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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

Here Paul introduced a third category of humanity, namely, the "fleshen" (Gr. sarkinos) or immature Christian. The Corinthians were not spiritually mature even though they possessed the Holy Spirit. Paul said he could not speak to them as spiritual men. He explained the reason in 1 Corinthians 3:3. Instead he had to address them as fleshen people, even as babes in Christ. Immaturity is not blameworthy if one is very young. However if a person has been a Christian for some time and is still immature, his or her condition is blameworthy (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6). Such was the condition of the Corinthians.

Verses 1-4

4. The immature and carnal conditions 3:1-4

The apostle proceeded to tell the Corinthians that they had not been viewing things from the spiritual point of view. He was referring specifically to their exaltation of one or another of God’s servants above the others (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Paul urgently appealed to them to change.

Verse 2

When Paul had been with them they were new converts, so he gave them the milk of the Word, the ABCs of the faith (cf. 1 Peter 2:2). Now, when they should have been able to take in more advanced teaching, they were not able to do so (cf. Hebrews 5:11-14). Their party spirit was an evidence of spiritual immaturity, lack of growth. Their fundamental need was not a change of diet but a change of perspective.

Paul’s use of the vocative ("brothers [and sisters]") and second person plural pronouns in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 indicates that he was addressing the whole church, not just a faction within it (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10). The actions of many in the congregation had defiled the whole body. [Note: Ibid., p. 123.]

Verse 3

The reason Paul did not feel he should give them more advanced instruction was that their flesh (Gr. sarkikos) still dominated them. As believers they were making provision for the flesh to fulfill its desires rather than following the leading of the Holy Spirit. They were not only immature believers but also carnal believers. The carnal, fleshly believer is the fourth type of person Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 2:14 to 1 Corinthians 3:4.

Various students of this section of the epistle have understood Paul as describing several different kinds of people. Some believe he saw only a difference between unbelievers (natural) and believers (spiritual). [Note: E.g., John F. MacArthur Jr., Faith Works, p. 126.] Others have seen three kinds of people in view: unbelievers, spiritual believers, and carnal believers. [Note: E.g., Lewis S. Chafer, He That Is Spiritual, pp. 3-14.] Still others have seen four: unbelievers (psychikos), mature believers (pneumatikos), immature believers (sarkinos), and carnal believers (sarkikos). [Note: E.g., Stanley D. Toussaint, "The Spiritual Man," Bibliotheca Sacra 125:498 (April-June 1968):139-46.] I believe the last view is the best.

Paul let the Corinthians diagnose themselves. Are not jealousy and strife the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20)? Did these qualities not indicate that they were conducting themselves as unbelievers, as people who do not even possess the Holy Spirit? [Note: For an excellent discussion of carnal believers, see Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, pp. 311-31.] Their inability to get along with other Christians showed that their flesh (sinful human nature) controlled them.

"Being human is not a bad thing in itself, any more than being sarkinoi [fleshen] is (1 Corinthians 3:1). What is intolerable is to have received the Spirit, which makes one more than merely human, and to continue to live as though one were nothing more." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 127.]

Verse 4

Partisanship is a manifestation of human wisdom. All the philosophical schools in Greece had their chief teachers. There was keen competition among these teachers, and there were strong preferences among the students as to who was the best. However this attitude is totally inappropriate when it comes to evaluating the servants of Christ. It is completely contrary to the mind of Christ who Himself stooped to raise others.

"It is sinful for church members to compare pastors, or for believers to follow human leaders as disciples of men and not disciples of Jesus Christ. The ’personality cults’ in the church today are in direct disobedience to the Word of God. Only Jesus Christ should have the place of preeminence (Colossians 1:18)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:569.]

This section of verses makes it very clear that it is possible for genuine Christians to behave as and to appear to be unbelievers (cf. Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43). The Corinthians’ conduct indicated carnality, not lack of eternal life. Prolonged immaturity as a result of carnality is a condition all too prevalent in modern Christianity. Often we mistake carnal Christians for natural men, unbelievers.

