I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able (1 Corinthians 3:2)
Note the past tense verb, gave milk, referring to times in the past when Paul taught the Corinthians milk because they were not ready for meat and that was okay; but the poignant criticism is indeed, even now, you are not yet able. Even now, still, at this point they were not able, when in reality they should have been much more mature and able to think as spiritual men, feeding on the meat of the Word.
These words of Paul are not only words of chastisement, discipline, but also words of hurt. Paul had been involved in seeking to mature the Corinthians for about five years, but to no avail. According to W. Robertson Nicoll, “Paul had attempted to carry his Corinthian converts further, but had failed.” The heart of Paul, or anyone who works to mature others in the faith, is conveyed by the words of the Apostle John who said, “I have no greater joy than this to hear of my children walking in truth” (3 John 4). A.T. Robertson said, “It is one of the tragedies of the minister’s life that he has to keep on speaking to the church members ‘as unto babes in Christ’…who actually glory in their long babyhood.” For Christians to mature, the pastor must be solemnly devoted to maturing the believers in the flock of which God has given him oversight, but the people must also desire to mature (1 Peter 2:2).
Alas, some men of God who have been called to be a pastor/teacher in order to mature the saints give up consistently teaching the deep truths of the whole counsel of the Word of God, an essential component of maturing Christians. This transpires when the shepherd avoids taking them deeper and deeper into learning about and knowing God. Why, you ask? I believe a major reason is because maturing is a slow and tedious process, and pastors often see little progress for all of their personal labor in the deep things of God, even in those who desire maturing. Or he eventually acquiesces to the relentless resistance from the carnal—or lost members—who inwardly revel in being fleshly and desire for the shepherd to feed their flesh rather than their newborn spirit.
They take every opportunity to discourage him not to take them into meat; they seek to extol the shepherd based upon worldly traits, not for spiritually maturing them. Sometimes these shepherds begin quite subtly to move away from spending time in solitude, plumbing deeper and deeper into the mind, will, and heart of God. Inevitably, this leads them to grow more and more satisfied with their own mediocrity, humanness, and accolades for being everything but a “broker of truth” who is solemnly dedicated to the maturity of the flock. Later, often too late, they look back and see that they valued the kudos of worldliness more than the call of God upon their lives. That is the tragedy of tragedies.
The milk of the Word is required for every Christian, and meat is required for every Christian to mature. I suggest the following as some of the characteristics of and differences between the milk and the meat of the Word.
- It is true
- It is the simple truths of the gospel and Scripture
- It is necessary and good
- It is loved by even the mature
- It pervades and permeates all doctrines and passages
- It is not meat
- All meat contains some milk, but milk does not contain meat
- It raises questions answered only by meat
- It provides essential but limited growth
- It requires little thinking or labor in Scripture
- It does not provide in-depth or detailed understanding of Scripture, God, or His work, will, and ways
- It does not result in maturity regardless how many times it is heard, said, quoted, or prayed
Milk is basic truth whereas meat contains milk but it also adds depth, breadth, and detail to the basic truths—milk—which provides a framework for better comprehension and coherence of the other truths and details of Scripture. In other words, without meat it is impossible to coalesce the truths of Scripture into one complete, accurate, and coherent message from God.
The following illustrates the point of how one moves from milk into meat. John 3:16 is a verse known and loved by all believers whether they are an infant or a mature seasoned sage of the faith. Some of the milk of the verse is the truth that Jesus is the Savior, and He loves us and died for our sin. God offers eternal life to anyone who believes in Him. One then moves from milk to meat with questions that naturally arise out of pondering the extraordinary “milk” truths of the verse like: Who is God, what God, what is He like, what kind of love is this, what does “world” mean, why must one believe and what does “believe” entail, how is Jesus the Savior, and what is it that one is saved from? How can Jesus be fully man and fully God, and does this mean that God died? How can one man’s death atone for the sin of the whole world, etc.? As we ponder questions generated by milk, by exploring biblical answers one naturally moves to meat. In this process, one is continually faced with the reality that the meat of the Word is experienced at varying degrees of depth.
