Growth, whether physical or spiritual always follows a natural progression. There is a starting point. There is a destination. And then there is the path that gets us there. In the Apostle John’s first letter, he describes the progression that marks a child of God
1 John 2:12-14
- I write to you, children, because [your] sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.
- I write to you, fathers, because ye have known him [that is] from the beginning.
- I write to you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked [one].
- I write to you, little children, because ye have known the Father.
- I have written to you, fathers, because ye have known him [that is] from the beginning.
- I have written to you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and ye have overcome the wicked [one].
The cadence, the repetition, is there to drive the lesson home: We begin our journey in the Kingdom of God as children. How does it start? John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah made it clear: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It all starts with accepting that we need the forgiveness of our sins; and receiving it,
What is the second step as a child? Trust in your Heavenly Father. The bulk of the Sermon on the Mount is directed precisely at teaching us that only trusting in the Love of our Father can we live the life He has called us to.
Where is this journey taking us? To the point where each one of us is mature enough to be working representatives of that Father to the people of this world: To the point that we ourselves are spiritual fathers.
That life, that responsibility – for as long as God gives us time here on Earth – can only be lived by knowing God. That means by knowing who He really is: the One that existed from the beginning; that is, for as long as our Universe has existed because He made it. If we truly know Him for who He is, then there is nothing this world can do to tempt us or to cow us.
How do we get from the beginning to that end? By doing the work we have been called to do, and in so doing, overcoming the wicked one (and all the temptations of the world he has fashioned). How do we overcome? Through the Word of God that abides in us… emphasis on “abides” (as in John 15). It is not just having read the Word; it is not a casual acquaintance with its teachings. It is living in it.
The next two verses in this section of 1 John 2 tells us how we know we are on the right path:
1 John 2:15-16 Love not the world, nor the things in the world. If any one love the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
And this was the key problem of the Corinthian Church, not only were they allowing the ways of the world into their lives, they were proud of doing so because, apparently, they thought it proved they were such mature Christians that they were immune to the destructive power of the world. That pride showed in many ways.
Paul starts with the simplest instance (that he already mentioned at the beginning of the letter) in order to work his way slowly to the most distressing
The power is from God, not me
First of all, Paul says, you are not as mature as you think:
1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And *I*, brethren, have not been able to speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly; as to babes in Christ. I have given you milk to drink, not meat, for ye have not yet been able, nor indeed are ye yet able; for ye are yet carnal. For whereas [there are] among you emulation and strife, are ye not carnal, and walk according to man?
For when one says, *I* am of Paul, and another, *I* of Apollos, are ye not men? Who then is Apollos, and who Paul? Ministering servants, through whom ye have believed, and as the Lord has given to each. *I* have planted; Apollos watered; but God has given the increase.
So that neither the planter is anything, nor the waterer; but God the giver of the increase. But the planter and the waterer are one; but each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are God’s fellow-workmen; ye are God’s husbandry, God’s building.
As a Christian, I was chosen for one purpose: to serve God. And the only reason we can fulfill that purpose together is because God gives us the power. Jesus told us so:
John 15:16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have set you that ye should go and [that] ye should bear fruit, and [that] your fruit should abide, that whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name he may give you.
Therefore, it makes no sense to compare the labor of different servants of the same God, as if this were a competition among ourselves. Moreover, it should never cross our minds that doing the work of the Kingdom is somehow a reason to merit prizes or praise… Jesus also talked about that:
Luke 17:7-10 But which of you [is there] who, having a bondman ploughing or shepherding, when he comes in out of the field, will say, Come and lie down immediately to table? But will he not say to him, Prepare what I shall sup on, and gird thyself and serve me that I may eat and drink; and after that *thou* shalt eat and drink? Is he thankful to the bondman because he has done what was ordered? I judge not.
Thus *ye* also, when ye shall have done all things that have been ordered you, say, We are unprofitable bondmen; we have done what it was our duty to do.
Each one of us is gifted with the abilities we need to do the job we have been called to do. It is our choice whether we do it or not. It is up to us to decide how we use those gifts. But the Giver of those gifts is watching. And He has every right to call us to account on how we have discharged that responsibility. Paul used his gifts to plant and build up the Corinthian Church.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 According to the grace of God which has been given to me, as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation, but another builds upon it. But let each see how he builds upon it. For other foundation can no man lay besides that which [is] laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if any one build upon [this] foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, straw,the work of each shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare [it], because it is revealed in fire; and the fire shall try the work of each what it is. If the work of any one which he has built upon [the foundation] shall abide, he shall receive a reward. If the work of any one shall be consumed, he shall suffer loss, but *he* shall be saved, but so as through [the] fire.
