The author of Hebrews was writing to a community, likely a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, mostly Jewish by race, some of whom had not progressed beyond basic teachings and were in danger of moving back into Judaism.
So we read in Hebrews 5:11-14
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.
They had “become dull of hearing,” which is further explained by the fact that they needed “again” to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.” These people had had enough time under Christian teaching so that they “ought to be teachers” by now. But instead of progressing in their faith, they were still needed to be taught, still needing “milk, not solid food.”
What about you? Maybe you’ve been a Christian for years now. Can you teach someone else? Can you sit down with another person and disciple him, or her, in the basics of faith? Can you explain deeper truths to them?
People give all kinds of excuses for not being a student of the Scriptures. And believe me, you must become a diligent student before you can become a teacher! Paul told Timothy, a young minister, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
This passage allows no excuses. Edwards illustrates, “It becomes one who is called to be a soldier, to excel in the art of war. It becomes a mariner, to excel in the art of navigation.” And then of Christians he write, “So it becomes all such as profess to be Christians, to devote themselves to the practice of Christianity, to endeavour to excel in the knowledge of divinity.” Are you so devoted to the practice of Christianity that you seek to “excel in the knowledge” of God’s Word?
This is not just for paid preachers and academic theologians, but for every member of the family of God!
It reminds me of a story of a lady who had been a teacher for 25 years. When she heard of a job opening that would mean a promotion, she applied. However, someone who had been teaching for only one year was hired instead.
She went to the principal to ask why. The principal said, “I’m sorry, but you haven’t had 25 years of experience as you claim; you’ve hand only one year’s experience 25 times.”
I hope that isn’t true of you.
But the shocking reality is that not only were they incapable of being teachers, they had the need to be taught all over again! Because they had never truly accepted it and applied it, they had not gone forward, but backward. “…You need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12b)
This language is akin to Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians when he told them that they were acting like babies. There he was definitely speaking of Christians who were exhibiting definite signs of immaturity. Here the writer is dealing with those whose understanding of Christ and the gospel was so weak, so dulled by neglect and apathy, that he perceived their need to start all over again!
Their spiritual comprehension corresponds to that of children in kindergarten who, unable to read or write, have to start at the very beginning learning their ABCs. Instead of becoming teachers, and contributing to the spiritual growth of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13), they “need someone to teach you again…”
The word “elementary principles” here at the end of verse 12 is the Greek word stoichea, referring to the very first lessons taught a child, literally his ABCs. I believe these elementary principles likely refer to the list of doctrines he mentions in 6:1-2, which he there calls “elementary doctrines,”–“repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
Paul illustrates the elementary principles in Galatians 4:3-5 when he says: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Which are defined in Galatians 4:10 as “special days and months and seasons and years.”
Thus, the “elementary principles” seems to refer to those principles and rituals of Judaism that were designed to point forward to Jesus and lead us to faith in Him. They had been exposed to Christ, but had not yet crossed the line of believing in Christ.
It is as if they needed to be re-taught the fundamentals of the faith, and the fundamentals he is talking about are not even the Romans Road or the 4 Spiritual Laws; the fundamentals here are Old Testament concepts. As Jews who had been taught the Gospel, they should have been completely prepared to embrace the all-encompassing supremacy of their Messiah over and above the old covenant, having their sins fully dealt with and thereby becoming the people that God had ultimately desired for them to be. But since they were showing such laziness in committing to His supremacy, the author wonders if they even really understand the point of the old covenant (8:5; 9:11-28; Colossians 2:17) in the first place!
Had they not truly grasped these “elementary principles,” or were they merely unwilling to go beyond them? Were they missing the point of these elementary principles, not seeing them as pointing forward to Christ, but seeing them as ending in themselves—that they were what was important to believe in, not the Messiah they pointed to?
The “oracles” to which the author of Hebrews refers is definitely not the gospel. Those being addressed here are Jews, and to them the oracles of God refers to the Old Testament. The word may refer to brief, easily remembered and understood sayings such as the ten commandments. As A. T. Robertson states, “Logion is a diminutive of logos, divine oracles being usually brief…” Hewitt says that oracle (logion) “…originally meant a ‘brief, condensed, divine saying.’”
Our author’s point: Babies never progress beyond simple, briefly stated basics of the faith.
The Old Testament laws, types and rituals pointed to Christ, but the Old Testament did not give them enough information to embrace Christ in His fullness. They needed to go on in learning deeper truths about Jesus Christ in order to value Him as He ought to be valued.
Do you see the problem here? It wasn’t the content of the teaching or the inability of the teacher to explain it, but rather they attitude of the students, who wouldn’t listen diligently and with faith.
It’s not that these baby Christians never go to meeting where teaching is present. It is that they seek out teachings, teachers and churches that do not require them to think about theology. Many consider “theology” to be a scornful term. They claim that their own paster teaches more “practical matters.” These often include inspiring stories, humor, pop psychology, motivational sayings, personal testimonies of spiritual experiences, “how to” seminars, or “touchy-feely” meetings of group encounter—anything but hermeneutically sound, theologically solid, biblical teaching that requires the hearers to think critically and labor in learning.
It is this more detailed, diligent study of the Scriptures that this present passage (5:11-14) urges as necessary for maturity and discernment.
Let me emphasize. Our author is not denigrating the foundation was laid. Everyone needs a solid foundation. But…they should have built upon it by now. They should be able to handle deeper truths and even pass what they have learned on to others.