The indictment against the Corinthians was not that they lacked teaching; they had Paul, Apollos, and apparently knew Peter. Nor was it that they lacked sufficient time to have moved beyond infancy and a steady diet of milk because Paul and others had been working with them for five years. The indictment was based upon the fact that their prolonged infancy was by their own choosing, a clear badge of carnality. They chose to remain on a milk diet and to devotedly eschew meat. They were thinking and acting like baby Christians and people who did not even know Christ. They needed to learn in order to live and communicate meat lest they remain in an ungodly state of having “a zeal for God but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
Peter tells believers, “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). The emphasis of this verse is upon desire not milk. In other words, believers are to desire the Word not merely the milk of the Word. The Holy Spirit warns, “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant” (Hebrews 5:13). Every believer is to pursue maturing as a believer through feeding on the meat of the Word of God in order to think and live more consistently within the will of God. Hebrews reminds us of the inextricable connection between meat and godly living, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
Paul also warns the Corinthians concerning their immaturity about spiritual gifts, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). In Romans, Paul stated the harsh reality of thinking like a lost person, and this is true whether one is lost or carnal. He says, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:6–7). Clearly he is articulating the state of a lost person, but although the Corinthians were Christians, they were acting like lost men whose knowledge and wisdom were derived from man rather than God as revealed in His Word.
That is the plight of the carnal; carnality is evidenced by a desire for and satisfaction with milk. One may rightly ask, “But why would one choose to continue feeding upon milk only?” One major reason is that spiritual growth requires desire, work, sacrifice, and abandoning fleshly thinking and behavior in order to embrace maturity. This process is one of denying the flesh, and the flesh does not go quietly into servility, a place of unmet cravings, and no present influence. Spiritual maturity strengthens the inner man’s governance in one’s life (Romans 7:22, 12:2; Ephesians 3:16; Colossians 3:10), which necessitates resisting and subduing the passions of the flesh. The flesh does not liefly relinquish control; therefore, spiritual growth is nothing less than spiritual warfare (Galatians 5:16–18; 1 Peter 2:11–12).
Once a person is saved, then the challenge is to grow in “respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Each step of growth is the process of walking in the Spirit, strengthening the inner person, and denying the flesh. Rightly understood, these steps are absolutely contrary to the desires of the flesh, contrary to the wisdom of the age, and beyond the power of the flesh to simulate; consequently, it is a humbling process indeed. It means not only embracing Christ in faith for salvation’s sake, but also bringing “every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and defining words, thoughts, and actions by the revelation of God rather than the wisdom of man. Carnality can be very subtle, for on the one hand, the person can be saved, very involved in the church, and demonstrate—or claim—a level of love for the Word of God. This even to the point of giving some appearance of real love for God’s will, but inwardly, they reject meat and only accept milk.
Remember that one of the realities of milk is that of declaration, and one of the characteristics of meat is that of detail. One may often embrace the ideas contained in milk and either utterly or practically reject the meat. In other words, one may accept the command to “love your wife as Christ loves the church” and reject the meat, which provides detail to what that actually means, looks like, and what is necessary to fulfil the challenge. These simply accept the milk and reject the meat because they do not chafe under the idea of love (milk), but only under what this kind of love really means and involves, like dying to self (meat).
The carnal mind will accept the command to love and simultaneously reject God’s definition of what love really involves. Consequently, a husband may say a hearty “amen” when the preacher quotes “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). However, he does not want to explore deeply what that means because then he will have to die to self, mature, and sacrifice, and that is what deliberate carnality abhors. The carnal mind wants to define divine love according to very personal human standards.
Other examples might include the biblical command to give. The carnal may very well accept the milk teaching on giving, but the carnal mind will eschew the meat teaching so that they remain in total control of how, how much, why, for what, etc. You see the carnal mind, whether in one who is lost or saved, is never in subjection to the law of God and is actually hostile toward God, (Romans 8:7). Paul is dealing with the Corinthians as he would the lost minded. They are acting like the lost because they are thinking like the lost. They have not, nor are they willing to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
The apostles, as well as all teachers, are responsible to teach milk and meat. Jesus gave the Great Commission saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20). (italics added) The apostle Paul said, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Selective learning (knowingly avoiding meat or willing only to hear and accept milk) is both a symptom of and prescription for carnality. Selective learning is not equivalent to progressive learning. The former is a matter of the heart, which only desires to learn or apply what the person actually desires, whereas, the latter is a desire to learn and submit to the whole counsel of God. Whether one ever learns everything in the Scripture is not the point of distinction, but rather the heart’s desire. Selective learning is a symptom in that the carnal person can give the appearance of loving to learn and live the Word, but is actually only willing to learn and live what they humanly desire rather than learning and living what God desires for them.
It is a prescription for carnality because so much of the Word that we need in order to mature is not what babes pursue, and some of it is only found in the very denial of oneself. Pastors are to lead the flock from a life of personal spiritual immaturity to maturity, and not just sustain them in infancy. All Scripture is good and necessary because “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The Holy Spirit further states, “Now the God of peace…equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20–21).
