Today we move into a portion of Scripture that causes scholars great angst, so don’t grow weary if we don’t nail down a decisive answer to our questions about this passage.
I think it would be beneficial for us to do a little review so we have our focal passage in context. The book of Hebrews contains a boatload of information about the customs and practices of the Jewish people living under the Old Covenant. The author’s readers would have had to be familiar with very detailed Jewish constructs like Moses, Melchizedek, the priests, the Old Covenant, the sacrifices and the tabernacle. It seems safe to assume that many, if not most, of his readers were Jewish in origin. In addition, in chapters one and two he offered an in-depth discussion of Jesus and the salvation found only in Him. In Hebrews 4, the author seems to be including his readers in the ‘we’ and ‘us’ when he says in verse 14, “seeing then that WE have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let US hold fast our confession.” This occurs many times in the book of Hebrews (8:1-2; 10:19-27; 12:1-3) and seems to signify that the author considers his readers to have placed saving faith in Jesus at some point in the past.
This is the point where we find the ‘rub’ among scholars. To what kind of audience was the author of Hebrews speaking? Were they solely a group of Jews or were there Gentiles in their midst? Were they believers who were in danger of returning to the old ways of Judaism or were they unbelievers who were regular attendees of the house church? There are reasonable arguments to support both viewpoints regarding the spiritual state of the audience and I hope to walk you through a few of those.
Review Hebrews 5:12-14:
12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Warren Wiersbe in his marvelous commentary on Hebrews entitled, Be Confident: Live by Faith, Not by Sight, interprets the recipients of the book of Hebrews to be believing Jews who are in danger of back-sliding. He equates ‘milk’ with the work of Jesus while on earth and meat or ‘solid food’ with the work that Jesus now does in heaven on behalf of the believer. Those who are spiritually immature have taken advantage of the milk – the “birth, life, teaching, death, burial, and resurrection” of Jesus but have not progressed on in their sanctification or spiritual growth. (p.61)
Word Biblical Commentary (WBC) also asserts that the audience is comprised of believers who are mature. Consider the following thoughts: “The writer shows no inclination to review with his hearers the foundational elements of the Christian faith. He clearly regarded the hearers as mature.” (P. 135)
WBC goes on to say: “What the writer actually believes his intended readers to be is expressed by the image of the adult, and this is confirmed by the solid food they have received, and continue to receive in the homily. (p. 145) The author seems to be reprimanding the audience for simply getting lazy in their walk with Christ.
Hmmm, getting lazy in their walk with Christ….I fear I represent that remark all too often. How about you?
Finally, John MacArthur, in his commentary on Hebrews entitled The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, gives a very different perspective when he says, “the maturity being called for is not that of a Christian’s growing in the faith, but of an unbeliever’s coming into the faith—into full-grown, mature truths and blessings of the New Covenant.” (P. 129)
He goes on to say, “For the time and study they have put in, they ought to be teachers of the Word of God. But they do not even comprehend its fundamentals. They have been ‘advanced’ students of Scripture for decades, and yet they do not even know Jesus Christ.” (P. 132)
MacArthur likens the Old Covenant to the alphabet that is taught to kindergarteners, while the New Covenant is the full message. These Jews had become dull to even their Old Covenant principles, the basic ABCs of their faith. These unbelieving Jews had heard the story of Christ and all He offered through the New Covenant so many times that they should be able to teach it, but because they had never truly accepted Christ, they still needed the basics, the alphabet, according to MacArthur.
MacArthur’s position is very different from the first two mentioned, yet it is defensible, as you can see. God is not the author of confusion and He desires for you to understand Scripture. I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind to the truth of God’s Word as we continue next week in Hebrews 6.