Sunday, May 6, 2018
Ignorance is bliss, or so we’ve been told. If you look it up, the definition goes something like this, “lack of knowledge results in happiness,” or “it is more comfortable not to know certain things.” A similar saying is, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
The saying actually comes from a poem entitled, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton Collegeby English poet Thomas Gray – composed in 1742. Interestingly, Gray only published 13 poems in his life – yet was wildly popular in England. He’s considered the most important English poet of the mid-18thCentury, and was even offered the national title of Poet Laureate, which he declined.
The line ignorance is bliss comes from the last stanza of his poem, and we actually misquote it. One article suggested it is one of the most misconstrued phrases in the English language. The line actually goes like this, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” That changes the whole meaning. In other words, if you think ignorance is a good thing, you’ll also think wisdom a bad thing – folly. Ignorance is bliss.
I would suggest we face a similar challenge in the evangelical church today. What do I mean? How many times have you heard statements like:
- I don’t know that much; I just love Jesus. As if that’s a good thing and ignorance is good.
- I’m not into theology. You do understand theology is the study of God.
- Doctrine just divides the church. I would suggest the absence of doctrine divides the church.
- I don’t have a system of theology, I just try to love people and do good. That’s good, I suppose, but what is good?
- Which may sound like this – what matters is social justice – with, or without the Gospel.
Have you heard or even said things like that?. And we almost celebrate ignorance, and condemn knowledge. After all, knowledge just puffs up, right? According to pollsters Gallup and Barna:
“ Americans revere the Bible – but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” George Gallup
“Increasingly, America is biblically illiterate.” George Barna – and he gives some support for that. How much so? A fairly recent Barna survey reveals fewer than half of American adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot name more than 2 or 3 of the disciples. Sixty percent of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments. “No wonder,” Barna says, “people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are.” Eighty-two percent of Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a verse in the Bible. It was in fact a Benjamin Franklin quote who was not a Christian. Now it does get better, of those who profess to be born-again Christians, only eighty-one percent said that was in the Bible. To lighten the mood, here’s some humorous results:
- 12% of adults think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
- 50% of graduating high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married – husband and wife.
- A large number of those surveyed thought the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
As Dr. Al Mohler wrote, “We are in big trouble….Americans increasingly live in a Scripture-free public space.” Meaning we live in a post-Christian America. Is it any reason, then, that the church in America, largely biblically illiterate, is unable to defend their faith? Just this week, one of my daughters mentioned a conversation with someone who visited Alliance once, but didn’t like it because, “The message was expositional, I like topical sermons better.” Then went on to suggest her preference was the prosperity gospel. You can only arrive at the prosperity gospel by ignoring the contextual teaching of Scripture. In other words, by being ignorant.
I would also suggest ignorance of biblical truth is not bliss, not be to lauded, but graciously exposed – and biblical literacy – even theology and doctrine – is to be encouraged. I will go one step further – listen carefully – to remain in biblical illiteracy, or biblical infancy, is to put your faith at risk. Several authors I read this week suggested you are either moving forward in the faith, or declining. If that is true, and I believe it is, is it any wonder churches across our country are in decline? Is it any wonder many of our professing, believing youth leave their churches, go to college, only to desert the faith? Again, biblical illiteracy, doctrinal ignorance, is not to be encouraged, but gently and firmly confronted. So says our author in our continuing study of Hebrews. Turn to Hebrews 5.
Let me remind you of the context. The author is writing to Jewish believers who were facing severe persecution. As a result, some had apparently quit their Christian faith and returned to Judaism. Others were considering doing so. So he writes to both encourage and warn them. His encouragement comes like this: Jesus and the New Covenant He brought are better. The New Covenant is better than the Old – in fact, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. As such, Jesus is better than the angels, chs. 1 and 2. He’s better than Moses and Joshua, chs. 3 and 4.
Now, the author has launched into Jesus is better than Aaron, the first high priest. As the great high priest, He’s better than any and all high priests before Him. He’s better than the old Levitical system of sacrifices. Why? Because in addition to being the fulfillment of all those OT sacrifices, Jesus comes from a better, eternal priesthood – the priesthood of Melchizedek. This subject will take us all the way to the middle of chapter 10.
Now, we’ve seen along the way, the author also issues some severe warnings. If Jesus is better, greater, the fulfillment, why would you leave? After all, Jesus promised you would suffer. He did. Why would you go back to the Old Covenant when it is simply a type pointing to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ? If Jesus is better, in fact, the only way to God as the Son of God, why would leave? To do so has disastrous, eternal consequences. We’ve seen there are five such warnings in the book:
They cover big sections in the letter. We’ve already looked at the first two. In chapter two, he said we must pay close attention to what we’ve heard so we don’t drift. If we neglect this great salvation, how will we escape judgment? We won’t. In chapters 3 and 4, he warned us not to harden our hearts like the Israelites did in the wilderness. To do so is to die in unbelief, like they did, with eternal consequences. And all along, he’s encouraging us to persevere in the faith. Don’t give up.
