Studies in First Corinthiansby Bob Burridge ©2016
Lesson #8: 1 Corinthians 3:1-15 (ESV)
when they’re grown up.
They pretend to be soldiers, mothers, race car drivers, astronauts, doctors, teachers, or kings. They don’t really want to have to leave home right away and start supporting themselves. But grown-ups can do a lot of things they wish they could do. Often they can’t wait for the day when they’re old enough to drive a car, stay up late, and decide for themselves what they should eat and when they’re ready to eat it.
On the other hand …
Grown ups often envy the children who can run all day without getting tired. They remember the days when they didn’t have to figure income taxes, worry about their budget, or fix broken things around the house, and get the oil changed in the car every now and then. It was nice when there was someone older to look after them, to remember how to get home from long trips, and to hand them spending money at the mall. Most adults really don’t want to go back and start all over again, but they often have good memories of those more care-free days.
Sadly, there are those who don’t grow up the way they should. Some adults are more immature than children. They brag, put others down, act rudely, and do foolish things. They don’t make good judgments, and are irresponsible. They get into trouble and others have to suffer the consequences. They do not learn the basics they should have learned when they were young. Growing up to be more mature is often hard to do, but its tragic when it does not happen.
As our bodies grow physically, we need to eat different things. New-born infants start out with a pure milk diet. Then they graduate to mushy foods, things that can be eaten before the teeth come in. Before very long they’re eating solid things they have to chew. Then in later years the teeth begin to age away and they have to revert to the mushy foods again.
But it’s the wholesome milk that makes our bodies able to grow strong teeth so we can eat the meat. A baby can’t handle a nice filet mignon. He needs lots of milk first. Parents and brothers and sisters in the family know how often a baby cries out for his milk – all through the night for those first weeks. God made those little bodies to know what they need. If we just give the baby a little bit of milk now and then, he will never become strong enough for the solid food. He needs a good, steady supply. But if over time, the child stays with only milk, and never goes on to solid foods, he will not have what is needed for growing up to be physically strong.
When we are born-again by God’s grace, we also need to begin growing into spiritually mature Christians.
Paul begins chapter three —
1, 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,
These brothers in Christ were not growing up and moving beyond spiritual infancy. When Paul first came to Corinth, they were just new-born Christians they needed very simple instruction in the basics. That’s what we expect of new believers — and that’s exactly what the Apostle gave them. They were only beginning to know and understand God’s promises. They had many adjustments to make to conform to God’s ways.
Paul compared these basic lessons to the milk we give to infants. As new believers the Corinthians couldn’t yet deal with the meat of God’s word. Peter used the same example in 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation– ”
Growth demands a progression in nutrition. Just as babies need milk to grow teeth and help their digestive systems mature, so also new believers need to be taught the basics to equip them for the more demanding things.
For example: Until we know that God is the Creator and Lord of all he made, we wouldn’t have a basis for understanding his principles of justice and morality. It would be hard to deal with frustrations, impatience, and suffering if we didn’t have a sound confidence in the power of God that lies behind all things. If we do not know about man’s fall into sin and the promise of redemption in Christ, we wouldn’t have a foundation for true assurance, peace, and hope. It is God’s promises to his children in his Covenant of Grace that comfort us.
We should expect different depths of understanding as believers mature in Christ. But if the basics of the Bible are not well known, it’s hard to put the information together. The more difficult and profound things become confusing and discourage us.
The reason we give milk to babies is to get them to grow beyond it. 5 years had gone by since Paul’s first visit to Corinth. They should have progressed beyond baby food by then. There should be more evidence of spiritual maturity.
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?
5, What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.
6, I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
7, So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
8, He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.
9, For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
These new Christians were in some ways still living like unredeemed people. Paul said they were “of the flesh”, or as the King James translates it, “carnal”. Instead of looking to God for spiritual refreshment as he promised in his Covenant of Grace, they were looking to man’s ways to satisfy their human desires and needs. They had not yet learned to trust confidently in the gospel promises. They still did not appreciate the power true salvation brings them.
The Influence of the pagan culture in Corinth was producing tension in the church. Instead of working together as a family redeemed by grace, they were forming religious factions like political parties. Some said they followed Paul as their spiritual example and teacher, others looked to Apollos. They saw them the way the world views its leaders; as competing for a following.
They had not matured enough to see how all things fit together in God’s plan. All God’s ministers aren’t given the same skills and the same jobs to do. Their different skills are meant to be used together, not in competition. God gifts his church so that each part helps the others jointly without jealousy.
Paul was the one who first established their church. It was like planting a new crop. Apollos was a skilled teacher who came along to help the church learn God’s ways. He was like the person who watered a crop that was already planted. There was no reason to favor one over the other or to see them as conflicting. Even today, those who pioneer new works as Missionaries need to work together with Pastors who are called to feed the newly formed congregations.
The people were being immature by not appreciating the unified nature of God’s covenant family. They were not progressing out of the basics because, evidently, they had not learned them well. They needed to get back to the milk so they could have a better foundation for spiritual growth.
The writer of Hebrews chapter 5 had a similar concern for a different group of readers. There he writes in verse 12, “… by this time you ought to be teachers.” Instead the writer says, “… you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” In verse 13 of Hebrews 5 he refers to them as a child (“naepios” – νήπιος) just as Paul does here in 1 Corinthians 3:1.
