The Danger of Dullness, part 1 (Hebrews 5:11-12)

We sometimes idealize the early church as if going back there we could become perfect churches with no problems.  However, when you read the New Testament, you see that church after church had its own set of problems.  This letter of Hebrews was written to a church going through their own problems.

The writer of Hebrews hasn’t come right out and said what their problem was until now. But he has implied it.  There is definitely something wrong with the Christians he is writing to.

Some evidently were elevating angels above Jesus, the Son of God.  The author warned them in Hebrews 2:1 not to “drift” away from the gospel and to be careful lest they “neglect” this great salvation provided by Christ.  They had to be exhorted to “consider” Jesus (3:1) and not to abandon their original confession of faith in him (3:6, 14).  They were warned lest there be found in some of them an “unbelieving heart” that might lead them to fall away from the living God (3:12).  In Hebrews 4:1 our author appears concerned that some in this church might fail to enter God’s rest.  And in Hebrews 4:11 he urged them to strive to enter God’s rest lest some “fall by the same sort of disobedience” as those did in the Old Testament.

In all of these urgent admonitions you begin to get the impression: this writer is really concerned about some situation in the churches of his day.  But until now he has only given the cure, not the diagnosis. Now he tells us what’s wrong.

At the end of our last text in Hebrews 5, we learned that Christ was perfected through suffering and experientially learned what it meant to be obedient when that path was difficult.  These believers needed to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus is the high priest they have been hoping for, yet you can almost hear our author sigh when he says “Concerning him [or concerning this—what I’ve just been talking about briefly] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”

And there is our first explicit diagnosis.  Here’s the disease he is working on in this letter: dullness of hearing.

This is what’s behind all those exhortations: Pay close attention!  Consider!  Don’t harden your heart!  Fear!  Be diligent!  Hold fast!  These are all doctor’s prescriptions for the disease of dullness of hearing.

And we need to ask ourselves:  Do I have this same disease?  Am I dull of hearing?

While this may not seem to be a serious problem, our author shows that it is quite critical and potentially dangerous.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

The words “dull of hearing (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12) both come from the Greek nothroi and form an inclusion, marking 5:11-6:12 off as a distinct unit.  This Greek word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. The first two warnings in Hebrews were against drifting (2:1-4) and disbelief (3:7-19).  Now this one speaks to the issue of “dullness” of hearing.  All of the warning passages in Hebrews involve negative actions in relation to the Word of God.

This word nothroi was used in extrabiblical literature to refer to a slave with ears “stopped up” by laziness, who was thus not instantaneously obedient to the call of his master.  It was a culpable negligence.

It here describes those who develop a “couldn’t care less” attitude to the study of holy Scripture, and have failed to give themselves to a regular, methodical, and painstaking study of its teaching and its relevance in everyday life.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 104)

The central statement in this paragraph is that explaining Christ’s priesthood is difficult (“hard to explain”), but that the real issue is that they had “become dull of hearing.”  This passage shows that this is a serious and dangerous issue.  It will become even more serious as we move into chapter 6.

Our author presents it here as an issue of immaturity—a stage from which one must move on and grow to maturity.

Arrested mental or physical growth is a tragedy.  We all want our children to grow into maturity mentally, physically, socially…and this author wanted his readers to grow spiritually, realizing that the lack of spiritual growth is an even more crucial tragedy.

What is at issue here?  Is our author addressing Christians who needed to move further in their discipleship?  Or is our author addressing pre-Christians who needed to fully embrace Jesus Christ as their High Priest (or Savior)?

The Hebrews addressed in our text were in a strange position.  The author had just begun expounding on the truth of Jesus Christ’s high priesthood being superior to that of the Aaronic priesthood because it was “according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:1-10).  With abruptness, he stops in his tracks.

While he desired to feed them on the riches of this divine truth because he knew that they would gain needed assurance and courage in their faith, he knew he couldn’t go on without challenging their attitude towards learning.

