By John Fitzsimmons
Key Texts: 1 Cor. 2:14-3:9; Hosea 10:12
It is possible to read the Bible for many years & still not understand it. You can try all the translations & still not get it. You could even go to Bible College & get a masters degree in theology & still not really understand authentic Christianity. The scribes & Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly trained in the OT, yet they missed its central message! Often enough, people have said to me something like; ‘I’ve tried reading the Bible but I just don’t understand it’. We may be tempted to simply encourage such a person to read what we perceive as a simpler version or give them explanatory notes or some other aid. However according to Paul there is a deeper problem behind why people don’t understand spiritual wisdom.
1. Only Spiritual People Can Understand Spiritual Things (2:14-16)
Paul makes it clear that only spiritual people can understand spiritual things! That’s the basic point of verse 14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” So in order to both accept & understand spiritual wisdom we need to be spiritual people. Meaning we need to be people who are spiritually awake, spiritually alive, spiritually hungry, spiritually illumined & spiritually perceptive! And the point Paul has been arguing in previous verses is that it’s only the Holy Spirit who can make us any & all of these things. There is no true spirituality apart from the Holy Spirit.
Naturally, because of sin, we do not want to accept God’s wisdom & naturally we do not understand it. It clashes with so many of the influences of the age & the impulses of our flesh. However when the Holy Spirit comes into a person’s life he begins to change this by changing their desires so they can accept spiritual wisdom & by illuminating their minds so they can understand spiritual things.
In light of this we should invest far more time praying for spiritual awakening in people than we do trying to make the truth more plausible or understandable to the natural mind. The real battle is spiritual. 2 Cor. 4:4 says “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing...” The real battle is spiritual! The Bible emphasises this in many different ways – darkness to light, new birth, regeneration, being raised from spiritual death, removing the veil, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh or being born again. Therefore it is not a simpler, cooler, diluted or more plausible explanation that people need but deep spiritual awakening & illumination – a demonstration of the Spirit & power as Paul puts it in 2:4. And it makes sense to see this demonstration of God’s power as the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit since that is where his reasoning goes.
One of the problems with a lot of preaching today is that people try to employ the logic of the world to reach the world. So much time & effort is spent in our generation on trying to make the gospel more plausible & understandable to the natural person & so little time is spent on our knees praying for spiritual awakening – which is what we need more than anything. What we need is a move of God in the hearts of men, women & children - then they will get it! Nothing else will work, nothing else has ever worked. I’m only being honest by saying that the more I read & hear what God says in Scripture the more discontented I get with so much of contemporary Christianity. It can be so shallow, so diluted, so unbiblical, so worldly-minded & so dependent on the wrong things... We need to simply get back to trusting & proclaiming what God says & depending on his power to do what only he can do in hearts & lives & communities...
Paul was so convinced in the power of the testimony God has given that he deliberately chose not to depend on the lofty speech & wisdom Corinthian culture loved (2:1). He believed doing so could actually empty the cross of its power (1.17)... It takes much more faith to preach a message that contradicts the culture around you than it does to preach one conditioned by it. And it takes much more faith to preach it without the aid of things we’re told we need to get people’s attention & make it more attractive.
A person who, like Paul, puts them self in such a vulnerable position chooses to depend completely on God because if God doesn’t show up and demonstrate his power in people’s hearts they are finished. They have nothing to fall back on but him! Paul seemed to believe the heralded message was so powerful it didn’t need anything to prop it up.
Such reasoning & practice frustrates the unspiritual person however, they just don’t get the foolishness of it. But as God’s says in 1:19 NIV; ‘I will frustrate the wisdom of the wise; the intelligent I will frustrate.’ 1:25 declares; “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Paul says in 2:4-5; “And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
C. H. Spurgeon wrote this; "God would have his ministers be like transparent glass, which lets the rays of the sun pass through unchanged; and not like painted windows, which colour all the rays after their own nature. Through infirmity we all give some amount of colouring to the gospel, but he is the man according to God’s order of ministry who longs to let the gospel shine right through him, and does not send upon the people anything of his own except the earnestness which the gospel works in him as it streams through him... Brethren, we have nothing to tell you which we have invented, so that if you are saved by it, it will not be due to our skill. We have nothing to tell you but what God commits to us, and therefore God will have all the glory if your souls be saved."
The good news is this, that since it depends completely on God’s power to awaken hearts it means every person can potentially understand spiritual things. For our faith rests fundamentally, not on our ability to read or study or skill to communicate, but on the awakening & illuminating power of God’s Spirit! That’s what we depend upon. But this in turn also removes any excuses for us not growing up spiritually, if we claim to be those who have “received... the Spirit who is from God” (2:12).
2. The Battle For Maturity Is Real (3:1-4)
Sadly Paul had to write these words to the Church in Corinth. Paul clearly views these believers as immature yet still Christian, for he calls them “people of the flesh... infants in Christ.” These people had the potential to be mature because they had received the Holy Spirit but they were still living in the flesh. We know Christian’s still struggle with the flesh because Paul had to tell the Galatians in 5:16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” So we need to not only receive the Spirit but also walk in the Spirit.
In the next verses of the same chapter Paul makes it clear that this will feel like a battle at times. He says in 17; “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” If you know this conflict by experience it is evidence the Holy Spirit is resident in your life, it is evidence you’re spiritually alive... Although it’s also important to highlight Paul’s words in verses 24-25; “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
The core problem Paul mentions regarding immaturity in Corinth seems to be jealously (or envy NKJV), which was causing strife & division.“For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving in a human way.” And it was manifesting itself with groups associating with different personalities.
