Erik Strandness takes a look at a number of biblical metaphors involving food and explores what they mean for our faith
The Bible writers frequently utilised the major food groups as faith metaphors. They wrote of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy because they knew that a well-balanced diet was important to a healthy faith. The prophet Jeremiah was a good example of this because once he discovered the word of God diet, he went all in joyously eating God’s words and discovering that not only were they tasty but also heart healthy.
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” (Jeremiah 15:16)
Jesus then came along and not only encouraged a healthy diet but commissioned his followers to take their evangelistic food truck on the road to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the Earth, serving up the bread of life to the spiritually starving. As children of God, we are called to continue in the family business and once again hit the road handing out Jesus samples, so others have the opportunity to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). We need to remember, however, that people are finicky eaters and will cherry pick verses instead of digesting every word that comes from the mouth of God, therefore, we need to make it clear that we aren’t dispensing appetizers or desserts but the main course, and anything short of the Lord’s supper is a happy meal devoid of eternal life calories.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
Interestingly, the Bible writers not only recognised the unique nutrient content of each food group but also acknowledged that these foods must be consumed in an age-appropriate manner, such as the metaphorical use of milk, meat and fruit for the stages we go through as we acquire and spread our faith.
Milk of human kindness
Shortly after birth, a baby is put to breast to receive milk. The beauty of this milk is that it is organic, non-GMO and locally sourced. It requires no foraging, hunting, or cultivating and contains all the basic nutrients necessary for the infant’s survival. As practicing Christian nutritionists concerned about the health of the born-again, we must be familiar with the components of this pure spiritual milk if we are to nourish those growing up into salvation.
“Like new-born 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)
So, what are the components of pure spiritual milk? I think the most concise biblical nutrition label we can find is stamped on the cross of the “good thief” because it was there that we were privileged to witness the miracle of a Christian birth. The “good thief” knew he had been rightly convicted and deserved hell and yet hung next to an innocent King who punched his ticket to paradise. Without any catechetical training, Sunday school classes, or skills in the art of speaking in tongues he had the charges against him dropped and was released from a prison of darkness. It therefore appears that the only nutrition a baby Christian needs to live in the land of milk and honey is to acknowledge their sin, repent, and call on the name of the Lord.
I worked with men in the Union Gospel Mission’s addiction treatment program and encountered an entire nursery of baby Christians nourished by this pure spiritual milk. It wasn’t academicians from the ivory towers of theology that transformed their lives but an encounter with a suffering servant on the mean streets of addiction. These men, who couldn’t love themselves, encountered no greater love, and like a new-born baby in the arms of its mother, they were comforted in the arms of their saviour.
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.” (Psalm 131:2)
Jesus also engaged in baby talk when he encountered the Pharisee Nicodemus. He told Nicodemus, a man with a very sophisticated Jewish palate, that he must be born again and drink spiritual milk before he could be seated at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Nicodemus was incredulous that he needed to become a Christian infant since he was already a mature Pharisee, but Jesus made it clear to him that you don’t get to put on your big boy pants in Christ until you have dirtied your share of diapers.
Where’s the beef?
Milk is important for a baby Christian but once you have been adopted as a child of God you begin the process of growing in the Lord and that means the introduction of solid foods. Solid foods, however, require discernment because the world is more than happy to offer you a smorgasbord of religious meals.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14)
St Paul knew the importance of the meat of the gospel but also recognised that many of its purported vendors were butchers of the truth, and warned the churches that they shouldn’t just rely on the reputation of the shopkeepers but must carefully read the nutrition labels on every product they sold.
“For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-7)
While any Christian can express the milk of the gospel, it is those who dispense the meat that are held to the highest standards because in their zeal to raise up adults in Christ they are also at risk of making them twice as much children of hell. Wise people know the limits of their meal preparation skills and serve up only that which they are competent to prepare but the foolish rise to their level of culinary incompetence and all too often serve up gastronomical gut-punches.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)
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Drive by fruiting
“So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
All this talk of milk and meat is useless unless people see some fruit in our lives. The fruit of the spirit is the physical manifestation of the hope that is in us and if our tree is bare then people have no reason to ask us about our divine diet. If God isn’t glorified in our actions, then the world sees us as fat and sassy gluttons selfishly gorging ourselves on religion without offering even a scrap to the world.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Interestingly, the list of the fruits of the spirit doesn’t include Bible memorisation, doctrinal dissertations, or theological degrees, and while these disciplines may help us grow in our personal faith, they are nothing but noisy gongs or clanging cymbals if we don’t dance to their music.
Lord Michael Hastings makes a wonderful distinction between a manifesto of faith and a faith manifested. Similarly, famous Catholic writer and social activist Dorothy Day said: “A saint is a person whose life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
Christians should look counter-cultural to the world, and as the onlookers try to figure out why we behave the way we do, we should direct them to the One who makes sense of it all. Our Christian life should look like exotic fruit to a culture content with broccoli and Brussel sprouts and should prompt them to ask us about the Vine that provides the nourishment.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
A Christianity that strictly relies on the ruminations of an academician may reach to the skies and be a sight to behold but without any low hanging fruit it is powerless to provide nutrition to those contemplating a change in cultural diet. Our witness therefore should look less like a lecture from a meathead and more like a drive by fruiting.
Food for thought
We all have different dietary needs depending on our level of Christian maturity, but one stage is not better than another and God welcomes both the suckler as well as the one who dines with knives and forks.
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” (Romans 14:1-3)
Christians are nourished by varying combinations of milk and meat but in the end, it is the fruit we produce that grows the Kingdom. We need to utilise all the ingredients God has provided in order to prepare healthy spiritual cuisine, and our Christian witness should be an appealing menu that gives the world food for thought.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.