On reading 1 Corinthians 3
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ.
2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able,
3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?
4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1-4)
Have you ever noticed that sometimes a familiar passage strikes your heart and you realize that it doesn’t at all mean what you thought it meant? I had that experience this morning.
Being raised Reformed, I always assumed that it meant “simple doctrine” was the milk; and “more complicated doctrine” was the meat. It made the rest of the passage somewhat of a mystery to me, but I read and prayed and moved on.
But this morning, I saw something that I never saw before. Paul himself defines what he means by “fleshly” and by “spiritual.”
Fleshly is jealousy and strife. The flesh teaches us to say, “I’m glad I’m not like other men, like that publican over there…”
Or, “I’m glad I’m not like other men. I eat meat. Not milk. Look at that guy, still on milk!”
And you can define milk or meat however you want once you frame it according to the flesh.
Our pride tends to take the things that we do easily and call those things “meat”. And the repugnant others that are Not Like Us are the ones stuck on “milk.”
The milk-eaters are the ones who haven’t read Twisse in the original Latin. Or the ones who don’t know who Bavinck is, or don’t know what Olevianus taught about the covenant of grace or who still don’t know how to pronounce “Oecodelampadius”.
Or, in other traditions, the milk-eaters are the ones who don’t speak in tongues; who can’t point to a conversion experience, don’t dance during worship times.
OR – they don’t raise their kids “in the covenant”, or don’t have their wife in line according to my standards or….go to the wrong movies, read the wrong books, listen to the wrong music…
You get the point. The flesh is this: I am of Paul; I am of Apollos; Well, I am of Christ!”
And I thank God that I am not like you people?
When jealousy and strife are present, are we not fleshly? How then can Paul speak to us the words of God without us taking those words and using them to cause further division and strife?
When everything the preacher says is used as a bludgeon to use on our neighbor, or a club to beat the preacher with, or simply another check box to fill in that give approval to our own self-assessment (at least I am not like those people), then we are fleshly, and are not growing in the knowledge of Christ. We might have a lot of facts. But having facts doesn’t mean “eating meat”.
Paul himself defines flesh throughout his epistles:
3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, (Phil. 3:3)
2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.
4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:2-5)
2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2-3)
Do you see the point? We point to ourselves by nature. We are the stars of our own story, by nature. We justify ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, by nature. And this always ends up with sectarianism, jealousy and strife.
The Spirit, on the other hand, bears witness to Christ. He takes our eyes off our our abilities and our gifts as the ground of our assurance and places it on Christ alone.
Read the rest of 1 Corinthians 3 from this perspective. You’ll see what I mean….
Thanks for coming with me on my journey.