When a person acts out of envy or jealously it always has the potential to cause trouble. James 3:14-16 says; “But if you have bitter jealously and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealously and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every evil practice.” A jealous or envious person will at times subtly sow seeds of doubt & discord regarding those they envy. This can potentially lead to division if they are given an ear. We need to beware of such fleshly sins in our own hearts & we need to beware of such evil activity in the church.
You can sense Paul’s frustration with the Corinthian Church in 3:2; “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.” Still acting like non-believers in other words. Obviously those who are new Christian’s are infants in Christ & cannot be expected to be anything more. Maturity takes growth & development. It takes time. New believers need gospel milk before moving on to gospel solids. However the problem is these believers in Corinth should have been ready for solid food but they could not handle it because they were “still of the flesh.”
As Christians we are in a real battle for spiritual maturity. We face the influence of the world & we still battle with the desires of the flesh. The enemy will do all he can to use these things to stint our growth as individuals & as a fellowship. The world, the flesh & the devil are three real enemies to Christian maturity. However the Spirit is here to lead us on to spiritual maturity by helping us resist & conquer these three enemies & by enabling us to accept, understand & willingly obey God’s Word so that as a local church we can become a field, or garden, of God’s righteousness in which all the beauty & variety of spiritual fruit flourishes.
3. It’s Time To Break Up the Fallow Ground (V5-9)
Note the farming (or gardening) analogy. This analogy is one which comes up a number of times in the OT & in the teaching of Jesus. Paul likely has these images in mind. He sees Apollos & himself as farmers in a field totally depending on God for growth. God’s Word provides the seed. God’s Spirit provides the rain. God’s favour in Christ provides the sun. Without him nothing can grow in his field.
Paul tells the Corinthian Church “you are God’s field.” As I thought about this analogy & how it is used in Scripture a number of Scriptures came to mind. Firstly, Jesus’ parable of the soils (or sower) in Matt 13 came to mind. The simple point of the parable is concerning the health of the soil. There is no weakness in the seed - in the preached Word - the question is regarding the state of the ground it’s sown on. Is the ground ready to receive the seed? Only good soil is able to bear fruit, that’s the big point.
Another Scripture that came to mind is Jeremiah 4:3; “For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” Fallow ground is uncultivated, unplanted, unsown, crop-free, seedless, bare or empty ground. It’s ground that has been ignored or neglected for a time. Spiritually speaking it can refer to ground where the true word of God has not been heard & obeyed for some time. Jeremiah was appealing for a spiritual turnabout. He pictured this as ploughing the ground which had become hard & unproductive due to thorns. If they wanted to be right with God & experience his blessing they had to break up the hard ground.
The Scripture which God impressed upon me most is found in Hosea 10:12 which says; “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up the fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you”. I Googled breaking up fallow ground during the week & came across the following story:
I took a walk last summer along a path that runs through two fields near my home. It was during the dry spell that came at the end of June. In the first field the farmer was growing maize, and the corn really was ‘as high as an elephant’s eye.’ Although there had been no rain for a while the maize was growing splendidly as the roots sucked up the moisture and nourishment hidden within the ground. The field was doing what a field is supposed to do- it was providing a crop and the farmer would soon have a harvest from it.
But when I walked into the second field, it was a very different story; there was no crop. There had been at one point; I could see the stalks where the maize had been cut down, but since then the farmer had left the field to lie fallow. Now because of the hot, dry weather, the surface of the ground had been baked hard. Underneath it might have been soft, but there was a sort of hard skin on the surface, and almost nothing was growing- just some scrub and a few weeds- no crop.
A day or two later, there was a torrential rainstorm and I thought, well, that rain will turn the field into a swamp, but to my surprise, when I walked through the second field the next day, the ground was still as dry and hard as ever. The rain had not penetrated that hard outer skin & had flowed off the field and into the ditch. Now imagine if the farmer had dropped seed on that land hoping for a harvest. Fat chance! The seed would have remained on the surface of the ground and either the birds would have eaten it or the rain would have washed it away. The seed needs to go deep down into the ground before it will germinate. So what does the farmer need to do to get a crop out of that field? He must break up the fallow ground. The field can still be fertile but he must break up that hard-baked surface and expose the soft ground underneath.
So God’s word is the seed, God’s Spirit provides the rain & God’s favour, in Christ, is shining on us. All the ingredients for growth are right there; but is the ground ready? Is the soil good? Or is it hard & fallow because we have not been genuinely seeking the LORD? Our responsibility is to make sure the soil is good & to keep it good. We can sow seed & ask God for rain but it will do little good unless we break up the fallow ground.
The only starting point for this is by asking is there any fallow ground that needs breaking in our own heart. As God said to Jeremiah “break up your fallow ground” What hard ground is in your life, what sin of the flesh is stopping the fruit of the Spirit flourishing in your life? What is keeping you an infant in Christ? Let the Holy Spirit illuminate. He is here to awaken us & help us. Then break up your fallow ground. If we all just focused on breaking up the fallow ground in our own hearts the whole field will become fruitful. We are God’s field.
Are there weeds of bitterness, un-forgiveness, selfish-ambition, sexual immorality, moral superiority, religious, theological or spiritual pride, envy, worry, unbelief, disobedience, apathy, indifference or resistance towards God’s Word & Spirit? Because all such things make the ground hard! Are we the kind of soil God is looking for, are we a place where the seed of God can take root, grow & flourish. God’s favour is on us in Christ, but if the Holy Spirit rained on us today would the soil be soft or fallow? It’s time to seek the LORD in repentance & faith that he may come and rain down righteousness upon us. The field can still be fertile!
Contrast Hosea 10:12 with 14:4-9 – God brings the growth.