Introduction – Growing Spiritually
My primary concern as a Bible teacher is that we are growing spiritually. I’ve been really challenged by Hebrews 5:11-14
Concerning him [Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
No one knows who wrote this letter. Some think Paul, some Apollos, while others credit Barnabas. It doesn’t really matter though because it was clearly the Holy Spirit who inspired it. What does matter, however, is that the writer wanted to say a lot more to these Jewish believers but couldn’t because they needed “milk and not solid food”. 1 In other words, this letter is Biblical milk. This description was not to insult them but to help them identify their true spiritual state – until they, and we, truly become “accustomed to the word of righteousness”, like or not, we are infants. Nobody is fooled by our disguises!
Over the years, I’ve asked many believers, ministers and teachers how they see Hebrews. So far, the consistent response has been that it’s “profound”, “solid teaching”, “really meaty”, but it’s not. It’s milk. Look at its summary:
I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly 2
It’s a brief exhortation. So who’s right in assessing the Letter to the Hebrews – us or the author?
“Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…”
Some time ago, there was a teaching abroad that the New Age Movement was the great end-time delusion. A friend of mine was asked what he made of it – did he think the NAM could be the “deluding influence” that precedes the coming of the Antichrist?3 My friend’s reply shocked the enquirer, and me. He said, “No, there’s a far greater delusion than that.” When asked, “What can be greater than that?”, my friend said, “Being a hearer and not a doer of the word. If we’re only hearers, we’re deluding ourselves, and that’s far worse than someone else deluding us”.
He’s right, isn’t he. Here’s the Scripture he was quoting:
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does 4
Snow White’s wicked queen called on her magic mirror for reassurance that she was still “the fairest of them all” but when it told her the truth, she was filled with jealousy and hatred. We have the Scriptures as our spiritual mirror, 5 given to reveal our true spiritual state. 6 And, of course, Hebrews 4:12 confirms this: “For the word of God is living and active…: it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.
Rather than condemn or ignore the mirror as faulty, I think we need to stop deluding ourselves and front up.
Being reproved for our childishness is embarrassing but, if we choose to grow, we can make the necessary changes. After all, a moment’s private embarrassment before God is surely much better than the public embarrassment of everyone else seeing us as we really are, in our childishness. It really doesn’t go away if we ignore it.
Paul described further symptoms for us, and the antidote, when he wrote to the Ephesians:
…we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ 7
As I see it, this accurately describes our Western church today – we’ve been “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine”. Why else would there be so many denominations, sects, and cults within Christendom? Paul’s antidote is growth – we are each one of us to “grow up in all aspects” 8 – and he identifies at least five aspects we have to face in order to grow:
(i) in attitude, until we see unity as more important than petty or non-essential issues 9
(ii) in character, to become increasingly like Jesus 10
(iii) in intimacy with God 11
(iv) in discernment and forming our own convictions 12
(v) in understanding the Scriptures 13
We won’t go through all of these, just the first and last: attitude and understanding the Scriptures.
Writing to the Corinthians about our attitudes, Paul uses the same metaphor as the writer of Hebrews:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solidfood; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able,for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth 14
Let’s be clear what Paul is diagnosing here. The Corinthians being “men of flesh” did not mean they were excessively carnal or sensual; they were simply being ordinary and natural, instead of extraordinary and spiritual. God is calling us all to be much more than “mere men”. 15 And if we have been born of the Spirit, we’re not to remain “infants in Christ” 16 but to grow up.
Don’t we all want that, to be spiritual adults, rather than self-deluded, ordinary adults who are actually spiritual infants?
However, all too often, this attitude identified by Paul is misdiagnosed as loyalty to leaders. We have to search our own hearts on this – are we jealous and competitive for their sakes? Are we political opportunists, taking sides with a recognised leader and striving for recognition and reputation? Or do we stand alongside the truth regardless of who else is standing there? Paul reproves those who say, “I am of Paul”, 17as being so childish that rather than make their own decisions before God, they simply side with what they think he might say. Instead, he urges them to stand on their own feet and judge his words:
I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say 18
Elsewhere, Paul identifies this sinfully siding with leaders or groups as a work or “deed of the flesh”, part rivalry, part selfish ambition, and creating factions or parties. 19
Our maturity in this area is therefore measured by our willingness to search out the truth and the unity that it will bring “unity of the faith” 20 while still preserving “the unity of the Spirit” 21 with all other believers. Are we growing closer, or trying to excuse our childish divisiveness?
