“For though by this time you ought to be teachers.. . .” (5:12).
In the Middle Ages, a list was made of the “seven deadly sins.” The authors must have considered these seven sins worse than any others. The “seven deadly sins” contained such expected sins as pride, envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, and lust.
But there is one surprising item— the Greek word accidie, which is normally translated “laziness” or “sloth.” We may not think of it as one of our most serious offenses because to us the word “sin” normally conjures up images of sexual or anti-social offenses. But the church in the first century considered “sloth” to be one of its most serious offenses.
Another characteristic of accidie might be a “couldn’t-care-less” attitude. We might think that our problems are very different from those of ancient people because our lives are more complicated than theirs. But listen to this description of a lazy fifth-century monk: “When the poor fellow is beset by it, it makes him detest the place where he is, and loathe his cell; and he has a poor and scornful opinion of his brethren, near and far, and thinks that they are neglectful and unspiritual.
“It makes him sluggish and inert for every task; he cannot sit still, nor give his mind to reading; he thinks despondently how little progress he has made where he is, how little good he gains or does . . . he dwells on the excellence of other and distant monasteries; he thinks how profitable and healthy life is there; how delightful the brethren are, and how spiritually they talk. On the contrary, where he is, all seems harsh and untoward; there is no refreshment for his soul to be got from his brethren, and none for his body from the thankless land; . . . and so, with his mind full of stupid bewilderment and shameful gloom, he grows slack and void of all spiritual energy, and thinks that nothing will do him any good save to go and call on somebody, or else to betake himself to the solace of sleep.” 1
Sloth is our problem as well. We see the debilitating effects of not caring. Discouragement easily robs us of our will to go on with our Christian calling.
The Hebrews’ author says in 6:12, “That you may not be sluggish. . . .”
One of the problems of those Christians was that they had “hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble.” Having lost their original intensity, they were vulnerable to new ideas or doctrines (13:9). This sluggishness was especially evident in the problem of lack of church attendance (10:25) and in their temptation to “neglect” their great salvation. Sluggishness was only the beginning of what could turn into apostasy (6:6).
DULL OF HEARING
There is more than one way to be sluggish. We have already noticed some of the symptoms of sluggishness among the readers of Hebrews. But another aspect of sluggishness is often overlooked. In 5:11, the author suddenly says, “You have become dull of hearing.”
In 5:1-10, he starts the central section of the book showing that Jesus Christ is the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. After describing the levitical requirements for priesthood (5:1-4), he demonstrates that Jesus Christ fulfills all requirements.
Having experienced the agony of suffering (5:8, 9), He has been designated the “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). This fact is first mentioned in 5:10 and is then developed in chapters 5 through 10. For most people, the argument about the high priesthood of Christ is the most memorable section of the epistle. We learn that Jesus is no ordinary priest. Unlike levitical high priests, He lives forever (7:3, 23).
To our surprise, this discussion is interrupted in 5:11. The author leaves the subject to address his readers personally. We know that the author consistently ends his expositions of the Old Testament with some words of encouragement. The longest exhortation in the book is found in 5:11—6:12.
The subject which the author introduced in 5:10 is too difficult for the readers: “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain.” The Greek word for “hard to explain” (dusermeneutos) literally means “hard to communicate,” not “hard to interpret.”
Hebrews is sometimes known for its difficult arguments, especially in the description of Christ and Melchizedek. We wonder why the author pursued a matter that is “hard to explain” with Christians who were dropping out of the community.
Why did he not try “pep rallies” or other new gimmicks to stir their interest? Often, we think the church should consider things that are “hard to explain” only after all other matters have been solved. Or we reserve such matters for the experts, not the entire church.
But the author was convinced that matters “hard to explain” were meant for the whole church—even a tired and bored church—to pursue. In chapters 7 through 10, he continues this difficult message. We may wonder why the author pursues such a topic in a book on church renewal. The answer is that the only renewal that matters is a lasting renewal. There is a need for depth and roots if we are to maintain our vitality for a long period. A pep rally may be useful for a while. But a church that endures needs a firm anchor (6:19) where it can find the security and encouragement to keep the faith. Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The author introduced a topic “hard to explain” because he knew the church needed a place to stand.
