If you grew up going to church youth camps, you may remember that kid who would seem to have a spiritual breakthrough every summer, only to go back to his former way of living soon after. No matter what he did, he failed to make lasting progress. Maybe you were that kid. Maybe you feel like that kid today.
The book of Hebrews addresses the danger of not living up to what we know is true. The author writes to a group of Christians struggling to continue pursuing Christ. They probably felt the pressure to return to their former Jewish faith, especially after facing persecution for not doing so. So, the author urges them (and us) to continue following Christ, to pay closer attention to what they have heard, lest they “drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1), to not turn back to a life of mere pointers when they have seen the reality itself.
As the author exhorts, warns, and woos, he stops mid-discussion to address something serious that hinders our continuing on in the faith. While reasoning with his readers not to return to the old covenant — because Jesus, of a new priestly order, is better than all the high priests of that covenant — he abruptly pauses to make an observation about his hearers: they suffer from spiritual arrested development.
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 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 5:11–14)
“Biblically speaking, to hear is not just to listen but also to understand and obey.”
They were grown-ups sipping bottles. Once they had enjoyed spiritual steak, but now they were regressing. Once they had learned “the basic principles of the oracles of God” — that the Old Testament Scriptures point to Christ, and are fulfilled in him — but now they needed someone to teach them again. Once they had heard and obeyed and acknowledged Jesus as Lord; now they had “become dull of hearing.”
The author says that what he wants to teach them is hard to explain. Notice the reason he gives for this. It isn’t because the teaching is too technically deep and difficult to understand. It isn’t some esoteric mystery that only an enlightened few can comprehend. It isn’t because he considers himself a poor teacher. It isn’t because he considers them to be intellectually inferior.
The diagnosis he gives is that they “have become dull of hearing.” Once their spiritual ears were in tune; now they are not. This is something that has happened to them over time. The word that is used for dull is the same word used for sluggish a chapter later (Hebrews 6:11–12). They have become lazy in their ability to hear truth.
Biblically speaking, to hear is not just to listen but also to understand and obey. Earlier in Hebrews, the author speaks of the Israelites who heard God’s word but fell away and didn’t inherit the Promised Land. “Good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2). They heard the very promises of God, in all their lavish mercy and grace, and yet they did not endure. They heard but did not continue in obedience. They heard God’s word, but fell away from their Lord.
Moving On from Milk
Lazy listening led to stunted development. He says that although by this time they should be teachers, they still need milk instead of solid food. They should be ready to graduate from college, but now they need to go back to elementary school. They should be enjoying steak, but instead they need spiritual milk, to learn again “the basic principles” of God’s word.
“Submit all your life to God’s word — to know it, love it, cherish it, and live it.”
It is important to note that the author isn’t downplaying the necessity of milk in extolling the virtues of solid food. A diet consisting merely of milk is not bad in itself. Diapers are not bad. Crawling on all fours everywhere you go is not bad. These things aren’t bad in themselves — not for an infant. What makes them bad is the phrase “by this time.” They aren’t babies anymore, and so behaving like one is a sign of concern.
I remember when my youngest child was an infant. We would celebrate all the little things he would do, from crawling to his first mumbled words. But if my daughter, who is six years older, did the same things, we would not celebrate. We would be seriously worried. Similarly, the author of Hebrews is concerned that they seem to be returning to spiritual infancy. He defines this further in Hebrews 6:1–2:
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.
Remember that the readers felt the pressure to return to their former Jewish faith, especially after facing persecution for not doing so. Now that Christ has come, Hebrews wants his readers to cling to the maturity of the new covenant, whatever persecution they face. They cannot go back to Judaism. They must leave it behind and go on to the maturity that is uncompromised life in Christ.
It is very important to clarify what he means here by “leaving.” Leaving does not mean to throw away or dispense with and abandon. It is similar to the elementary student who has learned the alphabet: he doesn’t do away with the alphabet; the letters are essential to the communication of the most advanced learning.
Whether in redemptive history, or in our own spiritual lives, progress to maturity is cumulative. The same is true of Christian doctrine. The first principles are foundational and are essential to every stage of development. The beginning foundation (the old covenant) is not the stopping point but rather the springboard to the new. So too the Christian life is not static. It progresses and grows and matures. Regression is reason for concern.
How to Grow Up in God
What about for us today? Most of us are not tempted to go back to Judaism apart from Christ, but many seem mired in stagnant or even regressed spiritual lives.
“The pathway to Christian maturity isn’t just to become a more educated person, but a more obedient person.”
Notice that Hebrews doesn’t suggest that they simply start eating solid food. It is dangerous to start feeding solid food to infants who cannot process that food. When my son was an infant, there was a period of time when he wasn’t keeping up with a healthy weight for his age. The problem was due to the fact that he wasn’t keeping milk down well. The solution wasn’t to start trying out steak, but to work toward his keeping the milk down. This is exactly how it works with our spiritual growth and maturity: we need to keep down what we already know.
In the Western church, we too often make the mistake that spiritual maturity comes from obtaining more information. We sign up for Bible studies and theological classes to meet this need. While those classes may have much to offer, they don’t necessarily fix the problem of dull hearing. On their own, they don’t move you on to maturity. This is not merely an intellectual or educational issue.
The author says the mature are “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The issue isn’t a lack of knowledge but a lack of practice. Through obedience, we grow into maturity in order to be able to take in solid food. The pathway to Christian maturity isn’t just to become a more educated person, but a more obedient person.
If God Permits
Practice trains our powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil. Like an athlete who develops muscle memory, when we put God’s word into practice we train our muscles of faith to believe God and refuse sin. We train ourselves by tasting and seeing that God in fact is good when we follow his commands, and our powers of discernment continue to grow. This is what growing in Christian maturity looks like.
But we do not achieve maturity by ourselves: “And this we will do if God permits” (Hebrews 6:3). This is a reminder to all of us that this work of maturity is one that is dependent and directed by God. At the end of the day, we can’t just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to become mature. We turn to God in full dependence.
Do you feel like you have a stunted or even arrested development when it comes to your spiritual growth? Do you long to go on to maturity in your faith? If your answer is yes, turn to God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and submit all your life to his word — to know it, love it, cherish it, and live it.