“Being Doers… Not Merely Hearers”
Think about our concept of denomination. The Concise Oxford defines to denominate as to “give name to”; a denomination is a “distinct class or kind”. Isn’t our desire to separate ourselves as a class or different kind from other believers in Jesus exactly what Paul says is fleshly, childish? I would suggest we aren’t maturing until we’re genuinely thinking, as some would say, post-denominationally. In other words, wherever we are serving, we are leaving this thinking behind and accepting there is only one Body, only one church of God, and all believers belong to it. Are we allowed to choose which apostle/bishop/pastor/preacher/teacher/elder we will follow, and which ones we will ignore, even when they are genuine servants of God? Paul makes it abundantly clear that he expected the Corinthians to receive without favouritism from any and every servant of God whatever God was doing through each. 22 It’s clear that 1 Corinthians 3 is still reflecting like a mirror some of our immature attitudes, as in point (i).
Understanding the Scriptures
Paul also called on us to grow up in our understanding of the Scriptures, as in point (v). “Familiarity breeds contempt” just as surely in our glossing over Paul’s letter to Timothy:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work 23
Growing here means being taught, reproved, corrected, trained, enabled, and equipped by or from the Scriptures. As I see it, many of us are not yet doing all of our good works because we simply haven’t connected properly with the sacred texts. Let’s return to Hebrews on this point, to address our immature understanding of the Scriptures.
The Letter to the Hebrews
If Hebrews is milk, why do we find so hard? How can we have so badly misjudged it?
Firstly, we’ve made a simple mistake: we’ve failed to contextualise it. It was written to 1st Century Jewish believers and they knew an awful lot more about these things than most of us do today. It was an easy read for them because of who they were; they were starting way ahead of us and we who are 21st Century Gentiles need to catch up or we will miss a lot of solid food.
Of course, beginning with milk is not bad. It’s the wonderful, nourishing first food of every newborn baby and Peter urges us to start there:
Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord 24
As soon as we’re born again, we should have a longing, a hunger, for spiritual milk. What exactly is the “pure milk of the word” 25 that will cause our growth in “salvation”? If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know that “salvation” is the English translation of the Greek soteria, which means “deliverance, safety, health, wholeness”. And where does our salvation begin but with the gospel. We all needed to hear and trust in two great truths:
- The identity of Jesus
- The work He has done, is doing, and will do for our salvation, deliverance, safety, health and wholeness.
This is the gospel Jesus gave to the Samaritan woman 26, as well as Peter on the Day of Pentecost, 27 Paul to the Corinthians 28 and all in Rome. 29 Peter therefore urges us to drink this milk and grow. So too does the Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, this is the entire message of Hebrews. Its “brief exhortation” is exhorting us to grow in our understanding of Jesus Himself and of “so great a salvation”.30 Everything else in Hebrews is to illustrate these two points. The difficult portions for us as untaught 21st Century Gentiles are all in the illustrations. They are only hard to understand because they’re unfamiliar to us today but to 1st Century Jews, these illustrations were part of their everyday life and understanding.
Consider, for example, the plight of this new immigrants arriving in New Zealand from, say, Outer Mongolia. Even if they speak English, they have so much to learn to be as at home here as we who have always lived here. Imagine that you want to explain to them even a single facet of one of our annual holidays. “Well”, you say, “Christmas time is great – families get together for a big celebration. We decorate the Christmas tree and pile presents under it for the children to open on Christmas Day”. Our new Mongolian friends are really not going to understand until they’ve been to our homes on Christmas Day. Now try and explain the meaning of the tree, why its pagan origins don’t matter, Father Christmas, his sleigh, the reindeer and elves! Now tell them how this all relates to Jesus…
It’s not easy to explain but it does all make sense. It’s just easier to understand when it’s our own culture.
The Deep Pools of Hebrews
When I was teaching Hebrews to an underground Bible school in Nepal in 1997, I felt the Lord gave me a way to explain it: this letter is like a winding path with some very deep pools on both sides. The winding path is the “brief exhortation” and the deep pools are all the illustrations from the Old Testament, i.e. the Jewish Bible. This means we can jump off the path into any of the pools and go as deep as we like, then get back on the path to finish our walk. The “brief exhortation” doesn’t go into any of the pools; it only shows us where to jump, or if you like, offers some New Testament doorways into understanding the Old.
