At the end of chapter 2, Paul defended his simple style of preaching, saying that he did speak a message of wisdom to those who were mature and spiritual, but that his message must be spiritually discerned. As we move into chapter 3, Paul continues his defense by saying that he taught the Corinthians exactly what they needed to know, because they were not mature enough to receive anything beyond it…
Our lives take on a certain direction as we live. There are things we focus on out of all the rest. There are things we pursue and for which we live. There are choices we make and habits we form, attitudes we develop and activities and behaviors we join in. All of this adds up to a direction of our lives.
Many times people will talk about the direction of their lives changing. A main focus changes. They begin to pursue different things, in different ways. They make different choices and develop different habits.
In our passage today, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church about their spiritual maturity. He says to them, and to us, that in order to grow spiritually, we must go in a new direction. It may be “new” because it is a change from the direction we have been going. Or, if we have been following God closely, it is “new” in the sense that it belongs to the new life that is in Jesus Christ, which is different from where our sin and the world leads us. Going in this new direction means two things: 1) Negatively: We must depart from sin; 2) Positively: we must focus on God.
I. We must depart from sin (1-4)
In the last chapter, Paul used the word “spiritual” to describe the person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is a Christian, in contrast to the natural man who is without the Spirit and is an unbeliever. Now he uses “spiritual people” to describe the Christian who has matured in the faith and has made significant progress in overcoming his sinful nature. Here he contrasts the spiritual person not to the natural man, but to a baby in Christ (a very young believer). Remember that the Corinthians seemed to have criticized Paul because his message and style of preaching were very simple compared to the methods of those schooled in Greek rhetoric. But Paul gives them a very straightforward answer. He says “I couldn’t speak to you as if you were mature Christians, because you weren’t. In fact, you were babies in Christ.” Paul calls them “infants” in v. 1. “So, since you were baby Christians, Paul says, I gave you milk and not solid food, because you were not able to eat solid food.”
An infant lives on milk those first months of its life. It’s milk for breakfast, milk for lunch, milk for dinner, and milk everywhere in-between. He can’t handle anything else, because he is just a baby. He doesn’t have the teeth and the digestive system to handle solid food yet.
Paul says this is what the Corinthians were like when he was with them. He had planted the church there. Most, if not all of them, were new converts through his ministry. They were babies in the faith, so he gave them the truth of the gospel in simple form which was easy for them to take in and digest and use. As they grew in faith, these truths would be expanded upon without end, because the riches of the knowledge of God are inexhaustible. But they were not ready for all of that, they needed milk. There is nothing wrong with giving milk to a baby, but now it had been 3 to 5 years since Paul had begun His work in Corinth; and he says they still need milk. They are still babies. They are not growing.
He says this because instead of being spiritual – characterized by the things of the Holy Spirit, they are “of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:1,3). For Paul, “the flesh” is associated with what is weak and sinful and passing away in this evil age. Paul addresses them as Christians, but they are still very much under the influence of their sinful nature. As evidence, Paul points to their behavior. There is jealousy, strife, and division among them. They have formed into competing camps according to their allegiance to different Christian teachers. According to 1 Cor. 3:4, one says he follows Paul, another says he follows Apollos, and so on. This was exactly what happened with the different schools of Greek philosophy of their day. Each philosopher would gather his own following and set his school against the others. So Paul says to these Corinthian believers: “Look at yourselves! You’re no different from the world of unbelief! You haven’t even taken the first step in overcoming your sinful nature. Your eyes are on men and you are following them rather than God.” This is the first step in Christian maturity, we must depart from sin.
Notice that God examines our behavior as an indicator of our spiritual condition, not our knowledge. We must not imagine that we are maturing spiritually simply because we are learning more about God and more about the Bible. Spiritual maturity is measured not only by what we know, but by what we put into practice. When we read or hear God’s word, we must not be satisfied simply understand its content, to say “yes, I know what that is saying.” That is very important, but that is not the end of spiritual growth. It is only the beginning. We must move on to ask ourselves: am I doing what God’s word says – in my home, work, school, neighborhood? If the word of God is only educating you, you are not growing spiritually. Spiritual growth comes when we are transformed by God’s Word, departing from sin in our living.
For me the best way to see where I need to grow spiritually is when I confess my sins. Our time of confession in worship is something I need because I don’t naturally take enough special time to intentionally confess my sins to God. When we do that – truly put our finger on the ways that we are following our selfish, sinful desires, and following the sinful practices of the world around us – we see where we need to depart from sin and grow up into the glorious image of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian growth isn’t about getting bigger. It’s about becoming more like Christ in our character. What are the attitudes and actions that you need to depart from in order to grow as a Christian?
