Craving Food, 1 Peter 2:1-3

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1 Peter 2:1-3

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v.1       Take note that the particular sins mentioned all have to do with sins against the community of faith. All of these sins are sins against others, and, in context, particularly other Christians. They are the opposite of the “sincere brotherly love” that Peter had urged upon his readers in 1:22. Throughout the letter Peter is concerned with loving unity in the church.

v.2       The metaphor of infants craving milk derives from the reference to the new birth a few verses before. The milk almost certainly refers to the Word of God, also just mentioned in the previous verses. If the Word of God is the water that washes us clean, as in 1:22 and elsewhere in the NT, it is also the food that causes us to grow. [Clowney, 78] However, that interpretation is not without problems. Some have held that milk here refers to the grace of God, not specifically the Word of God or, more broadly, refers to all that God does in his grace to sustain the life of his children. These alternate interpretations derive from the fact that the adjective, translated “spiritual” here in the ESV, is not easily matched with “milk” if “milk” refers to the Word of God. Perhaps it is a small point, but take the point: “milk” may refer to more than simply the Bible, though it certainly includes the Word of God. [Jobes, I Peter, 132-137]

v.3       Peter’s reference is to Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good…” He omits the “see” as his metaphor concerns drinking milk not seeing milk.

It is striking that many commentators simply ignore the “if” that begins v. 3. But it is not unique in the New Testament. There is often lying behind strong statements of new life in Christ the recognition that there are those who assume they have it when in fact they do not. Paul follows his statement near the end of 2 Corinthians, “…we will live with him by the power of God,” with this: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” [2 Cor. 13:5-6]

The first three verses of 1 Peter chapter 2 offer an argument in three parts which is simple enough to grasp. There isn’t much disagreement about what Peter means. Take note, first of all, of the “therefore” or “then” or “so” with which v. 1 begins. Peter is obviously continuing the previous thought: viz. that the new life of believers that originates in the new birth and through the Word of God produces a new way of life, a life of obedience and, supremely, a life of love.

In the first place he says that when these folk became Christians, when they were born again – as he put it in 1:23 – they left behind a certain way of life. The ESV, NIV, and some other English translations render the opening verse of 1 Peter 2 in the form of a command. “…put away all malice…” The verb “put away” is not actually in the form of an imperative or a command. The only imperative in these three verses is “long for the pure spiritual milk.” That is a command. But the verb “put away” in v. 1 is a participle, a part of speech well known to our high school Latin students. They have had to learn to distinguish participles and to translate them accordingly. Both Latin and Greek do a lot with participles (as does English in a lesser way)! The long and the short of the grammar is that while it is certainly possible to render the participle as a command, as a participle in the past tense, it would be more literally translated “having put off all malice and all deceit…long for the pure spiritual milk.” [cf. Kelly, 83-84] We will return to this later. Boring as grammar may be to students, sometimes it rears its head and shows us its importance. In any case, however translated, the idea is that having crossed the boundary into a new life, having left behind the ways of that former life, there is a new citizenship to practice. The verb “put off” (apotithēmi) is used a number of times in the New Testament to refer to putting off or leaving behind behavior that is inconsistent with a Christian’s new life.

For example, in Romans 13:12 Paul tells his readers “to cast off the works of darkness”; in Ephesians 4:22 “to put off your old self”; and James in his letter (1:21) tells his readers to “put away all filthiness.” In other words, the verb became a standard way of talking about how Christians had left or were to leave their old life behind. [Jobes, 131] Such statements as these may be the origin of the practice of early Christians removing their clothes before being baptized and putting on a new set of clothes after baptism.

Peter is not, of course, saying that we have, as people born again, so left our old life behind, so left our sins behind that we are no longer troubled by them and never commit them. Not at all. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have to urge us to practice our new life! But he is saying that, having renounced that former way of life, having been given a new and far better life, we should no longer live as if we were not new creatures in Christ. That, of course, is boilerplate New Testament theology.

