From Milk to Solid Food
In Hebrews, we find the author admonishing his readers to mature, writing that they still need milk, not solid food, given that they have not matured, but remain infants in the faith (5:11-14). Within these few verses, the author has effectively compared the Old Covenant with the New Covenant, for the Law described in Leviticus was designed for a people who were still infants in the faith, just learning the ways of God. The readers of this epistle, after suffering persecution and hardship in their Christian walk, were considering reverting to the old Judaic system, a system of “food and drink and various external washings” (Hebrews 9:10). The actions commanded by the Law of the Old Covenant, were physical representations of righteousness, holiness, a shadow of the things to come, intended to instruct the people of Israel in the ways of God, but not to be the ways. Much as a child learns through the concrete and builds on that learning to comprehend the abstract, so it would seem that God intended for His people to learn through the physical actions of righteousness to grasp the higher and better things that are in Christ. The education of a child often proceeds through several stages, with the earliest stages rooted in the concrete and the physical, proceeding through the years to the more abstract. In the same way, the law, with all its physical representations of holiness (e.g., Leviticus 20:25-26), would seem to be the way God used to educate His children in His ways. God did not intend for his people to remain children, but to mature into adults, capable of abstraction and understanding that the concrete representations of righteousness were only copies and shadows of the truth. In comparing Hebrews and Leviticus, one may see the maturation process that God desires, for He does not wish us to feed off milk forever but mature and consume solid food. When believers drift back toward legalism, they are regressing to childhood, when God desires that we grow into mature adults (e.g., Ezekiel 16). This paper shall contrast Hebrews and Leviticus partially through the lens of development psychology and educational theory to understand how God desires us to grow into our Christian faith from other forms of religion, particularly the Law, which battle against our growth in Christ.
According to one notable development psychologist, Jean Piaget, the cognitive development of a child into adulthood goes through several stages, proceeding from concrete, visceral cognitive processing dependent on the presence of physical objects to highly abstract thinking (Cole & Cole, 1996). While a complete discussion of this theory is outside the scope and purpose of this paper, a general overview and several salient points should be mentioned. The theory presents cognitive development as four primary stages, the Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational stages. The Sensorimotor stage comprises the first two years of development and consists primarily of learning movements and how to interact with the world around them in very basic, physical ways, such as dropping a toy repeatedly to learn that gravity is consistent. For a biblical correlate to this stage see Ezekiel 16:4-6, where God took pity on those who would be His chosen people and may comprise the period between Abraham leaving his home until the exodus from Egypt. Interestingly, it is to this stage that the author of Hebrews likens his readers.
The other three stages mentioned by Piaget are marked by increasing abstraction of thought. In the Preoperational stage, ages 2 to 6, children learn words and symbols to represent objects, but confusion over surface appearances and causal relations still exist (for a potential Biblical analogy, see Matthew 16:2-3). Between ages 6 to 12, the child enters the Concrete Operational stage, where the child becomes capable of ordering objects and actions into a logical system. When Christ rebuked the Pharisees and Scribes for neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness, the more important matters of the law, in favor of following the face value of the commandments, he may have been referring to their inability, through sin and pure spiritual dullness, of cohering the various commandments into the underlying truths that God sought to teach His people through those commands. In other words, the recipients of His rebuke never even proceeded into the spiritual version of the Concrete Operational stage, much less entered the final stage of cognitive maturation, which begins around 12 years old and consists of keen interest in abstraction and fitting together all aspects of a logical system. Interestingly enough, the age of cognitive maturation according to Piaget matches, more or less, the start of adulthood according to Jewish custom. More importantly, it is to this stage that the author of Hebrews calls us, for, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians, it is time to put childish ways behind us and become men (13:11).
