Mature Audiences Only
We expect infants to be immature, but it’s weird when an adult is. In this passage we see the call to maturity, and not only the weirdness, but the danger, of remaining in immaturity.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
It’s a joy to have so many babies around our church, and one of the common sights that comes with the presence of babies is bottles of milk. When the Hope Pregnancy Center up the street wants to raise funds for their work, they sometimes encourage churches and people to put change into milk bottles, and the association is intuitive enough: Newborns don’t eat solid food; they live rather off milk. In the passage on which we are focusing today, the author also uses the example of infants drinking milk as an illustration of immaturity, while those who are mature eat solid food. I heard Mark Dever, a pastor in Washington, DC, illustrate it this way. If you go over to a friend’s house for dinner and see them feeding their 6-month-old milk from a bottle, you’d think little of it. But what if you then saw their 6-year-old go over to the fridge, grab a bottle for himself, sit down at the table, and start drinking it down? You’d probably start to feel a little weird, but even then, maybe you could explain it away as some kind of developmental delay. What if, finally, the dad of the family got up, grabbed a milk bottle from the fridge, and also drank it as his dinner? Surely then you’d think something is not right with that man. So in this text, the author of the letter to the Hebrews sees something is not right with the Hebrews. By now they ought to be mature, but instead they are acting very immaturely, and the danger of that that he points out in this passage is that remaining in such a state of immaturity leaves them susceptible to falling away from God himself in such a way that it will be impossible to restore them. Nonetheless, he ends the passage with hope for the Hebrews. Remaining in immaturity is no less possible, and no less dangerous for us, but there is also hope for us, just as there was hope for the Hebrews. Therefore, let us go on to maturity, and to help us do so, we’ll see from this text the weirdness of immaturity in chapter 5:11-14, the call to maturity from chapter 6:1-3, the danger of immaturity from chapter 6:4-6, and the hope of maturity from chapter 6:7-12.
The weirdness of immaturity
Our passage begins with this statement that “about this we have much to say”, and the “this” to which our author refers there is Jesus being designated a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, which he had just mentioned in verse 10. He wants to say more about it, and he will say a lot more about it starting in chapter 7, but here he says it has become hard to do so, and the reason he gives is not because the concept itself is so difficult to understand. The name Melchizedek is strange, no doubt, but once you get the pronunciation into your head, it’s not that hard to understand what a priest after the order of Melchizedek is. It’s not hard to explain because the concept is so complex; he says in verse 11 that it is hard to explain because the Hebrews have become dull of hearing. The word translated “dull” there is the same word translated “sluggish” in 6:12. A simple, kind of colloquial way we might say it, is “lazy”. The Hebrews had become lazy listeners.
You probably know what it is like to be a lazy listener. Recently I was watching a lot of baseball as the Phillies made another playoff run. With the increase of streaming services, sports are one of the few television products that can still force you to watch commercials. But when the commercials are on, I am a lazy listener. Usually I mute them, but when I forget, the audio signal is just as clear as when the game is on. But I usually can’t tell you one thing from any of the commercials I saw if you were to ask me immediately after the game. On the other hand, contrast that with a drive home I had to make on a Tuesday night recently while one of the games was happening. I was listening to it on the radio, and I was locked in. I still remember hearing of the 6 runs the Phillies scored in a single inning as part of their 10-0 victory that night. Aside from rare exceptions for significant mental disabilities, we all have the capacity as images of God for both lazy listening and attentive listening. The difference between which is active depends on what you value. I value the Phillies, so I am an attentive listener to their playoff games. I don’t value commercials, so I am a lazy listener to them.
Now consider: How do you listen to God’s Word as it is read aloud and preached? Do you listen to it more like you listen to commercials, or more like how a superfan hangs on every word of a game broadcast? You can examine yourself on that, but it’s nearly impossible during the act of preaching for a preacher to tell whether people are listening attentively or lazily. How then can the author of Hebrews claim to know that the Hebrews have become lazy listeners? He doesn’t know because of their facial expressions, their “amen”s, or their note-taking during the sermons; he knows because, verse 12, though by this time they ought to have been teachers, they still need someone to teach them the basic principles of the oracles of God. He says they need milk, not solid food, because solid food is for the mature, for those who verse 14 says have their powers of discernment trained to distinguish good from evil.