So what’s the path exactly? It’s the two subjects to which we’re being exhorted: Jesus Himself, and ensuring our salvation. Heb 1:1-3, therefore, spells out His divinity and then we come to the first pool:
(i) Angels. To illustrate Jesus’ greatness, the rest of the chapter compares Him to angels. 31
In our 21st Century secular materialistic culture, we don’t usually know much about angels but 1st Century Jewish believers had learned they were the immensely powerful spiritual messengers of God who mediated the Mosaic Covenant, destroyed invading armies and brought messages to many of their Old Testament heroes, Abraham, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah, as well as to their 1st Century heroes like Zacharias, Mary, Paul and John.
They already knew that angels are spectacular heavenly servants and messengers so, in Heb 2:1-4, how much more important is the message Jesus brought us regarding “so great a salvation”? 32 Vss. 5-18 again compares Jesus to angels. We can jump into this pool and go as deep as we like into the Old Testament to catch up with what 1st Century Jewish believers already knew.
(ii) Moses and the wilderness. In Heb 3:1-6, Jesus is compared to Moses, the greatest of all the Jewish prophets and leaders, who gave them the Law: Moses was a servant but Jesus is the Son!
Then, to illustrate our salvation and how to keep it, Heb 3:6-19 talks of what every Jewish child was taught about the Exodus from Egypt and their wandering through the wilderness. This is a deep pool that Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-14 especially urges us Gentiles to dive into to catch up.
(iii) The Promised Land and the Sabbath. In Heb 4:1-13, Jesus and His work are compared to the Promised Land and the Sabbath, both of which are wonderful and often misunderstood deep pools by the path.
(iv) Heb 4:14-5:10 then compares Jesus with Aaron, Israel’s first and greatest high priest.
This begins the explanation of the superiority of the priestly order of Melchizedek, another deep pool, to which the writer returns in chap 6:13 to 8:5. To illustrate how much we need to persevere in faith in Jesus to be saved, Heb 5:11-6:12 urges the Hebrews to keep growing and bearing fruit like fertile soil.
(v) The Mosaic Covenant. From Heb 8:6 to 10:25, the writer compares the work of Jesus, i.e. the New Covenant, with that of Moses and the Old. To illustrate, he gives just a little taste of the foreshadowing of Jesus in the Tabernacle and Temple, another deep pool to be plumbed.
I won’t go on because, hopefully, you get the idea: it’s only two subjects with lots of ancient Jewish illustrations that would be easily understood by 1st Century Jews.
The letter really is a “brief exhortation” to 1st Century Jewish believers, to whom it was written, but also to us Gentiles today, regarding our need to “consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” 33 and to not “neglect so great a salvation”. 34 These twin messages are the path throughout and they are not hard to follow, despite some teachers today making them so.
As for the 1st Century Jewish believers, Paul describes them as already having a great advantage over every Gentile in their day, in fact a “super-abundance”:
- Then what advantage (Gk. perissos, lit. superabundance) has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?
- Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God 35
Their great advantage and benefit was not racial, not sentimental, not politically Zionist; they were not better people than us. It was “first of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God”, the Tanakh or Old Testament. This was given to them throughout their national history with daily, weekly, monthly and annual rituals and festivals for over 1,500 years before Jesus came. Of course they had a head-start on the rest of us!
When I, and I think most of us today, read Hebrews for the very first time, we simply don’t know enough about angels, Moses, the Exodus, the wilderness, the Promised Land and the Sabbath, Aaron, Levi and Melchizedek, the work of the Jewish priests, the Tabernacle and its furniture, the Temple and its practices as well as the Mosaic Covenant. We therefore get over-awed and misjudge the Letter, defensive for our egos about its being only milk.
Pressing on to Meat
Whenever we ignore their superabundance, whether because we’re jealous, selfishly ambitious or just don’t know any better, we are greatly disadvantaging ourselves. We need to learn this basic historical material to catch up, like simple arithmetic before algebra, or driving lessons to gain our solo licence, until we too can finally see that the Letter to the Hebrews is milk. Then, having been briefly encouraged, our Biblical understanding will be sufficient for us to confidently leave the path and go diving into the pools with Paul and John, to eat some of the “solid food” of Leviticus or the Book of Revelation.
