Following the context of the declaration of Christ as High Priest that we looked at in a previous post, the author of Hebrews now switches his attention to the spiritual apathy of his audience. Before he continues his exposition on the typological relationship between Melchizedek and the Lord Jesus Christ, he feels compelled to address the dullness of hearing that is plaguing the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing.
“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.” Hebrews 5:11-14
In verse 11, the flow of discussion concerning the high priestly office of Christ, particularly in His fulfillment of the Melchizedekian type, “About this we have much to say” is interrupted sharply by the author, “and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” His comment here is not a reference to the difficulty he faces in explaining the relationship between Christ and Melchizedek, rather the difficulty lies in his hearers grasping the teaching because their spiritual ears have become dull.
It may help our understanding of the message of Hebrews by noting the cultural difficulties that the Jewish Christians were facing at this time and the purpose and motives of the author. For lack of a better term, the time period between Christ’s earthly ministry (~30-33 AD) and the destruction of the temple (70 AD) could be considered a transitional period, i.e. from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, keeping in mind that much of the Judaism of the patriarchs had been corrupted into a system of works righteousness by the time of Christ. Many of those to whom this epistle is addressed were in danger of slipping back into their former Judaic practices. The author of Hebrews has set out to declare the superiority of Christ over the types and shadows that pointed forward to His coming, namely through the administration of the Old Covenant. With this in mind, the slip back into Judaism was an abandonment of the reality of Christ in favor of the types and shadows with which they had become accustomed. Therefore, when we arrive at such a declaration of Christ as High Priest, superior over the Aaronic priesthood and typological of the Melchizedekian priesthood, we can see how this would have been a radical doctrine for the first century Jews to grasp, particularly if they had become apathetic in their Christian faith. What had been hidden in the Old Testament types and shadows, namely Christ, was now revealed through His ministry (Luke 24). Before the author of Hebrews can expand upon what he has introduced, it is of necessity that the hearers of his message become spiritually attuned to what he has to say if there is to be any hope of understanding.
Spiritual ears to hear is a pervasive theme, particularly in the gospels. In Mark 4:9 we read of our Lord’s declaration, “he who has ears to hear let him hear” The use of hearing in Hebrews draws the reader back to Hebrews 1:1 and has been used in each of the two previous exhortations, 2:1 and 3:15 as an admonition to listen carefully. There is an ever present danger of those who have been exposed to the hearing of God’s Word for years, yet it now fails to move them.
We turn by way of exhortation to the expectation of progress that the readers of the epistle were to have had, “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.” The Christian faith knows nothing of the status quo; nothing of drifting or stagnation. No, indeed it is faith marked with progress, growth in both knowledge of God and practical wisdom and application of this knowledge. Simply stated orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy, or right doctrine for right living.
Concerning the expectation of becoming a teacher, the author of Hebrews is not writing about the official teaching capacity of those who have been called to this church office, rather the expectation is that all believers must be teachers. This is the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and is not limited to a select few who have the gift of teaching. We are called to teach our neighbors, teach our children, our friends, all those with whom God brings into our path. That is the expectation that the author is carrying forward to his audience in beginning his exhortation, but they had failed in this regard and now required to be taught again “the basic principles of the oracles of God”. This phrase will be further defined in the subsequent verses but is referred to here as milk as opposed to solid food.
God’s Word contains both milk and solid food so it’s important for us to not denigrate milk in favor of meat, as both are necessary to good health. Though a baby is unable to digest meat, limited early on to only milk, there is an expectation that he will one day be eating solid food. Still the balance of milk in his diet is necessary. So too in our spiritual appetite for God’s Word. There are foundational teachings of Christ and the gospel that are milk, which we never progress beyond but instead prepare us for the digestion of meat. In this context the meat seems to refer, at least in part, to the understanding of Christ as High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.
The Apostle Paul, writing his epistle to the Romans, likewise uses the phrase “oracles of God” in reference to the advantages that the Jews had, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Romans 3:2 Here it would seem, as in our passage from Hebrews 5, that the oracles of God refers to the entire corpus of the Old Testament revelation. Oracles in both case is a translation of the Greek word logion related to the word logos and is also found in Acts 7:38 in reference to the oracles of God received by Moses at Sinai and 1 Peter 4:11 in reference to the oracles of God be spoken by those who serve in that capacity. We can see then in general it has reference to the revelation of God, particularly that which has been inscripturated.
Continuing the contrast between milk and solid food we read, “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.” Those who are content to ingest only the milk of the Word are as children, unskilled (literally untrained or inexperienced) in the word of righteousness. This particular phrase, much like the oracles of God, will be further illumined in subsequent verses, but would seem to follow along the lines of the contrast that’s being made. Those who feed on solid food have their senses (powers) of discernment trained by constant practice and are able to distinguish good from evil. Therefore, they are skilled in the word of righteousness. This would seem to imply that this particular phrase has in mind an ethical or moral behavior that flows directly out of an understanding of biblical doctrine. In other words, righteousness here can be a reference to both the believer’s justification and their subsequent righteous actions to discern good from evil. The author’s use of the phrase, “to distinguish good from evil” should bring to mind Genesis 3:22, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Being skilled in the word of righteousness is far more than an intellectual assent, it is putting into practice what God has revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit causing us to be more like Christ.
As this passage continues to unfold, it will lead into one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible that is at the heart of Hebrews 6. For now, the message of this passage of Hebrews is so closely related to the post on the anti-doctrinal movement of evangelicals that I once again want to draw from Pilgrim’s Progress and Christian’s encounter at the foot of the hill with Simple, Sloth, and Presumption. This section from Bunyan’s work is included below:
I saw then in my dream, that he went on thus, even until he came at the bottom, where he saw, a little out of the way, three men fast asleep, with fetters upon their heels. The name of the one was Simple, of another Sloth, and of the third Presumption.
Christian then seeing them lie in this case, went to them, if peradventure he might awake them, and cried, you are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, Prov. 23:34, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom: awake, therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons. He also told them, If he that goeth about like a roaring lion, 1 Pet. 5:8, comes by, you will certainly become a prey to his teeth. With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, I see no danger; Sloth said, Yet a little more sleep; and Presumption said, Every tub must stand upon its own bottom. And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way.
Yet he was troubled to think that men in that danger should so little esteem the kindness of him that so freely offered to help them, both by awakening of them, counseling of them, and proffering to help them off with their irons.
In a similar fashion, the hearers of the epistle to the Hebrews had fallen into the trap of slothfulness which is in opposition to doctrinal progression and depth of understanding. Their slothfulness in turn led to their satisfaction of a simplistic understanding of God’s Word. Following on, they had come to presume upon their salvation and as we will see in the unpacking of Hebrews 6, this has eternally dangerous consequences. May the warning bell of this passage ring loudly in our ears and may God grant us the desire in our hearts for solid food, that we may be skilled in the word of righteousness and have our senses trained by rightly applying God’s word in every area of our lives unto the obedience of faith.