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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Beet's Commentary on Selected Books of the New TestamentBeet on the NT

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Verse 1

1 Corinthians 3:1. And I … to you; as in 1 Corinthians 2:1, turns suddenly from a general principle to a personal matter.

Brothers; suitably introduces a brother’s reproof. So 1 Corinthians 1:10.

Speak; takes up 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 2:13.

Spiritual: as in 1 Corinthians 2:15. It admits of degrees, in proportion as a man’s purposes and life are controlled by the Spirit. All the justified (Romans 8:9) have the Spirit. But the contrast with babes in Christ shows that Paul refers here to some fullness (Ephesians 5:18) of the Spirit. Only of such is the statement of 1 Corinthians 2:15 conspicuously true.

Men-of-flesh: same word in Romans 7:14. Paul is compelled to speak to them as to men consisting only of the material side of human nature, i.e. to teach them the rudiments of the Gospel (Hebrews 5:12) as though still unsaved.

Babes in Christ: in contrast to “full grown,” 1 Corinthians 2:6. So 1 Corinthians 14:20; Ephesians 4:13 f; Hebrews 5:13 f; cp. Romans 2:20. It rather softens the foregoing words. He does not look at them as altogether destitute of the Spirit, but as men whose spiritual life is as yet undeveloped.

Verses 2-4

1 Corinthians 3:2-3 a. Milk: explained in Hebrews 5:12.

Solid food: the “wisdom” of 1 Corinthians 2:6. These words, which must refer chiefly to Paul’s personal teaching at Corinth, suggest a long sojourn in their midst; and thus confirm Acts 18:11.

Not yet were you: when last he taught them.

Not yet even now; opens the way to their present state, which is Paul’s special business now.

Fleshly: men whose conduct is more or less controlled by the material side of human nature. Not quite so strong as “men-of-flesh.”

1 Corinthians 3:3-4. Proof that they are still fleshly, and therefore unable to digest strong food. That emulation (see under 1 Corinthians 12:31) and strife are given as complete proof of a fleshly disposition, proves that these arise always from a life in pursuit of the things needful or pleasant to the body. Cp. Galatians 5:19. This arises from the essential selfishness of such a life, which puts us in opposition to our fellows. See note, Romans 8:11. Not that the body is essentially evil; (for it is a creature of God;) but sin, ever a principle of separation and discord, sets the body in opposition to the man’s highest nature, that thus eventually the whole man may be corrupted.

Walk: 1 Corinthians 7:17; 2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 10:2 f; 12:18; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:4 : an Old Testament word (Genesis 5:24; Leviticus 18:4; Leviticus 26:40; 1 Kings 2:4, etc.) favorite with Paul and John to describe the outer side, and the direction, of human life.

As men: under the influence of ordinary unsaved human nature.

For when etc.: proof from acknowledged fact that in the Corinthian church there is emulation and strife, and that therefore its members are fleshly. Are you not men? implies that the Christian life is superhuman. Cp. Romans 3:5. Where (1 Corinthians 3:3) and when (1 Corinthians 3:4) point conspicuously to Corinth and to the present time. All this explains Paul’s inability to “speak wisdom” at Corinth.

SECTION 4 teaches that, to those who accept it fully, the Gospel conveys wisdom, i.e. a knowledge of that which is most worth knowing, and of that which they most need to know. It tells them what they are, what God is, how they may come to God and become like God. Amid much ignorance of details, they look up, through the various forces around, to the Great Source and Ruler of all. They understand in some measure, and approve, and appropriate, the eternal purposes of God. These purposes, and the method of their attainment, satisfy their highest intelligence and explain to them, in some measure, the mysteries of life and of suffering; and become the guide of their actions. Thus their mind is filled, and their steps directed, by the wisdom of Him who made the world. Compared with this wisdom, all merely human wisdom is folly. For it fails to explain the mystery of our being, and to put before us the true object of life and the best means of attaining it. Of the folly of human wisdom, the world’s treatment of Jesus was a conspicuous example.

We also learn that this divine wisdom is conveyed to us by the agency of the indwelling Spirit of God, who alone looks into and through the mind of God. Consequently, only in proportion as we are under His influence is this wisdom understood by us. It is, however, embodied in words spoken by human lips. But these words are a mystery. Only as the Spirit opens our eyes do we understand their hidden meaning. Now the Spirit seeks to direct our steps as well as to enlighten our mind: and He ever leads men to Christian unity. And He does the one only so far as He does the other. Consequently, jealousy and strife are sure marks of absence of that fullness of the Spirit without which we cannot understand the higher teaching of the Gospel. Where these are, such teaching is useless. Thus does Paul rebuke the pride of knowledge which lay at the root of the church-parties at Corinth.