Notice, then, the link between how you listen to the reading and preaching of God’s Word and your maturity. If you are a lazy listener, you are very unlikely to mature, and, conversely, if you find that you are not maturing as a Christian, it likely indicates that you have become a lazy listener. How would you know whether you are maturing? This set of verses in chapter 5 gives us two basic marks of maturity. The first is the ability to teach the Christian faith to others, and we see that in verse 12, where our author says that by now the Hebrews ought to have been teachers. He does not mean they all ought to be pastors who are set apart to teach; later in Hebrews we will see that the author clearly has a concept of leaders within the church who speak the word of God to the church, which the Bible calls pastors or elders. But notice the assumption, nonetheless, that every Christian to whom he is writing ought to be able to teach! And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If you really listen attentively to the word on a regular basis, doesn’t it make sense that, over time, you’d also then be able to communicate what you have heard, even if it’s as simple as repeating it? When I listen attentively to a Phillies game, it makes sense that when someone asks me the next day what happened in the game, I can give them a basic summary: The Phillies got an early lead and then blew it open later in the game with a 6-run inning. They won 10-0. But the author here is saying to the Hebrews that though you have “listened” to game after game after game, you’re still waking up the next day and asking, “So who won last night?” It’s a really weird question from people who claim to have been listening to the game, isn’t it? You might say to them even, “Well wait; didn’t you say you listened to it?” That’s basically what the author is saying here. So one mark of maturity in this text is the ability to teach the Christian faith to others.
The other mark appears in verse 14, and it is the ability to distinguish good from evil, and again, that makes sense if you think about it. The Christian message is a “word of righteousness” as verse 13 calls it, a word that both clarifies what is truly righteous, and a word that enables us to become truly righteous. Therefore, if you listen attentively to it, you should, over time, develop an ability to discern between teaching and behaviors that are truly righteous or good, and those that are unrighteous or evil. If I may extend my Phillies illustration just a bit further, we would expect those who listen attentively to the game to recognize when someone is reporting misinformation about the game. If the Phillies won 10-0, but someone the next day said, “Sucks that the Phillies lost”, we’d expect the attentive listener to be able to distinguish that falsehood from the truth. If someone the next day said, “Our pitching looked awful last night. We should cut those guys” we’d expect the attentive listener to recognize that actually the Diamondbacks didn’t score a single run on the Phillies, and therefore that is probably not good advice. So also, the mature Christian is one who can recognize when a message they are hearing is inconsistent with the gospel, and when an action they are being encouraged to take is inconsistent with the word of righteousness. I’m always encouraged as a pastor when one of you comes up to me and says, “Hey Mike, I read this book or heard this sermon and it just seemed off. Have you read it or heard it? What do you think?” and I often find my role in such situations is to affirm your spiritual senses and simply help explain why what you already sensed to be wrong is wrong. And, similar to biological maturity, isn’t this also how we expect children to mature? We expect a 2-year-old has a limited sense of right and wrong, and so we have to impose on them pretty strict rules. But the hope is that as a child matures, we can start to loosen those, because they have gained the ability to distinguish good from evil.
On that note, don’t be discouraged by this if you are a new Christian. Some of you here today were only born again very recently. You are a spiritual infant, and so we would expect you to still be on a diet of milk, and still needing to be taught the basics of the Christian faith. The rebuke here is for those who claim to have been Christians for many years, but who have become lazy listeners, and though they ought to be able to teach the basics of the Christian faith, still need to be taught the basics, and who though they ought to able to distinguish good from evil, are still easily led astray by the latest YouTube video or popular “Christian” book. Remember, it’s not weird for a baby to drink milk from a bottle, but it is weird for a dad. So also, if you claim to have been a Christian for some time now, but you are still unable to teach the basics of the Christian faith to others, or you are still easily led astray by false teaching, that’s weird! Don’t let that make you despondent, but let it wake you up, and, in the words of chapter 6, verse 1, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on maturity! So let’s look next at the call to maturity.
