Please turn with me in your bibles to the New Testament. The text to which I’d like to turn our attention this evening is found in First Corinthians chapter 3. First Corinthians chapter 3.
As we have noticed through our study of this letter, Paul is here in the middle of an ongoing train of thought. From chapter 1 verse 10 all the way into chapter 4, Paul is making a sharp and direct case against the quarreling and division going on in the Corinthian church.
The Corinthian believers had gotten distracted. They had drifted away from the central anchor of the Christian faith. They had let worldly values and worldly desires creep into their minds and hearts, and the church had been suffering for it.
To counter this congregational drift, Paul has been seeking to reset their priorities, to re-anchor them to what is of first importance. The foundation of Paul’s argumentation has been a clear understanding of the cross. The cross is what demonstrates true wisdom, as opposed to worldly foolishness. The cross is what explains to us who God is, who Christ is, who we are, how we are made right with God, and how we ought to live.
But he then goes into another discussion in chapter 2 about the Holy Spirit. This may seem like he’s going down a rabbit trail, but it is an important part of his argumentation against divisions. The only way we come to see the cross as the wisdom of God and foundation of the Christian life is by the work of the Holy Spirit. The spirit reveals true wisdom, because true wisdom is only spiritually discerned. Thus, if the Spirit’s prior work is the only reason we’ve come to embrace Christ, then what is to come of our pride and boasting? It is brought to nothing.
Then we get to chapter three, which takes the theme of the Spirit, of being made spiritual and having true wisdom revealed to us, and compares that with what is found in Corinth. The Corinthians believers had been acting in a way that was contrary to the Spirit, as we will see.
But of particular note for us is that the Corinthian temptation to worldliness, to acting according to the flesh rather than the spirit, of being divisive and contentious rather than being a peace-maker, that temptation is all around us today. We see this every day: in the world, in churches, in our homes, and in our own hearts. Fussing and fighting and bickering and posturing and gossiping and grumbling. The church today, and we as individuals, need constantly to be on guard against these bad fruit, these works of the flesh.
So, that’s where we are headed, let’s begin by reading 1 Corinthians 3:1-4:
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?
I’ll begin tonight by saying that I have but two simple points drawn from these verses. Two observations for us to see: the tragic root, and the bitter fruit. The tragic root of their problems, and the bitter fruit.
Let’s look at the tragic root of their problems. The root of their disunity, which we see in the first two verses. Verse 1 says, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” The tragic root of their disunity and their problems is their own immaturity. Their own immaturity.
He says at the beginning that he could not address them as spiritual people, picking up the theme from chapter 2. When I came to you, he’s saying, you weren’t ready for the big leagues. You weren’t full of the spirit and thriving in holiness. You were not the pneumatikoi. You were people of the flesh, you were “carnal” your translation might say.
But he doesn’t only say that they were acting according to the flesh. He adds that they were babies. They were infants. They were immature. Which is why Paul says he fed them with “with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.” When he first came to Corinth, Paul did what every good teacher does, is that he makes the teaching appropriate in form to the audience being taught. You don’t hand a 6-month-old baby a T-bone steak, and you don’t hand a full-grown man a bottle of milk. You give them the food that is appropriate for them in their stage of development, which is exactly what Paul did.
This analogy of milk and solid food, or milk and meat, is used several places in the New Testament. Sometimes the analogy is used positively, and sometimes negatively. Peter uses the analogy positively in 1 Peter 2 when he tells us to long for the pure spiritual milk of the word. Milk here refers to the doctrines of the gospel that, by their purity and substance, build us up to maturity in the faith just like milk enables a baby to grow up into maturity.
However, Paul is here in 1 Corinthians 3 using the language negatively, or ironically. He’s using the analogy of milk, which the proud Corinthians likely used as a pejorative against Paul’s own plain preaching of the cross, Paul uses the analogy to show the immatuirty of the Corinthians. They think they’re ready for meat, but they were needing milk. And he goes on to say that they STILL need it.
“And even now you are not yet ready,” he says. They were acting like children, Paul says. Paul is continuing the argument of the entire passage but incorporating a new metaphor. Just as they thought of themselves as “spiritual”, which they were in one sense made so by the cross, but by their thinking and by their actions they are demonstrating the opposite; they’re acting fleshly. They think they are the grown-ups, but they are acting like the babies.