We cannot mark out particular doctrines as belonging to this higher wisdom. It is that nearer and clearer vision of God, which in all ages has been the privilege of those who dwell in His nearer presence, which they have read in the pages of Holy Scripture, which to unsaved men is incomprehensible or ridiculous, but which guides the steps of those who possess it along a path in which they find their highest happiness and usefulness.

Notice that, just as § 3 assumes the first fundamental Doctrine of the Epistle to the Romans, so here Paul assumes and develops the fifth Doctrine. See Romans 5:5; Romans 8:3-16; where we learned that the Spirit reveals to us God’s love, moves us to call Him Father, and directs our steps in life. Of this teaching, § 4 is but a practical application.

MYSTERY: An English form, and the constant rendering, of an important Greek word. A cognate word is found in Philippians 4:12. From the same root word are “mystic” and “mysticism.”

The mysteries of ancient Greece were secret religious rites and teaching, forming the chief part of festivals celebrated at regular intervals in certain places. The most famous were those held annually, with great pomp, for nine days, at Eleusis, twelve miles from Athens on the way to Corinth. After six days of public ceremonies, those who had previously undergone a preliminary initiation, and were now called in Greek “mystai,” were led, under the darkness of the night, by strict vows of secrecy, into the sanctuary of the goddess Demeter, where they saw and heard things forbidden to all others. So well was the secret kept that we now only can guess what then took place. But scattered references of classic writers imply that in these mysteries religious teaching was imparted, the noblest teaching perhaps of the heathen world. So Plato, Phaedop. 81a: “Whither having come, it is given to the soul to be happy, being made free from error and folly and fears and coarse passions and the other human evils, as they say about the initiated (same word as Philippians 4:12) in the mysteries, in truth spending the rest of their time with the gods.” And Cicero, himself initiated, in his Laws bk. ii. 14: “Though Athens seems to me to have produced and brought into the life of men many excellent and divine things, yet nothing better than those mysteries by which from a boorish and wild life we are trained to humanity and are softened, and just as they are called initiations so in truth we have learned the first principles of life: and not only have we received a way of living with joy, but also of dying with a better hope.”

See the excellent remarks of p. 198 of Mahaffy’s Rambles in Greece, quoted in vol. v. p. 471 of the Expositor.

In accordance with classic use, the word mystery in the Bible denotes always a secret known only to the initiated, i.e. those to whom it has been specially revealed. It is used in the Apocrypha for any confided secret; e.g. Sirach 27:16 f, “he who reveals mysteries has destroyed confidence;” Tobit 12:7; Judith 2:2: and in Daniel (LXX.) for an outward form under which lay unknown truth; Daniel 2:18 f, “in a vision of the night the mystery was revealed;” Daniel 2:28; Daniel 4:9. Cp. Wisdom of Solomon 8:4, “wisdom is an initiated one (mystis) of the understanding of God.”

In still closer accord with classic use, the truths underlying the parables of Christ are called (Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10) mysteries known only by those to whom “it is given.” Cp. Matthew 11:25. And the teaching here attributed to Christ took firm hold of the mind of Paul, and frequently reappears variously developed in his writings. The many-sided purpose of redemption is called (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9; Ephesians 3:3; Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 1:26 f; Colossians 2:2; Colossians 4:3) a mystery kept in silence (even from angels, Mark 13:32; 1 Peter 1:12; Ephesians 3:10) during eternal times, but now made known. To proclaim this mystery to all, was the life work of Paul, Ephesians 3:9; Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 4:3; who was thus a steward of the mysteries of God, 1 Corinthians 4:1. Of a purpose of God still kept secret, we never read. Yet God’s eternal and universal purpose of mercy is none the less (Colossians 2:3) hidden in Christ. For, though proclaimed everywhere, it is understood only by those whom God leads into the secret chamber of His presence, whose eyes and ears He opens by His Spirit to the heavenly light and the heavenly voice: 1 Corinthians 2:10; Ephesians 3:5. Consequently, Paul spoke “in a mystery” words understood only by the initiated, i.e. by mature Christians. He had himself (Philippians 4:12) been “initiated” into the secret of life, and therefore knew how “to be humbled and to abound.” Thus the word mystery is in itself an embodiment of the chief teaching of this section.

