I Cor. 2:14-3:4

I Cor. 2:14-3:4

SERIES: Christ Is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

 Four Kinds of People:  Which One Are You?  

Introduction:  What is the question you were most often asked as a child?  Next to “How old are you?” it was probably, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  Most of us had visions of a glamorous career as a fireman, policeman, truck driver, dancer, or nurse–but many of these dreams gave way to more practical options like engineer, homemaker, or salesman.  Eventually most of us found our niche and are fairly comfortable with it.

But spiritually speaking the question may still be warranted, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  In our Scripture text today the apostle Paul challenges us by identifying and describing the options.  While there are thousands of options for economic careers, there are really only four from a spiritual maturity perspective.  And while individuals often feel locked into a career by virtue of the huge investment they’ve made in education and training, no one is locked into a particular slot spiritually.  In fact, God wants you to be upwardly mobile, not necessarily in the usual sense of that term, but in the spiritual sense.

Now the theme of 1 Corinthians is that the church needs to share the wisdom of God to a needy world and stop letting the wisdom of the world get into the church.  We learned last Sunday that we have the wisdom of God because of revelation and inspiration.  Revelation guarantees that God’s thoughts were communicated accurately to the apostles.  Inspiration guarantees that God’s thoughts were recorded accurately in the Bible.  But receptivity to God’s Holy Word is not guaranteed.  That depends upon what kind of people we are.  In respect to how individuals receive God’s truth Paul sees four different kinds of people:

         1.  The unbeliever

         2.  The spiritual believer

         3.  The immature (childlike) believer

         4.  The worldly (childish) believer

See if you can pick out these four kinds of people as we read 1 Cor. 2:14-3:4 from the New Living Translation (actually we’ll pick up the reading with verse 13):

We (meaning the apostles and prophets) speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t Christians can’t understand these truths from God’s Spirit.  It all sounds foolish to them because only those who have the Spirit can understand what the Spirit means. We who have the Spirit understand these things, but others can’t understand us at all. How could they? 

“For, who can know what the Lord is thinking? Who can give him counsel?” But we can understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.  

Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to mature Christians.  I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk and not with solid food, because you couldn’t handle anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your own sinful desires. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires?  You are acting like people who don’t belong to the Lord.  When one of you says, “I am a follower of Paul,” and another says, “I prefer Apollos,” aren’t you acting like those who are not Christians?

The first kind of person Paul describes is pretty obvious:

The unbeliever (2:14)

Verse 14 of the NIV reads, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God.”  The phrase “man without the Spirit” is translated in various other versions as, “people who aren’t Christians,” or “the unspiritual self,” or “the natural person.”  The latter is actually the most literal translation.  A “natural” person is one who does not yet have a supernatural dimension to his life.  The word in Greek is psuchikos, which is the normal term for “soul.”  We get many English words from this root, such as psychology or psychiatry, which refer to the soul or the immaterial part of man.  Everyone who is alive has a soul–that’s natural–but not everyone has the Holy Spirit–that’s supernatural.

Remember the story of Nicodemus?  In John 3 Jesus told this religious heavyweight, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  And Nicodemus answered, in effect, “What!?!  A person can’t have a second natural birth, can he?”  And Jesus responded by saying, “No, Nicodemus, of course not.  But you can and must have a supernatural birth–one by the Spirit of God.”  If a person never experiences that new birth, he is by biblical definition a natural person, one without the Spirit, and an unbeliever.

Now what characteristics does Paul assign to this person?

         His characteristics

         1. “He does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God.”

         2. “He cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God.”  

Now both of these characteristics are susceptible of easy misunderstanding if we’re not careful.  I have read or heard Bible expositors imply, on the basis of this verse, that the unbeliever is so blind that the Bible is total nonsense to him.  No biblical truths have the slightest chance of registering with the unbeliever until the Spirit of God regenerates him or enlightens him.  Then the Bible immediately becomes an open book.   

