The writer of Hebrews wants to talk about Jesus—as God’s ultimate Messenger, as the One who leads us to the promised land of heaven, as our great high priest—but he also feels the need to periodically stop and encourage the recipients of his letter in regard to their need to apply his words to their lives. It’s like a teacher talking about English or math or history occasionally pausing to the remind their class about the importance of the subject and their need to pay attention. They might say, “This will be on the test,” or “You will need to know this later,” or something to that effect. The wise student will take note of what they said.
The Hebrews writer does the same thing. Most of the time, he will use the phrase “let us” (12 x’s in the letter) to let them know there was an application they needed to make. However, there are times (five of them) when his words grow more ominous and darken the sky. They make deep rumbling sounds and are accompanied by flashes of lightning. They are still applications that need to be made, but their tone is more severe. This is not the teacher speaking anymore, it is the principal giving you an ultimatum. Only the foolhardy fail to pay attention!
In 5:11-14, we have the first part of the third warning. Previously he has warned them about drifting (2:1-4) and disobeying (3:7-4:13). His warning here has to do with the spiritual dullness some of them were suffering from. Here’s these verses from the ESV:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 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 writer has been speaking to them about the priesthood of Jesus and he wants to say more—to go deeper and talk about a mysterious man name Melchizedek, but he admits to a significant obstacle—his audience lacks the capacity to hear what he has to say. In v. 14, he makes it clear why—it is immaturity.
But it’s not the kind of immaturity a child has, it is adult immaturity. Given time, the child will grow out of their immaturity, but the immaturity of the disciples Hebrews is written to is self-imposed. They haven’t progressed because they haven’t made the effort to put into practice what they have learned. They had failed to thrive. As a result, they were unable to move into the deeper waters of discipleship.
It’s important to recognize he’s not talking about how much time they had spent in the word—he’s talking about how much time the word spent in them! We are informed whenever we get exposed to information and it doesn’t appear that there was any shortage of that in their lives. But it’s only when we apply what we have been exposed to that learning (i.e., transformation) takes place.
We’re reminded in this section some important truths on how pilgrims make progress.
1. Living truth from the heart is the key to learning. The true measure of knowing is not what you are able to repeat on a test or talk to others about—it is what you are actually doing. Jesus commanded His apostles to teach those who had been baptized “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). If you’re not obeying from the heart, you haven’t learned. The word must become flesh!
2. The more you live the more you learn. The more you use a muscle, the stronger it gets. The more you practice a sport, the better you become. The more you obey God, the deeper your faith and knowledge become. Truth doesn’t belong to us—it belongs to God. When we are good stewards of if (through living it out from the heart), we receive more (Matthew 25:14ff).
3. An active faith blesses everyone. “Constant practice” (v. 14 ESV) sharpens our powers of discernment. It blesses those around us. It is one of the marks of maturity. It brings glory to God and is what makes us salt and light to a lost world.
This is how pilgrims make progress!