Text 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Time February 17 2017 Place London Seminary
I want us to look this morning at 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. I want us to begin, however, by thinking first about a baby and then about a field of growing corn. You could think about a building being built too, if that takes your fancy, but I won't be saying anything about that.
I'll tell you why I want you to think about a baby and a field of growing corn a little later if you haven't worked it out. It's great to have this opportunity to preach to you. I want to take as my subject today is avoiding spiritual immaturity and the related subject of rightly understanding what a faithful preacher is.
So as you think of a baby and a cornfield at the same time I want you to have some questions in your minds too – Am I a mature Christian? What is my understanding of preachers and preaching? Are my ideas biblical or unbiblical, mature or immature? In 1 Corinthians, as you know, the first thing Paul talks about is unity in the church. In the young church at Corinth there were real problems in this area. The people had heard or knew of various preachers and instead of thanking God for each one of them and seeking to learn from them all, they instead began to form into little parties. As Paul puts it in 1:12 one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’ (probably those who claimed to be above all this but were forming into a party, nevertheless).
Today it is an even more likely scenario, perhaps, for regular visitors to Sermonaudio. “One of you says ‘I think Paul Washer is best'; another, ‘I prefer Kevin deYoung’; another, ‘I like Tim Keller best’; still another, ‘my favourite is whoever preaches with the clear anointing of the Spirit’.”
This is clearly quite wrong so Paul begins to attack the problem by asking Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? The mention of baptism leads him to say that he had baptised some but that his main work was preaching. That in turn leads him into what in some ways is a digression in 1:18-2:16. It is only here in Chapter 3 that he begins to get back to the subject of unity. Digression, of course, is the wrong word. Paul is dealing throughout with what was the underlying problem at Corinth, spiritual immaturity, an immaturity that made them think in worldly terms.
All the way through 1:18-2:16 Paul contrasts the gospel he preached with the world's message. The message of the cross he preached is foolishness to unbelievers but those being saved see that it is the power of God. The world has its wisdom, of course, but since in God's wisdom this wisdom is not enough to know God, God was pleased to save people another way - through the foolishness of what was preached that is Christ crucified which is a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those God calls ... Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For says Paul the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Most people converted in Corinth were not among the elite of this world But as Paul puts it God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; ... the weak things of the world to shame the strong … the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. The real wisdom in the gospel is Christ not some worldly wisdom.
This is why Paul didn't come to Corinth with eloquence or human wisdom. He resolved instead to make his focus Jesus Christ and him crucified. When he preached he did so not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. He knew what Corinth was like and so was concerned that their faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. It isn't that what he preached or what we preach is actually foolish, it just looks like that in terms of men's wisdom, the wisdom of this age. It is God’s wisdom, a wisdom not understood by the elite of this world but revealed to believers by the Holy Spirit, who searches all things, even the deep things of God. Paul says plainly (2:12) What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is why he sought to preach not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The natural man doesn't accept it, of course but considers it foolishness, and cannot understand it … but The person with the Spirit does understand.
This is Paul's point then. He's not preaching worldly wisdom but God's wisdom, not the spirit of this age but by the Spirit of God - Jesus Chris and him crucified. This is something that the Corinthians have only really begun to grasp and indeed Paul is not sure that some of them have really grasped it at all. And so as we come to what we call Chapter 3 he begins to tackle the problem. And so we say today two things.
1. Recognise the danger of an immature and worldly mindset
We will look first at verses 1-4.
In order to help us get what Paul is saying here it will be good to fix in your minds the illustration he uses. So think again of that baby I mentioned, that infant. What do babies feed on? Well, you know that they drink only milk. Usually for the first few months all their nutrients come from milk – ideally their own mother's milk or, if there's a problem, some sort of substitute formula. It is usually only after a few months that solid food is introduced. Now imagine a situation where a baby just doesn't take to solids. This does happen sometimes and can be a cause for concern but it usually sorts itself out by 9 or 10 months. But imagine now a baby that goes on taking only milk at 12 months, 18 months, 2 years old, 3, 4 or 5! That is the picture that Paul uses here to describe the immaturity that the Corinthians were falling into. Brothers and sisters, he says I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, worse still you are still not ready. What does he mean? He says (3) You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere human beings? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings?
In Chapter 2 Paul contrasts the natural man, the man without the Spirit, that is the unbeliever, with the spiritual man, the believer. That is the big difference between people, the essential difference. When the Word is preached a person either believes it or they don't. Once they believe, they are converted and all is well. While a person goes on refusing to believe then he is in great danger. Hell hangs over him like the sword of Damocles at every moment.
Having said that, even among believers there can be gradations. It is possible to be what Paul here calls a worldly or unspiritual Christian, a mere baby, an infant in Christ. Such people can only cope with milk, not with solid food. Now Paul is not saying that there are three categories of people. Some people have seized on his words and tried to suggest that there are – unbelievers; people who have accepted Christ as Lord; and others who have accepted him as only as Saviour but not as Lord and so they go on just like unbelievers, even though they are actually Christians. That is to distort what Paul is saying here. No, Paul 's point is that although the Corinthians had been converted they were still in some ways thinking like unbelievers. The very way that they claimed to be followers of Paul or Apollos was proof of that. It betrayed an immature and worldly way of thinking, an unspiritual mindset.
