Well do please take your copies of the Scriptures in your hand and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3; 1 Corinthians chapter 3. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, turn to page 953. We’re going to be focusing on the first nine verses of chapter 3. You will remember that Paul has been dealing with the problem of divisions at Corinth and he introduced us to the problem back in chapter 1. Do you see it in verses 10 to 17 of chapter 1? There were factions and schisms emerging within the congregations of the Corinthian church, each trying to justify itself claiming the imprimatur, the name of their particular and favored leader. “I follow Paul,” some are saying. “I follow Cephas or Apollos.” Or even, “I follow Christ.” Each group looking down on the other. And as a good pastor, the apostle Paul has been working to root out the causes of division among them. And in the remainder of chapter 1 and then to the first five verses of chapter 2, he has been especially concerned to shatter the pride that underlays those divisions with an extended discussion of the message, the members, and the ministry entrusted to the church. Each of these, he has told us, appears to be weak and foolish in the world’s eyes and we might well be tempted to reject them and to boast in ourselves instead, to trust in our own wisdom and strength. And yet, Paul has shown it is precisely these weak and apparently foolish things by which God works mightily so that our pride might be shattered and His wisdom exalted.
And then last time, in the remainder of chapter 2, Paul explained to us how all of that works. The apparent foolishness and weakness of the Gospel message and the Gospel ministers who proclaim that message notwithstanding, God still saves sinners by it. And how come? How does that work? Well it works because this weak, foolish message is in fact the revelation of God Himself recorded in the Scriptures by inspiration and received by us through illumination. That is the second half of chapter 2. And now this time as we begin chapter 3, Paul circles back to deal with the problem of division more directly. Thus far it’s been a rather oblique approach to the problem. Now he comes at it much more directly.
And I want you, as we read through the first part of chapter 3, to pay attention to the metaphors around which Paul structures his argument. There are three metaphors in the chapter as a whole. We’re going to deal with the first two today in verses 1 to 9. You see the first of them, verses 1 to 4. The first metaphor is of infants, babies who need milk because they’re not yet ready for solid food. And then in 5 to 9, he changes the metaphor to describe the church now as God’s field in which He deploys His servants, Gospel ministers, to sow the seed of the Word and to water the seed and where God Himself gives the growth. And then as we’ll see hopefully next week, God willing, in the remainder of the chapter the metaphor changes a third time to discuss the church as God’s building – in fact, as the chapter develops, God’s temple where He dwells by His Spirit.
So today we’re thinking about the first two metaphors. The familial metaphor – infants who need a particular kind of food. And the agricultural metaphor – God’s field where He sends His servants to sow and water the seed. All of that said by way of orientation to the passage, let’s pause first before we read it together and ask for God’s help as we pray! Would you pray with me please?
Our Father, Your Word is now spread before us. How we pray that You would give to us the illumination of the Spirit that the seed that is to be sown in Your field might bear fruit – thirty, sixty, a hundred fold to the glory and praise of the name of Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 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? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
When we were first married, my wife, Sheena, worked as a community nurse in a town called Airdrie between Glasgow and Edinburgh in central Scotland. And her job took her oftentimes into the homes of some quite poor families, usually to check up on newborn babies and their mothers. And one of the things that the practice she worked at would sometimes have to deal with was what doctors would call, “a failure to thrive.” There was an expected rate according to which a child should gain weight and grow and develop and mature but sometimes the baby wasn’t gaining weight. Sometimes the baby wasn’t developing as normal. It was “a failure to thrive.” Something was hindering proper growth – malnutrition or disease or something of that nature. Expected progress was not being made. But if the child was to begin to thrive as it should, well then the underlying causes of the failure to thrive had to be addressed with some urgency, discovered and identified and addressed.
