A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
For the better part of five chapters, the writer of Hebrews maintains a somewhat tame approach for the myriad of topics he is zealous to address. Toes have been stepped on, for sure, what with his insistence that Jesus is better than the prophets, than the angels, and even Moses. But, for the most part, has remained moderately calm, taking on the demeanor of that of a counselor. The writer’s intent, of course, was to encourage these believers who found themselves on the brink of forfeiting their faith — and, in so doing, he has been careful not to get too critical with his words. All of that changes in as he’s wrapping up chapter 5, where the writer is almost forced to take a necessary “rabbit trail” from his discussion about Christ as the “great high priest” of our faith:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (Heb. 5:11–13)
With these words, the writer has just taken an incendiary bomb to the religious tradition of the Hebrews. Not only has he argued for the priesthood of Christ as the fulfillment of Aaron’s priestly ministry (“just as Aaron was . . . so also Christ,” he says, Heb. 5:4–5) — but he has also gone even further to assert that Christ is, in fact, “a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:10). That is, a truer and better priesthood. He is desirous to immediately press further into that discussion, but his intentions are crippled due to the fact that his congregation has “become dull of hearing” (Heb. 5:11). They had grown lazy and sluggish towards the truths of God’s Word, so much so that they had actually regressed in their knowledge and insight into God’s revelation of truth in Christ Jesus. Instead of being “teachers,” they themselves were in need of being taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.”
And as if that weren’t, the writer proceeds to suggest that they were nothing but a bunch of babies, requiring milk when he had purposed to serve them “solid food” (Heb. 5:12–13). What’s obvious, so far, that the writer is dealing something he considers to be absolutely critical to their faith, otherwise he wouldn’t have called them out like he does. “What I have to say to you is so important. so weighty, but I can’t even get to that yet because you’ve grown so lazy towards the Word of God!” So, what’s going on, here? What does the writer mean by “milk” versus “solid food”? And how can we be sure that we are getting a “solid spiritual diet” and not a “milky” one?
These are pivotal questions to ponder when approaching a text such as this. And in answering them, we have to employ the utmost care and precision, or we risk doing considerable damage to the Word of faith. There is a way to read this section in Hebrews as if the writer is expressing his frustration over the fact that this church had not “moved on from the gospel.” When we read about the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12) and the “elementary doctrine of Christ” (Heb. 6:1), we are quick to conclude that these are references to the gospel. Of course, this is categorically wrong, but, even still, we are quick that assumption. We hone in on his comments regarding “spiritual children” and what it means to “go on to maturity,” and content ourselves with the thinking that leaving such things behind is what it means to be mature.
Consequently, the most basic of all biblical truths that “Jesus loves me, this I know” is relegated to the stuff of kindergarten. John 3:16 remains the first verse we introduce young, budding disciples, and rarely do we go back to it after that. These A-B-C’s of the Christian faith, then, are the things the writer says we should leave behind and “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1). “Okay, so we’ve heard about the gospel, about how Jesus loves us, what’s next? Now that we’ve got the ‘milk of the gospel’ down, it’s time to get to the real ‘meat of the word’, right?” This, of course, isn’t at all what the writer was advocating for.