In a more general sense the same word is used sometimes of any truth revealed specially by God, e.g. Romans 11:25; 1 Corinthians 15:51; and for a secret of which the key has not yet been given, 2 Thessalonians 2:7. In Revelation 1:20; Revelation 17:5; Revelation 17:7, the truths underlying the visible symbols are called mysteries. Revelation 10:7 approaches the teaching of this section.

Verse 5


What then is Apollos? and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you believed, and as to each one the Lord gave.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So that neither he that plants is anything, nor he that waters; but God who gives the growth. And he that plants and he that waters are one: and each will receive his own reward according to his own labour. For God’s fellow-workers are we: God’s field, God’s building, you are.

According to the grace of God given to me, as a wise masterbuilder, I laid a foundation: and another builds up. But let each one see how he builds up. For, another foundation no one can lay, beside that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. And if anyone builds up on the foundation, a piece of gold, a piece of silver, costly stones, pieces of wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest. For the day will declare it: because in fire it is revealed, and each one’s work, of what kind it is the fire itself will prove. If any one’s work shall remain which he built up, he will receive reward. If any one’s work shall be burnt up, he will suffer loss. But he himself will be saved, but in this way, as through fire.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any one injures the temple of God, him God will injure: for the temple of God is holy, which you are.

Let no one deceive himself. If any one thinks himself to be wise among you in this age, let him become foolish, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He that lays hold of the wise ones in their craftiness.” (Job 5:18.) And again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise ones, that they are vain.” (Psalms 94:11.) So then let no one exult in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world, or life or death, or things present or things coming; all things are yours: and you are Christ’s: and Christ is God’s.

In this way let a man reckon us, as helpers of Christ and stewards of mysteries of God. This being so, moreover, search is made about stewards, that a man may be found faithful. But to me it has become a very little thing that by you I may be examined, or by a human day of assize. No, I do not even examine myself. For of nothing am I conscious to myself But not in this am I justified. But He who examines me is the Lord. So then, do not before the right time judge anything, until the Lord come, who will also bring to light the hidden things of the darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts. And then the due praise will be given to each one from God.

1 Corinthians 3:5. What then etc.: a wider question than “who then?” Since they call themselves followers of Paul or Apollos, Paul asks what these men are, i.e. what are their position, powers, and achievements. He thus, armed with the great principles developed in §§ 3, 4, approaches the specific matter kept in view throughout DIV. I.

Ministers: see Romans 12:7.

Through whom: Romans 1:2; cp. John 1:7; 1 Peter 1:21.

You believed: were led to believe the Gospel: see Romans 13:11. From this we learn that the ministry of Apollos, not only (Acts 18:27) benefited the Corinthian believers, but increased their number.

And as etc.; adds another important truth.

The Lord: probably Christ, the One Master whose work Paul and Apollos were doing. So 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 12:5; Ephesians 4:5.

Gave: for the converts’ faith was Christ’s work in them: cp. Romans 12:3; Romans 1:8; John 6:44; John 6:65. Therefore, since converts will be (cp. Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19) the preacher’s eternal enrichment and joy, they are Christ’s gift to each one. Yet each man’s faith is his own mental act, his own self-surrender (which he might have refused) to divine influences which came to him before he believed, and led him to faith. And the preacher’s success is usually in proportion to his energy and skill. But the full truth of Paul’s words is felt by all who have had the joy of turning a sinner from the error of his ways.

Verses 6-9

1 Corinthians 3:6-9. A beautiful metaphor, illustrating 1 Corinthians 3:5.

I planted etc.; expounds “through whom etc.:” but God gave etc., expounds “as to each one etc.” The hearts of the men at Corinth were the soil: the preached word was the planted cutting: (or seed sown, Mark 4:14:) the faith with which the word was received and the life of faith, or the church at Corinth which was a visible embodiment of this faith, were the growing plant. The nourishment brought by Apollos developed the existing branches, and caused them (1 Corinthians 3:6) to put forth fresh twigs. But that the cutting took root and grew into a tree, was the work, not of the gardeners who planted and watered it, but entirely of God. As usual, Paul rises from the Son to the Father. The Son, as Master of the house and as Administrator of salvation, allots success to His servants: but all spiritual life and growth have their original source in the Father. Cp. 1 Corinthians 12:5 f.

Verse 7

1 Corinthians 3:7. Since we are only garden laborers who plant and sow, of whom any number may be had, we are practically of no importance whatever.

But God etc.; is everything.

Verses 8-9

1 Corinthians 3:8-9. Are one; literally, one thing they are practically the same, 1 Corinthians 11:5. Just so in the vineyard the man who plants is in a position neither better nor worse than the man who waters. These words, cautiously used, will cast light on John 10:30; John 17:11; John 17:21.

