Milk: What Does It Mean?

Of the few sermons I remember from my youth group, one that stood out to me centered around the latter half of Hebrews 5. The guest speaker posited that the church must focus on and return to, almost exclusively, simple aspects of the faith. I wish to make a counterargument, using the very same above passage.

I would like to first stress the differences between versions, because it is central to the misunderstanding of the passage. The English Standard Version, which I am now sure was the version used by the preacher, reads Hebrews 5:12-13 as follows: “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.” This has a prescriptive connotation, outlined by the ESV’s heading “Warning Against Apostasy.” Because the church has fallen apart in its faith, Paul recommends that the church return to its roots and focus on the core tenets of the faith, and only the core tenets of the faith.

This raises several concerns, though. First, how permanent is the solution? Paul says that they ought to be teachers, so is milk only a temporary solution? If so, how long is the church supposed to drink this milk before supposedly returning to stronger stuff? Further, Paul describes those on milk as unskilled, and as children. If milk is the prescription, why does he berate them for taking it? I consider this to be one of the English Standard Version’s few flaws.

Compare that with the same passage in the Lexham English Version, entitled “Advanced Teaching Hindered by Immaturity”: “For indeed, although you ought to be teachers by this time, you have need of someone to teach you again the beginning elements of the oracles of God, and you have need of milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes of milk is unacquainted with the message of righteousness, because he is an infant.” This is a more descriptive take on Paul’s message. The church at this point should be at the level of teachers, but instead they are at the level of students, nay, infants. Paul punctuates this point by, in a mocking tone, accusing them of needing milk instead of solid food. The implied prescription is solid food.

My endorsement of the latter interpretation stems from the nature of the recipients: the Hebrews. Throughout the book of Hebrews, Paul stresses that Jesus is more important than the prior Jewish religious figures, notably Moses, Melchizedek, and the angels. This, I posit, is due to the Hebrews’ past faith. Some Hebrews likely thought, as members of other Ibrahimic faiths do, that Jesus was a prophet, or at least upstanding man blessed by God, rather than the Messiah which Christians proclaim. Paul states that this mentality stunts the faith of the Jewish people. Solid food is the update to the Jewish faith.

Looping the conversation back to the original argument, does this mean that a simplified version of the gospel is necessary? While the gospel is likely considered solid food, it is not the only solid food. Both the teachings of the Old Testament and the analyses after Christ’s ascension have valid points in and of themselves. The church must strive to grow in and refine its faith, as it has done for millennia. Whittling down centuries of deep-set theology to “Jesus loves you and died for you” is, while more accurate, no less insulting than the ancient Hebrew reaction. Both ignore large swaths of Jesus’s teachings and God’s inspirations.

When thinking about this passage, I reflect on Jesus’s words, “Allow the children, and do not forbid them to come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” People often use this quote to minimalize and bastardize the faith, stating that the naïve, unknowing faith of a child is the best path. When talking with my father years ago, I came to the opposite conclusion, as I’m sure most would if they remember being around any given child. Children are rebellious, and inquisitive, and energetic. They often experiment, and their imaginations are nearly unrivaled across the ages. I doubt that Jesus meant either my view or the opposing view. I believe that Jesus meant that said children would form the church in Israel. However, a continuously exploring faith is closer to the true path than a simple one. I feel the same way about this passage. This was neither a passage encouraging growth nor encouraging minimalism; it was meant to convert Jews to Christianity. However, a lack of depth is not indicative of a strong faith. One must venture beyond just the gospel to truly envision God’s greater plan.


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