Adam Clarke Commentary
1 Corinthians 3
Because of the carnal, divided state of the people at Corinth, the apostle was obliged to treat them as children in the knowledge of sacred things, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. Some were for setting up Paul, others Apollos, as their sole teachers, 1 Corinthians 3:4. The apostle shows that himself and fellow apostles were only instruments which God used to bring them to the knowledge of the truth; and even their sowing, and watering the seed was of no use unless God gave the increase, 1 Corinthians 3:5-8. The Church represented as God‘s husbandry, and as God‘s building, the foundation of which is Christ Jesus, 1 Corinthians 3:9-11. Ministers must beware how and what they build on this foundation, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. The Church of God is his temple, and he that defiles it shall be destroyed, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Corinthians 3:17. No man should depend on his own wisdom; for the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, 1 Corinthians 3:18-20. None should glory in man as his teacher; God gives his followers every good, both for time and eternity, 1 Corinthians 3:21-23.
I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual - This is a continuation of the preceding discourse. See the notes on 1 Corinthians 2:14, 1 Corinthians 2:15 (note), and 1 Corinthians 2:16 (note).
But as unto carnal - Σαρκικοις , Persons under the influence of fleshly appetites; coveting and living for the things of this life.
Babes in Christ - Just beginning to acquire some notion of the Christian religion, hut as yet very incapable of judging what is most suitable to yourselves, and consequently utterly unqualified to discern between one teacher and another; so that your making the distinctions which you do make, so far from being a proof of mature judgment, is on the contrary a proof that you have no right judgment at all; and this springs from your want of knowledge in Divine things.
I have fed you with milk - I have instructed you in the elements of Christianity - in its simplest and easiest truths; because from the low state of your minds in religious knowledge, you were incapable of comprehending the higher truths of the Gospel: and in this state you will still continue. The apostle thus exposes to them the absurdity of their conduct in pretending to judge between preacher and preacher, while they had but a very partial acquaintance even with the first principles of Christianity.
There is among you envying, and strife, and divisions - Ζηλος και ερις και διχοστασιαι . There are three things here worthy of note: these people were wrong in thought, word, and deed. Ζηλος , envying refers to the state of their souls; they had inward grudgings and disaffection towards each other. Ερις , strife or contention, refers to their words; they were continually disputing and contending whose party was the best, each endeavoring to prove that he and his party were alone in the right. Διχοστασιαι , divisions, refers to their conduct; as they could not agree, they contended till they separated from each other, and thus rent the Church of Christ. Thus the envying and grudging led to strife and evil Speaking, and this led to divisions and fixed parties. In this state well might the apostle say, Are ye not carnal, and walk as men? Ye act just as the people of the world, and have no more of the spirit of religion than they.
For while one saith, I am of Paul, etc. - It was notorious that both Paul and Apollos held the same creed; between them there was not the slightest difference: when, therefore, the dissentients began to prefer the one to the other, it was the fullest proof of their carnality; because in the doctrines of these apostles there was no difference: so that what the people were captivated by must be something in their outward manner, Apollos being probably more eloquent than Paul. Their preferring one to another on such an account proved that they were carnal - led by their senses and mere outward appearances, without being under the guidance either of reason or grace. There are thousands of such people in the Christian Church to the present day. See the notes on 1 Corinthians 1:10, etc.
Ministers by whom ye believed - The different apostles who have preached unto you the word of life are the means which God has used to bring you to the knowledge of Christ. No one of those has either preached or recommended himself; they all preach and recommend Christ Jesus the Lord.
Even as the Lord gave to every man? - Whatever difference there may be in our talents, it is of God‘s making; and he who knows best what is best for his Church, has distributed both gifts and graces according to his own mind; and, as his judgment is infallible, all these dispensations must be right. Paul, therefore, is as necessary to the perfecting of the Church of Christ as Apollos; and Apollos, as Paul. Both, but with various gifts, point out the same Christ, building on one and the same foundation.
I have planted - I first sowed the seed of the Gospel at Corinth, and in the region of Achaia.
Apollos watered - Apollos came after me, and, by his preachings and exhortations, watered the seed which I had sowed; but God gave the increase. The seed has taken root, has sprung up, and borne much fruit; but this was by the especial blessing of God. As in the natural so in the spiritual world; it is by the especial blessing of God that the grain which is sown in the ground brings forth thirty, sixty, or a hundred fold: it is neither the sower nor the waterer that produces this strange and inexplicable multiplication; it is God alone. So it is by the particular agency of the Spirit of God that even good seed, sown in good ground, the purest doctrine conveyed to the honest heart, produces the salvation of the soul.