But each man etc.: points both to the oneness, and the individuality, of the servants of God. Because they stand in exactly the same relation to the Master, each will receive according to his labor.

Reward: suggests their humble position as men paid for their work.

Labour: not according to results, but according to the quantity and quality of his toil.

His own reward, and his own labour, exactly correspond. 1 Corinthians 3:9 a proves 1 Corinthians 3:8 b.

Fellow-workers: Romans 16:3; Romans 16:9; Romans 16:21; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 8:23; 3 John 1:8 : a favorite word with Paul. Men are permitted to join with God in the work of salvation. And their reward will be in proportion to their toil. For God’s work will be successful: and its success will be an eternal joy to all who have labored for it. And the joy of success is always proportionate to the toil with which it has been attained.

Field: cultivated land, including the soil and the growing produce. Since the Corinthian church is a field belonging to God, those who labour in it are God’s fellow-workers.

God’s building; opens the way to another metaphor.

The question of 1 Corinthians 3:5 a is answered; and its answer reveals the folly of making Paul and Apollos heads of church-parties. They are but laborers in a vineyard, all standing in the same relation to the owner as hired servants each to be paid according to his labor.

The frequency of the foregoing metaphor proves plainly that it rests upon a far-reaching harmony of things natural and spiritual. Cp. Romans 11:16-24; Psalms 1:1-3; Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 13:3-30; Luke 13:6-9; John 15:1-6. All agriculture is man working together with God. For every pious farmer feels that his harvest is a result and reward proportionate to his own toil and skill, and yet altogether God’s gift to him. Just so, the preacher places the word of God in its appropriate soil, the human heart. And, from the preached word, in virtue of its hidden life, there springs up the beautiful and fruitful plant of a Christian believer and Christian life.

Verses 10-15

1 Corinthians 3:10-15. To show how humble is the position of himself and Apollos, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:8 that each will receive pay according to his labor. This truth he now uses as a warning to some of his readers. As a basis for the warning, he introduced in 1 Corinthians 3:9 g a second metaphor, which he now develops.

Before using words which seem to imply superiority, Paul acknowledges that whatever he has done he owes to the undeserved favour of God. This also reminds us that in laying the foundation he acted by divine authority.

Wise: in its earliest sense of “skilful;” see note, 1 Corinthians 2:5. The teaching of § 4 makes the word very appropriate here.

I laid: parallel with “I planted,” 1 Corinthians 3:6. In face of some who depreciated his ability, (2 Corinthians 10:10) Paul claims to have skilfully founded the church of Corinth. Cp. 1 Corinthians 4:15.

Builds-up: carries upward the building already begun. Same word, repeated for emphasis, in 1 Corinthians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 3:14.

Another: Apollos or any other teacher. Hence the present tense, though (1 Corinthians 16:12) Apollos had left Corinth; and the words let each one see how etc. This warning, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 develop. The different modes of continuing Paul’s work warn each one to look how he builds.

Verse 11

1 Corinthians 3:11. Justifies 1 Corinthians 3:10 b, which confines our attention to the manner of continuing Paul’s work, by declaring that there can be no other foundation than that which he has already laid. Christ is the foundation of the church, objectively; inasmuch as upon His death and resurrection rest His people’s faith and hope. He is so subjectively, by His presence in them. The rock on which we stand is both beneath our feet and within our hearts. This foundation, laid objectively for the whole church in the Great Facts, was laid subjectively in the hearts of the Christians at Corinth as the firm ground of their personal hopes, by Paul. Consequently, all other Christian work done at Corinth will be a continuation of that which he began. This, of course, leaves out of sight the almost impossible case of the extinction of the church: in which case the work would need to be begun again.

Verses 12-15

1 Corinthians 3:12-15. After justifying in 1 Corinthians 3:11 the limitation implied in 1 Corinthians 3:10 b, Paul now takes up and develops his warning. He tells us that he refers to the materials used; and mentions two classes, one destructible and the other indestructible, each class containing different kinds of different value. The real nature of the results produced by each one will become manifest, i.e. set publicly before the eyes of all.

For the day etc.: proof of this.

The day; of judgment, 1 Corinthians 1:8; Romans 2:16. That Paul calls it simply the day, reveals the large and definite place it had in his thought. Cp. 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 4:8.

Will declare: the great day is personified.

Because in fire … will prove: two facts showing how the day will declare it.

Revealed: see under Romans 1:17; Romans 1:19. The present tense is used, as often, for that which will indisputably come and is therefore already present in the mind of the believer.

