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Spiritual Maturity as Self-Giving

Sermon passage: (1 Corinthians 3:1-9) Spoken on: June 9, 2019
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 1 Corinthians

Tags: 1 Corinthians 哥林多前书

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve as a cell leader in zone ministry and a teacher in children ministry.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Title: Spiritual Maturity as Self-Giving
Date: 9 June 2019
Preacher: Pastor Wilson Tan

1. Introduction
2. Spiritual people vs. People of the flesh (Jealousy and strife)
a. Milk (infants of Christ) vs solid food (mature Christians)
3. Major problem in the church of Corinth: factionism / divisionism
a. Paul and Apollos as humble servants of God, not as esteemed teachers/philosophers
4. Paul plants while Apollos waters but it is God who gives the growth (Division of labour, not divisive work)
a. We are One in Christ (fellow workers, God’s field, God’s building)
5. Conclusion / Questions of reflection:
a. Are we spiritual people of people of the flesh?
b. Are we drinking milk or eating solid food?
c. Are we maturing in our faith and in our understanding of God and self?
d. Self-centred vs Self-giving

Good morning, brothers and sisters in Christ. Greetings in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
For the past few weeks, we have been looking at the first two chapters of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Today, we will be looking at the beginning nine verses of chapter three. Ancient Corinth was a city-state, much like Singapore, situated halfway between the two great cities of Athens and Sparta. Corinth was one of the largest and most important city in Greece at that time. The church of Corinth was founded by Apostle Paul about 50 years after the death of Jesus Christ. Just as the city was thriving, so too, was the church. But a growing church is often met with much growing pains. As we have been told, the church at Corinth was a church that was deeply divided. Yet, it was a church that was also deeply loved by Paul. His letters to the church of Corinth was a heart-felt letter of admonition, a gentle reproof of the conflicts and concerns among the community of believers.
In the passage we had just read, Paul begins with a stern address to the church. He calls them brothers, yet, he also said that he could not address them as spiritual people but as “people of the flesh,” as “infants in Christ.” The church at Corinth were also not ready for solid food. Paul had to feed them spiritual milk. The word “infants” has the meaning of being “childish” rather than being “child-like”. The word “flesh” here simply means the corruptible human body. The phrase “people of the flesh” was translated in earlier passages as “natural man.” That is, humanity in its most natural state. Humans, with our human weaknesses and human desires. Rev. Wee Khong told us last week that a natural man is a man without the Spirit of God. A natural man is one who continues to live only for himself and not for others. We are actually quite familiar with this. When we were young in our Christian faith, we are often concerned with matters relating to our personal well-being. Why do you believe in Jesus Christ? Because I want to be saved. Why do you come to church or read the Bible? Because I want to worship God and to know God better. The motivation for the things we do in the Christian faith often stem from self-interest. The “I” in us, or what psychologists call, the ego, or id, is very strong.
At the crux of the matter, the main issue was self-centredness. This is the deeper meaning of being “infants in Christ” and being “people of the flesh.” As infants, we are only concern with our immediate needs. As people of the flesh, we allow our human desires to control us. This self-centeredness is often reflected in the things we pray about. When we were younger, we pray for good weather so that the games day we planned for church camp can go smoothly. We pray for good results for our exams. We pray for good health. We pray for success in our career. We pray that our boss would promote us over our colleague. We pray for God to choose for us a good and faithful life-partner to marry. Please understand that inherently there is nothing wrong with praying for these things. These are our petitions that we can ask God for. But if our Christian faith does not grow from these personal concerns, then we remain as “infants in Christ.” When we only pray for things that concern us, then we are only drinking spiritual milk.
Even though Paul calls them infants in Christ, he recognises their faith in the Lord. They may not always be spiritually matured, but they remain very much in the body of Christ. Paul was not speaking to atheists, [people who dot not believe in God], but he was speaking to the brothers (and sisters) in Christ who were members of the church at Corinth.
Now, we are left to ponder. Is it possible to be in Christ and yet remain unspiritual? Sounds contradicting. But it is not. For Paul, it is possible. The Corinthian church was quite a young church. Paul left Athens and first came to Corinth at about 50 AD and had only stayed there for 18 months according to Acts 18:11. One scholar (Anthony C. Thiselton) suggests that 1 Corinthians was written when Paul was in Ephesus, around AD 54. So, the church in Corinth was only about 4 years old!
The community at the church in Corinth was relatively new to the Christian faith. They were considered new believers in Christ, but many were still stuck in their old ways. Just as Paul reminded the church at Ephesus, “to put off your old self…and to put on the new self…” (Eph. 3:22-24) the church at Corinth had similar issues. As we may well know, there is often a huge gap between our identity as a new creation and our Christian lifestyle. Even though Christ has already washed us clean with his blood on the cross, we still struggle with many sinful human desires in our daily lives. The Christian lifestyle does not match up to our Christian identity. We are Christians, by what Christ has done on the cross, but we can also remain unspiritual, by our lifestyle. Paul’s call here is a call for spiritual maturity.
Some of you may know of this well-known Canadian professor of psychology, Prof. Jordan Peterson. His book, 12 Rules of Life, was the number one bestseller around the world recently. Sometimes, during interviews, he would be asked if he believes in God. Yet, he never provide a straight forward answer. Recently, when he was again asked the same question, he responded with this. [1]
