1 - 7 Spiritual and Fleshly
1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able [to receive it]. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not [mere] men? 5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave [opportunity] to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
V1. What Paul wanted very much to do with the Corinthians, he could not do unfortunately. He would have wanted to speak to the Corinthians as to “spiritual men”. The expression ‘spiritual men’ has nothing to do with a religious job. Sometimes people speak about ‘clergymen and laymen’. The clergymen are people like pastors and priests. They have received a training for which they have passed an exam in order to be appointed by their own church as a ‘clergyman’. All other members of that church are ‘laymen’. Those are people who have had no training in theology. God has never meant such a distinction. Just to be not misunderstood: I don’t say that all pastors and priests are unbelievers. I know that some of them really love the Lord Jesus sincerely. But to me it is about their ‘profession’ as a clergyman. That is something that you can’t find in the Bible.
Now you read in verse 1 about “spiritual men” and “men of flesh”. In both cases believers are meant. In the previous chapter we read of “natural men” (1Cor 2:14). Those are unbelievers. We have not only to do with a distinction between believers and unbelievers, but also with a distinction between believers. The latter is the issue here. You might have noticed this distinction already. You might also have the opinion that all believers are people who of course love the Lord Jesus and serve Him. What you possibly still have to discover is that you too from one moment to another can change from a spiritual person into a fleshly person. Therefore it is important to be fully aware of what Paul is saying here.
Whether you are spiritual or fleshly depends on your attitude of mind as a believer. You are spiritual when the Holy Spirit can direct your life and when He can focus your heart and ‘mind’ (do you remember 1Cor 2:16?) on the Lord Jesus. Then you are willing to do all things in your life to the honor of God. You will possibly make mistakes, but you will be willing to quickly put things straight again. When you are fleshly however, you find yourself important or you are too occupied with how other people think of you. You yourself are in the center of your life and not Christ.
You really don’t have to live in sin to be fleshly. To be fleshly can very easily wheedle into your being a Christian. The follow-up of this chapter makes that clear.
He who is fleshly looks like an infant, a little child. A little child is very limited in his ability to understand. When adults talk with each other, he hears the words, but doesn’t understand what it is all about.
V2. Little children are to be approached on their own level. Therefore Paul couldn’t tell them more about the Person of Christ than that He was crucified (1Cor 2:2). He couldn’t talk with them about God’s wisdom, for they didn’t belong to the perfect or mature (i.e. full-grown or mature Christians). Just look up the section of chapter 2:6. They could only receive milk. Milk is indeed baby food. The solid food is for the mature or perfect.
In Hebrew 5 you find the same issue (Heb 5:11-14). There the believers were actually converted for a longer period of time, but they had not made progress in their faith life. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has to admonish them regarding that. That can easily happen to you. You may have a good start, you’re very enthusiastic and you love to read the Bible. But after a while you may notice that your impetus is weakening. Then you need to be nourished with the simple things of the Bible, for you cannot recognize the deeper truths.
V3-4. In the case of the Corinthians, the deeper truths of the Bible couldn’t be told to them, because they were still “fleshly”. As a proof of that they are reprimanded for being jealous and for having division among them. Paul even adds to it that they behaved like “mere men”. He just means that they were behaving like the people in the world. That is very serious. Their division in small groups, each with a favorite leader, was really human.
That’s how it works in the world. In politics and in sport as well, everyone can decide which club or faction he wants to join. They criticize all other factions. Jealousy and dissension are the order of the day. Supporters of soccer clubs are attacking each other with chains, bats and knives. Politicians criticize each other in public debates in order to present themselves and assure themselves that their voters will continue to support them. This is not how it should be in God’s church. Everyone has his own place and task there.
V5-7. Paul calls himself and Apollos just “servants” through whom the Corinthians became believers. Thankfully they didn’t come to faith in Apollos or Paul, was it? It was a belief in God, was it not? Every servant had his own part in the work that God had done in the hearts of the Corinthians.
I don’t know how you became a believer. Apparently God has used some believers for that. You will always be grateful to those people and that is a good thing. But be careful not to honor them or run along after them. The real servant of God doesn’t like it when people honor him. He will want to give all tribute, honor and glory to God alone, for He finally has given the increase. That’s how Paul talks here. That’s how Peter talked in Acts 10:25-26. In Revelation 19 you even read that an angel should not receive worship from us (Rev 19:10). He even rejects it. The only One Who is worthy of worship is God!
Now read 1 Corinthians 3:1-7 again.
Reflection: How do you recognize in yourself whether your conduct is spiritual or fleshly?
8 - 15 To Build On the Foundation
8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is [to be] revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
V8. Every believer, including you, is a servant. A servant is somebody who receives orders from a person in charge. There is somebody above him. God is above all His servants and He orders each servant what he has got to do. It is all about His work and all servants are to be aware of that. If everyone is focused on his own concern, nothing of God’s work will be done. The servants are to be united. They should not work against one another nor should they be willing to have their own supporters, but they should want to cooperate, work together.