Peter’s manner of speaking, for example, is very similar to Paul’s in Romans 6, where the great Apostle to the Gentiles speaks of Christians having died to sin and risen to a righteous life. He says that sin no longer has mastery over followers of Christ. Their old self was crucified, dead, and buried with Christ and they rose with him to new life precisely to the end that they might no longer be slaves to sin. John Murray, longtime professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the seminary’s earlier years, convinced a new generation of Presbyterian pastors that Christians typically underestimate the force of Paul’s language. Our old self, our old life is dead, not simply dying. That life no longer exists. We are new men and women, boys and girls, in Christ. The language Paul uses in Romans 6, powerful and uncompromising as it is, is the primary reason why, through the ages, there have been Christians who have thought that Christians either don’t sin – they are beyond sinning – or, at least, that it is possible for them to become perfect already in this world, never to sin again.

John Murray, of course, no matter his stress on the absolute nature of Paul’s statements describing the Christian’s deliverance from the power and reign of sin, admitted that Paul clearly did not mean that Christians are actually freed from sin and sinning. For in the very next section Paul goes on the describe in equally powerful language the continuing sinfulness of Christians, including himself, their struggle with sin, and the anguish caused by their all too frequent failures to leave their old ways behind. Paul’s point, therefore is not that Christians don’t or won’t sin, but that sinner is no longer their true identity, they cannot be described any longer as belonging to the class of “sinners;” that they belong now to a different class of people, the righteous. Consequently, they are now free to wage a successful battle against sin. Paul’s point has been described in this way. It is quite possible for an adult to act childishly, we see it all the time, as a matter of fact. But, it is not possible for an adult to become a child again. When an adult acts like a child, we very properly tell him to act his age, or to grow up, because he is, in fact, an adult not a child. Well so with a Christian. A man or a woman who has been born again is a new creature and has a new life. He or she both should and can live that new life! No doubt, when Peter wrote down that list of sins in v. 1, he thought of how often he himself succumbed to those very sins and knew very well the bite these words would have in the hearts of Christians who still knew themselves full to the brim with hypocrisy and envy! He was still embarrassed by his hypocrisy that Paul had had to publicly rebuke in Antioch years before. But such is not the Christian’s life anymore and he or she, therefore, should be done with such things.

In the second place then, as the second part of his argument, Peter says that since we are new creatures in Christ we have this work to do, work that is peculiar to our particular situation. When the old ways are renounced, when one finds in one’s heart the recognition that such ways are evil and utterly contrary to his or her new life, one does not suddenly live as a master of the new. No, he must begin at the beginning, as a child, and begin to grow up into that new way of life. He must grow; she must mature. And Peter summons his readers to do just that. Take milk so that you may grow thereby. Indeed, he summons them to long for or crave that spiritual food. It is a strong word. It appears in the LXX translation of Ps 42:1: “As the deer pants for the streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” The sense of the figure here of a child and milk is that just as a newborn baby craves the breast, cries for it, even wails for it, we Christians should crave this milk.

Here “milk” is not, as elsewhere in the NT, used as a contrast to meat or solid food. It is not as though Peter is saying that these Christians are spiritual children who can handle nothing but milk. They should be ready for meat but they are not. No. Milk is simply the appropriate food for those born again. Milk is here a symbol of spiritual nourishment, especially the nourishment that is brought by the Word of God, the same word of God which by believing these folk found new life and which by continuing to take to heart they will grow in their Christian lives. Following so closely on the final verses of chapter 1 that seems clearly to be Peter’s point. He is talking about the Word of God even if he is also thinking of other means by which Christian may grow up to maturity.

It is interesting that this picture of milk as spiritual nourishment was so powerful that, according to the Apostolic Tradition, a third-century work by Hippolytus, at least in some parts of the Christian church after their baptism a cup of milk mixed with honey was given to the new Christians along with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Life had begun, growth in that life, maturing to adulthood was now called for. The idea of growing up in one’s salvation makes sense because Peter is speaking of salvation not as a synonym for the forgiveness of sins or justification, but for the entire process of renewal and restoration of life that culminates only when Jesus comes again. That is how the term was used in 1:5 and 9. Here “salvation,” as often in the NT, is everything from the new birth to heaven.

