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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Smith's WritingsSmith's Writings

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Verses 1-23

1 Corinthians 3 .

Having brought before us the Cross as setting aside the flesh in judgment, and the Holy Spirit as setting aside the wisdom of this world, the apostle now returns to the theme with which he commenced the Epistle, the state of division that existed in the assembly at Corinth. Later he will deal with other manifestations of the flesh, but, apparently, he deals first with this particular evil, for, as so often since that day, a divided state in the assembly renders it difficult, if not impossible, to correct other abuses.

The apostle first refers to the low condition of the assembly proved by their fleshly attitude towards the servants of God (verses 1-4). To correct this abuse of gifts and gifted servants, the apostle gives valuable instruction as to service, or work, for the Lord (verses 5-23), and as to the servants, or workmen, in 1 Cor. 4 .

1. The low spiritual condition of the assembly.

(Vv. 1-4). With all their boasted wisdom and knowledge and gifts the Corinthian assembly was in such a low spiritual condition that the apostle was unable to minister to them the deep things of God. It is true they were not natural men that have not the Spirit ( 1Co_2:14 ), nor were they spiritual men walking according to the Spirit, but the apostle has to say, “Are ye not carnal?”. They were believers, having the Spirit, but walking according to the flesh. How deeply humbling to discover that it is possible to be enriched with all utterance and knowledge and gift, and be “full” and “wise in Christ” and “strong” ( 1Co_4:8-10 ), and yet, in the sight of God, be carnal, or spiritually undeveloped, like a babe that has ceased to grow, and therefore unable to assimilate the rich, spiritual food that God has provided for His people.

The apostle convicts them of their carnality by calling attention to the conditions that existed amongst them. He says, “There is among you envying, and strife”. In their practical ways they walked as natural men. Instead of serving one another in love, as becomes saints, they were envious of one another and seeking to equal, or excel, one another in knowledge and the exercise of gifts, even as men of the world. Envy was thus at the root of all their strife. Perhaps there is no greater power for evil in the world than envy. Envy led to the first murder in the world, when Cain rose up against his brother and slew him; and envy led to the greatest murder in the world, when the Jews killed the Prince of life, for we read that Pilate “knew that for envy they had delivered Him” ( Mat_27:18 ). Will it not be found that envy has been the main cause of all the strifes amongst the people of God? The apostle Peter warns us that envy knows no pity. It leads to “malice” and “evil speakings”, and the malice leads to “guile” by which a man attempts to cover up what he is, and “hypocrisies” by which a man pretends to be what he is not ( 1Pe_2:1 ).

These Corinthian saints pandered to this spirit of emulation by attaching themselves to certain gifted teachers, and by closely following and accepting all they said, not necessarily because it was the truth according to the word of God, but because it was advanced by a favourite teacher. One said, “I am of Paul”; another said, “I am of Apollos”. Each seeking to defend his favourite teacher naturally led to strife, and strife to divisions. Thus men were followed, individuals were exalted, and divisions resulted. Two evils followed: one was sectarianism, which set aside the truth of the assembly, the other clericalism, which set aside Christ as the Head of the assembly.

2. Instruction as to service.

(V. 5). To correct this abuse of gifts, the apostle first presents some important truths as to service and the different forms it may take.

First, the apostle asks, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?”. These gifted brothers, whom the Corinthian assembly had been exalting into the false position as leaders of parties, were, after all, but “ministering servants” by whom the Corinthians had believed.

Secondly, these gifted men held their position as servants, not according to man's appointment, but “as the Lord has given to each”.

(V. 6). Thirdly, these servants had not all been given the same service. As in the field, one plants and another tends the plants, but God alone can cause the plants to grow, so, in the service of the Lord, Paul may be used to obtain converts and Apollos be used to care for the converts, but God alone can give life and spiritual growth.

(V. 7). Fourthly, if it is God that giveth the increase, then the servants that the Corinthians had been exalting out of their place were comparatively very insignificant. Without God they were nothing and their service useless.

(V. 8). Fifthly, though different work may be given to the servants yet they “are one”. By constituting them leaders of parties the Corinthian assembly were setting them in opposition to one another. But none can do without the other. However varied the gifts, as servants they are one.

Sixthly, though one as servants, “each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour”. The reward will not be according to the position that man may have given the servant, nor according to man's thoughts of his service, but according to God's estimate of his labours.

(V. 9). Seventhly, we are reminded that the servants are “God's fellow-workmen”, words that do not imply that they are labourers together with God, but that they work together under the direction of God. They are not rivals, as men would make them, but fellow-companions.

Such is the service of the labourers; but what of the saints that are served? Are they merely man-made sects, such as the Corinthians were forming, to be dominated by certain gifted leaders? Paul's answer is that, instead of being sects, taking their character from certain gifted men such as Paul and Apollos, they belong to God. They are “God's husbandry” and “God's building”. First, they are viewed under the figure of a field in which there is fruit, or increase, for God; secondly, they are looked at as a temple in which the Spirit of God dwells and where there is light for men. Already the Lord in His teaching has connected fruit with the field and light with the house ( Luk_8:15-16 ). The truth by which Paul met, and condemned, divisions in those early days is still the truth that condemns the divisions of Christendom in our day. If we realise that we belong to God, that we are “God's husbandry” and “God's building”, we shall surely refuse to be called by any sectarian name.

