Sermon preached on Hebrews 5:11-14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/10/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Those Who Are of Full Age”
Today we will be dealing with the topic of spiritual maturity, focusing on chapter 5, verses 11-14. However, I read the larger passage because these verses are only part of a larger point Hebrews is making here. After Hebrews described Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, verse 11 begins a side exhortation. Basically, Hebrews says that he wants to teach them more about this meaty doctrine of Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek but he’s not sure they are able to handle such an advanced teaching. In fact, he will in chapter 7 proceed to give them this more advanced teaching. But first he goes on an aside to express his concern about their spiritual maturity. In today’s passage he’ll compare spiritual maturity with spiritual immaturity and how they seem to be going backwards in their growth. Next chapter he’ll express the concern that he doesn’t want them to ultimately slide into apostasy, into a falling away from the faith. But then at the end of this larger passage, we’ll be seeing that he is confident of better things for them. In other words, he’s hopeful that they truly are saved and thus will being growing and persevering. So, today we’ll look at the first part today in verses 11-14 and I anticipate two more sermons to work through the rest of this section. And I think the point should be well taken here, that though Hebrews is hopeful that these hearers were ultimately true believers, he nonetheless believed they needed to hear this warning against apostasy, and here today, against regressing in our spiritual growth. God wants his people to be growing. We will talk about this growth today.
So then, let’s begin today by considering what it looks like to be spiritually immature. Verses 11-14 speak of this with an analogy of physical growth. Verse 13 speaks of people who are babes, literally infants. It says that such babies need milk, not solid food. This is illustrating our spiritual growth as a Christian. And I think this is so important to remember. When you first become a Christian you don’t start out spiritually mature. You start out spiritually immature. None of us will reach full maturity in this life, but we all have to start out as babes in Christ. Like newborn babies, Christians will need to grow. Peter uses this imagery in a complementary way in 1 Peter 2:2 saying that we should desire God’s Word like a newborn babe desires milk, so that we can be growing. Peter’s point and the point here, is that there is growth that will be needed for the Christian. If when you first become a Christian you feel overwhelmed at how much you don’t yet know about God, then know that is normal. If on the other hand, when you first become a Christian you think you’ll just automatically start out mature, you are mistaken!
This passage specifically tells us that when we first become a Christian, we’ll need to have a diet of milk. Verses 12 and 13 both acknowledge this fact. Newborn Christians will need milk. What is this milk? Verse 12 gives a definition: the first principles of the oracles of God . In other words, the basics from God’s Word. The foundational teachings of our faith. Chapter 6 further defines those foundational teachings in verses 1 and 2; things like faith and repentance, things like the ordinances of the church, and the teaching about the resurrection and the final day of judgment. In other words, the milk of the faith are those core teachings of Scripture that are indispensable to the Christian faith. They are those hills to die upon that if you compromise on them you no longer have a faith that can be called Christian. For example, the reformers knew that justification by faith alone was one of those foundational teachings. Hebrews acknowledges that these are the doctrines that you need to start with. You begin with the basics of God’s Word. You tell the would-be convert about who God is and his righteous demands. You describe our sin and what it deserves. And you talk about the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. You don’t begin with the advanced topics. You begin with the basics.
Part of the idea is that you are laying a foundation with these basics from which you will build upon. The other part of this is that the meatier topics are harder to understand. Verse 11 acknowledges that certain doctrines are hard to explain and thus hard to understand. Remember how Peter mentioned in 2 Peter 3:16 that some of Paul’s teachings were examples of how some Scriptures are harder to understand than others. So, the point is that the spiritually immature are not in a place yet in their growth to really be able to hear and digest such advanced topics.
And so, a related aspect then comes in verse 12 with the reference to being teachers. The implication is that the spiritually immature are not in a place to teach others about Christ. That of course means they should primarily consider themselves students of the Bible; they are to be disciples first and foremost. Now, to clarify, I don’t mean to overstate that. I am convinced that even the youngest of Christians have something they can contribute to others. I remember in John 4, Jesus had just begun to teach that Samaritan woman at the well. She had learned only a little, certainly still a babe in the faith. But with what little she did know, she was able to tell others in her village about Jesus. And yet of course, she didn’t claim to know everything about Jesus. In fact, her ministry was really to introduce her town people to Jesus, so that they could learn firsthand from him. So, surely, even the youngest Christians can and should communicate the faith to others. That being said, we know that babes in the faith are not going to be able to teach someone else about Christ and the Bible in the way that a more mature Christian will be able to. That should be obvious, and it is a point we see here in verse 12. And so, Christians who are young in the faith must especially see the call to be students and disciples of God’s Word.
