For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Hebrews 5:12-14, KJV
I am a math teacher by trade. This has been great for me because the more I teach, the more I reinforce the concepts and ideas that I spent a decade or more of my life trying to learn. Trust me, the reinforcement has been necessary. I'll never forget the first time I taught Calculus 2; I was amazed at how much I had forgotten. Even though I had earned an A when I took the class as a student, little of it actually stuck. However, when you teach ideas they become reinforced in your mind more concretely and more permanently. You see, being able to teach the class actually forced me to learn the material – in some sense, for the first time.
Teaching someone else is not necessarily going to translate into them learning. I heard of a professor who claimed he could teaching anyone calculus – even a dog. He then went on to say, that though he could teach a dog calculus, he couldn't make the dog learn calculus! However, teaching a concept is very likely to translate into you learning something. I think the reason for this is that teaching forces you to come to grips with the concepts behind ideas rather than just messing around with algorithms and processes. If you can get your students to become teachers, then you are probably going to be successful in producing genuine learning.
Thus, I don't find it at all surprising that the author of Hebrews takes the Hebrew Christians to task when it came to their failure to be teachers: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God” (v.12). He knew the secret that to really learn the doctrines that make Christians grow into spiritual maturity, you need to put yourself into the position of being a teacher. But these believers had not even spent the time it took to really get a grasp of the fundamentals of the faith – they weren't even up on the “first principles” – the ABC's – of Biblical knowledge. Not only could they not teach others, they needed to be taught again themselves. They needed to go back and relearn the fundamentals.
I think it's important to underline the fact that what the author of Hebrews is pointing to here is the need for doctrinal knowledge, Biblical knowledge. This is clear when he points to their inability to grasp the “first principles of the oracles of God” – i.e. the foundational principles of God's Word, the Bible. They couldn't teach these things, and the goal of a teacher is to communicate knowledge. Furthermore, he says that they were unskilful in the word of righteousness – again, a reference to God's Word and its contents. In other words, he isn't looking for people who've had some good spiritual experiences, he's looking for people who know and can teach the Bible to others.
The reason for the necessity of learning doctrine is that doctrinal knowledge is fundamental to all Christian growth. Without it, you remain a spiritual baby (v.12), one who is “unskilful in the word of righteousness” (v.13), who therefore cannot “discern both good and evil” (v.14). The reason the Bible is called “the word of righteousness” is because it produces righteousness in those who truly believe it and practice it. On the other hand, those who lack such knowledge are liable to spiritual decay. In fact, the entire epistle of Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were on the verge of spiritual collapse. The many warnings throughout the letter against apostasy indicate that many of them were thinking about abandoning Christianity altogether. The author points up one the reasons for such weakness – they simply were not paying attention to what God's Word really said. Their stock of truth was low, and the result was that they were gullible and liable to being swayed by false doctrine and lies.
There is no indication in the text that the epistle is being written to pastors only. In fact, it would seem from 13:7,20, that there is a distinction made between the recipients and their pastors. The implication of this fact is that the exhortation to become teachers of God's Word is not relevant only for pastors, but for all who call themselves Christians. If you are a Christian, this text is for you. Are you able to teach God's word to others, or are you still stuck in the first principles of the Word of God?
The earliest name for followers of Christ was “disciple” - which simply means learner. That is what a Christian is: he/she is a learner. We learn from Christ, he is our teacher. With Mary, we sit at his feet and hear his word, and in doing so obtain “that good part, which will never be taken away” (Lk. 10:42). But we learn to teach, and we teach so that we can better learn. And that ought to be the goal of every Christian.
What I want to do in this message is to encourage you to get as much knowledge of God's Word as you possibly can.
The Need for Biblical Knowledge Today
1. I feel like there is a great need for this among us, and among Christians in general. There is a false perception, I think, that good Christianity is not dogmatic, and a tendency to compare a desire for a rigorous understanding of God's Word with a cerebral knowledge that leads only to self-righteous pride and arrogance. And there is a kind of knowledge that “puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1) that needs to be avoided. But this is knowledge which is not rooted in an understanding of the Gospel. In other words, bad knowledge is partly the result of the lack of good knowledge. The way to combat bad knowledge is not to do away with all knowledge, but to know with our mind and heart the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thus to put all Biblical knowledge in the category of prideful knowledge is certainly false. Indeed, you cannot even be a Christian without knowledge. Paul places the lostness of his Jewish brethren at the feet of ignorance: “For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). He then goes on to describe how people get saved: “How then shall call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). To hear is to hear the gospel, which consists of words and propositions that have to be made sense of with our minds and intellects. It is true, that our minds alone cannot properly receive the gospel, but to receive the gospel is certainly not less than an act of the mind.
