Two weeks ago, we covered a theme that I find to be a recurring theme in Paul’s writings.
1 Cor 2:2 – I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This gospel of Jesus and him crucified, this cross of Jesus is the ultimate wisdom and power of God and in this chapter we see the consequences when a church departs from this gospel.
Today, we are going to continue to follow Paul’s argument. Moving from 1 Cor chapter 2 to chapter 3, Paul is still very much gospel-centered. In some ways, I feel like I am a broken record because at the core of what I have been preaching, it’s been virtually the same thing week in and week out — it’s been all about the gospel, the cross, Jesus Christ coming and dying for us so that those who repent and place their faith in Him can be forgiven and inherit eternal life.
Study Paul’s letters carefully and I think you will find that Paul IS a broken record. He says basically the same thing over and over — he is completely gospel-centered — and the only difference in his letters is that he is addressing various symptoms. The core problem is the same — a departure from the gospel — but the symptoms vary from church to church.
If you look at Paul’s letters from this angle, I think you will find that Paul is simply calling churches back to the gospel because when the gospel focus is lost, we know right away that something is wrong because various symptoms begin to surface. It’s like you might be infected with the flu bug, but you don’t know that you are sick until the symptoms show up like fever and coughing. Symptoms reveal our true physical condition and the same principle applies to spiritual life. The symptoms or problems at a church indicate a deeper spiritual illness. So what is the solution or antidote for a church that is spiritually sick? The gospel is the antidote. They have to return to the gospel. That’s the answer. Keeping the gospel at the forefront, we see in chapter 3 how Paul applies the centrality of the cross to the practical day-to-day reality of this church in Corinth.
In v1-3, Paul is pretty blunt here. He doesn’t mince words. Remember that he is speaking to Corinthians who were seeking after human wisdom and who were glorifying certain leaders because they were gifted in speaking or had some other spiritual gift. And from Paul’s description in chapter 1, we learn that the full gamut of spiritual gifts were being exercised at the Corinthian church.
Therefore, you can think about the Corinthian church as being very similar in flavor to a modern day Pentecostal church. That’s why Paul even has to spell out some guidelines later on in chapter 14 for conducting an orderly worship service because apparently their services were rather chaotic. People were speaking in tongues and prophesying and all kinds of other spiritual gifts were in use during the worship service, and therefore, they were in need of some correction and ordering.
And to this church, a church enamored by charismatic leadership, a church that pursued human wisdom, a church where the members were so easily impressed by overt, powerful displays of spiritual gifts, Paul says, you know what? Don’t look at those things but pay closer attention to what’s actually going on at your church in terms of your relationships. Instead of the eloquent sermons and the charismatic leadership, look at the fact that you guys are jealous toward one another and there is quarreling among you. And based on this irrefutable evidence, Paul issues his rebuke — you guys are mere infants of Christ.
We may think we are wise and powerful and mature followers of Jesus, but what does the evidence of our day-to-day lives actually indicate? It’s like my boys, when they don’t listen, they get into trouble and they say sorry and they promise, they are not going to do that again or they promise that they are going to listen next time, but what happens? Next time rolls around and they do what they said they weren’t going to do, or we tell them something and they don’t listen. And that’s understandable to a certain extent. Because they are kids. They are not yet mature.
What about us? We may claim to be mature and loving and sacrificial, but what does the evidence of our lives suggest? Specifically, look at your relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ at this church. How are they? Is there evidence that validates our belief that we are mature followers of Christ or does the evidence contradict our self-assessment?
Let me pause here to quickly interject that there is such a thing as spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity. It is possible to be childish and immature even as a believer of Christ who has walked this faith journey for many years. Therefore, there is a place for mature Christian older brothers and sisters in the faith discipling and encouraging younger ones to leave their childish ways behind them and pushing them toward greater maturity.
I don’t know if that sits well with this our generation. There is a suspicion, especially I think among young people, of all forms of authority. Think about the economy and how there is a widespread suspicion of the government because of the prevailing sentiment that people in power have let us down. Banks CEOs have let us down. Government officials have let us down. So what is the conclusion? Because everyone in power has let me down, I can’t trust anyone except myself.
From a young age, we want to be our own bosses, we want to call the shots. We see this in high schoolers. They enter their rebellious teenage years where they want to be independent and so they stop listening to their parents. And that kind of independent spirit carries into college.
For me, I have met many Christians in college over the years who thought they were spiritual giants. I was that way in college. People like me didn’t need help from anyone else who might be more mature in the faith because in our minds, we have already reached Apostle Paul-like status. There is just no more room to grow. And they think they are God’s gift to the church.
And so, they begin asking, where can I lead? And they say this while they can’t wake up for their 8am class, and they are constantly getting extensions on their papers, and they are late in paying for their bills every month. Not to mention, they only read their Bibles once a week and they only pray before meals. And yet they want to lead a small group or teach Bible study. There is a disconnect here.
And I just want to say to them, what does the evidence of your life suggest? Do you actually care for the person that you want to lead? Are you committed to them for the long haul, through thick and thin? Do you even know what it means to lead and how to lead and what it means to be responsible for another person? And are you sufficiently more mature than the person you are trying to lead? These are important questions to consider for anyone interested in being a “leader.”
For the Corinthians, they have the same attitude. They think they are so mature, they think they are wise, they think they have spiritual power. But what does the evidence from their lives suggest?
Paul says that the evidence of their lives indicates that they are not spiritual, but in fact, they are worldly. Literally, the Greek word he uses is “sarkinois” which can be translated as fleshly. They are still operating out of their flesh, they are still living in a very fleshly, human sort of way. And then as I mentioned earlier, he spells out in v3, why he thinks they are worldly — it’s because they are jealous of one another and there is quarreling among them.
You might think, to be worldly means to buy designer clothes and to live in a rich house. But here, Paul doesn’t define worldliness in terms of our view of money. Instead, he defines worldliness in terms of the way we interact with others. And in the Corinthian church, instead of unity and love and bearing with one another, there was jealousy and quarreling.
How did they get this way? He explains in v4 — 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? The Corinthian church, according to Paul’s definition, became worldly because they started to follow mere men more than God.