The call to maturity
Notice that the call is “let us” go on to maturity, which means the author is including himself, though he seems to think of himself as mature. One definitely wrong way to take this passage would be to say, “Well I clearly already am mature, so I don’t need to go on to maturity.” Maturity admits of degrees, and even the mature can and should always strive to grow to greater maturity in this life. Another way to even think about what maturity is is completeness or to put it even more strongly, perfection. The Greek word translated maturity in this passage is even commonly translated perfection, though since we never reach perfection in this life, the translators wisely opt for maturity in this case. Nonetheless, it means that all of us, myself included, no matter how mature, are called to go on to maturity.
But the fact that he also calls his audience to maturity demonstrates that even for the immature, maturity is possible if the Spirit of God is in you! If you have true biological life, you can generally begin eating solid food, even at a relatively young age! And if you have true spiritual life, you can listen attentively to God’s Word and, by God’s grace working in you, begin teaching others and distinguishing good from evil. The way you would do that is, as verses 1-2 continue, by not continually relaying the foundation. Here the image switches from a growing child to a house being built. If you walk around this area much, it won’t take long until you see a lot under construction, and what you often see first is the foundation being laid. It is vital that such a foundation be laid; the doctrines listed in verses 1-2 are vital! But, once again, we’d all think it very strange if after the foundation was laid, the construction workers came back the next day and chipped a bit of it away, only to rebuild it again the next day. No progress would be made on the building. The project would not mature, and would certainly never be completed.
This was the issue the Hebrews were having. They had heard the Christian message, which taught them to turn from dead works and instead to turn to faith toward God, to receive and rest upon Christ as he is offered in the gospel. They had been taught that true cleansing came through faith in Christ, not through the washing rituals of the Old Testament scriptures even, and that they had a new priest after the order of Melchizedek, not a priest ordained from among men by the laying on of hands. And they had been taught about the resurrection of the dead through Jesus’ resurrection and the coming judgment in his name. And yet, here they were being tempted to turn back to Judaism, chipping away the foundation as it were, so that the author of this letter was having to come in and keep rebuilding it! And so today, some professing Christians still struggle to progress to maturity because they are constantly questioning the foundations of the Christian faith. I confess to you that this has been a struggle in my own Christian life; I am a second-guesser who is prone to second-guess even what I have learned from God’s Word. In Dante’s Inferno, the medieval poem about Dante’s imaginary journey to heaven, a poem that contains a lot of falsehood about such a journey, but which also contains some interesting insights, he writes this about his hesitancy at the beginning of his journey: “And as a man who unwills what he wills, changing his plan for every little thought, til he withdraws from any kind of start, so did I turn my mind on that dark verge, for thinking ate away the enterprise so prompt in the beginning to set forth.” Dante got started on the journey, but then unwilled what he willed and changed his plan for every little thought, until he withdrew from any kind of start.
Our author here is telling us not to do that with God’s Word! Don’t hear it, believe it, and then unwill it by constantly questioning whether you got it right. The gospel is clear: Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man, was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, and offered himself on the cross as a substitute, bearing the judgment our sin deserved, and rose from the dead, so that whoever would turn from their dead works and believe in him is declared righteous the moment they do, and at the final judgment be resurrected from the dead to live with Jesus forever. Our author isn’t telling us to move on from thinking about such things; he’s telling us to move on from questioning such things! Believe the gospel, believe the elementary doctrine of Christ, and then press on from it to maturity in Christ, a maturity marked by the ability to teach the gospel to others, and the ability to distinguish the true gospel from false gospels, and conduct in step with the gospel from conduct not in step with the gospel.
If you are here today and you are realizing you still do not have a firm foundation in the gospel, the call to maturity for you begins with building the foundation. Maybe you have been professing Christ for years, maybe you are even a member of this church, but you may not be truly converted. You cannot become a mature Christian until you become a Christian. Believe the gospel today. And if you still don’t actually get the gospel, if you still need to be taught the basic principles of the oracles of God, maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it won’t do you any good to pretend it isn’t. If that’s you, however long you’ve been coming, however long you’ve professed faith, please talk with one of us after the service today, and we would love to teach you the basic principles of Christianity. We have books and Bible studies to help you do that, and we would be glad to give our time to doing that if you are willing to give your time to listening attentively.