While we should never minimize the seriousness of spiritual blindness in the unbeliever’s mind, the facts simply do not bear out the contention that unbelievers can’t understand what the Bible is saying, for some unbelievers are actually better Bible interpreters than many believers.  A case in point would be Ernest DeWitt Burton, the late Professor of NT at the University of Chicago.  Burton was a Bible scholar par excellence.  For over 25 years he studied the book of Galatians diligently.  Then he wrote a commentary on the book.  When I was taking Greek exegesis at Dallas Seminary, we used Burton’s monumental work as a textbook.  It’s meticulous, accurate, and extremely helpful to anyone studying the original Greek text of the New Testament.  

The only trouble is that Burton was not a believer, at least not as we would define one.  He did not believe in the authority of Scripture.  He did not accept the notion that mankind is sinful and without hope except for the redemptive work of Christ.  And he did not hesitate to challenge Paul’s viewpoints when he thought they were wrong or outdated.   However, Burton was a great scholar.  If you’re after the strict meaning of the text, you can hardly go to a better source.  Of course, if you’re after personal application and spiritual refreshment, you have to go to other sources.  

In my view verse 14 is not talking primarily about intellectual blindness at all, but rather about moral and spiritual blindness.  The reason the unbeliever doesn’t accept the things of God is not so much because his intellect is incapable of grasping the truths revealed as it is because he has sin and rebellion in his heart against God and simply doesn’t want God’s truth.

But, you say, doesn’t verse 14 say that the unbeliever not only doesn’t accept, but also that he cannotunderstand?  Let’s look at the two words, “accept” and “understand” a bit more carefully.  The term“accept” or “receive” (KJV) is the translation of a Greek word which literally means “to welcome.”  It is a word which was used frequently of the practice of hospitality, of welcoming someone into one’s home.  In Luke 16:4 the unjust steward uses this very word when he says, “I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.”  I think I Cor. 2:14 would actually best be translated, “The unbeliever does not welcome the things of God.”  

The second key term is the word “to understand.”  There are two different words in Greek that are translated “to understand” in our English Bibles.  One means to understand intellectually, while the other is often used for understanding experientially, or “to discern the true nature and importance of something.”  It is the latter word which is used here.  Paul is not saying that an unbeliever cannot understand the facts of the Bible or that he he cannot interpret Scripture correctly.  Rather what he is saying is that he cannot know the things of God experientially; he can’t discern whether those things are true, good, and valuable.  

I have another book in my library by William Hordern entitled A Layman’s Guide to Christian Theology.  In this book Hordern discusses liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and a number of other theologies, including evangelical orthodoxy, which is how I would label my own views.  In that section he explains the plan of salvation as clearly as you have ever heard it from an evangelist or biblical preacher.  The only problem is that Hordern himself is a theological liberal and doesn’t even believe he needs salvation.  He can understand the Gospel, but he can’t grasp the truth and value of it for himself.  

Well, so far we have seen two characteristics of the person without the Spirit, the unbeliever.  First, he doesn’t welcome the things of God; and second, he cannot understand experientially the things of God.  How does one explain these characteristics?

         Explanation of his characteristics:  The explanation is that the things of God appear to the unbeliever as so much foolishness.  God’s thoughts are not human thoughts and God’s ways are not human ways.  When a person sets himself up to judge the things of God by humanistic standards, his verdict will always be “foolishness.”  Like Burton, he will say, “Here is what the apostle Paul says, but I think he’s wrong.”  

And the reason the things of God appear as foolishness to the unbeliever is that those things are “spiritually discerned,” or “spiritually perceived.”  The best way I know to illustrate Paul’s point here is with the concept of radio waves.  There are many, many radio waves in this room.  But we can’t hear them because at the moment we don’t have appropriate receivers to pick them up.  Our ears are not tuned to those frequencies.  The same thing is true in the spiritual realm.  The unbeliever doesn’t have the spiritual receiver, the Holy Spirit, to enable him to appreciate God’s truth.  He is like a deaf critic of Bach or a blind critic of Michelangelo.   