This is not really a new issue, is it. We’ve kind of known that if we don’t learn about Abraham and Moses and their covenants, we won’t properly understand the gospels, or Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. However, if we want to grow up properly, we need to stop excusing ourselves or delaying pressing on to know the same wide, even if not very deep initially, range of Jewish history as any 1st Century Jew and I’m suggesting that the Letter to Hebrews is a great place to start.
Finally, we need to ensure we’ve also learned in some depth a few New Testament issues:
- Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
- of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.
- And this we will do, if God permits36
Have you understood all of these yet?
Firstly, today in the Western churches, we need today to own up to being on the milk diet. I’ve heard it said that we’ve been “taught to death” but, as I see it, our knowledge of the Scriptures demonstrates we’ve barely been taught at all. I would suggest we may have been preached to death, and often with reheated milk.
This isn’t really surprising. Our largest churches are usually led by evangelists and exhorters and, because evangelists lead unbelievers to faith in Jesus, those churches grow and, because exhorters inspire and motivate, the congregations will be enthusiastic. There is nothing at all wrong with this as the first step in our exodus from the world.
Secondly, as Paul points out, all of ancient Israel also got off to a great and spectacular start, being baptised in the sea, led by the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, eating manna and drinking water from supernatural sources;37 “Nevertheless, … most of them… were laid low in the wilderness”38
As an evangelist myself, I long for “fruit that abides”, to make disciples who will last the distance. Don’t we all?
Paul identified that he, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, had “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge”.39 Hosea lamented, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge”.40 We all need to grow in our own understanding of the Scriptures and press on to meat in our spiritual diet.
Thirdly, we need to set aside our childish denominational and doctrinal allegiances to grow in our attitude towards every leader and ministry God wants to use to equip us for His work.
Fourthly, it’s not good enough that we send promising young leaders off to Bible colleges – “solid food” is supposed to be part of the normal diet of our churches. Academic knowledge and passed exams are no evidence at all of spiritual maturity. Most of our atheistic theologians in recent New Zealand history have Th D’s and Ph D’s. There is simply no substitute for spiritual experience:
But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses (Gk, aistheterion, organ of perception) trained to discern good and evil41
If we want spiritual maturity rather than numerical growth alone, our churches need to provide or prepare our people for everyday practice sessions to train their spiritual senses.
Lastly, consider the promise of Proverbs 24:3-4:
By wisdom a house is built,
And by understanding it is established;
And by knowledge the rooms are filled
With all precious and pleasant riches.
We all had to start with an attitude, with the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, 42 but to get established, we had to gain understanding of what had happened, is happening and will happen to us. As I see it, it is this understanding that many in our churches desperately need right now. Then, at last, knowledge of the Holy will be only more precious and pleasant amongst us.
- vs. 12
- Heb 13:22
- 2 Thess 2:11
- Jas 1:22-25
- vs. 23
- vs. 24
- Eph 4:14-15
- vs. 15
- 1 Cor 1:10-13, 14:20, Gal 5:26, Phil 3:18
- Rom 8:29, Gal 5:16-25
- 1 Cor 2:6, Col 1:10. See also I John 2:12-14
- Rom 14:22, Col 2:2-8
- Rom 15:4, 1 Cor 10:1-11, 2 Tim 3:14-17
- 1 Cor 3:1-7
- vs. 3
- vs. 1
- vs. 4
- 1 Cor 10:15
- Gal 5:19-20
- Eph 4:13 cf. Jude 1:3
- Eph 4:3
- vs. 5-7
- 2 Tim 3:14-17
- 1 Pet 2:2-3
- vs. 2
- John 4:10
- Acts 2:36-39
- 1 Cor 2:2)
- Acts 28:30-31
- Heb 2:3
- vss. 4-14
- vs. 2
- Heb 3:1
- Heb 2:3
- Rom 3:1-2
- Heb 6:1-3
- 1 Cor 10:1-12
- vs. 5
- Rom 10:2
- Hos 4:6
- Heb 5:14
- Prov 9:10