Fire: the surest and severest test of the hidden nature of objects subjected to it. There will be no need for the judge to declare what men have done. For the Day itself, as its light floods the intelligence of men, will declare all. For the light of that day is a fire searching out the inmost quality of every man’s work.

Verses 14-15

1 Corinthians 3:14-15. Result of the testing.

Built-up; keeps before us the foundation, 1 Corinthians 3:11. Burnt-up: if the great day put an end to the results attained in this life. Suffer loss: viz. of the reward he would have had if his work had survived the test.

Will be saved: for Paul speaks of believers building on the one foundation. Even the “babes in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1) have spiritual life and are members of the family of God.

In this way: with his work destroyed.

As through fire: explains in this way. The picture may be thus conceived. Two workmen are building on one foundation, one with imperishable, the other with perishable, materials. The building is wrapped in flames. One man’s work survives the fire: and he receives pay for it. The other’s work is burnt up: and he rushes out through the flame, leaving behind the ruins of his own work. And for his work, which the fire proved to be worthless, he receives no pay.

What are the materials and who are the builders in this picture? Since it was by preaching and teaching that Paul laid the foundation of the church of Corinth, the builders must be different kinds of teachers. Since the matter taught is the material the teacher uses, this must be the gold, silver, wood, straw, etc. The results produced by the teacher in the hearts and lives of his hearers are the building he erects. He may produce good results which will last for ever and be to him an eternal joy and glory. Since these results are altogether the work of God, and are revealed in their real grandeur only in the great day, they are a “reward” given by God in that day for work done on earth. But a teacher may also produce results which now appear great and substantial, but which will then be found utterly worthless. He may gather around him a large number of hearers, may interest them, and teach them much that is elegant and for this life useful; and yet fail to produce in or through them results which will abide for ever. If so, the great day will destroy his work and thus proclaim its worthlessness. But he may be said to build upon the one foundation, Jesus Christ. For he is a professed Christian teacher: and people go to hear him as such. He may be a sincere, though mistaken, Christian believer; and therefore be himself saved. But his work, as a teacher, is a failure. Now the permanence of a teacher’s work depends upon the matter taught. The soul-saving truths of the Gospel enter into men’s hearts and lives, and produce abiding results. We understand, therefore, by the wood and straw whatever teaching does not impart or nourish spiritual life. The three terms suggest the various kinds of such teaching. It may be clever or foolish, new or old, true or false; but not subversive of the “foundation,” or it would come under the severer censure of 1 Corinthians 3:16 f. The frequency of such teaching is proved by 1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:14; 2 Timothy 2:23; 2 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:14; Titus 3:9. We have perhaps a Jewish example of it in very much that was written by Paul’s earlier contemporary Philo: and we have Christian examples in many of the speculative and trifling discussions which have been frequent in all ages. We also learn that even of the teaching which produces abiding results there are different degrees of worth; in proportion, no doubt, to the fullness and purity with which the teaching of Christ is reproduced. In both cases, the buildings erected are the results, lasting or transitory, produced in the hearers’ hearts by the use of these materials; results which are in some sense a standing embodiment of the teaching.

Under 1 Corinthians 4:21 we shall see that in this solemn warning Paul strikes at the root of the church-parties at Corinth. Cp. 2 Timothy 2:23.

1 Corinthians 3:8; 1 Corinthians 3:14 reveal different degrees of future blessedness. Conversely, Romans 2:5. For we have here a man who “will be saved,” but will not obtain the reward which others will have and which he might have had.

The excellent Roman Catholic commentator, Estius, says properly that “reward” implies merit, i.e. appropriateness for reward, in the action rewarded. But he has not observed that the reward here said to be given for work done on earth is not eternal life, (cp. Romans 6:23,) but a higher degree of blessedness. Notice carefully that, since our good works are wrought in us by God, both the actions rewarded (as Estius admits} and the reward are altogether gifts of the undeserved favor and mercy of God.

At the council of Florence, A.D. 1439, the Latin fathers appealed to 1 Corinthians 3:15 in proof of the doctrine of purgatory. But the fire here mentioned belongs, not to the interval between death and judgment, but to the judgment day. Estius, whose exposition in the main I agree with, raises a difficulty about the bodies of the saved, which must be incapable of pain, passing through fire; and supposes that the teachers referred to passed through the fire in the moment before their resurrection, and were thus cleansed from sins till then unforgiven. But Paul does not say that the fire inflicts pain or cleanses from sin, but only that it destroys the teachers’ work and reward. How the consciousness of past failure and unfaithfulness will be reconciled with the unalloyed joy of heaven, is a mystery we cannot solve. But it is not lessened by the suggestion of Estius. For this consciousness of failure will certainly continue after the resurrection. It will perhaps be neutralized by joy that so unworthy a worker is permitted to enter the Master’s presence.

