When we think of encouraging others we often think of a nice person coming up to us and giving us a good pep talk that leaves us emotionally bolstered and ready to give even more of ourselves to a cause. I think of the letters and cards I received in November for pastor appreciation month and I look on them in fondness.
We think of God’s command to Moses in Deut. 3:28 But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” Come along and make sure that Joshua realizes he can do it. Stand behind him and get him ready. We think the idiom, “Behind every great man is a woman,” and we know that is true because wives keep our spirits up and believe in us when everyone and everything else seems to be against us. We think of Judas and Silas encouraging the brothers in Antioch with the findings of the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15. In general, our word encourage is strictly limited to the idea of giving confidence and support to someone.
And anyone who has spent much time with Ken Wick or Herm Laninga knows that these two men excel at this type of encouragement. I enjoy their presence because of it, and I am learning from them how to do it.
And that is a major part of helping people to grow up into Christ. Everyone needs words of adulation. People need words to spur them on in the faith. People thrive when someone believes in them and calls them forth. Parents are a great example of this. What happens when a parent tells a kid often that they can be and do anything? Kids thrive. My parents always told me that anything I set myself to I could do. And I believed them; I went to college, then to seminary. My wife believes that I can be a compassionate person and she continues to tell me this often. And I believe it more and more. Some day I just might be as cuddly as a fuzzy teddy bear. One day early in my college years, an upperclassman believed that I could lead scripture and encouraged me to get some training from InterVarsity, now look at what God is doing with me. These things and so many more things in my life and yours too, have happened because someone believed in us and called us forth.
But there is another side to encouragement that we don’t often talk about. Encouragement often takes great courage on behalf of one person to approach another. The very word encourage comes from two roots: in and courage. Sometimes is takes courage for a person to walk up to another and tell them the potential they see in their life. At other times it takes courage because saying you believe in someone can backfire on you if the person proves incompetent or unable to live up to the task at hand. I think of Barnabas walking up to Paul, which took courage. But there is another reason why it can take courage to call someone or a group of people into their full potential. Would you like to know why that is?
It can take courage because sometimes the best encouragement we can give someone is to speak hard words to him or her. I was listening to a sermon by Francis Chan, that Rockelle Ruiter sent me a few months back. In the message, Mr. Chan makes the audacious statement: “I am concerned that many of you in this church, may not be saved.” He then went on to outline a list of supporting reasons of which being apathetic and lukewarm were at the top. He closed by asking each listener to consider if they are on fire for Christ, or think that they have enough of him and don’t want any more. That took courage.
Our passage in Hebrews 5:11-6:12 is full of words of encouragement, but they are also words of challenge. They are words calling people forth into their full potential as members of Christ’s body and if you or I were to go to someone and speak these words, it would take an amazing amount of courage on our behalf because the message that the author of Hebrews brings to his audience is challenging.
I am not going to get into every nuance of this passage, to do that would take a sermon much longer than many would be willing to hear. But what I want to ask this morning is this: “What does spiritual growth and Christ-like maturity look like in this passage?”
Heb 5:11 begins with these words, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.” And our section closes in 6:12 with these words, “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” What is the this that is being referred, for it relates very intimately with growing in the faith?
If we back up just a bit we find that Jesus is being heralded as the great high priest who offers the final sacrifice for our sins. But why did Jesus do this you may ask? Hebrews 5:8 gives us a wonderful insight that is very much related to spiritual growth and maturity. It says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” It seems to me that Jesus’ obedience and subsequent perfection are what the author is referring to when we says we have much to say about this but it is hard to explain… Why is it hard to explain? Not because the material is difficult to comprehend. It is fairly simple to understand, Jesus obeyed the father and submitted to his authority and leading. He cried in the garden, not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42). Philippians 2 picks up the theme of obedience and submission as it talks of Christ’s humility and subsequent exaltation. The material is fairly straightforward: Christ obeyed the Father. So why is it hard to explain? Because you [the recipients] are slow to learn.