On several occasions, Hebrews refers to the law and its ordinances as shadows and copies of the good things to come in Christ (8:5, 9:24, 10:1). In Colossians, Paul makes the same point, writing that the regulations regarding eating, drinking, and the various religious festivals ordained by the Judaic law were only “shadows of the things that were to come” (Colossians 2:17). So, the various offerings described in chapters 1 through 7 of Leviticus, the distinction between clean and unclean food made in chapter 11, the Day of Atonement described in chapter 16, and the feasts and other special religious days and years described in chapters 23 through 25 all were intended as shadows of the things to come, not the things themselves. The statements Paul makes regarding seeing in part and knowing in part (1 Corinthians 13:9-12) are particularly instructive. When instructing a child in a subject, great care must be taken not to give the child more than he can handle. For a child, “abstract thoughts and concepts are difficult for them to grasp because they primarily learn about the world around them by experiencing it through their senses” (Home Science Tools). Thus, it is important when teaching science, for example, to “focus science lessons around things that they can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell so that they are continually immersed in science” (Home Science Tools). Likewise, the young child has “limited experiential knowledge, memory capacity, and general mental organizational ability” and often have difficulty processing “new and incongruent information” (Grave, Blissett, 2004). So, when God, for example, told the Israelites that they may not eat certain foods, such as flying insects that walk on all fours, but may eat certain other foods, such as grasshoppers or locusts (Leviticus 11:20-23), He seems to have been teaching the Israelites to distinguish between the holy and profane through a means that they could understand. Centuries later, Paul taught the same lesson in a more abstract manner when he wrote that believers should not be yoked together with unbelievers, for this violates the law of “touching no unclean thing” (2 Cor 6:17). Here, we witness the Holy Spirit using lessons taught previously through a more concrete means to illustrate a deeper truth regarding the distinction between the holy and the profane.
Similarly, Hebrews refers to the sacrifices made at the altar, and required by the Law, as shadows of the good things that are coming (10:1). As related in Hebrews (9:22), the law required that nearly everything to be cleansed or made holy was sprinkled with blood. The altar (e.g., Lev 7:2), Aaron and his sons (8:23-24), those to be cleansed from infectious skin diseases (14:14), and the atonement cover (16:14) are among those objects to be cleansed with blood. Hebrews mentions that the Holy Spirit was instructing the Israelites through the sacrificial requirements that the way into the Most Holy place had not yet been disclosed (9:8), and that the gifts and sacrifices were not able to cleanse the conscience of the worshipper (9:9). The sacrifices also show that a covenant requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:16), and that the sacrifice had to be pure and undefiled (e.g., Lev 4:3, 22:17-25). Yet, in keeping with the concrete and physical nature of the instruction the Lord provided to the Israelites, the offerings had to be pure and without defect externally. The physical purity of the animals offered in sacrifice served as an illustration, a shadow, of the undefiled nature of Christ, the Son of God who, though tempted in every way, was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). If Isaiah 53:2 reflects the physical appearance of Christ, then, physically, Christ was blemished and had defects. Certainly, the torture he received at the hands of the Romans resulted in physical imperfections, yet the outward purity of the sacrifices made under the Law were only representations of the spiritual purity of the sacrificial Lamb that God offered to atone for our sins once and for all (Hebrews 10:10). Thus, the sacrifice that is Christ was better than those made under the Law, much as the true heavenly dwelling, which we cannot see as yet, is superior to the physical representation of the sanctuary that was created under the Old Covenant.
Moreover, as Hebrews notes, the sacrifices offered under the Old Covenant had to be offered “endlessly year after year” (10:1), whereas the sacrifice of Christ was once and for all. The sacrifices made under the Old Covenant were unable to cleanse the conscience of the worshipper (Hebrews 9:9) for they were but shadows and copies, concrete representations of the true purity found in the sacrifice of Christ, if you will, and were made in a sanctuary that is only a copy of the true sanctuary in heaven (Hebrews 8:5). Why, though, were the sacrifices offered “endlessly” for so many centuries? The answer may lie in the verses quoted by the author of Hebrews from Jeremiah, where the Lord says “I will put my laws in their minds and write them in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). Through the endless repetition of sacrifice, the Lord sought to instruct His people in His ways and in the truth to be revealed in Christ Jesus. The repetition of sacrifices, as well as the ritual cleansing (Leviticus 12-15) served as a form of rote learning where a child learns through the repetition of tasks until the child knows the lesson taught without having to think about it (Audibloxx). Without a foundation of knowledge on which to build or schema in which to fit new knowledge, rote learning is often the most effective way to learn new material. Through the endless repetition of tasks, the Lord sought to put his laws in their minds and write them in their hearts. For a people dull of hearing, who consistently resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), the need for rote learning persisted until such a time that God “found fault with the people” (Hebrews 8:8) and established a new covenant with them through Christ.
