1 Corinthians 3:18–23
John the Baptist is one of the most interesting characters in Scripture. And one of the most memorable of his statements is, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30 TNIV). John the Baptist, of course, was speaking here about the relationship between himself and Jesus. He recognized that all his fame was temporary, and that it would soon wane as the Lord gained the notoriety He was due. John the Baptist’s humility and joyful acceptance of his own role in this transition is admirable. He was aware his own status as forerunner and Jesus’s status as Messiah. Indeed, John the Baptist had a proper self-perception.
At the beginning of today’s passage, Paul issues a strong warning against self-deception (see last week’s devotional). But Paul also gives a positive reason for maintaining a proper self-perception. The transition from negative warning to positive exhortation is signaled by the “little word,” for, in v. 21. The for harkens back to the command against self-deception in v. 18. Immediately following the command, Paul gives reasons they should reject their wrong thinking that led to self-deception (vv. 18–20). He then rephrases the command against self-deception, “So then, no more boasting about mere mortals!” (v. 21 NET). The rephrased command is immediately followed by for. This for introduces a series of statements regarding the reality of the Corinthian believers’ status that serve as the basis for an accurate self-perception.
Paul says “all things” belong to the Corinthians. This is truly amazing! The Corinthians had had an under-sized self-perception. They felt they had to align with famous teachers in order to have any value. But by declaring their allegiance to a particular teacher, they were underestimating their own worth. As one commentator puts it, “The Christian community does not belong to individual teachers, but the teachers belong to the community. They were each saying, ‘I belong to…’, but Paul says, ‘Paul and Apollos and Peter all belong to you.’ … Paul never says this is ‘my church’ even though he is the founding apostle’” (New Bible Commentary).
This is significant for the church today, as well. In some contexts, spiritual abusers wish to make themselves into masters and their followers into their own disciples. Spiritually vulnerable people easily fall prey to such tactics. But even the great apostle Paul belonged to the church and not the church to him; how much more today’s teachers belong to the church and not vice versa. To be sure, teachers and preachers are a gift to the church. But when the church relies too heavily on mere teachers or preachers, they are easily led into error.
But Paul goes even farther. He says that the world, life and death, the present and the future belong to the Corinthians. We could debate exactly what Paul means by each of these, but the main point is clear: the Corinthians had been boasting about their relationship with people, when they already possessed far more than anything those people could give. How often Christians today, like the Corinthians, needlessly struggle and strain, moving from one spiritual defeat to another. They have their sights set on their own problems, their own resources, and their own solutions. Thinking through such things is important, but they should not be the center of focus! The focus should be on God and His provisions. He has already given us everything that endures to eternity, so the problems we encounter are “light and momentary” (2 Cor 4:17 NIV).
Sometimes, however, Christians make the opposite mistake. They think that perceived problems are unreal, that they can simply “name it and claim it.” That would be true if we were gods. But Paul insists that “you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (v. 23 NET). Like John the Baptist, we too must recognize our rightful place in God’s economy. We possess all that God has given us, but we are also possessed by God Himself. This is accurate self-perception.