Yet another aspect of being spiritually immature is listed in verse 13. There it says that an immature believer will not yet be skilled in the word of righteousness. What does this mean? I believe verse 14 helps us understand this more when it speaks about spiritual discernment as the opposite. In other words, the spiritually immature are still learning what the Bible says about right and wrong. They are still learning the various applications from Bible about when certain principles do or do not apply in life. Think about that, when you are growing in the faith, you have to first learn the content of the Bible. But then secondly you have to learn how to rightly interpret the content of the Bible. But then thirdly, you have to learn when and how that content of the Bible actually applies in your life amidst life’s various circumstances. When you first become a Christian, you have only begun to do that with the milk of God’s Word. You won’t yet know what God’s Words says to everything yet. You have only just begun this journey of growing in God and his Word.
So here we see a few aspects about being spiritually immature. Let’s turn now to look at the opposite. We see here on the flip side some aspects of what it means to be spiritually mature. Verse 14 describes those as being of “full age”. Again, I don’t think this means that any of us will become fully mature in this life. But there is this idea nonetheless of a Christian growing from infancy into a greater age and maturity. We see some of what that looks like here.
So then, one key aspect of this growing maturing is that you will begin to need solid food. That’s stated in both verse 12 and 14. Think of the analogy there. When someone is a baby, they can’t have solid food. It won’t be good for them. But likewise, when they get old enough they need to start having more and more solid food. Living exclusively off their mother’s milk is not going to be a long-term solution for their ongoing growth and health. So too, this passage rightly knows that we need to move beyond the basics into yes, even the more difficult doctrines of God’s Word. Now, to clarify, I’m not saying that once you learn the basic truths like the gospel that you don’t need to hear it any more. No, I’d certainly want to make a very strong case that we always need to be reminded of the core truths of the Christian faith as part of our continued growth and health as a maturing Christian. We certainly see that in Hebrews, that it too reminds in various ways of those elementary principles. But the point is that we shouldn’t only consume that. Our spiritual diet shouldn’t be made up just milk once we’ve grown past our spiritual infancy. We need a diet of solid food now too.
There’s application there galore. In our day of wanting to find unity with other Christians and other denominations, many evangelicals have essentially given up solid food in the process. Whereas in former days, denominations issued large and weighty confessions of faith and catechisms to summarize their convictions from Scripture, nowadays a half page statement of faith seems increasingly common among certain churches. The idea is often to affirm the essentials, which is fine to a degree, but not if that results in you only ever teaching the essentials. We need churches and pastors and elders who teach more than just the essentials, and that means they need to be well grounded in these harder to understand doctrines. That unfortunately means there will surely be divisions in denominations until Christ returns, because of the disagreements that exist in the church over some of these harder to understand doctrines. But to sacrifice the solid food to only have milk for the sake of unity is surely not a Biblical option.
So then, another aspect of spiritual maturity is that such a person is able to teach. I would clarify here that this does not mean that spiritual maturity means you have to become a teacher in an official sense like a pastor or an elder or a seminary professor. Certainly, there are some who are gifted and called for that purpose. But the Bible shows a role that looks for every lay person to aspire to be competent to counsel and teach others in a certain capacity. For example, Titus 2 speaks of the older women teaching the younger women things like how to love their husbands and children and how to conduct themselves in the home. In Romans 15:4, Paul speaks of how the Roman Christians were able to instruct and admonish each other, which he connects with the fact that they had grown in knowledge. Later in this letter of Hebrews, in 10:24-25 it speaks of how Christians should be able to exhort each other and spur each other on in love and good works. This is an aspect of spiritual maturity. That we become more able to speak God’s Word to one another in ways that encourage, build up, admonish, etc. This does not mean we stop being students and disciples. But it does mean that we share with others the things we have been learning as students and disciples. This is part of spiritual maturity.
