RPM, Volume 12, Number 27, July 4 to July 10 2010

Corinthians 3:1-4

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at verse 1 of chapter 3 and continuing through to verse 4. Now, in case you have not been with us from the beginning of this series, let me try and bring you up to speed by describing what is going on in the letter.

Paul, several years before this letter was written, went to Corinth and was greatly used by God in establishing the church there. He was the "church planter." Paul then moved on to plant churches elsewhere. Well, a bit of time passes and, while he is in Ephesus, which is not very far away from Corinth, two things happen - 1) he starts to hear reports of disturbing things going on in Corinth. Now these are not "official" reports or "newsletters", so to speak, from the congregation but rather, things he has either gathered from the personal letters of certain individuals, or else information he has received from the first-hand accounts of his disciples. So Paul is receiving all these unofficial "reports" and then, on top of that, 2) he also receives "official" communications - letters that were coming from the congregation as a whole. And so, there are things which the Corinthians are telling him about and there are things they are NOT telling him about, but which he has found out by other means.

In this letter, Paul is responding to both of those situations. In the first part of the letter, chapters 1-6, Paul is responding to the reports he has heard. In the second half of the letter, chapter 7 to the end, Paul is replying to questions that have been raised IN or BY their written communications to him. That, essentially, is the controlling structure of 1st Corinthians.

We are currently in that first portion of the letter in which Paul is responding to the disturbing reports about things going on in the congregation. And the first problem Paul addresses, and at which we are still looking, is the problem of DIVISION in the church. The people at Corinth were forming factions - factions which were centered around particular leaders and personalities like Paul, and Apollos, and Peter. After rebuking them for forming these factions, Paul spends most of his time in this section dealing with their underlying thinking and attitude, which was very worldly, and which he saw as the source of their divisiveness and jealousy and strife. In particular, he is looking at their thinking in the areas of: 1) WISDOM and then in the area of 2) LEADERS/MINISTRY because, in both of these areas, the Corinthians were unduly influenced by worldly ways of thinking and, predictably, this was causing major problems in the congregation.

In the passage before us this morning, Paul is bringing to a close his comments about the Corinthians' misguided pursuit of some other WISDOM than that which Paul gave them in the Cross of Christ. In doing this, Paul highlights the tragic irony that, while the Corinthians thought themselves to be moving forward and advancing in wisdom and spirituality, they were in fact not moving forward at all but had remained immature believers, a truth that was evidenced in at least two main ways, which we'll see in a few minutes. With that as a very brief introduction, let's take a moment to pray before we begin looking at the passage itself...

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human?
The Corinthian congregation was a group of Christians who truly thought that they had "arrived" spiritually. They were convinced of their maturity and wisdom and power. As we have already seen, they were so convinced of this and were so sure of the heights to which they had risen that they now felt that they were in a position to look down their spiritual noses at the Apostle Paul - the very person through whom they had first come to know the Lord Jesus Christ!

We have seen this in a number of places already - we see it between the lines as Paul has shown how the wisdom of God is not like the wisdom of the world. We see it in the way that Paul defends his manner of preaching and teaching. If we look ahead in the letter, we can see it in places like 4:3 where Paul talks about being "judged" by the Corinthians, or in 4:8-10 where the Corinthians' inflated self-opinion is clearly the object of Paul's sarcasm. All throughout the letter it is not hard to find many places that demonstrate the Corinthians' heightened self-opinion.

Yet, even though they saw themselves as being mature, adult believers, Paul says that, nevertheless, they were immature, childish believers - a fact which illustrates not only their level of immaturity but the kind of self-deception that so often accompanies immaturity. In other words, the last person to recognize immaturity is typically the immature person himself/herself. They are either incapable of seeing it, or at least unwilling to see it. This is the problem with the Corinthians, and one about which Paul sadly laments: "I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ."

