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1. And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
2. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
4. For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
5. Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?
6. I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
7. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.
8. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.
9. For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building.
How wonderfully the tone of this wonderful man changes as he addresses the Church at Corinth. It is a dramatic study even, if it be nothing else; as a piece of literature it might arrest the attention of inquisitive and literary men. Paul addresses the Corinthians in the first instance as if they were everything that could be wished; and then he takes them to pieces bone by bone, and plucks off every feather, and asks them to look at themselves, and be ashamed of themselves; and in the very midst of all this pastoral desolation he tells them that they are the temple of the Holy Ghost. The whole method is Pauline, irregular, abrupt, sometimes violent, and then counterbalancing its violence by such tenderness as was never seen in woman. There is no mistaking this man's style; to read it is to walk over acres of rocks, miles of great boulder stones, coming every now and then upon large green places through which silver rills are running, and over which birds are singing, as if detained by unusual beauty.
He first speaks of himself in humbling terms. Before he comes to this tug he will lie down at the feet of the people whom he is going to rebuke. Perhaps, said he, that is the best way; I want to speak to these people as I never spoke to any other people in all my ministry; if I stand up, my attitude may be taken as expressive of self-consciousness, haughtiness, defiance; I will therefore lie down on the ground at their feet, and speak with that peculiar timidity which is the best consciousness of real might and power. "I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.... I was with you in weakness, and in tear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom." That was the condition of the preacher. In the third chapter he turns right round upon them and says, "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual." He had gained his standing-ground, he had conciliated his audience, he had prepared a highway for the Lord. He was a hundred men. We speak sometimes of imitating the style of this man or of that, and we are obliged to inquire which style, because the men spoken about have a hundred styles, they have all styles, they have the keys of the kingdom a great key that only a strong hand can turn, and a little key that a child could carry, but that opens, as if in oil, locks that preserve countless, inestimable treasures. Paul is in his mixed style. One sentence is a Bible, having Genesis in it and Revelation; then in another sentence he stands as a suppliant might stand, and asks to be allowed to speak: through all this humiliation he will make his way, and at the last we shall see him with the old port, his voice rich with all its tones, and his attitude vindicated as the pastor-soldier, the mother-judge, the pitying critic: contradictions to the ear, but reconciliations musical to the heart.
"And I, brethren": why these apologetic terms, why these conciliatory words? Why make quite sure about the brotherhood when he is going to tear it to pieces? He will insist upon brotherhood. In all this argument he insists upon the unity of the Church. That indeed is his foundation principle; he will sacrifice all accidental circumstances to that grand doctrine, namely, the Church is one: one architect, one builder, one Lord, one owner: under that great doctrinal wheel objections are ground to powder. The Apostle could not speak unto the Corinthians "as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal." The word "carnal" has no reference whatever to the flesh; it is the antithetic word to "spiritual": the paraphrase therefore would be: I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, as unto master minds in the kingdom, as unto those who have seen the secret of God; but as unto materialists, men who are still in the letter, men who are only groping around the door, men who have found a few elementary and alphabetic principles but have not yet entered into the mystery, the music, the liberty of the divinest literature; I have not been able to speak to you, brethren, as unto insiders, as unto those who have touched the altar and by that touch made it almost live; but as unto outsiders, men who are not a long way from the temple, men who have great interest in God's temple, but who have not yet entered in and claimed the heritage and liberty of children. Paul, therefore, exercises discrimination; he is a critic every inch: sometimes we think he is a poet; so he is, but he penetrates, distinguishes, separates, winnows, so as to keep the wheat and the chaff apart.