The last aspect to mention here about spiritual maturity is the growth in spiritual discernment. We saw this in verses 13 and 14 in terms of the immature; now we are recognizing the opposite; that a growing Christian is becoming skilled in this word of righteousness; that they are having their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. I had mentioned for the immature, they needed to first learn the content of the Bible, then secondly how to interpret, and thirdly and finally how to apply it. That obviously is an ongoing and progressive thing. In other words, you don’t learn all the content of the Bible before you do any interpreting or applying. No, you are progressively learning some, then interpreting, then applying it. And you keep going through that process with more and more of Scripture. Then you go back to verses that you’ve studied before and do it again and learn more in the process.
Along these lines of applying what you’ve learned, this includes trying to put into practice what you’ve learned. We see this in verse 14 when it talks about this growth coming from use. As James says, it is not enough to just be hearers of the word, but also doers of the Word. This is a major aspect of growth and maturity: application means implementation and exercising of God’s Word. The Christian life is not merely an academic thing. Growth should bear fruit of godliness. This means that not only will you be able to know more of what is right and wrong, but also that you begin to choose and act in the right and not in the wrong. That’s growth!
So then, we’ve had a chance to consider here spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity. Now we step back and see the concern that Hebrews is raising. The people Hebrews was originally writing too had begun to regress in their spiritual maturity. They had begun to slide backwards toward infancy. We see this in verse 11 when it says they ”became” dull of hearing. The word “dull” is literally “sluggish”. In other words, they had become slow, almost lazy and lethargic, in their ability to learn God’s Word. They didn’t use to be like this, but lately they had begun to be. We can think of the temptation to laziness in our own spiritual growth and progress. Similarly, in verse 12, he rebukes them that they should have been able to start teach others, but it seems like instead they’ve had to go back to the milk again and not the solid food. The question that he raises here is if they had become skilled or not in the word and therefore in the spiritual discernment and godly living that should have been there by now for them.
Obviously, this is the wrong direction. Christians should be moving forward in their maturity not going backwards. I think of Paul’s similar rebuke of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:2. There, he says that he’s had to keep giving the Corinthians milk because they weren’t ready yet for the solid food. There, Paul is rebuking them for not growing. But here it’s worse. They had been growing. But now it looks like they are going backwards. The author of Hebrews believed at one time they could have understood the more complex teachings, but now he wasn’t sure how they would do with them because the had become slow in their hearing and understanding.
The application should be clear again. This concern should never be the case with any Christian, and yet how surely this is a continued threat to believers. Sometimes we can stagnate in our Christian growth. Sometimes we can even go backwards. What should we do in light of that?
Well, certainly, the exhortation of Scripture is meant to awaken us to such slothfulness in our growth. If you have found yourself struggling with your growth, this passage should alert you. So, that’s the first step in dealing with this. If Scripture today raises this concern to us, then praise God! God wants us to be concerned to be growing. What then do we do from there?
Well, I would submit to you that we need the solid food of God’s Word. If we seem to have slid backwards to need the milk, let’s nonetheless remember we still need the solid food. We might seem to have become babes again, but the reality is that we have grown and we have need for a well balanced diet. Isn’t that in fact the very thing Hebrews will do here? This section stops talking about Jesus being a priest in the order of Melchizedek to mention his concern that they aren’t ready for such “meat”. But then what does he do? In chapter 7, he nonetheless teaches them the meat about Jesus and Melchizedek. The solution to stunted spiritual growth is not to deprive us from the meaty diet of God’s Word. It’s to dig into these harder passages and stretch our faith. Let’s not be slothful in our studies of God’s Word but let’s be renewed in our discipleship. Let’s be renewed in knowing Christ in his Word. Let us seek to see Christ continue to be formed within us.
Thinking of the basics, this is in fact part of what the gospel is all about. The gospel of salvation not only includes the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It also includes the growth that makes us ultimately look like Christ. In the words of Paul in Ephesians 4, it’s so that we grow up to be “no longer children” of the faith, but unto maturity, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This is one of the aspects of salvation: that spurred on by his Word and Spirit, and as a function of his grace, we grow in Christian maturity. We grow to be like Christ. To be conformed to Christ’s glorious image. That is why Hebrews keeps pointing us to consider Christ in all this. Because he is not only the source for our strength and growth, but he is what we are aiming to look like. Praise God that he cares about our growth, and that he is continuing to grow us even today. Let us keep pressing on to maturity believing he will grant us the grace to grow. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.