Notice that Paul expects, even demands, that they grow in Christ. He doesn’t treat it as if it is something optional. Some have looked at this passage and others and determined that one can be a Christian and remain unchanged in his life, continuing in all of the same bondage to sin. But along with the rest of the Scriptures, Paul does not present that as an option. If we have come to Christ by repenting of our sins and placing our faith in Him, He will begin to change us, and we will grow. But we must participate in that by departing from sin in our lives. Positively:
II. We must focus on God (5-9)
Beginning in v.5, Paul seeks to shift the Corinthians’ focus from their teachers to their God. He does this by putting everyone in their rightful place. “What then is Apollos, and what is Paul?” he asks? Notice that he doesn’t ask “who” they are (focusing on their personalities), but “what” they are (focusing on their role and function). Paul answers his own question. He says they are “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” Paul and Apollos and the other teachers are not masters to be followed, they are servants of God, just as every believer is to serve God together with the rest. They were the instruments God used to bring them to faith and to build them up. But it was God who assigned them their ministry. Behind these servants, they are to see God and focus on Him.
Paul uses an agricultural analogy in v. 6 to describe these different ministries. He says that he “planted” – meaning that he planted the seed which was the beginning of their faith. It was through Paul’s preaching in the synagogue and among the Gentiles that the first believers were converted in Corinth and the church was planted. Then Apollos came along and watered what Paul had planted. According to the book of Acts, He was a gifted and powerful preacher who refuted the Jews publicly and “greatly helped those who had believed through grace.” Their ministries and styles were different. Paul was simple and got things started. Apollos was more eloquent and caused many of the believers to continue to grow. But ultimately, it wasn’t Paul or Apollos or anyone else making these things happen – it was God. He was the one doing the work and giving the growth through His servants.
There is great encouragement for preachers, teachers, and anyone who shares the Word of God in the verb tenses of 1 Cor. 3:6. We don’t catch it in our English translation, but they are not all the same. When Paul says “I planted, Apollos watered,” the verbs “planted” and “watered” are in the aorist tense in Greek, which indicates action completed in the past. But when Paul writes “but God gave the growth,” “gave” is in the imperfect tense, which indicates action in the past that continues. After Paul and Apollos completed their ministry, God continued to work. When we share the Word of God, we are powerless to make it effective, but the good news is that God is able to go on working through it long after we are done.
So, Paul concludes in 1 Cor. 3:7… Ministers are only instruments in God’s hands. They are not to be credited with the results of their ministry, because by themselves they are nothing and can do nothing. All of the credit is to go to God. He is the One who gives growth to His church. He is the One on whom we are to fix our eyes.
It is in God that these divisions in the church are resolved. Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:8 that he and Apollos were not competing with one another. They are one because they are both working for the same master. They are each accountable to God for their work, and will receive their own reward according to their own labor. Paul does not say that they will be rewarded for the results of their ministry – for how many people are converted or taught. His workers are rewarded for their labor – for the efforts they make.
Not only is each Christian minister or teacher working for the same God, but Paul says they are also all working on the same project. In v.9 he outlines everyone’s roles and says that he and his fellow Christian servants are God’s fellow-workers. They are working with God on His project, and that project is the Church, which Paul has been comparing to a field of plants in his agricultural analogy, but now shifts to a building, using a construction analogy. In the original language, each of those phrases begins with “God” – “God’s fellow workers we are….”
Everything is seen rightly and put in its proper place when our central focus is upon God and we see everything else in relationship to Him.
Each of us probably has a particular minister, or Christian friend whom God has used to teach and transform us, perhaps even to first bring us to Christ. Paul says that we need to be careful in this situation, because it is the person God has used to help us the most that we are most likely to focus on instead of God. We must beware of making an idol of that person, and becoming followers of them rather than followers of God. We must also be careful when God uses us to lead someone to Christ or to teach and train them in the faith. We must take care that we train them and encourage them to follow Christ and fix their eyes upon Him rather than upon us.
Behind all of the people and things He uses, God is the One accomplishing all of the good things in our lives. Let us say with Paul that as far as our own ability and status, we are nothing compared to God. God is the One who does the work. Let Him receive all of the glory. If we are to mature spiritually, we must fix our eyes upon Him.
Simply put, we must stop living for ourselves and live for God. The Corinthians were struggling with things like jealousy and strife – struggles that rise out of selfishness – me pushing myself over you. Paul says in order to grow they must die to themselves, see themselves as nothing, and live for God, seeing God as everything.
There must be a new direction, in which I am small and God is big. It’s a hard direction to go in. We must fight our pride every inch of the way. But the strange thing is that when we get small in this way – humbling ourselves and departing from sin in our lives, and changing our focus to pursue God and His glory, that is when we truly grow.
Heavenly Father, thank You that You have not only made us Your children, but caused us to grow into the likeness of Christ. By Your Spirit, remove our attachment to the sinfulness of this world. Help fix our eyes upon You, and glorify You, that we might grow up to the likeness of Your Son.
- 1 Corinthians 3:1 - 9