Paul desires to build maturity that leads to unity in the Corinthian church (1:10). He determines to know nothing but Christ and Christ crucified but speaks the depth of God’s wisdom to those who are mature (1-2). Paul believes the Corinthian church is in Christ (1:4-9), He also recognizes that her puffed-up knowledge leads to division (1:11-13). Puffed up, or haughty, knowledge is a sign of the Corinthian church’s immaturity and childishness. Today we see how Paul describes the immaturity, childishness, of the local church in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What infants need (v. 1-4)
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly.
When Paul was in Corinth on his second missionary journey, he planted the local church in the home of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). At that time, Paul could not speak to the Corinthians like he would speak to those who were spiritually mature. He had to speak to them as infants, men of flesh. He had to give them spiritual milk because they were not yet able to receive the deeper teachings about the person and work of Christ. In this letter, Paul states his belief that the local church is still not able to receive the deep, mature, things of the faith because the church body is still in her immaturity, infancy in Christ.
There are two important notes we need to take:
- The Corinthian church is puffed up in its knowledge but still an infant in the faith.
Such is the case when anyone is puffed up, or haughty, in what knowledge he or she has—such wisdom is worldly wisdom even if it is wisdom about spiritual things. Speaking from my own experience—when I was immature in the faith, I thought much of my knowledge and my ability to dazzle people with quippy or seemingly profound statements. Most people who have caused division in the churches I have had the pleasure of serving were people who were haughty in their knowledge, making a point to try correcting what they heard and did not agree with from week to week. According to The Office, such people (like Oscar) are called the “Well Actuallys” because they interact in the discussion of the church beginning with the words, “Well actually…” It is not wrong to correct when real corrections need to be made; we desire that. To always seek confirmation rather than understanding is a sin of spiritual infancy and causes worldly division in the church if the church is full of spiritual infants. I perceive that there are many people today who have barely suckled on milk but believe themselves to be spiritual authorities. Be careful, brothers and sisters. Seek understanding. Seek to consume more substantive meals as you grow spiritually. We all must begin with the milk of the faith. We should not, however, be Christians for years and still demand the baby bottle.
- Paul did not condemn the Corinthians for their infancy but condescended to them.
Because the church needed, and needs, spiritual milk, Paul is giving them milk. Perhaps they will become able to consume spiritual steak as a result of this letter. Church dynamics are always interesting. In a healthy local church, we have people who are in need of both spiritual milk and steak respectively. It is tempting for those eating steak, or who believe they are mature enough to eat steak, to criticize those less knowledgable. It is often tempting for the elders (pastors) of the church to get frustrated with certain people in church because they “should be more mature than they are.” Let us learn a lesson from Paul. We can either be condescending of others (make them feel small with our words and demeanor) or condescend to them (talk to them on their level). Paul condescended to the Corinthian church. When we interact with unbelievers or people not able to receive solid spiritual food, we talk to them where they are at. We cannot expect infants to live and think like spiritual adults. Neither do we want infants to remain infants. Paul tells the church that she is still a spiritual infant so that she might grow up. I have had to tell men and women of faith who believe they are the most mature Christians that they are actually spiritual infants, which is not a pleasant conversation to have with people who have professed Christ for years and years but never grew up spiritually. Most of the time, they take the opportunity to speak hatefully about the local church, condemn others, and leave never to be seen again. We benefit most from doing a sincere self-inventory, considering our own spiritual maturity. What are the signs that we might be in our spiritual infancy? Paul reveals the evidence to the Corinthian church.
For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
- Unrighteous jealousy (envy):
Paul mentions jealousy first. It is not the type of jealousy a man has for his wife or God has for His church, which are righteous forms of jealousy. It is the type of jealousy that exists among brethren—envy. Someone else is getting what I think I deserve. I know more than that person, why is he getting all the attention? Why don’t I get a phone call as often as I think others are? Why isn’t the pastor dedicating all his time to me? Why aren’t I being promoted? We pay a pastor to serve us alone and live up to all of our expectations. Every other church is terrible and only ours is correct. I am the only good teacher around, and people are wasting their time going to other churches. I deserve to have a class, and no one else does… Those attitudes characterize unrighteous jealousy, envy, among the local church body. Frankly, they contradict Jesus’s basic call upon the lives of all disciples:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul (Matthew 16:24-26)?
They contradict the basic outpouring of the gospel, if the gospel has actually taken root in our lives:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:3-7).
Envy, which is conceited, is the way of the world, not of Christ. When we mature spiritually, we grow out of envy into generosity—we start looking out for others’ interests at least as much as we look out for our own.