That’s the tragedy of the situation. When you see a newborn baby in diapers and a bib you think that is adorable. But if you saw a grown man sitting in a pew tonight in a diaper and bonnet, you’d think he was either nuts, or you’d pity him. He hasn’t matured properly; his growth is stunted. This isn’t natural; something went wrong. That’s what Paul is saying here.
“You Corinthians want to be treated like grown-ups, like the mature spiritual ones, but you keep acting fleshly. This is inconsistent; it’s not natural. It doesn’t make sense, and it ought not be.”
The Corinthian problem wasn’t that they lacked teaching. Paul fed them what they needed. The problem was that they weren’t living in a manner consistent with what they knew. They weren’t growing in faith and holiness; they talked like they were the spiritual ones, but they failed to live it out.
James talks about these kinds of people: they are hearers of the word and not doers of the word. They are like somebody who looks at his face in the mirror, and then walks away and immediately forgets what he looks like. That’s a toddler. That’s a spiritual baby. That’s immaturity, and it is inconsistent with the Spirit and with the cross.
I’m sure you know people like this. They have been in churches since they were born. They’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of sermons. But when you look at their life, you’d never know it. They think they are the mature ones who have it all together, but they demonstrate by their behavior that they are actually the babies of the church. They ought to know better. They ought to be wiser than this. They ought to have grown up into maturity. And yet they sit there in the pew in their spiritual diapers. It’s not right.
And please note, Christian maturity isn’t necessarily tied to chronological age. Plenty of people with gray hair are babies in the faith, and sometimes you find a young person with great amounts of spiritual wisdom and maturity. Don’t think that just because you have made it another trip around the sun that you’ve magically matured in the faith.
Christian maturity is demonstrated by spiritual wisdom, which bears itself out with genuine spiritual fruit, like the ones listed in Galatians 5: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Conversely, Christian immaturity bears distinct fruit as well, which leads to our second point:
The Bitter fruit of immaturity. The bitter fruit of immaturity. Verse 3:
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?
Paul says they are still of the flesh. He bops them right on the nose. “You Corinthians think you’re so spiritual and mature, but you’re acting like Pagans, you’re acting like people that don’t have the spirit.”
And what proof does he give to back up such a claim? He says there is jealousy and strife, or among them.
The word for jealous here is a word that describes water boiling. It’s meant to picture emotion boiling over into passionate action. In the positive sense, it can mean zealous defense of something good, or a fierce holding on to something valuable. In the negative sense, as Paul uses it here, it means that somebody’s heart boils over into uncontrolled action. Envy. Resentment. Rivalry. Unholy competitiveness.
You’ve seen this. So and so wants a little more attention. A little more air time. A little more spotlight. And when they don’t get it, they begin to pout and to posture themselves so that they get seen. Or they begin to make comments: “Why do you think that so and so gets to sing the solos? Why can’t I get a little more teaching time? Why don’t they ever come ask about me? Why haven’t they reached out to me, or prayed for me?” And slowly but surely, envy and bitterness creep in. And that produces waves in the church: ripples at first, but if unchecked, they turn into tidal waves of division. Which leads the second thing that Paul points out from Corinth: strife.
Strife, or quarrelling, or contention, like Paul mentioned earlier in chapter 1:11. This is the verbal form of wrestling. It is when people struggle with one another. They seek to dominate and control others, to force their opinions and their ways upon others, and they refuse to back down or concede an inch. They have a contentious and combative spirit, we could say. They’re argumentative, unlovingly opinionated, often but not always confrontational, or even contrary in spirit.
This kind of fruit can take a few different forms. Sometimes contentiousness is in the blatant immaturity of somebody having only one speed. They have only one speed, by which I mean everything to them is either 0 or 100. Everything is either completely inconsequential, or it is a hill to die on. Every little thing becomes a test of fellowship. Every doctrinal question is either irrelevant, or it is foundational for orthodoxy. They end up stirring up all the debates, they’re often found online exercising their God-given calling to personally, and often anonymously, correct every other person’s theology in the comment section. That’s one especially evident and obnoxious version of a contentious spirit.
