Bible read me 2The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 5:11-14

Warning Against Apostasy

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, 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.

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Last week’s reading was the end of the discourse by the unknown author of Hebrews on Psalm 95’s exhortation to not harden one’s heart against God’s voice.

The author then begins a discourse on Jesus as the Great High Priest, which continues into Hebrews 5. The following is in two Year B readings in the three-year Lectionary. Note how the author emphasises that Jesus Christ was called by God the Father to be our Great High Priest, just as Melchizedek was (emphases mine):

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus[a] offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Then the author breaks off to reprove the Hebrews. He wants to continue his discourse on the comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek but says he cannot do so because the Hebrews have dulled their hearing towards what they have learned (verse 11). They stopped taking in the lessons of Scripture, which require acting on said instruction by faith.

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

Dull hearers make the preaching of the gospel a difficult thing, and even many who have some faith are but dull hearers, dull of understanding and slow to believe; the understanding is weak, and does not apprehend these spiritual things; the memory is weak, and does not retain them.

Eventually, this becomes sinful behaviour — a wilful rejection of Scripture, Christ and, by extension, God the Father:

He insists upon the faultiness of this infirmity of theirs. It was not a mere natural infirmity, but it was a sinful infirmity, and more in them than others, by reason of the singular advantages they had enjoyed for improving in the knowledge of Christ

He further chides them by saying that, at this point, they should be teaching about Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, they need to go back to the beginning and relearn what they have forgotten. They need milk again, just as a baby does (verse 12).

He goes on to say that someone who needs milk is a child, and a child lacks the knowledge and the wherewithal to function independently (verse 13).

The author concludes by saying only an adult can handle solid food, and so it is with the spiritually mature, who sharpen their discernment, ‘trained by constant practice’ (verse 14).

Henry says that we Christians have the same — if not more — responsibility to develop spiritually:

1. What proficiency might have been reasonably expected from these Hebrews–that they might have been so well instructed in the doctrine of the gospel as to have been teachers of others. Hence learn, (1.) God takes notice of the time and helps we have for gaining scripture-knowledge. (2.) From those to whom much is given much is expected. (3.) Those who have a good understanding in the gospel should be teachers of other, if not in a public, yet in a private station. (4.) None should take upon them to be teachers of others, but those who have made a good improvement in spiritual knowledge themselves.

2. Observe the sad disappointment of those just expectations: You have need that one should teach you again, &c. Here note, (1.) In the oracles of God there are some first principles, plain to be understood and necessary to be learned. (2.) There are also deep and sublime mysteries, which those should search into who have learned the first principles, that so they may stand complete in the whole will of God. (3.) Some persons, instead of going forward in Christian knowledge, forget the very first principles that they had learned long ago; and indeed those that are not improving under the means of grace will be losing. (4.) It is a sin and shame for persons that are men for their age and standing in the church to be children and babes in understanding.

Whilst it is essential to know the basic doctrine that studying the Bible affords, we then need to go to the next stage and begin to understand the holy mysteries. We also need to deepen our relationship with Christ by acting upon what we read and hear in Scripture:

Observe, (1.) There have been always in the Christian state children, young men, and fathers. (2.) Every true Christian, having received a principle of spiritual life from God, stands in need of nourishment to preserve that life. (3.) The word of God is food and nourishment to the life of grace: As new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word that you may grow thereby. (4.) It is the wisdom of ministers rightly to divide the word of truth, and to give to every one his portion–milk to babes, and strong meat to those of full age. (5.) There are spiritual senses as well as those that are natural. There is a spiritual eye, a spiritual appetite, a spiritual taste; the soul has its sensations as well as the body; these are much depraved and lost by sin, but they are recovered by grace. (6.) It is by use and exercise that these senses are improved, made more quick and strong to taste the sweetness of what is good and true, and the bitterness of what is false and evil. Not only reason and faith, but spiritual sense, will teach men to distinguish between what is pleasing and what is provoking to God, between what is helpful and what is hurtful to our own souls.

