—a retreat from confessing Christ—hindered their ability to appreciate the wonderful Christ-centred truth related to Melchizedek. Their dullness of hearing was hindering their ability to see Christ in the old covenant and was affecting their appreciation of the glory of the new covenant. Bruce remarks: “To such people, the exposition of the high-priestly service of Christ, with the corollary that the old order of priesthood and sacrifice had been abolished once for all, might well have been unacceptable.”4
But what does the writer mean by “dull of hearing”?
The term means “sluggish,” “languid,” “lazy” or “slothful.” It literally connotes, “no push in the hearing” and therefore “to be slow and sluggish in mind as well as in the ears.”5
I suppose you could say that this condition is characterised by a disinterest, an unwillingness to listen and to learn. It is akin to being indifferent. They were indifferently losing devoted interest in Christ. And so Brown asks, “How can he begin to explain what it means for Christ’s priesthood to be ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ when they have lost their appetite for Christian truth?”6
It is clear that the writer holds them accountable for their condition. The words “you have become” highlight their culpability for this condition. In other words, their being “dull of hearing” is inexcusable. “It is not a natural and inherent and pardonable weakness of understanding he complains of, but a culpable incapacity resulting from past neglect of opportunities.”7
Appetite, Aptitude and Apostasy
They were no longer eager to listen to the voice of the Shepherd, for in fact His voice was calling them to radical obedience for which, for whatever reason, they had lost their stomach. They had allowed themselves to lose their appetite for Christ with the consequence that they were not able to grasp His glory as they should have been. As we will see, they were obsessed with His shadow but not with Himself.
In summary, “Deafness or dullness in receptivity is a dangerous condition for those who have been called to radical obedience. . . . What is implied is a lack of responsiveness to the gospel and an unwillingness to probe the deeper implications of Christian commitment and to respond with faith and obedience. If this apathetic attitude was not checked, it would lead to spiritual inertia and the erosion of faith and hope.”8
They were to blame for their condition. And, if you are “dull of hearing” then you too are culpable to do something about it.
But how did the author detect this dullness? And perhaps more importantly, how could they? Before attempting to answer this, let’s note some clues, both from the overall context as well as from the immediate context (5:11—6:20).
The Overall Context of the Letter
It may be helpful to note that this letter was perhaps written to a small yet representative group of early Hebrew Christians who were undergoing some serious pressure because of their open identification with Christ. Many scholars believe that this letter was actually written to a small house church. If so, then we can see the letter’s importance since God has preserved it in the canon of Scripture. In other words, whatever challenges this little group of believers was facing is obviously a problem for all Christians everywhere. We need to pay attention lest we too become dull. And if we are dull then we had better listen up—today!
The Immediate Context of the Letter
The letter makes clear that these Christians were experiencing various persecutions, which were tempting them to not be so “confessional.” They were retreating from openly confessing Christ. This is hinted at in v. 12, where we read that they “ought to be teachers” when they were only “learners” again. They were sitting in class when they should have been proclaiming Christ in the square.
They had perhaps been imbibing on false teaching, which was in fact “evil” because its fruit is the evil of unbelief (v. 14). They were not exercising discernment and therefore were not rejecting the false and courageously clinging to the true (“good”).
What is the Milk?
The use of the word “milk” corresponds to the “first principles of the oracles of God.” This term is used elsewhere in the New Testament (Galatians 4:3, 9; Colossians 2:8, 20; 2 Peter 3:10, 12) and refers to the ABCs of any system of thought. As its use in these other passages make clear, it has reference to the shadows and symbols of the old covenant system of worship (“weak and beggarly elements”). These Christians, in other words, were retreating from the substance (the old covenant symbols and rituals; that is, the Old Testament) to the shadow. Andrews summarises the problem, “They had not forgotten the Scriptures as such, but had neglected to search and understand them in a Christ-centred way. In their reading of the Old Testament they saw ritual, not redemption; legalism, not liberation.”9
As a church, we were recently privileged to host Brian Edwards, who preached on the doctrine of the atonement. At one point, Edwards used an illustration from rugby. He spoke of a player kicking the ball high in the air, and an opponent following the shadow trying to catch it. As an American, I only realised as the congregation began snickering that that was not how you play the game! His point, of course, was that the player must keep his eye on the ball rather than the shadow if he will successfully field it. Our author is making much the same point.