V9. The unity in the service for God is important. God will know how to reward everyone according to his conduct therein. When it says that we are “God’s” fellow workers, it means that we are fellow workers with one another and that we together are servants of God. It doesn’t mean that you are doing a certain task together with God. No, He is above you and together with other servants you can be busy for Him. That means that you should not focus on what people or groups expect from you or command you to do. Then you’re not concerned about God’s interests and His work, but the interests of people, which cause dissension with your fellow workers. In this way the unity disappears very soon.
In verse 9 you read about a “field” and a “building” right next to each other. Those are two very different things that you cannot interchange, can you? Yes, that’s right. But Paul moves over from one picture to the other picture. Both pictures actually present an area on which or in which God’s fellow workers work.
A ‘field’ is an area on which the worker is busy with the intention to harvest fruit from it. God very much wants to receive fruit. What Paul is saying here, is that the believers in Corinth together are the field. That applies also for all places where believers gather (just think of 1Cor 1:2). God wants to receive the glory He is worthy of from the lives of all believers together.
God’s building is also about the believers as one whole. They form together God’s building. When you think of a building, you think of dwelling. God dwells in the church. In verse 16 of this chapter it is said like that. Also other things that have to do with a building are mentioned. You need a foundation and also building materials and builders are needed.
V10-11. First the foundation. That is laid by Paul. He doesn’t boast of that. He says that he has laid the foundation “according to the grace of God which was given to him”. The honor of this goes to God. The foundation is therefore not something he himself has invented. The foundation “is Jesus Christ”. As “a wise master builder” Paul has presented Him to the Corinthians and nothing else in his preaching. There is no other foundation.
V12. Now the building can start. ‘But’, Paul warns, ‘take heed with what kind of material you build’. The six building materials he mentions are divided into two groups. The first group contains three precious materials. They can pass the fire test. The second group contains three materials that are consumed by the fire and therefore are worthless for a good building. The mentality of the builder will determine with which material he is satisfied.
I already said: it is a metaphor. These pictures present something from which we can draw a spiritual lesson. As you know, the believers together form the church of God. In the Bible the church of God is being compared with a bride, a body and also with a house. The comparison with the bride we will talk about later. Here it is about the church as a house. That is a rather more difficult picture than a body or bride, because you can see the church as a house from two points of view.
Actually, you read in the Bible about the church as a house that is being built by God and also as a house that is being built by people. When it is about a house that is being built by God, do you think that God will use materials that will be consumed by fire? That is impossible. When God is building a house, He uses only good materials. You can read about God building the church as a house for example in Matthew 16, Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2 (Mt 16:18; Eph 2:20-22; 1Pet 2:4-5).
But you read also in the Bible about the church as a house that is being built by people. This is how it is presented here: “But each man must be careful how he builds on it.” And then it is possible that wrong materials, which are not fire proof, are being used.
You might somewhat sense what the materials present. Believers are presented as gold, silver and precious stones and wood, hay and straw are a picture of unbelievers.
How do you have to imagine the building? It may be as follows. You preach the gospel. People are attracted. There are people who acknowledge their guilt before God. You yourself are convinced that they are sincere and honest and you accept them as Christians. You baptize them and at that time they confess that they step out from the world (baptism is a funeral), while they then enter Christianity. Through your action of baptizing them, they enter the realm of the house of God to which Christianity is also being compared. In this way you contribute to the construction of the house of God. However, he can make mistakes, what is impossible with God. Therefore you should take heed how you build.
I realize that my explanation is rather brief, but I hope that the general intention and also the issue of this section are clear to you.
There is another way you can build. The way you pass on something from the Bible can be right or wrong. Do you pass on God’s thoughts or do you pass on your own thoughts? That is something that also applies to me immediately by writing all this to you. I continually have to ask myself whether I clarify God’s Word to you in the correct way. The same applies to our way of life. What example do we give? Do we also apply to ourselves what the Bible says about how God wants us to behave and look like? If we are willing to do all things according to God’s will, we will surely make God’s building stronger. Anywhere we do not do so, we weaken it.
V13-15. There comes a day that everything we have learnt and done will be revealed publicly. Your and my work will be tested in the fire. That means that God’s holiness will test everything that we have done and said. And He does not make mistakes in His judgments. What remains, He shall reward. We suffer loss by what will be consumed and will therefore not be rewarded.
Thankfully we ourselves shall be saved. Our work can be wrong, but our salvation is assured in Christ. Let us make efforts to be builders who are building with good materials in the construction of God’s house.
Now read 1 Corinthians 3:8-15 again.
Reflection: How are you building?
16 - 23 All Things Are Yours
16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. 18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “[He is] the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
V16. Paul proceeds with his explanation about building God’s house, the temple. As it is indicated here, the temple is not a visible brick building, as was the case in Jerusalem. You may hear the mention of a church building as ‘the house of God’, but in the New Testament (that means, from the beginning of the church) we do not hear about an earthly building as a house of God anymore. The house of God now consists of all true believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.