The Apostle spoke unto the Corinthians "as unto babes in Christ." How does that correspond with the introduction? "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in everything ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift." Do these two parts coincide? Is this consistency? Only those who live in the letter should ask so frivolous a question. There is an ideal Church, and there is an actual society; there is a public conception, a public totality, and there is a mechanism that takes to pieces. There is a public health. It may be said consistently that the health of a nation is superb at the very moment when thousands of men are dying within the limits of that very nation. It may be said the public credit of the country never stood so high, and whilst the patriot is making that declaration concerning his country the key may be turned by the jailor upon such thieves as never disgraced the history of the country before. The Apostle speaking unto babes in Christ is a picture full of pathos. Under this declaration there lies that heroic egotism which never deserted the Apostle Paul. We might infer that the man who spoke thus meant that he could have addressed the Corinthians as men, he could speak to an audience of giants, he could summon the Titans of the ages and hold them in easy play by that infinite skill with which God had made him rich. Yet, as an economic householder, a wise tender-hearted pastor, he said, Today the food must be milk, not meat, "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat." Why? For a tender reason, for a pastor's reason "For hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." This great preacher considered his audience. The one thing that is forgotten by most preachers is the congregation. Paul knew that every congregation was a congregation of infants. He is the mighty preacher who goes along the line of infancy, simplicity, trustfulness; who explains things winningly, intelligibly, who breaks the bread into little pieces, who gives the milk in spoonsful. Only Paul had the courage to say that he was doing it. Others do it as if they were not doing it, but this man did it with avowed reasons. Then may it be true that even an apostle may not be preaching all he knows? Certainly. May even a Paul be talking alphabetically when he could talk in the very highest literature of the Church? There can be only one reply. How is this? Because Paul never preached to himself; he preached to others; he preached to those who were behind him in every spiritual acquisition; he preached that he might gather up into his arms all who needed to be loved. This entitled him to be called what he will presently designate himself, "a wise masterbuilder."
Now for faithful talk, such as could not be endured in modern times, now for a speech that would dispossess a pope of his chair. "For ye are yet carnal;" ye are yet outsiders, ye are yet objective, dealing only in personalities, and frivolities, and fashions; ye are not subjective, spiritual, introspective, gifted with the vision that sees the book and reads it before it is opened. What will Paul do with such people? Dismiss them? That would not be good pastoral oversight. He will accommodate himself to them; he will say, You cannot take what I could prepare for you, but I will prepare something that you can take; you shall have milk, you shall be treated as little children. There is no reproach in childhood, it so be ye be growing children: but an infant thirty years old is a monstrosity.
Why were the Corinthians "carnal," outsiders, superficialists? "For whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" Is not this what they do on the streets, in the clubs, in the ordinary social relations of Corinth? I do not hear any music in your voices, I hear only clamour, turbulence, self-assertion, party cries; you are a clique. Yet Paul would not crush them as a strong hand might crush an insect; he will reason with them, he will put interrogatively what he might have put didactically and judicially. There is a great oratorical secret in this interrogation. It was thus that Demosthenes maddened his hearers; he made them parties to his orations, there was a silent antiphony as he approached the conclusion of his appeal; he rained interrogations upon the listening Greeks until they sprang to their feet and said, "Let us fight." Paul will ask a question "Are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" "Are ye not carnal? who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?" What does it amount to? what is the man who plants? what is the man who waters? Bethink ye, O ye childish Corinthians; you are exciting yourselves about the wrong objects; your enthusiasm is fine, your anger is not without a touch of sublimity, your contention is sharpened sometimes into a suggestive agony: but you are exciting yourselves upon the wrong topics. What shall we say to a man who, instead of knocking at the door, has all the while been bruising his bones against the wall? Enthusiasm is nothing in itself; it acquires all its quality and all its worth from the object on which it is expended, or the inspiration to which it owes its flame and sacrifice. So to-day the Church may be very busy with all manner of councils, meetings, congresses, conferences, intercommunications; but it may all be along the wrong line and about the wrong topic, and will end in vapour.