It is easy to lose the balance between the tasks of informing and exhorting in preaching. A sermon that merely informs may never confront the audience with the demands of God on their lives. A sermon which only exhorts may easily be without substance.
The author of Hebrews, a model preacher, knows that a living church maintains its vitality through both exhortation and information. He recognizes that a church needs firm roots in solid, demanding study. He is not afraid of confronting Christians with challenging words. He knows that a faith that is easily reduced to a few slogans does not give a firm place to stand. There is a place in biblical preaching for a challenge to our minds. There is no substitute for words that are “hard to explain” because the enthusiasm for learning provides roots for living.
Preaching should sometimes confront us with our responsibilities and indict us for our failures. The author of Hebrews says that the word is difficult to explain because “you are dull in hearing.” The Greek word for “dull” (nothros) is the same word that is translated “sluggish” in 6:12. This word was often used for a lazy student who refused to develop his mind. The author might have said, “The fault does not lie in the word itself. The fault is yours. You have not developed the capacity to understand.”
The readers had apparently been Christians for at least a generation. The author mentions the amount of time which has elapsed since they first became Christians (“by this time,” 5:12). The readers had sufficient time to sharpen their minds and become competent to teach. Their problem was sluggishness manifested in a lack of physical and intellectual energy.
The answer for a tired church, according to the author, is to be fed “solid food.” In the ancient times, a beginning philosophy student was introduced to a few “first principles” by his teachers. The student was often described as a “babe” who had to rely first on “milk” before he went on to “solid food.” The students intended to develop their potential in order to become teachers themselves. Any student who remained at the beginning level for a long period of time caused serious problems.
This was appropriate imagery for the author of Hebrews. After a generation, the readers were still in their infancy (5:13). Their diet consisted of milk, and they were unable to digest the solid food that the author would offer. The author probably looked at the tired community and wanted to say something that would strengthen their faith. But he observed that their lack of intellectual growth made it almost impossible for him to communicate what they needed most. He recognized that the church can never main- tain its identity unless it is grounded in the solid food of the Word of God.
A FAITH FOR OUR MINDS
According to the author of Hebrews, Christianity cannot survive unless it is taught. It must be treasured enough to capture our minds. Christians in every age have set up schools to pursue the scholarly study of Scripture. The health and vitality of Christianity benefits from a respect for learning. As heirs of a long, respected tradition of learning, we depend on the survival of educated church members. Faith must be explained, and faith seeks understanding. Only a shallow, inconsequential religion makes no demands for continued learning.
R. Glover, a great classical scholar, once explained a major reason why Christianity was victorious in the ancient world. There were many causes competing for the people’s commitment, but Christianity conquered their minds and hearts. Glover said Christians did better thinking than other people.
The Christian read the best books, assimilated them, and lived the freest intellectual life the world had known. Jesus had set him to be free to fact. There is no place for an ignorant Christian. From the very start every Christian had to know and to understand, and he had to read the gospels, he had to be able to give a reason for his faith. They read about Jesus, and they knew him, and they knew where they stood. . . . Who did the thinking in that ancient world? Again and again it was the Christian. He out-thought the world.2
A WASTE OF TIME?
We sometimes think of study as a waste of time or a diversion from more important things. We live in a culture which favors action over reflection. But we must question the value of actions which are not guided by careful study. The author makes a careful distinction between those who are nourished on milk and those who are nourished on meat. Those who exist on milk are “not accustomed to the word of righteous- ness” (5:13). Those who live on meat “have their senses trained to discern good from evil” (5:14). The Greek word for “unskilled” literally means “inexperienced” or “ignorant.” The author says some Christians remain perpetually like beginning students. The “word of righteousness” or the Christian faith remains incomprehensible to them because they have no habit of careful study and reflection and no recognition that faith requires an understanding, responsive mind.
On the other hand, some Christians can distinguish between good and evil because their minds have been trained by practice. The author uses the illustration of an athlete who trains himself through habits of practice and self-control. The same language was sometimes used for the discipline of the philosophy student because he knew the importance of training the mind.
In the same way, there is training in the Christian faith. We can develop the necessary sensitivity to make moral decisions only through such training. Our minds are trained to “distinguish good from evil.” Without this training, we have no way to evaluate new ideas. We may easily become prey for any new popular idea. Without disciplined training in the “word of righteousness,” we cannot distinguish between the Christian faith and the many other claims.