Verse 5

Paul, Apollos, and, of course, Cephas were only servants of Christ each serving in his own way and sphere of opportunity under the Master’s direction.

Verses 5-9

Fellow workers under God 3:5-9

"Besides evidencing a misapprehension of the gospel itself, the Corinthians’ slogans bespeak a totally inadequate perception of the church and its ministry." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 129. See Jay E. Smith, "Slogans in 1 Corinthians," Bibliotheca Sacra 167:655 (January-March 2010):68-88.]

Verses 5-17

5. The role of God’s servants 3:5-17

Paul turned next to a positive explanation of how his readers should view him and his fellow workers.

"At issue is their radically misguided perception of the nature of the church and its leadership, in this case especially the role of the teachers." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 128.]

"In the first place, they have not understood the nature and character of the Christian message, the true wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 3:4). In the second place, their sectarian spirit indicates that they have no real understanding of the Christian ministry, its partnership under God in the propagation of the truth (1 Corinthians 3:5 to 1 Corinthians 4:5)." [Note: Johnson, p. 1231.]

Verses 6-8

Obviously God deserved more credit for the church in Corinth than either its planter or its nurturer. Next to Him the others were nothing. Human laborers are all equal in that they are human laborers with human limitations. Nevertheless the Lord will reward each one at the judgment seat of Christ because of his or her work. Note that it is our labor that will be the basis of our reward, not the fruit of our labor.

Verse 9

Paul and Apollos were fellow workers for God. Elsewhere Paul spoke of believers as fellow workers with God (2 Corinthians 6:1), but that was not his point here. The Corinthians were the field in view in the preceding illustration (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). Paul now compared them to a building. He proceeded to develop this illustration in the following verses (1 Corinthians 3:10-17). This verse is transitional.

To help the Corinthians abandon the party spirit that marked their church, Paul stressed the equality of their teachers as fellow workers under God’s sovereign authority (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

"Everything is God’s-the church, its ministry, Paul, Apollos-everything. Therefore, it is absolutely not permissible to say ’I belong to Paul,’ since the only legitimate ’slogan’ is ’we all belong to God.’" [Note: Ibid., p. 134.]

"A sermon on our text [1 Corinthians 3:1-9] would focus on the attitudes of preachers and congregations about one another as they relate to the gospel of the cross. Peruse this brief sermon sketch:

"’I belong to Paul.’ ’I belong to Apollos.’ Familiar cries in a world of hi-tech religion. See huge Sunday crowds squint under the glare of spotlights as ’their’ preachers dazzle millions of electronic viewers with wisdom and rhetorical charm. Overhear the Christian public admire TV evangelists and big-time clergy: ’Oh, I like to listen to _____.’ ’Well, he’s O.K. but I like _____ better.’ You fill in the blanks. Yes, everyone has their favorite preacher nowadays. In spite of all the notorious hucksters, ’preacher religion’ is in. The result? An increasingly fragmented church. ’I belong to Paul and you don’t.’ It is enough to make Corinth look tame by comparison." [Note: C. Thomas Rhyne, "Expository Articles: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9," Interpretation 44:2 (April 1990):177.]

Verse 10

In the new illustration Paul laid the foundation of the church in Corinth by founding the church, and others added the walls and continued building on that foundation. Paul’s special mission from God was to found churches (Romans 15:20). He readily acknowledged that it was only by God’s grace that he could do so as a skillful master-builder. He added a word of warning that the quality of the materials and workmanship that went into building the church are very important.

"By laying the foundation he did-Jesus Christ and him crucified-he was the truly ’wise’ master-builder in contrast to the ’wise’ in Corinth, who are building the church of totally incongenial materials and are therefore in danger of attempting to lay another foundation as well." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 138.]

Verses 10-15

Builders of God’s temple 3:10-15

"The usual explanation of this passage is that it describes the building of the Christian life. We all build on Christ, but some people use good materials while others use poor materials. The kind of material you use determines the kind of reward you will get.

