Preached: 2016-08-21 @ Phoenix URC
Text: Heb 5:11-6:12
Title: "Renewing Earnest Ears"
Summary: This passage has been a source of anxiety for many Christians. Its purpose, however, is not to cause despair but to prompt us to seek renewal for Christian maturity.
Tonight, we’re breaking from our series in Malachi to receive God’s Word from the book of Hebrews. Go ahead and turn to chapter 5. We’ll be starting at verse 11. While you turn there, I’ll tell you a story.
In college, we had a class on Hebrews. That was fourteen years ago, but I still remember the specific day we came to this passage. I remember that whole afternoon. Mind you, our school was not a Reformed school. I remember because the way our teacher explained this passage, I took it to mean genuinely converted, born-again, united-with-Christ believers can lose their standing of forgiveness. They have to retain forgiveness by a certain degree of good works. That’s how I understood it, anyway. And the teacher didn’t tell us what sins, or what good works, set that level. One thing was clear: once you cross that line, there’s no return.
As soon as the bell rang, we left class. And most of us did drastic things to prove we were still saved. Or at least the kind of people God would save. I recall struggling over whether to keep my music collection. I had a lot of albums and some of them weren’t explicitly Christian, even instrumental music. And I wondered, ‘maybe this is a sign I’m not really a devoted sort of person.’ I probably cut up about a thousand dollars worth of music that day.
It’s important to point out. My motivation, and I think for many of the students, wasn’t a sincere desire to honor God’s law out of gratitude, or trust that we’d been made right with him. It was to try to do something to assure ourselves we had done enough. That we had balanced the scales. The kind that God says, “Yeah, I want them on my team. They’ve earned it.” That’s the wrong way to approach this passage. I trust the Lord is going to help us tonight to understand it in another way. A way that is not discouraging and doesn’t promote self-righteousness, but places out hope in the renewal of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s hear that Word now, starting at verse 11:
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.
Heb 6:1 Therefore 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, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Heb 6:9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Father in heaven, thank you for allowing us to sit under your perfect Word. We confess there are things that are hard to understand in the Bible, partly because of our sluggishness; but we ask you to enable us to receive your gift from Scripture. Give us ears to hear and hearts to respond, for your glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Maybe you wonder why I would choose this notoriously hard passage? In fact, one commentary I read began this way. This is the first sentence in this section: “We come now to what is arguably the most difficult passage in the New Testament to interpret.” Why would I break from Malachi to bring you here? Well, on the one hand, this is the passage that was assigned to me for my exam. I have to turn the sermon in on Tuesday, so that’s one reason.
On the other hand, though this is honestly not the passage I would choose for myself, right here in 5:11 it says: “don’t grow dull to difficult things in the Word.” You need to have ears that are earnest. That are willing to receive whatever God would teach you throughout the whole of Scripture. Not just the parts that are easy. Not just the parts that are comfortable. And so, my sermon preparation began with personal conviction.
Maybe that’s where you are tonight. You would not be the first. This is a lesson the Hebrews were learning. You see, right before our passage at 5:10, the writer to the Hebrews mentions a man in the Old Testament, Melchizedek, who prefigures—who foreshadows the work of Christ as a king and priest. But then he says, in essence, “I want to tell you all about that. In fact, I want to tell you many ways the Old Testament speaks of the riches that belong to you in Christ. But it’s a waste if you don’t hear it right. If you don’t hear it with the right kind of ears.”
He does get to that. He gets to it from chapters seven through ten. But before all that, he has to deal with this issue of how they were hearing. That’s what we’re dealing with tonight in this passage. How we hear the Word. In essence, through this passage, the Holy Spirit calls each one of us to hear with mature and earnest ears.
To hear with mature ears means a lot of things. And we’re going to look at a lot of things tonight. It means hearing with willingness to accept the responsibilities given to us in the Word. It means hearing with real earnestness to persevere in the pursuit of full assurance—not just partial assurance, but to really want full assurance. Maturity also means willingness to imitate. To earnestly imitate the faith and discipline of others who have set an example before us. Not to be satisfied sitting, you know, at the lowest place on this spectrum. “That’s my Christian walk, right at the bottom. I’m happy there.”