Another very prevalent fruit of strife and quarreling is seen when we break up into our favorite little groups. When we treat others as those that we want to be around, and we leave out and neglect others that we don’t want to be around. We surround ourselves with those that agree with us, and we remove others that might not agree.
We may convince ourselves that we’re not contentious at all because we aren’t in any active fights; but we’ve deceived ourselves by simply removing and silencing those that might disagree with us. We’ve made our cliques and removed any dissenters. That’s not biblical peacemaking; that’s cliquish immaturity.
This kind of childishness happens in life all the time, from the kindergarten playground to the senior adult bingo tables. And it destroys relationships, especially within the church. It’s part of what was behind Paul’s observation in verse 4: “4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” Are you not merely being human, or acting as if you don’t have the spirit? You’re acting like Pagans, Paul says. Cliques destroy community, and favoritism undermines family. Cliques destroy community, and favoritism undermines family.
Or consider this deadly fruit of a proud and contentious heart: grumbling. Grumbling and complaining. I’ve been reading through Exodus lately and I was absolutely struck this time by the speed with which the Hebrews descend into grumbling. In Exodus 12 we have the Passover where the first born of each household in Egypt is killed, while all of the Hebrews were spared. They are then thrown out of Egypt by their own slave masters, and the text said that they actually plundered the Egyptians on the way out. Then they are led by a giant pillar of fire and a giant cloud, they cross the Red Sea on dry ground, they watch the red sea swallow up all of their enemies. All of this is in Exodus 13, 14, 15.
Then, right after Moses’s song of praise to God in Exodus 15, we read this:
22 Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah.[b] 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
At the first sign of difficulty, they grumbled. They had just watched God split open the sea and use it to crush the army of the strongest nation on the planet, and now they’re grumbling, in less than three verses later.
It seems unbelievable. How could they be so ungrateful? How could they be so immature? Don’t they remember where they were and what God has done for them? And yet, the grumbling of the Hebrews, and the strife it creates, will be a recurring theme for the rest of the Old Testament.
Their grumbling DOES seem totally inconsistent with reality, totally unbelievable…. right up until the point that I look at myself.
We should ask ourselves the same kinds of questions: How quick am I to be ungrateful for the graces I have been given in salvation? Am I quick to thank God, even for the trials in life, because His goodness has seen fit to grow me through them? Or am I quick to whine and belly-ache at the first little inconvenience?
How could I be so immature? Consider how much biblical exposure and training I’ve received, how many sermons I have heard, how kind God has been to instruct me. And yet, how is it that this immaturity still remains? Someone with my biblical and doctrinal literacy ought to know better, and ought to do better.
Brothers and sisters, each and every one of us, if we are honest, can relate to the Hebrews and we can relate to the Corinthians. We’re not quick to remember and treasure the work that God has done in the past. We’re quick to demand our rights and our preferences and our way, rather than seeking to humbly serve others as more important than ourselves. We want what we want and we want it now, and when we don’t get it now, we throw a fit.
We act like a spiritual baby in diapers throwing a tantrum. How could they do that to me? Why would God make me go through this? I don’t deserve this. And we pout, and we grumble, and we envy.
And each of these bad fruit demonstrates to God and to the world that we’re acting according to the flesh, we’re acting like a worldly baby, rather than acting like we have the Spirit. Paul makes clear in Galatians 5 what happens to people who do these things. He gives a long list of the works of the flesh, which includes these fruit of immaturity: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and 21 envy.
And Paul warns us very clearly in the next verse: “that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” They will not inherit the kingdom of God. That’s the sobering reality. Each of us is guilty of such things, and have offended a holy and righteous God. We’ve violated his law, grumbled about his justice, were ungrateful for His kindnesses, and we’ve used our tongues and our actions to tear down others, and bring division. And because of such fruit, we have earned for ourselves an eternal weight of punishment outside of the kingdom of God.
But the good news of God is that He has provided a way of escape. The very simple message of the cross, the word of wisdom that the Corinthians were neglecting to retain, the word of the cross that each of us is tempted to neglect and ignore, is the very word that provides the salvation we need.
And that word of the cross is this. Christ has come, born of a woman, fully taking to himself the human nature that we possess, fully facing the temptations that we face, fully feeling the pains and the struggles that we know in this life, and yet He remained without sin.
- Envy never led him to stir up strife and contention. In fact, he is known as the Prince of Peace. The royal peace-maker.