So then, neither is he that planteth any thing - God alone should have all the glory, as the seed is his, the ground is his, the laborers are his, and the produce all comes from himself.
He that planteth and he that watereth are one - Both Paul and Apollos have received the same doctrine, preach the same doctrine, and labor to promote the glory of God in the salvation of your souls. Why should you be divided with respect to Paul and Apollos, while these apostles are intimately One in spirit, design, and operation?
According to his own labor - God does not reward his servants according to the success of their labor, because that depends on himself; but he rewards them according to the quantum of faithful labor which they bestow on his work. In this sense none can say, I have labored in vain, and spent my strength for nought.
For we are laborers together with God - We do nothing of ourselves, nor in reference to ourselves; we labor together in that work which God has given us to do, expect all our success from him, and refer the whole to his glory. It would perhaps be more correct to translate Θεου γαρ εσμεν συνεργοι , we are fellow laborers of God; for, as the preposition συν may express the joint labor of the teachers one with another, and not with God, I had rather, with Bishop Pearce, translate as above: i.e. we labor together in the work of God. Far from being divided among ourselves, we jointly labor, as oxen in the same yoke, to promote the honor of our Master.
Ye are God‘s husbandry, ye are God‘s building - Θεου γεωργιον, Θεου οικοδομη εστε· The word γεωργιον , which we translate husbandry, signifies properly an arable field; so Proverbs 24:30: I went by the Field, γεωργιον , of the slothful; and Proverbs 31:16: The wise woman considereth a Field, γεωργιον , and buyeth it. It would be more literal to translate it, Ye are God‘s farm: γεωργιον in Greek answers to שדה (sadeh) in Hebrew, which signifies properly a sown field.
As a wise master builder - Ὡς σοφος αρχιτεκτων . The design or plan of the building is from God; all things must be done according to the pattern which he has exhibited; but the execution of this plan was entrusted chiefly to St. Paul; he was the wise or experienced architect which God used in order to lay the foundation; to ascertain the essential and immutable doctrines of the Gospel - those alone which came from God, and which alone he would bless to the salvation of mankind.
Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon - Let him take care that the doctrines which he preaches be answerable to those which I have preached; let him also take heed that he enjoin no other practice than that which is suitable to the doctrine, and in every sense accords with it.
Other foundation can no man lay - I do not speak particularly concerning the foundation of this spiritual building; it can have no other foundation than Jesus Christ: there cannot be two opinions on this subject among the true apostles of our Lord. The only fear is, lest an improper use should be made of this heavenly doctrine; lest a bad superstructure should be raised on this foundation.
If any men build - gold, silver, etc. - Without entering into curious criticisms relative to these different expressions, it may be quite enough for the purpose of edification to say, that, by gold, silver, and precious stones, the apostle certainly means pure and wholesome doctrines: by wood, hay, and stubble, false doctrines; such as at that time prevailed in the Corinthian Church; for instance, that there should be no resurrection of the body; that a man may, on his father‘s death, lawfully marry his step-mother; that it was necessary to incorporate much of the Mosaic law with the Gospel; and, perhaps, other matters, equally exceptionable, relative to marriage, concubinage, fornication, frequenting heathen festivals, and partaking of the flesh which had been offered in sacrifice to an idol; with many other things, which, with the above, are more or less hinted at by the apostle in these two letters.
The day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire - There is much difference of opinion relative to the meaning of the terms in this and the two following verses. That the apostle refers to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem I think very probable; and when this is considered, all the terms and metaphors will appear clear and consistent.
And the fire shall try every man‘s work - If the apostle refers to the Judaizing teachers and their insinuations that the law, especially circumcision, was of eternal obligation; then the day of fire - the time of vengeance, which was at hand, would sufficiently disprove such assertions; as, in the judgment of God, the whole temple service should be destroyed; and the people, who fondly presumed on their permanence and stability, should be dispossessed of their land and scattered over the face of the whole earth. The difference of the Christian and Jewish systems should then be seen: the latter should be destroyed in that fiery day, and the former prevail more than ever.
If any man‘s work abide - Perhaps there is here an allusion to the purifying of different sorts of vessels under the law. All that could stand the fire were to be purified by the fire; and those which could not resist the action of the fire were to be purified by water, Numbers 31:23. The gold, silver, and precious stones, could stand the fire; but the wood, hay, and stubble, must be necessarily consumed. So, in that great and terrible day of the Lord, all false doctrine, as well as the system that was to pass away, should be made sufficiently manifest; and God would then show that the Gospel, and that alone, was that system of doctrine which he should bless and protect, and none other.
