Grow up, build up, wise up.
What a bunch the Corinthians were! They were quarrelling amongst themselves and divisions had arisen in the church along by preference of three of the leaders; there was the Cephas faction, the Apollos faction and the Paul faction. The basis of the division seems to have been associated with the apparent wisdom and eloquence of the various leaders. As we finished chapter 2 we saw that the Corinthians were impressed more by the world’s wisdom than God’s wisdom. We can know God’s wisdom from the Spirit of God – and the amazing thing is that when we believe, we are given that very thing, the Spirit of God! So wisdom is available. If this is so, why was the church in Corinth in such a state? As recipients of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God, why were the Corinthians acting like fools? Paul explains…
- Grow up
Amongst the believers in Corinth there was jealousy, and quarrelling. These are not unknown in the church today – take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you bring a spirit of quarrelling or jealousy with you into church. Quarrellers usually bring sophisticated arguments to justify the quarrel – but whatever the justification, quarrelling is quarrelling, it’s contrary to the Spirit of God and Paul seems to identify two causes.
Paul said that he was unable to address the members of the Corinthian church as people who live by the Spirit because they were ‘worldly’. When we believe, we receive the Holy Spirit, he lives in us. This is a remarkable thing – the Holy Spirit of God lives in us! In Chapter 2 Paul had said that because of this we have access to God’s mind and his wisdom, a wisdom that is at odds with the world’s wisdom. Having received the Holy Spirit we have a choice – we can live ignoring the Holy Spirit or we can allow the Holy Spirit to fill up our lives.
If we ignore the Holy Spirit we will find that the world’s wisdom becomes of interest to us – it resonates with our natural sinful self, if feels comfortable, but the world’s wisdom is in conflict with God’s wisdom and we will find that our lives do not demonstrate the effects of God’s Spirit within us. One symptom of this is quarrelling with our fellow believers. If however we order our lives according to the Holy Spirit we will find our lives start to resemble the Spirit of God. Paul lists the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness. If you see these qualities in your life you can be sure that you are giving the Holy Spirit a right place in your life. In the same passage Paul describes the outputs of the sinful nature. Amongst these are strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions and divisions. If these sorts of things characterise your life, now you know why.
How do we live right then? Paul gives us some clues in Galatians 5. He says walk in the Spirit – or live by the Spirit. One translation of the original Greek is to ‘order our lives according to the Spirit’. A person who orders their life according to good health will be conscious of eating the right diet, exercising, getting enough sleep – likewise a person who orders their life according to the Spirit will be thinking constantly about how to keep in step with what God wants. This seems to be only achieved by practising a moment by moment awareness of God’s Spirit within us and what he wants. Imagine for a moment that you are driving along the A22 – perhaps taking the odd liberty with the speed limit and generally not focussing too carefully on driving in full compliance with the Highway Code. This is what it is like to live in a ‘worldly’ way. Imagine now that a traffic policeman was sat beside you – would you drive differently? I suspect so! If we have God’s spirit within us, how can we do some of the things we do! How can we think some of the things we think! How can we say some of the things we say!
The quarrelling in Corinth resulted firstly because the Corinthians were worldly rather than being people lead by the Spirit.
There was second cause of this problem: immaturity. When we first believe we are just like babies – we can’t take solid food but need some milk to get us started. We have a lot to learn and need to be nurtured and nursed. But after a time as we learn and drink up the milk we develop and become ready for solid food which promotes further growth. The trouble in Corinth was that there had been little if any spiritual growth – they were still babies. Lack of spiritual growth most likely comes from worldly living and neglect of the Holy Spirit within us. But it seems likely that mature Christians can also become worldly too and neglect the Holy Spirit.
Two problems, worldliness and immaturity, two outcomes quarrelling and jealousy – one solution; keep in step with the Spirit.
Having established the root cause of the Corinthian problem Paul returns to the specifics of the quarrel. He reminds the Corinthians that the leaders they have divided and quarrelled over are nothing. OK he says, I, Paul planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but it’s God who makes it grow! So don’t quarrel over these people they’re not the ones that make things grow.
