Please read 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and 18-20 in your favorite Bible. Me, I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.
Our common life is founded on the reality of God.
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane on September 20 of this year; just over a month ago. In its wake, Maria left the island of 3.4 million people without clean water and electricity.
Nine days after the hurricane, a storm of another sort arose on Twitter. President Donald Trump responded to criticism for the federal response, twice faulting San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz.
I will not weigh in on the tweet shots fired across the ocean between these leaders. Frankly, that would dignify an exchange that should never have taken place. But there are two things to be learned.
First, we are reminded that even people who share the same goals can disagree. The important thing is that the right to disagree does not endow anyone with the right to be disagreeable. Let’s be honest: whether we are communicating in person or by any other means, respect and honesty are essential, not negotiable. This is especially true in the church, which is supposedly populated by people who are committed to a higher standard of love and relationships.
Second – without taking sides – I like what Mayor Cruz wrote: “I have only one goal and it is saving lives, and I will do and I will say whatever needs to be said or done to be able to do that.”
Here’s what I like about that quote: she called for a restoration of perspective. Part of what we must do to keep the number one thing number one is to push aside pettiness and personalities to pull together toward God’s perfect will.
Paul wrote this letter to a divided church. They were feuding about several things, some of which were very petty and one of which was a dispute over personalities. The people were dividing into camps over who their favorite preacher was – Paul or Apollos. It concerned Paul enough that this was the first issue he tackled in this letter. We’re going to take four Sundays to carefully study this passage and learn what God reveals to us about real church life, how we are to conduct real relationships.
- Realistic Identity = Who are we?
a. We must not be worldly (vs. 1-4, 18-20).
Worldliness is a sign of immaturity (1-4). Paul referred to the recipients of this letter as INFANTS IN CHRIST. They survived (but did not thrive) by “feeding” on spiritual MILK. They were not ready for SOLID FOOD.
MILK is a metaphor of basic beliefs about salvation. It is the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” When you are feeding an INFANT, MILK is the logical choice of foods; it is the introductory food.
SOLID FOOD is a metaphor of deeper biblical truths. It is the answer to the question, “What must I do now that I am saved?” If you are feeding someone more mature than an INFANT, you begin to switch out MILK with SOLID FOOD.
To put it another way, Paul wrote, “You weren’t ready before and you haven’t matured enough since then.” The problem is not the cuisine per se, but the fact that the choice of cuisine was dictated by their immaturity. This is the situation Paul was talking about when he wrote to his associate, Timothy; For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3)
This letter is addressed to a church, but we see the same predilection toward subtle selfishness in our culture: look at the “experts” in media, the popular voices. They advocate self-satisfaction, self-centeredness, and self-help. But this is also manifest in the Church when people prefer sermons and Bible studies they can safely ignore, servings of short and soft and non-challenging pap.
Paul offered three signs of immaturity as examples. This particular set often results in divisions in the church.
– JEALOUSY is competitiveness where cooperation ought to exist.
– QUARRELING is taking a simple difference of opinion to a more emotional level. A quarrel can only happen between people who insist on “winning,” though there are no winners.
– ACTING LIKE MERE HUMANS, too willing to split into parties and/or to idolize leaders. (Paul and Apollos served the Corinthian church together (18:1-28). They did not encourage this party spirit in the church. Some church folk pushed that agenda and chose up sides.
Even sincere and maturing Christians still struggle with their human nature. The Corinthian church folk who politicized their pastors were not operating in the Holy Spirit. Instead, they were guided by sinful and self-centered desires. They were “Functional Atheists;” believers in word not in deed.
What the NIV translates as WORLDLY is literally “fleshly.” It is sin, the opposite of a life that is heavenly and spiritual. Real life is lived with God in focus, following His way.
Paul called these people his BROTHERS AND SISTERS, so his aim is not cutting them out of the church, but ordering them to grow up and not just grow old. He wanted to talk to them about deeper matters of faith, but they were frozen at a level of immaturity; they weren’t growing. Getting frozen at a level of immaturity is a common problem because we get lazy or resist change or prefer our secret sins. Refusing to grow betrays that our human nature is in charge, not the Holy Spirit.
An aspect of worldliness is being wise in your own eyes, not in God’s (18-20.) DO NOT DECEIVE YOURSELVES is a key insight into sinful nature: it is an act of self-deception before it is deceiving others. “Wise in your own eyes” is a biblical phrase that condemns the sin of pride; in this case, pride in your big brain.
– Proverbs 26:12 = Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.
– Isaiah 5:21 = Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
WISE BY THE STANDARDS OF THIS AGE refers to the humanistic cultural norms of our current time and place. The paradox is that all of us have to become FOOLS in the eyes of the world in order to become WISE in God’s eyes.
Paul quoted a couple Scriptures to prove that paradox. God knows our hearts better than we do, so even self-deception won’t fool Him at all.
– Job 5:13 (v. 19) shows that God is not fooled; He recognizes which people who claim to be wise are merely being crafty.
– Psalm 94:11 (v. 20) warns that the plots of worldly wise people end in futility.
Our common life is founded on the reality of God.
The immediate application is delivered in v. 21: SO THEN, NO MORE BOASTING ABOUT HUMAN LEADERS! Paul’s pastoral concern was for the end of all divisions in that church, starting with the division over which pastor was “true leader” of the church.
Nobody comes to church spoiling for a fight. Mostly, we come to avoid fights. We come to get away from the world and its deep divisions, wars and violence. It is our sincere hope that church will be the kind of place the Bible describes, a refuge from the strife caused by ungodliness.
And that is what it is until someone brings worldly (read “ungodly”) attitudes inside. I don’t believe we are hopeless in the face of such people. God wants unity and He wants all of us to safeguard the unity the Holy Spirit creates in our midst.
If we won’t sacrifice self on the altar, if we won’t swallow our pride and more than a few of our words to keep the peace in order to enjoy that peace, we must do it for the rest of the world. The world outside these walls hungers for a light, an example to follow, a guide to lead them out of the sorrows and isolation that sin creates.
If we won’t do it for ourselves or the world, let’s do it for Jesus. He surrendered His life on the cross to make the idea church a possibility. Why should we hesitate to do what He asks of us?
Here’s how it works. We stick up for each other and we stick together. We make peace a priority over rights and will and all forms of self-interest. Then watch life become more real than ever.
Coming up – parts two to four of this series of messages:
a. We must be godly (vs. 16-17, 21-23).
2. Realistic Expectations = What can we do?
a. We begin with a good foundation (10-15).
b. We can be faithful builders (vs. 1-4, 18-20).