There was much to say and it would prove difficult, but the reason he couldn’t go on is because “you have become dull of hearing.”

Apparently they had not always been “dull of hearing,” but at some point their eyes had glazed over and their hearts had become unreceptive.  This is not an auditory problem.  It was not that they couldn’t hear the words, but their heart was not receptive.

They were no longer eagerly receiving our writer’s teaching, like the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness” (Acts 17:11) or the Thessalonians, who “received the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).

When we read this word again in Hebrews 6:12, we can see what the opposite of this dullness is:

We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish [there’s the word for “dull” in our text], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

And John Piper reminds us:

The opposite of dullness is diligence or earnestness to turn the message of hope into the assurance of hope; it’s the imitation of people who hear the promises of God and then respond with faith and patience.  So dull hearing doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your physical ears. It means there is something wrong with your heart.   The heart is not eager and diligent to embrace the promises and turn them into faith and patience.  Instead, the Word comes into the ears and goes down to the heart and hits something hard or tough—or starting to get hard.  That’s dullness of hearing.  The promises come to the ear, but there is no passion for them, no lover’s embrace, no cherishing or treasuring; and so no faith and no patience and—if things don’t change—no inheritance of eternal life.  Which is why he wrote this book… It is an incredibly dangerous disease, this dullness of hearing (

Hopefully you and I will show the same interest.  When listening to sermons, do you take notes?  Do you talk about what was taught with others?  Do you identify some way to apply the sermon to your life? 

There is a general malaise when it comes to God’s Word today—little diligent pursuit of God’s Word.

There is little “reaching forth unto those things which are before” (Phil. 3:13) and, consequently, little growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.  By the very law of nature, if we do not move forward, we invariably slip backward.

There are few who seem to realize that truth has to be “bought” (Proverbs 23:23), purchased at the cost of subordinating temporal interests to spiritual ones.  If the Christian is to “increase in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10), he has to give himself whole-heartedly to the things of God.

There is no such thing as standing still in Christianity.  Whether a believer marches forward or merely marks time depends much on his connection with God’s word.  God’s deep truths are not revealed to the casual, careless reader, but to the careful, constant one.  (Richard E. Lauersdorf, The People’s Bible: Hebrews, 53-4)

One of the characteristics of genuine Christian faith is an eagerness to listen to and learn from the Word of God.

F. R. Webber, in his massive three-volume A History of Preaching in Britain and America, tells us that one of the curious by-products of the Awakening was a sudden interest in shorthand. According to Webber:

Men and women studied shorthand in order that they might take down the sermons that were stirring the English-speaking countries.  This had happened once before in Scotland, and it made its appearance once more in all countries where the influence of the Awakening was felt.  It was not at all unusual to see men with a portable inkwell strapped about them, and a quill pen thrust over an ear, hastening to join the throng assembling on the village green (F. R. Webber, A History of Preaching in Britain and America , vol. 1 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1952), p. 329).

But apparently this newness, this eagerness to hear good apostolic teaching, had worn thin.  Now, they were unable to hear.

“Dullness of hearing” is hearing without faith and without the moral fruit of faith.  It’s hearing the Bible or the preaching of the Bible the way you hear the noise of the train going by at night, or the way you hear Muzak in the dentist’s office or the way you hear recorded warnings at the airport that this is a smoke-free facility.  You do but you don’t.  You’ve have grown dull to the sound.  It does not awaken or produce anything.

A word of Jesus from Luke 8:18 is very important here.  When he had finished telling the parable of the four soils where the seed is the Word he says, “Therefore take care how you hear; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”  In other words, if you have the grace to hear (with faith and fruit), you will get more grace; but if you do not, even what you think you have will be taken away—namely, the Word.

You don’t want to be a “dull listener” to God’s Word.  If you are, it will condemn you, not save you!

The difficulty in communicating important biblical truth lies not so much in the complexity of the information or even in the writer’s inability to present it, but in the reader’s inability to process it.