V17. As it is said, building the house in this chapter is something that is done by people. In the previous verses you saw two groups of builders. Now you come across a third group of builders on God’s house. Those are people who want to defile God’s temple. That is very evident. It is about people who want to defile the work of God on purpose. In the previous verses the possibility was left open that a person was building with wrong materials. That can happen, but in that case it is not deliberately. Such a person himself will remain saved, even as through fire. He loses everything, but he escapes, as it were. But of people that deliberately defile the temple of God, is said that God will destroy them.
How should you imagine that the temple of God is being defiled? Does God permit that to happen? First you should remember that the believers together form the temple of God. The Corinthians also had to be reminded of that: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God?” They were the temple of God, in whom the Spirit of God dwelled. If you are fully aware of that, you will come to the conclusion that the only Person Who has a right to speak in the temple of God, is the Holy Spirit.
Just imagine that in the temple of God, so in the church, people come forward who teach things that contradict the Word of God. In this way the church of God becomes a place where the Holy Spirit and the Word of God are being put aside and where people come forward with their own ideas about God and His Word. The cunning thing of their way in presenting these things is that they present themselves as people who have knowledge of these things. They are often well-educated and wonderful speakers who do not want to trouble the conscience.
You can recognize them clearly in their way of talking about the Lord Jesus. Sometimes they speak very crudely about Him, as Somebody Who stands very close to you and Who is just like you, with the same desires and lusts. There you have that cunning talk: He indeed stands very close to you. The Bible says that He “has been tempted in all things as [we are]”. But what is important, is that this phrase is followed by “[yet] without sin”. Just read that yourself in Hebrews 4 (Heb 4:15).
Sometimes they also talk very respectfully and loftily about Him, as Somebody Who stands far above you. In this case He is presented as a kind of angel, through whom you can get to know a lot about God. Here also it is so cunning. For indeed through Him you can get to know a lot about God. But the truth about Him goes much further. You can get to know everything about God through Him alone, for He is God Himself. Therefore He is above the angels. You can read that in Hebrews 1 (Heb 1:1-14).
By talking about the Lord Jesus in this cunning way, the temple of God is being defiled. The house of God is here called “a temple”, in order to emphasize the honor that is due to God in His house. God is being honored when the Lord Jesus is being honored and He is being dishonored when the Lord Jesus is being dishonored. The temple of God is also called “holy”. It is a building in which nothing from the world and its wisdom may be found.
V18. In the church “no man” should “deceive himself” by thinking that he has the monopoly of wisdom. The wisdom that is ruling the world must not enter the church. This kind of wisdom is deadly for the church of God. It makes you forget that true wisdom is only to be found with God and with Christ. Once more Paul is saying that the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. He must necessarily repeat it, for he had already said that in chapter 1.
We are evidently quickly impressed by the wisdom of the world. One more time: do not forget that this wisdom is foolishness with God. In order to become really wise you need to become foolish first. To become foolish does not mean: to act like an idiot. To become foolish means that you do not want to trust anymore on the capacities of the wise people of the world or on your own understanding.
V19-21. You want to focus on the wisdom of God, which you have discovered in Christ. That is foolishness to the world, but God calls you wise. Furthermore you read that God “catches the wise in their craftiness”. All those people who are sidelining God or reasoning Him away, will be unmasked by Him. He will show them who they are by revealing to them how they walked and what the results of their work are. Everything they had ever considered has not had any effect. On the contrary, the chaos has become bigger. Everything that men have invented appears to be empty. This emptiness of human wisdom must be a sufficient reason not to boast in men.
V22-23. But there is another reason why it is foolish to boast in men. Boasting in men enormously limits the riches that the believer possesses. If Paul was the great man, then it was to the detriment of Apollos. The supporter of Paul had discovered something in Paul that Apollos lacked. Therefore he felt attracted to Paul and was of the opinion that he didn’t need Apollos. In this way they compared the servants and after that they made a choice. That still happens today. If you take part in that, you live beneath your privileges, for you need every servant and not only the one who is your favorite.
And not only the servants are given to you, but also all other things. The whole area you live in, the “world”, is yours. That is because you are Christ’s. That is also with “life” and “death”. Life is yours because Christ is your life. Death is yours because Christ has conquered death. The “things present” and the “things to come” are all yours because you “belong to Christ”. Christ oversees the present and the future. Nothing will get out of His hand and become uncontrollable for Him, neither in your life nor in the whole world stage. He shall rule everything in such a way that God is glorified in everything.
“Christ belongs to God” means that God will finish everything that he had intended to do, through Christ. The final result will be seen when Christ will give all things to God the Father and God will be all in all (1Cor 15:28). You belong to that Christ. Isn’t that a great fortune?
Now read 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 again.
Reflection: If all things are yours, are you then supposed to do with it whatever you want? How do you use what is yours?