He shall receive a reward - He has not only preached the truth, but he has labored in the word and doctrine. And the reward is to be according to the labor. See on 1 Corinthians 3:8 (note).
If any man‘s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss - If he have preached the necessity of incorporating the law with the Gospel, or proclaimed as a doctrine of God any thing which did not proceed from heaven, he shall suffer loss - all his time and labor will be found to be uselessly employed and spent. Some refer the loss to the work, not to the man; and understand the passage thus: If any man‘s work be burned, It shall suffer loss - much shall be taken away from it; nothing shall he left but the measure of truth and uprightness which it may have contained.
But he himself shall be saved - If he have sincerely and conscientiously believed what he preached, and yet preached what was wrong, not through malice or opposition to the Gospel, but through mere ignorance, he shall be saved; God in his mercy will pass by his errors; and he shall not suffer punishment because he was mistaken. Yet, as in most erroneous teachings there is generally a portion of wilful and obstinate ignorance, the salvation of such erroneous teachers is very rare; and is expressed here, yet so as by fire, i.e. with great difficulty; a mere escape; a hair‘s breadth deliverance; he shall be like a brand plucked out of the fire.
Ye are the temple of God - The apostle resumes here what he had asserted in 1 Corinthians 3:9: Ye are God‘s building. As the whole congregation of Israel were formerly considered as the temple and habitation of God, because God dwelt among them, so here the whole Church of Corinth is called the temple of God, because all genuine believers have the Spirit of God to dwell in them; and Christ has promised to be always in the midst even of two or three who are gathered together in his name. Therefore where God is, there is his temple.
If any man defile the temple - This clause is not consistently translated. Ει τις τον ναον του Θεου φθειρει, φθερει τουτον ὁ Θεος If any man destroy the temple of God, him will God destroy. The verb is the same in both clauses. If any man injure, corrupt, or destroy the Church of God by false doctrine, God will destroy him - will take away his part out of the book of life. This refers to him who wilfully opposes the truth; the erring, mistaken man shall barely escape; but the obstinate opposer shall be destroyed. The former shall be treated leniently; the latter shall have judgment without mercy.
If any man among you seemeth to be wise - Ει τις δοκει σοφος ειναι· If any pretend or affect to be wise. This seems to refer to some individual in the Church of Corinth, who had been very troublesome to its peace and unity: probably Diotrephes (see on 1 Corinthians 1:14 (note)) or some one of a similar spirit, who wished to have the pre-eminence, and thought himself wiser than seven men that could render a reason. Every Christian Church has less or more of these.
Let him become a fool - Let him divest himself of his worldly wisdom, and be contented to be called a fool, and esteemed one, that he may become wise unto salvation, by renouncing his own wisdom, and seeking that which comes from God. But probably the apostle refers to him who, pretending to great wisdom and information, taught doctrines contrary to the Gospel; endeavoring to show reasons for them, and to support his own opinions with arguments which he thought unanswerable. This man brought his worldly wisdom to bear against the doctrines of Christ; and probably through such teaching many of the scandalous things which the apostle reprehends among the Corinthians originated.
The wisdom of this world - Whether it be the pretended deep and occult wisdom of the rabbins, or the wire-drawn speculations of the Grecian philosophers, is foolishness with God; for as folly consists in spending time, strength, and pains to no purpose, so these may be fitly termed fools who acquire no saving knowledge by their speculations. And is not this the case with the major part of all that is called philosophy, even in the present day? Has one soul been made wise unto salvation through it? Are our most eminent philosophers either pious or useful men? Who of them is meek, gentle, and humble! Who of them directs his researches so as to meliorate the moral condition of his fellow creatures? Pride, insolence, self-conceit, and complacency, with a general forgetfulness of God, contempt for his word, and despite for the poor, are their general characteristics.
He taketh the wise in their own craftiness - This is a quotation from Job 5:13, and powerfully shows what the wisdom of this world is: it is a sort of craft, a subtle trade, which they carry on to wrong others and benefit themselves; and they have generally too much cunning to be caught by men; but God often overthrows them with their own devisings. Paganism raised up persecution against the Church of Christ, in order to destroy it: this became the very means of quickly spreading it over the earth, and of destroying the whole pagan system. Thus the wise were taken in their own craftiness.
The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise - They are always full of schemes and plans for earthly good; and God knows that all this is vain, empty, and unsatisfactory; and will stand them in no stead when he comes to take away their souls. This is a quotation from Psalm 94:11. What is here said of the vanity of human knowledge is true of every kind of wisdom that leads not immediately to God himself.