"While this may be a valid application of this passage, it is not the basic interpretation. Paul is discussing the building of the local church, the temple of God." [Note: Wiersbe, 1: 579.]

Verse 11

Christ Himself is the foundation of the church (Matthew 16:18; cf. Isaiah 28:16; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6). Basing a church on the work of any other person, even Peter, is improper. Paul laid the foundation for the church in Corinth when he preached Christ and Him crucified there. The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church in a secondary sense only (Ephesians 2:20). [Note: See Barrett, pp. 87-88.]

Verses 12-13

Even though the quality of the foundation was the best, the condition of the building also depended on what others built on top of the foundation. In Paul’s day contractors built buildings of durable and or combustible materials, as they do today. In the building of the Corinthian church durable materials were those activities that sprang from reliance on Christ and Him crucified, the foundation. These works contributed to the permanent spiritual strengthening of the believers. The combustible materials were activities that arose out of human "wisdom" in all its forms. These made no lasting contribution though they may have served some temporary need. Examples of the former include instruction in the Word of God, training in evangelism, and the refutation of error. Illustrations of the latter would be the teaching of popular ideas not rooted in Scripture, social work that excluded the gospel message, and the use of time and money for simply temporal purposes. However, Paul’s main concern in this metaphor was those doing the building rather than the building itself.

"The six materials in 1 Corinthians 3:12 are arranged to denote a descending scale by moving from a unit of three good qualities to a unit of three bad ones. The verse uses pictures to represent what Paul calls ’work’ in 1 Corinthians 3:13-14. Paul’s main point is to encourage building with quality materials that will meet with God’s approval and receive eternal reward. Interpreters sometimes restrict the meaning of the symbols either to doctrine, to people, to activity, or to character. The [proper] conclusion is that Paul in the symbols combines several things that lead to Christ’s good pleasure and a believer’s reward. These are sound doctrine, activity, motives and character in Christian service." [Note: James E. Rosscup, "A New Look at 1 Corinthians 3:12-’Gold, Silver, Precious Stones,’" Master’s Seminary Journal 1:1 (Spring 1990):33.]

God will expose the work of each of God’s servants on "the day." This is a reference to the day when the believer will stand before God and give an account of the stewardship of his or her life at Christ’s judgment seat (cf. Luke 19:11-27; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 1:6; Philippians 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 4:8; Revelation 22:12; et al.). [Note: See Joe L. Wall, Going for the Gold, pp. 31-37; and Arlen L. Chitwood, Judgment Seat of Christ, p. 10.] Then the fire of God’s judgment will test the quality of each person’s work and his workmanship, but not his person. The durability or transience of those works will then become apparent.

Verses 14-15

If the servant of the Lord has made a lasting contribution to the building of the church by emphasizing some aspect of the gospel, he or she will receive a reward. If someone has not because he or she has pursued human "wisdom," that person will not, though he or she will retain his or her salvation. Paul likened the unfaithful servant to a man pulled to safety through the flames of his burning house (cf. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). The context identifies those who suffer loss as being Christians who seek to build the church with materials that fail to withstand God’s assessment. They do not refer to all carnal Christians (1 Corinthians 3:1-4), though carnal Christians may fail to make lasting contributions to the church. [Note: Cf. Carson, pp. 79-80.] Malachi 3:2-3 may have been in Paul’s mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 3:15. [Note: John Proctor, "Fire in God’s House: Influence of Malachi 3 in the NT," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36:1 (March 1993):9-14.] However, Malachi predicted a future cleansing of Israel whereas Paul spoke of a future testing of Christians.

The rewards in view seem to be opportunities to glorify God by serving Him (cf. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). The Christian will have greater or lesser opportunities to do so during the Millennium and forever after in proportion to his or her faithfulness on earth now. [Note: See Wall, pp. 112-21, for an explanation of the negative judgment at the bema.]