The Lord is calling us to maturity. And we’re going to look at this idea in three points. First, through a comparison the author makes. Secondly, a contrast. And then third, a call.
In a moment, we’ll look at chapter 5, verse 12. Go ahead and turn there. But let’s begin by imagining a baby. Not just any baby, but a baby so small that it subsists entirely on milk. In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful stage of life. It is the beginning. But if you ask parents, they admit that it’s also a stage of life that represents ignorance. It represents inability to provide for oneself, let alone to provide for others. It’s a stage of life and that’s all it’s meant to be. It is appropriate for what it is.
But hear the comparison the writer makes, in verses 12 and 13 of chapter 5. For our first point, consider the comparison he makes between the Hebrew Christians at this time and infants:
“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.”
[Point 1 — A Comparison with Infants]
Note: he doesn’t just say, “you occasionally drink milk, like everyone.” He’s saying, “this is all you subsist on.” And he defines milk as the basic principles, the “elementary doctrines” that we would expect every new member of the church to know. Essentially, this is the stuff we cover in our Profession of Faith class. That’s the level he’s talking about.
He describes milk in verses 1 and 2, in two different ways. First, he describes this basic doctrine as knowledge about true conversion. Knowledge about the gospel. He says, “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” So, turning away from legalistic self-righteousness, and turning to faith to in Christ, whose righteousness is counted to you. And to a life of Spirit-empowered faith and godliness. That’s basic to the Christian faith.
Then he adds to that what I would think are basic Catechetical teachings. He says, “Instruction about washings.” Probably referring to baptism and the difference between Jewish rituals versus Christian baptism. And “the laying on of hands.” You can take that different ways. Whether that speaks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or what some Reformed commentaries take it as: instructions about church order. Remember, often when people are appointed to a church office, we lay our hands on them. That still happens now. And finally, he mentions “resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” So, future things. He’s summarizing the things you would expect a new disciple to know.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing those things. In fact, it’s necessary to know those things. Those are the foundation. So what’s the problem? The problem with comparing them to infants is that they are actually new disciples. Listen to what he says in chapter 6, verse 1. He says, “”Therefore, let us leave—“ He doesn’t mean abandon; he means continue building upon. “Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation…” These are Christians who had a foundation!
They’ve already been taught about these things. If it weren’t the case, the author wouldn’t be able to go on, like he does, in the rest of Hebrews. So, what he was addressing here, what he is correcting, is an infantile attitude. An attitude toward the Word and toward the responsibilities of the Christian faith, that is indifferent to learning—willful ignorance—and that withholds help from others.
See what it says here in 5:11. “By this time, you ought to be teachers.” He doesn’t mean everybody needs to be a teacher the way pastors are teachers, and that elders teach. No. He’s addressing all Christians and saying, “every one of you ought to be teachers.” In other words, “as part of your mission, you need to be willing; you need to be preparing yourselves to communicate basic truths in a basic way. Your calling includes helping others new disciples get their foundation in order.”
Sometimes this happens. Somebody enters the church and they don’t really have a foundation. I’m not saying I’ve seen this here, but I’ve seen this at churches. Somebody doesn’t have a foundation. And because they can’t enter into more complex arguments, or for any reason, the church lets them go by the wayside. Hardly anyone engages or tries to disciple them. “That’s something only the pastor or elders do.” But no! He’s saying every member of the Body has a role to play in discipleship. We’re each called to take the Word—these basic things—and give that milk to another baby. Not high things, but these elementary things you all have.
Now, why weren’t they doing that? It could have been indifference. But it also could have been fear. There are circumstances behind the book of Hebrews. This was probably the situation. You have Hebrews who were ethnic Jews, but converted to Christianity. Then there are these other Jews who are giving them trouble. They don’t like that these Christians have left Judaism. And they are harassing them, and tempting them to come back. Threatening to persecute them.
Maybe it’s for that reason that some of these Hebrew Christians were withholding the truth. They aren’t telling people about it. They don’t want to be exposed. They just want to keep to themselves. It’s enough to just have these simple teachings and mind their own business. Maybe this immature fear is even hinted at in verse 13. Look with me at 5:13. It says, “One who lives on milk is unskilled in the Word of righteousness, for he is a child.”
