How we need to hear (Heb. 5:11-14)
For many years, I read this passage as an exhortation to the Hebrew Christians to get more Bible knowledge into them. After all, does not the author say that “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”? (ver. 12). They need to be taught, there needs to be information transfer. That’s the problem – or is it?
Somehow though, when you go on to read what follows, this interpretation doesn’t seem to jive with the context. For example, while he complains that their state (which requires further teaching) makes it hard for him to teach them about Melchisedec (10-12), yet that is precisely what he does in chapter 7. Moreover, though he seems to say that they need further instruction in the ABCs of the faith (“first principles of the oracles of God,” ver. 12), he never seems to give them this instruction in the verses leading up to his taking up the theme of Melchisedec. He mentions some of the basics in just two verses (6:1-2) and then moves on – and he expects them to move on with him. Now if they really were deficient in knowledge, this is bad pedagogy on his part. You make up the deficiency in knowledge by imparting the necessary instruction. But again, there is no real instruction in the ABCs of the faith.
What is there? In chapter 6, beginning in verse 4 and extending to the end of the chapter, you have this shocking warning, a stirring exhortation, and a call to hope. It centers around verses 11-12 where the author appeals to them in this way: “And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” That is very instructive. What is the purpose of an exhortation? What do exhortations do? They stir us up to put into practice what we already believe, while also motivating us to do so.
This indicates that the deficiency which is addressed in our text is not quite a deficiency in knowledge, per se. It is a deficiency in putting into practice gospel realities because they were not motivated to live in light of those realities. That is the problem.
There is a connection between 5:11 and 6:12 that is instructive here. The problem that has led to everything is that they were “dull of hearing” (5:11). That word “dull” is repeated in 6:12: “That ye be not slothful [dull], but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” He diagnoses the problem in 5:11 – dullness of hearing – and urges them to repent of that in 6:12. But note that the dullness in 6:12 does not arise from inadequate knowledge but from a failure to apply that knowledge. That’s what it means to be slothful. Ignorant people need to be taught; slothful people need a kick in the pants, which is precisely what the author does (in a manner of speaking).
You see this further in the analogy of milk and meat. Milk is for babies; meat is for the mature. But this is not unpacked in terms of the amount of knowledge, but in terms of its use. Milk is “for everyone that . . . is unskillful in the word of righteousness” (12), whereas 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” (13-14). Someone who is “unskillful” with the gospel [= word of righteousness] is unaccustomed to living by its principles and in light of its truths. On the other hand, the mature are those who have “by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” It’s really a question of application – they have not been applying God’s word to their lives. And why not? Because they are dull of hearing.
So why does he say they need to be taught? Doesn’t that point to a lack of knowledge? No, not necessarily. I think there is some irony here. He is saying that their dullness of hearing has made them no different from people who have never even heard the gospel, who don’t even know the basics. If you don’t apply the gospel that you know to your life – how is that really any different from someone who has never heard the gospel? Well, in terms of what you can see, there is no difference. Notice that the need to be taught is parallel with the need for milk (12). And we saw that their need for milk, which really is a way of talking about their spiritual immaturity, did not arise from a lack of knowledge but from a failure to use and apply what they already knew.
So the problem addressed in these verses is that the Hebrew Christians were dull of hearing, which led to a failure to apply God’s word to their hearts and lives, and this in turn led them to a failure to value what God valued (or a failure to discern the difference between what is good and what is evil). And of course that led them to the point of being on the brink of abandoning the Christian faith for something else. Which is a terrifying place to be, and we will be reminded just how terrifying that is in the next chapter. But if we want to avoid getting there, we need to repent of what will get us there in the first place, which is dullness of hearing – not hearing God’s word the way we ought.
This is what I want to talk about in this message: how to hear God’s word – or, how to avoid being dull of hearing. How do we do that?
Well, first of all, we need to repent of whatever it is that makes us dull of hearing. How do we get there? I think there are thousands of ways to get there. For the Hebrew Christians, it was persecution. It had worn them down. But it was not just persecution; it was the failure to interpret their circumstances in light of God’s promises. Instead, they had interpreted God and his gospel in light of their circumstances. Thus, they needed to be reminded of the hope that we have because of the gospel. They needed to say, with the psalmist, “Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God” (Ps 42:11).
But the more fundamental answer is that we become dull of hearing because we have capitulated to worldliness. What is worldliness? It is fundamentally the love of this world, where “world” encompasses all the values, opinions, and philosophies of humanity in rebellion against God. The apostle John reminds us in his first epistle: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lusts thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). What is worldliness? It is that system of values that blinds us to the love of God by replacing it with other things. It is idolatry. It is desiring that which God forbids and loathing that which God loves. Worldliness is placing one’s hope in the present order of things instead of looking to that which is unseen and eternal.
David Wells in his book God in the Wasteland gives a good definition of worldliness that exposits for our day what the apostle was warning about in his. He puts it this way: “For worldliness is that system of values and beliefs, behaviors and expectations, in any culture that have at their center the fallen human being and that relegate to their periphery any thought about God. Worldliness is what makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd.” He then goes on to make this very perceptive observation: “Modernity is worldliness, and it has concealed its values so adroitly in the abundance, the comfort, and the wizardry of our age that even those who call themselves the people of God seldom recognize them for what they are."i This is the danger of worldliness. Rarely does it come right out and beckon you to abandon the love of God for the love of other things. It steals upon you unawares. It gradually gnaws at your heart and soul until it has replaced Biblical values with sinful and man-centered ones. Before long, you may still be going to church and reading your Bible, but you discover that you have become dull of hearing, and that gospel realities just don’t land on you the way they once did.
How do you know that you are entrapped in worldliness? As Wells put it, you know that worldliness has taken you when sin looks normal and righteousness seems odd. This is something we will all struggle with until the day we die because not only is the “world” in the Biblical sense of humanity in rebellion again God competing for the allegiance of our hearts, but the remaining sin in our hearts is an ally within of the enemy without and makes the arguments for worldliness so often seem very plausible. If we are not constantly fighting against it, we will inevitably fall before it.
The outcome of dullness of hearing, according to our text, is in contrast with the mature who can discern the difference between good and evil. In other words, dullness keeps you from valuing what God values. And yet, even though that is an outcome produced by dullness, I also think it is a condition that leads to this spiritual dullness. The values of this world and God’s values are not compatible. When once you give in to one you must release your grip on the other. As our Lord himself put it, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24).
The point of all this is that this is a battle which is waged first and foremost on the level of the heart. We must resist anything which makes sin look normal and which makes righteousness look strange. That may mean changing some habits. It may mean that we don’t go certain places (whether physical or digital), or watch certain TV shows, or do certain things. Worldliness is caught more than it is taught. So we must social distance ourselves, so to speak, from those things which catechize our hearts towards the values of the world. Do not be surprised if this looks strange to the world – we should expect that, for if worldliness makes righteousness seem strange then it is going to look strange to the world. In fact, the apostle Peter affirms this in his first epistle: “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (1 Pet. 4:3-4). So that is the first step to combatting spiritual dullness of heart: fight the temptation to worldliness.
Put yourself in front of God’s Word
We cannot benefit from that to which we are not exposed. If you never hear the Bible or read the Bible, you obviously are not going to reap the benefits which come from it. But here’s the deal: we can think that because we have read through the Bible once or twice (or maybe even more than that), or been to this or that conference or church meeting, or because we have many years of faithfulness stacked up in the past that we can now relax our commitment to hearing God’s word. Beware of this attitude. There is never a time when we can stop hearing God’s word without endangering our souls.
This may have been one of the faults of the Hebrew Christians. They obviously had some knowledge, for the Christology of this epistle is very high and the doctrines dealt with up to this point are rich and deep. But they did not continue in this. They had become dull of hearing. They had stopped listening to the word of God as they should have.
The godly and blessed man is always defined by a commitment to God’s word: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:1). In other words, if you want to be in a healthy spiritual condition, you must make God’s truth your daily diet. As the apostle Peter put it, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). And in our day we have no excuses here. Despite the secular culture we live in, we have such an abundance of access to God’s word: online, podcasts, blogs, books, audio CDs and DVDs, and on and on.
As we said last Sunday, it matters what we are listening to. We need to be hearing God’s promises and to take to heart the warnings of God’s word. It is only by doing so that we will persevere and grow as we ought. But you can only do this if you are intentionally putting yourself in front of God’s word. And if you don’t have time to listen to it, then you need to rearrange your schedule. There is one thing necessary, isn’t there? Remember what our Lord told Martha who was loaded down with the cares of this world and angry at her sister Mary for neglecting her duties because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing his teaching (Lk. 10:39). Coming to the Lord with her concern, and expecting the Lord to rebuke her sister, instead she found herself rebuked: “And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10:41-42). Do we need to be rebuked as well?
Now, I want to add this. Listen to trusted teachers of God’s word, to those who are committed to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible. Listen to those who are committed to a Biblical view of God, man, and sin, who don’t preach their own views but give you truths which you can see are coming from Scripture. Hear God’s word preached (2 Tim. 4:1-4). There is something about preaching that we need – even preachers! God’s word is not just meant to be studied in an academic fashion. It is not just meant to be quietly contemplated. It is meant to be preached, to be authoritatively delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul told Titus, “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Tit. 2:15). Preaching does something that no other venue can do, and we impoverish ourselves when we downplay the importance of it in our lives and the life of the church. People who replace preaching with dialogue are not doing the church any favors. Consider that the book of Hebrews is essentially a sermon and was meant to be the means under God’s blessing of opening their ears and turning them from dullness. My friend, put yourself under God’s word preached.