And, then, the third part of the argument, in v. 3. There is good reason to go on, for you have already tasted the goodness of the Lord and you know that nothing can compare to that! It is an interesting verse, verse 3, by the way. It is a free rendering of Psalm 34:8 from the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which Peter regularly quotes because it was the OT his readers knew, for they spoke and read Greek not Hebrew or Aramaic. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” In the original psalm, of course, “the Lord” refers to Yahweh or Jehovah. The NT regularly applies such references to Jesus Christ. It is one of the proofs of his deity that Jesus is so often identified with the Yahweh/Jehovah of the OT, a point missed by Jehovah’s Witnesses who insist that Jesus is not Jehovah. The New Testament says again and again that he is by applying texts in the OT that refer to Yahweh to Jesus! The statement taken from Psalm 34 is also interesting for the way in which attention is so artlessly shifted from the Word of the Lord to the Lord himself. Drink the Word of God and you get not the Word of the Lord only but the Lord himself in all his goodness and power and love.

So, summing up, it is not difficult to understand what Peter is saying to us here. He is telling us to “long for spiritual milk” and he is giving us reasons why we should. There are some commentators on this passage who argue that the command to long for milk is the central command of the letter, the burden of the entire book. But whether or not that is the case, there is no question what comes before the command in chapter 1 and v. 1 of chapter 2 prepares for it and what comes after it explains it and justifies it – at least all the material to the end of v. 12.

Long for, crave to drink in the Word of God; in all its forms, in all the ways you can, drink up this milk – the Word of God, the worship of God’s house, the fellowship of God’s people, prayer, and all the other means of Gods’ grace – by which you come more and more to taste the goodness of the Lord and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and in the godliness, love, and virtue of the Christian life.

But now comes the very practical question. How does one come to long for something, even to crave something? How do we come to desire something more than we do? After all, would any of us deny that if only we desired to drink this spiritual milk more than we do we would be advancing in the Christian life more than we are? Our problem is precisely a problem of inadequate desire! If we were as desperate for more of the Lord in our lives, more of his truth, his presence, and his power and love, as desperate for the Lord as a baby is for the breast, we would have more of the Lord’s presence and power and love. If we craved the milk we would drink it! Does any Christian deny this? Of course it is true. Why do we sin as much as we do? Is it not because we desire the pleasures of sin? If we desired such pleasures less we would sin much less often, but sometimes desire them with a strength and a passion we are hard pressed to understand! If only we desired holiness as much as we often desire the pleasures of sin! If only we desired the Lord as much as we desire the poorer version of ourselves!

But how do we create more desire? If desire, longing, craving is the key, as Peter says it is here, how do we cultivate such a thing. How do we come to desire pure spiritual milk as much or more than we desire a host of other things, the desire for which – food, drink, sleep, pleasure, approval, money, success – shapes our everyday lives profoundly? If we desired pure spiritual milk more than we desired any of those other things, surely much would change for the better in our Christian lives. So how does a Christian increase his or her desire for pure spiritual milk? We have all known Christian people who impressed us with the strength of their spiritual desire; who seemed to have more of it that we did or do. How come?

Well, to be frank, there is some mystery here, of course. We Christians have had our experiences of powerful desire for the Lord and for a more godly life. There have been times in our lives when we have been almost overcome with such longing for pure spiritual milk. I will tell you plainly. My problem is not knowing what to do when a craving for spiritual milk is upon me. My problem is that I don’t long for that milk as I should! But I have many times had that longing in my soul. And it has produced good things in my life. I too, after all, as you, have tasted the goodness of the Lord. But, I say to my shame that I don’t always feel that way about the Word of God or worship or the fellowship of the saints. I can read the Bible with hardly a thought to the pure spiritual milk it offers me or to my need to grow stronger in the life of faith. And I sometimes hardly read the Word of God, really read it, for days. I come to the Lord’s Supper sometimes very hungry and thirsty, but I sometimes come self-satisfied and with little sense of my great need for the food that is set before me on the Lord’s Table. Is your experience something like mine?

