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Though initially addressed to a very specific audience, some of whom were not Christians, the book of Hebrews contains great learning for the Christian today. Consider, for example, the strong reproof found in the final verses of chapter 5:
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.
For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.
But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses [mental faculties] exercised to discern both good and evil.
The writer refers to those whom he’s addressing as babies, as spiritually immature. Obviously, when someone has been recently saved, we expect immaturity, as all of the great realities of Christ and the Christian life are brand new to them. But that was not the case with this group. Clearly, they had been hearing God’s Word for quite some time, for they are told, in effect, ‟By now, you should be equipped to teach others.”
And yet, they were not. In fact, they still needed to be taught the most basic realities of the faith. What caused them to remain in this state of immaturity?
Verse 13 tells us that they were ‟unskillful” in the Word. There are two basic reasons why one might be unskillful in any endeavor. The first of these would be the lack of opportunity. For example, most of us are probably unskillful in riding elephants, building an igloo, and navigating the Amazon River.
However, there is another category of unskillful ones. They do have the opportunity. They have all of the necessary equipment. They simply never get around to using it. This was clearly the case with these Hebrews, as we are told in verse 14 that they had failed to exercise themselves in the things which they were being taught.
The problem here is not difficult to understand. The word translated ‟exercised” in verse 14 is a form of the Greek word gumnazo, from which we derive the English word ‟gymnasium.” Perhaps some of us have experienced this in the physical realm: we have muscles that are capable of development, we have membership at a gym where all of the necessary equipment is available, but somehow the desired change never occurs. Why? Because, whatever excuses we might come up with, we did not desire that change enough to actually do anything about it.
Please note that the exercise referred to here─the exercise which many of these Hebrews were lacking─was not one of knowledge. They are not being exhorted to learn more Scripture or to memorize more verses. The average Hebrew of the day had a greater knowledge of the Scriptures than todayʼs average Christian. We might recall the reproof which Jesus frequently leveled at the religious leaders of his day: that despite their great knowledge of the Word of God, they had failed to believe it.1 This is also the reproof found throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews.2 They remained as babies not because of their lack of knowledge, but because of their hesitancy to believe those words.3
Lack of physical fitness results in limitations in one’s physical life; lack of spiritual fitness brings the same consequences to one’s spiritual life. Until something changes, we remain spiritual babies. But, really, what difference does it make? Babies are cared for. Babies live stress-free lives. Why not sing, with Peter Pan, ‟I’ll never grow up?”
The Scriptures give us several reasons. One of those reasons is protection. From the moment of the new birth, we are new creations in Christ. We are no longer children of the world, but children of God. In that moment, we are marked out by God for glory. In that moment, we are also marked out by the world and by Satan, the god of this world, for a particular and perpetual enmity. (See, for example, John 15:18, 19; I John 3:13.)
In the face of such inimical power, can a baby stand? Can a baby wrestle? Can a baby put on the armor of God? (See Ephesians 6:10–17.) Only a mature one can demonstrate the soberness, vigilance, and authority necessary to stand against the Devil.
There is an even greater reason for growing up, however: God wants us to. In fact, the reason He chose to reveal His Word to us in such fullness is that we not only be saved, but that, as saved ones, we grow up into Christ.
II Timothy 3:16, 17 (ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
That the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
God has not abandoned us in this world, He has called us here. And He has fully enabled us to stand in this world, representing our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, by His Word He instructs us regarding all of the authority and ability which is now ours.
Do we know what is ours in Christ? More importantly, do we simply know these truths, or have we appropriated them by faith? For example, do I know that I am righteous, acceptable to God, cleansed of all sin, or do I merely know that the Bible declares these things? For any of us who desire to serve God faithfully for a lifetime in this world, it is essential that our completeness in Christ is a living reality.
Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Did you notice that last phrase? If we want to serve God, it is essential that our conscience be cleansed from dead works. In reality, we were cleansed the very moment that we put our faith in Christ. But am I conscious of this fact? Have I exercised myself in these truths to the end that they are more real than any circumstance?
We are called to serve God in a world which is dominated by a powerful enemy. He will not hesitate to call attention to my flesh. He will give me a multitude of reasons for questioning my righteousness. If I endeavor to face him with a doubtful heart, with a mind that is more conscious of sin than it is of redemption, I will be defeated.
I have been a part of groups that have fully recognized the debilitating nature of sin consciousness, but have endeavored to combat it by simply never mentioning words like ‟sin,” ‟guilt,” or ‟unworthiness.” But a legislation of vocabulary does not cure sin consciousness; it only drives it deeper into the heart.
A true cleansing of the conscience comes to those who learn what Christ has done and cleave to it, employing it as both a shield and a sword. As we do so, the difference between good and evil becomes more and more distinct. We find that each day contains hundreds of opportunities to reaffirm the truth of God’s Word. And it is this exercise which will enable us to grow up and to serve our Lord effectively in this world, whatever the opposition.
1For example, John 5:39 (NET): ‟You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me.”
2See, for example, Hebrews 3:18–4:2.
3It should be noted that the exhortation of Hebrews centered on the fact that many of them had been instructed in the things of Christ but had not yet believed unto salvation. However, the Christian can still apply this message, in that the Christian life, from the moment of the new birth, is to be lived by faith.