Keys to Spiritual Growth – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Good morning everyone, hope you all are well this morning. Just wanted to welcome everyone who has joined us in-person at the hall and those who have joined us online. Our prayer is that God would meet with us in a direct, personal way this morning. 

We began a new sermon series at the start of year from the letter of 1st Corinthians. We’ve titled the series as “The Church: God’s Dwelling Place”. God’s choice dwelling place is not in a building (not a church building, not a religious building, not even in the hall where we’ve gathered) but God’s chosen dwelling place is among His own redeemed people. Isn’t it amazing? That out of all the wonderful places that God could have chosen to dwell in, His choice and select dwelling place is in us – He chose to dwell in you and me. 

And we’re slowly beginning to uncover what that means for us. Today we find ourselves in 1 Cor 3:1-9. 

If I were to ask us this question – how many of us would like to experience personal growth in our lives? Be it personal growth in terms of health, skills, career, finances etc. I think all of us would say that we would like to see and experience growth in each of these areas. And in the world today there’s enough and more books and material published on how to achieve personal growth in each of these areas. 

But what about spiritual growth? How does that take place? Does it happen by attending every single Christian conference that’s there in my vicinity? Does it happen by listening to every single Christian sermon published online? Does it happen by reading every single Christian book I can get hold of? How do we experience spiritual growth? In essence, the question we are asking is “what are the keys to spiritual growth?

And today’s passage gives us at least a couple of keys to spiritual growth:

1. We need to understand the barriers to spiritual growth (v1-4)

But I, brothers,[a] could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 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? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

Just to recap the passage that we read a couple of weeks back. In Chapter 2, Paul was contrasting a spiritual person (who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in him) and a natural person / unspiritual person (who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit) and hence isn’t able to spiritually discern the things of God. The natural person is blind and incapable of understanding the things of God. So, it’s a contrast between a spiritual and a natural person. Believer and unbeliever. And then in chapter 3, Paul tells the Corinthian church that he can’t address them as spiritual people but as people of the flesh. The immediate question that comes to mind is, is Paul calling them “unbelievers” by saying that?

Let’s look at v1 to find out. In V1, Paul addresses them as “brothers” which means siblings from the same family. He wouldn’t refer to them as brothers if he didn’t believe they were so. 

And then later on he addresses them as “infants in Christ”. They are in Christ. They have been saved by Jesus. They are born again believers but immature, underdeveloped believers. So Paul is not questioning their salvation, but he is questioning their maturity. He is questioning if they are growing in Christ. 

And then in V2, Paul tells them that he fed them with milk, not solid food because they were not ready for it. In fact, he tells them that even now they aren’t ready for it. 

Let’s remember that Paul was their spiritual father – he was the one who shared the Gospel with them. He was the one who led them to the Lord – so he’s seen their journey right from the time that they became believers for the first time and assessing their present spiritual health, he’s telling them that they are not ready to have spiritual solid food because they are still spiritual infants and haven’t yet grown. 

Our youngest daughter Lydia is 5 months now and we’re hoping to start her on solids from next month. But imagine if a year or two passes and she’s still only feeding on milk, we’d be concerned parents because it will mean that something is hindering her growth. Something is impeding her from progressing to the next development stage. Something is wrong. 

And that’s the concern that Paul has for the Corinthians. Quite sometime has passed since they became believers in Christ, but they are still living like infants in the faith. Something is hindering their spiritual growth. Something is impeding them from progressing to the next development stage. Something is becoming a barrier. And what is that?

V3: Paul says that they are of the flesh. In other words, they are being controlled by their bodily desires. They are living for themselves and their own selfish appetites. And how is that playing out in their lives? 

Through jealousy and strife. Though they were brothers and sisters in Christ, they were no longer seeing each other as family, they were seeing each other as threats. They were insecure of each other and would keep arguing. 

And these arguments and quarrels were no small tiff. It was an ongoing, long drawn battle which resulting in factions and divisions and splits in the church. And some of us have probably been part of churches where we’ve witnessed factions and divisions and splits first hand and that’s a very disturbing experience. It not only affects those who are involved, but also everyone else gets impacted by it. 

And what was their main issue of contention? In V4 Paul describes it. They split into factions based on certain church leaders that they identified closely with. Be it a Paul, or an Apollos, or a Peter or someone else in the church – they were more concerned about identifying themselves with a church leader than identifying themselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. 

It became a battle between different fan clubs within the church. Any thing that was said against their respected church leader, they would probably take it very personally and argue and fight over it. 

And Paul was basically telling them that “you think you’re spiritually mature, but when you argue like this – are you really spiritually mature?”

And so we can see here – that despite being born again believers for a while, they were underdeveloped and immature believers BECAUSE they were living for themselves. They were living for their own selfish appetites. They were impeding their spiritual growth by living for themselves.