How were the Corinthians conducting themselves? "One saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos." That was the difficulty in Corinth, the difficulty of party feeling. Partisanship is always an evil, unless restrained by very high motives and considerations. In the Church there should be no party name: in politics there may be, and to a certain extent properly, because politics are nothing; they may be represented by a feud of words, a clamour of opinions, a contention of more or less selfish interests, as politics are at present conducted: but in the Church there is a name and by that name all things are regulated, adjusted, and settled. Compare one candle with another, but when the sun rises put out both the candles; if there were no sun it would be interesting to compare one artificial light with another, and to say, I prefer this to that, but when the sun has risen and claims the whole firmament for his dominion, then all our little sparks must vanish. It is because there is a Christ in the Church that there must be no Paul in it, no Apollos, except in a secondary and subservient and collateral sense, helping assisting, contributing to the general smooth ongoing of the household, but nothing more. "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?" This is the very question that ought to make the Church ashamed of herself to-day. Paul would be lost in anger if he knew the use that is being made of his name in the Church at this moment. There is now a Paulianity. There are men who follow Paul, as they falsely suppose, who do not follow Paul's Lord. Paul simply wants to be known amongst us as a "minister," a servant, one who runs errands, and carries messages, and explains what his Lord wishes us to understand; he does not want to be received as Christ but for Christ's sake. Let us take care lest we make an idol of Paul and an idol of Apollos, and lest we be quoting the Epistles instead of living upon the Gospels. Are they not one? Certainly they are, but they may be perverted in their unity, they may be misunderstood in their relation: it is because they are one that we go to the fountain, it is because they are one that we cannot be content with the stream.
Paul will not have his work ignored. He says, I have planted; my eloquent friend Apollos, to whom speaking is breathing, and whose breathing is the fragrance of the garden of the Lord, has watered; we have done the little that lay in our power, but God gave the increase. Paul uses the word "God" with effective expressiveness. He lifts the discussion to its right level. The Corinthians were setting Paul against Apollos, reasoning against eloquence, eloquence against reasoning, rhetoric against logic, logic against rhetoric, and so were frittering away their time and their energy; the Apostle comes and says, you need both the logician and the rhetorician, but you must put them into their right places, they are servants, helpers, contributors; "but God gave the increase." If there is any light, any hope, any love, any joy, any truth, it is of God, and not of Paul or Apollos. "So then, neither is he that planteth anything" anything to be spoken about or made much of "neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." When did Paul so frequently use the word God? He repeats it, he returns to it, he seals every sentence with it. The Corinthians were debaters, not worshippers; partisans, not sons of the living God in the highest sense of the term.
"Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one;" Paul is as good as Apollos, and Apollos is as good as Paul, and neither of them is worthy of being mentioned, because they are only deacons, ministers, servants, errand-bearers, slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ; when you think of the Church and praise the Church, think of God, and let every doxology fly heavenward, not a syllable lost upon the earth. To this sublimity of conception would Paul call us. "And every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour." Thus Paul recognises what he himself has done, and what Apollos has done, and each of them shall receive his own wages. Paul has been planting ten years or fifty, the Lord will not forget him; Apollos has been charming the Churches with that unrivalled eloquence, and with that unsurpassed knowledge of the Scriptures, in which he is so mighty; at eventide God will give him his crown. But there the matter will rest; Paul has no authority, Apollos has no authority. Paul never wants to have his name quoted; he would seem to cry in spiritual agony, "Brethren, let me alone! do not quote me, quote the Lord; I am an echo, not a voice; do not seal your letters with my authority, seal them with the superscription of Calvary."
"For we are labourers together with God." That is the highest tribute that can be paid to us. The whole administration is one, and if we are in that administration we are in it simply as helpers, called to co-operate with God; not that God needs co-operation, but that by co-operation he educates and strengthens the world. "Ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building." What other man dared have said so? No modern speaker dare have flashed out his words thus elliptically. "Ye are God's husbandry" is one figure, and with only a comma the Apostle continues, "Ye are God's building." We are afraid of mixed metaphors, because we are small thinkers and petty speakers, who have a reputation to take care of. Paul was a great, urgent thinker, a man who said, "The king's business requireth haste," and a man who left a good deal to be filled up. So he said, Ye are God's field, ye are God's building. We should be more expressive and instructive if less conscious of literary proprieties. "Ye are God's husbandry." Literally, ye are God's George, ye are God's field. This accounts for the popularity of the name of George in the early ages of the Church. The literal meaning is field ye are God's George, ye are God's acre. Virgil wrote the Georgics, the field pieces, the field lays and criticisms and experiences. Brethren, your name is George; ye are a field under the Lord; you want tilling, ploughing, watering, planting, all agricultural processes: but ye are God's field. Paul may have done a little ploughing, but he never made the field; Apollos may have done a little watering, but he never made the field; Paul and Apollos may have sowed a great deal of seed, but they never made the seed, they got that out of God's garner. It is God's seed, God's truth, God's wisdom, God's purpose "Ye are God's husbandry." He will not let go of that word "God," he who was so free in the use of the term, "our Lord Jesus Christ," yet in all this introduction keeps up the word God as probably he never kept it up before, that he may make the least of the human, the mechanical, and the ecclesiastical, and lift it into its broader altitude and light and colour, the Divine conception and the Divine sovereignty of humanity. "Ye are God's building, God's house." He is speaking now, not of each individual, but of the Church. Of that Church he has said, "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in everything ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge... so that ye come behind in no gift."
