When I was growing up, my grandparents had a crab apple tree in their front yard, and every time we went to visit them, my brother and I would see the tree and hope the apples were ready to eat. It was actually quite frustrating for us because we found the readiness of crab apple trees is notoriously difficult to predict. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had an unripe crab apple, but if you have, it’s a memorable experience.
They are uncomfortably hard to chew, and as for taste, they have an extremely intense and unappetizing mix of bitterness and sourness that makes you not only never want to take another bite, but uproot and burn the tree, scattering its ashes so as to never be spoken of again.
But! For that extremely brief period of time when they are ripe – in Alberta anyway – just before they freeze and/or turn to mush, they are actually really, really good. A unique taste right off the tree and extremely good for homemade jelly.
We visited our grandparents quite often, and, as I said, each time we were there we would ask if the crab apples were ready. It was most often “no”, but occasionally – whether because they didn’t know or because they enjoyed our suffering – they would say, “I’m not sure, why not go try one?”
Then the games would begin. I, being the older brother, would do my best to get my younger brother, James to take a bite – while he used all his wits and whining to make me do it.
The scripture we’ve been going through for the past while reminds me a lot of that crab apple tree. Before I went on holidays we were stuck at the end of chapter two, talking about the difference between mature and immature Christians. The Corinthian church, though they were Christians –saved people with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them – had not progressed in their faith, but had actually regressed and were living like spiritual infants.
Hearing about this frustrated the Apostle Paul, because he had been their pastor for a year-and-a-half and hadn’t been gone for very long. He had moved on to plant other churches, but even from far away, was hearing reports about how messed up the church in Corinth was. And so, God inspired Paul to write a letter to them, chastising them for their immaturity and instructing them on what needs to change.
Anyone who has experimented with crab apples knows how Paul must have felt. He planted that tree in Corinth expecting it to grow, mature, bear fruit, and for that fruit to be sweet – but instead, the fruit is bitter, sour, wooden, wormy and disappointing. He longs to be able to praise them for their faithfulness and maturity, for turning away from the sinful world they live in so they can bear the fruit of being disciples of Jesus – but he can’t. Instead of being believers who are light and salt in a city lost in the darkness of paganism and moral corruption, loving God, His Word, and each other – they have instead become more like the city, more immoral, have dimmed their light, lost their flavour, and were acting like immature, children.
In chapter 2 it says that that they had stopped living as spiritual people, and had started to live as “natural” people. Essentially, they had given up their connection to God’s life and truth, in favour of seeking out other sources. They had turned away from Jesus as the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30), which we read about in chapter one, and had tried to find wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption elsewhere – and in that search, had corrupted themselves to the point that they were no longer even able to tell good from bad, evil from holy, saint from sinner, godly from demonic. We see at the end of chapter 2 that they had had lost their “spiritual discernment” (2:14), their ability to “judge” things properly (2:15), and had given up the “mind of Christ” (2:16), in favour of other voices they thought would be just as good.
All of that cut Paul deeply, but I also believe it grieved God’s heart too. God loves His people and hates to see them wander away from Him, because He knows it will only hurt them. And so this letter is written to explain where they have gone wrong, and to try to call them back.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and read it together
“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?”
Let’s take this apart a little.
In verse 1 we see Paul summarizing the argument he’s been making for almost the whole of the letter so far: the Corinthians aren’t acting like Christians, but like unbelievers. He contrasts two different types of people: the “spiritual people” and the “people of the flesh” – in fact he uses that phrase twice – but follows it up with “as infants in Christ.”
This tells us something important – that the people he was addressing were Christians. This letter was inspired by God and written to a church full of saved people. They were corrupted, sinful, wandering, foolish, carnal, jealous, angry, people – but they were Christians. How could this be?
Because our salvation is not based on our obedience to God, nor our personal holiness, nor our ability to be good, but upon believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ as the crucified and resurrected Saviour of our souls.
Jesus was the one who obeyed all the laws, fulfilling every one. Jesus is the one who perfectly loved the Lord God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly loved His neighbour. Jesus did everything that God commanded of Him, and then offered Himself up in exchange for any sinner who would believe. He would be the once and for all sacrifice, the final payment for sin so that no other payment would ever need to be made. All that is necessary for salvation is to believe in Him.