And that’s the opposite of what the Lord Jesus wants from us. This is what Jesus said in Luke 9:23: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  

Self-denial, self-abandonment, dying to yourself and your desires. That is how we participate in God’s work of spiritual growth. We don’t make ourselves grow (we will come to that in the next point) but we participate and cooperate with God’s work of spiritual growth as we die to ourselves every single day. 

And God’s Word is central to this spiritual growth process. Because every time we interact with God’s Word – on a Sunday morning when it’s being preached, a GC or a DNA group where God’s Word is being broken down and discussed and also during our daily devotions – God is exposing our hearts to our selfishness and self-centredness and He is calling us to die to those desires and selfish appetites. God is not calling His children to become theologians; He is calling them to become like His Son Jesus as they participate and cooperate with Him by dying to themselves daily. 

I could be hearing the best sermon the world, but I’m not ready to die to my selfishness and my desires, I won’t be able to grow. I will still be stuck in spiritual infancy. 

Now there’s nothing wrong in being a spiritual in fact as long as you’re a brand-new believer. But if you and I have been believers for few months, few years, then being stuck in spiritual infancy is not a sign of health. It’s not a sign of growth. It’s not a sign of everything being okay and fine. Because we were born-again for growth and God intends to see us become fully mature like His perfect Son Jesus Christ. Until then, we need to participate and cooperate with Him daily by dying to ourselves.

But not only is it enough to understand the barriers to spiritual growth, but

2. We need to understand the source of spiritual growth (v5-9)

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

In these verses, Paul uses the analogy of plants to explain the source of spiritual growth to the Corinthians. And he’s basically telling them – “spoiler alert – neither me nor Apollos nor any other human can be responsible for spiritual growth – the credit only goes to God”. How does he break this down for us? 

Firstly by highlighting the insignificance of God’s servants: That word “servant” is actually translated as waiter; as an attendant; as a servant who is running errands for the master. 

And that’s a humbling picture for us. In the world today, pastors and people in ministry are heralded as celebrities and heroes in the church. God’s Word is always in the humbling business…it’s always humbling us to realize our place – anyone in ministry is basically like “waiting on tables, running an errand for our master”. It’s not something that deserves hero worship. 

On the hand there is the great significance of God in spiritual growth: V5 says that He is the one who assigns roles and responsibilities to his servants. Whatever ministry that we are called to do, is a consequence of what God has assigned to us. God is the one who gives us the offer letter in ministry, we aren’t self-appointed or self-made when it comes to ministry.

And then V6 and 7 are the most amazing verses – God makes us grow. God is the one responsible for spiritual growth. I’m no farming expert but I think if we were to go and ask a farmer, can you guarantee how tall a plant will grow and how many flowers and fruits it will bear? 

I’m pretty sure that the farmer will say “I don’t know. I prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water the soil…these are things under my control but to make the seed germinate and grow, that’s out of my scope of work. That’s something that only God can do”.  

And that’s why we said in the last point that by dying to ourselves daily we are only participating and cooperating with God’s work of spiritual growth. We are not primarily responsible for bringing about our spiritual growth. We are only participating and cooperating with God who is relentlessly working towards making His children grow up into Jesus. Which is why Paul could say with confidence to the Philippian church: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. If we are God’s children and not showing growth, it won’t be too long before which God does something or the other to shake up our lives and to bring us back on track. 

And then finally in v8-9, Paul is basically trying to tell the Corinthians that its pointless to build these fan clubs and fight with each other because ultimately both Paul and Apollos are together in this as a team. They are not competing with each other. They are not trying to outdo each other and come out on top. Why is the church fighting over them when they aren’t fighting with each other?

And then in V9 where Paul tells them that they are God’s field. They are God’s building. Not just because he created us but because He purchased us with the precious blood of His Son. When we were down and out in their sins, Jesus died for us on the cross and then 3 days later rose from the dead so that whoever would believe in Him would be counted as His own. We belong to Him. Why settle for an inferior identity in mere humans when we have a far more superior identity in Jesus Christ? 

You are God’s field. You are God’s building. Paul wasn’t point out what was wrong in the Corinthians to overwhelm them with guilt but to bring conviction so that they could repent. And God’s way of doing that is by affirming and reminding you of who you are in the light of the Gospel so that you can come back to Him in repentance. 

And that’s what I want us to remember today. If we are in a place where we look at our lives and have seen stunted spiritual growth, I just want you to know that God is not trying to shame you or put on guilt. He is a loving Father who earnestly wants us to repent and come back to Him. What should you do next? 

Examine your life to see which are those areas where you know that God is calling you to die to yourself and your desires but you’ve been passive or inactive or delayed or resistant in your response to God. 

Admit, Confess, Trust & Submit

1 John 1:8-9 ESV‬‬

[8] (Admit) If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [9] (Confess) If we confess our sins, (Trust) he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

(Submit) ‭‭2 Corinthians 5:14-15 ESV‬‬

[14] For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; [15] and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

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