For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the sayings of God. You have come to need milk and not solid food. (Hebrews 5:12)
By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one–baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! (paraphrased from The Message)
What I’m about to do here is no fun.
I’m about to accuse some Christian friends of spiritual ignorance.
Earlier today I was looking over my wife’s textbook on effective writing for college classes. Bertha has been teaching English (literature, composition, etc) all her adult life, either in high school or on the college level. And I was struck by something…
The authors of the textbook, both college professors, gave examples of essays written by students and then subjected to intense editing and improvement by teachers. They showed the first draft, how a professor critiqued it, the second article, and so forth. The final results were excellent examples of effective communication. The point being…
Editing and rewriting is painful. But editing and rewriting are necessary. (Case in point: This little article of mine. I’ve worked on it several days–deleting, adding, changing, pasting.)
Editing and grading are hard work for the teacher and sometimes offensive to the student. Those who “know” point out the errors in those who are learning and suggest ways to improve. This is basic education. We do it from kindergarten and up.
Why then do we shy away from that in church? When is the last time you heard a veteran teacher or preacher pointing out the errors in a young Sunday School teacher’s presentations, a young believer’s prayers, a young warrior’s witnessing? I know the answer: You’ve never seen it.
It does not happen.
To our shame and eternal regret.
And yet, we call ourselves making disciples. We call disciple-making one of the key missions of the church.
Most of our churches and most of us preachers are doing a slap-dash, haphazard job of it. If anyone gets discipled in the typical church, it’s only because they chose to do the hard work and not because the pastors and teachers were intentional about it.
Sorry to be negative on this, but I’m talking about myself. I started pastoring an SBC church in 1962. Next year, 2021, will mark sixty years since I began preaching.
And I’m talking about you.
We have filled our churches with people who do not know God’s Word and are satisfied with that.
Biblical ignorance and spiritual immaturity have become the norm, God help us.
So many in our churches think because they have a testimony of a new birth their point of view carries as much weight as anyone else’s. Because they are church members in good standing with a believer’s legitimate hope of Heaven, they wade into weighty matters announcing how “true Christians” should feel and act, often denouncing those who dare disagree with them. They vote on pastors and critique sermons and are often recruited for leadership roles within the congregation.
And we wonder about the status of the Church in America today.
This–biblical ignorance and spiritual immaturity– was the burden of the writer of Hebrews (see our text). If that were a problem in the first century church, imagine how concerned that anonymous writer would be today. The problem is multiplied by the nth degree in our culture.
In the last few days, I have been taken to the woodshed by a number of friends (we will assume) who are Christians with born-again testimonies (ditto assumption) but who sound for all the world like heathens. They grow hostile toward anyone disagreeing with them, resort to name-calling, and send mean-spirited notes to those who would challenge their views. I’ve been called a fool, a Marxist, ignorant, and a liberal. To best of my knowledge, I am none of those things.
Why would they do this?
Short answer: Because I said something they disagree with.
Longer answer: Because I am trying to bring the Christian faith to bear on what’s going on in America today. Our society is being ripped asunder by brutality and hardened attitudes on the one hand and protests and riots on the other.
Try to be the voice of sanity and you get shot at by both sides. Both sides, incidentally, calling themselves followers of Jesus.
More than one demanded that I stay out of politics. Several accused me of not knowing my history.
These are my brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so, I come now to do the hard work of rebuking…
Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool (Proverbs 17:10).
Not everyone can receive rebuke. The weak and ignorant despise it. The fool hates it and despises anyone who tries to give it.
My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord; nor detest His correction; For whom the Lord loves He corrects; Just as a father the son in whom he delights (Proverbs 3:11-12).
Not everyone can give rebuke.
Spiritual leaders are instructed to rebuke. Paul’s final instructions to Timothy included these words: Preach the Word! Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2). (See also I Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13; 2:15.)
Rebuking is a pastoral function. It’s one we preachers seldom practice for good reason. No one likes it, and those who need it most react harshly against it. Many a preacher has had his head handed to him because he rebuked a church member who could not stand the truth. It’s a dangerous occupation.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).
What follows is my attempt to rebuke believers who are biblically ignorant and spiritually immature…..
Who are we talking about? Two groups. The biblically ignorant and spiritually immature will include baby Christians who have not had time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). No one begins life fully grown. However….
The spiritually ignorant also includes longtime believers who failed to grow for one reason or the other. See our text today, Hebrews 5:12.
Do people know they are spiritually ignorant? Those destined for true wisdom do, what scripture calls “the wisdom from above” (James 3:17).
Does a pastor dare tell people they are biblically ignorant and spiritually immature? Only when given the green light by the Holy Spirit, I would think. But perhaps there is another way. Maybe a teacher or pastor can give their people an exercise to enlighten them.
Let’s give it a try.
Here’s a little exam on biblical understanding/spiritual maturity. I’m making it up as I go, with the prayerful assistance of the Holy Spirit. There is no particular order..
10 questions to help us gauge our biblical understanding and maturity in the Lord
–1. Do you ever rebuke an elder?
The immature do.
If you do, you’re out of line.
Do not rebuke an elder, but appeal to him as a father (I Timothy 5:1). If it becomes necessary to confront a veteran believer with his error, doing so with respect and humility honors the Lord. It might also save us from humiliation when the elder turns around and shows what we have been missing in God’s word. That little comeuppance has happened to me, and it was a teaching moment. I wish it for you.
–2. Have you heard of “name it and claim it”? The prosperity gospel? Those are based on biblical ignorance and shallow spirituality.