The metaphor of the building, found also in Matthew 7:24 ff; Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:21; 1 Peter 2:5, and in the word “edification,” may be profitably compared with that of the field or garden in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9. The latter comparison teaches that the growth of a church is a development of life, such as only God can give; and shows how subordinate is the position of a Christian teacher. It therefore reveals the folly of making Paul and Apollos heads of parties. The other metaphor presents the human side of Christian work; and teaches that its permanence depends upon the materials used, materials brought together from various places according to the builder’s judgment and resources. It was therefore a suitable warning, to those who were continuing Paul’s work at Corinth, to put into the minds of their hearers such teaching as would produce enduring results. And it was the more appropriate because, as 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 suggest, a love for mere human wisdom was a chief source of the evils which Paul now attempts to remove.

Verses 16-17

1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Do you not know: common phrase of Paul: 1 Corinthians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 6:2 f, 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 6:15 f; 1 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Corinthians 9:24; Romans 6:16; Romans 11:2. Its frequency in this Epistle was a rebuke, probably undesigned, of the boasted wisdom of the Corinthian Christians. The suddenness and evident astonishment of this question suggest that 1 Corinthians 3:15 had reminded Paul of something at Corinth which implied forgetfulness of the solemn teaching of this verse. The searching test to which all Christian work will be subjected recalls to his mind some who were not building at all, but were pulling down or defacing the good work of others. And, that Paul appeals to his readers generally, suggests that the church as a whole tolerated them. Cp. 1 Corinthians 5:2. He clothes his appeal in a metaphor suggested by the preceding one. The injury these men are inflicting reminds Paul of the dread solemnity, and the solemn relation to God, of the building which he and others are erecting. He asks whether his readers are ignorant of this: and his question implies that they have no excuse for ignorance.

Temple; represents in the Auth. Version two entirely different Greek words, viz. the “sanctuary,” or sacred enclosure, open (cp. Leviticus 12:4) to all Jews, 1 Corinthians 9:13, Acts 2:46; Acts 3:1 ff, Acts 3:8; Acts 5:25; Acts 5:42, etc.; and the temple proper, the sacred house into which (Hebrews 9:6) only the priests went and containing the holy and the most holy place, 1 Corinthians 3:16 f; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:4; Luke 1:9; Luke 1:21 f; Acts 19:24 A.V. and R.V. “shrines.” Same distinction among pagan writers: e.g. Herodotus, bk. i. 183, “There is belonging to the sanctuary in Babylon another temple below; where there is a great statue of Zeus.” The corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic word is rendered (A.V.) “palace” in 1 Kings 21:1; Daniel 1:4; Daniel 4:1; Daniel 5:5; Daniel 6:18.

Temple of God: not temples. So 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21. Cp. Philo, On Monarchy bk. ii. 1: “Since there is one God, there must be only one sanctuary.” Just as in the Old Covenant there was but one temple, the place which (Deuteronomy 12:5 ff) God chose, where alone (Leviticus 17:8 f) sacrifice could be offered, so now there is but one temple, of which the one church throughout the world is the holy place and the church within the veil the holy of holies. Of this one church, each visible community of Christians is a miniature representative. And each separate building (Ephesians 2:21) on the one foundation is growing up into, and when completed in glory will form, one holy temple.

[The above distinction of ιερσν and νασσ is marked in the R.V. by the note “Or, sanctuary,” wherever the latter is found; except that in the Book of Revelation, by unpardonable parsimony, one marginal note is made to suffice for sixteen places. But, whatever be its origin, the rendering “temple” suggests now the sacred house; and therefore ought not to be used for the sacred enclosure. Moreover, the distinction should have been made in the text. Much better and everywhere available (even in Acts 19:24, which should be “temples”) is my rendering “sanctuary” and temple. The R.V. “a temple” is a serious error. For it suggests other temples; an idea utterly opposed to the whole Mosaic Covenant. The anarthrous substantive (cp. 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:2) looks at the one temple not as a single definite object of thought but in its abstract quality.]

