First Corinthians 3--Milk and Meat
Mar 03, 2017
1 Corinthians 3:1-3 says,
1 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…
Here we discover the reason Paul found it necessary to lay out the foundation of truth. The believers in Corinth were exercising the gifts of the Spirit, as we see from later chapters, but they were soulish, not spiritual. They did not fully comprehend the difference, for they did not have enough understanding to know when they were following the lead of the soul or of the spirit.
This problem has continued to the present day. People think that being spiritual is a matter of exercising spiritual gifts. If those spiritual gifts are utilized properly, then certainly, they are following the lead of the spirit which draws from the Holy Spirit. But each gift is used only temporarily, and then the believers tend to revert back to the soulish life with which they are so familiar.
The Milk of the Word
What teachings constituted the “milk” that Paul had given them in the eighteen months that he had spent in Corinth? Acts 18:5 says that Paul “began devoting himself completely to the word that Jesus was the Christ.” Jews needed to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but many Greeks had been converted from idolatry (1 Corinthians 12:2). Belief in Jesus Christ is the word that men must believe in order to become a spiritual baby. What follows is the milk of the word, designed for growth and development.
Many years ago, in the first church where I was called to teach the word in a weekly Bible study, the preacher would often introduce his sermon by saying, “I think we should just go back to the milk of the word,” and I would groan inside. All of the people in the church had been believers for many years, but the preacher continued to dispense milk.
We know from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that Paul already had imparted the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This, then, was not the “meat” of the word, but “milk.” In chapter 15 Paul lists other teachings that he had already given them, including the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, His burial, His resurrection, and how he appeared to more than five hundred brethren and finally to Paul himself on the Damascus road.
Some, however, questioned the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). The resurrection was uniquely a Hebrew concept, confirmed and developed through Jesus’ own resurrection. Paul may have been addressing Jewish believers who had adopted the view of the Sadducees, who did not believe in angels or resurrection (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees had been influenced by Greek philosophy.
Greek religion taught reincarnation, not resurrection. To the Greeks, men evolved with each reincarnation until they achieved perfection. In each reincarnation, a person was said to be born as a new person (or animal, if they had bad karma in their previous life). In the end, a perfected person died and went to heaven, having fully freed himself from “evil flesh.”
To a Greek, the goal of history was to separate good spirit from evil matter. Their goal was to institute a great divorce between heaven and earth. The Hebrew concept, however, which formed the basis of Christianity, was to merge heaven and earth in a great marriage. “Thy kingdom come,” Jesus prayed in Matthew 6:10. “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”
The Greeks would have prayed, “Deliver Thy kingdom from this evil earth, so that it may be established in heaven alone.”
It appears that some of the Corinthian believers had not been able to shake the influence of their Greek culture. They still believed, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:12, “that there is no resurrection of the dead.”
But the teaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with our own resurrection, still formed the milk of the word. Paul found himself having to go back and lay foundations again, because some of the believers were still soulish. They were still thinking soulishly, thinking that the gospel (milk) was foolishness—especially the basic teaching of the resurrection.
Many years ago, I heard it said that it takes about ten years for a person to get a good grasp of the Gospel of the Kingdom. At the time, I questioned it, for I had been studying the idea of the Kingdom for about three years, and I thought I understood it quite well. But now I doubt if even ten years is sufficient. It really depends on the quality and depth of teaching. I discovered that the “meat” of Kingdom teaching is always unfolding. My early Kingdom teachers, in fact, had little grasp of the weightier matters of the spiritual law. Much of what I now teach was imparted to me by direct revelation.
Spiritual “meat” is not merely church doctrine. In fact, church doctrine is largely a mixture of milk and dung (traditions of men). Meat is seldom on the spiritual menu in seminaries or Bible colleges. Milk is the Gospel of Salvation; meat is the Gospel of the Kingdom. Seminaries offer no courses on the Gospel of the Kingdom.