Pray for enlightenment
We must not only put ourselves continually in front of God’s word, we must also pray for enlightenment when we come to it. This was the prayer of the psalmist: “Teach me, O LORD the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart” (Ps. 119:33-34).
Why do we need to pray for God to give us understanding? Well, I think one reason God has done it this way is to remind us of our constant dependence upon him. There is also the reality of sin and the devil. Sin blinds us to the glories of God’s word. Satan blinds us to the glories of God’s word. This is certainly true of those who are not believers: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
But it is also true that the believer, who is constantly battling the temptation to worldliness and sin, needs to have his or her eyes enlightened in spiritual things so that when we read God’s word we profit from it as we should. It’s like the windshield on a car. It’s there to see through. But sometimes when you drive down the road it gets messy, and eventually if nothing is done, it can get impossible to see through. God has given spiritual eyes to those who believe, the windshields of the soul, but if we are not washing ourselves by the Spirit who enlightens us we will eventually find ourselves unable to see what we ought to see in God’s word. So pray and ask God’s blessing upon it.
Hear it with an attitude of humility and faith
It matters how you hear God’s word, not only that you hear it. In the parable of the sower (or better, the parable of the soils), in Matthew 13, we are told that the soils represented four different types of hearers and the seed represented the word of God. Of those four soils (hearers), only one was good ground and had a good heart. Of the other three, two received the word in some sense – but did not bring forth fruit to God. So it is not enough that we listen to it, but we must receive it in a spirit of faith and humility.
Both of these aspects are summed up in the way the apostle Paul describes the reception of the word by the Thessalonian Christians: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God, which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). How should we receive God’s word? Not as the word of men. We must be convinced that this is God’s word if we are to receive it rightly. And that will mean coming to it in a spirit of humility – for who of us are in the position to dispute with God? And it means coming to it in a spirit of faith – for surely God’s word of all words is worthy of our trust. And when we come to it in this way, it will do in us as it did in the Thessalonians, it will effectually work in us who believe.
It also means being convinced that God’s word is not only necessary for spiritual growth but also sufficient for it. It means believing that “All Scripture 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). For if we think we can get by without the instruction and nurture of God’s word, we will. We ought to feel our desperate need for the Bible and its truth.
Apply its truths to your life
As we noted earlier, the main problem with the Hebrew believers was not that they had never heard the basics of the faith or even more advanced instruction. Rather, it is that they were unskillful in the word of righteousness. They were not using it; they were not applying it to their life. Oh may we not be like the auditors of the prophet Ezekiel: “And they come unto the as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezek. 33:31-32). Let us beware of mistaking an enjoyment of good preaching or good theological books with an actual application of it to your life.
The fact that the Bible warns against this again and again means that this is not an isolated or infrequent problem (cf. Mt. 7:24-27; Jam. 1:22-27). It is so easy to hear God’s word – or even to preach God’s word to others – and yet do nothing with it. It is not merely having God’s word but keeping it that is important: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:7-11). Do you want the reward of the word? Then you must keep it.
To be dull of hearing is one of the most fearful conditions to be in. Those who remain in this condition are in grave spiritual danger, and are exposed to God’s judgment. Those who do not repent and die in their sin, as our Lord put it in John 8, have no hope either in this world or the next. But here is the tragic thing about it. To have God’s word in front of us and to ignore it – that is tragic. For there is nothing more valuable than God’s word in this world and the saints have always understood that. “More to be desired . . . than gold” (Ps. 19:10). It is true, it is sound, it shows us God and the way to God in Christ.
And that is the main reason why God’s word is so precious. Paul could speak of the “unsearchable riches of Christ” which he was ordained to share with others (Eph. 3:8). In Scripture, God is mainly speaking to us about his Son and by his Son (Heb. 1:1). The overarching theme of the Bible is not how we make ourselves better but how God has intervened in the person of his Son to bring about the forgiveness of sins, the renewal of our nature, and restoration of fellowship with God. That is the gospel and it is what the Bible is all about. We are to hear this and not to be dull of hearing. We are to receive this message with a repentant and believing heart for God’s saving and gracious promise is to all who believe in God’s Son.
God’s word is here in our language, speaking in our tongue the things of God. But alas, just as it was on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, there are some who will say, “we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” and others who say, “These men are full of new wine” (Acts 2:11, 13). Where are you this day? Do you see that the Scriptures are in fact the Word of God and tell you about “the wonderful works of God”? Or do you look at them and just see in them the babblings of intoxicated men? My friends, let us hear the word of God. Let us not be dull of hearing. Let us repent of our embrace of the values of the world, let us put ourselves in front of God’s word, let us pray for eyes to see and ears to hear, and come at it with a spirit of faith and humility, applying its truths to our lives. May God make it so in each of us.
i David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 29.