The “milk” (vv. 12-13) is not the gospel, as opposed to the meat of more sophisticated doctrine. Rather, the milk is the old covenant system/shadows, which pointed to the meat of the new covenant; that is, the “solid food,” which is the gospel.
Lane says it well:
The writer is persuaded that “solid food” is not the privilege of a few initiates who have been exposed to deeper truths or have attained a higher level of existence, but is intended for all Christians. . . . “Solid food” represents Christian truth undergirded by a profound appreciation of Christ as his work of redemption.10
We could put it this way: These Christians had left varsity and had returned to Grade 0. Rather than faithfully following Christ they were behaving like those who had only a rudimentary knowledge of Christ; that is, they were behaving like unbelievers.
It should be noted that, at one time, they had behaved like adults but now were behaving like infants. As the rest of the passage (chapter 6) shows, this does not mean that they were behaving like immature Christians but rather that they were behaving like unbelievers; they were behaving dangerously like apostates.
Deeper Love, Not Merely Deeper Knowledge
Apparently, these had been professing believers for a long period of time, and there is no doubt that some had a good knowledge of both the Scriptures and theological concepts. After all, just look at some of the content of chapters 1—4. The primary issue here is not deeper intellectual knowledge but rather deeper love for Christ. Of course, this will require deeper knowledge over time but that is not the issue here. The mature are those who persevere, and the immature (or infantile) are those who refuse to do so. They would rather be coddled than enter the conflict. No, the problem was not primarily intellectual but rather spiritual; they had lost their heart for Christ and for His gospel. This is always our danger.
When I was in university, I had a roommate who, intellectually speaking, was streets ahead of me. He was studying for the ministry, and one night, as we sat in our room, he asked me if I believed in the virgin birth. When I told him I did, he shook his head and told me that he did not. He then asked me if I believed in the resurrection, and again told me that he did not. While he could reason circles around me intellectually, he was yet in need if the milk of the Word.
The problem, we conclude, was that they had moved from the Saviour back to a rudimentary, introductory system. Due to the difficulties they were facing, it was far easier to become a part of a religious system, which would not cost them anything, rather than personally identifying with the person of Jesus Christ.
As further evidence, it is interesting that the writer commends them for their labours of love on behalf of Christ and Christians (v. 10). They needed to persevere in this regardless of the cost.
A Charitable Judgement
The author has said that he would like to tell them more about Melchizedek (as a type of Christ, v. 11) but he cannot because they are dull of hearing. He has exhorted them to grow up lest they apostatise. What should not be missed is that, after this 33-verse detour, he does the very thing that he was hesitant to do in v. 11: He spends four chapters saying “much” about Melchizedek and how he relates to Christ.
Now, keep in mind that he was writing a letter. This was not a case of a man exhorting a people in a face-to-face encounter. He had no indication that they had responded to his plea. Nevertheless, he had an expectation. The author’s somewhat about face at the end of the chapter clearly demonstrates that he was confident that they were truly Christian people. He did not wait for a reply from them before penning chapters 7—10!
This further proves that the problem with this people was not a lack of intelligence or of knowledge of biblical truth. After all, he actually refused to restate the ABCs of the faith! Rather, the problem was clearly that they were drawing back like little children and avoiding conflict; they were avoiding the testing of the faith they had embraced. The purpose of these verses therefore was to stir them to grow up.
The author was clearly using irony—even sanctified sarcasm—to get their attention so that they would indeed grow up. As Morris highlights, this was very serious: “Obviously the author was much concerned lest his readers slip back from their present state into something that amounts to a denial of Christianity. So he utters a strong warning about the dangers of apostasy. He wants his friends to be in no doubt about the seriousness of falling into it.”11
We can learn several things from this.
