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.
Let’s read again 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.
Our focus today will be on verse 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.”
Notice the two things that are involved here. First, there is “solid food,” what Fuller calls “the strong meat” of God’s Word. It is those who are developing spiritual maturity that can enjoy such food. Babies tend to play in solid food while maturing children and youth enjoy eating it.
What is “solid food”? It is those doctrines that we find throughout the Scripture. Here, the writer is speaking of the importance of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ—grasping it mentally and valuing it with one’s heart. In Galatians the “solid food” was the wondrous doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In Ephesians it might be getting a handle on the doctrine of election. These things are solid food.
But we make a mistake if we think that solid food is just a matter of knowledge—of knowing things others do not, of knowing things at a deeper level. Yes, we must have knowledge. Our faith is built on facts. But right knowledge must lead to right practice—orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.
We must first distinguish truth from error, then good from evil. Tim Challies, in his book The Heart of Discernment, says:
Discernment has both a theological and a moral dimension… The first category where we need to exercise discernment is that of truth and error in relation to what we believe about God. The second category is that of right and wrong in relation to how we act. The first category relates to truth and discernment and the second to God’s will and discernment. These are two broad categories in which we need to exercise spiritual discernment.
To go from being babies to being mature Christians, we need “practice.” This growth is produced and promoted by using our spiritual “senses” or “faculties.” Infants have these senses, but they do not know how to use them to full advantage. The proper use of our spiritual faculties enables us to distinguish between “good and evil.” It is precisely here that the Hebrews had failed so lamentably.
“A child is easily imposed upon as to its food [though some mothers may object to that!]. Its nurse may easily induce it to swallow even palatable poison. But a man, ‘by reason of use,’ has learned so to employ his senses as to distinguish between what is deleterious and what is nourishing” (Dr. J. Brown).
The immature are more easily deceived, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, every fad; they are “naïve” according to Proverbs. This is why people warn small children not to talk to strangers, because they know they can easily be lead astray. They cannot distinguish between a person who is a safe and legitimate source of truth and one who has bad intentions.
The word “practice” refers to the development of regular habits. F. B. Meyer notes that we sharpen our senses by using them. He says, “When I was in the tea-trade, my sense of touch and taste and smell became acute to discern quite minute differences. We need a similar acuteness in discerning good and evil.”
David Guzik identifies these spiritual senses:
v. We have a spiritual sense of touch or feeling: Because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD (2 Kings 22:19). The hardening of their heart; who being past feeling, have given themselves over to licentiousness (Ephesians 4:18-19).
One’s “senses” are “trained” by the exercise of the truths of God’s Word—putting them into practice in our daily choices. Understanding and obeying God’s Word develops the believer’s capacity to “discern good and evil” (which could stand also for “truth and error”).
By the way, only a Christian worldview allows for the categories of “good and evil” or “truth and error.” Postmodernism has ushered in the “post-truth” age where everything is a matter of person opinion, where truth exists along a continuum. Truth is subjective; it is relative.”
Tim Challies speaks to our motivation for discerning truth from error and good from evil. He says:
God’s holiness lies at the very heart of the need for discernment. Our passion for God’s holiness, our desire to keep ourselves pure from sin, will motivate our practice of discernment. The greater our understanding of God’s holiness, the greater will be our understanding of the importance of discerning truth from error. We will desire to cast off all that is wrong so that we can be unsullied, unspoiled by sin.
We are told in v. 14 that what is needed is “training” that comes from “constant practice” in learning how to discern between good and evil and between truth and falsehood. And the only way that will ever happen is when you actively pursue God’s revealed truth and in doing so have your spiritual senses sharpened. You must engage regularly with God’s revealed truth so that your moral mind will gradually undergo refinement and you will begin to understand and discern and evaluate what is good and true.
Unless we train our spiritual senses, our discernment, by regular interaction with God’s truth, we will unconsciously and unwittingly have our minds “conformed to the world” around us.
In other words, the kind of living that redounds to the glory of God is that which is honed by the study and practice of God’s truth. “The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person” (John Piper).
Practice at anything is difficult. Athletes know this; artists know this. We all know that developing skill in anything takes many, many hours of practice.
Jascha Heifitz, a world renowned violinist, once said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
Practicing anything is hard work. Perhaps this is what causes us so much resistance to the biblical command to become students of the Scripture. “Do your best [give it your very best effort, no half-heartedness here] 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). The only way we can possibly rightly handle the word of truth and be unashamed in our teaching of it is to do our best at understanding it.
Paul also told Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). To become teachers, as Hebrews 5:12 says we ought, we must first be diligent in study, which means hard work and consistent practice.
Thomas Hewitt comments on Hebrews 5:14 and how one gains the discernment that comes with maturity. He says, “It is gained by the regular exercise of the spiritual faculties in the Word of God and in the doctrines of the Christian faith, for there is no easy way to spiritual maturity. From this position those of full age can discern between both good and evil; they have an exact, or right, judgment in all things. When different viewpoints are placed before them they can at once distinguish the good from the evil, the right from the wrong.”
In the case of these Hebrews, it means that they needed to discern the preferability of pursuing the superior Jesus Christ and His new covenant rather than returning to Moses and the Old Covenant.
In his book How to Stay Christian in College, J. Budziszewski, says this about discernment:
[Discernment is] a mental sense of smell that helps you notice when “something smells fishy”…How can you sharpen this mental sense of smell? How can you develop discernment? First, you need to have a spirit of obedience to Jesus Christ. If your spirit is in rebellion, your nose will be in rebellion too. Second, you need to study the Word of God and other Christian literature. We’re talking about a mental, not physical, sense of smell. In order to develop it you have to use your mind. Third, you need to practice smelling. Smell everything. Your power of discernment is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. Fourth, you need to be accountable to other believers in a healthy Christian fellowship. If you try to learn to smell by yourself, your mental sense of smell will be eccentric. You’ll be like someone who takes a deep whiff of dung and says, “Ah, roses!”