Unskilled in the Word of righteousness. On first pass, you could understand it as, “new believers just aren’t very good at interpreting their Bible. They don’t know what things mean.” They’re unskilled in the Word. However, this same phrase is used by multiple church fathers. These early Christians use it to describe something specific. When they say, “skill in the Word of righteousness,” they use that phrase to describe the willingness, the heart-preparation, to follow your Christian convictions all the way to the point of martyrdom. That is, mature believers possess an adult-like skill or ability to follow the call, this word or command of righteousness, wherever it goes. Even to death.
In light of the whole of Hebrews, that makes a lot of sense. There’s this fear of people falling back. Fearing the cost of their faith. But he says, “No, you’re called to maturity. To an adult-like acceptance of the whole package.” That means desiring to hear the Word. Wanting to know everything God has for you, and to what he commands. It also means desiring to bring that knowledge to others, to the extent of the abilities God gives to you.
Verse 14 says, “solid food is for the mature. To those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Christians don’t have permission to stop at the point where they can pass the church membership interview. They want to go on growing. To know how we live this Christian life. How we make distinctions. Who this Lord is who empowers us for everything that belong to us.
[Trans] Now imagine for a moment. Especially you parents who have teenagers. Imagine you are setting out dinner one night. One of your children has been misbehaving, perhaps not acting their age. They come to the table. In the place where their plate goes, you've set a bottle of milk— I’m not saying you should do this! But instead of giving them dinner, you give them a bottle of milk. And you say to them, “solid food is for the mature. If you want to be mature, you can eat dinner with us tonight. But if you want to act irresponsibly, this is what would belong to you.” It would be humbling. Perhaps discouraging.
I think that is what was going on here. Within the whole context, the author doesn’t stop and re-explain everything as if they were truly ignorant. He says, “Brothers and sisters, accept your responsibilities. We need to march forward. If you’re willing to do that, then let’s move on.”
But how can he have confidence about that? How can the author have hope they are going to be renewed? Maybe you wonder about that for yourself. Maybe you’ve been a professing member for many years. If you’re honest with yourself, perhaps you look back on the last several years and realize you don’t show the level of maturity that you ought. Well, then, where is your hope of renewal going to come? Is that going to come from yourself?
[Point 2 — A Contrast with Apostates]
Our author points us—and the Holy Spirit point us—to a contrast. A contrast between these Hebrew Christians and others who fell away, as a source of hope and renewal.
As we begin to consider this second main point, you have to remember: he is contrasting the Hebrews with other people who fell away. He’s saying, “You are not like these people. I’m not talking about you when I talk about these people, necessarily.”
Unlike the Hebrews, he regards these other people as impossible to renew. Verse 4,
“It is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance.” It’s impossible to restore them again to repentance. Why? Why can’t these people be renewed, but the Hebrews can? The author gives two reasons.
In the first place, those who fell away showed by their lives, by their fruit, what kind of creatures they were. Compare a few other verses. You don’t need to turn, but maybe you’ll want to read later, 2 Corinthians 5, verse 17. It says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things are passed, and all things are new.” Believers are marked by a certain newness.
Then compare that with Matthew chapter 7 and 12, where Jesus says, “you shall know them by their fruit,” and, make a tree good, and its fruit will be good.” You don’t start with a bad tree and try to get good fruit out of it. No, Jesus says, “make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”
So let’s look at the fruit on the boughs of those who fell away. According to verse 8, their lives were characterized by “thorns and briars.” This is a description of overgrown wickedness. Overt, willful sin that goes unrepented. Not cut back. Recognize, we all have imperfect fruit. It’s a mixed fruit cocktail in each one of our lives. But on the whole, the Lord does produce a certain way of life in his people. It’s real. Repentance is a daily reality for every genuine Christian.
It’s not just thorns and briars. It’s not just an ordinary level of wickedness he saw in these people. In verse 6, it says, “They are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm, and holding him up to contempt.” Hebrews uses a present participle in the Greek. It signifies that in an ongoing way, a persistent way, they are publicly pouring scorn on Jesus. By their actions and words they show that they, too, would have stood among the mob yelling, “Crucify! Crucify!” They have a crucifying hatred of the Savior.