First, others can often detect our spiritual declension before we do ourselves. This is the value of Body life. Listen to those who love and care for your soul!
Second, if you are hesitant to confess Christ then you may need to grow up. If you are not willing to take up your cross and identify with Jesus in your lifestyle and worldview then you need to grow up—before it is too late (6:7-8).
Third, we sometimes simply need a kick up the backside to get our attention and to stir us to devotion. This is what sermons can do; this is what reading challenging books can do; this is what admonition and counselling can do.
Fourth, those that belong to Christ will respond to the exhortation of God’s Word.
Fifth, our problem as Christians is usually not as much a lack of knowledge as it is a lack of will, which is in essence a lack of devotion. We need healthy and even forceful reminders at times to stir us to radical living. Again, devotion is clearly the issue here, not merely the attainment of better doctrine.
Sixth, be careful of rashly writing someone off as an unbeliever or apostate because they have become dull. They indeed may be the real deal who need a brother or sister to speak forthrightly into their life.
The Default of Dullness
In vv. 12-13 we learn that dullness is our default if we are not growing up in our love for and devotion to Christ.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first 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 unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.
The writer says that their return to baby food was the result of their refusal of solid food. He likens this solid food to “the word of righteousness.” What does he mean by this?
Probably it refers to both the doctrinal and the practical/ethical aspects of the righteousness that God both imputes and imparts to the believer. This is a reference to the gospel.
The Hebrews had failed to appreciate the biblical revelation of Christ—the sum and the substance of the gospel—as revealed in the old covenant. And so, by default, they had become spiritually sluggish. The result was that they were not living a life of devotion to Christ.
Andrews helpfully explains that their problem was “failure to view the Scriptures through new-covenant eyes” and that “the word of righteousness” speaks of “the insistence on Christ as our righteousness.”12
We too need to regain our appreciation of the gospel of the grace of God. Only then will we have the aptitude to grow up.
Again, Lane is helpful: “Deafness or dullness in receptivity is a dangerous condition for those who have been called to radical obedience. . . . If this apathetic attitude was not checked, it would lead to spiritual inertia and the erosion of faith and hope.”13
Speechless in Jerusalem
These believers were obligated (“ought”) to be “teachers.” They were under obligation to teach in the sense of evangelism (cf. Matthew 28:20). They were to be instructing others to believe on Christ, but now they themselves were the objects of such exhortation. Again, they had lost their appreciation for the gospel. They needed to fall in love with it again—by falling in love with Jesus Christ—and then teach Him to others.
Again, the “milk” is not the gospel! How foolish to think that the gospel is rudimentary and other doctrine is the deeper stuff! You will never go deeper than the good news of what God has done for believing sinners in Christ Jesus.
The “solid food” is the gospel; anything that falls short of this is milk. And in the case of these Hebrew Christians the milk was old covenant elements such as temple rituals and the like. “Their sluggishness showed itself in a disposition to settle down at the point which they had reached, since to go farther would have meant complete a severing of old ties.”14
With this understanding we can make the observation that one way to detect a regress in our spiritual growth is when the ritual rather than the reality becomes our focus. Ritual is always the default when lose reality. Don’t be guilty of defaulting on your obligation to Christ!
Various rituals or rites in the Christian life are important, but they are signs that point to a reality. They literally signify a reality. Too often we can become comfortable going through routine and miss the solid food of what the routine is aimed at promoting. This is akin to a bride being more excited about her ring than the man who gave it to her!
There is always a danger of feeding the mind as a means of avoiding the heart. Perhaps this was one reason that the writer did not want to proceed at this point with an explanation of Melchizedek, for it might tempt them to be satisfied with knowledge alone. This can be the case when it comes to “sermon tasters,” “conference groupies” and “podcast junkies.” It is all well and good to hear truth, but the question is, why do you want to hear truth?
In other words, there is more to hearing than simply being exposed to truth. The mind is absolutely essential to spiritual growth but it is only the beginning towards this end.
