Communicating Spiritual Things by Spiritual Means
John Heading, Aberystwyth
The First Epistle to the Corinthians presents a balanced fare for the Lord's servants in a local assembly. Chapters 1-4 and 11-14 form the two great sections on service. The second section, chs. 11-14, deals with collective service, commencing with the believer's attitude of heart and with his or her outward display concerning the great truth that there can be no rivalry to the authority and glory of the Lord in a local company, 11. 2-16. Then follows service Godward, the objective of the Lord's supper, 11. 17-34. In chapter 12, Paul deals with spiritual gifts given to the Lord's people, with unity manifested amongst diversity. The lubrication of love in such service is an absolute necessity, ch. 13, before the practical outworking of these gifts is described in chapter 14. But the first section, chs. 1-4, presents more particularly the individual's attitude to service - though this can never be independent service, for all is done to further the building on the one foundation, even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Chapter 1 presents general principles of service; whereas the wants of men are signs and wisdom, yet God would supply them with the preaching of the cross as the power of God, Christ crucified being to men but a stumblingblock and foolishness. The thought here is, never give to men what they want, since God's thoughts and ways are not those of men. The chapter concludes with God's particular selection of preachers; the foolish and base things are called by grace so that "no flesh should glory in his presence". Chapter 2, to be dealt with more fully shortly, is the New Testament's great discourse on preaching. Chapter 3 presents God's valuation of service, seen under the figures of "God's husbandry" and "God's building". Finally, chapter 4 shows the relationships that should exist between those who serve and those who are served.
Discourse on Preaching. Three points of view in service are presented here. In verses 1-5, we have the point of view of the servant; his inner motives are laid bare. There could be no mere natural eloquence, since he had Christ to proclaim. Paul feared lest he should use natural and not spiritual power, since he wanted the best foundation for his converts, that they should stand in the power of God and not in the wisdom of men. In verses 6-10, we have the message preached, being God's point of view in revelation. The message concerns a mystery - the Person and work of Christ hidden from the natural man, but revealed from God by His Spirit. Lastly in verses 11-16, we have man's point of view in receiving the message; either the Spirit is received so that we can know the things of God, v. 12, or else the natural man does not receive the message, which must be spiritually discerned, v. 14.
The context deals with three classes of men. The spiritual man is a believer walking in his service according to the mind of God, 3. 1. The carnal man, 3. 1-3, is a believer who has forgotten spiritual standards and walks according to man's standards. The natural man, 2.14, is an unbeliever, who therefore can do nothing according to divine standards. The spiritual man's work abides, because it is of heavenly value. The carnal man's work cannot abide, since it is of no value according to the divine estimation; the man is nevertheless saved. But the natural man's work defiles the temple of God locally, 3. 17, and such a man is heading for destruction.
The Object of all Service is to communicate or to move something of a spiritual nature. The reader should consider this observation carefully in relation to all his activities in daily life. For all our activity in daily life consists of moving things from one place to another, whether in preparing food, in cleaning the house, in building or making anything, or in office work and typing where ink is moved from a ribbon to paper. It is the same in service; on the one hand, we seek to transfer the mind of God in the Word by His Spirit to the hearts of men, whether saint or sinner. Secondly, this takes place in acts of hospitality, help, kindness, practical assistance. Paul deals with the who?, what?, how?, in the three paragraphs of chapter 2, and in particular how this spiritual communication takes place, "communicating spiritual things by spiritual means (or words)", v. 13. The common translation "comparing spiritual things with spiritual", a.v., has no meaning in the present context, though some teachers force an out-of-context meaning from it, suggesting it means "comparing New Testament truths with their Old Testament counterparts", for example. The only other occasion this word appears in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians 10. 12, "or compare ourselves with some", where the word "compare" is now the proper translation as the context shows. The word is often used in the Greek Old Testament, where the mind of God is made known in dreams; for example, it occurs 13 times in Daniel 2. 4-45.
When Paul writes "communicating spiritual things", he is not dealing with the original inspiration of Scripture, nor with its reception by men who hear or read. Rather he is dealing with the intermediate process used by God, taking place between the preacher's understanding of divine truth and the hearing of this truth by men. This is the method that God uses in a spiritual man to convey truth. "Spiritual things" refers to "the things that are freely given to us of God", 1 Cor. 2. 12; we have that inward certainty regarding them since we have received the Spirit who knows the very mind of God. But the "spiritual means (or words)" refer to verse 13 directly, "words . . . which the Holy Spirit teacheth". The Lord Jesus had taught the same thing, "the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life", John 6. 63.