An so, again, he’s turned his attention to Jesus is greater than any high priest since He’s the great high priest after the order of Melchizedek. And he’ll talk about how, as such, His sacrifice is better than any sacrifice offered by the high priests under the Levitical system.
But having introduced this great high priest to us, he now takes another aside to give his third warning, stretching from chapter 5, verse 11, through chapter 6, verse 12. Many suggest this is the most severe warning in the book – some say in the NT. You say, more severe than the ones we’ve already looked at? Yes. Which is one reason why, I’ve told you many times, we go verse by verse through books – so we cover these passages we might otherwise be tempted to skip. Further, these passages give us deep teaching – doctrine – to help us grow in our faith – because ignorance is not bliss. You are either growing or declining in your faith. Let me outline this warning passage – I think you’ll find it helpful:
- The Readers Shamed (5:11-6:3) – the passage we’ll look at today.
- The Readers Warned (6:4-8)
- The Readers Encouraged (6:9-12)
- The Readers Assured (6:13-20)
I show that so you know some encouragement and assurance are coming. But this week and next are a bit challenging. But my brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant. I want you to know the Word of God. Ignorance of truth – doctrine, theology, the tough passages – is not helpful. So let’s read the text for today – The Readers Shamed. Starting in verse 10 to pick up the context. Hebrews 5:10-6:3.
So, that’s a bit challenging. He says, I want to demonstrate Jesus and His high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood and the Levitical practices. But, there’s a challenge. It is hard to explain, since you have become – not are, have become dull of hearing. This suggests they weren’t – but had become so. Because, you can’t put your Christian life in neutral. You will either grow, or decline. And declining, you may fail to persevere, and fall from the faith. Don’t fall away from Jesus – this is his overriding concern. So for today, let’s look at the text with this outline:
- Your Lack of Growth Has Put You at Risk (5:11-14)
- It’s Time to Grow Up (6:1-3)
Verses 11-14 lay out the problem. Those first two words of verse 11 could mean, concerning Jesus, or concerning Melchizedek. Or, it could be translated, concerning which, meaning, concerning Jesus and this whole priesthood of Melchizedek. As I suggested earlier, this is what he wants to talk about – he has much to say about it. But, he won’t – at least not till he gets to chapter 7. Melchizedek is dropped through chapter 6. But, after having challenged and warned them, and encouraged and assured them, he will come back to the topic.
But, he says, I can’t say much now, because you have become dull or slow or lazy of hearing. That word appears only one other time in the NT – in 6:11-12. It’s important we look at it there because he defines the opposite of being dull of hearing.
11And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end.
12so that you will not be sluggish [there’s the word], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
I want to be clear that being dull of hearing is not a physical problem – it’s a spiritual problem. It is being disinterested in the things of God – the Word of God. It is hearing like you hear elevator music or announcements at the airport – Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is a non-smoking facility – blah, blah, blah. And we hear it, but we don’t. We tune out. And it never penetrates and changes the heart. Our hearts become hard.
There’s this idea that goes around every once in a while – it’s a sin to bore people with God’s Word. I get that. The teacher, the pastor, ought to do his best to present the truth of God’s Word in interesting and compelling ways. We should work hard. But how about this, it is a sin to be bored with God’s Word. Is it possible that sometimes the problem isn’t the speaker, but the hearts of the listeners, who have become dull, slow or lazy? The opposite of spiritual dullness is diligence. That was his desire, that each of you show the same diligence, concentrated effort so as to realize full assurance of hope until the end.
A couple weeks ago, I made the statement that perseverance is proof of salvation and gives assurance. Someone came up to me afterward and suggested that was wrong – that if we point to perseverance for assurance, we take our eyes off Christ and put them on ourselves and our work. I understand what he was saying – of course, the purchase and effectiveness of our salvation come solely through the work of Christ. But the author of Hebrews – even here, says our diligence in the faith produces assurance of hope until the end. Because, faith without corresponding works is dead. Meaningless, lifeless, worthless.
Dull of hearing. The word hearing only appears one other time in the book of Hebrews – back in 4:2, “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard [there’s the word] did not profit them, because it was not united by faith…” So I would suggest dullness of hearing is apathetic, passive hearing not united with faith. What he wants is active, diligent, faithful hearing united with trust – believing what you diligently hear from the Word of God.
The author goes on, by this time you ought to be teachers. Notice, they weren’t new believers – they had been Christians for some time. So they should be able to teach or share truth. He doesn’t mean that everyone ought to be an apt-to-teach elder or a pastor standing behind the pulpit. Certainly there are those with the gift of teaching. But everyone ought to grow to the point they can teach, disciple someone in the faith. And not just in the elementary things of the faith – but the deep things. Don’t say, oh, I don’t know doctrine or theology. Then learn it. Pursue the deep teachings of the Word of God.
But instead, you have need again for someone to teach the elementary principles of the oracles of God. Lots of discussion about what that means. Elementary principles is a word we would use like the ABCs. You need someone to teach you the ABCs of the oracles of God. What is that? Again, lots of discussion, but most agree he is talking about the foundational principles of Christ as found in the Scripture – here, probably the OT. That’s what he’s getting ready to launch into in a deep way. But they have remained in the elementary ABCs of the Christian faith.
