September 9

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Luke 21:1-9; Hebrews 5:1-6:3; Proverbs 21:1-16; Isaiah 36

Hebrews 5 continues the discussion of Jesus as high priest that began in the previous chapter. In 5:11, the author makes an abrupt change and returns to his discussion of God’s word. He had pointed out that Scripture exposes the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. This teaching had, apparently, been falling on deaf ears. They had not been eagerly engaging with God and his Word in a way that was leading to spiritual growth. The author realises they were not spiritually mature enough to understand the deeper issues is what beginning to address.

He calls his audience ‘slow to learn’ (Hebrews 5:11). The Greek here does not mean people who have intellectual difficulties with tough material. It carries the sense of negligence in their responsibilities. The term was also used for athletes who were out of shape, or workers who did not follow instructions. The problem is not the difficulty of what needs to be done, but the attitude of the person towards what they should be doing. Given how long these people had been Christians, they should have progressed from a basic understanding of the Bible to deeper engagement with more difficult issues.

This passage acknowledges that some biblical passages and teachings are complex and challenging. Part of the marvel of Scripture is that it is simple enough for children to grasp, yet deep enough for scholars to spend their careers digging out nuggets. The original audience had settled for the children’s version. Sadly, many surveys (like those of the Barna Group) show that the same can be said of many contemporary Christians.

Apart from losing the joy of knowing God through his Word, those who do not engage deeply with the Bible limit their understanding of righteousness and how to distinguish good from bad (Hebrews 5:13-14). If we struggle to act ethically or cannot figure out the difference between what is ethical and unethical, the problem may lie in our lack of time and effort engaging with the Word of God. The underlying premise of my daily reflections is that studying God’s Word is necessary to help us with the ethical questions we face. We must take the time to train ourselves to use God’s Word accurately (2 Timothy 2:15).

Hebrews 5:14 suggests that ‘constant use’ of the Bible allows us to distinguish good from bad. This term is an example of where we need to dig deeper in our study. In spite of (or maybe because of) how widely this verse is translated this way, the Greek word does not mean ‘constant use.’ The problem goes all the way back to when the Vulgate translation of the Bible was made and the wrong Latin word was chosen. This is the only verse where this Greek word was used in the New Testament, although it occurred widely in Greek literature. Its meaning is the mental or physical condition that results from practice. For athletes, it referred to the resulting fitness, not the training itself. Use of the Bible should result in spiritual fitness (or maturity), and this condition leads us to be able to distinguish good from bad. A better translation would be: ‘But solid food is for adults, who because of their mature state have their senses trained to distinguish between good and bad.’ (JAL Lee, Novum Testamentum 1997;39(2):151-76).

This interpretation connects well with Hebrews 4. The Word of God should pierce our inner selves so that we grow and develop into mature Christians. As Proverbs 21:2 puts it, we may think we know what is right, but God examines our hearts. We may use the Bible, but do we allow it to judge the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12)? We should allow it to change us, leading to spiritual maturity which helps us know right from wrong.

We might have expected the author to now start a review of basic doctrine. Instead, he calls on his audience to leave behind their infant formula and get stuck into meaty material (Hebrews 6:1-3). Out-of-shape athletes do not start the season by taking a leisurely walk; they go into training camp and challenging their bodies and minds. While there are limits to this, both physically and with the Word, we sometimes baby ourselves too much. The author encourages his audience to engage with challenging theological concepts, relying on God’s help as they do so (Hebrews 6:3). The following chapters of Hebrews provide several examples of such difficult passages.

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