So the problem that Paul faced with the Corinthian church has continued to the present time. Believers are still struggling with the milk, the basics of the gospel. They dispute things that are indisputable, largely because they do not view Scripture in a holistic manner, but focus primarily on the New Testament.
For example, they lead people to accept Christ in order to be saved, but they know little about the meaning of salvation—other than that this will secure them a place in heaven someday. Few know how the feast of Passover lays all the foundations of our justification by faith in the blood of the Lamb. Few know the story of Israel in the wilderness and how it is a historical allegory, not only of each personal journey, but also of the church as a whole on a prophetic level. Even fewer understand Pentecost or Tabernacles, and so they live only with a hope of going to heaven. They focus upon building church membership and are little prepared to build the Kingdom of God here on the earth.
The meat of the word is hard to find in the church today. What people think is meat is what Paul called milk. So we should understand by Paul’s own word that his letter to the Corinthians was not about meat, but about milk.
Evidence of Carnality
Paul confessed that he was unable to get into the meat of the word, because the believers were still fleshly, or carnal. 1 Corinthians 3:3 says,
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?
The soul wants to be in submission to men; the spirit wants to submit to the Holy Spirit. Soulish men belong to a denomination. Spiritual men belong to Jesus Christ. In Paul’s day men belonged to certain schools of philosophy. “I am a Stoic,” one said. “I am of Plato,” said another. “I am of Epicurus,” or “I am a Sophist,” said others. Each argued about the nature of true wisdom, and each jealously fought for and argued from the logic that he had learned in his own school of philosophy.
Greek logic, originating in the soul, produced jealousy, strife, and division. When this appeared in the Corinthian church, Paul recognized it immediately, for he too had studied Greek philosophy and shows that at one time he had been an Epicurean. No doubt in those days he learned how to argue and debate the logic of Epicureanism in opposition to Platonism and Stoicism. His first letter to the Corinthians mainly argues against the Sophists, as we see in 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 and again in 1 Corinthians 10:22-24, where he sets up mini-debates with the Sophists. I will explain this further at the appropriate time.
Paul contrasts the spiritual principle of unity with the soulish principle of strife and debate. Unity is based on the spiritual law of love. Soulish men, however, set up debates, trying to achieve unity by strife and carnal argument. As the church progressed through the centuries, its carnality became increasingly evident as love was sacrificed on the altar of church unity. Bishops met to determine certain creeds and to enforce their universal acceptance by violence and force.
Jealousy and Strife
Paul also contrasts the jealousy of God with the jealousy of men. The Greek word translated “jealousy” in 1 Corinthians 3:3 is zelos, a word used by many classical writers, including Plato and Aristotle. The word is rooted in Greek philosophy, and Paul knew it well. But Paul had reverted to a Hebrew perspective, first by learning under Gamaliel, and later by sitting at the feet of Jesus in Arabia (Mount Horeb). The jealousy of God is His passionate love which drives Him to change the heart of His unfaithful wife and bring her back into unity with Himself.
The path of true unity, from a Hebrew perspective, is not to enslave or imprison His unfaithful wife until she is bludgeoned into submission. Law enforcement does not work in the long run. Fear may hold a marriage together, but such a marriage leaves God unsatisfied. He wants to win her heart—not to imprison her so that she is prevented from running away.
Debate is verbal strife. The Greeks were good at it, for it was a way of life among philosophers. But God is not interested in a soulish debate, but in a spiritual revelation of truth. Theoretically, if everyone was truly led by the spirit and subject to the Holy Spirit, there would be unity. The problem, however, is that men’s eyes are blinded by Old Covenant (carnal) perspectives and interpretations of the word. This comes out in the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
The veil must be removed in order to open the spiritual eyes of the people to see the truth. Unity, then, is achieved only when the Old Covenant veil is removed. Only then can we fully behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, thereby being liberated from soulish blindness.
This is part 12 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones