You can read today's text here: 1 Corinthians 3:1-15
One of the features of the Corinthian correspondence is the way in which Paul quotes members of the church in an indirect way. The usual way a translator reflects the opinion that this is going on is with the use of quotes. For example, if he thinks Paul is addressing queries about the status of members of his church as spiritual, he will translate verse 1 as follows:
"Brothers, I could not address you as 'spiritual' but as worldly—mere infants in Christ."The Corinthians were claiming the word "spiritual" as appropriate for their condition, and Paul questions their right to do so, in the light of their uncharitable rivalries.
In the preceding paragraph Paul has contrasted believers and unbelievers, using the term "spiritual" (Greek pneumatikoi) of the former, and "those without the Spirit" (Greek psychikoi) for the latter. But now, although he does not question the genuineness of the Corinthian believers' faith, he has reservations about granting them the term pneumatikoi "spiritual" (i.e., "those having the Spirit"). They may actually have the Holy Spirit living in them, but they are not showing any evidence of that reality, when they bicker and argue and boast and disdain one another. Lovelessness is not the mark of one who has the Spirit!
Instead of "spiritual", Paul prefers to use two other terms to describe them:
First he calls them "just flesh". The Greek term sarkinoi describes someone whose being, thought and actions are characterized by the foolishness and weakness of humanity as opposed to the wisdom and power of God—what the Old Testament prophets called "the flesh" (Hebrew basar, Greek translation sarks — read Isaiah 31:3 and Jer. 17:5.
Then he calls them "mere infants in Christ". The phrase "in Christ" shows that Paul regards them as truly converted, but "infants" shows just how under-developed morally they are. "childish" would not be a bad characterization of them. Playing with the gifts of the Spirit, like a child plays with toys. They delight in the privileges and powers of spirituality, but none of its moral responsibilities.
He refers to the teaching he gave to them while he was with them in Corinth as "milk, not solid food" (v. 2). There is nothing wrong with milk as a diet for infants. But as an infant grows, it eventually must have solid food. The Corinthians have simply never been weaned! And they are long overdue. They talk and talk about the gifts God has given them, but never about their obligations to love and serve others.
It is—once again—difficult to know if Paul has picked up the term "mere humans" from the reported boasting by certain members of their superiority over other members who are "mere humans". If so, then Paul throws it back in their teeth, pointing out that their unloving behavior shows that it is they who are the "mere humans".
But one of the OT prophets' statements cited above shows that this use of "mere humans" (translating the Hebrew word basar "flesh") is thoroughly biblical — “The Egyptians are human [Hebrew basar 'flesh'], and not God; their [war-]horses are flesh [basar], and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together” (Isaiah 31:3 NRSV).
The test of being “spiritual” is loving behavior, not the possession and use of spectacular supernatural gifts. This is because it is the Holy Spirit who produces love in the lives of believers (1John 3:10-11, 14, 16-18, 23; 4:7-8 ).
After explaining that factionalism is a sure sign of immaturity [being a spiritual 'infant'], Paul proceeds to explain also how senseless it is in this case to rank those who minister to them (v. 5-9).
First of all, how can you compare people who are performing different ministries? Paul “planted”, because it was he who founded the church at Corinth, winning the first nucleus of people to faith in Jesus. Apollos came along later and watered the seed sown by Paul, increasing their understanding of biblical truths. Each one was faithfully doing his part. But it was God, working through each one, who produced the growth. The Corinthians are "god's field." Then following up on the farming metaphor, and leading into a new, architectural one, Paul points out that they are “God’s building” (v. 9). Not “Paul’s building" or “Apollos’ building”. It may be that these last terms were what the immature Corinthian factions were using to describe their competing loyalties!
In v. 10 Paul doesn't mention Apollos by name, but uses the general expression “someone else is building upon it”. Paul has no ill will against Apollos. It is the unfortunate way in which rival groups of immature believers were playing off Apollos against Paul that troubled him so deeply.
Furthermore, Paul wants to remind them that there will always be others coming along, and even those in their own group, who will build on the foundation. They must be willing to be helped by many servants of Christ.
But he also recognizes that some may build with the wrong materials. Therefore his words of warning: “But each one should be careful how he builds.” This is a warning that he will take to heart himself. He does not want to reply to these frustrating challenges to his authority with malice, but with the loving application of Christ’s truth.
The Corinthian believers also need to know that careful workmanship performed in the power of the Holy Spirit will always be rewarded by God. And poor workmanship will not receive Christ’s commendation and reward, but that the workman himself, if he is a believer, will not lose his own salvation (v. 15).
How do we sum up the problems of the Corinthians, as Paul attempts to help them in this chapter? As I see it, they had two problems: (1) overestimation of their own spiritual state, and (2) disdain for others and a "go-it-alone" attitude about ministry.
Paul's answer to these two questions is to stress the twin virtues of humility and love. Humility can be achieved by understanding that it is God who gives gifts and talents: those possessing them have nothing to boast about. Love comes from realizing that believers are all one body, whose members function as a team. Each member is necessary, and equally valuable. If there is jealousy and pride and mutual opposition, the body (the 'team') does not function properly.
You yourself have certain gifts from God that you can and should use within the context of your circle of believing friends—perhaps your church, or your Bible class—to strengthen the faith and love of the others. Another member of the group has a different gift (or ability). One can teach, another pray, another offer helpful words of encouragement or comfort. We should rejoice in each other's gifts from God, and pass along words of encouragement to those around us who use their gifts in the spirit of love. It is hard to be envious or proud when you are busy thanking and encouraging others!