The “milk of the word,” “the basic principles of the oracles of God,” and “the elementary doctrine of Christ” are not euphemisms for the gospel. The writer is not in any way, shape, or form insinuating that “mature Christians” are those who have moved on from the good news that God loves sinners so much that he sent his only Son to die for them and gone on to study the meatier and weightier things of the Word. And that’s precisely because there is nothing meatier or weightier than the good news of Christ crucified and resurrected for all the sinners of the world. In this epistle that’s all about how Jesus is better, the writer is not lamenting the fact that he can’t talk about some other subject. He’s not opining the fact that he’s been so adamant about Jesus’s superiority thus far. No, the preeminence of Christ is his only message. The driving purpose behind this book is to persuade these waffling, wavering believers to realize that in Christ, they already have all they need. Actually, what’s going on, here, is the writer is taking a cue from the apostle Paul:
But I, brothers could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Cor. 3:1–3)
Paul was, apparently, prevented from relaying to the Corinthians what he wanted to relay to them because they were “not yet ready,” they were “still of the flesh.” But don’t get confused by him: he’s not referring to the gospel — he’s made that clear (1 Cor. 2:2). Rather than diving headfirst into the depths of the greatness and mystery of Christ, the apostle spends his time addressing the gross misconduct that was running rampant within that body of believers. If the message of Christ crucified is not the “milk message” Paul has in mind, what is it? The writer of Hebrews is informative here:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (Heb. 6:1–3)
Here, the writer annunciates six things that constitute “the elementary doctrine of Christ”: (1) repentance from dead works; (2) faith towards God; (3) instructions about washings; (4) instructions about the laying on of hands; (5) instructions about the resurrection of the dead; and (6) instructions about the eternal judgment. Taken together, these are tantamount to “the basic principles of the oracles of God,” with each one being a reference to the faith and practice of the Old Covenant, that is, before the revelation of the mystery of Christ. With that framework, then, it makes more sense why he would say “let us leave ‘these’ and go on to maturity.”
“Repentance from dead works,” you see, is an allusion to the rites and rituals that defined much of Judaism. These works are “dead” because they do not actually bring about deliverance (Heb. 9:14). Through Christ, however, we are saved “for good works” (Eph. 2:10). “Faith towards God” is, I believe, a reference to the general belief in Yahweh that informed much of Jewish society and culture. But over and above a cultural or casual knowledge of God, Christ invites everyone into personal relationship with him. “Instruction about washings” is meant to refer to the ceremonial cleansings that played such a vital role in the worship in the tabernacle. Because of Christ, however, those ritualistic washings give way to the perfect cleansing of God’s Lamb.
Furthermore, “instruction about the laying on of hands” is an allusion to the momentous act wherein the high priest laid his hands on the live goat on the Day of Atonement, thereby signaling the transfer of guilt from the priest and the people onto the goat (Lev. 16:20–22). This “scapegoat” is, then, ushered into the wilderness “bearing all their iniquities on itself,” a divine symbol of all their sins being taken away. The point is, the gospel announces that we have a true and better “scapegoat” in the person and work of Christ. The “instruction about the resurrection of the dead” is clearly present throughout the Old Testament (Ps. 16:10; 17:15; Hosea 6:2; 13:14), but in Christ, it is revealed that he himself is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Finally, “instruction about the eternal judgment” gives way to the blessed announcement that in and through Christ, their escape from judgment was sure, settled, secure.
The writer, you see, has a mind to mine the Old Testament in such a way that demonstrates how all of it was “forward looking” unto Christ. Jesus is better, precisely because is the full and final fulfillment of all the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). All those laws, rituals, and sacrifices of Judaism were only ever “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” that find their eternal substance in Christ alone (Heb. 8:5; 10:1). Accordingly, this “milk versus solid food” discussion is not about some arbitrary levels of “Christianity maturity.” Rather, it’s about trading the Substance of the Christian faith for murky, milky shadows of it. This, of course, was the premier problem facing this church — namely, that they were on the brink of exchanging the “solid food” of God’s glory and grace as revealed in the mystery of Christ for the “skim milk” of Judaism. Those are the stakes that are on the table.
This Hebrew congregation had grown “dull” as a result of their infatuation with the “former things” of God’s revelation. They had grown accustomed to a liquidy, light “spiritual diet” of Christian instruction, resulting in a liquidy, light approach to the faith. They had become infected by the disease of lazy listening, and such is why the writer calls them out so blatantly (Heb. 5:11; 6:12).