In our passage this morning, you might say the apostle Paul acts as a skilled diagnostician as he examines the spiritual condition of the Corinthian believers. In verses 1 to 3, look there with me. Verses 1 to 3 – he makes his diagnosis. Like babies at the clinic, the Corinthians were “failing to thrive.” There was spiritual immaturity. Then in verses 3 and 4 he identifies the underlying causes of that dreadful, spiritual failure to thrive. And then finally in verses 5 to 9 and on in the rest of the chapter, he begins his treatment plan. So there’s the outline if that’s of help to you. In verses 1 to 3, the diagnosis. Verses 3 and 4, the underlying causes. Verses 5 to 9, the beginnings of the treatment plan.
Let’s think about Paul’s diagnosis first of all. You can see it probably most clearly if you’ll look at the end of verse 1 and on into verse 2. Paul says they are “infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you’re still not yet ready.” They were spiritually immature. They needed baby food, simple teaching. Paul wasn’t able to go on to richer fare; he was stuck repeating the basics over and over, hoping to see in them the progress that ought ordinarily to mark Christian discipleship. But their growth has been stunted. There is a failure to thrive. They were not developing and maturing as they ought and it’s a serious problem.
“Still of the Flesh”
Actually, the Corinthians liked to think of themselves in their pride as remarkably spiritual people. It is a problem that Paul will have to address in various ways throughout the book. They are the spiritual ones. And Paul, in order to penetrate through their defenses and through their pride and boasting, really challenges them here. He wants to wake them up and alert them to the real dangers of their spiritual condition. And so look how he addresses them. Verse 1, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Verse 3, “You are still of the flesh.” That is to say, when he first came to them and began to teach them and disciple them, they were not making the progress he expected to see and so he could only speak to them as babies and not as maturing disciples. And even now, as he begins to write to them in this letter, this is still their ongoing problem. They are still of the flesh, still immature. To be sure, he says, “you have been converted.” They are in Christ after all, although only infants in Christ. God the Holy Spirit has in fact broken in upon them and made them new creatures in union with Jesus. But their behavior, their worldliness, their fleshly behavior is such that he could not speak to them as spiritual and as maturing disciples. Their behavior, their worldly behavior, precludes that. They’re still living far too much for the old patterns according to the old preferences and priorities of the world. It’s a dreadful diagnosis, isn’t it?
When we meet a child – you know, you meet a child who is mature beyond their years, we’re generally impressed by that and we praise them for it. But when you meet an adult who is acting like a baby, we rightly tend to pity them at best. The Corinthians ought to have made progress by now but they are still babies in Christ. And here we are in the clinic, right along with the Corinthians, for a visit of our own with Dr. Paul. I wonder what the diagnosis will be in your case. As he makes his examination of your spiritual condition, will he find someone who ought to be mature and making progress in godliness but who is in fact, fleshly and infantile and immature? Will he look at your life as a Christian and write in the case notes next to your name, “Failure to thrive.” A stunted Christian who refuses to grow up is a pitiful thing. A Christian who refuses to grow up is a pitiful thing. Paul’s diagnosis; it’s a striking, challenging diagnosis, isn’t it?
The Underlying Causes
But look down at verses 3 and 4. He quickly moves on to identify the underlying causes. Here are the reasons for their failure to thrive. Here’s what has been stunting their growth. Verses 3 and 4, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” The issue that is hindering their growth is jealousy and strife. In their pride, they were fighting over which group was best. The Paul party looking down on the Apollos party and so on. And they’re squabbling over it and taking offense and holding grudges and muttering as they pass one another and throwing each other dirty looks. But all of this, verse 3, all of this Paul says is to behave in only a “human way.” Literally, he says it is “to act according to man.” It is to act entirely as though Christ were not Lord and His Spirit had not made you a new creature at all. It is to let the dog-eat-dog rules of merely human culture dictate our behavior with one another, even in the church of Jesus Christ.
