In the last essay we studied 1 Cor. 2:6-16. In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 3:1-23. In these verses Paul continues his distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual people, but this time he calls the non-spiritual people “fleshly” (sarkoinois) instead of “natural” (psychikos). In Paul’s theology “flesh” is a very strong and significant term, because Paul generally uses it to describe the sinful side of life. To be living in the flesh does not mean simply to be living in the physical body, but it means living in sin. Therefore Paul is making a strong point here. Many of the Corinthian believers, although they have been born again, are acting as though they haven’t. Therefore Paul must treat them as infants and feed them spiritual milk instead of solid food.
An interesting observation made by Gordon Fee here is that the gospel Paul preached to them served as both milk and solid food. It was milk for those who were being born again as spiritual infants, but it was solid food for the mature believers who were filled with the Spirit. In other words, the problem wasn’t with the message; it was with the perspective of the hearers.
In verse three Paul offers his proof that they still are not ready for solid spiritual food. He declares, “you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?”
Some interpreters have misapplied this passage by using it to attempt to prove that no believer can ever be lost whether sinful or not. This passage is not at all speaking to that issue. Other passages in the letter do speak to it (6:9-11; 10: 1-13), and we will discus them as we come to them.
Now then, Paul’s mention of the factionalism, which was based on the Corinthian’s favorite preacher, or minister, leads him in 3:5-23 to discuss the proper role of ministers in their midst.
The first thing we notice is that ministers are servants, not masters to whom others could belong. In this paragraph Paul uses an agricultural analogy to point out that that ministers like Apollos and himself are servants. Of course he meant servants of Christ, not of the Corinthians. That isn’t to say that apostles were unimportant to local congregations. But they certainly were not to be idolized. The same is true today. Ministers are servants of Christ who are to be respected as such, but not lionized or idolized.
Paul goes on in the next several verses to explain the differing roles of Apollos and himself. Paul planted the seeds of the gospel and Apollos watered them. In other words, they simply did the service that God called them to do. Thus their purpose was the same. They were one in ministry. And they would be rewarded appropriately. But very importantly, notice that it was God who gave the growth. Therefore neither the one who plants, nor the one who waters is anything. God is everything.
Fee makes another significant observation at this point. He reminds us that people “in charge” in churches, whether they are ministers or serving on boards or other leadership groups, tend to think of the local church as “their” church. The congregations do the same thing. They give lip-service to the fact that it is Christ’s church, but they function and talk as if it is their church. This is especially true of those who have attended that particular church their whole lives, or many years, and those who have given large financial or other contributions over the years. But the reality is that everything belongs to God: the church, the people, and the ministers.
Notice that Paul ends the paragraph by saying, “you are God’s field, God’s building.” That mention of a building sets up Paul’s next paragraph, in which he is going to turn from the agricultural image to an architectural image.
Notice in verse 10 that Paul repeats the idea communicated in verse six. There he had said that he planted and Apollos watered. Here he says that he “laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” But notice that still in verse 10 Paul adds a warning: “Each builder must chose with care how to build upon it.” In other words one must take care not to lay another foundation, because the already-laid foundation is Jesus Christ.
Now then, let’s unpack that just a little more. First, Paul declares that he laid the foundation by the grace of God. In other words God graced Paul to lay the foundation of the church in Corinth. Second, that grace enabled Paul to be “a skilled [literally wise] master builder.” That is Paul was given a special gift to lay the foundation of that church. And third, the foundation Paul laid was Jesus Christ himself.
Next, in verse 12 Paul returns to his building analogy and lists several possible materials for building on the foundation: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw. The list, especially in light of verses 13 and following, must be seen as two types of materials in sharp contrast (Wiersbe): The gold, silver and precious stones are permanent, beautiful, valuable, and hard to obtain. The wood, hay and straw, on the other hand, are temporary, ordinary, cheap, and easy to obtain. The point is clear. There are building materials that are appropriate for building on the foundation of Christ. And there are materials that are not appropriate. The appropriate materials are compatible with the foundation. That is, they further the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The inappropriate materials do not.
Verses 13-15 explain the warning we saw in verse 10. Judgment day is coming; and when it does, the value of every builder’s work will be revealed. The judgment fire will test the work. If one’s work remains unharmed by the fire, it will pass the test, and the builder will be rewarded. If the work is consumed, the work will have failed the test, and the worker will suffer loss, meaning loss of the value of the work. For example, if my life’s work of teaching and preaching the gospel of Christ burns up in the judgment, I will feel crushed. However I can take comfort with all Christians in the fact that this judgment is one of works, not of salvation. The builder whose work has been burned up “will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Some have tried to use this teaching to support the idea of purgatory. But as I stated a moment ago, Paul is speaking here about a judgment of works, not of salvation. There is nothing here about purging of sinfulness.
In verse 16 Paul shifts his focus a bit. He still is using architectural imagery, but he now asks the Corinthian believers if they know they are God’s temple in Corinth. This image would have been pertinent to both the Jewish and Gentile members of the church. Although Old Testament Israel never specifically was called the temple of God, the people of Israel were those among whom God chose to dwell. Therefore Jewish believers would have understood the image. The Gentile believers also would have clearly understood the imagery, because they were very familiar with the many pagan temples in their city and likely had visited them. Now Paul is telling them that the Holy Spirit is dwelling among them and that corporately, that is as the church, they are God’s temple.
Verse 17 contains a stern warning: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Some have suggested that this sentence contradicts the end of verse 15, where the one whose works are burned up still is saved. There is no contradiction. All the saved are saved because they are true believers, regardless of whether or not their works are burned up. A person, who destroys the church, meaning a local church not the church as a whole which cannot be destroyed, will face destruction him or herself.
In the last paragraph of chapter three Paul pulls his argument together and gives a preliminary summary. In verse 18 Paul tells the Corinthian believers not to deceive themselves by believing that they are wise “in this age,” meaning wise with the wisdom of the world. This refers to persons who think they have special knowledge or standing, who claim superiority based on their spirituality, knowledge, social standing, or intelligence. It is possible that Paul had the group leaders of the several factions in mind. In any case, in this summary Paul is telling them to discard the worldly wisdom and become fools so that they can come to know God’s wisdom.
Paul supports his argument with references two Old Testament scriptures: Job 5:13 and Ps 94:11 (LXX). The passage from Job is based on hunting skills. Hunters learned to catch prey by using the prey’s own craftiness or cunning. And God does the same thing with people. He uses the their cunning thinking to ensnare them. The reference to Ps 94:11 presses home the idea that human wisdom is futile.
Finally, Paul concludes in verses 21-23 that no one should boast about human leaders, which is exactly what the Corinthians had been doing. Paul, Apollos and Cephas all belongs to them, as does the world, life, death, the present and the future. This expansion of the list far beyond the ministers indicates that it really is all things that belong to them. But more importantly, they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.