P. G. Mathew | Sunday, February 4, 2007
Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
Hindrances to Muscular Christianity
The writer begins this section, "I have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn" (Heb. 5:11). The recurring theme of the book of Hebrews is the high priesthood of Jesus Christ after the order of Melchizedek. But the church of the Hebrews, now about thirty years old, was not mentally equipped to understand this doctrine and live out its vital implications. This doctrine demands muscular, not mushy, Christians. It requires adult Christians, not ones who desire to regress to infancy.
The Hebrews were not growing intellectually because advanced knowledge of Christianity demanded that they forsake Judaism with its laws, covenant, and high priesthood, and follow Jesus Christ as the perfect high priest. It demanded continued suffering for the gospel, and these people had grown tired of being persecuted. They said, "No more of this denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus to death." They wanted a religion that entertained them, a religion of escape and mental inactivity. They were not ready to go to heaven; they wanted to live a little in the here and now.
These people were in danger of abandoning the true gospel that includes suffering and high spiritual discipline to embrace a trouble-free gospel of peace, health, and affluence at all costs. They wanted a second childhood in which they would be taken care of and not have to assume any responsibility, especially the responsibility of evangelizing and making disciples. They said, "Don't give us the solid food of Christian thought. We'll just take a little colored sugar water. We want to become children again."
This is the reality in many churches today. There is the idea that it is time to enjoy life, not to suffer for Christ. It is as if people were declaring, "Don't teach us doctrines. Don't even speak about basic Christianity! We will fill the church, but only if you stop preaching the truth of God's word and start speaking pleasant things to amuse us."
So the author takes time to warn these Hebrews about their spiritual inertia, mental laziness, and regression into childhood. He has already warned them several times: "We must pay more careful attention . . . Therefore, holy brothers, fix your thoughts on Jesus . . . Do not harden your hearts . . . See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful and unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God . . . Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it . . . Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession" (Heb. 2:1; 3:1, 8, 12; 4:1, 14).
He gives another warning in this passage-a warning against enemies of muscular Christianity. What are these enemies?
Delighting in Laziness
The first enemy of muscular Christianity is a delight in laziness. The author wants to discuss the gloriously liberating doctrine of the Melchizedekian high priesthood of Christ. But he finds it difficult to do so, not because he is incapable of expressing it clearly, or because the doctrine is shrouded in mystery, but because the people he is addressing had become mentally lazy. So it was not the pastor's problem nor the problem of the doctrine; it was the people's problem. This pastor-author uses the word n˘thros, "not pushing," which is translated here "slow to learn," meaning his listeners were not putting forth intellectual effort. This word is used again in Hebrews 6:12. These people were not working hard to understand the gospel they were hearing. It is also used in the Septuagint version of Proverbs to mean "sluggard" when addressing those who refused to do hard work.
The church of the Hebrews was filled with spiritual sluggards. This was a strong rebuke from their pastor. Theirs was not a natural intellectual deficiency but an acquired one. These people willfully refused to understand the gospel with its liberating implications, and then refused to believe what they did understand. They had become like the soils that did not produce any fruit, for without the root of understanding, they could not produce any fruit of obedience. About such people Jesus said, "When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart" (Matt. 13:19). They stood in stark contrast to the good soil: "But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (v. 23).
We cannot stand still in the Christian life: we are either advancing or backsliding. The Hebrews seemed to be working hard to go backward, like someone going the wrong way on an escalator. It is a revolt against spiritual maturity.
We find this idea throughout the Bible. In Ezekiel 12 the Lord says, "Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but they do not hear, for they are a rebellious people" (v. 2). Jeremiah asks, "To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it" (Jer. 6:10). The word of God is designed to give us unending joy. Yet these people found it offensive and rejected it.
Jesus quotes Isaiah: "This is why I speak to them in parables: 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.' In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them'" (Matt. 13:13-15). Elsewhere he warns, "Therefore consider carefully how you listen" (Luke 8:18). Faith comes by hearing. If we fail to understand, how can we believe and enter the saints' everlasting rest?
