Hebrews 5:11 - 6:12
11 About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; 13 for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore having left the elementary teaching of Christ, let us be brought forward to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 with teaching about ablutions, 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 to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have been partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God, and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation 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 close to being cursed; its end is to be burned.
9 Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
In the previous passage the author of Hebrews has been extolling the glorious person and ministry of Jesus, our high priest. In his discussion of the high priestly office of Jesus, he tells his readers that Jesus is not a priest after the order of Aaron, but of Melchizedek, a somewhat shadowy figure of the Old Testament.
What is the order of Melchizedek? How is Jesus connected with the Canaanite priest-king that blessed Abram and the prophecy of David? And why do the readers of this letter need to know any of this? The author seems very aware of the need to say more on the subject and even states his desire to do so, “About this we have much to say which is hard to explain.” But he is concerned that they are not going to be able to grasp the meaning and significance of further teaching on the subject.
The author wrote this letter to Jewish Christians who were seeking to add to their faith in Christ such things as trusting in angels or returning to the Jewish sacrificial system. In making these moves, they may have viewed themselves as maturing in their Christian faith, growing beyond a simple trust in Jesus to something that would make them more spiritually sophisticated or more successful.
But rather than maturing in Christ, these Christians are drifting away from Him and are actually in danger of so hardening their hearts against Jesus that they come to outright reject Him. The author seeks to draw them back by deepening their vision of the person and work of Jesus and warning them by helping them to grasp the true nature of their current spiritual state and trajectory.
The structure of the letter consists in teaching that is interspersed with five warnings. The passage we are looking at here is the third of these warnings. Like the second warning, it is quite long, but I think it is best to look at the passage as a whole rather than dividing it up into smaller segments.
The author begins this section by stating that what he is teaching them may be hard to explain due to the dullness of their ears. Now what does he mean by this? In his encouragement to them at the end of this passage, it is clear that his readers were not “bad” people. They were not rejecting Christ and they were caring for and serving one another. I don’t know if they would strike us as Christians in need of a strong reprimand and warning. I am pretty sure they would not have thought of themselves that way either! They are not aware of any danger at this point.
Let’s look at how the author describes them. He tells them they have become hard of hearing, that they are immature and that they actually need to be re-taught the foundational truths of God’s word. He also says that they are not skilled in discerning between what is good and what is evil. In fact, it is because they are dull in their hearing that they have not matured.
I certainly think that the readers of this letter were tempted to be offended by this description of them. I believe that they viewed their interest in angels and sacrifices as simply adding to what they already knew as Christians. They may have even used the word “mature” to describe where they were now, compared to when they first met and trusted in Jesus.
The author’s words to his readers here are truly sobering. Instead of teaching others, they need to start all over from the beginning! I wouldn’t be surprised if his readers were taken aback at these words. What happened?
Well, the author states the problem in the first sentence. They have become dull of hearing. The Greek word that is here translated “dull” means sluggish, lazy, slow. They are not hard of hearing, rather, they have stopped making the effort to really hear. This is an interesting description. What are they slow to hear? If we go back a bit in the letter, we remember that the author declared that the word of God is not dead or inert, but living and active, fully able to penetrate into the depths of our being to heal and transform. (4:12-13)
Jesus, God’s living word and our high priest, has opened a way leading to the very throne of grace. In the section right before this one we are looking at, the author encourages us to draw near to this throne to find mercy and grace because our high priest takes on our suffering as His own. Within this context then, it seems to me that being dull in hearing means that one has not continued to draw near to God’s presence, or has not continued to receive His living word into one’s life.
Why do people become dull of hearing? Well, it could be that we think we already know what we believe, and so we don’t need to keep on “listening” to God. We’ve “heard it all.” Or we may be attending to other voices instead of God’s. Expectations that we have or that others have of us can preoccupy us and keep us “deaf” to God’s presence and work. And there are times when we listen to voices of resentment, anxiety, or the need to control. All of these become impediments to our truly trusting in the triune God, the One who is actually and continually present and desires to speak to us and so continually grow us up.
If we resist ongoing listening to God, living by trust moment by moment in Him, we don’t just stay where we were when we first started to trust Him. We actually begin to live as if what we believe about God isn’t true, and He begins to seem less and less vital, real and present to us. How can we know His wonderful grace and mercy when we do not continually draw near? How can we experience the work of the living word in our lives if we aren’t continually striving to enter the rest of His presence?
So the author describes his readers as those who need again to be addressed by the first words they heard about Jesus, our great high priest. While they may view themselves as maturing, they are actually regressing. And the dullness of their ears has led to their being less able to discern good from evil. The living word of God is able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” and yet here, His children have become inept at knowing what is good and what is not.
After describing this sad state of affairs, the author encourages them to move toward true maturity, building on the foundation that has already been laid instead of having to go back and dig it again. They have already repented and turned to trust in God, they have been baptized (ablutions means washings and most scholars think it refers primarily to baptism). They know about being ordained in the Spirit, and that they await resurrection to new life and that the eternal God is our judge—the One who truly knows good and evil. To build on this foundation is to live each day as if it is true, as if He is true, because He is. We are not to move off from our home base in God by adding to our faith in Christ. There is no other center.
The author wants his beloved readers to grow ever more deeply and fully in their life in God, to truly know and live in God’s rest, as He shares it with them in His Son. He clearly mourns over their immaturity, their lack of deepening knowledge of and trust in God. But his pain is not only over their present condition. He now warns them sternly of the possible disastrous end to which their current path could take them.
