T. David Gordon, under a fatal diagnosis of cancer (25% chance of survival and two months to live), wrote some choice words for preachers in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Here’s a brief sampling of what I read as an aspiring preacher in seminary…
“[T]he entering seminarian today has the faculties of a sixth- to eighth-grader sixty years ago, and the seminary curriculum cannot make this seminarian an adult by the time he graduates.”
“What I care about is the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday. And the problem there is not that we don’t have “great” preachers; in many circumstances we don’t even have mediocre preachers.”
“Sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place).”
The thought of preaching scared me to death after reading that book! However, it did serve to spark a greater interest in a mature understanding of literature and close reading of ancient texts.
While the average Christian in the pew has a legitimate claim to sitting under poor preaching, that could not be said of this group of Jewish Christians who were reading the book of Hebrews for the first time. They had learned from one of the best Christian teachers in the first century. Although we do not know exactly who he was, we can tell from the quality of his Greek grammar, that he was a skilled writer and rhetorician.
They did not suffer from poor preaching, but they suffered from sluggish learning. And the author delivers that harsh truth to them in our passage this morning. But, like T. David Gordon, the author of Hebrews is not merely yelling at his readers, he’s challenging them. Yes, this passage begins another warning section. Their temptation to depart from Christ is proof that they have yet to grasp the most basic and fundamental truths of the gospel.
Lazy believers are content to do the bare minimum. They show up, when they have to, but they don’t wanna grow up. They are the Toys-R-Us kids of the Christian faith.
Unfortunately, many churches establish their ministries with this target audience in mind. Everything in the worship service caters to the lowest common denominator. This is the perfect match for Johnny who can’t preach. He doesn’t really have to preach. He can simply entertain his audience for awhile.
Mature believers go beyond the basic principles of the Christian faith by consistently challenging themselves. They never assume they have arrived. They are continually striving for greater maturity.
Pray & Read Hebrews 5:11-14.
Are You Lazy With the Word? (11)
Having elaborated upon Christ’s role as “a high priest after the order of Melchizedek,” the author of Hebrews confesses that he has much more to say about it, but “it is hard to explain.” The difficulty is not due to the depth of the doctrine, or his ability to articulate it well. He’s sure they are not ready to receive it. The problem is not with the light of God’s revelation, but with the darkened ability of his hearers.
The same Greek word that is translated as “dull” is found in Heb 6:12 and translated “sluggish”. They have become lazy listeners, which was not always the case. This is audience understood at one point, as we will see that in verse 12. But they have apparently grown indifferent to the gospel and unaffected by its preaching.
After graduating from seminary I had a desire to read books that were less technical. I wanted to read classic novels and enjoy good prose that was not so taxing on my cognitive abilities. I felt stretched to the point of tension. I think that is probably a common reaction to years of deep study. It is natural to need a break from rigorous thinking.
Our brains are like rubberbands, they have a limit to the amount of stretching they can handle. We need to ease the tension every once in awhile. But, how easy is it to get stuck in that phase? We enjoy the break so much that we decide spiritually maturing is “just not our thing.”
We need to recognize that growth will not happen without the stress. And as long as we are content to stay in a comfort zone, we will not grow beyond that point. Or, even worse, like these Hebrew believers—we might begin moving backwards.
Have you become “dull of hearing”? I’m not assuming you have, but how would you respond if that were someone’s critique? Could you answer the accusation with examples of your maturity? Would someone be able to observe your life and see an interest in understanding deeper doctrine and enjoying an enriching doxology?
How can we sharpen our hearing? How can we pull out of a sluggish approach toward the things of God? It begins with a genuine attempt to receive the rebuke.Don’t excuse your laziness or explain all of the reasons why you could not mature sooner. You need to get to the place where you can admit your immaturity. You will never pursue growth until you acknowledge your need.
Repent of the fact that you have not taken advantage of the means God has provided for you to learn. God has given you the church to equip you, but you have not made it a priority. God has given you a day to rest and worship him, but you have not honored it. If you have become dull of hearing, the author of Hebrews is waving his arms in the air at this point—doing everything he can to snap you out of your lethargy.
Accept where you are, then repent. This is not some harsh truth that is tacked onto the gospel—repentance is an essential aspect of receiving the gospel! Conversion is both repentance and faith working together from the milk phase to the solid food phase.
