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Many of Paul’s letters were written to solve problems so that the church could be more united.
He knew the kind of harm that a divided church does to the service of Jesus’ mission. With the cause of Christ paramount in his mind, he wrote letters to focus the church on her main mission.
A Picture of Division
The church in Corinth featured 3 aspects of division that are common to nearly any sort of conflict.
(1) Lack of Maturity – If the people had understood the wisdom of God that Paul spoke about in the first two chapters of the letter, they would not have fallen under the influence of a divisive spirit.
Paul described their situation like this.
“And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.
“For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (1 Corinthians 3.1-3).
The word “flesh” occurs three times in these verses. It does not refer to muscle and skin in the human body.
A person who operates in the “flesh,” makes decisions based on their own best thinking apart from the wisdom that God gives by revelation.
“Behaving according to human inclinations” (Verse 3) is what happens when people live according to the “flesh.”
It should be assumed that new Christians will bring the baggage of their past worldview to a relationship with Jesus. However, there comes a point in a believer’s life where the new creation that they are in Christ should be evident.
Earlier in his letter, Paul highlighted the issue of maturity. He wrote, “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish” (1 Corinthians 2.6).
The problem with disunity was that people in the church were still immature and following the wisdom of the rulers of this age. Not a good thing.
(2) Not Living By God’s Wisdom – The culture of Corinth placed a high value on the ability to speak with persuasive words. However, the culture of Corinth was for the most part opposite to the values of Jesus.
Apollos came to Corinth to further the work that Paul started. He was a dynamic speaker, and some in the church began to superimpose on him cultural norms from Corinth.
Paul brought to their awareness the division that this kind of thinking was creating.
He wrote, “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3.4).
To be “merely human,” was to live by the standards of Corinthian culture and the so-called wisdom of the rulers of society, but not by the wisdom of Christ.
Paul pointed out that both Apollos and he were nothing more than servants.
He wrote, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Corinthians 3.5).
Once again he emphasized, “For we are God’s servants, working together” (1 Corinthians 3.9).
When we understand God’s wisdom, we also recognize our place in his work. We are all his servants.
The wisdom that Paul lived by and called the church to adopt was to base life around self-giving love.
People who live in self-giving love may have different ways of looking at various issues, but their differences will not lead to division.
(3) Building But Not Building Up – Every word and opinion builds something, but it does not necessarily build up, nurture, enlighten. or uplift.
Paul used the analogy of a building to describe the church. Without a doubt Jesus was the foundation (1 Corinthians 3.11). The ideas and opinions of church members were seen as building materials.
He wrote, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw –
“the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Corinthians 3.12-13).
Our words that are not rooted in the self-giving love of Christ (God’s revealed wisdom) are nothing more than wood, hay and straw.
They may be eloquent and receive public praise, but won’t survive the fire of God’s judgment. They may puff up the speaker with pride, but won’t build up the church.
On the day of judgment, God will not overlook people who use their communication skills to destroy the unity of the church.
Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3.16-17).
In 1 Corinthians 6.19-20 Paul used the image of the temple for the individual believer. In this instance the temple is the entire body of Christ, the church.
If our words and actions tear down the unity of God’s temple and God’s ministry, we can expect a reckoning and a calling to account in the judgment.
The Cure for Division and Factions
Paul wrote his letter to point out behavior that was dividing the church and causing her to stray from the primary mission.
He sought to change the minds and hearts of people who came into contact with his letter. They were to turn the problems into solutions.
(1) Seek Maturity – If a lack of maturity is one of the problems, then spiritual maturity will lead to a solution.
The “flesh” – thinking and living like a person who is separate from God – needs to be replaced by Holy Spirit guided thinking and living.
There is no way that we can expect to have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16) if we do not have an active relationship with Jesus.
When Josh Monk led his Sunday School class I marveled at how the Holy Spirit used him. I shouldn’t have though. Josh spent the first hour of each morning in Bible reading and prayer.
One of the last times I visited with him before his death, Josh was sitting on the front porch of his house reading the Bible and getting connected with his Savior.
He knew that we cannot live a Jesus-kind-of-life without constant contact with Jesus himself.
(2) Seek To Live By God’s Wisdom – Paul taught that the cross-life of Jesus was both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.24).
Self-giving love, as the operating principle for our lives, is the wisdom of God.
A good question to ask ourselves in any situation is, “What is the most loving thing I can do?”
As we combine a vital daily connection with Jesus and a decision to live in love, we will grow in maturity and God’s wisdom.
(3) Seek To Build Up God’s People – Paul contrasts people in Corinth who are puffed up with pride with the need to build up the church.
The stakes are high. If we seek the applause and esteem of people, we may run the risk of our accomplishments becoming ashes in the judgment.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautioned people to not give money, pray or fast as a way to gain the approval of others (Matthew 6.1, 5, 16). He stated plainly that those who seek the approval of the crowd, “have received their reward in full.”
We all have opinions, but not all of our opinions need to escape our mouths. What if we chose to always use words the “build up” God’s work, rather than our own ego?
The church needs people who live like Paul counseled in 1 Corinthians. Let’s pursue this way of life for the glory of God and the fulfillment of his mission.
About This Blog
Tomorrow’s article will begin a study of the prophet Hosea. He felt the passion for God’s people in a way that touched every fiber of his being.
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