It’s astonishing. These are people had stood among the believers. Yet you can see after the fact they weren’t converted. First John, chapter 3, verse 9, says, “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning. For God’s seed abides in him.” A seed is a living thing. There is this living principle at work in them. And God’s seed abides in them “so that he cannot keep on sinning, for he has been born of God.” So these people he is talking about, they don’t need renewal. They need rebirth! You can’t revive what was never alive. That’s like putting Christmas ornaments on a plastic tree. It’s not alive; the tree is dead! They need a deeper work. So he says, “I don’t have confidence for that kind of person—it's impossible to renew their former faith and walk.”
There’s a second reason, however, why they can’t be renewed. In some ways, this is even more fearful. Because they resisted every ordinary means of grace that God appoints to bring his elect to faith. Look with me at this description in verses 4 and 5. It says they were “enlightened.” The light of the gospel shone upon them. Christ says those who received more light are more accountable for their rejection of him. These people stood under the preaching of the Word.
And it says they “tasted the heavenly gift.” They had access and experience, as I take this, of the Lord’s supper. They participated in the sacraments. Gifts which the Lord gives for us to understand and commune with Christ. The sign went into their mouths. But they failed to receive its significance with their souls, by faith.
Not only that. They “shared in the Holy Spirit and the powers of the age to come.” Which is to say, these people stood among God’s people and were first-hand witnesses and beneficiaries of the Spirit’s operating in the church. They saw believers exhibiting real works of the Holy Spirit. Transformation. Gifting. Fruits of the Spirit. But for all of that, they are compared in our passage to ground that gets watered and watered by the rain. God’s Word pours upon them. And yet, there’s no growth.
In fact, there’s not just barrenness. There are thorns and hatred of Christ. And so the author is saying in this sense, “humanly speaking, it is impossible to renew them.” They have shown themselves hard to every opportunity. This is like in the book of Acts, when Paul preaches in the synagogue and they reject his message. He dusts off his hands and says, “so be it. Your blood be upon your own head.”
Humanly speaking, such people cannot be renewed. And yet, note the contrast. There is a contrast here, and it is the root of the hope he has. It’s the reason the author even bothers to write the rest of Hebrews. If he thought this was their case, then why even continue? Look with me at verse 9. “Though we speaking this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” Get that? In other words, “Even though we’re talking about them, don’t misunderstand me, Hebrew brothers and sisters. We have hope concerning you.”
Where is his hope lodged? In the first place, it’s lodged in the power of God. In chapter 6, verse 3, he says, “this we will do if God permits.” If God permits. It’s not a throw-away phrase. If God permits, that is, God has the power to renew you. And if he is willing to renew you, then it is worthwhile for us to go on in this enterprise. God has the power.
He not only has the power, but he is faithful to his covenant promises. That’s what’s on display here in verse 10, where you read, “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work, and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, even as you have done and still do.” God is not unjust to forget it, because he began it. And God promises that everyone in whom he began this good work, he “shall finish it to the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians, chapter 1, verse 6: “He who began a good work in you shall complete it to the day of Jesus Christ.”
The author of Hebrews looks at these believers and says, “I see evidence all over your life that God has truly done a work in you. Not just for a little while, but for years now. Yes, the fruit has been blighted for a season. Your sanctification isn’t what it could be right now. But I have hope for your renewal.” Hope because of the Lord! Because of his faithfulness! And the work that he has begun in your life already should tell you not to give up, but to dig in. To dig in by faith! To say, “there can be renewal.” That’s what he is doing here. It’s not meant to bring discouragement or despair, but determination and faith.
In fact, brothers and sisters, maybe you’ve spoken to someone who was wrestling with this passage. They were questioning whether they had committed the unpardonable sin. They think, “I can’t be renewed.” Every conversation we have with someone like that—I had one recently, it was very grieving—it is important to ask this question: “do you publicly scorn Christ?” Every time I’ve asked it, they’ve said, “No!” Like, “No! I wouldn’t do that, God help me from that! I want Christ. I want forgiveness. I just feel like I can’t get to him.”
