So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 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.
As I was thinking and praying over these verses last week, I was struck by the fact that the way we read and apply these verses are probably not actually in line with Peter’s intention. That may or may not be OK.
When modern readers approach these words, the first thing we think is possibly that Peter is slighting his audience by comparing them to “newborn infants.” Many understand this to mean that Peter is telling his audience that they should be more mature than they are. But that doesn’t seem to be Peter’s point at all. “Like newborn infants” describes the way we should “long for the pure spiritual milk” rather than the audience.
What’s more, the command, the imperative section which actually opens this section: “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” is subordinate to the longing for “the pure spiritual milk.” In other words, our progress in putting away malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander are directly proportionate to how we long to be spiritually nourished.
And that brings me to an interesting consideration. I have heard this section and ones like it applied along the following lines: “If you don’t read your Bible everyday, you don’t love Jesus.” Yet, as Scot McKnight points out in his NIVAC Commentary on 1 Peter:
“To think, however, of personal Bible study is anachronistic; these Christians did not have copies fo the Bible and had to rely on sermons and the local archives for such things. It makes best sense to see here the spiritual nourishment that comes to Christians in various ways. If my view fo the recipients of this letter is correct in that they were socially disenfranchised, then they were likely illiterate as well.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that just because the early Christians didn’t have Bibles, we shouldn’t read ours. We live in a day of unprecedented luxury when it comes to the availability Scripture. Many of us have multiple copies. What is interesting here is that we often view reading the Bible as an obligation rather than a luxury. The early Christians didn’t read it because they didn’t have it. What’s our excuse?
Something to think about is that we hear Peter’s admonition to “ long for the pure spiritual milk” “Like newborn infants” as a command to individuals to have “personal” Bible study. We maximize a meaning Peter probably did not intend while we minimize exactly what he did mean. McKnight suggests that Peter’s use of “pure spiritual milk:”
“refers to the very things that nourish the Christian community in its growth: knowledge of God, prayer, instruction in the gospel, faithful obedience, and hearing God’s preached word.”
Peter seems to assume community as the primary context for his admonitions while we assume individuality. We must understand that our individualistic mindset actually removes us from the blessings and challenges presented by much of Scripture. Peter wanted the community to crave spiritual nourishment so that they could put away the things of the old self together. We isolate ourselves and our struggles and then feel pressure to present a facade to the community. We are quick to believe that the Christians who know the most about God are the ones we should listen to. But these are not necessarily the same individuals who know God the best. Knowing that honey tastes sweet is not the same thing as tasting honey.
We must be careful of any approach to Scripture that reads it through an individualistic lens and understand that community is always the assumed context and the implication/application is rarely “just spend more time studying.” It’s telling that we so readily assume that our reading of Scripture is the intended meaning. Peter probably did not have personal Bible study in mind while we do. Peter probably assumed a community context for spiritual growth while we do not.
May we form communities that long to be nourished together so that, together, we can leave the old ways behind.