The Forest and the Trees (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)


 

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Sometimes, when you’re reading Scripture, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. Over the past few Daily Words, we’ve studied 1 Corinthians 1-2 a few verses at a time. We’ve looked at leaves, branches, and trunks pretty closely. Now it’s time to zoom up to 10,000 feet and remind ourselves of the shape of the forest.

In 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21, Paul refutes the Corinthians’ misguided spirituality, which was dividing their church. The division appeared to be about leaders (1:10-17). But in reality, it was about the heart of the gospel. The Corinthians were looking for a message that embodied philosophical wisdom and was expressed with rhetorical excellence. They shunned the cross because it seemed foolish and Paul’s preaching because it seemed mediocre. So Paul reminded them that “the message of the cross” is God’s wisdom and power for their salvation (1:18-2:5). He then deflated their spiritual self-image by demonstrating that the Spirit reveals God at work in “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Truly spiritual people know this (2:6-16).

With the forest’s shape in mind, let’s go look at another tree.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul writes:

Brothers, 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, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men?

Paul uses the word worldly here twice. A more literal translation would be fleshly, but it amounts to the same thing. The Corinthians viewed themselves as spiritual, but Paul viewed them as fleshly. They rated themselves high on the totem pole of wisdom and insight, but Paul said they were stuck at the bottom. Why? Because there was “jealousy and quarreling” among them.

 Let’s think of ourselves as tree doctors for a moment. When I lived in Santa Barbara, California, my house was surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees. One of them looked different from the others. It had few leaves and its color was darker than the others. These were symptoms of a disease, probably caused by a small pest of some sort, perhaps the lerp psyllid. At Corinth, the symptom of spiritual disease was division along party lines. But the root cause of the division was a false spirituality that denied the wisdom and power of the cross of Jesus Christ. As a good tree doctor, Paul treated both the symptom and its underlying cause.

We should too. As a pastor, I think we tolerate too much division in our church. Jealousy and quarreling have no place among people who are being led by God’s Spirit to Jesus Christ. Such division was not, is not, and never will be Christlike. Let’s stop pretending otherwise, and follow the Spirit to greater unity in God’s church.

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