To those who say, ‘I read the Bible once. I’ve done that’, I say, ‘Keep reading it’. A Bible scholar makes a lifetime vocation out of studying Scripture. There are new insights for us to discover every time we open the Good Book, as it used to be known not so long ago.

John MacArthur gives us a good analysis of this principle and how it relates to the Hebrews. We would do well to note this, too:

There are those who have come up, and they have all the information. They have all the facts, but they’ve never committed their lives to Jesus ChristAnd so there are really these two groups in view, and then in third distant view in the writing of Hebrews is a group of uncommitted Jews who are just being exposed to the new covenant altogether. So the theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. To the saved Jews, he is saying, “You’ve done the right thing. You don’t need to go back. You don’t need any of the trappings.” To the intellectually convinced Jews who have not received Christ, he is saying, “Come on. Don’t stand there in neglect. Don’t let yourself get hard. Come on and receive Jesus Christ. Come all the way to salvation. Don’t just…don’t just get up to the edge and think it’s right and believe it. Commit yourself to it.” And to the third group, he’s simply sharing with them the facts of the new covenant, that they might be exposed to the truth. Now, as we study Hebrews from chapter to chapter, from passage to passage, from text to text, we must keep this in mind, that it is a contrast between Christianity and Judaism, or we will fall into error in our interpretation. We find that the Biblical writers, if we study the books carefully, have a basic idea. Remember in John, we saw that everywhere Jesus was presented as God, that was John’s point; and you could look at any passage; and you could see, now, what in here is John trying to say concerning the deity of Christ. As we come to this passage, we will say the same thing. What is it that the writer of Hebrews is saying regarding the superiority of Christianity over Judaism? That’s the issue all the way through the Book of Hebrews. This is the key that unlocks every section of Hebrews, and to use any other key is forced entry. Now mark this in your minds. The Holy Spirit is not contrasting two kinds of Christianity in Hebrews. He is contrasting Judaism to Christianity. He is not contrasting an immature Christian with a mature Christian. He is contrasting an unsaved Jew in Judaism with a redeemed Jew in the new covenant. That’s the basic principle of hermeneutics. He is contrasting the substance against the shadow, the pattern against the reality, the visible against the invisible, the facsimile against the genuine, the type against the anti-type, the picture against the actual. And if you’ve been here in any of our studies, you know that the Old Testament are all pictures and types of what is fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament; and all the way through Hebrews, this is the contrast that is made, and this is the only basic hermeneutic…that word means principle of interpretation…that you need in Hebrews to see an overview. So the contrasts are between Christianity and Judaism.

There is also a deeper principle here of divine judgement in the afterlife for falling away or not committing:

… periodically through the book, he gives very pointed warnings to those who’ve come all the way up in intellectual belief and never committed themselves. In the first warning, for example, he simply said, “How shall we escape if we…what?…neglect so great salvation?” If you don’t come, you’re not gonna escape judgment. And then he said in the second warning, which was in chapter 3, he said, “Don’t harden your hearts. You’ve come all the way up there. Now don’t stop there and get a hard heart and depart from the living God with an evil heart of unbelief. You’ve come this far, come on all the way.” So he’s speaking to the intellectually convinced Jews. Now, I believe there is no reason in the world to assume that the third warning won’t follow the very same pattern as all the others. The beginning in chapter 5 verse 11, he is again speaking to the same group of individuals, only this time he is saying, “You better grow up to the mature truths of the new covenant. You better not fool around any longer with the ABCs of the old covenant, for you are in danger…verse 4 of chapter 6… of falling away after you’ve once been enlightened; and, if you do that, you can be lost eternally. Don’t do that. You’ve come all the way up.”

We haven’t got to Hebrews 6 yet, but the theme of spiritual maturity in Jesus Christ will continue:

In 5:11 through 6:3, the Holy Spirit says, “Grow up from the…the ABCs of Judaism, and come all the way to maturity. Leave the milk of the Old Testament. Come to the solid food of the new covenant. Come to Christ. Leave Judaism.” That’s exactly what he’s saying. Then in 6:4, he says, “If you don’t, you’re in serious danger of coming all the way up, hearing all of the truth, then falling away, and being lost forever.” Because, my friends, if a man hears all the truth of Jesus Christ, considers it carefully, and walks away, he’s hopeless. What else can God do once he’s known the truth?

