The Lord's Day Morning
April 7, 2013
“It's Hard to Explain”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 5. We’re going to be looking at verses 11 to the end of the chapter and then we're going to pick up in chapter 6 verse 1 and read to verse 3. So we’ll read from Hebrews 5:11 all the way through Hebrews 6:3 this morning. As you’re turning there, let me ask you to look back just a few verses before this section, back to Hebrews 4:14, and just scan the words down to Hebrews 5:10, especially looking at Hebrews 5:6 and 5:10 where the name, Melchizedek is mentioned. If you will remember, the last time we were together we were looking at Hebrews 5:1-10; the time before that we were looking at Hebrews 4:14-16. And we saw in those two passages that God has given us a sympathetic, submissive, and suffering Savior. And the point being, that we have a Savior who is sympathetic with our struggles in sin, He understands what it means to submit to the will of God, and He understands what it means to suffer and He knows how God uses suffering to bring about obedience and suffering in the Christian life. The whole point being, if we have a Savior who understands what we're going through, He can relate to our struggles in this life.
In the course of making that argument, the author of Hebrews relates Jesus in His ministry to Melchizedek. Now many of you will remember that Melchizedek makes an appearance in Genesis chapter 14. He is the King of Salem, he is the high priest of God Most High, and Abraham goes and makes him an offering after he has won a great battle against the adversary who had captured his cousin or his nephew, Lot, and had taken away his family. Well in Psalm 110, Melchizedek makes another appearance, and it's the passage in Psalm 110 that is quoted in Hebrews chapter 5 verse 6. At the end of that passage we're told, Hebrews 5:10, that God has made Jesus to be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. It's part of the way that God is emphasizing that Jesus is the last, best, and only priest that you will ever need. And what you are expecting to happen is for the author of Hebrews to go into a section in which he sort of unfolds that theme of Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek because even if you’re a pretty good Bible student, you probably don't know a whole lot about Melchizedek. And you want to know more and you want to know more about why Jesus is called a priest according to the order of Melchizedek and you’re expecting that's where the author of Hebrews is going to go in this sermon. Instead, you get Hebrews 5 verses 11 to 6:3.
Now all of that was to explain to you that you are right to wonder why the author of Hebrews doesn't start expounding that theme. And if you look closely at Hebrews 5:11 through 6:3 he’ll tell you exactly why. And the problem is, take a look at verse 11, the problem is, he says, is his congregation that he's originally preaching this message to is “dull of hearing.” Do you see those words in Hebrews 5:11? They’re “dull of hearing.” Now I want you to look at four things in this passage. I want you to be on the lookout for this because they’re all connected with that idea. First of all, be on the lookout for that phrase in 5:11, “dull of hearing.” Second, look in verse 13 and notice the phrase, “unskilled in the word of righteousness.” The author of Hebrews is concerned about them being dull of hearing; he's concerned about them being unskilled in the word of righteousness. You ought to scratch your head a little bit and ask yourself the question, “What does that mean?”
Third, be on the lookout for what he says in verse 14. He says that the mature “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” And it's especially that phrase, “powers of discernment.” And he's concerned because what's he just said in the previous verse? That they’re not mature. The mature ought to have their powers of discernment trained, but you’re not mature until your powers of discernment are trained. So he's concerned about dullness of hearing, he's concerned about people being unskilled in the word of righteousness, and he's concerned about people who don't have their powers of discernment trained. And then fourth, look in chapter 6 verse 1. There, he says that we need to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ” — and we’ll talk about what that means in a minute — “and go on to maturity.” And it is clear in this passage, because he's already said it, that one of his big concerns is that some people in his congregation aren't going on to maturity.
So I want you to be on the lookout for those four things, but as you do, let me give a word of explanation. It is possible for sincere Christians struggling with their own sins to come to a passage like this and be discouraged. It is not the goal of the author of Hebrews to discourage sincere Christians struggling with sin in this passage. His goal is not to unsettle as many of you as possible as to your assurance of salvation. If you are a sincere Christian you are struggling with sin, because we are not brought into the Christian life instantaneously perfected. We are brought into the Christian life into a lifelong fight against sin. And even godly Christians, even where they see victory in certain areas of their life over sin, can see other areas where they continue to struggle. And the author of Hebrews is this warning passage is not trying to discourage that kind of a believer. He is very concerned to make sure that those who are what he calls “dull of hearing” wake up. So we need to understand what he means by dull of hearing. Again, his goal is not to unsettle sincere Christians in their assurance of salvation. His goal is to wake up people who are sitting in the pews who are spiritually asleep to the Word of God. That's his concern.
