Summary: 1) The Cause (1 Corinthians 3:1–3a), 2) The Symptoms (1 Corinthians 3:3b–4), and 3) The Cure (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) for division.
When Companies struggle with human or mechanical processes, they hire experts which come into and identify faulty processes. Often those who engage in a task every day, become blind to the problems. They often fail to see the pitfalls before them.
The Corinthian believers had an especially hard struggle against the world and the flesh, a struggle which they seldom won. They would not break with the world or break with the flesh and were continually succumbing to both. Consequently they fell into one serious sin after another. Almost all of this epistle has to do with identifying and correcting those sins.
Our ultimate triumph over the world and the flesh is certain, but our continued struggle with them in this life is also certain. We will win the ultimate battle, but can lose a lot of skirmishes along the way. How then can we identify the pitfalls that are before us and avoid them? Human wisdom will appeal to our flesh which will blind us to the pitfalls before us.
From 1:18 through 2:16 Paul points out that the Corinthians were divided because of worldliness, because of their continued love for human wisdom. In 3:1–9 the apostle shows them that they also were divided because of the flesh, because of their continued yielding to the evil in their humanness. Using the analogies of Milk and Meat for division, he shows 1) The Cause (1 Corinthians 3:1–3a), 2) The Symptoms (1 Corinthians 3:3b–4), and 3) The Cure (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) for division.
1) The Cause of Division: the Flesh (1 Corinthians 3:1–3a)
1 Corinthians 3:1-3 [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?) (ESV)
The cause of division in the church was more than an external, worldly influence. It was also internal, fleshly. The Corinthians had succumbed to the pressures of the world, but they were also succumbing to the pressures and enticements of their own flesh.
Before Paul chastises them for their immature sinfulness, he reminds them again that he is speaking to them as brothers/brethren, as fellow believers. The use of the vocative (“brothers [and sisters]”; see 1:10 and the second person plural pronouns throughout make it clear that he is not addressing a faction within the congregation, but the church as a whole. Brothers/brethren is a term of recognition and of love. He did not try to diminish the seriousness of their sins, but he did try to diminish or prevent any discouragement that his rebuke might otherwise have caused. He stood with them as a brother. Although, not all may be guilty, but all are defiled by the actions of the many (Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 123). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
• When others in our midst clearly fail to meet the high calling of Christ, we may be tempted to just let them grow at their own pace. This is actually negligent. We are called to encourage one another to growth in holiness and devotion to Christ. We all suffer when the standard is not upheld or striven for.
The use of the aorist in vv. 1–2a (“I could not … because you could not”) with the corresponding change to the present in 2b indicates that he is still, as in 1:18–2:5, reflecting on his former time with them. There is a startling play on the IMPERFECT tense (“for you were not ready for it/yet able”) and the PRESENT tense (“even now you are not yet ready/able”). The word “abl ready/able” is the Greek term dunamai, which means the power to act, to accomplish, to function toward a desired result. Believers are saved to serve; they are called to Christlikeness now, not only to heaven later. These “believers” had no Kingdom power, just flesh power, which is, in reality, powerlessness!( Utley, R. J. (2002). Paul’s Letters to a Troubled Church: I and II Corinthians (Vol. Volume 6, p. 43). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.)
But Paul could not speak to the Corinthian believers as spiritual people. As we saw in chapter 2, “he who is spiritual” (v. 15) is the saved. In the positional sense, there is no such thing as an unspiritual Christian or a partially spiritual Christian. In this sense every believer is equal. This spiritual is a synonym for possessing the life of God in the soul, or as we saw in 2:16, having the mind of Christ. Therefore, believers, are spiritual in the positional sense, because they have been given a new inner being that loves God and is indwelt by His Holy Spirit. The time when Paul could not speak to them as spiritual seems to be referred to in 2:1–5, the time of his original visit to Corinth. That visit had lasted for nearly two years (Acts 18:11, 18) (Hughes, R. B. (1985). First Corinthians (p. 47). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.).