The Meaning and Significance of Hebrews 5:12-14 in the Christian’s Call of Discernment
By Ryan Habbena
“What is your spirtual gift ?” I have heard this question asked and answered many times. In my experience, the most common response to this inquiry is: “I have the gift of discernment.” When asked what this means, the person often answers, “I can automatically tell when something is evil.”
The Scriptures speak to the subject of discernment in various ways. While the Bible indeed affirms “discernment” as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:10),1 the truth is that all Christians are called to be “discerners” (see 1 John 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). The question then naturally follows: “How do we acquire the ability to discern?” There are those who would answer in unison with the above example, simply stating: “I just know it my heart! I just know.” Note, for instance, Neal Anderson’s take on this subject: “Spiritual discernment is our first line of defense against deception. The Holy Spirit has taken up residence in every believer, and He is not silent when we encounter the counterfeit. Discernment is that little ‘buzzer’ that goes off inside when something is wrong.”2 While the Holy Spirit has indeed taken up residence in every believer, rather than relying upon an automatic, subjective “buzzer” that is supposed to “go off inside,” we are informed in Hebrews that believers are equipped with discernment via different means. Hebrews 5:12-14 speaks directly to this subject. In what follows I will engage in some “basic exposition” on this central text regarding discernment. Following this I will apply its teaching to how we all are called to be trained discerners in order to avoid the deception that surrounds us.
The Context of Hebrews 5:12-14
The author of Hebrews3 recognized the danger in the midst of his readers. Many who repented and believed in Jesus the Messiah were being tempted to return to the stipulations and practices of the Mosaic Covenant. Those who had the yoke of the Law removed needed to be warned against apostasy in order to stand firm in the word of Jesus Christ. In both comforting and convicting fashion, the author of Hebrews systematically demonstrates that Jesus is superior to all that was held dear under the Old Covenant. He is greater than the prophets who came before Him (vs. 1:1-2), He is greater than the angels (vs. 1:4-13), He is greater than Moses (vs. 3:1-6), and He is greater than the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood (chapters 5-10). In establishing his case and exhorting his readers, the author wants to teach his readers about the sign “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). This, in turn, brings us to the significant passage pertaining to discernment.
Expounding Hebrews 5:12-14
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”(verse 12)
Good Biblical interpretation will examine context and usage to discover meaning and function.4 In light of this, the author’s use of imagery in this text must be carefully considered. He first notes his frustration at their spiritual “dullness of hearing” which indicates an inability to receive further instruction.5 Shifting metaphors, he then uses food imagery to describe the word of God and further diagnose their condition. The need for “milk” in this context is an indictment of the reader’s spiritual maturity.6 Needing “milk” indicates spiritual infancy.7 Just what is “milk” and “solid food” in this context? Recalling the brief discussion in chapter 5 prior to this text, and looking forward to what will be resumed in chapters 7-10, the author wishes to teach his readers about Jesus’ priesthood. This entails going in-depth regarding the order of Melchizedek, biblical typology and fulfillment, and applying the significance of these truths to their current situation. These theological truths are considered “meaty stuff” and, thus, solid food. These truths were necessary to hear, understand, and heed, in order to avoid the temptation in their midst – returning to the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant.
“Milk,” on the other hand, is synonymous with the “elementary principles of the oracles of God” (vs. 12). These would be considered the “basics” one learns upon initiation into New Covenant community. Many have postulated as to what specifically the author is referring to with this phrase.8 The most compelling definition comes through reading the immediate context. In chapter 6:1-2, the author exhorts: “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (Hebrews 6:1-2)
These are the “elementary principles” of the New Covenant. These are the “foundation” of the faith. These truths are the “milk” of which all believers partake. The problem was that of perpetual infancy. Commentator George Guthrie well notes that the author of Hebrews is “describing in no uncertain terms a level of immaturity among his readers Spiritually they are like babies still suckling at a mother’s breast, unconcerned with the rich, hearty foods of the adults’ table.”9Rather than remaining in this infantile state, the call is to maturity. This leads to the further admonition: “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil”(Hebrews 5:13, 14).