There was a fun song on these lines some years ago. It went
I know a man, maybe you know him, too. You never can tell; he might even be you.
He knelt at the altar, and that was the end. He's saved, and that's all that matters to him.
His spiritual tummy, it can't take too much. One day a week, he gets a spiritual lunch.
On Sunday, he puts on his spiritual best, And gives his language a spiritual rest.
He's just a fat, He's just a fat little baby! Wa, wa, wa.
He wants his bottle, and he don't mean maybe.
He sampled solid foods once or twice, But he says doctrine leaves him cold as ice.
He's been baptized, sanctified, redeemed by the blood, But his daily devotions are stuck in the mud.
He knows the books of the Bible and John 3:16. He's got the biggest Bible you've ever seen!
I've always wondered if he'll grow up someday. He's momma's boy, and he likes it that way.
If you happen to see him, tell him I said, "He'll never grow, if he never gets fed."
So here's the question for us - are you mature in your thinking? I know you are theological students and you want to be ministers but given that it is possible to be a Christian but to remain like a baby, to be spiritually immature, thinking too often in the same way as the people of the world think, the question is a fair one. Do you think in a spiritual way? We will look at a specific manifestation of this in a moment but unspiritual thinking can come in at any point.
Let me give you a little test on how mature you may be spiritually.
In Chapter 7 Paul says something about Christian attitudes to marriage and to happiness and sadness and to this world's goods. Now if you are mature in Christ then if you have a wife or husband there is a sense in which you will live as though you do not because your mind will be on higher things. When you are sad it will be as though you are not and when you are happy, it will be as though you are not too because you see that this world in its present form is passing away. It means that when you buy something you will not think of it as being yours to keep. You use the things of this world, of course, but you are not engrossed in them.
Or think of Chapter 8 where Paul raises the subject of food sacrificed to idols. Corinth was a pagan society and when you bought meat in the market you were never entirely sure whether it had been offered to idols or not. This bothered some of the believers. They didn't want to eat such meat. It was against their consciences. Others took the attitude that given pagan gods are no gods at all there should be no real problem. Not only did they eat the meat but they belittled those who refused to do so. In fact some were so confident they were happy to go to pagan temples if they needed to and take part in pagan festivals. Perhaps you take a similar approach to questions of conscience. It is a mark of immaturity. Paul begins his whole discussion of the subject by saying that knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Are you remembering that simple fact? You will be, if you are mature.
If you are mature in Christ then you will be making every effort to add to your faith. You will be becoming more good, more knowledgeable in the faith. There will be increasing self-control, growing perseverance in the things of God, more godliness. There will be an increasing affection and love for God's people. How we need mature Christians, those who are no longer babies surviving on milk but who crave solid food.
Of course, it is unlikely but just possible that someone is here and you're not even an immature baby Christian. Unlikely but it is remotely possible that you've not been born again at all. You can't even take in milk. You have no appetite at all for anything in the Bible. You know you need to repent and put your faith in Christ. All your thinking is worldly. The idea Jesus Christ and his death on the cross is the answer to all your problems seems so far from being the answer you reject the gospel. What a dangerous thing to do! Reject the wisdom of this age and trust in Jesus Christ today.
2. Understand what faithful preachers are like
One of the areas where this immaturity was showing itself most in Corinth was in their attitudes to preachers. Earlier Paul has emphasised that preaching needs to be a demonstration of the Spirit not an exercise in human wisdom or eloquence. In verses 5-9 he begins to talk about preachers, by way of example mentioning himself and Apollos and how the Corinthians should think of them as preachers. Some six things can be isolated.
1. Faithful preachers are servants of God. 5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe. Most preachers are called ministers. The word simply means servant. It is very easy for ministers and their hearers to forget this. Ministers are sometimes presented as entertainers or celebrities of some sort. That helps no-one. No, the work of a minister is to serve. He serves those he preaches to and he serves God. He does it by preaching the gospel so that people may know how to be saved. It isn't very glamorous to be a servant but it is worthy work and if a man is humble and willing to put others first then he can do it under God
So when you think of a preacher – yourself or some other preacher, someone you discover on the internet or see on the TV, perhaps, just remember that if he is genuine he is there to serve.
2. Faithful preachers are called to work in different situations. Paul adds in verse 5 as the Lord has assigned to each his task. In verse 6 he introduces the picture of the field. He says I planted the seed, Apollos watered it. It was Paul who planted or founded the church in Corinth. He was the one who began it. Apollos came and preached there later. You could picture their work in terms then of planting and watering.
And so the chief work of some ministers is to evangelise or to church plant. You are aware I'm sure that on Wednesdays the Plant! students are here. These men, I guess, are involved in church planting, beginning new churches.
More commonly men, like myself, serve in established situations. My main work is watering what is already there. No doubt, that is the sort of work that most of you have in mind. Many, possibly most of the people, will be people not necessarily converted through your ministry but through others. Most Christians over the course of a life time will benefit from the preaching of a variety of ministers.