Then dealing with individuals in that Church he says, ye are carnal; ye are milk-drinkers, ye are milk-fed babes; you could not eat strong meat if I gave it to you, it would be too much for your feeble digestion. Now, returning to the corporate idea of the Church, he says, ye are God's field, God's house. Who takes that view of the Church to-day? Only one man here and there. Now, we have in the Church what is called discipline, so that little, mouldy, pharisaical respectabilities gather themselves together into what they call Church Meetings, and expel from their company anybody that has been doing what they call wrong. That was not Paul's idea of the Church. He would keep every man in the Church, and rebuke the defaulter night and day, but he would never let him go out if he could help it Looking at the Church in its totality he said, "I thank my God always on your behalf"; looking at the Church individually he says, "I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ"; for ye are clamouring amongst one another in a spirit of debate as to whether Paul is greater than Apollos, or Apollos is greater than Paul; I am ashamed of you! Then once more the great total idea glows like a discovered planet, and Paul says, Ye are God's field, and he wants every blade of grass; ye are God's house, a poor little hut indeed, but when he dwells in it his occupancy shall give it its only glory.
Thus we come upon great conceptions of the Church, and great conceptions of the nation. There are those who say that a nation is no better than the individuals composing it. That is fallacious; because, by the very association of individual with individual, each acquires something he could not otherwise possess. A nation is not a gathering of individuals who retain their individuality in some isolated and selfish sense; it is the friction of individuality, that clash and collision, out of which come light, motion, progress. There are those who say a church is only what its individuals are. That is wrong, or only in a very narrow sense can it be defended as right; because when the Church comes together we lose a great deal of individuality and we merge into one another; and herein is that saying true, "We are labourers together with God." The ministry is one, the Church is one; if you are rich, you hold your riches for the man who is poor; if you are gifted with wisdom, that wisdom is not to be spent on your own little fortune and destiny, it is to be shared by those on whom the spirit of genius has not alighted; and those who are most honoured and most exalted will feel an additional elevation, arising from the fact that they are the brothers of the humblest, and the trustees of him who has no helper. Ye are God's George, God's field; ye are God's house, God's building; and when God has once undertaken the ownership of the field he will see that the wheat is all garnered; when God has once owned the house he will watch every door and fill every window with noontide light. Ye are God's field; ye are God's building.
Almighty God, we would speak to thee as the healer of sorrow, the deliverer of bondsmen, the Saviour of souls. Thy Son lived for us, died for us, and for us rose again, and for us he intercedes; we are Christ's, and Christ is God's. May we feel that we are involved in Christ, inwrought into his very thought and purpose and prayer; therein may we find our steadfastness, the assurance of our heaven, and our immortality. Dry the tears no human hand can touch; take hold of the hand of the blind, and lead them by a way they cannot see, but may their hearts glow with love as they think of the sacred end. Make the bed of the sick: watch by those who are suffering from solitariness: save the minds that tremble on the brink of madness: turn back the purposes of all wicked hearts: break the arm of tyranny, and humble in the dust the pride that is not founded upon righteousness: and thus bring us all, by a way short or long, difficult or easy, to the home, the resting-place, the sanctuary, of thy throne. Amen.
10. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.
11. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
13. Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire: and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.
14. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
15. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
16. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
17. If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
18. Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
19. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.
20. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.
21. Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours;
22. Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours;
23. And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's.
The Fiery Test
Paul does not say that he was a wise masterbuilder, although at first reading of these words it would appear as if he made that representation of himself. Rather he says, My pattern was that of a man who builds wisely; I copied him, I followed his example, I saw how particular he was about the foundation: in that respect I thought his action worthy of repetition. "I had laid the foundation." Let there be no mistake about this statement: Paul did nothing of the kind, in the sense which obviously attaches to these words. He himself corrects that impression, for he says, "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid." In the prophecies of Isaiah we had a distinct declaration on the part of God himself that he, not man, laid in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, elect, precious, a sure foundation. The foundation therefore is of God's laying, but there is a foundation upon a foundation in a sense that must be obvious to experienced men. There is the first line of doctrine, of holy teaching, of moral suggestion, and of heavenly expostulation and exhortation. Paul shows how to begin to build. Man has his foundation to lay upon the foundation that is already laid. If the human builder gets wrong in the first course which he lays, what will be the fate of the superstructure but hideousness, want of proper geometric form and relation, and ultimate down-throwing and destruction? Every man is to take heed how he builds upon the foundation. Although the foundation is of infinite importance it is not everything. The foundation is a word not complete in itself; it is a suggestive word, it has necessary consequents, and if those consequents be not followed out the foundation is misunderstood and dishonoured. If we have beginnings granted unto us the suggestion is that we must accept them as such and work upon them. When the Lord starts a man in life he gives him something to begin with, some talent, faculty, power keen insight, imagination, strong understanding, wonderful power of endurance; he does not give all these probably to any one man, but one of these or more he gives to every man to begin the world with. What is the meaning? That we are to go forth and develop what we start with. So when a foundation is supplied we are to build upon it.
We are to do more than build upon the foundation, we are to take heed how we build, how, as to material; how, as to industry; how, as to the importance we attach to the structure. We are not to go through the building as hastily as we can and fly to ignoble rest; we are to live in our work, we are to be dominated by one grand and worthy idea, we are to be known as God's builders and God's building. Is the exhortation addressed to ministers? Some commentators think so; I cannot wholly follow their reasoning or accept their conclusions: but those who take that view represent the ministry as a building, an organisation; the foundation is laid, and pastors put upon the foundation such material as they can lay their hands upon, gold, silver, precious stones; wood, hay, stubble; so that in some instances the Church looks noble, grand, wholly worthy within given limits of the Lord who is the foundation, the topstone, and the pinnacle of the building. In some aspects the Church looks lovely. Men gaze upon the marvellous structure, beautiful as a dream, substantial as the stars, and they say, Gold, silver, precious stones: how beautiful, how delightful, how worthy of the purpose! Standing at another point of view, men say, How poor the Church is, a miserable hut, unworthy of our age, wood, hay, stubble! Both the criticisms would be correct; neither perhaps would be complete without the other. Life itself is a mixture; every man is himself a contradiction: what wonder if the Church of God should present many and contrary aspects to anxious beholders? Why should not the exhortation apply rather to Christian men who are building themselves upon the foundation that is laid in Zion? Taking it in this way, what a practical doctrine Paul is preaching! He says, You have nothing to do with the foundation but to accept it; you must, however, begin the moment you touch the foundation to take heed how you build; it is not enough to get through your time, we are not working as hirelings, we should take some conscious pride in our work; everything we do should be the best we can do at that moment; not the best that is possible, because sometimes possibility itself is overlaid with burdens, with solicitudes, with feebleness, so that the builder is himself discontented, and scornful with his own work: but he says in his heart, Blessed one, thou knowest I would do better to-day, but I cannot; my eyes cannot see very clearly, and as for my poor old hands they tremble a good deal; I do not seem to be able to get hold of the right kind of material at all: God, pity me; I do not want to spoil this life-temple thou hast appointed me to build, but thou wilt accept whatever I do, if at the moment of doing it it is the best that is possible to me. Then what wonder if God should turn water into wine, and dust into manhood, should turn some very humble materials into gold and silver and precious stones, so that we should wonder at the building, and none be more amazed than we at the result of our daily effort? How philosophical, to use no larger or more sacred term, is the Apostle's reasoning! He says the foundation is already laid. That is not dogmatic, in the sense of being papal, arbitrary, and overriding human choice and human judgment; it is the indication of a fact which coincides with all the other facts of life, which quadrates with the whole system of things, which is part of the complete totality of the Divine thought.