In this portion of the text the author makes clear his concern regarding maturity: Only partaking in the “milk” of the elementary principles of the faith stunts spiritual growth. What then is the solution to this state of “spiritual infancy?” The answer? Become accustomed to the “word of righteousness.” The believer in Christ is called to grow in order to be able to process and be nourished by “solid food.” The author of Hebrews has carefully constructed this “word” throughout the flow of the epistle. This “word” was referred to in the introduction of the letter, and subsequently at the beginning of chapter two:
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world . . .”
“For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard.”
Thus, given the context of the epistle, the “word of righteousness” is the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the message that comes from the righteous One and produces righteousness in those who respond in faith. This message entails the teachings of Christ, His Apostles and Prophets,10 and the proper view of the Old Testament in light of the coming of the Messiah. In our contemporary context, it is the Scriptures, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments upon which the Holy Spirit has placed His seal. We are called to become “accustomed” to this word spoken through Christ – to become well acquainted with the Scriptures. The way we become accustomed is through the “practice” of engaging the word.11 This produces the ability to “discern good and evil.”
Discernment is presented at the culmination of the admonition. Again, we must allow the context to speak to what the object of discernment, “good and evil,” meant to the original audience. Discerning of moral good and evil certainly comes through devotion to the word and is implied in this text, however “good and evil” has a more specific application in this passage. The Hebrew Christians who were being tempted to return to the terms of the Old Covenant knew the moral stipulations of the Law well. What they lacked, however, was the ability to discern what was permissible and what was forbidden now that age of Messianic salvation had arrived. They needed their “senses trained,” their rational faculties, through growing in the teachings of the New Covenant. This is in accordance with the overall intent of the epistle – to teach them what had been “bound” and what had been “loosed” under the terms of the New Covenant.<12 Thus, the way to discernment was laid out: Become well-acquainted with the message of Christ and see all things through His perfect, completed work.
What Maturity Produces
As we consider this admonition we do well to note the author’s central concern: The people of God are called to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He wasn’t calling them to move past or away from the Gospel. He still recognized that faith and repentance towards God was “foundational” (6:1). His desire was for the maturity of his readers in the Gospel.13 When we become well-acquainted with the sovereign power and sufficient work of Jesus Christ through the word, discernment is cultivated and deception is avoided. Be sure, the aim of maturity in the word of God is not simply the accumulation of academic knowledge. Rather, the aim is to become well-acquainted with the person and perfect work of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures, spanning from Genesis to Revelation, are the account of God’s purpose to save through His promise.14 And as Paul proclaimed regarding Jesus: “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Growing in the Word: The Way to Discernment
The applications that arise from Hebrews 5:12-14 are convicting. This passage speaks to the prime reason why discernment is lacking and deception is rampant in the church. We are failing to grow in the Spirit-led means of discernment – devotion to the word of God. This passage indicts the seeker-sensitive streams of Christianity that strain out any difficult or deemed “offensive” Scriptures and thus neglect the whole counsel of God. This passage indicts the contemplative and emergent streams of Christianity that toss aside pure devotion to the word and place man-made practices and philosophies in its stead; thus neglecting the means God has chosen to train His people for godly living. Ultimately, this passage reveals every believer’s urgent need to be trained for discernment through faithful devotion to the Scriptures.
Discernment comes through training. When Christians fall prey to deception we should not think it is because an automatic buzzer has failed to sound. Rather, it is because we fail to avail ourselves of what God has provided to train us in discernment. The thoughts, worldviews, and beliefs of this world have been embedded in our minds. This is every person’s “default position” until regeneration occurs. When we believe in the Gospel, the battle for our minds begins. Because of this reality, we are called to the transformation that comes through the power of the word: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Since all of eternity will not exhaust the depths of the word of God, there certainly is no point in this life where we have “arrived,” where we may cease our growth through feeding upon God’s word. No matter where one is at in Christian maturity, we all need to continue to grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ. Doing so will train our senses for discernment and cause His word to be hidden in our hearts so we will not sin against our Savior.