Now, do not be thrown off by Paul's use of the word "spiritual" here. In the previous section when Paul uses the word "spiritual" he uses it over against people who are "natural" - i.e., people who are not believers. So, when Paul uses that word here and says that he could not address them as spiritual people, you might be tempted to think that Paul is saying that he does not think the Corinthians are true believers. But that's not how he uses the word here.

We know that because, for starters, Paul does not actually say that the Corinthians were "un-spiritual" but only that he could not address them as he would other spiritual, i.e., "mature" believers. We also know this because of the way he starts this verse - by calling them brothers and by the way he finishes it - by describing them as infants in Christ.

So, Paul does not doubt that the Corinthian church, as a whole, is a congregation of true believers although, as we will see later on, that does not mean that he doesn't have some serious doubts about the conversion of at least a few particular persons.

Now, the fact that Paul recognizes a varying degree of maturity amongst Christians, especially among the Corinthian Christians, is one that has been abused and which, in some places, continues to be abused by the church today.

I am thinking here of the teaching, which has been around for some time and which I myself accepted and taught for a significant part of my early Christian life - the teaching about the so-called "carnal Christian" which allegedly arises from this passage. The "carnal Christian" teaching, as far as I can tell, was first espoused by a guy named Scofield and was spread pretty broadly through the Scofield Study Bible which was all the rage when it first came out. From this study Bible, the teaching was then picked up and featured prominently in the literature of a number of organizations and was especially popularized amongst para-church organization by means of "tracts" or "booklets" which were used to teach new Christians about the Holy Spirit.

What the "carnal Christian" teaching is saying, in this extreme form, is that there are 3 classes of people in the world: one class of unbeliever and 2 classes of believers. Amongst believers there are "mature" Christians who have Jesus at the center of their life and everything lines up and is balanced by that. The other kind of believer is one for whom Jesus is not the "Lord of his/her life," although he is still a Savior, and the result is a life which is all out of balance and proportion. Now, while I think the teaching is well-intentioned, it is ultimately unbiblical and I think an extremely unhelpful thing to say to new Christians, mostly because of the things that are typically NOT said along with it.

For starters, the "carnal Christian" teaching, as it is usually presented, teaches Christians the unhelpful and patently un-biblical notion that a person can receive Jesus as "savior" but not as "Lord." Secondly, it presents the false and unhelpful idea that a person can continue in this carnal state of living as a unbeliever indefinitely, with no apparent consequences except for "missing out" on the abundant life that God offers.

In short, this teaching offers comfort and assurance to those who have no right to it. And the problem is, of course, that the Bible nowhere teaches this sort of thing and, in fact, teaches quite the opposite - that people who continue in sin, with no apparent twinge of conscience, ought to examine themselves because they may in fact be unbelievers and in danger of hell, no matter what they are doing and saying on the outside.

Thirdly, this teaching encourages self-righteousness and naiveté amongst those who would consider themselves to be "spiritual" believers - as if they don't have the same daily struggles that the so-called carnal Christian does, as if their life is completely ordered with Christ at the "center" of everything they do.

Now, in addressing this issue, you have to be careful not to say too much, i.e., to not overstate your case. It is true that there are not 3 classes of people in the world, but two: spiritual and natural. But that is not to say that, among Christians at least, there are no distinctions. To be sure, some have TRIED to say there are no real differences and this too is unhelpful and ultimately un-supported by Scripture. Paul shows in this passage and in a number of other places (e.g., Galatians 6:11) that he does recognizes some sort of distinctions amongst believers.

Even further, our own experience supports this as I suspect every believer in this room can think of at least one person who, for a variety of reasons, stands apart from other Christians in terms of his/her integrity, love for God, commitment, pursuit of holiness, etc. For whatever reason, we all know people that, when we speak of them, we feel the need to qualify them in some way, to say something more about them that sets them apart amongst Christians. The reason that we do this is the same reason why Paul feels compelled to describe the Corinthians as "infants in Christ" - because some distinguish themselves by their integrity and some, like the Corinthians - by their immaturity.