To sum up the first kind of person, we might paraphrase verse 14 as follows: “The unbeliever doesn’t enthusiastically welcome biblical truth because it appears as nonsense to him; nor can he discern the essence or significance of spiritual truth, because he’s not tuned into the proper spiritual wavelength.”  Does that describe anyone here today?  Do you understand the basic truth of the Gospel, but you can’t quite bring yourself to make a personal commitment to Christ?  Perhaps you’ve even convinced yourself that you have intellectual problems with the Bible and you’re proud you haven’t bought into the views of the gullible Christians who surround you today.  Let me tell you something.  My own experience is that very few people have genuine intellectual problems with the Gospel, but a great many have moral problems with it.  They like their personal autonomy and they simply don’t want God telling them how to live and they don’t want to bow the knee to Jesus Christ.

Let’s move on to the second kind of person Paul describes:

The spiritual believer (15,16)

We hear the term “spiritual” being used a lot today, and often very carelessly.  People call themselves “spiritual” because they are seeking ultimate answers, whether in the paranormal or in New Age philosophy or in Eastern mysticism or even in their inner selves.  But the NT uses the term “spiritual” to describe someone who is related to the Spirit of God.  

The Greek word for the spiritual person in verse 15 (pneumatikos) is one that should be recognizable to many, for we have several English words which are derived from it, like pneumatic and pneumonia.  A pneumatic drill is one which uses air pressure while pneumonia is a disease of the lungs.  The root word has to do with air or spirit.  In fact, the Greek word for the Holy Spirit is pneuma.  So a pneumatikos is a person of the Spirit, and in that sense, a spiritual person.  He has a soul, like the unbeliever, but he has something else which the unbeliever does not have; he has the Holy Spirit.

But is every believer a “spiritual” believer?  To answer that question, we must realize that the word “spiritual” is used in two somewhat different ways in the New Testament.  At times it is used simply to refer to one who has spiritual life by virtue of being a believer.  More often, however, it is used to refer to a specific kind of believer, namely one who is mature in his faith, who strives to live in obedience to Christ, and who manifests the fruit of the Spirit.  The latter use of “spiritual” is the one we see in verse 14.  And the proof is that in 3:1 Paul calls the Corinthians “brothers” (i.e., “fellow Christians”), but denies that they are spiritual because their maturity level is so low.  They have the Spirit, but they are not spiritual.  So I would conclude that the “spiritual person” in verse 15 here is not only a believer, but also a mature believer.  

Now what characteristics are true of a mature believer?  Paul mentions two:  he appreciates spiritual truths, and yet he is an enigma to everyone else.  The NIV reads, “He makes judgments about all things but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.”  That may sound on the surface as though the spiritual person is going around being judgmental but refuses to accept anyone else’s criticism.  But that is not at all the point.  The NLT captures the meaning well: “We who have the Spirit understand these things, but others cannot understand us at all.”

         His characteristics:

1.  He appreciates spiritual truths.  When the text says, “He (the spiritually mature person)makes judgments about all things,” it doesn’t really mean “all things;” it means “all spiritualthings.”   Being a Christian doesn’t give one any special advantage in understanding calculus or in learning German.  A person’s I.Q. doesn’t change when he gets saved, but his spiritual “I will” certainly does!  The mature believer has a receiver for spiritual radio waves and his receiver is tuned in.  He can therefore discern, appreciate and understand the essence of spiritual truth.

2.  He is an enigma to everyone else.  Other people just can’t figure him out.  His motivation for living sets him apart as being slightly odd or eccentric.  So does his willingness to give generously of his time and his money, his refusal to get caught up in the trap of materialism, and his desire to share his faith.  Most of us have a fear and dread of being viewed as different by our peers, and the worst thing imaginable is to be viewed as a religious fanatic.  But being an enigma to others should be seen as a badge of honor, provided the reason we are so viewed is that we are really sold out to Christ.

Dr. Bruce Waltke, professor of Hebrew at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., earned his second doctorate at Harvard University in the early 60’s, and in the process, he had the highest academic rating in the history of his department.  They offered him a teaching appointment at Harvard immediately upon graduation and were flabbergasted when he turned it down in order to teach at Dallas Seminary at half the salary they were offering.  They wondered how anyone that smart could be that dumb.  

