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 followers, feeding on the meat of the Word.
These words of Paul are not only words of chastisement but also words of hurt. Paul had been involved in seeking to mature the Corinthians for about five years, but to no avail. W. Robertson Nicoll notes, “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, and the people must also desire to mature (1 Peter 2:2).
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 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 the 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 for the shepherd.
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 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 and God, or His work, will, and ways
- It does not result in maturity regardless how many times it is heard, said, read, quoted, or prayed
- Milk cannot be transformed into meat by creative communication
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 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: Jesus is the Savior; 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 from 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? As we ponder questions generated by milk, one naturally moves from milk to meat by exploring biblical answers. In this process, one is continually faced with the reality that the depth of the meat of the Word is experienced in varying degrees.
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 on 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 to live and communicate meat lest they remain in an ungodly state of having “a zeal for God but not in accordance with knowledge” (Rom 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 the desire not the milk. In other words, believers are to desire the Word with the same devotion that a newborn baby desires milk. The Holy Spirit warns, “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant” (Heb 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” (Heb 5:14).
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 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 of one’s life (Rom 7:22, 12:2; Eph 3:16; Col 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 (Gal 5:16–18; 1 Peter 2:11–12).
Once a person is saved, 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 Cor 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 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 the appearance of real love for God’s will, but inwardly, they reject meat and only accept milk.
As mentioned, one of the realities of milk is that of declaration, and one of the characteristics of meat is that of detail. One may embrace the ideas contained in milk but utterly or practically reject the meat. 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” (Eph 5:25) and reject the meat, which provides detail to what that actually means, looks like, and describes what is necessary to fulfill the challenge. The carnal mind does not chafe under the idea of love (milk), but only under what this kind of love really means and involves, like dying to self, becoming mature, and sacrificing (meat), which is what deliberate carnality abhors. The carnal mind wants to define divine love according to very personal human standards.
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 involves 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 it is 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 be 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 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 personal, spiritual immaturity to maturity and not just sustain them in their infancy (1 Peter 2:2). God has provided the essentials for maturing in that he gave gifted men “for the maturing of the saints” (Eph 4:11–12) and the Holy Spirit who searches “the deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10).
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 to new Christians the requirement for sanctification 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.
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 and 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. This brings maturity in the life of a believer, although he is never perfected in this life.
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. For to do so is to abandon being a shepherd and become enablers of spiritual milkoholics.
 W Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 785–86.
 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, 1993).