The Hebrews failed to put forth effort and exercise their mental faculties. They became passive, desiring only to be entertained. But such passivity produces only perpetual babies. God's revelation is always coming to us through our parents, teachers, and pastors. But after some time, it becomes mere noise without any propositional revelation-not because their words ceased to be revelational, but because we become so accustomed to them that we cease to pay attention.
What are we hearing when the word of God is preached? Is it just static, just mere noise? If so, may God take the wax out of our spiritual ears. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is speaking to the churches" (cf. Rev. 2 and 3).
Delight in Second Childhood
The second hindrance is delight in second childhood. These people had enough time to learn, graduate, and become teachers. They had enough time to become the parents of spiritual children by evangelizing and discipling others. (PGM) But like many people today who refuse to have children so that they can have a good life for themselves, these Hebrews refused to father children and teach them. They refused to produce the fruit, more fruit, and much fruit that comes from abiding in Christ and his teachings.
Paul understood this problem of immaturity: "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready" (1 Cor. 3:1-2). In 1 Peter 3 we see what mature believers are expected to do: "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" (v. 15). Evangelizing, gospeling, teaching, discipling, becoming mature adults-this is muscular Christianity.
The text tells us these people had an obligation to teach others, but they refused to do their duty due to self-centeredness. Not wanting to grow up, they became like the fig tree that produced no fruit for the master. So the master came and said, "Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?" (Luke 13:7). They were regressing into the comfort zone of a second childhood, like college seniors blissfully going back to kindergarten. They needed to be taught the elementary and foundational teachings, the ABCs of divine revelation, which are listed in Hebrews 6:1-2.
The writer was saying, "You still need milk, not the solid food of this great teaching of Christ's high priesthood." Parents want their children to eat solid food so that they can grow up, be responsible, and produce children. But to eat solid food, we need teeth and the ability to digest such food. Modern evangelicals are undergoing a second childhood experience like that of the Hebrews. In fact, many do not even want to drink the milk of the basic gospel; they prefer the colored sugar water that lacks spiritual nutrition. Such a diet can never produce the muscular, death-defying, cross-bearing Christianity that Paul experienced: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-14).
The Hebrew Christians wanted to go back to childhood because children do not have to be responsible for themselves, experience suffering, or produce children. It is the duty of others to feed, carry, clean, and entertain them. Whenever they cry, someone comes. They can make a mess and someone else will take care of it.
Childhood is a beautiful stage of life, but second childhood is a monstrosity. Every normal child wants to grow up as quickly as possible. But the Hebrews wanted to revert to childhood. They refused to become responsible adults.
Those who drink milk, the writer says, are inexperienced and unskilled in the "word of righteousness" (author's translation). They do not want to learn or teach others about being right with God through Christ's righteousness. They are mentally lazy. Instead of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, they have a blank look, and sometimes even fall asleep, when serious doctrines are taught. Thus, they remain immature and weak. They are not interested in learning how to live a holy life; they want to live the way they please. They will confess Jesus as Savior but never as Lord. They want to be babies forever.
These Hebrews were enjoying their second childhood and gloried in being stupid, lazy, and infantile. They liked to be hugged, kissed, praised, and spoken to in gibberish. But such arrested development is not normal for Christians. Paul exhorts us to stretch our minds: "Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil, be infants, but in your thinking be adults" (1 Cor. 14:20). Elsewhere, in writing about God's goal for his people, he says: "It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him, who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph. 4:11-15). Again, Paul says, "When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" (1 Cor. 13:11).
Hatred of Discipline
The third hindrance to muscular Christianity is hatred of discipline, which leads to an incapacity to discern correctly. As lazy infants who prefer the baby food of stories and entertainment, such people cannot eat meat because they have no spiritual teeth. They have no experience with the "word of righteousness." They sleep through family devotions and worship services, especially when the pastor preaches the gospel with all power and unction. They have no delight in regular, methodical, and painstaking Bible study. Therefore, they lack the ability to discern and make decisions correctly. They are like Esau, who married pagan wives, though he was a member of the covenant and circumcised by his godly father, Isaac. They are like Judah, who chose to have sexual relations with a presumed temple prostitute, though he was a covenant son of the patriarch Jacob.
