By This Time You Ought to Be Teachers

Concerning him [Melchizedek, as a type of Christ] 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 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. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

Something Is Wrong—The Disease Called Dullness of Hearing

The writer of Hebrews hasn't come right out and said it until now. But he has implied it. There is something wrong with the Christians he is writing to.

  • In 2:1 he said, Pay close attention to the message you've heard lest you drift away.
  • In 3:1 he said, Consider Jesus.
  • In 3:8 he said, Don't harden your hearts like Israel did in the wilderness.
  • In 3:12 he said, Take care, lest you have an evil heart of unbelief.
  • In 4:1 he said, Fear, lest you fail to enter God's rest.
  • In 4:11 he said, Be diligent to enter God's rest lest you fall by disobedience.
  • And in 4:14 he said, Hold fast to your confession.

In all of these urgent admonitions you begin to get the impression: this writer is really concerned about some situation in the churches of his day. But until now he has only given the cure, not the diagnosis. Now he tells us what's wrong.

He comes to the end of last week's text in 5:9–10 and says that Christ has been perfected through suffering and that he has been designated a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. And he takes a breath—you can almost hear him sigh—and says, in 5:11, "Concerning him [or concerning this—what I've just been talking about briefly] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing." And there is our first explicit diagnosis. Here's the disease he is working on in this letter: dullness of hearing.

This is what's behind all those exhortations: Pay close attention! Consider! Don't harden your heart! Fear! Be diligent! Hold fast! These are all doctor's prescriptions for the disease of dullness of hearing.

The most urgent question this morning is: Do you have this disease, and if so, how can you get well?

But first we need to make sure we know what he's talking about. What is the disease of dullness of hearing? Let's let this writer explain his own terms for us; let's take the two words one at a time and look at the one other place in Hebrews where each is used.

"Dullness"

Take first the word "dull"—or slow or sluggish. It's used one other time in the New Testament, namely, in Hebrews 6:12. Let's read 6:11–12 and you'll see what the opposite of dullness is,

We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish [there's the word for "dull" in our text], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The opposite of dullness is diligence or earnestness to turn the message of hope into the assurance of hope; it's the imitation of people who hear the promises of God and then respond with faith and patience. So dull hearing doesn't mean there is anything wrong with your physical ears. It means there is something wrong with your heart. The heart is not eager and diligent to embrace the promises and turn them into faith and patience. Instead, the Word comes into the ears and goes down to the heart and hits something hard or tough—or starting to get hard. That's dullness of hearing. The promises come to the ear, but there is no passion for them, no lover's embrace, no cherishing or treasuring; and so no faith and no patience and—if things don't change—no inheritance of eternal life. Which is why he wrote this book. And why I preach this sermon. It is an incredibly dangerous disease, this dullness of hearing.

"Hearing"

The other word we can track down is the word "hearing." It's used one other time in Hebrews, just like "dullness" is, namely, in 4:2.

For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard [literally: "the word of hearing"—same word as in 5:11, "dull of hearing"]—the word of hearing—did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.

So here is the same problem again: a word of good news—a word of God's promise, and a hearing, but no faith. This is "dullness of hearing." The word goes in the ears, and comes to the heart, and meets dullness and slowness and hardness. The opposite of dullness of hearing is hearing with faith which produces obedience.

You can see this three verses earlier in Hebrews 3:18–19, "And to whom did He [God] swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient [note the word!]? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." Notice the switch from "disobedient" to "unbelief." I think this means that the root of all disobedience is unbelief—lack of trust in the promises of God.

So you can see what dullness of hearing is and why it is so important. It is a kind of hearing with the ears that is unresponsive in the heart. It doesn't embrace the Word of God with faith. And therefore, it doesn't produce the fruit of patience and obedience. So, whichever way you go—looking at the word "dullness" in 6:12, or looking at the word "hearing" in the context of 4:2 the answer is the same.

"Dullness of hearing" is hearing without faith and without the moral fruit of faith. It's hearing the Bible or the preaching of the Bible the way you hear the freeway noise on I-94, or the way you hear Muzak in the dentist's office or the way you hear recorded warnings at the airport that this is a smoke-free facility. You do but you don't. You have grown dull to the sound. It does not awaken or produce anything.

A word of Jesus from Luke 8:18 is very important here. When he had finished telling the parable of the four soils where the seed is the Word he says, "Therefore take care how you hear; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him." In other words, if you have the grace to hear (with faith and fruit), you will get more grace; but if you do not, even what you think you have will be taken away—namely, the Word.

Now I plead with you even now at this point in the message to be diligent and earnest in how you hear. Lazy, drifting, passive—dull—listening is incredibly dangerous, even now, at this very minute.

Now Jesus' point is the same point the writer to the Hebrews is trying to make: the one who has grace to hear will receive more grace, and the one who does not (in other words, is dull or hard in his hearing) even what he thinks he has will be taken away. Hebrews 5:11 says that there is so much more that the writer wants to give his readers: "Concerning him we have much to say . . . but you have become dull of hearing." If they had more grace to hear, they would receive more that the writer has to give. But they are becoming hard and dull, and in danger of throwing away the little they have.

What Is the Remedy?