When the Philippian Jailer asked Paul “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, the answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)
Right after the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, where we read about Jesus as a gift: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”, we read John 3:18, where Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And then a little later in John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is not stingy with the requirements for salvation. He doesn’t demand that we jump through hoops, make grand displays, shave our heads, or sit in sackcloth and ashes, before He saves us. He doesn’t require us to get baptized, join a church, talk to a pastor, walk down an aisle, raise our hand, or anything else. What God requires of us is simply to believe Him that His Son, Jesus Christ, lived perfectly, died on a Roman cross, truly rose from the dead, and took the punishment we deserved.
That’s the Christian invitation. Will you accept that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give His life for yours, to conquer death, to settle your accounts before God, so you could be with your Father in Heaven? If you do, you’re in.
Belief is Harder
In a sense, even though this puts all the work on Jesus’s shoulders, and makes it a free gift that only needs to be accepted, having faith is in some ways harder than doing what other religions teach. Your admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven will not be judged on your actions, but on what you believe – which is actually a much deeper requirement.
Other religions, cults, and even aberrant (or heretical) forms of Christianity, simply give you a laundry list of requirements and behaviours that you must accomplish or align to, and if you achieve a certain percentage of them, then God (or Karma, or the Universe, or whatever) is happy. Follow our religious rituals and rules properly and then you’re life will be weighed out by a cosmic force, and then you’ll see where you end up.
That’s actually a lot easier than God’s requirement for “belief” or “faith”. It’s easier to follow a list of rules than it is to allow your understanding of the universe to be so radically altered that you actually change the way you think about God, yourself and everything else. Following a religion is shallow, believing in Jesus is deep. Checking boxes so you can call yourself a good person is simple, turning your heart, soul, mind and strength over to Jesus because you believe He is the Lord of your life is hard. Saving yourself by following your own personal idea of how to be a good person and get to heaven is easy because you can make excuses and change your requirements anytime you need to, but humbling yourself before God and following Jesus because you believe His way is the only way, is harder. Judging yourself and others by your personal religious beliefs makes you feel proud and superior to others, judging yourself and others by what you believe Jesus says, brings both deep humiliation and deep appreciation for God’s grace.
The Corinthians were saved people. They believed in Jesus as their Saviour. They were a mess, but they were, as Paul says in verse 1, “in Christ” – and that’s all that is necessary for salvation: belief.
Faith Changes Everything
However, we’re not just trying to get people saved, are we? No, we are saved unto something. The Apostle Paul doesn’t want mere belief, or dead faith. God didn’t plant the crab apple tree to have its growth stunted so it could bear only bitter fruit. He planted it so that it would grow bigger, stronger, and bear fruit that He and everyone else could take and eat and call good.
When Paul planted the seed of that church, he wanted to see it sprout. When Apollos preached there afterward, he wanted to help it grow. But it didn’t.
The Bible never stops at belief, or faith, in God. The demons believe God exists, but that isn’t enough for salvation, is it? The demons believe that Jesus is Lord of all and even Saviour of the World, but they are not saved. Why? Because the Christian faith isn’t just about believing the fact that God exists, or believing the fact that Jesus died and rose again, but having that belief, those facts, take over every part of our lives. That’s why the Bible, Old Testament and New, is so full of teachings that tie our faith in God to a changed life.
This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians is, “I want you to become spiritual people, but you are living as ‘people of the flesh’, carnal people who, instead of being obedient to God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, are controlled by your own natural desires. You may believe in Jesus, but your behaviour looks no different than the world. Your thought patterns are not mature, biblical and godly, but look just like the world’s. You claim to be followers of Jesus, but you think and act like pagans. When I came to you, I fed you with milk because you were spiritual babies, and that was appropriate, but you were supposed to grow up!”
In his letter to Titus (2:11-15), who was a Christian leader who he had sent out to check up on the churches he had planted, combat false teaching, and appoint elders before he moved on, he says this,
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.”
Do you see the ebb and flow of salvation with a changed life? The grace of God appears and brings salvation – which trains us to put down the things that are ungodly. We are waiting for the blessed hope, the coming of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ – who redeemed us from lawless and works to purify us. He bought with His blood so we could be His own, and we show we are His by being zealous for good works.
Even Now You’re Not Ready
In Titus, Paul is talking to a mature church leader who is given some deep teaching and then commanded to go and declare and exhort and rebuke others, but in Corinth, Paul is talking to spiritual babies. In verse 2 he says, “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.” How does he know that they’re still “of the flesh”, acting like spiritual babies? Verse 3 says, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
There’s a bunch of reasons he’s going to get into in the rest of the letter – from their sexual sin to their acceptance of pagan worship practices – but he starts with how they are treating each other. Their church is full of “jealousy and strife”.