So let's pray and ask God's help and blessing as we read His Word.
Heavenly Father, Your Holy Spirit inspired the Word of God, so by the same Spirit who inspired the Word of God, we ask that You would open our eyes to understand, believe, and obey the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. This we ask in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in Hebrews 5:11:
“About this we have much to say, but it ishard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you againthe basic principles of the oracles of God. You needmilk, not solid food,for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he isa child.But solid food is forthe mature, for those who have their powersof discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Thereforelet us leavethe elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentancefrom dead works and of faith toward God,and ofinstruction about washings,the laying on of hands,the resurrection of the dead, andeternal judgment.And this we will doif God permits.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
One of my wife's favorite movies is Apollo 13 and she especially likes the scene when the character played by Ed Harris says, when everybody is spelling out doom and gloom in mission control and saying this is going to be the worst disaster in the history of NASA when he stands up and he pulls down his vest and he says, “Begging your pardon, sir, I believe that this will be our finest hour!” That's the movie, you remember, where the immortal words are slightly misquoted when the astronauts radio back to mission control, “Houston, we have a problem.” Now how it actually happened is they said, “Houston, we have a problem here,” and Houston said, “Excuse me, Apollo 13? What?” And they came back and they said, “Houston, we had a problem.” You remember why? A part of the engine coil was defective, blew up, crippled the ship, and brought into question not only whether the astronauts were going to be able to complete their mission but whether they were even going to be able to get back home. And so they radioed, “Houston, we've had a problem,” which became the theme, “Houston, we have a problem,” which we use in all sorts of popular settings in our culture. It's become a phrase that we use in our common conversations.
Well the author of Hebrews is saying here, “Houston, we have a problem.” The problem is not sincere Christians struggling with sin; that's the normal Christian life. The problem is people sitting under the Word of God and never listening to it. That's a very different problem than sincere Christians struggling with sin. It's the problem of people who are gathering with the people of God, they’re under the Word of God, but the Word of God is never getting into their hearts and minds. They’re dull of hearing; they’re not listening to the Word of God. And the author of Hebrews is pausing right here and instead of going into a glorious exposition of Jesus as the great high priest according to Melchizedek, he's saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” It's almost like there's been some interaction in the middle of this sermon. It's almost like when he gets to Hebrews 5:10 and says that Jesus is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, all sorts of hands have gone up in the room saying, “Pastor, we have no idea what you’re talking about,” and it's almost like he pauses right there and he says, “You’re not listening to me. You’re not listening to me.”
I remember when I was teaching a Bible study to high school students, very intelligent, very well-educated Bible students in West County St. Louis, and in the course of the Bible lesson I made a passing reference to Samson and Delilah. I said, “You know, it's just like Samson and Delilah.” And I looked into their very intelligent faces and I saw these blank stares looking back at me. And it dawned upon me, “You don't know the story of Samson and Delilah!” And so I asked them, “Do you know the story of Samson and Delilah?” And they said — (shakes head, “No.”) And so I stopped in the middle of the Bible lesson and I told them the story of Samson and Delilah. It wasn't that they were stupid; they’d never heard it. They’d never studied it; they’d never been in church settings where the basic Bible stories had been taught, and so I had to stop and tell them. The problem here is a little bit different. These people have been being taught the Word of God but they haven't been listening. And so the author points out four things that he's concerned about; four problems that he's saying, “Houston, we have a problem” about.
DULL OF HEARING
The first thing is that very point that I just made. Look at verse 11. “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain since you have become dull of hearing.” Do you see what he's saying? He's saying, “I've got a lot I want to tell you about Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, but it's hard to explain, not, not because the truth is just totally beyond you, but because you’re dull of hearing.” He's saying to this group, “The reason you don't understand what I'm trying to tell you about Melchizedek is because you’re dull of hearing. You've not been motivated to hear and heed the basic things that I have been teaching you from the Word of God. You've not been motivated to learn and study the Word of God. The sound of my voice is hitting your ear drums but the truth that I'm speaking is not going in. You’re not listening; you’re switching off.”