Our author laments, “You need milk, not solid food.” The sad reality is, if you don’t progress, you regress. If you don’t move forward in your understanding and faith, you move backward.
We are either moving forward or falling back. We are either climbing or falling. We are either winning or losing. Static, status quo Christianity is a delusion! And going forward doesn’t happen automatically. We have to be intentional about growing deeper into the basics and how to apply them to our lives.
He says, “You’re acting like babies.” Our author assaults his friends with a grotesque image—adult infants who are still nursing. Think of the tragic absurdity of full-grown men and women in diapers who are neither capable of, nor desire solid food and who sit around sucking their thumbs. Such full-grown infants amount to a huge disgrace and drain on the Church. Obviously, the writer’s grotesque images are meant to shock and to motivate some of his hearers to pull their thumbs out of their mouths and say, “I’m no baby.” (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, pp. 148-149)
“Milk” here likely refers to the same thing as the “first principles of the oracles of God,” whereas “meat” likely refers to the teaching on the offices of Christ, in particular His priesthood, as suited to our needs and affections.
If you are a new believer, then it is expected that you are to be nurturing yourself on the milk of God’s word. Peter recommends, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” That is normal. Milk is appropriate food for newborns. But don’t stop there. Like a little baby, develop an attitude for solid food. As Peter goes on to say, “taste and see that the Lord is good!”
If you’ve been a believer for a few years, then it is normal to make progress in your understanding of the things of God. With that progress comes greater assurance, strength for spiritual battles, resistance to temptation, insights for godly living, and the ability to discern the right choices and ways. But if you are subsisting only on milk, then the writer’s assessment is that you are an “infant” when you ought to be “mature.”
Verse 13 gives us the reason why they could not benefit from the “solid food,” or “meat” of God’s Word: “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.” You are a child, proven by your lack of appetite for solid food.
Being a baby eating milk is fine, for a while. But growth is expected. There is nothing more delightful than a true babe, but nothing more depressing and sad than to see a child who should be growing to maturity still exhibiting signs of infancy.
While remaining an infant, one is “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” which more literally means “not experienced in the word of righteousness.” It was less a matter of ability than attitude.
The phrase “word of righteousness” seems to be contrasted in this text to the oracles and basic principles mentioned earlier (v. 12). It has typically been understood in two ways, the first of which is decidedly new covenant. That is, “word of righteousness” is teaching about justification by faith. This is the doctrinal aspect of the “word of righteousness.” It was about the “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:22). This is our positional righteousness, credited to us due to our union with Christ. Not only does justification mean that our sins are forgiven, our debt is wiped out, but also that the incredible reservoir of Christ’s righteousness is dumped into my moral bank account.
This is positional righteousness—the vast reservoir of righteousness credited from Christ’s active obedience to my account.
Philippians 3:9 speaks of Paul’s desire to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Most new believers do not understand the full range of implications concerning our justification. It is as one grows in the knowledge of our Lord and what He has done for us that we come to fully appreciate and glory in the richness of this truth.
Practical righteousness is the other aspect of the “word of righteousness.” Jews would, of course, be interested in what could make them morally better. They focused on their performance and whether God would be impressed with how they lived.
However, unless positional righteousness forms the foundation and background of any practical righteousness, that practical righteousness will be doomed to failure, no matter how sincere. Practical righteousness divorced from positional righteousness is legalism.
In practical righteousness we face moral and ethical demands every day. We experience a range of choices, decisions and options related to everything from what our eyes will see, what our ears will hear, where our feet will carry us, who we will be involved with, what our minds will dwell upon, what kinds of careers to pursue, and how to spend our resources.
When we become dulled in hearing the Word of God, then our ability to exercise discernment in these areas is dulled.
Some boundaries of God are obvious. We are not to murder or steal or lie. But to be able to practice righteousness in all of the other areas, the grey areas that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture requires having our senses, “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
The universal fact is, a nursing baby has little or no capacity to distinguish good from evil. And while a growing child will have an increased capacity, it will necessarily be flawed. Only the mature—those who understand the teaching about righteousness and who practice it—will be able to make discerning judgment on the continual moral issues that arise in life.
These “immature” are not, I don’t believe, immature believers, but rather Jewish members of the congregation who, having the Old Testament witness to Christ through the prophets, were not playing close enough attention to the New Covenant teachings of the apostles.
The word for “babe” in verse 13 is the same word that is used in Romans 2:17-21 to describe an unbeliever. Paul says, speaking to Jews who know the Law, but have not believed the gospel, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” So the immature are those who have not yet believed this revelation from God about Christ and therefore they have not believed the gospel.
Before the revelation of Christ came, they had been imprisoned by the law (Galatians 3:23). But the Law itself was a good tool that pointed to Jesus Christ as the answer. “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26).
The mature are those who have believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, while those who are immature reject the gospel and are still under the law.
The aim of the author is to move these people on to maturity, a word used in Hebrews 10:1 and 10:14, but obviously in relationship to coming to genuine faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, believing in Jesus Christ marks the maturity our author longs to see.
Hebrews 10:1 shows we can never become “perfect” or mature by means of the law.
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”
But through Jesus, we can be made perfect. Hebrews 10:14 say “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
This aim, of bringing them to the maturity of embracing Jesus Christ as their high priest and Savior, will be developed more fully in Hebrews 6:1-3.
The writer’s illustration is a picture of persons who have been content to know and practice only the most elementary lessons of their faith. They are too lazy to do what is necessary to grow.