But if you are here today and you really do understand the gospel, believe it, stop questioning it, and go on to maturity. Use the marks of maturity this passage gives us as targets. Consider, to whom has God given you opportunity and responsibility to teach the gospel? If you are a dad for example, God specifically commands you in Ephesians 6:4 to raise your children in the discipline and instruction of the LORD. You are to teach them the gospel, and even discipline them in such a way that you train them to distinguish good from evil. If you are a member of this church, you have a responsibility to exhort the other members of this church as we saw in Hebrews 3:13, and that involves teaching. We are all also responsible to be ready to explain the gospel to unbelieving people God has placed us around, and that involves teaching the gospel. And if you’ve ever had to teach something, you know nothing forces you to learn something like the pressure of having to teach it. Consider even fixing in your mind some specific people: Your particular kids, a particular neighbor, another church member, and considering, “Now what would I have to learn to be able to teach the gospel to them?” Brainstorm that with one another over lunch today or in your Citygroups this week.
Let us go on to maturity, with this caveat in verse 3: And this we will do if God permits. Though going on to maturity is very much something we are told to do in verse 1 of chapter 6, this verse shows us that we will only succeed in our efforts if God permits us to do so. As God is the giver of spiritual life, God is also the one who enables spiritual life to grow and mature. And, in fact, there are some who God does not permit to grow to maturity. So let’s talk next about the danger of immaturity.
The danger of immaturity
In verses 4-6 we learn that there are people for whom repentance is impossible, and for whom, therefore, maturity would be impossible. Who are they? They are described in these verses as those who have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and who then fall away. There are two basic ways that sound interpreters understand these verses, and it is hard to tell which is right. This passage is one of the hardest passages in the Bible to understand, so I will warn you that lazy listening is going to really hurt you for the next 5-10 minutes as I try to explain it. One interpretation suggests that the people described in verses 4-6 are what we might call “almost Christians” or “professing Christians” who have not actually been born again by the Spirit of God. They have been enlightened by the preaching of the gospel, they have tasted something of the heavenly gift, which is probably just a way of speaking of salvation, in their hearing of the gospel, they have shared in the Holy Spirit, in that the Spirit is present and working through the means of grace such as preaching, gathered worship, and the sacraments, they have tasted the goodness of the word of God, in that it has had some effect on them and they have seen that it is good, and even the powers of the age to come have operated on them in some way, but they have never truly been born again. It is fair to recognize that the text never says they were chosen, washed, regenerated, made alive, justified, sanctified, adopted, sealed, glorified, or a host of other terms the New Testament uses to describe conversion, so that is a defensible interpretation.
Nonetheless, the descriptors that are used sure sound like descriptions of conversion. It is hard to imagine what tasting the heavenly gift would mean if not actually receiving it, just as in Hebrews 2 we are told that Jesus tasted death, meaning he really died. It is hard to imagine what sharing in the Holy Spirit means if not actually receiving the Holy Spirit, as chapter 3:1 describes the Hebrews as those who share in a heavenly calling, and 3:14 says we have come to share in Christ. So, some interpreters believe that verses 4-6 are describing not “almost Christians” or merely “professing Christians”, but rather, “true Christians,” those who not only profess faith, but who truly are born again and saved. The challenge with that view, however, is that verse 6 suggests such people can then fall away, and we know from other passages of scripture that those God truly saves, God keeps in such a way that they do not fall away. Jesus promises in John 6 for example, that “all the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37, 39-40). So, those who take this second interpretation are forced to say that the “falling away” of verse 6 is conceivable, but not possible. It is conceivable that someone who is truly saved could fall away; we can imagine it happening, but God will make sure it does not happen.