John Brown, one of the Scottish Presbyterians of the 1800’s wrote, “It is common in all languages…to describe mental habits in terms properly expressive of the exercise of the external senses. Thus we call a man of distinct perceptions clear-sighted; a man of uncommon sagacity and acuteness, far-sighted; a man of confused and limited thought, short- or dim-sighted. To be ‘dull of hearing’ is descriptive of that state of mind in which statements may be made without producing any adequate corresponding impression –without being attended to –without being understood –without being felt.” P.264-5.
It is hard to explain Christ’s obedience and perfection to a people who themselves fail to obey God. Literally, the author has called them ‘lazy as to their ears to obey.’ These churchgoers aren’t getting the gospel, they aren’t maturing because they aren’t moving on in their life from hearing to obeying and submitting to God. They are reading the scriptures, but they aren’t applying them to life. They think they understand the message, but they are stuck at the preliminary things. They are stuck on milk, instead of moving onto meat.
That isn’t to say that milk is bad and meat is good. Both of them are wonderful and both of them are needed in a diet. But if we were to find a grown man of 30 or 60 years still content to drink from a bottle, never having tasted a salmon or a steak, we would consider him odd. Well, the same analogy applies to the Christian life. When believers are young, they need basic instruction in Christian doctrine. This doctrine includes repentance from sin. Agreeing that there are actions and thoughts we do which are offensive to God and lead us away from his presence. It includes understanding that God saves us in Christ. It includes an understanding that ritual washing don’t make us clean, nor does john’s baptism of repentance, but what truly cleanses the soul of a person is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is pictured in the sacrament of water baptism. But the two are not identical and water baptism doesn’t guarantee spiritual baptism and cleansing. Christians need to understand that with the laying on of hands comes spiritual power to lead and govern and serve in the body. Basic Christian doctrine includes the teaching that everyone will arise, some to life and some to eternal punishment. These are the basic teachings of Scripture, which are considered milk. But each of these things and countless other simple things must then be applied to how one lives their life. The teaching about righteousness and the distinguishing good and evil must come after one learns the basics.
If a person never progresses beyond a mere knowledge of these things they are living on milk.[i] But every believer ought to teach these things because they are obediently living into them as well. We ought to be teachers the word says, teachers who obediently submit to their Lord, just as Jesus submitted to the Father.
So the first question we must wrestle with as we consider spiritual maturity is this: Are we obedient to our Lord, or are we slow to obey and in need of hard words of encouragement? Do we need someone to challenge us to live into our calling as Christians who are citizens of another world, residing in this world? We all know that Christians are called to forgive; spiritual encouragement calls us to look at our lives and see whom we are not forgiving, or whom we are harboring a grudge towards and to take the step of obedience. Is there someone you need to forgive?
We all know Christians are supposed to be generous people. Do our use of time and money reflect the great generosity of the savior or are we miserly and selfish? Is God calling you to generosity? We all know Christians are supposed to love their enemies and pray for them. Does our prayer life reflect this and extend beyond our family concerns or the four walls of the church? Are we praying for those who want the faith stomped out? Is God calling you to a life of prayer and intercession? We all know that Christians are called to evangelize others and share the good news. Is our speech seasoned with salt? “[Count] Zinzendorf was never embarrassed or self-conscious in talking about his Savior. He once wrote, “Carriages are a good mission field. I always ask fellow passengers, ‘Would you like to hear about the grace given to me?’” Is God calling you to share the gospel with family members, children, friends, co-workers, or possibly even complete strangers? To the elders and deacons, you know that your charge calls you to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the church. Are you visiting you districts? Are you praying regularly for the church, its members and ministry? Are you executing your calling in a manner worthy of Christ? Is God calling you to truly shepherd his people?
These are questions that each of must answer. And in fear and trepidation, I urge you to be truthful with yourself and to wrestle with the words Paul asks, “am I slow to learn?”
And the second thing we must consider: Are we teaching others about the elementary truths of God’s word? We ought to be. Sure, we are not all gifted as teachers, but we are all capable of teaching the foundations of the faith. There is no reason why each of us ought not be able to teach someone about these. It is the gospel presentation we are talking about: repentance, faith, baptism, power, resurrection and judgment. Later this year I will be coving each of these as we work through a series on the Heidelberg Catechism, for those who may be a bit fuzzy on these issues.