The New Testament writers spoke of these rewards symbolically as crowns elsewhere (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:11). It is perfectly proper to serve Christ to gain a crown that we may one day lay at the feet of our Savior (cf. Matthew 6:20). The crown is a symbol of a life of faithful service that we performed out of gratitude for His grace to us (cf. Revelation 4:4; Revelation 4:10). If the idea of serving God for a reward makes you uncomfortable, may I suggest that you read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? There Jesus repeatedly appealed to His hearers to follow His teaching with the prospect of receiving an eternal reward for doing so. Scripture appeals to us on many levels to serve the Lord. Certainly love for Him should be our primary motivation. However the biblical writers also urged believers to serve the Lord out of love for other people, the fear of the Lord, the prospect of having to give an account of our lives to Him at the judgment seat, and for other reasons. [Note: For a helpful introduction to the study of the Christian’s rewards, see Wall, or Zane C. Hodges, Grace in Eclipse.]

The testing in view here provides no support for the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory. It is the believer’s works that God subjects to the fires of testing, not the believer personally. God applies the fire to determine the quality of the works, not to purify the believer.

"[The] whole subject of rewards for the believer is one, I am afraid, rarely thought of by the ordinary Christian, or even the average student of the Scriptures. But it is both a joyous and solemn theme and should serve as a potent incentive for holiness of life." [Note: Wilbur Smith, "Inheritance and Reward in Heaven," Eternity, March 1977, p. 79.]

"The Bible describes the judgment seat of Christ for one main purpose: to affect the way we think and live-to motivate us to anticipate with joy His return and to live our lives to please Him, not worrying about the way others treat us or what they may think about us. . . .

"Though not the only motivating factor, I am convinced that the doctrine of the judgment seat (bema) is meant to be one of the major scriptural motivations for godly living." [Note: Wall, pp. 19, 21.]

"It is unfortunately possible for people to attempt to build the church out of every imaginable human system predicated on merely worldly wisdom, be it philosophy, ’pop’ psychology, managerial techniques, relational ’good feelings,’ or what have you. But at the final judgment, all such building (and perhaps countless other forms, where systems have become more important than the gospel itself) will be shown for what it is: something merely human, with no character of Christ or his gospel in it." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 145.]

Verse 16

The Corinthian church was a temple that God’s Spirit indwelt. Paul was not speaking here of individual believers being temples of God, though we are (1 Corinthians 6:19), or of the church universal as the temple of God, though it is (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5). He meant the collective body of believers that made up the local church, as is clear from his use of the plural "you" in the Greek text and the singular "temple." The local congregation was not just any building (1 Corinthians 3:9) but a sanctuary (Gr. naos) that God inhabited. The presence of the Spirit alone marked them off as God’s sanctuary in Corinth. Ten times in this epistle Paul asked, "Do you not know?" (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 6:15-16; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Corinthians 9:24) and each time the question introduces an indisputable statement.

The New Testament writers spoke often of the church (a group of believers) as God’s temple. They did not usually make the distinction between the holy place and the holy of holies that existed in the Israelites’ physical temples. They viewed the temple as a whole. However here Paul did distinguish the place of God’s dwelling, the temple building itself (naos), from the temple precincts that surrounded and included the sanctuary (Gr. hieron).

Verses 16-17

A warning against destroying the church 3:16-17

This is perhaps the strongest warning in the New Testament against taking the church lightly and destroying it with the world’s wisdom and division.

Verse 17

If any servant of the Lord tears down the church instead of building it up, God will tear him or her down (Acts 9:1-4). He usually does this by sending temporal discipline in one form or another (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5). The Greek word translated "destroys" (phtheiro) also means "defiles." It is a very serious thing to destroy or defile a holy temple, and that is what the local church is (cf. Matthew 16:18). [Note: See James Sweeney, "Jesus, Paul, and the Temple: An Exploration of Some Patterns of Continuity," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:4 (December 2003):605-31.] In the ancient world destroying a temple was a capital offense. The church is holy in that God has set it aside to glorify Himself even though it is not always as holy in its conduct as it is in its calling. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 anticipate the discussion of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. [Note: Brian S. Rosner, "Temple and Holiness in 1 Corinthians 5," Tyndale Bulletin 42 (1991):137-45.]