Whichever view is correct, it helps to keep in mind that the author of this letter is writing to a church, and as a human, the human author does not know the true state of the souls of any of his recipients. What he does know is that they all profess faith in Christ, have been baptized, and have been admitted into membership in this church, and therefore he writes to them all as though they are Christians. Nonetheless, he also knows that not everyone who is a member in good standing of a Christian church is truly saved. Some do sadly fall away. If you’ve been a Christian for long, you probably know people personally who were members in good standing of true churches who today have renounced their faith.
So in writing verses 4-6 to the Hebrews, the author is aware of two possibilities, two possible recipients: Some who are truly converted, and some who are not. Those who are truly converted will hear a warning like verses 4-6, and by the work of the Spirit of God in them, will say, “I don’t want that to be me. I better go on to maturity,” and will therefore be permitted by God to press on to maturity, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day, just like he said he would do for all who truly come to him by faith. Those who are not truly converted will do one of two things: They will say, by a new work of the Spirit of God in them, “I don’t want that to be me” and will therefore come to Christ for the first time, be converted for the first time, and be raised up on the last day, just like Jesus said he would do for all who truly come to him by faith. Or, they will listen lazily to the warning, give themselves a false assurance, and eventually fall away, thus proving that they were never truly converted in the first place, as 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
So, who is being described in verses 4-5? Members of true churches, who are therefore addressed as Christians by other humans because we do not actually know the state of their souls. Those who are truly converted among them will heed the warning of verses 4-6 and therefore not fall away, while those who are not truly converted among them will either heed the warning of verses 4-6 and be converted for the first time, or will fall away, and in the case of those who fall away, it will be impossible to restore them to repentance. They will not be permitted by God to press on to maturity because, verse 6 goes on to tell us, they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Jesus died once for the forgiveness of sins, and therefore you only receive him once for the forgiveness of sins. To then fall away from that and expect to come back to receive him again is impossible. You can be born again if you are dead in your trespasses and sins, but you cannot be born again…again. Scripture speaks of a second birth, but never a third.
Ok, so why’d the author say all this to the Hebrews, and what’s it mean for you and me? He told the Hebrews this because he saw in them this danger of falling away! He saw them remaining in immaturity, still going back and chipping away at the foundation, and he sees a danger in that, the danger of immaturity: One day you might go chip away at the foundation, and instead of rebuilding the next day, you might just chip away again, until there is no foundation left. And so for us, this shows us the utter danger of remaining in immaturity, of just kind of accepting ignorance of the gospel, insisting on continuing to question it, and listening attentively to false teachers while becoming lazy in our listening to God’s Word: You might fall away, and if you do, it will be impossible to restore you to repentance. If you’re saying you really understand all this, you’ve been enlightened, you’ve tasted the heavenly gift, and so on, and you fall away, do not assume you’ll just be able to come back to Christ later. You won’t.
Now, I know as I say that there are sensitive consciences in the room, and I’m one of them, so I feel for you if that’s you. Some are prone to wonder, “What if that’s me? What if I’ve already fallen away, and now it’s impossible for me to be restored to repentance?” I think I got this from Matt Cohen, but there are two basic mistakes to avoid in receiving these warning passages in Hebrews: One is to kind of dismissively say, “That’ll never be me.” If you didn’t need the warnings, God would not have given them. But the other mistake it to say, “That’s already me.” I’ve said a lot about the first already, so let me say a bit about the second. In doing so, let me first point out that scripture never encourages anyone to think of themselves as someone already fallen away with no hope of repentance. It warns us not to become such people, but never tells us to assume we are such people. You have no biblical warrant to assume that’s who you are today. What scripture does instead, what this passage even does instead, is it tells us to press on to maturity. If you sincerely desire to press on to maturity, if you sincerely desire to repent today, it proves that you are not the person described in verses 4-6, because the verses literally tell us it is impossible to restore such a person to repentance, and here you are repenting! Jesus’ promise stands: Whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6:37). The point in this passage is that those who truly fall away will never come to him, and therefore God will not permit them to go on to maturity. So don’t become such a person, and don’t get bogged down trying to figure out if you already are such a person. Come to Christ, and you have nothing to worry about, and the verses that follow demonstrate that, because there is hope for maturity. Let’s close by talking about the hope of maturity.