And as I read this passage this week I thought, “Okay, I've been there.” I can remember times in high school and college where I was under faithful Bible teaching and my heart and mind and soul were a billion miles away thinking about something else! It was not that the preacher wasn't preaching something good, exciting, exhilarating, helpful, practical, it was that I was thinking about something else. Have you ever done that before? Have you ever been driving down the road and suddenly, fifteen seconds later, you realize that you don't remember the last green light you went through, you don't remember the last turn you made; you don't even remember how you got to where you are right now? You’re just thankful that you weren't on the wrong side of the road! It's like you wake up! Where did that fifteen seconds of my life just go? What was I thinking about? And that's what the author of Hebrews is saying. There are some people sitting in his church and their minds are just somewhere else with regard to the proclamation of the Word of God. It may be it's their desires are set on something else. Maybe it's that they are so burdened by their problems that they’re thinking about their problems and they’re not listening to the Word of God. Maybe in our culture we're so distracted by the constant bombardment of social media and digital devices that our attention span is about 1.3 seconds and it rolls over every 1.3 seconds. But whatever the case is, they become dull to the Word of God. It's not getting in.
UNSKILLED IN THE WORD OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
And what has this led to? Look secondly at what he says in verse 13. “Consequently, they are unskilled in the word of righteousness.” Now God's Word teaches us the way of righteousness. It teaches us about who God is, it teaches us about the salvation that He has accomplished for us, it teaches us about Jesus Christ, it teaches us about the Gospel, and having told us the way of salvation, which is by faith in Christ, it then teaches us how to live as Christians. And that's why he calls the Word of God here, “the word of righteousness.” And as you study the Word of God, what happens? You become skilled in the way of living the Christian life. It's not just that your head gets filled up with Bible facts, though it's good to have a head full of Bible facts. It's that those Bible facts make you wise when applied by the Spirit to your heart and you begin to understand how the whole Bible hangs together, what the whole storyline is, what the warp and whoop of the truth of God is, and how it teaches you to live the Christian life. Everything starts making sense and you’re able to start looking at the world through the lens of the Bible and you’re able to understand your own life and the way that you live the life because of what the Word of God teaches. But he says, “Since you’re dull of hearing, since the sound waves are bouncing off of your eardrums but the truth is not going into your heart, you’re unskilled in the word of righteousness.”
SOLID FOOD IS FOR THE MATURE
And then third, look at what he says in verse 14. “Solid food is for the mature.” And remember, he said to some of these people, “You’re not mature.” “For those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good and evil.” The mature are trained in constant practice in their study of the Word of God to be able to discern good and evil. This is moral, spiritual discernment that he is talking about – knowing right from wrong; knowing what you ought to do from what you ought not to do because you've been in the Word, because your conscience has been instructed by the Word. And he said, “You’re not like that. You’re not mature like that to be able to have that kind of spiritual discernment because the Word's not gotten into you because you’re not into the Word. You’re dull of hearing.”
GO ON TO MATURITY
And fourth, look at what he says in chapter 6 verse 1. “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ to go on to maturity.” Now let me pause before — where I want to go is that phrase, “go on to maturity,” but I know that you’re thinking about something here. “What does he mean, ‘Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ?’ Does he mean, ‘Okay, let's forget the basic things like Jesus and the Gospel?’” No, that's not what he's saying! You never ever forget Jesus and the Gospel. You live every day going back to the well of Jesus and the Gospel. He tells you what he means by “the elementary doctrine” here; he doesn't leave you to guess. It's listed for you in verses 2 and 3. Look at what he says. He says six things. He says, “Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works.” Okay the preaching of repentance has gone all the way back to John the Baptist, not to mention the prophets. Okay, so this is basic stuff that, even as Jews, they would have heard good synagogue preaching about repentance and faith towards God. Okay, this is very, very basic to the Christian life — understanding faith, understanding trusting in God.
Third, “instruction about washings.” This may refer to the Old Testament washings. They’re mentioned later on in the book of Hebrews, and remember these people are former Jews who are now Christians, so maybe they have questions about whether they’re supposed to do the ceremonial washings. Or this could be referring to the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. See, if they are Jewish proselytes to Christianity, it is possible that they would be aware, not only of Greek proselyte baptism, but they would be aware of the baptism that was given to John and they may be asking questions about how the baptism of John and Greek proselyte baptism relate to Christian baptism. But again, those are basic things about the Christian life that they ought to understand.
Then, fourth, “laying on of hands.” That could refer to laying hands on sacrifices, again, an Old Testament practice. That would make sense for a Jewish congregation. It could even refer to ordination where laying on of hands was used in the New Testament. Fifth, “the resurrection of the dead.” That's a basic truth that both Jewish people and Christians would have believed in the first century. And “eternal judgment” — again, that's the thing that both Jewish people and Christians would have believed in the first century. All of those six things he lists as basic things and they’re still apparently hung up on issues relating to them and it's keeping them from getting into the meat of the Word of God so they can see how everything hangs together and so it can affect the way that they live the Christian life. That's what he means by saying, “I don't want you to be stuck on these elementary things. You ought to have understood these things once you were in Christ. You should have understood those things so that I can take you into the meat of the Word so that you can appreciate what it means that Jesus is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek for you. I can't do that because you’re not even listening to the basic things and I'm having to go over and over again.”
