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? 1 Corinthians 3:3
Fleshly – Look at a few English versions and you will quickly discover that the Greek word sarkikos is translated in several ways. The NASB uses “fleshly,” an odd English word but close to the Greek sarx. The NIV uses “worldly.” We might understand the term better but it removes us from sarx and implies the Greek term cosmos. The ESV and RSV use “of the flesh,” but the preposition is gar (from), not de (of). The NLT imports additional meaning with “controlled by your own sinful desires.”
So, why does this matter? Don’t we get the meaning no matter which translation we choose? Well, yes – and no. Yes, we understand that Paul is diagnosing ungodly behavior as a symptom of spiritual immaturity. But no, we might not see that Paul is not connecting the simple fact that we are embodied with spiritual malaise. Paul is not suggesting a Greek dualism. Being human does not mean being sinful. Paul is focused on the behavior, not the vehicle that transports the behavior. To be sarkikos is to act in certain ways, not to be a certain kind of person.
Did you notice that Paul doesn’t say anything about sin here? He implies that this kind of behavior is not appropriate. He chastises his readers for their lack of spiritual maturity. He is clearly addressing believers. But he doesn’t equate sarkikos with sin (hamartia), at least not in this context. Paul is concerned with the principle of outward expression of the Spirit. His diagnosis focuses on what any observer could see. If believers exhibit jealousy and strife, they look like ordinary pagans. They diminish the image of God in the world and insult the glory of the Creator. They don’t shine with His character. And everyone can see it! That’s the shame of it all. Their witness as new people in the Messiah is sullied.
The cause of all this tragic display might be sin. After all, jealousy and strife are listed among the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. They stand in opposition to life in the Spirit. But the emphasis here is not on the inner cause. It is on the outward display. This is about behavior modification. Paul’s words imply that the congregation in Corinth claimed to be followers of the Way, but they were acting with the same behavior as pagans. There was no discernible difference. Therefore, their claim appears empty.
If we associate “flesh” with sin, we are likely to say, “But my sins have been forgiven. I have been cleansed. I really do believe.” That could become an excuse for avoiding Paul’s behavior diagnosis. But if we realize that Paul is simply looking at the way we act and drawing conclusions about our spiritual maturity, then claims about forgiveness are immaterial. Stop acting this way!
Today isn’t the day to assess whether or not we have been redeemed. Today is the day to take a hard look at how we behave – and see if our actions match our words.
Topical Index: fleshly, sarkikos, 1 Corinthians 3:3