Have you ever began explaining something to someone, but then realized that you’re talking over their head? They were looking at you and appeared to be listening, but you could see in their glazed eyes that you lost them. What did you do? Did you just keep going hoping they would catch on, or did you stop and ask if they were still engaged? I’ve had this experience many times, and honestly, I’ve responded both ways. My response depends on a few variables: time, complexity, the person, among others. Do I have time to stop? Is there a simpler way to explain this? Would the person I’m speaking with appreciate me questioning their comprehension? Get any of those three wrong and you might be wasting your breath altogether.
Then, if you or I do decide to stop and ensure that we’re being understood, do it gently. The moment you’re perceived as condescending – even if you’re not being that way – you’ve lost your audience. It’s hard to recover from perceived condescension because people like to feel like they’re being spoken to on the level and respectfully.
This particular passage of Hebrews begins a pause in the high priest discussion. It’s a pause for rebuke. The author stopped his discussion of Christ as high priest in its tracks, as if he remembered something about his audience. It’s like after he spoke/wrote 5:10, he had a thought: I don’t think they’re getting it. However, he didn’t ask them if they were still tracking with him or if they were understanding all the truth he was dropping. It wasn’t a gentle inquiry to ensure their comprehension. The author simply began a sharp rebuke. That’s where we’re starting today.
Dull of Hearing
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 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,
– Hebrews 5:11-12 (ESV)
First thing: notice the plural we. I told you way back in the beginning that I believe Hebrews is a sermon that was later circulated as a letter. Who is the we? If I’m right and this was first a sermon, the we was likely a reference to the plurality of elders present within the church where this was first preached. The elders agree on this teaching and the rebuke that the author delivers in the following verses.
Indeed they do have much to say on the subject of Christ’s high priesthood. After this rebuke concludes the author will continue this subject for quite a while. It’s a subject that hard to explain to people who aren’t maturing in their faith. The author told them they were dull of hearing. That’s a strong accusation and it echoes back to 4:2: “…because they were not united in faith with those who listened.” The implication is this: authentic believers listen, and because they listen, they grow.
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
– John 10:27-28
I don’t think it’s out of bounds to say that the dull of hearing are also possibly the apostate who never believed. If you think I’m being too strong, hang on because the author is going to get stronger.
Again, in support that the author was one of their elders, verse twelve gives the impression that he had journeyed with his hearers/readers for a considerable time. He had personal knowledge about how long they had been professing their faith in Christ. He clearly wasn’t satisfied with their lack of understanding and growth: by this time you ought to be teachers. He chastised them for needing constant remedial teaching on the basics of the faith.
I’m going to save some of this for the end because the author listed a few of the basics that they kept rehashing. But let me say this for the moment. The work of an elder is to feed the sheep. Anytime someone stands before the body of Christ to teach or preach, there are three categories of people listening: saved, lost, and deceived. Your content should have threads for all three.
- Feed the sheep. All preaching should give the sheep something spiritually nourishing. This is the primary function of elders. What did Jesus tell Peter three times? Feed my sheep.
- Preaching should also fish for the lost. Call the lost to a wonderful Savior. The lost should have the secrets of their hearts exposed by preaching. For sure, that’s a work of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not a passive matter for the preacher. Consider how your content calls the lost to salvation, and let the Spirit lead you.
- And finally, preaching should expose the apostate. Billy Graham once said that he believed up to fifty percent of the visible church isn’t really saved. This is precisely what the author of Hebrews took aim at in this rebuke.
Weave those three together and thread the needle, which is the cross of Christ. All preaching needs to plow a row straight to Jesus. The saint, the sinner, and the apostate need to see the Lamb of God slain for sins of the world before any change can happen. The author was trying to do this, but he realized his audience wasn’t ready to understand the beautiful truths he hoped to communicate. He suspected that some of his people were possibly apostate by their lack of growth. They were dull of hearing.
Milk and Solid Food
You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
– Hebrews 5:12b-14 (ESV)
Let’s be clear: milk isn’t a bad thing. Peter encouraged his readers about spiritual milk.
