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On Divisions in the Church July 1, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthian believers that they are not outwardly spiritual – they outwardly follow the ways of the world, and they lack Christian knowledge and experience. This caused him to give them a rather simplistic presentation of the Gospel – he did not present it in its fullness. Indeed, they are still influenced by their sinful natures; the fact that quarrels and feelings of jealousy arise between them proves that they act wickedly and follow the ways of the world. For example, Paul draws their attention to the religious factions that have arisen in their midst, where one group claims to “follow Paul” while another claims to “follow Apollos.” To address this issue, Paul makes the following points:

  • he and Apollos are actually mere attendants upon God, and God worked through them to bring the Corinthians to a saving faith in Him – note that this results from the work that God has appointed for each of His ministers to perform
  • ministers have diverse roles in the kingdom of God, yet they totally depend on Him to work through them in fulfilling these responsibilities
  • ministers are inherently worthless, and all of their success is due to God
  • all ministers have the same relationship to God and to His body, and God will reward each minister according to his faithfulness and self-denial
  • all ministers labor with God in advancing His kingdom, and they all work on increasing the fruitfulness of His church and building it up.

Now since the Holy Spirit has given Paul all of the gifts and abilities that he needs to carry out his assigned tasks, he has begun the work of God in Corinth as a skilled architect; others are now carrying on his work, yet they should consider the “materials” that they are using in this regard. In particular, note that these ministers cannot change the facts that 1) Christ is the foundation of His church and 2) Paul has already laid this foundation in Corinth. If any of these ministers builds on this foundation using truth or error, the true nature of their work will be revealed on the day of the Lord; their work will be tested in such a way that nothing of which God disapproves will survive. They will be rewarded if their work passes this test; otherwise, they will not be rewarded, and with great difficulty they will retain their salvation. To drive home the seriousness of a minister’s work in building up the church, Paul asks the Corinthians if they know that God’s glory – in the form of the Holy Spirit – dwells in them, making them God’s temple. Paul then reminds them that if any minister brings God’s temple into a worse state, God will bring that minister into a worse state, as God’s temple is holy and cannot be defiled with impunity. The Corinthians should not doubt what Paul has just said concerning the distinction between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom; if they believe that they are wise by the world’s standards, they need to renounce this wisdom and receive God’s wisdom instead. Indeed, God knows that the world’s wisdom is useless, and He has communicated this fact in the Old Testament. Given the entire preceding discussion, the Corinthians should not place their trust in ministers; indeed, trusting in their ministers causes them to miss the fundamental reality that all things are directed by God for their ultimate redemption. Indeed, the ministry, the entire cosmos, the lives and deaths of all people, and all past/present/future events, are meant for the ultimate redemption of the church. Paul concludes by inferring that the church can only be subject to Christ (and Christ can only be subject to God the father).

Thoughts: In verse 2 we see that Paul draws a distinction between “milk” and “solid food” in terms of what he taught the Corinthians concerning the Gospel message. Hodge offers some insightful thoughts on these phrases:

The true nature of the distinction is to be learned partly from the meaning of the imagery and partly from parallel passages. The meaning of the image leads to the conclusion that the difference is in the teaching method rather than in the things taught…The important truth is that there are not two sets of doctrine, a higher and a lower form of faith, one for the learned and the other for the unlearned; there is no part of the Gospel that we are authorized to keep back from the people.

I thought about what it means for a mature believer to take in “solid food.” Based on what Hodge notes above, my thought is that all believers can take in “milk” in that we can all learn the basics of Jesus’ life and ministry. It seems that eating “solid food” entails taking these basic facts and understanding them at a deeper level with an eye toward practical application; one might wonder, “how can I overcome this particular challenge given my knowledge of Jesus’ person and work?” For example, the basic Gospel message leads to the inference that Christ is actually superior to both Moses and to angels, implying that converts from Judaism should remain faithful and not return to their former religion – this is precisely the message of the book of Hebrews. Also, the Gospels show us that Jesus calls His followers to a life of self-denial; this fundamental truth is then analyzed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic The Cost of Discipleship, where he shows that to truly follow Jesus, we need to live lives in light of “costly grace” as opposed to “cheap grace.” This notion of “costly grace” spurred Bonhoeffer to serve the Lord faithfully in resisting the oppression of Nazi Germany.

Verses 10-17 indicate that if any minister builds on the basic Gospel message with doctrines that arise from human wisdom, he will not be rewarded for his efforts. Hodge offers some interesting thoughts in his commentary on verse 15:

He will just escape with his life, as a person is rescued from a burning building. His salvation will not only be effected with difficulty, but it will be attended with great loss. He will occupy a lower place in the kingdom of heaven than he would have done.

This is an intriguing interpretation of this passage; unfortunately, I still have difficulty comprehending it, as I cannot understand the concept of a “ranking” in the kingdom of heaven. Is it truly possible for glorified believers to occupy “greater” and “lesser” roles in heaven? Will the believers who occupy “lesser” roles be truly satisfied with their assigned tasks? Will the believers who occupy “greater” roles be able to avoid feelings of arrogance? My understanding is that both of these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, yet I am curious to see how this plays out…

In verses 21-22, we see that Paul instructs the Corinthians to cease their party-based quarrels, since “all things are yours.” Hodge explains this phrase as follows:

1. It means that all things are designed to promote the interests of the church. The consummation of the work of redemption is the great end to which all things are directed and to which they are to be made subservient.
2. The church is the “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). All things are given to Christ as the head of the church and to the church in him. His people are to reign with him (Romans 8:17), and the glory that the Father gave him, he gives to them (John 17:22).

I thought about this fundamental reality; frankly, it still amazes me. Before the beginning of time God was able to maximize the interests of the church; consider this as a optimization problem with an enormous number of variables. Billions of people have lived throughout human history, and countless additional plant and animal species have carved out their existence on this planet. To solve this optimization problem, God also needed to account for natural processes including fires, plate tectonics, and hurricanes. To make matters yet more interesting, all of these variables are not independent; they interact with each other, sometimes chaotically. God took this rather involved optimization problem – one that we cannot even begin to model, let alone solve given our current computational limitations – and solved it, which is completely mind-boggling.

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1. Warning Against Falling Away | Ringing In - April 22, 2015

[…] between “milk” and “solid food.” Now this passage can be linked to 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul reproves the Corinthians, since they have not made much spiritual progress. In […]


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