The Spirit of God etc.: a restatement of Doctrine 5, (see under Romans 8:4,) viz. that God’s purpose that we be holy is realized by the agency of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. Now, if this doctrine be true, as Paul confidently assumes, believers are the temple of God. For the central idea of a temple was, to Jews and heathens, a dwelling place of God. Cp. Exodus 25:8; Exodus 29:45 f; 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Corinthians 6:16. Just as under Moses God erected a building of earthly materials by the hands (Exodus 31:3) of men filled with the Spirit of God, that it might be His one dwelling place on earth, the one spot of earth nearest to heaven, and in which He might show forth His glory; so in the New Covenant, by giving His One Spirit to dwell in the hearts of His people, He unites them into one, raises them above the earth, and makes them His one dwelling place on earth, that He may fill them with His presence, cover them with His glory, and in them show forth His glory to the world. Cp. 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21.

The Spirit of God (as bearer of the presence of God, Romans 8:10) dwells: rather than “God dwells,” (as in the Old Testament,) because in us God is present as an animating Spirit, the source of divine life and activity. Not as such can He dwell in a temple made with hands.

1 Corinthians 3:17. If any one etc.; evidently introduces the matter which caused the astonishment of 1 Corinthians 3:16. From this we infer that at Corinth there were men actually injuring the church.

The temple of God: a general term including the temple made with hands and the living temple.

Injuries: by pulling down (Romans 14:20) or defacing. The context suggests that Paul refers to those who prompted the church-parties, and to the injury they thus did to the church.

Will injure; includes the loss, damage, and destruction, bodily and spiritual, present and future, which comes by the just punishment of God to all who pull down or deface what He has set up. Paul then gives the reason why God will injure etc., viz. because the temple of God stands in special relation to Him, as erected for His purposes and glory. See note on holiness, Romans 1:7. Therefore, to injure the temple, is to rob and insult God.

Which you are: viz. holy. In other words, the foregoing general principle applies to Paul’s readers.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 appeal to ideas almost universal in the ancient world, but vanished now. Both Greeks and Jews believed that the place which God had chosen to reveal Himself to men, belonged to Him in a very special sense, and was guarded by Him with infinite jealousy; and that damage or insult to the holy place would be followed by divine vengeance. Paul reminds his readers that the very name, “saint,” or “holy person,” by which they designated themselves, implies that the sacredness of the temple belongs to the church; and rightly so, for in its members, by His Spirit, God dwells. Therefore, whatever injury is done to the church will be avenged by its Great Inhabitant.

This warning contains a metaphor well worthy of study. If, as all admitted, the Spirit of God dwells in His people, His presence makes them a temple, erected by human hands, but of materials more precious than gold or costly marble. The builders may therefore tremble lest, even without design, they injure the building they profess and endeavor to be erecting.

Verse 18

1 Corinthians 3:18. Let no one, if anyone: an appeal, not to the whole church as in 1 Corinthians 3:16, but to the men of 1 Corinthians 3:17. Not only were they ignorant of the sacredness of the church, but were in error in their estimate of themselves. Cp. 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 15:33.

If any one thinks: 1 Corinthians 8:2; 1 Corinthians 14:37. As compared with other church-members among whom he moves, he thinks himself well acquainted with the things of this present passing age. So 1 Corinthians 1:20. To become foolish, is the only way to become wise. Once we were wise, in our own estimate. But when we find out that we cannot by our own mental power or effort learn that which we most need to know, viz. such knowledge as will enable us to choose the objects most worthy of pursuit and the best means of attaining them; and that we can learn this only as each moment God reveals it to us; we then become, in our own correct estimate of ourselves and in view of the difficult path we have to tread, utterly foolish, i.e. destitute of the wisdom we need. Then we become truly wise. For we know what we are: and we ask and receive the Spirit of wisdom, (Ephesians 1:17,) who by His presence in us reveals to us that which we most need to know and guides our steps along the best path.

We may therefore test the worth of our wisdom by asking whether we have ever become foolish.

Verses 19-20

1 Corinthians 3:19-20. Proof that we can become wise only by first becoming foolish, viz. because, in the sight of God who judges rightly, that which this world (see under 1 Corinthians 5:10) calls wisdom is foolishness. This has been proved in 1 Corinthians 1:20 ff, of which these words sum up the results and apply them to the matter under discussion. 1 Corinthians 3:19 b, 20 support 1 Corinthians 3:19 a by quoting Job 5:13; Psalms 94:11.

The wise men: those who know things not generally known, and are therefore better able to choose their ends and means.

Craftiness: a disposition to do anything, right or wrong, to attain one’s ends. Into this, worldly wisdom often degenerates.

Lays hold of: while pursuing their own ends in their own way, the hand of God falls upon them and stops them. That the wisdom of the world is prevented by the hand of God from attaining its ends, proves it to be foolishness in the presence of God. For the world leaves the hand of God out of account.