Immature believers are not able to handle the solid food of God’s word. A good foundation is necessary before a stable building can be put up on it. If the foundation is poor, then the building constructed on it will be faulty and dangerous.
carefully built by the joint effort of its shepherds.
10, According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.
11, For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12, Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–
13, each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
14, If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
15, If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
The workers he is talking about here are those specially called to be messengers of the gospel. Paul is not talking about the ordinary gospel work all believers in Christ need to be doing. Paul says in 5:10 “I laid a foundation”, another builds. The church is what was being built. The ministers are the ones doing the building.
The members of the church are the work produced by these ministers. They are the crop that was planted by Paul, and watered by the teaching of Apollos. The Corinthian Church was the work of their God-blessed labors.
When the church I once Pastored, Grace Presbyterian, was first established it was called the St. Petersburg work in the denominational publications.
This is exactly how Paul uses this expression in other places. In verse 9 he said, “You are God’s field, God’s building” Later in this epistle (9:1) he asks, “…are you not my workmanship in the Lord?”
God’s final Judgment will expose that some members of the church are not genuine Christians. Jesus made this clear during his ministry on earth. In Matthew 7:23, he explained that in the day of judgment, there will be some who falsely claim to be his followers. But Jesus said, “then will I declare to them ‘I never knew you’…” They were frauds.
He explained that the true and false believers are mixed together here on earth. It’s hard to distinguish them until the final day of Judgment. Matthew 13:24-43 tells that the wheat and weeds (“tares” in the KJV), the good and deceitful ones in the church, were to grow together until the judgment. 13:30, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
In Matthew 25:32 he calls these two groups sheep and goats. He warned that in the judgment, “… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
So how can we be sure we’re not among those deceived ones? If after many years you still show no growth of the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in your life there is good reason for concern. Believers are transformed by grace when they are saved. The same regeneration that makes them alive in Christ also makes them want to live obediently and maturely to please Christ.
Those who are content to remain infants, or who follow after false teachers, raise serious questions about their salvation.
The false teachers who were troubling the church in Corinth were producing immature followers. Paul dearly loved and cared for the true believers there. He wanted them to make their salvation sure by growing up spiritually. Though the unsaved in the church will be purged by judgment fires, the ministers who tried to care for them will still be saved when the fires fall.
Sadly, there have been some who have confused this important passage of Scripture. They make the work here to be the good or bad deeds done by the Christians. They teach that there are two kinds of Christians: Carnal (fleshly) Christians and Spiritual Christians.
The Carnal Christians are forgiven for their sins but their hearts are unchanged. Their lives and souls are no different than when they were unsaved. Though they sin, there is no penalty for it since Jesus paid for their guilt. They say you can accept Jesus as Savior without accepting him as your Lord.
The Spiritual Christians are those who also trust in Jesus as their Lord. They believe there is a second experience of grace that gives them deeper life.
It’s tragic that so many have taken this view which is the opposite of what Paul is teaching here. The point is that if there is no spiritual growth, they aren’t just a lower class Christians. They are not Christians at all. They needed to get back to the basics, the milk of the word, to make their foundation sure so they could deal with their immaturities and grow up. If they are divisive and proud; bickering and forming parties in the church, they have either not fed well on the milk or they never really understood the basics they said they learned.
The warning was a sobering truth that should stop them and make them think. They were his work in the gospel. They were the work of Apollos and other teachers. If they are still living as if nothing was changed except their religious rituals, they would not stand in the judgment. Their superficial faith would be exposed as a fraud.
James warned in James 2:17, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The idea that a person can become a Christian but live like the world, is a lie.
with an unsound faith today.
When you talk with them you begin to realize they hold to unbiblical beliefs and practices. They have a total lack of the basics of what the Bible teaches. Since they haven’t been taking in the word as they should (babies need lots of milk to grow, not just a taste now and then) they are not growing stronger and progressing in the God’s truths and ways. Instead they are feasting on the junk food of the falsely religious which is poison to the soul.
Fleshliness (carnality) isn’t reserved for some who were born again but with spiritual birth defects. All believers have areas of immaturity they need to deal with in their lives. The Apostle Paul says of himself in Romans 7:14, “I am of the flesh” (“I am carnal”: KJV). That’s when we forget the spiritual realities in life and are just looking at the outward/physical/fleshly side of things. Our fallen nature, even when redeemed, will in this life tempt us to think this way.
We need to be sure we have fed well on the milk of the word, the basics of the Bible. As we prayerfully read and consider these teachings, our souls grow and mature. And as we grow we should move on beyond the basics to learn how the teachings of Scripture fit together into wonderful lessons for us. We need to put immaturity behind us and grow up into what Christ calls us to be.
Christianity is not a mere set of rules or facts to be memorized, or even just accepted as true. It’s not just a set of rituals we perform that differ in form from the other religions of the world. It’s a vibrant life we are to be leading as our thoughts, words, and deeds become more and more focussed on the power of the risen Christ in us.
It’s our responsibility to hunger for the milk of the word so that by it we will grow to crave the solid food of God’s word. We ought to evidence the work of Christ in us by setting aside strife, jealousy, and divisiveness, and by working to mortify the fleshly outlook and ways of our lives.
In place of such things we must put on the ways of Christ.
Colossians 3:5-17 says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)