2. There is also a tendency in our day to think of doctrinal knowledge as really useless, and that if you want to “grow” as a Christian, you need “practical” advice, not doctrinal knowledge. However, I wonder if people who put “doctrine” and “practical advice” in opposite categories really think about what they are doing. For you cannot give practical Biblical advice, unless it is already rooted in doctrinal categories. Doctrine determines a way of thinking about God and yourself and the world that will inevitably lead to certain practices that are consistent with God's Word. However, if you are not doctrinally rooted in God's Word, how are you going to discern how “practical” the advice you're receiving really is?
For example, Paul gives this wonderful, very practical advice and exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” However, this advice is rooted in an extended theological discussion about the doctrine of the resurrection! This is what the word “forasmuch” points back to, and which gives the exhortation its real force.
Or consider Paul's words in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Practical, right? But the word “therefore” points back to all of Romans 1-11, an extended treatment of the doctrine of justification by faith and its corollaries. It is this doctrinal background that gives Paul's “practical advice” in Romans 12-14 its foundation and meaning.
A lot of times when I teach lower-level math courses, I get this “I don't really need this course” attitude. And the reason students think this way is that they believe – and rightly so – that they will never use specific aspects of the course in their jobs once they graduate. For example, who is really going to use the Quadratic Formula? What they are looking for is “practical advice” when I'm trying to given them “doctrine”! However, I try to point out to them that what I am doing is trying to instill a particular way of thinking that is beneficial across the board.
I try to illustrate this with a scene from the movie Apollo 13, where some engineers are given the task to find a way to jury-rig the carbon-dioxide removal system using only the parts which were available to the astronauts in the spacecraft. I ask my class, “What engineering class did they study how to solve this particular problem?” Inevitably, the class answers, “In no class. They were never taught to do that.” And of course they are right. But I then point out that the classes the engineers took as students taught them a particular way of thinking – how to be problem solvers – which gave them the ability to solve this particular problem. In the same way, doctrinal knowledge teaches us how to think Biblically, so that when we are faced with particular problems, we know how to respond appropriately.
3. There is also the tendency today to think that the acquisition of Biblical knowledge need only happen on Sundays during the sermon or during a formal Bible Study, whether on Sunday or some other day of the week. Any study that is done outside this is done haphazardly (and often halfheartedly). However, you don't become a teacher by studying just whenever it catches your fancy to do so. This is like students you come to every lecture but who never do daily homework. I sometimes wonder about such people. What are they thinking?
Neither is it a Biblical pattern to follow. In Acts 17:11 we read of the “noble Bereans” who “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Note that they searched the Scriptures and did so daily. In other words, theirs was a disciplined pattern of looking into the Bible.
This idea of a disciplined searching of Scripture is also implicit in our text. When it is said that “strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their sense exercised to discern both good and evil,” he is saying that spiritual maturity comes only through making growth in Biblical knowledge a part of our habits of life. As Donald Guthrie puts it, “Spiritual maturity comes neither from isolated events nor from a great spiritual burst. It comes from a steady application of spiritual discipline.”1
Why We Should Study to Grow in Biblical Knowledge
In this part of my sermon, I am indebted to the insights of Jonathan Edwards, and many of my points come directly from part IV of his sermon, “Christian Knowledge”.2 If you haven't read this sermon, I encourage you to do so.
1. Why did God make us with a mind, with the faculty of understanding, with the ability to reason through arguments and make deductions? It is clear from Scripture that God gave us minds so that we could know him. The mind is the chief faculty of the soul, it is what distinguishes us from beasts, and the principle reason God has given it to us is so that we might be see his glory and worship him. It is therefore fitting that we use the mind and the acquisition of knowledge for the main reason it was given to us. It is indeed a sad thing to see men and women use their minds and with great industry, but to use them for purposes which do not include God and the gospel.
You are going to use your mind, but what are you going to use it for? To know God better? The only way you can do this is by increasing your store of doctrinal knowledge, your understanding of God's Word. For God to give us minds and then for us to use them for objects that are ultimately of no eternal value is like a parent giving a child a valuable tool which they then use as a toy and in the process destroy the tool so that it can no longer be used for the reason it was made.
2. The Gospel is worthy of your study. When I say “gospel,” I don't just mean those basic truths without which you cannot be saved. I mean the whole counsel of God. And trust me, you've not even come close to seeing the depths and heights of the knowledge of God. Think about this: the doctrine that so often we neglect is studied by beings that are higher than we, the angels: “which things the angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12). It is the greatest irony that men yawn over that which keeps angels on the edge of their seats. In Ephesians 3, Paul likens the universe to a theater and the world a stage on which the drama of redemption is being played out. And who is the audience? Paul tells us that the angels are: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 10-11).
In the same chapter, Paul describes the gospel as “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v.9), and goes on to pray that the Ephesian believers would “know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (v.19). Unsearchable. Passing knowledge. To think that you have studied all there is to know about the Truth of God is the height of arrogance and reveals more ignorance than it does knowledge. It is an ocean without shore and without bottom. The subject of the gospel is God, who is an infinite being, and cannot never be completely understood. We will spend eternity seeing further glimpses of the glory and beauty of God.