The hope of maturity
Verses 7-8 are a kind of transition by way of illustration. So far we’ve considered the illustration of biological life going from infancy to maturity, the illustration of a building going from the foundation to completeness, and here we have an illustration using land and fruitfulness. The author imagines two types of land, both of which receive rain, kind of like two kinds of people, both of whom hear the word of God. One produces a crop, while the other does not, kind of like some hearers of the word bear spiritual fruit in response, while others do not. The ones who bear fruit receive a blessing from God verse 7 says, while those who do not are near to being cursed, and are destined to burn. Then the author quickly clarifies to his audience that though he speaks in this way, in their case, he feels sure of better things, things that belong to salvation. In other words, he feels sure that God will permit them to go on to maturity and so be saved in the end. Remember that even for the mature, the goal is perfection, to reach our heavenly home, to enter God’s rest, as we’ve seen it elsewhere in Hebrews. Jesus is already perfected in that way and is now in his heavenly home, and our author expresses confidence here that the Hebrews also will join him there, though he has also warned them of the danger of falling away.
Why does he feel sure of this in their case? Look at verse 10. He says God is not unjust as to overlook their work and the love that they have shown for his name in serving the saints, as they still do. Remember the crop illustration: A crop that bears fruit receives God’s blessing, whereas the one that bears thorns and thistles will not. The author is now saying that he has observed fruit in the Hebrews! He can’t see their hearts ultimately, but he can see the works they’ve done and the love they’ve shown specifically in serving other Christians out of love for God’s name. As is so often the case in other passages of scripture, so here: One of the basic marks of a true Christian is that they love other true Christians with a love that demonstrates itself in real action, not because they have compatible personalities, not because they have the same sense of humor, went to the same schools, or like the same music, but because they love God’ name, and their brothers and sisters in Christ were named with that name in their baptism. The logic goes something like this: If that kind of fruit is present in your life, it is evidence that God truly has begun a good work in you, and therefore I am sure that he will bring it to completion, to perfection, and give you the promised salvation in the end. Just as he would be unjust not to bless the crop that produces fruit, so he would be unjust to curse you, given the fruit he has enabled you to bear in your love for the saints.
Nonetheless, he adds in verse 11, don’t let that lull you into inactivity. Keep showing that same earnestness so that such a hope is fully assured to the end. Don’t let it make you lazy, but follow the example of those who have gone before you, who have endured to the end, and who therefore have inherited the promises of salvation not by their works ultimately, but by faith and patience.
If you are here today and the fruit of love for other Christians, expressed in loving action toward other Christians, is present in your life, God will permit you to press on to maturity and ultimately to inherit salvation. He will not let you fall away. Now, again, I hear my sensitive conscience brethren in the room asking, “Well how much fruit of love for other Christians needs to be there? What about that time I could have helped my sister in Christ and I realize now that I failed to do so?” Again, not the question this passage is encouraging you to ask. The author is not telling the Hebrews they’ve always loved the saints perfectly; he is simply pointing out ways that he has seen them genuinely loving the saints because they love God’s name, and the point is if that’s at all present in your life, it is evidence of true spiritual life. If there is even one little tomato on a tomato vine, it is evidence of real life, and grounds for hope that the plant will go on to maturity. Of course you don’t love one another perfectly, but if you have truly served other Christians simply because they’re Christians, simply because they bear God’s name and you sincerely love him, God is not so unjust as to overlook that. Nonetheless, the point is not that you might look back and rest on such things, but that you might continue to do so more and more, and so demonstrate by your works that you truly do love God’s name, while recognizing that even your best works will fall short of perfection, and therefore you are always dependent on the righteousness of Christ for your righteousness before God.
Brothers and sisters, members of this church, it brings me great joy to be able to stand before you today and say that though I must warn you in the ways this passage does, in your case, beloved, I feel sure of better things, things that belong to salvation, because I have seen so many of you serve the saints in this church simply because you love God’s name, and they bear his name. Let us all, then, go on to maturity, so that we may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.