The Book of Job drives the nail through that error. But the biblically ignorant don’t have time to study 42 chapters of an Old Testament book.
Ask yourself this: If all the Lord’s disciples had to do was “name it and claim it,” why didn’t they? Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, they are suffering for their faith the same way believers have done ever since. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul lists trouble after trouble–beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks–that he has experienced in serving the Lord Jesus. If all he had to do was “use his faith” to get out of trouble, why didn’t he?
It’s like the error that says “if we have faith enough, we can heal all diseases and raise the dead.” Show me the early disciples doing either of those. They didn’t. The best answer to those who teach such error is “Get down to the local hospital then and make people well. Go into the slums and make people rich.”
–3. Are you aware the Lord reversed some of His instructions to the disciples?
In that Matthew 10 passage where our Lord instructs His fledgling disciples on the mission they’re about to undertake, He tells them to take no money for their journey, no changes of clothing, and no weapons (10:9-10). But later, in Luke 22, He said, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it. And likewise a knapsack. And he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” (22:36).
The spiritually ignorant will often misquote the first passage because they do not know their Bible.
–4. Do you insist that for prayers to be authentic and accepted they should be prayed “in Jesus’ name”?
The immature often get a single “truth” and go to seed on it, using it to judge everyone else and browbeat those who do not measure up.
The Lord’s Prayer does not contain that phrase. No prayer in the New Testament uses those words per se.
To pray in the name of Jesus is more than simply tacking on those three words at the conclusion of our prayers as though it were a magic formula.
–5. Do you believe that people go to hell for committing a sin? After all, doesn’t the Bible say “the soul that sinneth it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4)?
If you believe this, you should know that God has overruled that law. Here is how the opening words of Romans 8 puts it. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” There it is. What does it mean?
It means that a later law has overruled and negated a previous law. This happens in jurisprudence all the time. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. The 18th is still on the books but it has been nullified.
Or consider this one. For decades, states would charge a poll tax before a person would be eligible to vote. However, the 24th Amendment outlawed the poll tax, making all those state laws null and void.
So, the old law–you sin, you die–has been superseded by a new one: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Period.
And thank God for that! After all, we were sinners before we came to Christ and we have not suddenly become incapable of sinning afterwards. “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). “If You should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).
–6. Do you know what to do with Revelation 21:8’s list of those who go to hell? The cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
I don’t either.
Leave room in your system for mystery, for God.
And before someone accuses me of something–a lot of things–let me point out that Scripture is clear that we can be saved from everything on that list. Likewise, see Psalm 130:3 again, we are all sinners and no one is sinless and we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ or no one will be admitted into Heaven. Okay, now, back to the original point….
If you have to have an answer for every difficult text in God’s Word, that’s a sure sign of immaturity. No one does, even though plenty claim to and will insist on it. They end up producing twisted interpretations and fanciful explanations. It’s so unnecessary. The mature have no trouble simply saying, “This is God’s Word and no one understands it all fully.” And to the immature who demands an answer now (!) like a four-year-old, a soft answer from some Godly saint is in order.
–7. Where does the Bible teach the need for flexibility?
Answer: In the Lord’s metaphor of new wine/new wineskins. (Matthew 9:`17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-39).
Old wineskins are hard, brittle, and inflexible. New wine is still fermenting, still surging and expanding and bubbling, and demands containers that expand also. The new wine of the Holy Spirit, the new wine of this gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, demands containers (disciples!) who are open, receptive, willing, and thus flexible. (See what Jesus said about the work of the Holy Spirit in John 3:8).
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were rigid and unbending. Our Lord said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. You shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).
There must be a lot of give and take in the Lord’s people. The Lord’s family will include people from so many backgrounds, at every level of understanding and capability, that those who are rigid and unbending will be the bane of the church.
–8. The letter of the law kills. Do you believe that?
Something inside the immature believer wants to conform to the nth degree, to obey the letter of the law and demand that everyone else do likewise. And yet, Scripture warns against it.
God has made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Legalism is always a danger for God’s children. The young and immature are especially susceptible to its errors.
–9. Some things in Scripture are hard to understand. The Bible says so.
Here’s how 2 Peter 3:15-16 puts it: …our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
This passage should be read and absorbed because knowing this–and that Scripture says it– will protect us from many an error.
–10. One sin is the same as all others, right?
Way wrong. Bad wrong. Not even close. And yet we hear that all the time. As though the sin of abortion is the same as, say, an impure thought. Both are wrong, but the consequences are light years apart.
All sin is not equal. All obedience is not equal.
When our Lord was rebuking the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He pointed out that some laws are weightier than others. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).
Finally, my brethren. One final test.
I posed a question on Facebook, asking people to finish this sentence: “We find out all we need to know about your Christian faith when we observe how you–what?” The answers poured in, over a hundred a day later. Most suggested how you love your neighbor, treat others, handle persecution, act, walk the walk, and so forth.
Seeing how quickly some of us lose our religion and show our true colors, my answer is:
We find out all we need to know about your Christian faith when we observe how you respond to those who disagree strongly with your cherished convictions.
Someone wrote: “One of my favorite people from my old church unfriended all of my family and called my brother names just because of something he posted.” A friend commented to her: “Social media has not done Christians any favors as far as their testimony and the reputation of the church in general is concerned.”
Help us, Lord. Please show us when we need to get off social media, when we need to turn a soft answer (Proverbs 15:1), when to delete what we have written, and when we need to grow up. Thank you, Father, for faithful friends who will tell us the truth. For Jesus’ sake, in Jesus’ name, by Jesus’ blood. Amen.