And so, there are differences among Christians BUT the thing we have to careful about is not elevating these differences into static categories or to define them in ways which communicate a kind of "Christian caste system" and which encourages, or which at the very least opens the door for, sinful complacency and a blatant disregard of the things of God. We have to steer clear of teaching which can have the effect of endorsing a rebellious lifestyle as admittedly "sub-Christian" but Christian nonetheless, and which provides no incentive for change, and instead offers comfort and assurance to people who ought to be deeply concerned about the state of their own soul. That is precisely the kind of response Paul wants to engender amongst the Corinthians - He wants them to engage in some serious self-examination and ask themselves how it is possible that people who are allegedly so spiritual and mature can act and behave like people who do not know God at all: "....are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?...." Paul asks.

So, while the Corinthians felt they had arrived, spiritually, Paul begs to differ, saying that they are in fact quite immature and infantile in the expression of their Christianity. And, in saying this, Paul shows at least two ways in which their immaturity has been, and continues to be, demonstrated: in both their misperceptions and their misbehavior.

With regard to their misperceptions, as we have already seen, the Corinthians saw themselves as mature when in fact they were not. But the other main "misperception" on their part had to do with how they regarded and responded to Paul's teaching. "I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it," says Paul.

To be sure, this verse is saying something about what Paul did and did NOT try and communicate to the Corinthians. Clearly, he did not speak to them in the same way that he might have spoken to a more mature body of believers. However, you can only carry that truth so far because, while Paul says that he could not give them solid food, when you look at what he says about his preaching in Corinth - and when you see the pattern of his overall ministry - you see that right at the center of his preaching - as we've already seen - is the Cross of Christ and that he was committed to this as a regular pattern for his ministry.

So, that would mean that his preaching of Christ and him crucified would have been at the center all the time, not just in Corinth, but even when he was dealing with a more mature congregation and, to them, it would have been as fresh and relevant and comforting and useful for equipping as it always was. In short, for the mature believer, the preaching of the Cross of Christ would have been seen as "solid food".

Therefore, that being the case, when Paul talks about only feeding the Corinthians milk and "not solid food" - and yet we know that the message he is giving them is the Cross of Christ, with its fathomless wisdom and inexhaustible riches - when we know all those things then we see that Paul's description of his teaching as "milk" is not just a statement about his teaching but is also a statement about the Corinthians and how they were perceiving his teaching.

In other words, at least part of the explanation for WHY Paul's teaching was regarded as "milk" and not "solid food" is related to the Corinthians' immaturity in the Lord. Because of their immaturity, they were unable to see that the truth upon which they "cut their teeth", so to speak, is the very same truth by which they would grow into maturity. "Christ," as Calvin said, "is milk for infants and solid food for men. Every doctrine that can be taught to theologians can also be taught to children." The fact that the Corinthians felt that they had moved on past the message of the Cross and so regarded it as the spiritual equivalent of baby food was evidence of how little they really understood it.

Indeed, this pattern continues to repeat itself among Christians in our own day. I can remember how I responded to these things as a young believer. When the Gospel was first explained to me, and after I had responded in faith to what Jesus had done - it was not long afterward that I wanted to "move on," as I saw it, to deeper things, to more complex, sophisticated things. I felt that I had sort of "mastered" the whole sin-repentance-faith-Jesus on the Cross thing and was ready for more substantial stuff. So I was very attracted to books and ideas that I thought would "unlock" the "secret" of this or the "key" to that or the "seven steps" to the other thing. The whole time I was kind of flitting around from one thing to the next - during that whole time my understanding of the cross, and myself in relation TO it, remained shallow and superficial and woefully inadequate.

Indeed, it was not for at least 6 or 7 years after my conversion that I began - and I emphasize the word "began" here - I BEGAN to see that growth as a Christian was not about "mastering the cross" and then moving on to other things. I began to understand that all true Christian growth is growth toward the Cross. Understanding who Jesus is, getting to know Him is the pursuit of a lifetime, indeed, of all eternity. Grasping the depths of sin and depravity in my own heart, which made Jesus' death a necessity - that is not the discovery of a single moment but is more like successively peeling back the layers of an onion as God, graciously, takes years and decades to reveal the profundity of my sin. And then, accompanying this progressive revelation of my own sin is an ever-deepening repentance and brokenness OVER my sin and a lifetime process of learning to hate what God hates and love what God loves.