The problem is that something in their hearts had changed.  They were now longer the eager-to-learn believers that he knew so well.  They had become “dull of hearing.”  The use of the perfect tense reveals that they had not always been dull of hearing, but that they had now become dull of hearing that it has continuing effects right up to the present time.  It had become a settled (and very dangerous) condition and must change.

If our author is addressing unbelievers who had been associating with this congregation and who possibly even had made professions of faith, their dullness would have come after having received some ministries of the Holy Spirit through the Word, having profited from the Word in some ways, but now they are growing numb to the truth, tired of it, weary of it.

These Hebrews being addressed in 5:11 seems to be like the seed in Matthew 13 that is sown in shallow ground.  It comes up quickly, it is excited in the beginning, but it has no roots.  When the sun comes out and persecution begins, they wilt and declare, “I’m going back to my old ways of worship.”

While I believe this passage is speaking to unbelievers, people who had been exposed to Christian teaching but were no longer progressing in it, we can still find application here for those of us who are Christians.

We should never become “dull of hearing.”  But it does happen at times.  When we neglect public worship and the preaching of God’s Word, we can become dull of hearing.  Second, we may become dulled when we start to take the Word of God for granted.  They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  Usually, it just breeds distraction and disinterest.  Finally, if we don’t obey God’s Word will become dull in our hearing of it.  James tells us how important it is to obey what we read (James 1:22).  Why should God teach me anything new if I refuse to obey what I already know.  If I’m not faithful in the little, I won’t be given more.

Here is possibly what was happening in this Hebrew congregation.  Some had joined the community of faith and had seemingly embraced the gospel but were now abandoning it, very likely due to persecution.  Those who remained, therefore, in an effort to win back those who were falling away, went back to teaching “elementary teaching.”  But this wasn’t satisfying anyone, and without moving on to solid food, more advanced teachings, others started losing interest in the deeper things of Christ.

The problem is that they were still spiritual babies.  Now, there is nothing wrong for babies to want milk or to grow from it.  That is quite normal.  What is abnormal, what showed they had a significant spiritual problem, is that by this time they should have grown beyond milk.  They were still stuck at the infant stage of their faith.

This writer had a reasonable expectation, voiced in verse 12: “by this time you ought to be teachers.”  It is unlikely that he means this in a literal sense, but is saying that everyone has had the opportunity to become more mature, to come to the place where they could have taught others.

In some countries, this is taken very literally.  If you are the first of your village or tribe to be saved, you were expected to then be the teacher and discipler of others.  You “got it first” so now it’s your obligation to teach others!

The reality is, if you have been a Christian for years, then you should be able to sit down with someone and teach them some basics of the Christian faith.

The problem is when people have been believers for 30, 40, even 60 years, and they are still the same people they were when they accepted Christ.  There is no real development after the first flush of salvation.  People like this, according to C. S. Lovett, are “touchy, lose their tempers just as easily, spend little time in the Word, they don’t witness for Christ and they are critical of others (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 121).

In reality, someone who makes no progress in their Christian understanding and obedience don’t really stay stuck; they regress.  They actually go backwards.  Our writer says they needed someone else to teach them, “again the basic principles of the oracles of God.”

They had to go back to basics.  They needed a remedial lesson.  They hadn’t gotten it the first time, so they had to repeat a grade.  It’s as if he says, “I almost feel it necessary to start all over again with you people and teach you the ABC’s of the Christian faith!”

Because they were taking a lazy, passive approach to the Word of God, they were stuck in spiritual infancy.  At first the Hebrew believers had listened attentively to the main things and had learned them, at least as well as things are learned initially.  And it was real learning.  But they hadn’t retained it, or hadn’t used it…so they lost it.

Jesus said regarding truth:

For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. . . . Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. (Matthew 13:12, 14, 15)

What about you?  Are you eager hearing God’s Word, examining the Scriptures to see if what you were taught is true?  Are you applying it to your life?  Are you believing its promises?  Are you obeying its commands?  How you interact with the Word of God is the most important thing about you.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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