› And that progress in the faith is what is expected of every believer…
Are You Unskilled in the Word? (12-13)
They still need to be instructed in the basic principles (ABCs), but they should have been ready to teach others by now. The author is not suggesting that they should be preachers, but that they should be participating in the great commission. We fulfill the great commission by making disciples who make disciples. It involves the ability to receive instruction and then pass that content on to others.
All of us can learn something in order to share it with others who are younger in the faith. That is how all of us will reach maturity. It’s how Paul encouraged Timothy to multiply disciples in his ministry.
2 Timothy 2:2 ESV
and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
However, instead of making disciples, these saints were still breastfeeding! That’s the expected starting point for everyone (1 Pt 2:2), but something is seriously wrong if a toddler is only drinking milk. They typically begin having solid foods at six months.
While almost all babies are born with the ability to digest milk, two-thirds of them will grow out of that as they mature. For a child to remain dependent upon milk would indicate that they are not maturing.
In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Brian Handwerk writes, “Almost all babies around the world are born with the ability to digest lactose—after all, it’s found in breast milk. But about two-thirds of adults can no longer digest the natural milk sugar because the production of a milk-digesting enzyme called lactase switches off after they’ve finished weaning. That’s why the majority of the world’s adult population is lactase non-persistent, otherwise known as lactose intolerant.”
Giving a child solid food before they are capable of chewing and breaking it down can cause them to choke. Force feeding solid food to an infant is child abuse. Torturing them does not help them in any way.
Paul ran into a similar problem in Corinth indicating this was a common problem beginning in the first century.
1 Corinthians 3:1–2 ESV
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,
Living on milk is an analogy for being unskilled in the word. It implies that one is inexperienced and unfamiliar with God’s word. The word for “unskilled” is translated “foolish” in the LXX. Growing believers will become increasingly familiar with the meaning and application of Scripture. Not only will they become more proficient readers of God’s word, but they will become wise in applying the word to their lives.
We can react to this accusation in a couple of ways. We might say, “That’s mean! You have to be nice. You catch more bees with honey…” Those who respond this way aren’t denying the truth of the accusation, but they are critiquing the manner in which it is delivered. Had the author of Hebrews written it in a nicer fashion, they might be more inclined to listen.
Obviously, the author is writing to them because he cares deeply about them. He wants them to heed his warning, so he delivers it in a way that is sure to catch their attention. They have already proven their ability to ignore deep truths. It is his hope that they will seek to learn the skill of hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting all of God’s word.
Peter encouraged believers to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). Can you do that? Do you delight in God’s word (Ps 1:2)? Consider George Herbert’s prayer:
“O, make your word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the lip and conversation, that, as the rain returns not empty, so neither may your word, but accomplish that for which it is given. Amen.”
The skilled reading of God’s word will impact our worship, work, and relationships. It will begin to direct our lives to such a degree that indifference and apathy are no concern for us at all.
› The last question is…
Are You Maturing Under the Word? (14)
Those who are mature possess the powers of discernment, but this does not come easily. We cannot simply “let go and let God”. If we expect to grow, we must listen and obey. We must become doers of the word, and not hearers only (Jam 1:22-25).
The way to maturity is through “constant practice.” This is the language of an athlete in training. He takes every opportunity to hone his craft. One important difference—there isn’t an “off season” for the believer. We don’t take extended breaks from reading and sitting under God’s word.
Engage your mind with the text as you’re reading it. Examine it closely by asking questions and exploring possible answers. I oftentimes ask the Lord to help us remove the distractions when we enter into corporate worship. Sitting under the word of God requires a determination and focus. It requires our minds to follow, reflect, and conform to the message of the gospel.
Mark Noll writes, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind…”
The reason these believers had become stagnant in their faith was because they had become lazy hearers and lazy trainers. They did not want to grow up.
How have you matured in the past year? Are you learning from your sinful tendencies? Are you growing in Christlikeness—distinguishing good from evil? Maturity doesn’t happen apart from devotion to the word of God.
The author is not merely chastising his audience. He is setting them up with a statement that will compel them to be all the more attentive (Heb 2:1) to what he goes onto teach for the next four chapters (Heb 6:1).