I cannot say why at one time there is such a craving for this milk and at another time there is not. The Spirit blows where he wills. It is not God’s will that we should always ride on the heights of the land or feed on the inheritance of our father Jacob. In the same way I cannot tell you why one sermon penetrates your soul and another does not; why sometimes the words of Holy Scripture leap off the page into your heart and at other times your reading of the Word is hard work and produces little in the way of a result. Universal as this experience is in the Christian life, I cannot explain it. There are times and seasons in our walk with God, and that the Christian life is sometimes a matter of running before the wind and sometimes it is a matter of marching into the teeth of a gale.

Think of how it is with love, even romantic love, powerful as it can be. Some of you remember Ian Tait, the late British pastor, bibliophile, friend of Martyn Lloyd Jones, and of many of us. He preached here for a month some years ago when I was teaching a class at Covenant Seminary. I owe Mr. Tait a great debt for his friendship, his example, and his instruction. It was he who taught me how to annotate my Bible. Anyway, I remember a phone conversation I had with him shortly after Mae, his wife of many years, had died.

He soon fell to talking about Mae and about how they met. They had become acquainted through their attendance at the same meetings for Christian young adults. The war was on. She was a nurse; he was an RAF pilot. He said that he had admired Mae from a distance for “her spirituality and her eyes.” Well it happened that one night he was visiting some friends and she happened to be there when he called. Up to that point, he said, he had shaken her hand exactly twice! He offered to take the dog for a walk and asked her if she would like to go along. They came back engaged and he said he wasn’t sure who was the most shaken!

Well, they weren’t able to see one another every day in those war years and the next meeting of fiancés was two weeks later. It was at a restaurant, Fullers, near one of the London railroad stations. There was not a great deal to eat in restaurants in those terrible days, so they ordered what they could – he described it as a congealed mass of macaroni and cheese. Twenty minutes later the waiter came by to ask if he should heat up their plates again. It was only then that they noticed that they had been staring into one another’s eyes for all that while and, while their food grew cold, they had become the object of amusement to the other patrons in the restaurant.

What a wonderful moment to look back on; the power of first love. Oh that life were always, oh that marriage were always like that! But life is not, nor is marriage. Life for them was not always such an ecstasy of emotion. The rest of the world did not always recede from view because completely without effort they found one another so entrancing. No doubt there were difficult days in the Tait marriage: the weariness of raising children, the pressures of work, and there he was now, all alone, grieving, without the partner of his life, without the one who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Life, true life, and true Christian life, is a mixture of both things – the wind and the calm; the downhill and the uphill; the easy and the hard; the natural and the unnatural.

But that does not mean that there is no help for us here. We are not left without encouragement, without the shove that we need. After all Peter gives us a command to long for pure spiritual milk and obviously he assumes not only that we will obey but that we will desire to do so. It is at this point that the participle in v. 1 comes in to help us. If we read the participle according to its form it would be translated, “Having put off malice and deceit and hypocrisy, and so on, long for the milk.” In other words Peter is reminding these believers of what had happened to them. By the grace of God they had left their old life, they had put it away. That is why they should long for or crave pure spiritual milk. They had already taken a step that made this next step – craving spiritual milk – possible, natural, even, in a way, easy if not irresistible.

You want to be a better Christian, right? You want to experience more of the Lord’s presence and power and love and joy in your heart. Right? You want to live in the confidence of your faith. Right? You want that deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that you are living the life Christ died that you might live, the life that is worthy to be called life, the life that makes you a credit to the Lord’s name. Right? You want to be happy in your faith. Right? Well, says Peter, it is all there before you. How does he know that? Because you have already passed over from death to life, because you have already been born again, because you already have left your old ways behind.

