Hebrews 5:11-14 chastises the original readers for still relying on milk, when they should really be eating meat by now. Somewhere along the way, they became spiritually dull of hearing. They are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” and lack discernment and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. They ought to be teachers, but instead, they’re still learning to count to 10 and how to sing their ABCs.
Who are these milk drinkers?
Pastor John MacArthur argues that the contrast of milk drinkers and meat eaters is between Judaism and Christianity, respectively. (I have found his thoughts on this matter in both a sermon on Hebrews 5:11-14 and in location in his commentary). He believes Heb 5:11-14 and 6:1-8 is addressed to unbelievers, whereas 6:9-12 is addressed to believers.
Respectfully, I disagree.
I think a strong case can and should be made in Heb 5:11-14 that the Preacher (the author of Hebrews) speaks to believers that should be mature, but are not. First, in verse 11, the Preacher says that his readers “have become dull of hearing” (ESV). This is an excellent translation of the verb, since it implies that they have become what they once were not. They once were what the Preacher wants them to be now: good of hearing. This is hard to fit with MacArthur’s view on the Jewish audience of this passage, since they never were true Christians, feeding on the meat of the Gospel.
Additionally, the Preacher accuses them of needing to learn again the spiritual ABCs instead of being teachers of doctrinal truth (vs 12). This, too, is hard to reconcile with the Judaism view. The Preacher does not say, “you ought to be Christians,” but “you ought to be teachers.” It is an issue of spiritual maturity, not spiritual salvation.
This also goes for verse 14. The readers ought to be “mature.” The Preacher specifies what he means by this by speaking of discernment and the ability to distinguish good from evil. One might want to argue that these phrases refer to unbelievers, but can a believer’s discernment not be severely diminished when they lack study in God’s Word?
Furthermore, the Preacher follows this up in 6:1 by saying, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ” (ESV, emphasis mine). I find it too difficult to reconcile the idea that the “elementary doctrine of Christ” characterizes a Jewish unbeliever. In order for this statement to be true of Judaism, we would need to say that Jews in some sense have settled upon this elementary doctrine of the Messiah (for how could one say they left it if they have never settled upon it in the first place?). But this is not the case, for they rejected their Messiah and had a confused understanding of who the Messiah was and what He had come to do.
I will have more to say on this in next week’s sermon as we try to work through one of the most theologically difficult passages in all of Scripture: Heb 6:1-8. But for now, it’s important to heed the message of Heb 5:11-14 – grow up! Many are drinking milk instead of eating meat and it’s time to develop skill in the word of righteousness, that we may be mature believers with the power to discern good from evil.