Because we are all co-workers in God’s plan, and because we all build on the same foundation, Jesus, there is no difference among us. Therefore, Paul tells them: If you are thinking in terms of differences, of who is better than whom, then that is evidence that you have allowed the world to taint your work for the Kingdom of God. (Remember 1 John 2:16… where the pride of life comes from.)
The corrupting power of pride and comparisons
1 Corinthians 3:16-23 Do ye not know that ye are [the] temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any one corrupt the temple of God, *him* shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are *ye*. Let no one deceive himself: if any one thinks himself to be wise among you in this world, let him become foolish, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, He who takes the wise in their craftiness. And again, [The] Lord knows the reasonings of the wise that they are vain.
So that let no one boast in men; for all things are yours. Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or [the] world, or life, or death, or things present, or things coming, all are yours; and *ye* [are] Christ’s, and Christ [is] God’s.
And here in those last few verses we are starting to get a hint as to the things the Corinthians were saying to themselves. It seems they had an “I have arrived” kind of mentality (“all things are yours.”) And their pride didn’t just show in their comparing themselves to each other, it seems they were comparing themselves to Paul…
1 Corinthians 4:1-3 (NIV) This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.
Paul’s comment here is worth remembering. If I am serving Christ, if I am carrying out the mission He gave me, then it never matters what the world thinks of me. And it also never matters what other Christians think of me. What matters is what God thinks. Paul had to tell the Church in Rome the same thing (Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?)
And Jesus cut all such comparisons in the bud among His disciples. Remember?
Matthew 20:25-27 But Jesus having called them to [him], said, Ye know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them. It shall not be thus amongst you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman…
Even down to the last minute… As Jesus is telling Peter how he will serve him with his life:
John 21:20-22 Peter, turning round, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following (who also leaned at supper on his breast, and said, Lord, who is it that delivers thee up?) Peter, seeing him, says to Jesus, Lord, and what [of] this [man]? Jesus says to him, If I will that he abide until I come, what [is that] to thee? Follow thou me.
So, Paul doesn’t care how any man judges him. But he then adds an interesting comment:
1 Corinthians 4:3-5 …Nor do I even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing in myself; but I am not justified by this: but he that examines me is the Lord. So that do not judge anything before [the] time, until the Lord shall come, who shall also both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and shall make manifest the counsels of hearts; and then shall each have [his] praise from God.
Yes, sometimes, even when we don’t give voice to those comparisons, they can rise up in our hearts without us acknowledging them. We have to remember then, that we are human, and that we are always susceptible to be under attack. The devil will try to sow doubt (about others and about us) in our hearts. The best antidote against that is to always keep our hearts open to the Holy Spirit. Hide nothing from Him, and He will reveal to us where the stumbling stones are.
Now Paul tells them straight to their faces: Your problem is pride.
1 Corinthians 4:6 Now these things, brethren, I have transferred, in their application, to myself and Apollos, for your sakes, that ye may learn in us the [lesson of] not [letting your thoughts go] above what is written, that ye may not be puffed up one for [such a] one against another.
1 Corinthians 4:7-8 For who makes thee to differ? and what hast thou which thou hast not received? but if also thou hast received, why boastest thou as not receiving? Already ye are filled; already ye have been enriched; ye have reigned without us; and I would that ye reigned, that *we* also might reign with you.
They are so full of themselves and their imagined “victories” in the Kingdom of God (filled, enriched, reigning) that Paul has to remind them that the call of the cross doesn’t come without cost:
1 Corinthians 4:9-13 For I think that God has set us the apostles for the last, as appointed to death. For we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men. *We* [are] fools for Christ’s sake, but *ye* prudent in Christ: *we* weak, but *ye* strong: *ye* glorious, but *we* in dishonour. To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are in nakedness, and buffeted, and wander without a home, and labour, working with our own hands. Railed at, we bless; persecuted, we suffer [it]; insulted, we entreat: we are become as [the] offscouring of the world, [the] refuse of all, until now.
We believe that these letters were read aloud by someone in the Church to the whole congregation. I wonder if the reader paused at this point and let it sink in. I think if Paul had been speaking to them in person, he would have. Because the silence would have invited our consciences to fill in what was not said: “You want to compare yourselves to me? You want to judge us, the apostles? Go right ahead, compare away. This is the life we signed up to, when Jesus told us to count the cost.”
This is also a good point to stop for today… a point and a moment to ponder:
What has the cross cost me?
If it has cost me nothing, I should wonder if I have been carrying it at all.