Paul seems to be saying that the conditions for quarrelling come from immaturity and worldliness and that the subject of the quarrel (at least in this case) was a misapprehension of what was important. We must take note of this too, how often have quarrels arisen in the church over matters of little importance. We must take care not to fall into this trap – the solution is to focus on growing up and ordering our lives according to the Spirit.
We will see later in Paul’s letter that there are times in church life when difficult things need to be done. Discipline needs to be exercised, but we must not confuse discipline with disruptive quarrelling – the former seeks to stabilise the church the latter destabilises the church. Quarrelling starts with a wrong adjustment to the Holy Spirit and has as its focus a subject of no importance. Paul and Apollos were not the ones to focus on!
- Building up
The work that Paul and Apollos were doing in planting and watering was nonetheless worthwhile. God may give the increase but the work of his servants still needs to be done. In fact the work that we do will be rewarded. Please note that the reward is given for work not outcome. Paul uses two pictures to describe this, one relates to farming and the other to building.
Paul likens the church in Corinth to a field – in that field he sowed the seed and Apollos watered. These are pictures of work, but note that the increase in the crop is God’s work. Next Paul speaks of the church as a building. The foundation in Corinth had already been laid by Paul; Jesus Christ. The work is to build on this foundation. As we participate in this building project we have a choice to build with good materials or second rate materials. In Paul’s metaphor of the church, he describes three good building materials, gold, silver and costly stones and three poor materials; wood, hay and straw. He does not define what good and poor materials actually were, but I think we can at least say that the good materials are those that are consistent with God’s word and are pleasing to him. The materials we select to in this building project are of great importance. ‘The Day’ will bring the quality of each person’s work to light. The work will be tested by fire – only the parts built properly will survive and if they do, the builder will be rewarded, if not the builder will suffer loss – he will escape but only just. There is a hint here that the quality of the work of those building the church will not be open to scrutiny until it is revealed by the fire – this seems to suggest that we should not judge one anothers’ work in the here and now – it’s not our job to do so. But we must certainly evaluate our own work – how are we building?
If the quality of the building work is not to be tested until ‘The Day’, the work of demolition seems to be plain for all to see now! Paul says ‘if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.’ I think Paul is suggesting that there were those in Corinth who were neither building with poor nor costly materials but rather were demolishing or destroying – the Greek word translated as ‘destroy’ may also be translated as ‘defile’ which gives us a clue to how this demolition operates. It’s a serious thing to charge someone with demolition and we will see later in chapter 5 how Paul indicated some extreme situations should be dealt with. The solution to the problem in chapter 5 was to exclude the person from the church. This idea of exclusion from the church might be how we should understand the word ‘destroy’ in verse 17 – however we understand this, the warning is crystal clear, if you are involved in demolishing or defiling the church expect God to act in a dramatic way. Be careful, God’s temple is sacred and he will not tolerate those who destroy and defile it. I think we can reasonably correlate this warning with those who were quarrelling over the leaders. This may not seem such a serious offence, but if it was contributing to the destruction of the church the warning is clear. We should heed this warning too.
Bringing this a bit closer to home, I’ve been at times greatly encouraged by people who have given huge amounts of their time and energy to build with all the skills and energy they can muster, but tragically there are many churches where people would gladly destroy the church over quarrelsome matters. We must all ask ourselves if we are demolishing or building and if we are building are we using the right materials?
- Wise up
In the final verses of chapter 3 Paul returns to his theme of worldly wisdom versus God’s wisdom. To idolise and follow a specific preacher is to follow the wisdom of the world. Paul says that the Corinthians need to jettison such attitudes and become ‘fools’ in order to become wise. The best of human wisdom is foolishness in God’s sight says Paul – so why are you boasting and dividing over human leaders. Stop this now!
Paul concludes this section of Corinthians with a rather remarkable series of statements about the Corinthians that takes them onto a higher plane of thinking. He says ‘everything is yours’ he defines this with three boundaries, firstly from Paul/Apollos/Cephas to the world, secondly from life to death and lastly from the present to the future, all that is contained within these boundaries belongs to the Corinthians. They have this possession because they belong to Christ. In view of this huge scope, I think Pauls is saying, come on Corinthians, stop messing around in the dirt and look up at the huge world God has given you, see things from God’s perspective – wise up!