That's the disease. Now what about the remedy? How do you get well? Somebody might object that I am using the term "disease" when the text uses the terms "babe" and "mature.' A person who is dull of hearing is compared to a babe (in verse 13b) that has to drink milk. There is nothing diseased about a baby's dependence on milk. So why do I use the image of disease? My answer to this objection is that if a person is still a baby when he is old enough to be a teenager, he has a disease. And the disease in this text is called "dullness of hearing."

So my question remains: what's the remedy? Why are some Christians stuck at the baby stage of development with the disease of "dullness of hearing" and what is the cure?

Now keep in mind what dullness of hearing is. It's not a physical problem. Deaf people can be the sharpest hearers and blind people can be the sharpest see-ers. It's not physical. Dullness of hearing, you remember from 6:12 and 3:18, is the failure to make use of the Word heard to nurture faith and bear the fruit of obedience. Dull hearing is passive and lazy and does not reach out and grasp the promises of God and embrace them. Passivity produces perpetual babies, who may discover that they are doll-Christians and not living Christians at all. That's the disease.

Become Mature with Milk

The key verse to describe the remedy is verse 14: "Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." Now ask yourself this question: If solid food is only palatable—digestible—for the mature, with what food do you become mature so that you can then eat the solid food? The answer is: milk. You become mature with milk.

The problem with these Christians is not that milk is weak or that babes can't eat steak. The problem is that babes are not exercising with the milk they have. You see the key word there in verse 14: you become mature by "practice" or exercise or habitual responses to the milk. The problem is that the milk of the Word is not producing muscle of faith. And the muscle of faith is not producing acts of righteousness. This is how you grow from a baby Christian to a mature Christian: from the milk of the Word to the muscle of faith to acts of righteousness.

But as soon as I wrote that down, I noticed that it's not quite right. It's true, I think, but it's not exactly what this text says. Verse 14 does not say that the milk of the Word should produce new muscle; it says, in effect, that milk should produce a new mind—the mind that can discern between good and evil. "Because of practice [the mature] have their senses [internal, moral—spiritual senses] trained to discern good and evil."

Now this is amazing. Don't miss it. It could save you years of wasted living. What verse 14 is saying is that if you want to become mature and understand the more solid teachings of the Word, then the rich, nutritional, precious milk of God's gospel promises must transform your moral senses—your spiritual mind—so that you can discern between good and evil. Or let me put it another way. Getting ready to feast on all God's Word is not first an intellectual challenge; it is first a moral challenge. If you want to eat the solid food of the Word, you must exercise your spiritual senses so as to develop a mind that discerns between good and evil.

The startling truth is that, if you stumble over Melchizedek, it may be because you watch questionable TV programs. If you stumble over the doctrine of election, it may be because you still use some shady business practices. If you stumble over the God-centered work of Christ in the cross, it may be because you love money and spend too much and give too little. The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person. What you do with alcohol and sex and money and leisure and food and computer have more to do with your capacity for solid food than where you go to school or what books you read.

The Way You Drink the Milk

What this means is that if you want to grow up and feast on the fullness of God's revelation, you don't do it by jumping from milk to meat. You do it by the way you drink the milk. The milk has to make you a certain kind of discerning person before you can digest the meat. This is so important because in our highly technological society we are prone to think that education—especially intellectual development—is the key to maturity. This text makes clear that it isn't. There are many Ph.D.'s who choke in their spiritual immaturity on the things of God. And there are many less-educated saints who are deeply mature and can feed with pleasure and profit on the deepest things of God's Word.

So the key to maturity (and the remedy for dullness of hearing) is not jumping from milk to meat. The key is the way you drink the milk—what you do with the milk of the Word. So let me close with three steps in how to grow with milk to maturity.

  1. First you drink in the milk. That is, you listen to the milk of the Word—the message of God's promises in the gospel. You read them yourself in the Bible and you sit under the preaching and teaching of God's Word. And you give heed. You are earnest and diligent to apply your heart and mind to what is being said. You are not passive and cavalier and indifferent—babes long for milk, and are incredibly focused when they are thirsty.
  2. Savor and swallow and digest and be satisfied. This is crucial. If this doesn't happen, the next stage of discernment will not happen. Here is the miraculous spiritual event of loving what once you hated. You love the taste of the milk: "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). And when the promises of God and the God of the promises are tasted, the milk satisfies. And when it satisfies, it transforms your values and priorities, which leads to Step 3.
  3. With a heart satisfied with God now, discern good and evil. There are hundreds of decisions that you must make day in and day out which are not spelled out explicitly in the Bible. What to watch on TV, political positions to take, investment strategies, vocation, insurance, retirement, business tactics, where to live, what to drive, whether to own a gun, how to discipline your children, what to wear, where to volunteer, how much to give, etc., etc.

It doesn't take discernment to know what's wrong if you have a list from God. Knowing when to murder and when to steal and when to commit adultery take no discernment if you believe God gave the Ten Commandments. So verse 14 is talking about decisions that are not laid down specifically in a list.

And it says that there is such a thing as discernment between good and evil. How does this discernment come? It comes from habitually (by regular practice) nourishing and shaping your spiritual senses (the word in verse 14 doesn't mean physical senses) by the Word of God until that word becomes a "word of righteousness"—a discerning power, a word producing righteousness in the mature. Discernment is what you do naturally when the milk of God's promises is so savored and so satisfying that it gives you the mind of Christ.

This is the remedy for "dullness of hearing." Drink with delight until the desires of your heart are so transformed as to become the discernment of good and evil. Then you will be mature and ready for meat.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org