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1 Corinthians 3:1-9

12 February 2023

Exploring the Scripture

Unity in Christ is not something we sense unless we look past outward appearances.  We must strive beyond ordinary human understanding. That is why our unity in Christ begins and ends in faith (trust).  For Paul, this is unity in Christ crucified, which is only seen through sensing God’s wisdom.  Unity is realized through the Spirit.  It takes faith to look beyond the “foolishness in the world” (1 Cor 1:27) and witness how “God chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor 1:28) to be the power of God.   

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 is one of those passages that makes little sense by itself.  It will not be easy to read and reread this passage looking only for personal insight.   We need more information.  For example:  Who is Apollos?   What does Paul mean by “of the flesh?”  And, what does he mean when he says, “…I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”  These questions require that we read 1 Corinthians from the beginning to chapter 3.   Luckily, that does not take long.

Paul begins addressing the church in Corinth not as spiritual people but as “people of the flesh.”   What does he mean?    

You might think Paul is talking about bodily pangs of hunger like sex, gluttony, or greed.  But that’s far too narrow an interpretation.  In 1 Corinthians 1:26, Paul writes, “not many of you were wise by human standards.”   “Human standards” is how the NRSV translators help us interpret the Greek, which is translated as “according to the flesh.”     

Paul uses the phrase “of the flesh” to talk about one part of being human.  It’s the part that belongs to all of us.   That is our nature.  Our “flesh” refers to natural, limited, and sensuous nature as created creatures.  “Flesh” is what drives our “human inclinations.”  (1 Cor 3:3)    

Contrast that to human beings’ spiritual nature.  For Paul, our spiritual nature bears spiritual fruit (see Galatians 5). Our spirituality brings forth spiritual gifts, the greatest of which is Love (See 1 Corinthians 12 and 13). 

With this background, Paul’s talk of food in verses 2 through 4 makes more sense.   Even by human standards, the church in Corinth still needs baby food.  Its members are not yet wise.  Nor does it yet have spiritual eyes.  That is why it’s driven to quarreling and full of division.

The factions in Corinth aligned with known teachers that have shaped and nurtured the church.  Paul is just one of these teachers.  Christ, Apollos and Cephas are also named (see 1 Cor 1:12). 

In verses 5 through 9, Paul explains how each teacher has brought their gifts to bring forth God’s purposes.  In 1 Cor 1:13, “Has Christ been divided?”   Verses 5 through 9 explain how the answer is, “No.”  Christ is not divided.   

Each teacher serves their role in God’s purposes.  Paul writes in verse 7, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”   In other words, each brought their gift so God’s Spirit would unfold.  

Paul is introducing ideas about unity in Christ that he will expand in 1 Corinthians 12.  Chapter 12 contains Paul’s famous teaching about the variety of gifts, but one Spirit (1 Cor 12:4).   While we are many members, we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 12:12). Such is also true of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas because of Christ.

However, the aim of 1 Cor 3:1-9 is to explain to the church in Corinth how we spiritually know this.  Chapters 1 and 2 are helpful here.  Paul explains that “no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Therefore, unity in Christ is something we speak about “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor 2:13)

Corinth was not ready for such spiritual food.  Are we?   This passage is a beautiful opportunity to look in the mirror as a congregation or body of Christ.  Are there divisions?  If so, why?   Do we see the gifts each brings?  Do we perceive that purposes of God coming forth among us?   Doing so takes spiritual maturity.  Spiritual maturity begins and ends in faith in God’s Spirit, which reveals the truth in Christ.

Central Ideas

  1. Unity in Christ is not obvious from human understanding but can be sensed when we receive it in God’s wisdom and Spirit.
  2. “Flesh” is not merely about sex or bodily hunger for Paul, but also the mental and spiritual limits we share as human beings.  Paul contrasts that to our spiritual nature, which sees and senses differently.
  3. Spiritual maturity is needed to see all creation reconciled through Christ crucified brings.

Questions to Consider

  1. Think back to when you might have considered yourself an “infant in Christ?” (1 Cor 3:1). What was your worldview like then? What was your faith like?   What experiences helped you mature spiritually and in spiritual wisdom?
  2. What divisions or quarreling are there among the people?  What is the source of those divisions?  What ways of understanding are limiting the people’s spiritual vision of one another and their circumstances?
  3. How might the congregation see with spiritual eyes and mature in God’s wisdom?

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