Getting ready to feast on all of God’s Word, even the more difficult parts, isn’t really an intellectual change first. Rather, it is really a moral challenge first. If you want to eat the solid food of the Word you must want to submit to it and learn from it.
The startling truth is that, if you stumble over Melchizedek, it may be cause you watch questionable television shows. If you stumble over the doctrine of election, it may be because you still use some shady business practices. If you stumble over the God-centered work of Christ in the cross, it may be because you love money and spend too much and give too little. The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person. What you do with alcohol and sex and money and leisure and food and computer have more to do with your capacity for solid food than with where you go to school or what books you read.
Because of their laziness, they were unable to distinguish between “good and evil.” They couldn’t distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Satan. They were like babes are in the natural world, unable to discriminate between what is wholesome and what is hurtful; therefore they were unable to see the difference between what was right under the Judaic economy, and what was now suited to Christianity and the gospel.
The mature are those who have come to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Again, this has similar wording, but is a different context than 1 Corinthians 3. The context here is of Jews who want to go back to the law, like in Galatians 3 and 4.
Genuine believers are able to discern the truth of the Word of God. 1 Corinthians 2:6-7 says, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
This is the food that the writer is referring to in Hebrews 5:14. An unbeliever does not accept the things of God because they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14), but to those who are believers (mature), they are given the ability to understand and believe in the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-13).
The point in Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:14 is exactly the same: the immature unbeliever is unable to discern, to appraise, spiritual things, but the mature believer, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, is given spiritual perception, understanding and discernment.
The Holy Spirit is warning the Hebrews not to stop short of salvation. We need that same warning today. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are saved just because you go to church, or have had some “experience” or have experienced a moral reformation of your life. All of those things are things that Christians do, but you can do those things and have no genuine spiritual life.
Examine yourself to see if you are “sluggish” in your faith. You have likely heard the gospel so many times you could be a teacher, but do you still need to hear the ABCs? Has it not sunk in yet? If not, give yourself no rest, but fly to the cross and embrace Jesus Christ as your Savior.
God wants you to believe unflinchingly in Jesus Christ. God wants you to go deeper in your understanding of Jesus Christ and what He has done for you.
Because the writer does go on in Hebrews 7 to talk about Melchizedek, it seems that he expects them to mature spiritually and to move on to believing in Jesus Christ for their righteousness.
But that hasn’t happened with some of them yet. His heart is heavy and he speaks quite forcefully in chapter 6, begging and exhorting them to move on to maturity.
The warning of Hebrews 5:11-14 is clear. The need for maturity and discernment is evident. The Holy Spirit inspired this passage and has preserved it for us (as with all the rest of Scripture) for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16b, 17). The idea that study, Biblical education and doctrine are superfluous to our Christians lives, or even harmful, is creating a generation of perpetual infants.
The author of Hebrews entreats, “let us press on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1). Pressing on to maturity is God’s answer to the problem of perpetual infancy. Hebrews 6 contains a vivid and frightening warning against apostasy. A failure to press on to maturity creates a severe danger to those who do not heed this biblical call.
God will give grace to help us obey the Spirit’s call to grow up. If we respond to it in obedient faith, we will be equipped for the work of the ministry and can be sure that God will use us in these perilous times.
So what can be done to overcome this spiritual lethargy and to grow out of spiritual infancy? A couple of things are worth noting.
First, be sure that you have actually understood the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (v. 12). There’s nothing wrong with them. You have to start somewhere. You must learn the alphabet before you can read. Start at the ground level and slowly work your way to maturity.
For these Hebrews, the “basic principles of the oracles of God” referred to the Old Testament. They did need that foundation. But they needed to move beyond it. They must move beyond it.
For us, we do need the gospel. That is the foundation of our spiritual lives. And it’s not so much that we have to move beyond it. We really need to move deeper into it. But in moving deeper it does involve a greater theological understanding of Jesus Christ—who He is and all He’s done for us.
Second, don’t despise the “milk” of God’s revealed truth. It is, after all, still God’s revealed truth! Let the milk of God’s word have its way in your heart and mind. But don’t settle for it! You weren’t built or redeemed to live on such a minimal diet.
Third, begin to dig deeply into the meat or “solid food” of God’s word. Read good theological books. Find a mentor who can direct your steps. Ask for recommendations from those who have already walked down this path. Hang out with others who share your passion for the “solid food” and will encourage you in your pursuit of it. Memorize the word. Pray the word. Sing the word. Preach the word back to your own soul.
Fourth, be consistent and faithful in exposing yourself to the teaching and preaching of God’s Word and to corporate worship and to prayer, both with others and alone. Don’t distance yourself from the Lord’s Table. Refuse to let anything take precedence over it. Immerse yourself in community. Make yourself accountable to other Christians and be honest when they ask you how you are getting along in life and in your marriage and in your relationship with God.
Fifth and finally, examine your hearing! Ask yourself: “Am I listening well? Am I studying and exploring what I hear? Am I increasingly fascinated by God and the revelation he has made of himself in Jesus? As we make our way through the book of Hebrews, am I finding that Jesus really is better? Is he increasingly beautiful and more satisfying to my soul? Or do I find myself losing interest? Is my spiritual hearing growing dull?” (These five application points are adapted from Sam Storms.)