This is not the wisdom of this age (1 Corinthians 2:6). Paul is not against wisdom or knowledge. On the contrary, he desires that the Corinthians have wisdom that does not come from this world, but wisdom that is revealed and understood by the Spirit’s illumination, godly teachers, and a desire to learn. God has provided the essentials for maturing in that he gave gifted men “for the maturing of the saints” (Ephesians 4:11–12) and the Holy Spirit who searches “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).
A very common problem arises even when Christians are committed to teaching truth in that it is often primarily milk, e.g. repetition of common basic biblical knowledge, which is actually contrary to the commands of Scripture like “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). The carnal mind wants milk because it is easy. One does not have to work diligently, humble himself, or give up anything that he does not want to give up, and yet he can appear spiritual. Unless convenient or beneficial to the fleshly walk, the carnal is unwilling to give up his understanding of giving, singing, serving, church, worship, prayers, God, discipleship, and the Scripture, and he only accepts revelation with which he agrees. The carnal are immature and choose to remain so.
Milk is essential to begin the sanctification process, but meat is required to move beyond salvation and spiritual infancy. The failure to understand and communicate the requirement for sanctification to new Christians is to fail to grasp the full implication of the gospel. One believes in the gospel unto salvation, but that is only the beginning of the Christian life. The new life given in salvation is to be lived out in every area of life, through sanctification and maturing in the Word, so that in families, work, culture, and building the church, the gospel can be seen in all of its power, beauty, and wonder.
Pastors play a critical role in this process. Babies do not know what they need or what to eat in order to grow, so parents pour their lives into their children in order to mature them. Similarly, pastors care for the flock. Pastors are called to mature the saints (Ephesians 4:12), which is done primarily through teaching the Word, both milk and meat, so that Christians can grow, serve, and mature by living what they learn.
A believer does not remain a babe because of the inadequacy of the Scripture or inadequacy of the process for maturing as described in the Scripture, but rather remains a babe out of a willful desire to remain fleshly by rejecting the Word, God’s teachers, and the ministry of teaching by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20–27). An exception to this might be found when a person becomes a believer but has limited access to aids in spiritual growth; however, that is not the case in Corinth or characteristic of the ever-present carnality of our day.
Paul taught them milk five years earlier, and then through the generosity of the Macedonians, (Philippians 4:15), Paul no longer had to work with leather and he “began devoting himself completely to the word” (Acts 18:5). The word completely is the idea of exclusively, and it is a passive verb, which means, “to be constrained.” He was consumed by the Word and gave himself to the teaching of the Word. Acts 18:11 tells us that he settled in Corinth for 18 months “teaching the word of God among them.” Therefore, Paul had not been slack, nor did they lack opportunity to grow. “From 1 Corinthians 1:18 through 2:16, Paul demonstrates that the Corinthians were divided because of worldliness and because of their continued love for human wisdom.
In 3:1–9 the apostle shows them that they also were divided because of the flesh, because of their continued yielding to the evil in their humanness. He shows the cause, the symptoms, and the cure.” Carnality wants milk only, the simple gospel, and rudimentary knowledge because the wisdom of the flesh will supply the detail, what it all means, and the application.
The process of sanctification is learning the Scripture, submitting to the Scripture by replacing thinking and behavior guided by the flesh with thinking and behavior in submission to the Scripture. This is a constant process while Christians live in this world and do battle with the lust of the flesh, the works of Satan, and the attraction of a fallen world. A believer must grow in the wisdom of God to displace the wisdom of the world, but he must also choose to live out that wisdom. Then a believer matures, although he is never perfected in this life.
John MacArthur notes, “The church has often thought of worldliness only in terms of dancing, alcoholic drinking, and the like. But worldliness is much deeper than bad habits; it is an orientation, a way of thinking and believing. Basically it is buying the world’s philosophies, buying human wisdom. It is looking to the world—to human leaders, to influential and popular people, to neighbors, associates, and fellow students—for our standards, attitudes, and meaning. Worldliness is accepting the world’s definitions; the world’s measuring sticks, the world’s goals.”
The problem for the Corinthians, as well as most others in their state of spiritual stagnation, was they rejoiced in justification and all the accompanying blessings, but they rejected sanctification, which requires devotion, humility, and solid in-depth teaching of the whole counsel of God. Christ’s shepherds must not acquiesce to the lowest common denominator of the spiritual life of those who choose spiritual infanthood as a destination rather than a starting point.
 W Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament 2 (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 785-786.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. IV, The Epistles of Paul (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1931), 92.
 A description I saw first used by David F. Wells in No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993).
John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, includes indexes (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996, c1984), 69.
 MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 68.