There is strife in the local church at Corinth. Strife is conflict, or at least tension. If there is tension in any church, beware spiritual infancy at the root of the strife. What does Scripture reveal about tensions or quarrels in the church?
Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:1-4).
Our selfish desires cause conflict and tension every time. James even traced strife among the members of Christ’s body to envy. Such envy and strife is worldly. If it is normative, James accused the members of being enemies of God. Why? Envy is a worldly attitude and strife is the fruit of the world, not the Spirit—which is Paul’s next point.
Envy leads to strife leads to fleshly, or worldly, living. Paul will describe fleshly living in his letter to Roman believers:
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).
If we live according to the flesh, we have our minds set on things of the flesh—what Paul has referred to as the wisdom of the world already in 1 Corinthians. It is not wrong to be informed, knowledgable, and/or educated. We can and should inform ourselves about everything from politics to world-news to culture to religion. We must in order to know who we are talking to and how, to speak to people where they are at. If we make those things our content, idolatrize them, we prove to be people of the flesh rather than of Christ—which makes us either not Christian or spiritual infants. Those who are truly in Christ deny their own impulses to get caught up in worldly things and, instead, speak the things of God:
Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
Paul will instruct Timothy not to get caught up in all the things of the world. God will enlist Timothy. God does not enlist us so we can fight the battles of the world. He enlists all His people to fight His battle according to His rules of engagement. If we fight according to the wisdom of the world, we cannot please God.
- Walking like mere men:
Paul reveals that the ways of God are higher than the ways of the world. The wisdom of God (the gospel) will accomplish the work of God. If we walk like mere men, we will continue to see the division in our churches, nations, and world exponentially increase. Only the wisdom of God will win the day, bring maturity among Christians, and renew the world to the shame of the fleshly and their “wisdom.”
The pastor-gardener (v. 5-9)
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
Paul applies the truth about God’s wisdom to his own role in the sharing of godly wisdom. Apollos and Paul are simply servants. God is the one who gave opportunity to each one to hear the gospel from them and believe. Apollos and Paul were not interested in sharing the great depth of their knowledge with profundity. They condescended to their audience. Paul planted. Apollos watered. God is the one who gave the growth when people did, in fact, grow a little. The preacher is nothing. God is doing the work through the preaching of His word.
So, if our focus is the preacher, our focus is wrong. Preachers are not personalities to be followed. We are not part of one church body or another based on who the preacher is, the preacher’s personal doctrinal beliefs or political viewpoints, or how much or little he does according to God’s particular calling on his life. The preacher is not to be put on a pedestal. Such a thing breeds immaturity and causes division. If you worship MacArthur, Piper, Jeremiah, or someone less well-known, you will never feel at home in a local church because you are committing idolatry. God’s word is the focus. God gives the growth. The preacher is merely God’s slave in the process. The true church does not have celebrities like the world does. I love teaching from the men I mentioned, but we ought not idolatrize them or our local church preachers. We will tear down the local church by doing so.
Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
All those who preach are one, meaning one is not better than the other and they do the same work in Christ. Each individual preacher will receive his own reward according to his own labor. Paul will get at this more later in the letter. The one who works hard at preaching and teaching is worthy of his wages (cf. 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). God will reward each preacher according to his faithfulness to work hard at dividing the word of truth. Everything a preacher does other than preach, he does because he is a Christian. I call, visit, and invite people over for dinner because I am a Christian, not because it is my duty as a pastor. Every Christian should be doing those things because we are family. My labor in this world is preaching/teaching and prayer. Rightly dividing the word of truth is how I earn a living on this earth and my wage in heaven. I have no problem saying that we are saved by grace, yet earn a heavenly wage according to our kingdom labor on this earth (cf. v. 15). In preaching, the preacher is God’s fellow worker. Those being saved are God’s field, His building.
Such is the relationship between pastors and their respective congregations. The preacher spends his time caring for God’s garden. He tills the ground, plants seeds, and waters with the word of God. God provides growth to maturity and the bearing of much fruit by the congregation. When he served as the pastor in Corinth, Paul tilled the ground. He turned the soil by preaching in the synagogue and in the home of Titius Justus so seeds could be planted. He overturned the established ground, pouring nutrients into the dirt so it might become soil, and put fruit-bearing seed in the ground. Another preacher, Apollos, watered what Paul planted. God caused the church to grow, here referring to maturity not number. Such is the work of the New Testament preacher, church planter, missionary, and evangelist—all with the hope that people may know God fully as they are fully known by God, come into the maturity of the faith, depart from the wisdom of the world that divides so much, and bear much gospel fruit. Our desire is to be a local church that bears much kingdom fruit.
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