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Lack of spiritual growth (3:1-9)
When Paul was in Corinth a year or two previously, he could not speak to the believers as spiritual people (such as those just described in 2:6-16), because they were then little different from ordinary, natural people of the world. They were babes in Christ and Paul treated them so. He did not find fault with them then, because one expects new converts to be like that; but he does find fault with them now, because they are still like that (3:1-2). They are like people ‘of the flesh’, people whose lives are characterized by the old sinful nature. They are like the people of the world that Paul has just been describing in Chapter 2. Their behaviour is not according to the wisdom of God, but according to the wisdom of the world. Their quarrels and divisions are proof of this (3-4).
Some of the Corinthians were exalting Paul, others exalting Apollos. But Paul and Apollos are not in opposition; they are working together. The work of God in Corinth is likened to a field in which Paul did the planting, and Apollos the watering. Though the two have different functions, both are necessary, but neither of them can make the plants grow. Only God can do that (5-6). Those who plant will not see as much fruit as those who water or those who reap. For that reason the reward does not depend on the fruit people see but on the work they faithfully carry out (7-9).
Christian activity tested (3:10-23)
The Corinthians are likened also to a building. Paul laid the foundation, and now other Christians, in particular the teachers, have the responsibility to build on that foundation (10). There is only one foundation, Jesus Christ, but the structure may be built in all sorts of ways. People may build something of lasting worth through using valuable materials (gold, silver and precious stones), or they may build something of no lasting worth through using cheap materials (wood, grass and straw) (11-12).
When each building is tested by fire on the day of judgment, quality alone will count. The valuable materials will survive, but the cheap materials will be burnt up. Christians who have made the effort to grow spiritually have built something that is permanent and worthy of reward. Christians who have lived like ordinary people of the world have built nothing permanent and in the end will lose everything. They will be like those who run from a burning house but lose all their possessions. They themselves are saved, but they have nothing to show after a lifetime of activity (13-15).
Since the church (that is, the group of believers as a whole) is the temple of God, it must be holy. God will act in judgment on those who destroy his temple through division or makes it unclean through sinful behaviour (16-17).
Paul returns to the subject of wisdom, because the divisions in Corinth were caused by those who considered themselves wise in following favourite teachers. The humblest believer can understand the things of God, whereas those who are wise by the world’s standards cannot. Heavenly wisdom is foolishness to the ordinary people of the world; but the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God (18-20). By attaching themselves to one particular teacher, the Corinthians are not increasing God’s blessing, but limiting it. All teachers are theirs, not just one. Since they belong to Christ, their blessings are unlimited (21-23).
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Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "Brideway Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34