Let no man glory in men - Let none suppose that he has any cause of exultation in any thing but God. All are yours; he that has God for his portion has every thing that can make him happy and glorious: all are his.
Whether Paul, or Apollos - As if he had said: God designs to help you by all things and persons; every teacher sent from him will become a blessing to you, if you abide faithful to your calling. God will press every thing into the service of his followers. The ministers of the Church of Christ are appointed for the hearers, not the hearers for the ministers. In like manner, all the ordinances of grace and mercy are appointed for them, not they for the ordinances.
Or the world - The word κοσμος , here, means rather the inhabitants of the world than what we commonly understand by the world itself; and this is its meaning in John 3:16, John 3:17; John 6:33; John 14:31; John 17:21. See particularly John 12:19: Ὁ κοσμοσοπισω αυτου απηλθεν , the World is gone after him - the great mass of the people believe on him. The Greek word has the same meaning, in a variety of places, both in the sacred and the profane writers, as le monde, the world, literally has in French, where it signifies, not only the system of created things, but, by metonomy, the people - every body, the mass, the populace. In the same sense it is often found in English. The apostle‘s meaning evidently is: Not only Paul, Apollos, and Kephas, are yours - appointed for and employed in your service; but every person besides with whom you may have any intercourse or connection, whether Jew or Greek, whether enemy or friend. God will cause every person, as well as every thing to work for your good, while you love, cleave to, and obey Him.
Or life - With all its trials and advantages, every hour of it, every tribulation in it, the whole course of it, as the grand state of your probation, is a general blessing to you: and you have life, and that life preserved in order to prepare for an eternity of blessedness.
Or death - That solemn hour, so dreadful to the wicked; and so hateful to those who live without God: that is yours. Death is your servant; he comes a special messenger from God for you; he comes to undo a knot that now connects body and soul, which it would be unlawful for yourselves to untie; he comes to take your souls to glory; and he cannot come before his due time to those who are waiting for the salvation of God. A saint wishes to live only to glorify God; and he who wishes to live longer than he can get and do good, is not worthy of life.
Or things present - Every occurrence in providence in the present life; for God rules in providence as well as in grace.
Or things to come - The whole order and economy of the eternal world; all in heaven and all in earth are even now working together for your good.
And ye are Christ‘s - You are called by his name; you have embraced his doctrine; you depend on him for your salvation; he is your foundation stone; he has gathered you out of the world, and acknowledges you as his people and followers. Ὑμεις δε Χριστου , ye are of Christ; all the light and life which ye enjoy ye have received through and from him, and he has bought you with his blood.
And Christ is God‘s - Χριστος δε Θεου , And Christ is of God. Christ, the Messiah, is the gift of God‘s eternal love and mercy to mankind; for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that they who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Christ in his human nature is as much the property of God as any other human being. And as mediator between God and man, he must be considered, in a certain way, inferior to God, but in his own essential, eternal nature, there is no inequality - he is God over all. Ye, therefore, do not belong to men. Why then take Paul, Apollos, Kephas, or any other man for your head? All these are your servants; ye are not their property, ye are Christ‘s property: and as he has taken the human nature into heaven, so will he take yours; because he that sanctifieth, and they that are sanctified are all of one: ye are his brethren; and as his human nature is eternally safe at the throne of God, so shall your bodies and souls be, if ye cleave to him and be faithful unto death.
1.A Finer and more conclusive argument, to correct what was wrong among this people, could not have been used than that with which the apostle closes this chapter. It appears to stand thus: “If you continue in these divisions, and arrange yourselves under different teachers, you will meet with nothing but disappointment, and lose much good. If ye will have Paul, Apollos, etc., on your present plan, you will have them and nothing else; nor can they do you any good, for they are only instruments in God‘s hand, at best, to communicate good, and he will not use them to help you while you act in this unchristian way. On the contrary, if you take God as your portion, you shall get these and every good besides. Act as you now do, and you get nothing and lose all! Act as I advise you to do, and you shall not only lose nothing of the good which you now possess, but shall have every possible advantage: the men whom you now wish to make your heads, and who, in that capacity, cannot profit you, shall become God‘s instruments of doing you endless good. Leave your dissensions, by which you offend God, and grieve his Christ; and then God, and Christ, and all will be yours.” How agitated, convinced, and humbled must they have been when they read the masterly conclusion of this chapter!
2.A want of spirituality seems to have been the grand fault of the Corinthians. They regarded outward things chiefly, and were carried away with sound and show. They lost the Treasure while they eagerly held fast the earthen vessel that contained it. It is a true saying, that he who lends only the ear of his body to the word of God, will follow that man most who pleases the ear; and these are the persons who generally profit the soul least.
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