Thus in all life we find that we have nothing to do with beginnings; we start upon something that is already there. No man makes the earth which he tills; he is but a ploughman, he is not a creator; he can but tear the earth up, plough it, rip it, pierce it, open it, for the reception of seed; the earth itself is laid as a foundation by other hands. No man lights the sun; it is there already, man finds it there, leaves it there, uses it while he is here, let every man take heed how he uses it. That same sun will light a murderer to his tragedy, or a saint to his altar. Let every man take heed how he uses the beginnings with which God has enriched life. No man lays the foundation of his own reason. He cannot tell whence he has his reason, yet he knows he has it; there are moments of religious and noble pride when he boasts himself a reasoner. Did you lay the foundation of your reason? No. Is it a gift which you bestowed upon yourself? No. Did you make it as a purchase in some of the bazaars of the world, east or west? No. It was God's gift; let every man take heed how he builds thereupon. A man may reason himself down to hell; he may turn his logic into a ladder to go down by. God meant reason to be a ladder of ascent. So then in all life we have Divine beginnings, a providence that is beforehand, an arrangement which we may accept or decline: but by the very fact of its being there it has an initial claim to our attention and consideration. Reflecting upon these things, how our function is limited and defined for us in a most wonderful way. We have to wait until we see what the child is; we know it has some gift of God in it; but we cannot begin until God begins and says to us by events and evolutions, This is the destiny of this particular child: train up the child in the way he should go, inclining a little to the east or to the west, to the north or to the south; he is poetical, or prosaical; he is mechanical, or commercial; he is a stay-at-home who will dwell in tents, or the rover is in him, and the moment he sees a mountain he will paw for it as if he had rights up there, estates to claim. Train up a child in the way he should go: take heed how you build upon the foundation which God has laid in that brain, that heart, that will. So we are not such great creators after all. We do but shuffle the pieces, we are but clever re-arrangers; all the pieces are found for us, we add nothing to God's universe; we elicit, evoke, we educate, lead out from germs into fruitions, but all the things were there without us. If any man think himself to be wise, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. Keep within your limits. All men are strong when they keep within arm's length; the moment they try to reach one-eighth of an inch farther than they can, they are weak; it is when the arm is well drawn in that it is strong, has the whole of its muscularity at its disposal. Keep therefore within your religious limits, your limits of reason, fact, event, and providence, and visible purpose in all things; then should ye be strong men, whilst many may flutter who cannot fly; they will be here and there and elsewhere, but they will build nothing.
How is it to be known what men are building either as pastors or as individual labourers? "Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." Oh, that fiery test! We could escape other criticism; but the criticism of fire, who can run away from with success? An awful moment is it when the fire leaps upon the work to try it. How we watch, how eager we are, with what strained eyes we notice the whole operation! See, the fire will not spare; it has a power of rising, and a power of turning round every angle: see how it penetrates, scorches, tests, lingers here as if it had found a secret, darts like a bloodhound that has caught the first scent of blood: see, it will try every man's work, of what sort it is. What miserable work some men do! How frivolous, how vain, how self-involved, how wholly foolish and despicable! A life of dreams, nightmares, speculations, that are insubstantial and wholly wanting in beneficence, either of purpose or of accomplishment. What wasted lives! How good they might have been! how helpful, how rich in sympathy, how generous in assistance of every kind! yet fools! What an impartial test this is! Fire is to try every man's work. Fire does not distinguish between one individuality and another; fire does not say, This was built by royal hands, and that was put up by plebeian fingers, therefore I must be gracious to the one, and severe to the other. Fire is no respecter of persons. But fire cannot burn gold. There is a quality that fire can only test, not destroy, and by its very testing make as it were more precious, that is to say, give further, completer trust in its quality and worth. No good workman has ever reason to fear fire. The boy who has scamped his lesson fears the master as he hears him approach, dreads the critic as he sees him adjusting the manuscript to his eyes; the boy knows that the first look will have in it the frown of condemnation: on the other hand, where the boy has worked well he welcomes the master, he says he knows the critic's face will be all smiles presently, because the work is honest, real, thorough, just as good work as a boy can do. We know what work we are conducting and completing in life; we need not wait for the day of fire. Some men could send themselves to their proper destiny instantaneously; they need not wrap themselves round in some garment of sleepiness or negligence, saying they will wait until the judge comes to tell them whether they are to go up or to go down; they know that in heaven they would be far from home. Let there be no delusion about this matter of judgment. The fire will be an external critic, but the first fire should be an internal flame. Every man can try his own work by fire, or he can play the fool and palter with it, simply laying a finger upon it, nor ever trusting it lest it should come down upon him; then indeed is he victimising himself; he has the fire of judgment, conscience, experience within him: let the flames leap out upon the handiwork and try it of what sort it is.