In comparing Hebrews and Leviticus through the lens of the maturation of a child into an adult, it is instructive to see how the teaching of Christ Jesus serves as a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. Jesus taught primarily through parables, using basic elements of Jewish life during His time earth to illustrate truths about the kingdom of God. One might liken this sort of teaching to the Concrete Operational stage discussed previously, for in the Concrete Operational stage, most of the mental organizing and sorting that transpires in the mind of the child takes place in the presence of the objects and events about which the child thinks (Cole & Cole, 1996). Thus, by instructing His disciples and followers regarding the principles of the kingdom of God through the everyday experience of His listeners, Jesus taught deep truths in a way that His followers might comprehend based on their presumed spiritual maturity level. The truth that even his closest disciples often did not comprehend his messages (e.g., John 4:32-33), reveals that they were still struggling to attain to adulthood in spiritual matters. Even John the Baptist, whom Jesus considered the greater than any man born to woman (Matthew 11:11), exhibited signs of spiritual immaturity in questioning whether Jesus was the Messiah (11:2-5), for, as noted above, one of the hallmarks of the child is the inability to grasp new and incongruent information. To most of those expecting a Messiah during the ministry of Jesus on earth, the seemingly humble work he performed must have been incongruent and unexpected, yet Jesus pointed out clearly that this is what Scripture revealed he would do (Matthew 11:4-6).
Though Jesus of Nazareth often taught in parables, using figures of speech to better convey truths his audience probably was not capable of comprehending directly, he spoke of a time when he would tell His disciples plainly about His Father (John 16:25). This time began shortly before His crucifixion (but, cf., Luke 8:9-15), continued during the period before his ascension (Luke 24:27), and is still ongoing through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Most of the Bible that follows the synoptic Gospels consists of such “plain talk” regarding Christ Jesus, the kingdom, and the Spirit of God. In a sense, then, the passage from John (16:25) marks the transition of His disciples into adulthood. No longer did they need to deal only with the shadows and copies of reality intended to instruct people in the ways of God; rather they could not comprehend the realities themselves. For the disciples, the readers of Hebrews, and for believers today, there is a continuing need to set aside the milk that is only the forerunner of the true sustenance that comes through Christ Jesus, the bread of life. Though we, too, may struggle to assimilate new and seemingly incongruent information and may find us asking along with John the Baptist, “Is that really you, Jesus?”, the call for us is to maturity, to set aside childish ways, and to move on to the better things that are in Christ Jesus. Through the Spirit, we must press forward and not look back to those things which Paul called rubbish compared to the glory that is present in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8). “God permitting, we will do so” (Hebrews 6:3).
Cole, Michael and Cole, Sheila R. The Development of Children. 3rd ed. New York, NY. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1996.
“Teaching Science to Young Children.” Home Science Tools. 10 April 2006. Home Training Tools, Ltd. 28 July 2007.
Grave, J. and Blisset, J. “http://www.psych.yorku.ca/bohr/6480_2005/documents/GraveandBlisset2004.pdf.” York University | Welcome to the Faculty of Health, Department of Psychology. 2006. York University. 28 July 2007.
“Rote Learning.” Audiblox: Overcoming Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, Learning Difficulties. 2007. Dr. Jan Strydom & Remedium. 28 July 2007.
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