The process of conveying truth (whether the Gospel, or ministry to the Lord's people) is spiritual - just as holy and reverent as worship or prayer. The process has nothing in common with what appeals to a natural mind of the world and the flesh. "Not as pleasing men", wrote Paul, 1 Thess. 2. 4, namely, not reducing the means of communication to the level and standard whereby the unsaved find pleasure. This contrast between worldly and spiritual modes of communication is aptly expressed in Proverbs 19. 21, "There are many devices in a man's heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand". Some will say that there is then no common point of contact between a spiritually communicated message and the natural mind. Well, we must be honest with ourselves; that is just what Paul is driving at in 1 Corinthians 2. 10-16. And if this causes difficulty to some, such difficulty does not justify the introduction of extraneous glitter thereby to displace Paul's teaching. Rather, evangelists must believe that the Spirit will do His deep convincing work if they communicate spiritually the means. The Spirit would be grieved if He is expected to use a means of communication that is not spiritual.
We must ask the fundamental question, do toe ultimately convince and save a soul, or is this a divine work? Paul wrote, "when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe", 1 Thess. 2. 13. Again, "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God", Rom. 10. 17. But when no faith is produced, we may suggest two reasons. First there is the hardness of the unbelieving hearer's heart, the word "not being mixed with faith in them that heard it", Heb. 4. 2, Secondly there may be a lack of the preacher's faith in trusting in the work of the Spirit, thereby tending to introduce an appeal to the flesh. The Lord Jesus experienced the seed falling on stony ground, Matt. 13. 5; this was always due to the state of the hearers' hearts, never to any lack of His own spirituality. Again, in Matthew 11. 20 several cities did not repent in spite of His mighty works; the Lord confessed that these things were hidden "from the wise and prudent", v. 25. Men would only know the Son through the operation of the Father, 16. 17. Men would seek signs, but the Lord would not meet unbelief on its own grounds, 12. 39.
The lesson we must all learn is that we must please God and not men in our service. If we sense that the unsaved are pleased about something, then we should suspect our service and our means of communication; the Spirit never pleases an appetite for the things of the flesh in the unsaved.
Old Testament Illustration. The construction of the tabernacle is a good illustration of the principles we have been developing.
Spiritual Man. Bezaleel was called by name, and filled with the Spirit of God in wisdom, understanding and knowledge, Exod. 31. 2-3. Today, if we are called to specific service, and filled with the Spirit for it, then there are developed wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Laziness to grow does not render the servant spiritual.
Spiritual Means. This man was "filled ... in all manner of workmanship ... to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones", w. 3-5; God had "put it into his heart that he may teach , . . filled ... to work all manner of work, of the engraver", 35. 34-35. In other words, all methods of teaching and craftsmanship were according to the dictates of God; Bezaleel did not invent his own methods or go into Egypt to learn them. The following constructional chapters contain "he made" 38 times, with many other verbs such as "cast, overlaid, put, . . .", the summary being "according to all that the Lord had commanded", 36. 1. The methods were absolutely suitable for God's purpose; nothing else was needed, else it would have been supplied. Regarding all service in the local assembly, Paul would conclude, "If any man think himself to be ... spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord", 1 Cor. 14. 37.
Spiritual End. The objective of the construction was not to copy any religious features of the nations. Rather, the list of materials, Exod. 38. 21-31, their "sum", v. 21, was converted into the tabernacle "according to all that the Lord commanded Moses", 39. 42. Here was a suitable place for the habitation of God amongst His people, a place for the manifestation of His glory.
Our own Work for the Lord. We are spiritual if we walk according to His will and ways, and not men's, 1 Cor. 3. 3; if we have the mind of Christ, 2. 16. Spiritual things refer to the truths in the Word of God. Our spiritual objective should be the addition to the assembly of souls being saved, and for them to be built up to engage in holy activity Godward and saintward. The spiritual means adopted should be those from God, possessing His mind and shunning modern ideas as to what is suitable for sinners and saints. Can we fail to make progress in our service when we have these great facts before our hearts?