- His tongue never led him to tear down others, but always spoke the truth in love.
- He never grumbled about His treatment, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.
His heart was peace, His motives were peace, and peace was on His lips. And the fruit of His efforts are that we can taste true peace. First, we’re promised that if we come to faith in Him we will have peace with God, Romans 5:1. All the wrath and enmity that stands between us and God will be totally and completely removed. It’s done away with by His atoning work on the cross in our place. We have peace with God, the only foundation for any lasting peace.
But not only that. Not only are we forgiven for all of our sins of jealously and strife. Not only is His perfect peaceable-ness counted to us. But also, we are given his very own Spirit of peace. He promises to send his Holy Spirit to work within us to guide us in holiness. This is crucial.
The only way that we are ever going to grow in peace ourselves, to grow in peaceable-ness, to put off strife and dissention and quarreling, is by first having a heart of peace. And such a heart is promised for us in the New Covenant.
God promises to give His people a new heart, a heart that loves his Law, a heart that is re-made by the Spirit instead of a heart that is made of stone. And it is from that heart of peace, made by the God of peace, implanted by the Spirit of peace, that we can then begin to grow in our peaceable-ness.
It’s only in the possessing of a peaceable heart that we will ever grow to bear peaceable fruit. Only in possessing a heart transformed by God’s grace that we can ever grow to bear gracious fruit in others.
Do you understand this peace? Do you find yourself to be a peaceable person? Or are you finding within yourself strife, envy, quarreling, and contentiousness? Are you a grumbler and a complainer? Know that the message of the gospel stands for you tonight. Come to Jesus and confess your sins and believe, and he will make you white as snow. He will grant you the faith you need, the strength you need, the atonement you need, the purity you need. Don’t wait one more moment, lest you be found outside of the kingdom of God and under his eternal judgment.
And if you have believed, then continue to press into the cross of Jesus. Don’t be content for the cross to be mere milk for you. Don’t be content with your level of maturity. Don’t be the person that looks in a mirror and immediately forgets what you look like. That person is a fool, James would say. Be a doer, and not a mere hearer of the word.
Press into the cross and apply it to your life. Learn more, grow more, appreciate more, praise more, serve more, pray more, and in doing so, you’ll begin to grow in maturity, and grow in peace.
And to that end of growing in spiritual maturity, I’ll close with a few brief observations from a statement that Paul makes at the end of 2 Corinthians. Paul makes a brief comment in 2 Corinthians 13:11, exhorting the Corinthians to “Live in peace.” Simply: Live in peace. Not striving and wrangling and contending and dividing. Live in peace. It’s a single word in Greek; an imperative aimed at everyone present, including us today. It was an exceedingly relevant statement for the Corinthian believers, and it is so for us. A few observations, which I’ve drawn from an old Dutch theologian:
- To live in peace implies activity. To live in peace applies activity, intentionality even, in the pursuit of peaceful community. To stay by ourselves, isolated from others, without saying anything either good or evil to anybody else, to not fight or quarrel, all of that isn’t living in peace. To live in peace implies fellowship with people in a pleasant and harmonious manner. It implies the active pursuit of peaceful relationships shaped by the gospel, rather than the mere absence of contention ensured by isolation. To live in peace implies activity.
- To live in peace implies continual endurance. To live in peace implies continual endurance. It is not enough for us to occasionally be a peacemaker, or to peaceable once or twice. To live in peace with our brothers and sisters means that we will be LONG-suffering and steadfast in our peacemaking. To live in peace implies continual endurance.
- To live in peace implies “finding a delight in the peace.” To live in peace implies finding a delight in the peace. A peacemaker is in his element when he is at peace; he is then as a fish in water. He is where is supposed to be, where he was made to be. He’s in his natural element. When a peacemaker can be in a peaceable relationship with people, he is joyful—just as a healthy person delights himself and is of a joyful spirit. To live in peace implies finding a delight in the peace.
Brothers and sisters, may we all strive by the strength of the Holy Spirit, to live at peace with all men, especially those in the household of God. May we be active in our pursuit of peace, steadfast in our pursuit of it, and delighting in the work of it, because the God of all peace has first made peace with us in the cross.
 Wilhelmus A Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol 4, page 94