The Bible sometimes uses the same imagery to teach a variety of things. For example, the lion is used to represent the Messiah (Revelation 5:5) and Satan (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus is the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16); He will give faithful believers the Morning Star (Revelation 2:28), and Lucifer means “Morning Star” (Isaiah 14:12).
Marriage is another example of imagery used to illustrate different relationships. The church is betrothed and will be married to Jesus (Revelation 19:7), Israel will be married to the Lord (Hosea 2:19-20), yet Israel will also be married to a destination, the Land of Israel (Isaiah 62:4). Revelation 21:2 suggests believers who are married to Jesus will also be married to a destination: the New Jerusalem.
To understand the imagery of a text, it is important to distinguish between imagery that is consistent (the Spirit represented as a dove) and imagery that is merely used to illustrate a particular truth while used to illustrate another truth elsewhere.
This is certainly the case when understanding 1 Peter 2:2-3—the imagery of “the milk of the Word.” Peter’s use of this imagery is different from Paul’s (1 Corinthians 3:2) or the later book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-13).
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (ESV)
When many of us read this text, the temptation is to read into it imagery from other sources. For example, the writer to the Hebrews contrasts the milk of the Word with the meat of the Word (Hebrews 5:12-13). But the original readers did not have the Book of Hebrews (written about 67 AD)—it was written after 1 Peter (which was written about 64 AD).
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians probably about 55 AD, but in 1 Corinthians 3:2, he is scolding the Corinthians for not advancing to solid food, not urging them to seek out milk: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready.” He uses the term “milk” differently from Peter, and there is not evidence that Peter is building on Paul’s imagery.
Peter’s illustration should be understood on its own merit and in its own context. Peter’s epistle is not targeting immature believers, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians, or even as did the writer to the Hebrews. He was not contrasting the more difficult teachings of Scripture with entry-level truths. The issue is not a contrast between simplicity and complexity. All Scripture—as Peter uses the term—is milk. And even mature believers are to emulate newborn babes in their quest for milk.
Let’s review the text: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3)
In Peter’s text, every believer is pictured as a newborn babe. All of Scripture is pictured as the “milk of the Word.” A believer’s craving for the Word is as natural as a newborn baby’s craving for milk. The illustration is quite simple and carries no complex implications read into the text from other sources.
I fully disagree with Arnold Fruchtenbaum (usually one of my favorite commentators) who writes,
Thus, he is identifying them as new believers…. Essentially, the purpose of partaking of spiritual milk to grow toward maturity so that believers can begin to partake of the meat of God’s Word. (Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Messianic Jewish Epistles, pp. 338-339)
While Fruchentbaum’s viewpoint is theologically correct because it is taught elsewhere, that is not what Peter is saying here. And we need the truth Peter is teaching in addition to the truth Paul taught.
Peter’s admonition carries several implications:
Implication # 1: It is as natural for truly saved people to hunger after Scripture as it is for newborn infants to hunger after milk. One results in the other and is expected. Not all believers are fluent readers, so whether the Word is read or heard, the point is that the hunger exists.
Implication # 2: We are to never get over this hunger for the Word or forsake this simple source of nourishment. Peter is writing to seasoned believers, some of whom are elders (1 Peter 5:1). We are to view ourselves as newborn babes, always needing the milk (nourishment) of the Word. We never get beyond this.
Implication # 3: Regeneration (the New Birth) produces an infant that is hungry for the Word. Thus a professing believer who has little interest in the Word needs to question his/her salvation. The fact that Peter urges believers to hunger for the Word means it is possible to be regenerate and not hunger, but this is not natural and indicates a problem. When a baby doesn’t want to eat, the baby is ill. So it is with Christians who do not hunger for the Word.
Implication # 4: There is no substitute for the Word. Infants will suck on just about anything, but they need milk to grow and develop. The applications for church life are obvious. We live in an age when many professing believers displace the Word with good things—but never good enough. There is no substitute for the Word.
Implication # 5: As a baby feeds regularly, so we are to feed habitually upon the Word. Reading, listening to, memorizing, contemplating, and reviewing Scripture is the main way we grow. As mother’s milk contains all the nutrition a newborn baby needs, so the Word contains (in germ form) everything we need pertaining to the spiritual life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Implied is the need to obey and implement the Word. If we do not ingest the Word, we will suffer the signs of spiritual malnutrition.
Implication # 6: The process of nursing or feeding an infant creates a bond with the one who nurtures and the infant. The process itself is valuable. If God worked a miracle and I suddenly knew everything there was to know about the Bible, I would still need to study and spend time in the Word. The process of feeding on the word itself nurtures the bond between myself and God. I do not study just to read and obey; I study to fellowship with God and develop our relationship. Whether a portion of Scripture seems relevant or not, it is relevant to further our walk with God.
Implication # 7: We do not need to understand the mechanics of how God uses the Word for the Word to do its work in us. Unlike some in ministry who have to mention the Holy Spirit at frequent intervals (or suffer being accused of not being spiritual by the self-appointed “Holy Spirit Police”), Peter was free to write a simple statement without giving credit to the Holy Spirit. The point is that God works in us through His Word. Just as many people drive a car without understanding how the engine works, so Christians benefit from the Word, even if they do not understand the complexities of sanctification by the Spirit.
Top athletes may lift weights, run miles a day, and exercise faithfully—but they still have to breath, eat, and drink like the rest of us. As followers of Jesus, we never graduate from the essentials in this life. We never graduate from the School of Bible Study, the College of Prayer, or the University of Obedience. We are called to be life-long professional students!
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.