This is the basic milk of the faith. What, then, is spiritual meat? The text defines is as the teaching about righteousness…who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:13-14). And in order to expand that idea, the author talks about lands that produce crops and lands that don’t. The mature are those who are producing a crop of righteousness. Fruitfulness comes by walking in the light. IT comes by walking in submission to Christ just as Christ walked in submission to God the Father. Fruitfulness is the result of obedience. Spiritual maturity is about obedience and submission to God; it accompanies salvation.
That is why the author encourages his audience to not become lazy [as they have unto this point], but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised (Heb 6:12). We are to imitate, to mimeograph, to copy the life of others. That doesn’t mean we are to go out and do the exact things that Moses, Abraham, Rahab, or Joseph did. We aren’t to copy in entirety the lives of the judges or the prophets, but we are called to imitate their faith. A faith that the author later tells us caused these heroes to live in certain ways of obedience and submission to God. Each of them followed God’s leading and direction in a special way. Abel submitted to God’s requirement for a blood offering; Noah submitted to God’s call to build an ark. Abraham submitted to God and left his country, then went to sacrifice his son based upon God’s command. Moses submitted to God and returned to Egypt and led the people out of slavery. Gideon submitted to god and defeated the occupying army with 300 men, trumpets and jars. Elijah submitted and slew the prophets of Baal and so on. And it all culminated in Christ who submitted to the will of God completely, and he died on the cross thus ushering in the New Covenant.
Where is God calling you? Are you submitting? Or do you need a little courage speech from your fellow brothers and sisters to spur you on to obedience? I am here to encourage you both with words of sweetness, but also with words that may be more akin to a cattle prod. There is a need for both in the area of spiritual growth. Let me assure you that there isn’t a biography in history that I know of where a person of faith, on their deathbed proclaimed, “I wish I hadn’t followed Jesus so closely.” In fact, quite the opposite is true, there are plenty who testify to the desire to have been more obedient to the call of God upon their life.
Submission and obedience are the keys to spiritual growth and maturity. Sure you have to understand the basics, but if we want to mature in Christ, we must obey his words. Jesus himself said, John 15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command. That is why later in the letter, we are told to Heb. 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. As we look at the Scriptures and see the characters who are held out for emulating, as we look at those in recent history or centuries past, we will find an amazing thread running through their lives: Submission to God and obedience to his word played a key role in their spiritual growth.
George Müller was a great man of the church precisely because he obeyed God and cared for the orphans of Bristol England. His obedience wrought in him maturity and faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenged the church of German to stand against Nazism precisely because he submitted to God and obeyed the Gospel commands to preach against sin and proclaim life. Amy Carmichael saved 1000’s of girls from prostitution in India’s temples in the early 1900’s. Amy understood spiritual maturity, “While serving in India, Amy received a letter from a young lady who was considering life as a missionary. She asked Amy, “What is missionary life like?” Amy wrote back saying simply, “Missionary life is a simple chance to die.”” Die to one’s self and live to the Lord. That is Submission.
Spiritual maturity is defined by one’s submission to God. Can you say like Paul, 1Cor. 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ? If you can’t, and I think there are very few who can, then encouraging each other to spiritual maturity is going to involve a lot of difficult conversations between people where we call each other out of laziness and into, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A long obedience in the same direction.” And that direction is marked by self-denial and submissive obedience to the word of God.
May Christ be glorified as we learn to obey! For the road we walk is hard, but the destination of Spiritual Maturity is none other than conformity to Christ and God permitting we 2Cor. 3:18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
[i] What is fascinating is that the author assumes that every believer ought to be able to teach others about these things. He writes, 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! (Heb 5:12). I believe, like the author of Hebrews, that every Christian is capable of being a teacher of God’s word. The word tells us that the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (Jn 14:26). Since the Holy Spirit lives in each of us and teaches us, we are all capable of speaking about these simple things, in fact Peter tells us 1Pet. 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. Our reason for hope rests in these basic foundations of the faith: repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in god, instruction about baptism, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (Heb 6:1-2).