The greatest obstacle to Bible knowledge is not culture, nor education, nor any other thing lacking in our lives, but rather it is something existing in our lives that should not be there. Paul said of the Corinthian church, That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge (1 Cor. 1:5). He even admitted that ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ (1 Cor. 4:15). Yet the apostle wrote, And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1). The greatest obstacle to Bible knowledge never has been a lack of Bible study. It is and always has been carnality!
Ambrose said, “All are not fitted to teach; would that all were apt to learn.”1 Paul wrote, I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal (1 Cor. 2:2-3). Even if Paul taught with the meat of the Word they could not digest it because of their carnality. No doubt, in many classrooms across our country today there is much information being given while no learning is taking place, not because the hearers are unintelligent, but because they are carnal.
When I was in High School in the 1960s, chaos was quickly taking over the classrooms, the halls, and the campuses all across America. I remember the math teacher at my High School offering a suggestion. He said that they should close the school and go home. Then when just one student says, “I want to know something,” they should open the doors and begin again! I’ve wondered if the same wouldn’t work for many churches and Christian education institutions since it is often obvious that learning is not taking place because of carnality. Instead, however, we continue to load these babes down with Bible studies and discipleship courses. After all, if they are on milk, don’t they need meat? That was not Paul’s solution. Until the carnality problem was solved, they would only choke on the meat, or become puffed up in their knowledge. Rather, their repentance at Paul’s rebuke brought a thorough cleansing that prepared them for learning (see 2 Cor. 7:8-13). The answer was in confession first and instruction second. The need for repentance was manifested in several ways. Here are a few.
A wrong desire to be great. Their carnality had caused them to follow men rather than Christ. Therefore let no man glory in men (1 Cor. 3:21). Apollos must have been revered in this way by many and he is mentioned several times in this regard. And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another (1 Cor. 4:6). It is too common (and should not be the desire of the teacher) for the student to idolize the teacher. Even if the student is sitting under a great man, he needs to realize that greatness didn’t come by a desire to be great. Tozer said, “The great saints of past eras did not know they were great saints.”2 Rather, great men shunned the carnality of the world and sought the things of God. Spurgeon wrote, “Many through wishing to be great have failed to be good; they were not content to adorn the lowly stations which the Lord appointed them, and so they have rushed at grandeur and power, and found destruction where they looked for honour . . . A man does well to know his own size.”3
A wrong desire to be worldly. A major section on worldliness in the epistle ends with that beautiful passage about our body being the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Paul even reminds them, Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? (1 Cor. 6:15). We all take up space and this body is the only space we get on this earth! It is important to God and it ought to be important to us! Paul wrote, God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power (1 Cor. 6:14). Carnality has to be dealt with in the body and it cannot be shared with demons. The real “legalists” were right there in Corinth and they complained numerous times, All things are lawful unto me (1 Cor. 6:12). They wanted spirituality without restraints on their “space.” J.I. Packer wrote, “The idea that freedom is what you have when you have thrown off all that repressed or constrains you is a false trail which leads nowhere save to puzzlement and disillusioned bitterness.”4 Who wouldn’t be bitter drinking milk all his life?
A wrong desire to be comfortable. Carnality often manifests itself in our lives in our desire to avoid all conflicts and those things that cause us inconvenience and stress. The Corinthians would not deal with fornicators, nor with factious persons, nor with fleshly false teachers. Sadly, the apostle lamented, For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face (2 Cor. 11:19-20). In fact, they boasted that the reason they hadn’t dealt with the sin is that they were so broad-minded! But Paul wrote, Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? (1 Cor. 5:6). A church’s refusal to deal with problems, whether they be doctrinal, worldly or disciplinary is a sign of carnality. It is much like a lazy parent’s refusal to discipline unruly children. Spurgeon wrote, “When fathers are tongue-tied religiously with their offspring, need they wonder if their children’s hearts remain sin-tied?”5
Though the list of carnal things could be extended, the Scripture also presents many proper attitudes and actions that bring confession of our carnality and prepare us to learn from God’s Word. Here are three.
A proper desire to please God. In his second epistle, Peter is very specific that virtue must follow faith but must come before knowledge. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5). It is helpful to see that virtue comes from a word meaning “to please.” That is, when you fall in love with the Lord (“faith” is just that!) you have a great desire to please Him. Perhaps you will or won’t, but you have the desire. Knowledge is the proper direction for that desire, and if followed will direct the desire to its proper end. Paul complimented the Thessalonian believers that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and please God, so ye would abound more and more (1 Thes. 4:1). The information they had received from Paul fulfilled their desire to please God. Desire (“virtue”) to please God is a spiritual prerequisite for Bible knowledge.
The meat of the Word can only be chewed, enjoyed and digested by those who truly desire to find out what pleases God. Without that desire, Bible knowledge is just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, just Biblical information. In a world where information is valued above wisdom and comes easily from a vast number of sources, it is easy to substitute mere Biblical information for true knowledge and wisdom. T.S. Eliot asked, “Where is the life we have lost in the living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”6 We might ask, “Where is the virtue we have lost in all this Bible study?
A proper desire to read God’s Word. Peter also reminded his readers that even babes in Christ should have a desire for the milk of God’s Word. Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Pet. 2:1-3). It is easy to misread that verse by ignoring the necessary comma, thinking it is a description of what babes do. Rather, the word “desire” is a command that if followed will cause a person to grow “thereby.” If a person has come into the grace of God, and has a desire to please Him, he will have a natural (i.e. spiritual) desire for the Word of God. The desire can even be commanded.
But this “desire” in verse two follows the “laying aside” of the carnality in verse one! And what is this “laying aside” but repentance and confession of that sin? The new believer has a new nature reinforced by the Holy Spirit that now lives within. Carnality brings conviction from the Spirit Who creates a desire for better things. Paul could tell the Thessalonians that God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit . . . For ye yourselves are taught of God (1 Thes. 4:7-9). How can a believer despise holiness when he possesses a Holy Spirit Who places within him a desire for the things of God?
A proper desire to follow God’s leaders. A spiritual babe has a spiritual father in the evangelistic sense. He has a close and abiding connection with the one who led him to Christ. This is a wonderful connection that ought to lead the new believer out of the world and into a walk with God. Paul told the Corinthians, I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me (1 Cor. 4:14-16). Instructors may “shame” us into learning but our spiritual father can “warn” us.
The Scriptures have no hesitation admonishing us to follow those who are following Christ (e.g. Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). In Corinth, there were those who assumed this spiritual leadership over others but who corrupted the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:17), and who adulterated the Word of God (4:2), and who gloried in appearance and not in heart (5:12). No wonder these believers were spiritual babes! How could they be fed when there were no examples to follow? Os Guinness is right when he writes, “The Puritans lived as if they had swallowed gyroscopes; we modern Christians live as if we have swallowed Gallop polls.”7
So let us be busy about the study of God’s Word. But let us also be busy about our own confession of sin.Notes: 1. St. Ambrose, “Funeral Oration For His Brother,” Orations From Homer To Mckinley, M. Hazeltine, ed. (ew York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902) 1158. 2. A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened To Worship? (Camp Hill: Christian Pub., 1985) 11. 3. C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol I (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978) 87. 4. J.I. Packer, Truth and Power (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1996) 22. 5. Spurgeon, Treasury of David, vol II, 333. 6. By D. Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 86. 7. Os Guinness, The Call (USA: W Pub, 1998) 162.