C. T. Studd is another case in point.  As England’s #1 Cricket star, he was celebrated as one of the most popular sports figures of his day.  Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he also inherited a fortune at the age of 25.  So what did he decide to do with his life?  He gave his entire inheritance away to Christian organizations and spent the rest of his life opening up China, India and Africa to the Gospel.  He founded a mission that today has over 1,000 full-time missionaries around the world. He wrote from Africa, 

“While here in the saddle, I intend to ride and to get others to ride, and not to be carried to Heaven on a flowery bed of ease.  Let us do one thing or the other–either eat or drink for tomorrow we die, or let us gamble with life and death and all for our Lord Jesus.  None but gamblers are wanted out here; let grumblers stay home.” [i]

He coined the motto: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.” [ii]

This is still being repeated today.  I have known a number of people who have walked away from corporate power and wealth in order to devote their lives to ministry and serving others.  Can an unbeliever understand that kind of devotion and commitment?  Not usually.  Can even an immature Christian understand it?  Generally, no.  Nor can they understand why someone would volunteer for children’s ministry or youth ministry year after year, or why anyone would give 10% of his income to the Lord’s work.

Now everything would be great if all believers were spiritual, mature Christians.  But we aren’t, are we?  And so Paul mentions two other kinds of people, both Christians but neither spiritualChristians. 

The immature (childlike) believer (3:1,2a)

Look again at chapter 3, verse 1: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly–mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.”  I personally do not believe Paul is criticizing this person; he is simply stating a fact.  When he was there establishing the Church at Corinth and winning those converts out of paganism, it was impossible for him to deal with them as spiritual or mature Christians, for they weren’t, yet.  They were worldly–not in the sense of being excessively sinful but in the sense of having just come out of a lifestyle characterized by worldly habits and attitudes and priorities.  They hadn’t yet adopted an entirely Christian worldview.  Paul couldn’t share the deep things of God with them because they hadn’t yet grasped even the shallow things.  What, then, are the general characteristics of an immature believer? 

         His characteristics:

1.  He is a baby in Christ.  Now there’s nothing in the world wrong with babies, either physical babies or spiritual babies.  Every one of us has to start out that way.  No one was ever born at 180 pounds, with adult teeth and callouses on his feet.  And by the same token no one was ever born again as a fully mature believer.  Everyone is born as a baby, and everyone who is born again is born again as a baby.  

It takes time to become spiritual.  In fact, one well-known Bible teacher, Charles Ryrie, editor of the Ryrie Study Bible, has defined spiritual maturity as “the growth which the Holy Spirit produces over a period of time in the believer.” [iii] If you’re a brand-new Christian, don’t become discouraged if you can’t find your way around the Bible like some of your Christian friends, or if you can’t pray profound prayers.  In fact, maybe you should be glad.  I suspect God hates fine prayers; the simpler the better.

2.  He is on a milk diet.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with that.  No one feeds a new infant steak, because he’s incapable of chewing or digesting it.  And no one should try to cram a new believer with the doctrines of the hypostatic union or the Melchizedekian priesthood of Christ.  He’d choke on such a fare.  Instead, he should be fed on basic Bible truths, like who God is, what Jesus did, baptism, fellowship, confession and forgiveness.  Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:2 coincide with Paul’s instruction here when he says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”   

         The explanation of the immature believer’s characteristics, particularly the fact that he’s on a milk diet, is offered in verse 2: “You were not yet ready for it, (i.e., for solid food).”  Your spiritual stomachs were not yet well enough developed to handle a heavier diet.  Should we gather from this, then, that it’s OK to be an immature Christian?  Yes, but only if you’re a new Christian, like Paul’s Corinthian converts were when he was first in Corinth.  It certainly is not fine if a person has been a believer for years. 

This brings us, then, to the final of the four kinds of people, spiritually speaking:

The worldly (childish) believer (3:2b-9)

There is a big difference between being childlike and childish.  It was one thing for the Corinthian believers to be immature and on a milk diet when Paul was there and had just led them to Christ.  It is quite another thing for them to be in that same state now several years later.  It is here that his tone turns critical: “Indeed, you are still not ready (for solid food)!”  