As I said when we looked at the last warning section, I think we often let our fears lead us through these warning passages. This is certainly a very sobering warning and the author fully intends it to be so. But the end he warns against is not one we need fear we might accidentally get to. We are not walking a tightrope—likely to fall away from God at any moment. And God is not sitting back, watching us from a distance to see which way we will go—putting us on “test mode” just to see how we’ll do on our own. To come to the point the author is about to describe is possible only by great resistance on our part to the “hound of heaven” who continually chases us down.
Let’s look at how he describes the people in this next section. We do not know who the author is thinking of, but it does look as if he was sadly familiar with some individuals who had once been a part of the church and were now enemies of Christ. We can also be sure that those he speaks of here are not the same as the ones he calls “dull of hearing” in the previous paragraph.
Clearly they are those who started off entering into a real relationship with the God who meets them in Christ. These were persons who: were once enlightened, had tasted the heavenly gift and the goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come, and had partaken of the Holy Spirit.
These individuals had known the wonderful grace of God, and had experienced real fellowship with Him in His Holy Spirit. The author does not describe them as being disingenuous from the beginning. Why is it impossible to restore these people who once clearly loved and trusted the triune God?
To answer this question, we need to look carefully at what the author says here. He says that it is impossible to restore again “to repentance” those who have known and lived in the grace of God, “if they then commit apostasy.” And the reason it is impossible is because in committing apostasy “they crucify the Son of God … and hold him up to contempt.” To commit apostasy is to fall back to living as if God was not true, trustworthy, living, present and active. It is to live again in denial and repudiation of all they came to know and experience through Jesus and in the Spirit.
By living in a way that denies grace, they are continually crucifying on their own account the Son of God. This phrase describes a continuing, habitual action that they are doing deliberately. They have come to fully identify themselves with those who condemned Jesus to be crucified. They despise His grace and want nothing to do with Him. The author is not describing occasional moments of rebellion or resistance, but a hardened pattern, a “flintlike determination to have things their own rebellious way.” (Ray Stedman, Hebrews, IVP, p. 75)
This deep rejection of the person and grace of Jesus is further seen in the phrase “hold him up to contempt.” Like the verb “crucify” this phrase is in the present tense and describes a habitual, constant state. Despising God’s grace for themselves, they also stubbornly hold Jesus up to public ridicule.
The description that follows of the land that brings forth thorns and thistles instead of useful vegetation confirms that the change that has taken place for these people is at their core. What is produced in their lives is destructive. It chokes out life and does so because it is brought forth by the distorted, twisted condition of their souls.
It seems amazing, doesn’t it, that someone who at first is willing to receive God’s gracious love and work could come to a point of completely rejecting and despising that very grace. I think the author holds up these people before his readers because they did not think that they were in any danger of coming to summarily rejecting the God they were trusting in. How could their interest in angels or going back to the sacrificial system possibly expose them to the danger spoken of here? They don’t think they are resisting Jesus, just supplementing their faith in Him.
Have you ever observed a marriage or a friendship where the two people no longer seem to be truly present to each other? They have reached a level where they think, “Oh, I already know all about this person. I have heard all their stories and jokes, and there isn’t really any more to learn here.” These people may believe that the relationship goes on just as well as it did when they were attending fully to each other. But it doesn’t, does it? As time goes on, they lose their ability to really see the other as the unique, living, present person they are. They stop receiving and enjoying what the other actually has to give. The relationship sours and dies.
The original readers of this letter had come to a point where they felt confident that they knew all there was to know about Jesus. They had the correct doctrines down, they knew what they were supposed to do, how to live as Christians. They were probably working hard to serve God, to have a good, successful spiritual lives. The author even mentions their love for one another and their acts of service.
The author ends this warning section by encouraging his readers to exercise the same diligence they have shown in their service now in their relationship with the gracious God who has drawn near to them in Christ. They are to persevere “in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end.” They are to imitate those who “through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Okay, what does all this add up to? What does the author want his readers to understand and do? It would seem that maturing in the Christian faith somehow entails a holding on or standing firm, while immaturity results from drifting away from the great salvation that God gives us in Jesus. We need to consider Christ—living and acting moment by moment as if He really is present and active in all our relationships and circumstances. As James Torrance, the Scottish theologian, often put it—we are to look away from our selves to Christ. We are to continually draw near to receive and depend on His grace.
This is how we realize the full assurance of our hope. When we live as if the God we have come to know in Christ really is Who He reveals Himself to be, we find that He continually affirms us in our hope in Him. When we draw near, we actually do find grace and mercy to help. When we look to see Jesus and where He is at work, we find Him. And when we make room to receive His rest, pushing away those things that keep us from resting in Him, we find that His peace fills us.
The truth is that we are suspended in God’s grace. There is nowhere else to go to find our true identities, our lives. But we don’t live automatically as if this is indeed the truth of our lives. This is why the author continues to stir his readers to action. But he wants to make sure they are involved in the right actions—those that enable them to continue to trust in and wait on God.
And He seeks to motivate them by reminding them of God’s incredible love for and faithfulness to them. He is the one making them His children, sanctifying them, giving them a share in His own life, His rest. In 6:3 the author assures his readers that they will grow to maturity “if God permits.” The “if” here is not conditional as it often connotes in English. The word “as” would be closer to the Greek. The author is not indicating that there is a chance that God will not permit. We will grow as God permits.
The author also addresses his readers as “beloved” and reminds them of God’s good character. In 6:10 “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work …” God is not “out to get them,” looking for them to trip up so that He can give up on them. And he reminds them of the wonderful purposes God has for them—hope and inheritance: words He has expanded on in various ways since the beginning of the letter. Even in this warning, the author seeks to feed their faith, to motivate them not out of fear or guilt, but out of seeing again the unbelievably gracious and faithful character of God.