Here lies so much of our failure as Christians, it is a failure, as some of the old writers used to put it, to possess our possessions. We fail to realize, we fail to remember, we fail to appreciate how vast is the distance that separates us from what we once were by nature. We fail to conjure with the fact that we have been born again, made new, that we are new creations in Christ Jesus. We fail to ponder what it means that we died and we rose again in Jesus Christ. We are not our old selves. We are completely different than that. We are so much our new selves, our identity is so much that of new men and women, that Paul does not scruple to say in Romans 7 that when he sins it isn’t he who does the sinning, but the sin that still dwells within him. That is an astonishing thing to say. We think that Paul might have been wiser not to say it, thinking that people will excuse their sins by thinking, “Well that wasn’t me; it was the sin within me; it is not my fault, it’s sin’s fault.” But Paul did say that; twice! But he didn’t say it to excuse himself. He condemned himself for his sinning. Why? Precisely because that wasn’t the behavior of the person he had become in Jesus Christ. A Christian may be sinful in his actions, but he is not a sinner. Sin is not his identity; it is not his essential nature as it is for those not yet in Christ. He is a righteous man; she is a righteous woman.

And, you see, Peter, who says the same thing here – reminding us that we have already, even long since left behind that old life – urges us to recognize the implications of this fact for our daily lives. An athlete practices and practices because he or she wants the pleasure and satisfaction, perhaps the fame and celebrity, of athletic accomplishment. But, of course, you can’t put in what the Lord left out. If the guy can’t jump, all the practice in the world won’t make him a world class high jumper; if he can’t run fast all the practice in the world won’t make him a hundred meter champion. But, you see, that is not our problem. Not anymore! The new birth made us capable of great things, the greatest things in the world, the very things the rest of the world will never accomplish: sincere love from a pure heart which is supremely what God is after in your life and mine. We have the life of spiritual joy and greatness already. God has given it to us. The Communist world used to long for the appearance of what they called “the new man.” They meant the unselfish man, the man committed to the welfare of society as a whole, the man unmotivated by money, power, and so on. Their ideal was that of a society of people all living for the collective good. But that man never appeared. For the true communist believer, this was perhaps the cruelest disappointment of all. But that man does exist in the world. He is not, she is not yet perfect in this new life, but that new life actually exists in this world.

We need to appreciate how extraordinary our lives are because they are God’s new creation in Jesus Christ. We can be astonished when we read about how unbelievably complicated is the inner life of a single living cell; we should be more amazed at what a human being can be and do who is a new creation in Jesus Christ. And if we appreciate that, we will have the confidence, the motivation, and the determination to practice living that new life. We will desire more and more of it and so we will long for everything that can cause that life to grow, to mature, and to express itself in ever new ways. Without pride or boasting – since our new life is entirely a gift of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice – I can tell you that you sell yourselves far, far too short. There is within you extraordinary potential for an extraordinarily beautiful life. Such a life lies open before you; in fact, you have that life already. You have only to live it.

We don’t have to wait until the desire suddenly appears in our hearts. We don’t have to wait until we are suddenly and inexplicably overcome by a craving for pure spiritual milk. We simply have to realize who and what we are already in Christ. If we appreciate that, we will crave the pure spiritual milk and our lives will grow upon into the fullest salvation.

When I was in high school the janitor in our church was a man named Arly Crockett. Arly had a son named Ivory, whom I met once in the basement of the church. Ivory Crockett’s claim to fame was that in 1974 he ran the fastest 100 yard dash ever timed, 9 seconds flat. In fact, since the 100 yard race is rarely run any more, track having moved to meters, the record still stands. Now Ivory worked hard to lower his time, he practiced his starts, his stride, his leaning for the tape no doubt hundreds if not thousands of times. I’m sure he adjusted his diet, lifted weights to strengthen his muscles, and did the things other elite sprinters do to get the maximum effort from his body. In other words, he longed for the milk that makes a sprint champion!

But, without a doubt, Ivory was born fast. I could have practiced in the approved way for years on end and would never have run anything like as fast as Ivory Crockett. I didn’t have it in me. But in regard to a true, worthy, beautiful, holy human life, well, that’s a different story. You and I can do that; every Christian can live such a life because that life is already ours. In the matter of the Christian life, everyone one of you is an Ivory Crockett! You simply must apply yourself to living the life that is already yours! And just as no world class sprinter began to practice his craft until he knew he was fast enough to win races, so no Christian will practice his new life unless and until he remembers how much potential he or she already has as a new creature in Christ, as someone who has been born again to new and everlasting life, as someone who has left the old life far behind.

You and I every day, brothers and sisters, are selling ourselves short. Peter is reminding us not to do that!