Details are important (Melchizedek) but they must never be separated from devotion.
We recently began a study of Revelation in our Family Bible Hour ministry. We are well aware of the danger that people can be obsessed with the details of the prophecy while missing the point: Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:10).
Silence, the Default from Shame
Another sign of spiritual regression (the older preachers referred to this as spiritual “declension”) is when we no longer are keen to be teachers of the gospel but rather want to “learn” about the gospel. Spiritual regression may involve the intellect, but it is not primarily an informational or intellectual problem. Rather it is a problem of the heart. It is not too much to say that feelings are as important in one’s growth as a Christian as are the facts. If our hearts are not moved then neither will we move our lips.
What Jesus said of the Pharisees is still apropos today: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).
If we fail in our devotion then we will fail to reach others with the gospel. This was probably the main point of v. 12. Because they were not growing in their devotion—and since they therefore were regressing in the same—they were not taking the risk to teach others. In other words, the Great Commission is largely dependent upon our obedience to the Great Commandment. Deep love for God empowers us to take the risk to speak for Him.
The Defeat of Dullness
Having detected spiritual dullness the writer now aims to defeat it: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (v. 14).
Spiritual progress is developed; it is not the automatic product of longevity in the Christian faith, nor is it the automatic by-product of knowledge. Again, these people quite obviously were pretty astute when it came to biblical doctrine. The problem was that they had ceased to be confrontational with the wider world. Because they were insulating themselves from making a stand before their fellow Jewish brothers, they were not growing in the faith.
I used to be critical of follow up programs that encouraged new believers to share their faith. I was wrong, for there is something very important in this activity.
As the new Christian looks for opportunities to witness for Christ, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position to face conflict. They may find themselves mocked—or worse—for speaking of Christ and proclaiming His gospel. But this is precisely the point of our author.
These Hebrews needed to be tested (v. 13) and trained (v. 14). This would occur by continual practice and proclamation of their faith. Then they would be able to discriminate between what is true and what is false.
Perhaps the writer primarily has in view the “good” of discerning Christ in the old covenant, while the “evil” is missing Christ in the old covenant.
Regardless, the Christian who is willing to go public as a follower of Christ will mature more readily and perhaps even more rapidly than the one who continues to remain in the safety of his relational, social and cultural comfort zone. There are probably fewer things that will lead to a greater experiential knowledge of God than testifying on behalf of the gospel. This requires faith, because you are never sure where this will lead.
Again, the ability to distinguish between good and evil has a context. The context is the good of following Christ and the evil of not following Him. This is consistent with the theme of the epistle.
According to 3:12, unbelief is called “evil.” This is a major theme because it is a major pastoral burden of the writer. In 10:22 it would appear (from that context) that once again unbelief is characterised as “evil.” This latter reference is of particular relevance for us as it is near the end of this entire section, which began in 5:1.
We can conclude that those who are growing up are growing in faith and in obedience.
To further substantiate this interpretation, note what the writer has said of Jesus in 5:9: “He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” And, of course, almost immediately after saying this, the writer begins to speak of this matter of progressing and regressing with reference to following Christ.
As we have come to appreciate, faith and obedience are as inseparable as is life and breathing (see James 2:26). What follows in chapter 6, I believe, further substantiates this.
Spiritual progression includes, though is not limited to, a life of costly obedience. This is to choose the “good.”
Spiritual regression includes, though is not limited to, a life of disobedience where obedience would be costly. This is to choose the “evil,” for it is a life of unbelief.
Good Versus Evil Teaching
But something else is also vitally connected to this. As we have seen, unbelief is evil, but therefore so would be any teaching that fosters unbelief. As Westcott says, “The discernment of ‘good and evil’ is here regarded in relation to the proper food of the soul.”15 And clearly this was a very real and present danger facing these Hebrew Christians.