“Who would have the audacity to claim that they believed in God if they examined the way they lived? Who would dare say that?”
“To believe, in a Christian sense,” he added, “means that you live it out fully and that's an unbearable task in some sense.”
“To be able to accept the structure of existence, the suffering that goes along with it and the disappointment and the betrayal, and to nonetheless act properly; to aim at the good with all your heart; to dispense with the malevolence and your desire for destruction and revenge and all of that; and to face things courageously and to tell the truth to speak the truth and to act it out, that's what it means to believe -- that's what it means -- it doesn't mean to state it, it means to act it out…” To believe means to act it out. To live it out.
I believe that Prof. Peterson’s words here are important and powerful. The idea that if you claim to be a Christian, you ought to live out your life as one. I agree with this wholeheartedly. But we must also be careful. We must not think that we can only believe in God when we are perfect in our Christian walk. We must never think that we can ever earn the right to be called a Christian. This new identity is freely given to us. We did not earn it. We did not work for it. We simply believe in it. Justification by faith, not by works. Even though Prof. Peterson does not have the audacity to say that he believes in God, Paul clearly does. Paul clearly acknowledges that God exists: He is the one who provided growth.
The other issue which Paul is addressing here is the problem of factionalism.
In Ancient Greece, it was common for young men to follow famous philosophers as their teachers. This tradition of mentorship was also prevalent during Paul’s time. Many adopted this form of teacher-student relationship in the church. Paul was a Jew from Tarsus, a tent-maker, who founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. Apollos was a Jew born in Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures (Acts 18:24). It was quite natural for Christians to say they are followers of Paul or Apollos or any of the other disciples. Groups of Christians in the church started to choose which leader they want to follow. This was problematic. It was dividing the church. What was once a division of labour, becomes divisive in practice. Paul asks them rhetorically: “Are you behaving only in a human way?”…Are you not merely humans?” When we choose to follow one leader over the other, we are also saying that one is better and more important than the other. This creates tension in the community. Tension leads to strife. Strife becomes jealousy.
Paul uses these two words to describe how they were behaving: jealousy and strife. Jealousy: the resentment of another person’s success and status over your own. Strife: a bitter conflict or rivalry against the other. The belief that one self is better than the other. I am right and the you are wrong. Paul reminds them that both Apollos and him were merely servants of God, performing different roles in church. Borrowing from the analogy of horticulture: Paul plants while Apollos waters but it is God who gives the growth. Without God, they are nothing.
The church at Corinth was deeply divided and were spiritually immature. Spiritual immaturity is simply self-centredness at its core. If we are to be spiritual people of God, then we cannot remain self-centred, but must become self-giving. [pause] The giving of ourselves. Just as Christ who laid down his life for others, we are to also give our lives for others. A spiritually matured Christian would always put the needs of others before one self. Being spiritual means being filled by the Spirit of God. Being spiritual means you live your life for others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who stood against the Nazis in WW2 believes that “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” 【2】The church must be at the centre of the village. It must be a place where all can gather. It is a church that serves the community around it.
Let’s imagine if Paul were among us today…What would he say, not to the church at Corinth, but to the Church of Jubilee? As “infants in Christ” or “spiritual people”? [pause] What do you think? We are not a young church like the church at Corinth. We are quite an old church. In fact, 136 years old to be precise. The passage must prompt us to question our own spiritual condition and maturity. Are we maturing in our faith and in our understanding of our God and self?
For sure, we are not perfect. No church ever is. Factionalism, jealousy and strife may not be our issues at our church, but for sure, we have other issues. What are some of them? Maybe we want to be more community focus. Maybe we want to reach out to the needy around us. Maybe we want to be more evangelistic. Last week, we were reminded about the importance of evangelism. To step up, to take courage in sharing the gospel with your friends. But besides sharing other people’s stories, how about sharing your own? You too have a story to share.
There is much more we can do as a church. But we cannot do it alone. Each of us needs to help one another. Each of us has a role and responsibility in the growth of the church. Some of us are planters. We like meeting new friends every week. We are passionate in mission work. Some of us waters what others have planted. We are the Sunday school teachers, pastors and teaching elders. We provide training and equipping. Serving in church is team work. No matter what role we play, we must not forget that it is God who gives us growth. We must not harbour jealousy and strife but must love one another as one united community that exists for others. This must be the vision of Jubilee Church.
So now, let us end by reading again v. 9: For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. Whatever we have belongs to God. Let us continue to grow in spiritual maturity with the Spirit of God in us. Let us learn to put others before ourselves. Let us move from being self-centred to being self-giving. This is spiritual maturity as how Paul sees it.


【2】Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, 382.

1 Corinthians 3:1–9 (Listen)

3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.