I remember when I finished my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I noticed one day what all the textbooks I studied from said. Their titles said things like, Introduction to Probability and Statistics, Elementary Differential Equations, and so on. They all had either the words “introduction to” or “elementary” in the titles. I then realized that I had just finished four years studying an introduction to mathematics! Graduate school, here I came. In the same way, we have only been introduced to God through Christ. Don't sit on your laurels now, there is so much more to see.
The gospel is worthy of your study because the gospel is about the Triune God, and in the end, everything is about him. To know him is to know reality. It is about the only Being in the universe who is truly good, and loving, and pure, and just, and wise, and powerful. It is about his saving plan to rescue men and women from his just wrath through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. In the end, of all the things to know, the gospel is the only thing really worth knowing. As Edwards puts it, “The truths of divinity are superlative excellency, and are worthy that all should make a business of endeavoring to grow in the knowledge of them. They are as much above those things which are treated in other sciences, as heaven is above the earth.”
3. You should make the Scriptures the object of close study because God has gone to great lengths to get the Scriptures to you. The Bible is a book which has God as its author, and he has spoken through the ages through successions of prophets, and finally in his Son. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by the Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom he made the worlds” (Heb. 1:1-2). God does nothing to no purpose. The fact that God has chosen to speak to us in the written word ought to make us want to mine its contents. The diligence of God in sending his word is often expressed in Scripture – unfortunately, often against the background of human deafness. For example, in Jeremiah 7:25, God says, “Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day I have even sent unto you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up and sending them.”
4. God has plainly revealed in his word his desire that all who belong to him increase their knowledge of his word. We are told in Rev. 1:3, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear3 the words of this prophesy.” If this is true of the book of Revelation, how much more of the Gospels and Epistles! Paul praised the Corinthian believers because “that in every thing ye are enriched by [Jesus Christ], in all utterance, and in all knowledge” (1 Cor. 1:5), and he prays for the Philippian Christians that “your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9,10). Peter exhorts his readers to add knowledge to their virtue (2 Pet. 1:5). Paul tells Timothy about the Old Testament, that it is given by “inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Edwards writes, “When God hath opened a very large treasure before us, for the supply of our wants, and we thank him that he hath given us so much; if at the same time we be willing to remain destitute of the greater part of it, because we are too lazy to gather it, this will not show the sincerity of our thankfulness.” God has given us a treasure in his word, and has commanded us to open our mouths wide; it is fitting therefore to search the Scriptures and enlarge our store of doctrinal knowledge. We ought to have the attitude that the prophet Jeremiah had, which he expresses in Jer. 15:16, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts.”
5. We ought to grow in our understanding of God's Word, because of the consequences of a failure to do so. One of the reasons believers are sometimes so gullible lies in an inability to combat lies with God's truth, truth that is found in his Word. Paul explains in Ephesians 4 why Christ gave his church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers – it is so that the church might grow into maturity and “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (v.14).
A Call to Biblical Education
If you are a believer, this message is intended for you. How much effort are you putting into seeking to increase your understanding of God's Word? It is true that this is especially the calling of pastors. But it is your calling as well. You are called to be a teacher of God's word to others.
Fathers, God calls you to lead your family in seeking him through his word. “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This is not optional. It is absolutely necessary that you step up here. But how can you if you are not daily seeking God in his Word? I know that we are called to provide for our families. But your calling to lead your family spiritually is not negated by your calling to provide for them materially. Will you fill the bellies of your children and starve their souls?
It is so easy to make excuses here. “I don't have time.” Then make time! “I'm not a gifted teacher.” Doesn't matter. God calls us to it, and he who made the tongue and the mind will give you words to teach your children the things of God. “I'm too tired.” Well, the words of Jesus come to mind here: “The spirit is wiling but the flesh is weak.”
The very least we men ought to be doing is consistently reading the Word of God. But I would encourage you to discipline yourself to add the reading of good books to your habits of spiritual formation. By any means possible, increase your knowledge of God's precious Word.
Mothers, God calls you to teach your children the things of God. Timothy had his mother and grandmother, and your children have you. A lot of women are unfortunately under the impression that serious theological study is for men. That is false. Priscilla taught Apollos. God calls you to the serious study of his Word. Stretch yourself spiritually.
Children, God calls you now to grow in the grace of the knowledge of Christ in his word. Do not let these early years be wasted. Pursue God in his Word even now. Such a pursuit now will pay rich dividends in the years to come, and save you from many foolish and hurtful choices in the future. Like the child, Samuel, open God's Word, and say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”
May God bless us all to open his Word and really hear him speaking through it.
1Guthrie, Hebrews (TNTC).
2The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2 (Hendrickson)
3The word “hear” can carry the connotation “to understand.”