At least know this. Unless you desire to bring contempt upon Christ—the sort who is publicly scorning him—you are at least not the person Hebrews is describing here. You still need to reckon with the Lord. You still need to work out your salvation. But you do that by hearing his gracious call. Jesus says, “Everyone who comes to me, I will in no wise turn away. Come to me, all you who labor. I will give you peace.”
[Point 3 — A Call to Be Earnest]
The author gives them hope of renewal so that he can call them to maturity. And the Spirit calls us, tonight, to respond. This is our third point. The maturity he calls us to.
Maturity involves earnestness. Look with me at verse 11. Chapter 6, verse 11, says, “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness.” This word earnestness, it means exertion. Effort. Enthusiasm. Note that he says, “the same.” The same earnestness. We all have different gifts, but we’re all called to identical earnestness. In other words, we should all look over the congregation, or out into the Christian world. Look for who’s setting the bar for maturity, and we pattern our lives their earnestness. Like when Paul said, “follow me, as I have followed Christ.”
Maybe you can think of people in this congregation. People who, through many years of service and discipline have shown themselves, despite their problems, to be faithful. They have patience. And so we’re being called in this passage to earnestness. Specifically in two respects.
In the first place, to be earnest toward our assurance. In verse 11, “show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end.” Not partial, but full. Not momentary, but all the way to the end. The Lord wants you to seek, to yearn to have full assurance that God will finish his work in you. If you have doubt about that, there is work to be done! The Lord wants you to have full assurance.
And where are you going to get it? You’re going to get it by taking into your heart all the kinds of things described in chapters 7 through 10. You’re going to get it by looking at the High Priestly work of Christ. That right now he is interceding for every believer, making sure to finish his work in you. You enjoy that sense of full assurance, in part, through looking at the gospel and knowing it. Not just on the most basic level—that’s enough to bring some to faith. But to deepen your understanding of the riches that belong to you in the Gospel.
Secondly, our calling to maturity means being earnest in our imitation. Verse 11, again. “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness... so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
To be spiritually sluggish is to say, to some degree or another, “You know, I’ve learned enough, and I’ve lived enough for Christ. Just leave me be. Let me be what I am. I’m tired.” It’s natural to feel tired in your Christian walk. That’s where these Hebrew believers were. But renewal comes through the Holy Spirit. And through faith, we need to cling to the examples of these before us, who with patience have endured the rest of their calling; who kept going in faith.
The earnest person pays attention. They look and ask, “What are the habits—what are the beliefs and disciplines of the kind of person who perseveres in faith to the end?” In this way, we distinguish ourselves from others who ultimately fell away. People sat for years under the Word with indifference. No evidence of earnestness. No yearning for maturity. Part of maturity, then, comes in imitating people who do make time to pray. Who study the Word. Who make disciples. Who seek fellowship. The Lord gives you this calling so that you might reap the benefits of full assurance and joy. It’s not a burden in Christ. These are the things he is calling us to.
As we move to conclude, I want again to picture that baby. We began by thinking about this little baby, so small it can not provide for itself, let alone for anyone else. It’s normal that babies can’t eat anything more than milk. There are people in our church now, and there will be others in the future, we trust, who are at that stage. They need nurture. They need nourishment. They need patience toward them.
At the same time, every one of us is warned not to be content with an infantile attitude. You are to accept a growing amount of responsibility in the Lord, suited to your gifts. To yearn for greater and greater appreciation of all Christ has done, and will do for you. To understand the significance of his death and resurrection, which he pleads over believers in the presence of the Father. Brothers and sisters, the Lord calls us to this so that we might have joy. He wants us to have full assurance to the end. Let’s go before the Lord, asking him to do that.
Heavenly Father, you have given us a high calling. We are small people who need renewal. Lord, you’ve called us in this passage to accept our responsibilities. You say, "By this time, you ought to be teachers." Lord, help us to desire to understand the basic things so that we can speak them in a basic way. So that we can be an encouragement. So that no one would have to wonder where we really stand with you. Please stir us up to a fresh earnestness. To imitate others who have set the standard for us, that we might live lives that are marked by love. Not just head-knowledge, Lord, but a heart-desire to live out your Word. We trust that you will do this because you are the God who permits. The god who is faithful to your covenant in Christ. We ask you in his name, Amen.