The wise men: not in Psalms 94:11, but evidently implied.

Vain: Romans 1:21 : barren of good results. Wise men cannot by their own reasonings attain any good result. To know this, is the first step in real knowledge. Therefore, to become truly wise, we must first be shorn of our own wisdom.

The abrupt transition of 1 Corinthians 3:18, like that if 1 Corinthians 1:17, seems to imply that an overestimate of their own wisdom was a chief source of the injury done by the men warned in 1 Corinthians 3:17, who were no doubt those who fomented the church-parties.

The above quotation from the Book of Job presents a difficulty, in that it gives, apparently as Scripture, the reported words of Eliphaz; although no writer is responsible for sentiments he reports, and God Himself declares (Job 42:7) that the friends did not speak rightly. Some would charge the Apostle with a moment’s forgetfulness. But the complete harmony of these words with the whole book of Job and with the entire Old Testament, shows plainly that the writer here puts his own sentiments into the lips of Eliphaz. We cannot dispute the truth of the quoted words without disputing the whole moral teaching of the great Poem. Indeed the friends erred not so much in the moral principles they assert as in their application of them to Job.

Verses 21-23

1 Corinthians 3:21 a. Desired result of the foregoing. After warning us, by quotations from Scripture, not to think, (1 Corinthians 3:18) ourselves wise, Paul now says that the same quotations are a reason for not looking upon others as wise and making them the heads of parties.

Exult: 1 Corinthians 1:29 : let no one be lifted up because of anything men are or can do. Paul refers evidently to the boasted superiority (1 Corinthians 4:6) of certain teachers, which gave rise to the church-parties. All such boasting in men is shut out by the powerlessness of all human wisdom.

1 Corinthians 3:21-23. Another reason for not boasting in men.

All things: in the wisest sense, all the men and things (cp. 1 Corinthians 1:27) with which we have to do. All these were made by God and were by Him permitted to assume their present form that they may work out, and they are now (Romans 8:28) working out, His purposes of mercy toward us, which are also (so far as we understand them} our own purposes. All things are, therefore, ours; in the sense in which a father’s house belongs to his whole family.

Whether Paul etc.: details included in all things. Whatever powers, acquirements, or spiritual life, Paul possessed, were an enrichment to the whole church. For whatever Paul had, he used for the good of all.

Therefore we cannot exult in one to the depreciation of others. For all exist for our good. That Cephas is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:4-5; 1 Corinthians 4:6, suggests that the partisans who adopted his name and that of Christ were so few that Paul could leave them out of sight in his general treatment of the matter. His mention here of Cephas, was a courteous acknowledgment that he was an enrichment to the whole church, even to Gentile believers.

The world: 1 Corinthians 1:20. A sudden leap from individual men to the entire world. All men and things around us are working out our good.

Life or death: cp. Romans 8:38. The various events of life come that they may develop our spiritual strength and give us opportunities of working for God and thus obtaining eternal reward. And the angel of death is our servant waiting to lead us into the presence of Christ. The infinite variety of circumstances surrounding us today, and the unknown and perhaps quite unexpected events of tomorrow, are God’s gift, working out our good.

All things are yours: triumphant summing up. We look out into the world around and into the unknown future, and say, All these belong to me: for they were created, and are now directed and controlled, by my Father, for my good.

1 Corinthians 3:23. As lords of the world we belong to One infinitely greater than ourselves. Only so far as we exist for Christ do all things exist for us. Cp. 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Corinthians 15:23; Romans 14:8.

And Christ is God’s: rising, as usual, from the Son to the Father. So 1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 Corinthians 3:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1; Romans 9:5; Romans 15:5; Romans 15:13; Romans 16:20; Romans 16:25. We have here the great truth that the Son is essentially subordinate to the Father, not as a creature, but as the Son, of God; a truth absolutely essential for a correct view of the unity of the divine Trinity. We belong to Christ, and exist to work out His purposes. And in this subordination our divine Master is our pattern. For the Eternal Son receives His being (John 5:26) from, and therefore belongs to, and bows to, the Eternal Father, and exists to work out the Father’s purposes. Cp. 1 Corinthians 15:28. See my Romans Dissertation 1. 7. Christ’s absolute devotion to the service of the One Father should deter men from inscribing even His name, as did (1 Corinthians 1:12) some at Corinth, on the banner of a party. Whether Paul had this in view in writing these words, we do not know: for the truth here taught was naturally suggested by the foregoing words.

Bibliographical Information
Beet, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". Beet's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jbc/1-corinthians-3.html. 1877-90.
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