Life Under New Management
Now if you think through the implications of what Paul is saying there, I think you will see that Paul has in fact, placed his finger on a core principle at the very heart of Christian growth and the Christian life. He’s teaching us that we must learn to live under new management. We’ve come to live under new management. We are no longer our own! We have been bought at a price and we belong to the Lord Jesus, into union with whom we have been placed by the Holy Spirit whom He has given to us. And that means we no longer have any right – we never had any right but now even less so do we have a right to pride or jealousy. We have no right to self-righteous anger.
Think about the last time you lost your temper with your kids, dads. I never do that, of course! I’m grateful my wife and children are not here this morning or they would tell you otherwise, I’m sure! So you lose your temper and then your wife calls you on it. “You need to calm down dear,” she’ll say. “You don’t need to be so angry.” “Oh, but you’ll never believe what he did! I have every right to be angry! They annoyed me like you’ll never believe! They did this or they didn’t do that.” Now, what is that? That’s me thinking like a self-righteous numbskull, isn’t it? I’m justifying myself. I’m telling myself I have every right to lose my temper and fly off the handle. I’m the aggrieved party after all. “They’re the ones who have the problem!” And you flap your hands like that and your face goes red. “They’re the ones with the problem,” you say.
And Paul would say, “Can you see yourself right now? You are still acting in a merely human way. You’re acting according to man. You’re acting as if you belonged to you; as if you were in charge. As if you have the right to set the terms by which everyone else around you should treat you and respond to you and relate to you and deal with you. But that is bologna! You are in Christ now. You are under new management. You are His! You are not your own! He has loved you and bled and died for you and borne your sin and guilt and reconciled you to God by the cross so that you have been adopted into the family of God and the household of faith. You are His now and you are to live for Him. And while you continue to let yourself sit on the throne in your heart, well then, no wonder you make no progress,” Paul is saying to the Corinthians. “No wonder your Christian life is so stunted and immature. No wonder you fail to thrive! This divisive, schismatic spirit driven by jealousy and pride, played out in strife and friction and fighting, all of that means you’re acting like babies when you ought to have grown up by now.”
The diagnosis – a failure to thrive spiritually. Spiritual immaturity. The underlying causes – divisions and jealousy and pride; acting according to man as though we still lived under the old management of sin and self when in fact we’ve come to live under new management, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The Beginnings of the Treatment Plan.
And then thirdly, if you would look with me at verses 5 to 9, here’s the beginnings at least of Paul’s treatment plan for the problem. And do notice how the metaphor changes. Verses 1 to 4, remember, the metaphor is familial – infants who need milk not solid food. Now the metaphor is agricultural. Do you see that? Servants working in the field, sowing, and watering. The field is the church, the people of God. Look at verses 5 to 9 with me. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” Paul wants to help us understand how true Christian growth takes place and he starts, notice, by debunking their silly ideas about their favorite preachers. I like how one commentator puts it. He says that Paul here, “depersonalizes and de-pedestalizes himself and Apollos.” He depersonalizes them. He doesn’t ask, “Who then is Apollos? Who then is Paul?” He asks, “What is Apollos? What is Paul? What sort of thing are they?” And he de-pedestalizes them. He topples them from the pedestal on which the Corinthians had begun to place them. They are only servants, he says, agricultural laborers, farm hands as he’ll go on to explain. That’s all they are.
God Gives Growth!
And then he presses the point. Do you see it in the text? Since they’re only servants, they’re not the ones to whom you owe your salvation. They didn’t convert you or change you or bring you to faith in Jesus. They’re only servants, verse 5, “through whom you believed as the Lord assigned to each.” They are merely instruments in the hands of another. It is the Lord who assigned to each – some to Apollos, some to Paul; these people or those people – and it’s He who made use of Apollos and Paul in their lives in different ways to bring them to Jesus and to grow them up in Him. And so that is where our attention needs to rest. Not on men, not on preachers, but on the Lord whose servants they are. And so he says in verses 6 and 7, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” It’s not Paul or Apollos you ought to be focused on. They neither caused your Christian life to begin nor can they make it grow. To be sure, they planted the seed, they watered the seed of the Word, they preached and taught and pastored and shepherded and disciplined you. But where does the growth comes from, the life come from?