Some churches, most probably, like my own, are small churches – about 40 or 50 on a Sunday morning – many even smaller. Other churches are larger, some much larger. The Lord assigns to different ones different tasks. Sometimes a minister looks at a situation and he feels he could not do that, though he is able to serve where he is. We are not always the best judges of that but clearly we have to be able to minister in the situation in which God puts us. One of the frustrating things is that one can feel there might be more fruit in a different situation but feeling called to a more needy situation.
Comparing ministers is not a good idea. There are too many factors involved. You cannot simply say – big church, good preacher; small church, not a good preacher. That sounds like special pleading but I'm preaching to myself as much as anyone. The temptation to look at things immaturely is strong.
I knew a man many years ago who thought planting churches was relatively easy because he had had some success in it. He had great success down in the west of the country but when he came to London and tried it some years later, he found it was not anywhere near as easy as he had expected.
3. Faithful preachers wholly depend on God for success. That leads us on to the next point. What Paul actually says in verse 6 is that he planted the seed and Apollos watered it but God made it grow. He concludes, therefore, (7) So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. It is very important that we grasp this. This is an essential element in mature spiritual thinking. It would be tempting to think that this man is a successful minister because he is very gifted or because he is very intelligent. However, when one investigates, it is not that simple. A man may be very gifted, very intelligent and yet not be successful. You can even have the situation where a man is successful in one place but not in another.
I mentioned a man who was very successful with church planting at one time but then not at all in London and later in Cardiff. \\I know of another man who was again very successful in one part of the country in the seventies but when he moved to another church and did the same things he had done there, it was something of a disaster.
I know a man who preaches often in India. He sometimes remarks on how he can preach the same sermons here with little apparent affect that are used to convert people there in India.
I could mention another man here in London who has been pretty successful, a good sound man, Reformed and very faithful. Now he says that all you have to do is follow his method and you too can have a large congregation. He seem to quite forget all the factors that apply in his situation but not in most other parts of London. I would be slow to criticise but may be he is in danger of forgetting that it is God who gives the increase.
A minister or his people can get very proud on one hand or very frustrated on the other, if they forget that ultimately success entirely depends on God. It is not that God does not use means, he does. We must not make excuses for our laziness. However, God reserves to himself who shall prosper and who not, which churches will grow and which will not.
4. Faithful preachers all have the same purpose. Another important thing to remember is (8a) that The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose. In one sense it does not matter that some have big churches and some have small ones as long as we remember that we all have the same purpose. Some churches may see many converted but they always lose them to other churches. One of the frustrations we have had up in Childs Hill is how many Christians leave us for one reason or another. As longs as they are moving on to places where the same gospel is preached, we do not need to worry too much about that as all faithful preachers have the same purpose. I don't if any of you have been recently to Kew Gardens. In that place there are lots of jobs to do I'm sure. I'm not sure how it is all arranged but I can't imagine anyone getting in a strop because a plant they planted was watered by a different person. Can you imagine someone saying “I planted those Galanthus Nivali (snow drops to you or me). I don't want anyone else doing anything to them”. No, the people at Kew have one purpose I would guess (they say it is to inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation worldwide) and although they may have their conflicts, the purpose hopefully is not forgotten.
We need to take the same attitude. A person may be converted through one minister, settle under the ministry of another for 10 years, then be under another for the next 20 and in retirement be under yet another. All the while they may be getting help from many others who preach at the church or at conferences or that they hear elsewhere. As long as the purpose of those preachers is one, there is no problem.
When a child is brought up, obviously the parents have the biggest input but usually there is input from many other sources as well, more and more as they get older – neighbours, school teachers, Sunday School teachers, people who run various clubs, TV presenters, Internet presenters, etc. Sadly, not all those influences have the same purpose but in an ideal world all the influences would be good. In a similar way, if all the preachers a person hears are faithful then their purpose will be one.
5. Faithful preachers will be rewarded according to their own labour. Paul adds something interesting in 8b and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. You notice that he does not say and they will each be rewarded according to their success. No, the reward is according to labour.
We still have two boys in school and when we get reports for them there are always at least two columns to look at. If I remember rightly, there is both the mark you score and another column that aims to show you how much effort they have been making. It is very hard to measure such a thing but God can do it easily. One day he will reveal his findings with regard to preachers. One man may have served 30 years in a Muslim country and seen no converts. Another may have served on the outskirts of London in a large church and seen regular converts. Those men's rewards will not be according to the numbers they saw come to faith or how many they built up in the faith. No it will be according to their labours, which God alone can assess.
Are you spiritually-minded? If you are, then you will see that and will keep it in mind as you oth listen to preachers and seek to serve as preachers yourselves.
6. Faithful preachers are workers with God. The final thing today is verse 9. Paul says For we are God’s co-workers. This is by way of summary. It is quite an amazing statement, isn't it? Paul and Apollos and all preachers simply work alongside God. God is the one who makes the difference. The preacher merely joins in that work, assisting in what ways he can by God's grace. That is the spiritual way to think of preachers then – of our own work and of the preaching of others. I trust that is the way you will think of what I have had to say to you today. Amen.