Someone was leading them astray by teaching that was slackening their love for the Lord Jesus. And this doubtless had something to do with the old covenant. Any teaching that eclipses the glory of Christ as revealed in the new covenant can rightfully be labelled evil. Those who are mature in the faith will discern this—not because they are so intelligent or even because necessarily they have a great grasp of doctrine, but because those who have grown up have hearts that are sensitive to any teaching that does not exalt the Lord Jesus Christ as the supreme and sole Saviour that He is. As Pascal once wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Or as Paul wrote, “If any one does not love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Essentially this was what these Hebrew Christians were up against. Some were obviously propagating the idea that Jesus was not sufficient to save and so the writer laboured for nearly five chapters to correct such irreverent nonsense. To present Jesus Christ as anything less than He is is evil. And this writer expected these once-faithful believers to acknowledge this. Being tempted to embrace the lie that animal sacrifices, human priesthoods and temple rituals were sufficient to save brought them perilously close to apostasy (chapter 6).
We too are not without such temptations. Any teaching that demotes Jesus Christ and His work in any way is evil. One thinks of a syncretism that combines faith plus anything as a means to salvation. Then there are those who teach that Jesus was not God or those whose teachings deprecate His sacrificial work on the cross. All such teaching is evil, for it ultimately leads to the evil of unbelief and disobedience.
Any presentation of the gospel that eclipses Him is to be viewed by us as evil. We are to cling to the good and reject the evil (Romans 12:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 Corinthians 15:33-34).
So, the question that we must address and attempt to answer is, how do we guard ourselves from regressing?
The simple answer is that we must continue to progress. And we do so both by testing and by training.
It would seem that Paul was concerned for this very thing in the life of his disciple, Timothy (See 1 Timothy 4:7ff). And in this passage we have some hints as to how to avoid the regress.
Paul exhorts Timothy to train himself for godliness. Like these Hebrews believers Timothy was to discipline his life in order that he might love and serve the Lord will all his heart. He had to “sweat” in order to progress (v. 15).
And so, if we will make progress, we must train ourselves to do so. This is what the writer of Hebrews tells us (v. 14) as well as what Paul told Timothy in 4:7. If we will progress in our devotion to Christ and in our declaration of His glorious gospel then we must discipline ourselves to do so. There is no simple way. We must therefore be committed to pursuing Christ with abandon. We must discipline ourselves to pray and to read and to study the Word. We must train ourselves to avoid that which will quench the Spirit and that which will dilute our delight in Christ alone. We must keep short accounts with sin. And, yes, we must learn to discipline our mind by reading and interacting with truth. Then, and only then, will our hearts be strangely warmed in love and devotion to Christ. In other words, we dare not be lazy. We dare not be sluggish. We dare not be slothful. We dare not become dull of hearing.
Rather, we must stir up our hearts as well as our minds in love for Christ.
And fellowship is a vital means towards this end.
We also must take ourselves in hand and openly identify with Jesus. In fact, this is a very strong theme in this book. We see it in chapter 11 in the Hall of Faith and also very clearly in 13:13-14: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” The writer is telling them to quit trying to be seen as respectable and to rather be so devoted to Jesus Christ that they appear radical.
As we bring this study to a close, we need to speak of our responsibility to abandon all in order to teach others who need to hear the truth.
These believers had at one time evidently been doing this very wonderful but difficult thing. But along the way they became theoretical students rather than theological disseminators of the truth of the gospel. They needed now to get back to this, whatever the cost.
The world is in need of gospel teachers—not only in your workplace, and not only in your school and among your family, but also in places like the 10/40 window and the marginalised and vulnerable in our own society. But I dare say that they will never be reached until we grow up. Until we are willing to leave our comfort zones, the unengaged and the unreached will remain so.
We must be cardial as well as cerebral. The head will grow dull if it is not connected to the heart—and vice versa. Let us keep the two in sync and then we indeed will grow up.
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:52. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 155. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:, 291. ↩
- Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 157. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), ??. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 104. ↩
- Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:291. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:136. ↩
- Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 156. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:135. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:51. ↩
- Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 158. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:136. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:108. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 136. ↩