Where should you look for grace when you have failed to thrive? When, by God’s grace, we come to see that our Christian lives have been stunted and immature now for far too long, to whom do we turn for new life, for a growth spurt, as it were? Paul says, verse 6, “God gave the growth” – in the past – and verse 7, “God still gives growth” in the present. Don’t look to men for the grace that only God can give you. Don’t look to pastors for life only the Lord can supply. While you boast in Paul or you boast in Apollos, what would the equivalent today be? You boast in Piper and you boast in Keller. Or you boast in Calvin and you boast in Wesley. Or you boast in Baird or you boast in Duncan. Sorry, Ligon! Or you boast in Hartman or you boast in Felker. The truth is, we are all one, Paul says. Verse 8, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field.” We’re all on the same team, working together in God’s field as His fellow laborers but only He gives the growth.
First Presbyterian Church, did you hear that? Does that penetrate? God gives the growth numerically, spiritually, corporately in our life together, individually in our private Christian lives one by one. No pastor, no plan, no program. Growth is God’s business and it only comes from Him. When we forget that, here’s what tends to happen. We tend to look to leaders instead of to the Lord for our growth. And we either lionize them because we believe they have the answer or we demonize them because we believe they’re the problem. And what begins to happen is the church fractures, divisions begin to arise, strife and jealousy percolate to the surface. And acting in a merely human way, acting according to man, our growth is stunted and we fail to thrive.
So I wonder if that’s a pattern that you recognize in your heart. After today’s visit to Dr. Paul’s clinic, what has the diagnosis been? Are you failing to thrive? Are you a baby Christian who ought to have grown up long since? I wonder if it could be because you are looking to men for what only God in Christ by His Spirit can give you. Or perhaps because there’s strife and jealousy causing divisions bubbling up in your heart. You see, when you step back from all that Paul is saying, isn’t there actually here really a call to repentance for us? A call by all means to use the means God has given – people and plans and programs. But as a call no longer to place our trust and hope and confidence for vitality and growth in them but to come back to the Lord who alone gives the increase. We need to come back to Jesus who gives the growth we need, who can give a new growth spurt when, for far too long, we have been stuck in spiritual immaturity.
If you’re a Christian, you’ve come to live, remember, you’ve come to live now under new management. Jesus is on the throne of your heart; He’s Lord. Perhaps you’ve been trying to live as if there we not true. Well, Paul is saying to us it’s time to repent. Your spiritual immaturity is the symptom of which your refusal to bend the knee to King Jesus is the cause. It is the idolatry of pride in your heart and of self-reliance. Time to begin to say again, “The dearest idol I have known, what’er that idol be, O Lord help me to tear it from Thy throne and worship only Thee. I want Jesus first. I want Jesus most. I want only Jesus to be the source from which my life comes. Bring me back to Him. I want to come back to Him.” If we would do that, I think we’d find ourselves more profoundly united and we’d find ourselves beginning to grow. May the Lord help us then to turn back to God who gives the growth? Let’s pray together!
God our Father, how grateful we are that growth in our Christian lives is not simply the mechanical result of the right application of principles or behavior by us or the use of pastors and plans and programs by the church. But rather, growth is an organic thing and it happens when we live in and cultivate the depth and the sweetness of our union with Jesus Christ. Would You forgive us for failing to live as though actually we were under new management, for living as though we were still in charge? Help us today, all of us, to begin to bend the knee to King Jesus, some of us, perhaps, today for the very first time, all of us anew. To look to Him and not to men, much less to ourselves, and to find as we do, O Lord, that You are gracious to give us new growth to the praise and glory of the name of Christ. Amen.