Now what does the author of Hebrews want? Look again to verse 1. He wants maturity. His goal is that these people mature in the faith but his point is this — you can't mature in the Christian life if you are dull of hearing towards the Word of God. If the Word of God isn't getting into your heart, you’re not going to mature in the Christian life. He's making the same point that Paul makes in Ephesians chapter 3 verses 14 to 19. Would you turn with me there? In that prayer, Paul prays — he prays a lot of things but let me just tell you two things that he prays. Ephesians 3:14-19. He prays that you would be rooted and grounded in the knowledge of the love of God in Christ Jesus and that you would be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now listen to what he just said. I want you to be rooted and grounded, firmly established in the knowledge of the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord.” He wants the truth of God's Word about His love to us in Jesus Christ — “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” “He who spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things.” “Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall life of death, shall powers of principalities, shall persecutions, nakedness, peril, and sword? No! In all these things we are more than conquerors.” He wants that kind of knowledge in them by the work of the Holy Spirit. And you can only get that kind of securing, assuring, maturing knowledge from the Word of God. If you’re dull of hearing, it will never get in.
And what does that knowledge do? Look at Ephesians 3:19. It fills you up to all the fullness of God. What does that mean? At least it means this — it matures you; it matures you. Filling up with all the fullness of God means you begin to look like your heavenly Father. You begin to bear a moral, spiritual resemblance to your heavenly Father. People see you and they say, “She's a Christian, isn't she? She looks like her heavenly Father. He's a Christian, isn't he? He acts like a Christian. He acts like his heavenly Father would.” Just like people saw Jesus and Jesus could say, “If you've seen Me, you've seen the Father.” That's what Christian maturity does. They look at you and they say, “So that's how a Christian acts.”
You see what he's shooting for? Knowledge of the love of God in Christ, which you must learn from the truth of the Word that matures you. That's the goal in Hebrews 5:11-6:3. Growth in the knowledge of truth and growth in godliness; that's what he's aiming for. And dullness of hearing prevents you from getting there. So I want to say this, and I want to say it especially to the students. And I want to say this because it was one of the sins of my own life. I so often was under faithful exposition of God's word and I was dull of hearing. I wasn't listening. And my friends, the sermon you may need most in your life may be the sermon you’re sitting in and not listening to. You have no idea what you’re going to face this week. You don't even know what you’re going to face this afternoon. And the truth that you may receive in this service may be exactly the truth that you need. And by the way, it may not even come in the sermon. It may come in the Scripture reading; it may come in a hymn. As we were singing this morning — would you turn back to your hymnals to number 94? As we were singing this morning, “How Firm a Foundation.” You know we hit that line in the third stanza, “When through the deep waters I call you to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow. For I will be with you, your troubles to bless, and sanctify to you your deepest distress.” And as we sang that, not only was I blessed by that, but I began to wonder, “I wonder who's here this morning that needs to hear that word, that God promises to you, sister and brother in Christ, that He will sanctify to you the deepest distress that you ever experience in this life.” He will sanctify it to you! That, by the way, is part of the point of Hebrews 5:1-10. He did that with Jesus; He’ll do that with you. But were you here to hear that? Or were you dull of hearing? Did it not get through?
When we design the worship service, not just the sermon but the whole worship service, we want the steak hanging off the side of the platter for you. The only question is, “Are you coming to eat?” To change the metaphor, everything that we intend to sing and to say in these services are designed to build you up in the knowledge of the truth of the grace of God in the Gospel, and to mature you in faith, to help you in holiness, to grow you in grace and godliness. Are you hearing it? Are you listening? Is it getting through? He's not saying things that he's saying here to discourage sincere Christians who are struggling with sin, because there are some people that are just checked out. So, are you checked out? Do you prepare to hear the Word? Do you come expectantly to hear the Word? Do you realize you need to hear the Word? Are you praying over the Word's application to your own heart in the context of the service, after the service? Or are you asleep at the wheel, just going through the motions and your heart and your mind are a million miles away? That's what he's getting at. You see, that's what he's getting at. May God, by His Spirit, wake us up and give us attention to the Word of God so that we're matured by it.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Help us not to be dull in our hearing of it, in Jesus' name, amen.
Now if you’d take number 576, we're going to sing, “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve,” a hymn based on the book of Hebrews.
Receive now God's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.