"There are three types of builders-the wise man (1 Corinthians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 3:14), the unwise (1 Corinthians 3:15), and the foolish, who injures the building (1 Corinthians 3:17)." [Note: Johnson, pp. 1234-35. Cf. Lowery, p. 511.]

Paul ended his discussion of the local church (1 Corinthians 3:5-17) as he did to stress the importance of the work that all God’s servants were doing at Corinth. He also did so to stress the need for unity of viewpoint in the congregation.

". . . this is one of the few texts in the NT where we are exposed both to an understanding of the nature of the local church (God’s temple indwelt by his Spirit) and where the warning of 1 Corinthians 3:17 makes it clear how important the local church is to God himself." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 149.]

Verse 18

Paul continued the subject of spiritual rather than natural wisdom. He urged his readers to turn away from attitudes the world regards as wise and to adopt God’s viewpoint so they would be truly wise.

Verses 18-23

6. Human wisdom and limited blessing 3:18-23

The apostle now combined the threads of his argument, which began at 1 Corinthians 1:18, and drew a preliminary conclusion. If his readers insisted on taking the natural view of their teachers and continued to form coteries of followers, they would limit God’s blessing on themselves needlessly. Rather than their belonging to Paul or Apollos, both Paul and Apollos, and much more, belonged to them because they were Christ’s and Christ is God’s.

Verses 19-20

Again Paul used Old Testament quotations to give added authority to his statements (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Corinthians 1:31; 1 Corinthians 2:9; 1 Corinthians 2:16). Here he referred to Job 5:13 and Psalms 94:11. The best wisdom the natural man can produce is foolishness compared with the wisdom God has revealed in His Word. Unbelieving humanity cannot avoid God’s judgment through its own rationalizing. The reasoning of the wise of this world is useless regarding the most important issues of life. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul had said that the wisdom of God, namely, Christ crucified, is foolishness to the world. Here he made the same point in reverse: the wisdom of the world is foolishness in God’s sight. Thus these statements form bookends for this section of text (an inclusio).

Verse 21

"So then" marks the apostle’s conclusion. It is wrong to line up in cliques behind one or another of God’s servants. In doing so, the Corinthians were only limiting God’s blessing on them. They were rejecting God’s good gifts by not appreciating all the people God had sent to help them.

"Perhaps we cannot help but have our personal preferences when it comes to the way different men minister the Word. But we must not permit our personal preferences to become divisive prejudices. In fact, the preacher I may enjoy the least may be the one I need the most!" [Note: Wiersbe, 1:581.]

Verse 22

All of God’s servants were God’s gifts to them. The world (Gr. kosmos, universe) belongs to the Christian in the sense that we will inherit it and reign over it with Christ one day. Life and all it holds contains much blessing for us. Even death is a good gift because it will usher us into the presence of our Savior. This list is similar to the one in Romans 8:38-39 and, as there, is a way of saying "everything." The figure of speech is a merism. In a merism objects that are poles apart are intended to encompass everything between them.

"The five things . . . represent the fundamental tyrannies of human life, the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage." [Note: Carson, p. 86.]

Verse 23

All the Corinthians belonged to Christ, not just those of the "Christ party" (1 Corinthians 1:12). They belonged to Him, not to one of His servants. Even Christ belongs to God in the sense of being under the authority and protection of the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 15:28). This is functional rather than ontological subordination. All things belong to the Christian because the Christian belongs to Christ, and all things are His. Thus in Him we possess all things, but it is only in Him that we do.

Paul made several references to the administrative order of God when correcting disorders of various kinds in the Corinthian church. This order is the Father over the Son, the Son over the man, and the man over the woman (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 11:3; et al.). The apostle stressed divine order because the Corinthians were disorderly, having failed to submit to the Holy Spirit’s control.

"On this high note Paul’s response to the Corinthian pride in man and wisdom has come to a fitting conclusion. But the problem is larger still; so he turns next to deal with their attitudes toward him in particular." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 155.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-3.html. 2012.
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