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation
– 1 Peter 2:2 (ESV)
However, both Peter and the author of Hebrews speak of milk as healthy for the immature. New believers need the pure spiritual milk of the Word. Every new believer should be nourished with the elementary beliefs of our faith. But eventually every believer should ween themselves from milk and start consuming solid food. The solid foods of the Word include deeper subjects, such as the high priesthood of Christ, spiritual warfare, identity in Christ, and discerning of spirits, among many others.
The author linked milk to a lack of skill in God’s Word. That’s not shameful if you’re a new believer, but it is of great concern for believers who’ve professed faith for years. I’m hesitant to put an exact timeframe on spiritual infancy, but for the sake of argument, let’s say two years. If after two years of professing faith you are still unskilled in the Word, needing milk and unable to digest solid spiritual food, showing no signs of growth, the author of Hebrews places you in the category of possibly apostate. That’s a serious matter. I can’t remember if I’ve said this before, but to be apostate is nearly the same as being spiritually stillborn. You look Christian, but your still dead.
The evidence that you are maturing and are able to consume solid food is that your powers of discernment are getting sharper. Increasingly, the Word helps you discern the spirits and distinguish between what’s good and evil. In very practical terms, you get better at applying godly wisdom to situations that don’t have a direct analog in the Scriptures. You can see supposed gray areas for what they really are. But at the same time, you get better at understanding nuance. Not every situation has one-size-fits-all answers. You have identified what spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit manifests in your life and use them with increasing effectiveness.
I cannot overstate the importance of this issue. I think in our desire to please people, we lower the bar so that others don’t feel lesser. Who are we to lower the bar that God’s Word so clearly gives? The author of Hebrews and every other New Testament author illustrate unambiguously that the fruit of genuine faith manifests in spiritual growth. Of course we struggle, but even in struggle growth happens. We don’t shrink back in defeat when we stumble. We get up, we learn, and we grow. Where there’s no growth, there’s no life.
1 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, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
– Hebrews 6:1-3 (ESV)
Despite his suspicions that some of the people were apostate, the author turns his focus upward, hoping for better things. He told his hearers/readers that it was time to grow up. It was time to stop circling around the same elementary teachings. What are these teachings?
- Repentance from dead works and faith
- Washings (baptisms)
- Laying on of Hands
- The Resurrection of the Dead
- Eternal Judgment
Part of the Foundations course that I created for this website addresses each of the elementary doctrines listed here. Instead of reviewing them here, I’ve linked each one to a video teaching for each doctrine. But here’s the thing I want to highlight. The author, two thousand years ago, said let us not lay again a foundation of these things. Yet, at least in my church experience, we still struggle with things on this list.
Now, when the author said, let us leave, and, not laying again a foundation, he did not mean we never speak of these things again. We are supposed to remind ourselves of these truths with some regularity. The author’s point is that a foundation, once laid, is supposed to be built upon, not laid again and again. Connected with what he wrote at the end of chapter five, people who fail to understand the elementary doctrines after they’ve been clearly taught again and again, probably haven’t been born again because…
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
– 1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV)
The trajectory of every believer is maturity in Christ and the author’s message is clear: those who don’t mature – the dull of hearing – are apostate and don’t belong to Jesus. And while I know I’m being strong, I also realize that maturity isn’t some rocket ride straight up into maturity. The Apostle Paul says it well.
13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you
– Philippians 3:13-15 (ESV)
If Paul saw maturity as something we must strain for and press on toward, then struggle is implied. Maturity is work. Maturity is prepackaged with failure. Maturity means though we fail, we don’t collapse. So how should we gauge our maturity? One thing is for sure, it cannot be uncoupled from our understanding of spiritual truth. We cannot say that because we don’t read well, or that we’re too busy that we don’t get in the Word and grow in our knowledge of Jesus. There are so many varied ways to be in the Word that even an illiterate person could be in the Word by listening to the Bible read to them in a Bible app.
Maturity is the goal. Press on toward it.