How does he know that they are not maturing in their faith? The first reason he gives is because of their attitude towards one another. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Paul’s argument is that since there is “jealousy and strife” among them, then they are acting like “people of the flesh” and are “behaving only in a human way”. This is a deep, cutting accusation.
In Galatians 5:19-21 we read the opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit”, which are called “the works of the flesh” which include: “sexual immorality… idolatry, sorcery… drunkenness, [and] orgies”, which we would all agree are worldly and sinful, but also included in the list “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [and] envy” – all relational words. Then scripture says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is how sour the fruit of this church was – they were acting like those who are still on the side of the kingdom of Satan and bound for hell. Paul says, “I can’t address you as mature Christians, and your fruit is terrible, because you are still living by the desires of your flesh, living carnal lives, driven by worldly wisdom, and treating each other the way unbelievers do.”
The point of today’s message, and what I believe God is saying here, is twofold.
First, that we understand that we are saved by our faith in the grace of God alone, not by anything we can do – but that that belief must change our lives. If you’re a new believer or a young person, then it is to be expected that you will struggle with the things all new believers struggle with.
- How can I put down the sinful habits I’ve built up?
- How can I learn how to turn to God instead of my vices?
- How can I build healthy boundaries in my life in order to combat bad influences, but still let my light shine?
- How can I discipline myself to read the bible and pray regularly?
- What does my relationship with God mean in relation to my wife, kids, friends, family, school, past, present, future?
- How can I live a life that honours Jesus, and still enjoy the good things in this world?
- How can I get over bitterness, laziness, or prejudice?
- What does God want me to do with my life?
- What are my gifts? What am I supposed to do at church?
- What messed up things have I believed about God, His people, and the world, that I need to change in favour of discovering the truth?
All of these are really important questions, and ones that every new believer has to go through. But that’s the point – we go through them and then continue our journey into deeper things. We allow our belief in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour to open us to the influence of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we become more like Jesus every day.
That’s called maturing, and it’s something that most Christians don’t do. One of my favourite bible teachers talks about the “unnatural man” called the carnal Christian. He sees it as a bad hybrid, an unnatural joining of light and darkness, hot and cold, good and evil. He says,
“The carnal Christian is the one who hasn’t grown up spiritually, and it is evident that he lacks spiritual discernment – not because he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit within him, but because he is not growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ…. This is a consequence of his relationship to the Word of God…. This unnatural man, this carnal Christian, is a babe in Christ. He has an ability but no desire…. Unfortunately it is on this level that most church members are living today. How can we identify the carnal Christian? It is the Christian who is using the weak arm of the flesh. He uses carnal methods to obtain spiritual goals…. Their motto is: Do what comes naturally. Let the flesh have its way.” (Thru The Bible with J Vernon McGee, Vol 5, 1 Corinthains, Pg 16-17)
He’s right. Many of the Christians I have known and have served, have the ability to grow, but no desire. They live as children of the world, but claim to be followers of Jesus. They come up with all kinds of human, worldly, carnal methods to try to obtain things that can only be given by God. They try to combat spiritual problems with worldly wisdom. They seek human answers to spiritual questions.
This is the first issue, the lack of maturity in the Christian church – and the lack of desire for maturity – which creates carnal Christians, lukewarm church, and people who live as spiritual babies for their whole life, doing more damage than good for God’s Kingdom.
The second point is connected to the first: that we must engage in actively choosing to live as spiritual people and not as natural ones. Another translation of our passage today said it this way, “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires?”
That’s exactly right.
“By remaining immature and allowing that immaturity to divide them, they were wreaking havoc on the church…. James wrote, ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?’” (Life Application Bible Commentary, 1 &2 Corinthians, Pg 48)
Christians aren’t to be controlled by their fleshly desires or their carnal thoughts, or it will lead to trouble in all of their relationships! We are to turn those thoughts over to God and allow the Holy Spirit to control and change our desires. Whenever we choose to be guided by our own wisdom or natural desires, we run the risk of doing things simply to gratify our sinful nature. And that is dangerous.
So, my closing question to you today is this, are you maturing as a Christian – whatever phase you’re in – or are you stuck in spiritual infancy, repeating the same old sins over and over again? When God comes to evaluate your fruit, does it taste like it has maturing in godliness where your life lines up with your beliefs? Or does it taste of hypocrisy, where you’ve claimed to be a believer, but you are still behaving in a fleshly way?
I encourage you to do something difficult: ask those closest to you about this. Ask your parents, children, spouse, and Christian friends if you are walking in step with what you say you believe. Ask them if they have seen you mature and grow over the past year, or if you seem exactly the same (or worse) as you were last year and the year before.