Wednesday, July 7, 2010


TEXT: 1 Corinthians 3:1ff
TITLE : When Your Thoughts about the Church are to Human
DATE: 04/07/2010 
[ Please note  :  This series  was interrupted  by a two month sabbatical and a month of  25th Anniversary celebrations  of our churchThis then continues the series  of  expositions in 1 Corinthians ]
At the time of the Reformation  there lived a great Dutch Scholar  called  Desiderius Erasmus  ( 1466 – 1536) . He is best known  for some important  writings during the Renaissance  period – that period  before the Reformation . Among many  things  he  wrote  an important  new Latin and Greek edition of the New Testament .  Like everybody else in this time  he was a Roman Catholic , and when the Reformation started in 1517,  he was , for a short while  quite  sympathetic to Martin Luther’s   Reformation . As they began writing  to each other , Luther thought that he could win Erasmus for  the cause of the Reformation , for   this man  wielded such a mighty pen  .  But Erasmus  was never  a firm and consequent theologian . He was an academic , but not a practical , robust , and courageous theologian .  As they corresponded, Luther  began  to see increasingly that Erasmus  was far too steeped in humanism[1]  , and in a letter   which he writes to him he says  :  "Erasmus , your thoughts of God are too human"!  Erasmus  is grouped in a category of  people called  “the humanists”. 
I quote this because  the subject that we have before us  deals with a similar matter . The apostle Paul  takes  the Corinthian church  to task concerning  their  man centeredness , and he says something similar to  what Luther  said :  “Corinthians , you thoughts  about the church are too human !”   The problem that Paul is addressing here  is  of course not new . It is one of the oldest problems  found in the church. We tend to look at the church  too much through human eyes  . The church is of course both , a human  and  a divine institution ?   It is a human institution  because human beings   constitute the church. But the church  is also  a divine  institution  , because God has designed and instituted the church .   And it should be clear that  His design  rules !  That design is described in His Word  . God rules the church by His Word.  He always has the last Word  .
So , if  the human members of the church  begin to have conflict in the church , there is the real danger  to deal with the church according to human wisdom , or  “the wisdom of this world( 1:20)  instead of “the wisdom of God(1:21) .    Now it is clear  that  the  Corinthian church  did not address the problem of conflict in the church  through God’s wisdom , but  through  the  wisdom of this world . Let us study the case before us .
Paul’s  analysis of the division in the church
If you still  remember the flow of thought   in Paul’s letter so  far , you will remember  that he wrote  it  because he heard  from  those in Chloe’s  household  that  there was division in this church  . He pleads with them that  there should be no divisions among them , and that they should be united in the same mind and the same judgement . ( 1:10,11). He  pleads with them  that divine wisdom and  not human wisdom should  rule  them .  (cf 1:18- 2:16)  .
When churches  face division ( and they will because of the nature of  Satan’s work in this world)   then it is particularly important that   we   should  pay attention  to the  principle of employing divine wisdom  in such conflict  situations . The expressions  of  conflict in the church were  many ( see the  entire  tone  of the letter) , but the way they tried to solve the problem is to  start  ‘parties’  in the church  - Paul , Apollos, and Peter parties ( 1:12 ; 3:5) .  And so ,the church was split up into factions  , with each party  appealing  to a  human  leader , and probably putting words into his mouth . The total effect  was  a hopeless  polarisation  and a drifting apart  of the membership  .
1.  He   helps them to see  what they are  doing  at the moment :  He shows them   that they  are not  acting  like  spiritual people (Gr. pneumatikois)  . They are  acting  like people of the flesh ( Gr .  sarkikois) , like babies - infants in Christ (3:1) . He is telling them  that they are  dealing  with each other in worldly wisdom , rather than in godly wisdom  .    
Please note that Paul  is talking here to Christians . He makes it very clear   when  he says  : “ You are like infants in Christ”  . “In Christ”  , mind you !   They are clearly  not the  ‘ natural person’ of 2:14 ( Gr  psuchikos). The natural person is another name for being a “non Christian “ .  The terms of reference  qualify that . The  natural man  does not accept the things of the Spirit of God (2:14) . He is not born again  .  We are not dealing  with  that  kind of  person here .  We are dealing here with Christians that have fallen into the trap of fleshly thinking  and therefore behaviour .   
Now if they are  not   natural people ,  then neither are they spiritual people . The spiritual man is  described in 2:6. He is the mature man  who can  discern spiritual truths , through his sensitivity  to the Spirit of God,  who opens our eyes to the things freely given us  by God.  ( 2:12)
And Paul has to say to them , “you  are not  in that category. I  cannot  address you as spiritual.  I can only call you  "fleshly." I can't call you "mature" (2:6);  I have to call you babies in Christ. “
 So we have three types of people  here :
(i)                 The "natural person" in 2:14—the person who has no spiritual life and  who thinks that the gospel  is  foolish  or stupid .
(ii)                The "spiritual ( or mature) person" in 2:6,15 —the person who is so  controlled by the Holy Spirit so  that he can receive and  appreciate  biblical truth.
(iii)              The "fleshly person" or " infant  in Christ." Before   you get confused [2] by this group let me say that the Bible teaches us here that this third group  is not in another class . These are  Christians . But at this moment  they are not  acting like Christians are supposed to act . They are like babies .