Then he contrasts the listeners – and the way they listen, and learn, and grow – with milk and solid food. Notice the end of verse 12 and verse 13, “and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.” Several thoughts. First, there’s nothing wrong with milk. Everybody needs milk as an infant. You don’t give an infant a t-bone steak. You start them with milk. But as they grow and develop, you move beyond just milk to solid food. You start with baby food, yum yum, then more substantial food.
Milk is a good thing. And we never leave it completely – it’s not a bad thing. It’s foundational to the Christian life – dare I say central to the Christian faith. But you don’t stay there. You would become stunted in your growth. You don’t see adults walking around with a bottle hanging out of their mouths. But you do see proverbial bottles, don’t you? You’ve seen people who never seemed to grow up. So also, the church is filled with Christians who never grow up. And we laud it. I don’t know theology or doctrine – don’t intend to. I just love Jesus and the gospel. Listen, Jesus and the gospel are foundational, indeed central. But that’s not all there is to the Christian faith.
Thabiti Anyabwile (not sure how to pronounce the last name) is a pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington DC and a frequent contributor to The Gospel Coalition. Just last week, he wrote an article entitled, Only Preach the Gospel? In the article, he suggests there is much more to our faith than the gospel, as central as it is. He writes, “A ‘gospel-centered’ evangelicalism that becomes a ‘gospel-only’ evangelicalism ceases to be properly evangelical…‘Gospel-only’ Christianity even creates a hearing impairment. When well-intentioned Christians discipled to be ‘gospel-only’ hear parts of the Bible outside their ‘only’ grid, they actually respond as if it’s something foreign to the Bible and faith.” He’s right – and agrees with the author of Hebrews.
If you only drink the milk of the word, you remain an infant, unaccustomed to the word of righteousness, that is, an understanding of the righteous life the faith requires. But he goes on in verse 14, “But solid food if for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Do you see that? Because they have been diligent to go deep in the things of Christ and the Word of God, their senses have been trained, they’ve become mature to know good and evil. Morality. Right from wrong. Is it any wonder churches across our country are accepting and even affirming things the Scripture clearly speaks against? Professing believers affirm things like homosexuality and abortion and premarital sex and pornography – after all, who are we to judge? Who does it hurt? And yet, the Scripture is clear. But because we have become dull of hearing – we, the church, can no longer speak in the public square on issues of morality – because we don’t know them.
So what’s the solution? Very quickly, verses 1-3, it’s time to grow up. We still need the foundational truths of the Christian faith – that’s why we’re about to observe communion by the way – to be reminded of the gospel. It’s central to our gathering. But it’s time to grow up.
So what’s the solution? Verse 1 of chapter 6 is interesting. You would expect him to say, so since you need milk, here you go. He doesn’t. He’s pointed out it’s time to move on. Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying a foundation again… It’s time to leave these spiritual ABCs. Then he goes on to list six foundational things which form three pairs:
- repentance from dead works and faith toward God
- instruction about washings and laying on of hands
- resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment
To what do these refer? OT teachings which point to the Christ, or foundational gospel NT teachings? For example, is he saying it’s time to leave foundational teaching about repentance from dead works – that is, the works of the law – and move on to faith toward God – because the OT law will never save? Or is he saying, we know about repentance, turning from sin which leads to death – and we’ve turned to faith in Christ? Regardless, it all ultimately points to Christ. So he’s saying it’s time to move on from foundational OT truths to fulfilled NT truth found in Christ and the gospel to things like His high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.
Instruction about washings and laying on of hands – what’s this? The word washings is the plural word for baptisms. What does that mean? Is he talking about ceremonial washing? The baptism of repentance found with John the Baptist? Is he talking about Christian baptism and its foundational nature – administered after people became believers. Laying on of hands – found through both testaments – what’s he talking about? The placing of Aaron and his descendents into the priesthood? Or the NT practice of ordaining men to gospel ministry. Or is it receiving the Holy Spirit and His gifts through the laying on of hands? Regardless – it’s all foundational.
Of course the resurrection and future judgment are also found in both testaments. This is our blessed hope – that we will be resurrected like Jesus because of His finished work, and we will stand the judgment, because of His finished work. We know that.
The point is this: these are important, foundational, basic truths. Glorious truths, yes. Truths taught in the OT and fulfilled in Christ. It’s time to be able to talk about these mature themes – which he will do in chapters 7 and following – but we have to grow up! We must not think ignorance is bliss. We must pursue faithful, biblical maturity. We must be done with this, “I love Jesus, but don’t care much for doctrine” nonsense.
We must be diligent to grow toward maturity. And this we will do, if God permits. This is simply the author’s way of saying, Lord willing. Of course God is willing that we move on toward maturity. But it, like all the Christian life – from inception, through perseverance, to faithful end, takes the sovereign and gracious work of God’s hand.
To be clear, we never leave the gospel. It is, after all, of first importance. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of first importance,