(Vv. 10, 11). The saints truly belong to God. Nevertheless, the servants of God have their special service in connection with the people of God according to the special grace given by God. Of his own special service the apostle proceeds to speak, and then of the responsibility of others who follow him in service. Paul had been used to lay the foundation of the assembly at Corinth in his testimony to Jesus Christ. He preached Christ, with the result that a company of people was led to believe in Jesus. In apostolic power and grace the foundation had been truly laid - Christ in the souls of believers. It was the responsibility of other servants who followed to edify these saints.

It is important to remember that in this passage “God's building” presents a very different view of the church to that which is brought before us in Mat_16:18 , 1Pe_2:4-5 and Eph_2:20-21 . In these passages the church is viewed as a building against which the power of Satan cannot prevail, a holy temple into which no defilement can enter, of which the Builder is Christ, and with which no workmen are mentioned. Here, although the assembly is spoken of as God's building, workmen are employed.

(V. 12). Following upon the laying of the foundation by the apostle Paul, we have the solemn possibility of the breakdown in responsibility of those who continue to build upon the foundation through building with bad material. A man may teach sound doctrine, or that which is worthless. Moreover, the figures used, “gold, silver, precious stones”, would suggest that there are differences in the value of the doctrines taught, even as “wood, hay, stubble” would suggest that some errors are worse than others.

(V. 13). The work of each one will be tested by the day of trial. The day looks on to the revelation of Christ from heaven in flaming fire ( 2Th_1:7-8 ). Anything built with wood, hay or stubble will not stand the fire of judgment. Souls may be held together for a time with false doctrine, as we see on every hand in Christendom, but such work will not stand the fire.

(V. 14). The apostle makes a distinction amongst three classes of workmen. First, he speaks of the true workman who does good work. He teaches sound doctrine, whereby the saints are edified. His work abides, and he himself will receive a reward.

(V. 15). Secondly, he speaks of a true workman, but whose work is bad and therefore burned. A builder may see his building destroyed by fire, though he may escape. So the day of Christ may prove that a man has taught doctrines which were erroneous, and therefore his work, in connection with the people of God, worthless, though he himself is on the foundation - a true believer in Jesus. Such will be saved, though his work is destroyed and he loses his reward.

(Vv. 16, 17). Thirdly, the apostle speaks of a bad workman and bad work. We are reminded that the assembly of God, viewed as a whole, is the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells. It is not merely that there are converted people on earth, but God has His house or temple. We are to look at ourselves, not as isolated individuals, but as forming part of God's dwelling on earth, and holiness becomes God's house. It thus becomes intensely solemn if any defiles or corrupts the house of God. We have seen that there are those who edify the people of God with sound doctrine. Then there are those who present defective views of truth, or a false interpretation of the word. Lastly, there is the far worse case of one who teaches false doctrines that destroy the fundamental truths of God and undermine the foundations of Christianity. The fact that a man can teach such doctrines is a sure proof that he himself is not on the foundation. He is a corrupter and will be destroyed as well as his work. The effect of his work is to destroy God's temple, and God destroys him.

Whether the doctrines taught are good, worthless or destructive, they will all be tested. Much that passes muster now in that day may be found worthless or, what is worse, corrupt.

(V. 18). These solemn considerations lead to the apostle's warning, “Let no man deceive himself”. It is possible, then, to deceive oneself that what is being taught is true, when, in fact, it is worthless. The great source of deception is the attempt to stand well with the world by seeking to accommodate Christianity to the wisdom of this world. The servant who will stand for the truth must be content to become a fool in the eyes of the world; then, indeed, he will have the true wisdom according to God. It was so with the apostle, of whom the worldly Festus could say, “Thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad”.

(Vv. 19, 20). The wisdom of this world commands the respect of the natural man, and at times may look very attractive even to the Christian, as in the case of the Corinthian saints; nevertheless, it is foolishness with God. The very wisdom of the world becomes its undoing, for it is written, “He taketh the wise in their own craftiness”. The wisdom of this world is mere craft, which entraps those who boast in it. The Lord knoweth that the “reasonings” of the wise are vain (N.Tn.).

(Vv. 21-23). As Christians, therefore, we are warned against glorying in men. To do so would be to place ourselves in the apparently false position of belonging to those in whom we glory. As Christians we do not belong to men, but all things belong to us in the sense that we are set above all as belonging to Christ. The Corinthians were ranging themselves under certain teachers as if they belonged to different gifted men. No, says the apostle, they all belong to you. The world with all its power, life with all its changes, death with its terrors, even as all that can happen in the present or future, are set under the Christian because he belongs to Christ, and Christ is God's. God is over all, Christ is God's, we are Christ's, and all things are ours.

Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/1-corinthians-3.html. 1832.
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