Because these people refuse to acquaint themselves with God's standard of life revealed in the Bible, they lack wisdom and cannot discriminate between good and evil. This is the nature of perpetual babyhood. Children are known for their lack of judgment. Unattended, they may even eat mud, poison, and whatever else their little hands find, including their own dung.
Spiritual babies are cultural conformists and spiritual chameleons. With their foggy, undiscerning minds, they say, "Pre-marital sex is okay. Pornography is okay. Abortion is okay. Homosexuality is okay. Divorce is okay. Lying is okay. It is okay for my parents to take care of me in my thirties, forties, and fifties. Don't most people work too much and try too hard to succeed? I think it is better to relax and not be very serious about studying. Not only that, why should we evangelize anyone? Don't all religions teach the same thing?"
Such people lack judgment because they refuse to discipline their mental faculties in the "word of righteousness." Christians are to hear and do the word of God until obedience becomes their second nature. Jesus himself said we are to hear and do these things. Such people, however, refuse to become athletic muscular Christians of great discernment and judgment, competent to make correct decisions and counsel in every life situation.
Mature muscular Christians are those who have disciplined themselves in acquiring the wisdom of the word (cf. Psalms 1, 19, and 119). When we love discipline, we will be spiritual people who can make judgments about all things, yet are not subject to any man's judgment (1 Cor. 2:15). We will be like young Joseph, who lived a life of godly discipline even when he was in Egypt. When approached by Potiphar's wife, he said, "How can I do this wicked thing and sin against God?" It is not that he just came up with this idea; he spoke that way because he had a habit of godly living and knew that adultery is against God's word. We will be like Daniel, who refused to defile himself by eating food not permitted by the word of God. We will be like the three young Hebrew men who, because they had lived in godliness all their lives, decided to suffer death rather than worshiping the image of gold.
Discipline gives us the habit and power to make right decisions and stick with them. Muscular Christians are strong in spirit to choose always what is in accord with God's word. They have the power of the habit of godliness, which then manifests itself in successful lives. The enemy of muscular Christianity is a detestation of discipline-spiritual, regular exercise in godliness. Those who detest spiritual discipline are weak and self-indulgent. They are incapable of resisting even the weakest form of temptation.
Professor Guthrie said that muscular Christianity "comes neither from isolated events nor from a great spiritual burst. It comes from a steady application of spiritual discipline" (Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 136). Isaiah 40 speaks about such spiritual power: "[God] gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (vv. 29-31). Paul, a great spiritual athlete and a muscular Christian, tells us, "Have nothing to do with godlessness and old wives' tales; rather, train yourselves to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8). In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul tells us how he disciplined himself to become a muscular Christian.
Due to his habit of exercising his mental faculties in God's word, a muscular Christian is able to judge what is right before God and what is evil, and embrace the good and reject the evil. Like Jesus, he would say, "It is written, so I decide to do this and not that." A baby Christian has no such capacity and tends to choose evil rather than good.
A muscular Christian will walk in the way outlined for him in the word: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10). Led by the Spirit and the Scripture, he makes steady progress forward to attain the maturity of knowing Christ. Walking in the narrow way and avoiding the broad way, he loves righteousness and hates wickedness. As a spiritual adult, he will be always advancing in his knowledge of God. From glory to glory, he is being changed. Such a person is a wise man. What a blessing it is to listen to such a wise Christian adult! His mouth is always pouring out the wisdom of living water.
We refuse to conform to the regression and preferred retardation of the evangelical and charismatic world. We do not give colored sugar water; we teach the word of God. Our goal is to present everyone mature in Christ. Let us, therefore, determine to stop being undiscerning, lazy, culturally conforming babies, and begin to work hard to become muscular, athletic Christians. May we be soldiers of Christ, faithfully exercising ourselves in godliness. May we hear and do God's word until it becomes a habit in our lives to know the will of God and delightfully do it, that we may be changed from glory to glory until we attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-15). May we glory in godliness and, as mature people, produce and disciple spiritual children, that they too may grow up in the knowledge of God.
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Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
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