So we need to understand then that not all divisive behaviour in the church is merely as a result of  ‘ unregenerate people’ or  simply  by saying  ‘it’s  the devil’ .  The devil does exploit  our weak flesh , our immature behaviour , to be sure – but if we are in this category we  have  the power of Christ in us and with us  to resist  the trap of falling into worldly thinking patterns  and not godly wisdom  .  

The dilemma of the fleshly Christian  ( how do we allow ourselves  become  fleshly Christians? )

Going back to the testimony of the Corinthians , we take note that in the early days of the gospel  there were promising signs of spiritual life . In 1:6 Paul says that "the testimony of Christ was confirmed among you."    They were  "in Christ." (1:30) .
When you become a Christian   that  means  that  you are justified  and made righteous  ( 1:30) , but it doesn’t mean  that you  are  perfected yet in your moral nature.  
It is possible , after your conversion  to become fleshly . Most Christians  feel the pain of loosing their first love  at some time after their conversion . (The devil will make sure of that , and he will stir the desires of the flesh in us  until we may get quite despondent)  .
It is at this point that I must give you some encouragement .  This  is  a normal Christian experience . And this battle  will  last  a lifetime.  I know that it sounds  like a paradox  : In one  sense the flesh is crucified  with Christ  and  we are saved  ( Gal 5:24)  and yet we must  be careful   that  our  flesh (desires)  does not  take us  back to the point when  we begin to look like a non Christian .  Biblically speaking  , you can,  of course not become a non Christian  again , after you have become a Christian . “Greater is he  that is in you than he that is in the world “ ( 1 Jn 4:4)  . But there is such a thing  as  the battle of the flesh . The  Bible teaches us about spiritual warfare . Once we are born again and justified we  are safe  BUT  we  must not be careless . The Bible teaches us  “ to  work out our salvation with fear and trembling”  ( Phil 2:12,13) .  The bible teaches us that we must not be ignorant of Satan’s schemes (2 Cor  2:11) . The Bible teaches us that we must put the full armour of God on  so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes  (Eph 6:11)  .  You must  think about these things !  

So how did  this fleshly  thinking  take over  ? In  3: 2 Paul says  : “ I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were  not ready for it. And even now you are not ready …”
Why are  the Corinthians, even after having been Christians for some time now  still unable to digest solid food?  Here is the answer  : "You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?"
What  was  the cause  of their  being like  weak  babes  ?  It was  the  presence of  jealousy and strife ( 3:3) .

Now let us  learn from this example  :  if in our common life in the church  we  are  still possessed  with  a   spirit of self-exaltation, or lack of submission ; if we struggle  with  pride and think that somehow  we are  above the rest  ( we do that mostly by separating ourselves )  ; or if  we  think in terms of  solutions to problems as  “ of men” , then  we  are  not able to digest solid food.  John Piper says :  “ The throat of pride is too narrow and non-pliable to handle the solid food.”  

And , dear people  , the  taking in of solid spiritual food is not just a matter  of  becoming more intellectual  , or by developing  a better grasp of good doctrine. No! It is a matter of being able to handle your jealousy and your pride .
We have all met people who are theologically so astute and  biblically well versed , but  they cannot  get along with others !   What is that  - if not  a spirit of jealousy and pride ?
We have seen that the Corinthians were not spiritual persons and they were not natural persons. They were infants  in Christ ; they were fleshly. They  were controlled by an immature  impulse  of jealousy  and pride  which led to this strife .

And here  comes the   vital  point :  “ are you not behaving only  in a human way ? (3:3)  …Are you not  being merely human ?  (3:4)  (Literally: "are you not walking according to man?” )  .
Paul is asking a very serious question here  . He is not challenging their salvation .  He leaves it as a question.  Could it be that the reason you have not made any progress beyond those early days is that you really are no different than ordinary natural men?  
And so we must  make a vital observation here  : Lack of progress in  spirituality /  maturity is dangerous !

What we learn from this text  :

  1. We need to teach ourselves to think  about the church with  God’s wisdom , and be very careful to use  conventional  worldly wisdom  . The church is  God’s and needs to be dealt with godly wisdom .
  2. When divisions occur therefore , let us ask ourselves  (apart from the ever present work of Satan  against the church)  what is the cause  of divsions ? What does the Word of God say ?  The answer  is  “fleshliness “ . But  what fuels  fleshliness  ?  It is a spirit  of jealousy and strife  among Christians   who fail to see  that this  is an ungodly , immature  reflex  to problems that  comes  from our old nature .
  3.  When this continues  for a long time  it is a serious  problem . It could be a sign that no true spiritual life was ever present and that the professing Christian is only a natural man after all. This is very rarely for us to decide. Let us be like Paul and hope for  the best . Let us not be quick to write off a struggler . But it is our responsibility to warn  such  who are displaying   such signs of immaturity  . 

Next week we  will consider   some more of  Paul’s  masterly  pastoral advice to this divided church  , as he helps us to understand the  importance of laying a proper foundation  for the life of the church :  the foundation of  Jesus Christ !

[1] Christian humanism saw an explosion during the Renaissance, emanating from an increased faith in the capabilities of Man, married with a still-firm devotion to Christianity.
[2] I am not going to get into that senseless debate  which has maintained  that there are three categories  of people in this world  : natural , spiritual  and  fleshly . There are essentially only two kinds of people in this world :  Christians and non Christians , sheep and goats .  The fleshly  group belongs to the sheep of Christ  , but they need to be treated as spiritual babies at this stage .

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