“Therefore leaving the elementary message about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, faith in God, teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (Heb. 6:1)
How do you know when you or your church needs milk? Or if it’s time to move on to solid food? The answer to that question is found in the overall context of Hebrews.
The Need to Persevere
The Christians in this book have been dramatically changed by the Gospel. They’ve set their hope on the promise of salvation and started out great. But now they’re suffering for their faith. They’re being exposed to public insults and persecution. Some have been put in prison, and their homes have been plundered. Needless to say, they aren’t feeling the same enthusiasm about the Gospel that they did at the start. In fact, they’re being tempted to go back to their former way of life before they followed Jesus. A return to Judaism would end their suffering.
But in order for these Christians to experience the goal of their salvation, they must continue to hang on to their faith in Christ and follow Him. Therefore, the author writes in order to help them persevere. Jesus is greater than the angels which played a role in the giving of the Law, he reminds them. He’s greater than Moses. Greater than Joshua. He’s also greater than Aaron, because Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
That last truth is important for the confidence in the Gospel, but according to 5:11, it’s difficult to explain and they’re too lazy to understand. They need the basic principles taught to them all over again. They need milk not solid food (5:12).
At this point, it’s important to know the difference between milk and solid food. According to the text, those who need milk don’t know how to distinguish good from evil (5:13-14). Notice that even though they need milk (6:1), the author intends to feed them solid food (6:3), and will do so starting in chapter 7. Saying they need milk is a rebuke to their spiritual laziness. It’s not a legitimate stage of their walk. Our opening question needs deeper consideration.
Don’t Water Down Christian Distinctives
The elementary teachings he wants them to graduate from aren’t just true of Christianity. They’re also true of Judaism. The Jewish Pharisees believed in these same foundational truths from the Old Testament: repentance, faith, ritual washings, even the resurrection of the dead. So their suffering is making them draw back from those distinctively Christian doctrines and focusing on milk-level truths. That doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re good. But they’re the foundation. Christ is the fulfillment. So the solid foods of maturity are the controversial truths of the Gospel that are currently causing suffering but will result in their ultimate blessing. So just because they still need milk, doesn’t mean they can’t eat solid food. He’s going to feed them.
Churches must aim to do the same thing today. We need to make our services accessible to everybody, including those who need milk. But we shouldn’t do that by dumbing down the message. Generally, I’m trying my best to teach in a way that assumes that someone in the service knows nothing about the Bible, and yet is intelligent enough to understand anything that I teach from the Bible. Too many churches are killing their people because they’re feeding them a steady diet of Enfamil! It leaves the church spiritually malnourished and immature.
Pastors that are content with preaching a milk-level faith are leaving their people vulnerable to temptation and suffering. Like the Hebrew Christians, they’re setting their people on the path to drift away from the Gospel. The sad reality is that many churches risk leading their people right back into their former way of life, because they don’t teach and apply the truths of Scripture in such a way that is distinctively Christian. A milk-level spirituality was one that their Jewish persecutors could accept. So too today, a milk-level spirituality in the church produces a life that people will generally accept and approve of. That’s dangerous, because that kind of immaturity doesn’t produce a lasting kind of love for Christ in the face of persecution.
Any church that isn’t being prepared by the truth of the Gospel to suffer for their faith in a hostile world needs to move on from milk to solid food.
Kevin McKay serves as the lead pastor at Grace Harbor Church in Providence, RI. You can find more of his articles at 9Marks.org