One of the cutest sights I know is to see a six-month old child sucking on its thumb or even on its toe.  But what would you think if a six-year old boy or a sixteen-year-old girl or a 60-year-old man were sitting next to you sucking his thumb and cooing, or worse yet, sucking on his toe.  (Fortunately, most adults can’t get their toes anywhere near their faces).  Such a sight would be gross, wouldn’t it?  

And yet we see this sort of thing all the time in the Church–Christians who have been born-again for 20, 30, 40, or more years but who couldn’t testify their way out of a wet paper bag, couldn’t intelligently explain to a Mormon why he isn’t one, couldn’t begin to defend the deity of Christ Scripturally, couldn’t name a half-dozen of the attributes of God, and don’t know the difference between the indwelling and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

         His characteristics:

         1.  He is unable to digest solid food.

         2.  He is still worldly.

Now I need to point out something to you that supports the view that the childlike believer is different from the childish believer, but it is not evident in your English Bible.  The word “worldly”appears three times in your NIV–once in verse 1 and twice in verse 3.  But in Greek the term in verse 1 is different from that used in verse 3.  One is sarkinos and the other is sarkikos.  Both come from the root word for “flesh” (we get our English word sarcophogus, which is a depository for the flesh from the same root).  These two words, while close in spelling and meaning, have somewhat different connotations.  Sarkinos means to be “made of flesh,” while sarkikos means to be “dominated by the flesh.”  I have tried to express that difference by means of the words “immature” and “worldly,” as well as by the words “childlike” and “childish.”  The first is not blameworthy; the second is.  

The apostle doesn’t leave us to wonder about who qualifies as a worldly believer.  He barges right in with an illustration so they can see in concrete terms what he’s talking about.

Conclusion:  May I ask you this morning, “What kind of person are you?” 

Are you an unbeliever?  You can be an average American, fairly religious, reasonably temperate in your lifestyle.  But if you have never seen yourself as the sinner you are and have never experienced forgiveness of your sins, you are facing spiritual death–separation from God for all of eternity.  On the other hand, you can become a child of God this very day by receiving Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and begin welcoming the things of God.

Are you a spiritual believer?  Praise God, but don’t rest on your laurels.  Spirituality is not a plateau one reaches, never from which to fall.  It is a dynamic equilibrium involving one’s growth rate and age in the Lord.  To stay “spiritual,” one needs to continually grow in knowledge and obedience. 

Are you an immature (childlike) believer by reason of being a relatively new believer?  Congratulations, but God doesn’t expect you to stay that way long.  You should be moving from Pablum to Porterhouse as soon as possible so you can maintain a healthy spiritual life.  

Are you a worldly (childish) believer?  Somehow, I fear that a lot more Christians fit into this category than care to admit it.  Sometimes when we think of worldly Christians, we think of those who don’t go to church, who swear, who smoke cigars and watch dirty videos.  But here Paul has defined “worldly” in very different terms–in terms of response to and reception of God’s Holy Word.  Think about it.  You can be living a very clean, moral life; you can have a spotless reputation among Christians and non-Christians alike; you can be a charter member of the Evangelical Free Church; and you may still be a worldly Christian.  

Perhaps an even more important question for me to ask is, “What are you going to do about what kind of person you are?”  I would suggest we get really serious about our spiritual nutrition, spiritual exercise, and spiritual discipline.  We need to start making personal Bible study, prayer, accountability, fellowship, worship all a major part of our daily life.  There are no shortcuts to the prize, friends, just as none of the gold medals in Sydney went to slouches.  

Let me close with Paul’s powerful words from 1 Cor. 9:24-25:  

“You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race.  Everyone runs; one wins.  Run to win.  All good athletes train hard.  They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades.  You’re after one that’s gold eternally.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line.  I’m giving it everything I’ve got.  No sloppy living for me!  I’m staying alert and in top condition.  I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.”

DATE: October 8, 2000



Spiritual person

Worldly person

Natural person

Milk diet

[i] Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer.

[ii] C. T. Studd, https://quotefancy.com/quote/1491151/Charles-Studd-If-Jesus-Christ-be-God-and-died-for-me-then-no-sacrifice-can-be-too-great.  

[iii] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life, 13.