MacArthur says the malaise of dull hearing can affect clerics, too:

I’ve met liberal theologians who knew the Scriptures. They knew where everything was located. They knew the theology of Paul in and out. That…I’ve read books from one end to the other teaching the doctrines that Paul taught, and, yet, those men who write those books have no relationship with Jesus Christ whatever. For the time and study, they oughta be teachers of the Word of God. They don’t even know Jesus Christ; and you heard an illustration night after night last week of people who’ve got all kinds of Bible verses, who’ve heard all kinds of truth, who’ve read it over and over again, but haven’t got the faintest idea what it all means. For the time, they oughta be teachers, but they don’t even know the truth themselves…

He gives us other Christian examples of dull hearing. The first one, involving a 14-year-old pastor’s daughter, is particularly sad. It took place in 1972:

I had an illustration of this. This is earlier this week. I spoke at a convention up in the Oakland area, the Christian Missionary Alliance Churches for the United States, their conference. After speaking to the young people on one occasion in the afternoon, a young girl came up to me and sat on the steps of this huge auditorium. She said to me, she said…I had talked about a Christian, the Christian young person’s relationship to another Christian young person in terms of choosing the right life partner and sex and all of these things; and, after I got done, she came up, and she said, “Well, my boyfriend says whatever you do is all right. He said, ‘Sex is like baseball, and the whole object is to make a home run.'”…That’s what she said.

I said, “Well, that’s interesting. How old’s your boyfriend?” “Twenty-one.” “How old are you?” “Fourteen.” Oh, uh-huh. Well, lemme tell you about your boyfriend. She said, after that opening statement, I said…I explained to her what God thought of that attitude. She said she was…dropped her head, and she said, “I know that,” and she said, “You know what I need?” she said, “I need to be saved.” So we sat down on the steps of this huge auditorium while all these people were coming in, and I said to her, “Well,” I said, “been raised in the church?” Said, “Yes, my father’s a pastor.” I said, “All your life he’s been the pastor?” “Yes.” I said, “Then you know how to be saved, don’t you?” She said, “No.” I said, “Does he ever preach on how to be saved?” She says, “Yeah, but I don’t understand any of it.”

Now there was a perfect illustration of spiritual sluggishness. A person who, for so long had rejected Jesus Christ, even to the time she was 14 years old, that the Gospel was so foggy, she couldn’t even understand it anymore; and so I sat there; and I carefully delineated what the Gospel was; and right there on the steps we were praying together as all these people came in, and she invited Jesus Christ into her life. She said, “All that I can remember is my father’s boring sermons… that made no sense.” And I’m sure that would break her father’s heart to hear her say that; and, yet, because of constant rejection, she became totally indifferent.

I had another person say to me this very week, “I don’t know what I believe or if I believe anymore.” You ever heard anybody talk like that? Sure you have. You get into a state where it’s all kind of a bunch of gop, and you can’t discern it anymore. That’s exactly what’s happened here. I can’t teach you the sharp, clear truths to take you from Judaism to the new covenant, because you’re too spiritually stupid. You’ve been standing there rejecting it so long, you’re getting thick. Thick, thick, thick

That is not a good place to be, whether at age 14 or 50. The Jewish hierarchy of Christ’s time suffered from the same spiritual malaise:

Maturity comes through exercise, being alert, being aware, using your thinking processes, not being sluggish, indifferent, neglecting, and hard in your hearts. Jesus said to the Jews in John 5:39, “I’ll tell you what you do. You go and search the Scriptures. For in there, you’ll find out about me. Get your senses sharp. Go to the Word of God and find the answers.” They were babes by neglect of what they knew. Spiritual stupidity is the issue at this point

In next week’s reading, the author begins giving his audience spiritual milk by going back to the basics.

Next time — Hebrews 6:1-8