Then along with all of that there is an expanding recognition of the NEED for grace and forgiveness that begins with acknowledgment and, over the years, becomes absolute desperation. Finally, as a result of all this, I am increasingly confounded and amazed by the mercy and grace of God toward his people in the Cross of Christ and I am, to this very day, just coming to understand that at the heart of all my struggles is a failure to really believe the Gospel.

So, to summarize: All growth in grace, all meaningful movement in the Christian life is not movement past the Cross, but further into the Cross. As Fee says, what the Corinthian believers needed, and what immature Christians everywhere need, is not a change of diet but rather a change of perspective.

Therefore, one evidence of the Corinthians' immaturity was their misperception - of themselves and of Paul's teaching. The second evidence of their immaturity was not only their misperception but their misbehavior. "For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human?

Now there are at least two indicators in those verses of the nature of their misbehavior. First, Paul talks about there being "jealousy and strife" among them. Now, what's that all about? Well, as we'll see much later on, another problem in the Corinthian church had to do with they way they understood and exercised their spiritual gifts within the congregation. Listen to what Paul says in Chapter 12:12-26:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now, when you read words like that, it's pretty obvious what is going on, isn't it? Some people in the congregation were flaunting their abilities and others were neglecting them. Some people had an inflated view of the importance of their particular gift and, along with that, little appreciation of the gifts of others. Some people's gifts were more public and prominent and others' were hidden away, functioning more in the background, and thus receiving less recognition. And you can see, can't you, how in that sort of environment the immature manner in which the Corinthians were exercising their gifts would be the cause of great jealousy and strife within the congregation.

Another indicator of their immaturity is something which we've seen before, back in chapter 1:10-17, in the way that they were aligning themselves with certain persons or certain positions in the church - like Paul and Apollos and Peter and Christ. You may remember that when we looked at this before we saw that this alignment was not something that was being encouraged by Paul and Apollos and Peter and, as such, was not a leader problem but rather a follower problem. Paul and Apollos and Peter were not opponents or competitors but brothers in arms. The fact that the Corinthians were creating cliques associated with these men is simply an indicator of how little they understood them, or what they were all about. In short, it was further evidence of their immaturity.

Now, in the next section, Paul will go into more detail on this matter of how one ought to think about Christian leaders and Christian ministry, and he will do so precisely because the Corinthians so obviously had a great deal to learn in this area and, until they did, their wrong attitude about these things would only result in further division. And so, at the end of the day, the Corinthian catastrophe sounds a clear warning of what can happen when the church moves its focus away from the Cross of Christ and, in its place, pursues some other wisdom or takes some other course:

When we move our focus away from the Cross of Christ and in its place adopt worldly ideas about wisdom and power, we will tend toward an inflated view of our own giftedness, over against the value and giftedness of others, causing us to discount both them and their ministry, resulting in jealousy and division in the church.

When we move our focus away from the Cross of Christ we will become increasingly impatient and restless with the message of the Cross and more and more taken with practically anything else that comes down the pipe and thus susceptible to "every wind of doctrine" - as Paul says in Ephesians 4. One result of this will be a kind of spiritual elitism that develops and which encourages division within the church.

Finally, when we move our focus away from the Cross of Christ, we will develop an increasingly distorted view of ourselves. The more this distortion progresses, the greater will be our tendency toward discontentment with the result that we will become envious of things which we feel we simply must have to be fulfilled. This too can only result in jealousy and increased division within the church.

Accordingly, please join me in praying that God will help us to avoid the Corinthian struggle by helping us to keep our focus on the Cross of Christ, following the example of our brother Paul.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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