May we all then heed the call that is for our own safety and spiritual growth:
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. (Hebrews 6:1-3)
Issue 99 – March / April 2007
- An in-depth discussion of this gift and the related question of the continuation/cessation of spiritual gifts is beyond the scope of this work. For a more in-depth discussion of the “discerning of spirits” see: http://www.cicministry.org/commentary/issue81.htm . For an examination of the continuation/cessationist debate of spiritual gifts see http://www.cicministry.org/commentary/issue47.htm .
- Neil T. Anderson; The Bondage Breaker; (Harvest House: Eugene, 2000) 179.
- As opposed to most other books of the Bible, there is no clear consensus regarding the authorship of Hebrews. Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, and Paul have been four of the most popular speculated authors. However, since the author does not identify himself, and other means of determining authorship (historical and linguistic studies) are inconclusive, the mystery of the authorship of Hebrews remains.
- “Function” is an interpretive term that refers to how a particular author is intending to use a certain term, event, or theological idea in their respective theological purpose in writing.
- The historical and biblical concept of “hearing” in the midst of Hebrew Christians is to be seen as underlying this rebuke (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:3-4, Mark 12:29). “Hearing” did not simply entail “taking in” and understanding the information proclaimed, but also a faithful response to the call.
- Peter also uses the concept of “milk” in his first epistle. “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Where “needing milk” in Hebrews is pejorative, “longing for milk” is positive in 1 Peter. This demonstrates the diverse “function” of the “milk” imagery in each respective context.
- Lane compellingly argues that the author is using irony to call the original audience out of their spiritual dullness. He argues that in “vv 11-14 the writer uses irony effectively to summon the house church to resume their status as adults with its attendant responsibilities.” William Lane, Hebrews 1-8: Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991) 139.
- MacArthur argues this should be understood as the basic principles of the Old Testament.John MacArthur, Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentaries (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983) 132-133. Guthrie, however, sketches compelling reasons to take these as the basic teachings at the beginning of Christian commitment: He writes: “Two other parts of verse 12 suggest that the author has in mind basic teachings, perhaps offered at the beginning of one’s Christian commitment. (1) He states that the hearers need these basic lessons “again” (palin), a word that in the context points to a time in the past which they all did receive the instruction . . . (2) The woodenly translated phrase . . . contains the word “beginning” (arche). This word adds emphasis to the rudimentary nature of the teachings.” George H Guthrie, Hebrews: The NIV Application Commentary.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 202. This combined with the parallelism of 6:1 well establishes the Christian nature of these “elementary principles.”
- Guthrie, 202.
- Ephesians 2:20 tells us of foundation of the church being the proclamation of the New Covenant through Christ the cornerstone and the “Apostles” and “Prophets.” Apostles, in this context, were those who were specifically commissioned by Christ to carry His message and were witnesses to His resurrection. “Prophets,” in this context, were those who were given revelation to further expound the ramifications and implications of the salvific work of Christ. These, “foundational” Apostles and Prophets were used by the Spirit to establish the “faith delivered one for all,” and thus have no equivalent after their ministries were fulfilled. See http://www.cicministry.org/commentary/issue66.htm for further commentary.
- See Lane, 131 note h, for reasons why this term implies “activity” rather than a “state.”
- Contrary to much of the modern Christian usage of the terms “binding and loosing,” the biblical usage of these terms referred to the “forbidding and permitting” of things under the New Covenant by Christ and His representatives. See http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue1.htm and http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue2.htm
- Lane notes regarding this dynamic: “When the writer urges his readers to leave standing . . . the elementary Christian teaching, he is not dismissing it but regarding it as so well established that the urgent need is a fuller appreciation and application of that teaching” (Lane, 139).
- The first instance of the promise of Messianic salvation is given in Genesis 3:15. This promise runs through the Bible being fulfilled by Christ and finally proclaimed by Him in Revelation 22:16.
Published by Twin City Fellowship