This lazy and sluggish demeanor, unfortunately, describes too many of the modern churchgoers. Let me ask you, why do you gather with your fellow sinner/saints on Sunday mornings? What are you expecting to happen when you come walk through the doors to the sanctuary? What keeps you going to that place and gathering with those people, some of whom you can’t stand to be around? Do you go because all your friends are there? They might leave, what then? Do you go because you like the music that’s sung? What happens if that changes, too? Do you go because you like the minister who preaches? What if he screws up, what then? The fact of the matter is, if your reason for darkening the door of whatever church you call home is anything other than the life-giving Word of the Living God, then your faith is “milky,” and it’s making you into a “milquetoast disciple.”
The origins of that word I find fascinating. “Milquetoast” comes from a cartoon character of the same name, Caspar Milquetoast, who rose to relative popularity during the 1930s and 50s. Caspar is described as a wimpy, timid, bland kind of guy — not something you’d write home about. Sort like the dish “milk toast,” which literally consists of toasted bread in a bowl of warm milk; a.k.a. a meal with no structural integrity at all! As soon as the toast comes into contact with the milk, it’d quickly become limp and uninspiring. And a similar thing has happened in the hearts and minds of too many churchgoers today.
We’ve acquired a taste for “milky” worship, which has made us into a bunch of milquetoast worshippers, who will drop the gathering of God’s saints at the drop of a hat. In many ways, I blame Netflix. Don’t misunderstand me, I love Netflix as much as the next guy. There’s nothing quite like streaming a sitcom at the end of a long day to allow your brain to brain for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. It’s very therapeutic. The problem is, we’ve let that mindset inform how we approach going to church, too. Like your favorite streaming service, we expect options — loads of them, in fact — and if we don’t like what we’re seeing or hearing, it’s as easy as tuning out and turning on something else. We come expecting to be entertained, to hear what we want to hear, and if we don’t, then it’s time to find some place else to get what we want.
To counteract this response from the masses of milquetoast churchgoers, some preachers have restored to preaching milquetoast messages. That’s what the folks want to hear, apparently. They are desperate to have someone scratch their “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Rather than fill up on the “sound teaching” and “solid food” of the gospel, they resort to finding “for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” who’ll serve them milk. Interestingly enough, how does Paul advise his son Timothy to respond? Does he counsel him to start serving warm bowls of milk? By no means! “Preach the word,” he insists (2 Tim. 4:2).
Some folks have come to believe that it’s the preacher’s job to feed you Sunday after Sunday; to fill up your spiritual bellies with the delicacies of God’s Word. There is some truth to that. But the modern church attender has grown so lazy, so “dull of hearing,” that he not only goes to church expecting to be fed, he goes expecting to be spoon-fed. This is woefully mistaken. You’re not an infant, and the sermon is not an event where the pastor is supposed to spoon-feed you. When a preacher preaches, he is not playing a game of “divine air-pwane” in order to get you to partake of the Bread of Life. The preaching of the Word and the hearing of the Word are both acts undertaken by faith. Both require that we humble ourselves and pay attention to the Spirit’s leading.
As a regular preacher of the Word, I’ve come to discern my calling not as a spoon-feeding event where you become stronger, more mature Christians. Rather, it’s to invite you to come and sit at the table where there is an open invitation to dine on the “solid food” of Christ’s body and blood offered for you. “Come, everyone who thirsts,” the prophet announces, “come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isa. 55:1–2). The solid food of God’s Word is his “word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13), which is nothing but the revelation that your righteousness and mine has been gifted to you in the life, death, resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not the kindergarten stuff of our faith, that’s the entirety of our faith. “The gospel,” as Tim Keller is fond of saying, “is not the ABC of the Christian faith but is the A to Z.” Christ alone is our “solid food,” the “enduring substance” (Heb. 10:34 KJV) on which we are invited to feed on for the rest of our lives.
I ran into this the other day and thought about your series on Hebrews. https://cewgreen.substack.com/p/jesus-is-the-new