But Christianity is not a religion only for learned people. Paul could describe some of the early Christians as being “not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” (1 Corinthians 1:26). But Christianity called all of these to use their own gifts to become more intelligent in the faith.
We notice also that it is not just a certain group of experts in Hebrews who were called to develop their understanding of the faith. The words “you are dull of hearing” were addressed to the whole congregation. It was the author’s reminder that, while we may want responsible leadership to guide our study, others need to use their own gifts to grow up in the faith.
Are we also “sluggish in hearing”? What has happened to families who should have a thorough knowledge of the basic content of the Bible? As James Smart wrote in his book The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, there is a danger that the church will largely ignore the Bible in its educational curriculum. The indictment of a bored church long ago may also be indictment of contemporary congregations.
Not all educational programs based on the Bible are equally beneficial for the vitality of the church. We often demonstrate that we do not take the Bible seriously by the way we treat it in our programs. In some instances, we abuse it by limiting our study to only a few sections. Sometimes, it is used only to prove a point reached long ago. The mere fact that we use the Bible does not mean that we will “train our senses,” as Hebrews puts it. We grow when we study with enough seriousness to be prepared to hear the whole story, not just the parts we prefer to hear. We wonder why people who read a lot do not read more books on religious subjects. Some people take their Christianity very seriously. They keep informed in many fields by reading the best books.
But they seldom read a book about the realities of faith, about God, Christ, prayer, and the Bible.
Most of us have known people in the church with extraordinary competence in the academic, professional, or business world who have not grown beyond a few fundamentals in the Christian faith. In business they have shown their keen minds and capacity for growth. But they exhibit an unbelievable immaturity when it comes to faith. The author of Hebrews knows sluggish minds do not give vitality to the church.
A WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT
The preacher’s indictment of his community is not the end of the sermon. Preaching also offers words of hope and encouragement. People must see a reason to engage in the action to which they are called. So the author of Hebrews encourages his community to leave the “elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1f.). In this word of exhortation, there is a stern warning that ap- pears in two other instances in Hebrews (10:26f.; 12:17).
If those who have been “once enlightened” fall away, it is impossible to restore them to repentance. The author does not elaborate on his statement, so his warning is hard for us to understand. We must remember, though, that his words are not addressed to people who have already fallen away and are seeking readmission to the church. His major point is that our faith is far too precious to throw away. Our “enlightenment,” or our beginning Christian life, only happens once. To think that we all “fall away” and then return cheapens our salvation. We must “go on to perfection.” Without that progress we will die.
The preacher must also provide the resources that will challenge the people to go on. The author offers two reasons to his community to keep their commitment. First, verses 7 and 8 provide an illustration from nature. The land which receives rain and bears useful fruit is blessed by God. If it bears only thorns and thistles, it will be burned. God calls the land to be responsible. He provides His blessing only if the land does its part. It is the same way with this tired community. God promises His blessing only to those who discipline themselves to grow up in the faith.
Second, we have invested so much of ourselves in the faith that it would be a tragedy to throw it away. The readers of this epistle demonstrated their “earnestness” (spoude) long ago when they served the saints. In 10:32-35, there is another reminder of what their faith had meant to them. They endured loss of property and abuse from their society. They visited prisoners (10:34), endured a hard struggle (10:32), and ministered to the saints (6:10). This faith meant far too much to them to be thrown away now.
Our church life often appears unpleasant. Disagreements with others and dissatisfaction with the direction of the church can cause us to become disheartened and sluggish. We need to remember our previous investment in a cause in which we believed. If God does not forget our “work and labor of love for his sake” (6:10), our past should also stimulate us to “show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11).
If the author of Hebrews had written his book two thousand years later, he probably would have said about the same thing. A weary church in the twentieth century needs to hear both his word of indictment (5:11-14) and his word of encouragement (6:11). Both sound as if they were addressed to us.
* Appreciation to Dr. James Thompson
1 David H. C. Read, Virginia Woolf Meets Charlie Brown (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 141.
2 Donald Baillie, To Whom Shall We Go? (New York: Scribner’s Press, 1955), 63.