There is a word of hope even in this penetrating judgment: "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." What chance have some people to build with anything but wood, hay, and stubble? They have hardly a foothold upon the earth; no face brightens when they draw near; their very approach is considered to be an appeal for alms or help or blessing of some kind: what if they are weary, heart-sick, heart-sore, and say they would gladly be spared the toil and fruitlessness of trying to build, when they have only wood, hay, and stubble at command? But let no heart be overborne: put up what materials you have, if they are the best you have; the fire will not spare them, but you yourself as the contributor of the best you have shall be saved. Then other men who might have done better may also be saved, but it shall be quite narrowly, simply saved, salvation minus, salvation that trembles on the brink of destruction; just saved, barely saved, hardly saved, nothing left of them but the merest line and shadow of personality. Are we to be content with this kind of salvation? If it be within our power to be saved wholly, triumphantly, gloriously, it will be wickedness on our part if we be content to be just barely saved. What shall be said of him who might have been in the very centre of heaven, and yet by his want of vigour, perseverance, self-control, watchfulness in prayer, is barely inside heaven's door?
Now the Apostle resorts to the argument with which the chapter began; now he rebukes party spirit with the same lofty reasoning and with the same spiritual penetration. He says, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." Again he swings back to a tender, gentle, sympathetic spirit. We have watched all the fluctuations of his mind and heart, we have seen how he began by noble ascription of honour and credit to the Corinthian Church, then how he prostrated himself before the Church, as if by laying himself down in the dust he could acquire some power to judge and to condemn, and then how he stood up again, and delivered his message with a firm voice, and with an unwincing expression of countenance; and now he returns and comforts the Corinthian Church and says, Some of you are as bad as you can be, some of you are drunken, some of you are incestuous, some of you are almost beasts, but ye are the temple of God. That is the mystery. It required a Paul to say so. We enhance our respectability by dwelling on the vices of others: Paul saw the ideal Church in the human actuality, and he said, Although these charges which are brought against you are solid and true, yet ye are the Temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you as in a chosen house. How full of rebuke, yet how full of encouragement! To every honest man the same message comes. Every soul is a contradiction within its own bounds. Sometimes the soul is almost in heaven; that same soul before the sun goes down shall have taken a path to hell. Which is the soul that Christ looks at? The upper one. When did Christ ever take a mean view of any man? When did not Christ see the very best aspect? When did he not amplify our little prayer, if it came from a broken heart, into a great petition and a prevalent intercession? Which of these two selves are we going to let triumph, the self that aspires, or the self that descends towards the earth; the self that is akin to angels, or the self that is overloaded and overborne with dust? Here comes in the action of will; here it is that men are tested. Given a man who in the very act of wrong does not want to do it, and that man will triumph at the last; given a man who is in Church and yet wants to be out of it, and the devil will manacle him and fetter him and cast him into outer darkness. God judges by motive, by spirit, by the uppermost desire; and, blessed be God, there are Peters who, all tears, all shame, can say, Lord, thou knowest all things how I have lied, how I have gone astray, how I have spoken the language of hell, how I have played the fool! yet thou knowest that I love thee. That man is not far from the kingdom of God.
Then, finally, the Apostle tells them they need not quarrel about Paul and Apollos, about the planter and the waterer. "For," says he, "whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours." He could not have ended there; that would have been less than half a Gospel; it would have been in fact so wanting in Gospel as to have encouraged infidelity and all manner of unfaithfulness. So according to his custom, to the royalty of that mind which was more in heaven than on earth, he said, "all are yours; and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." So the whole structure of the thought and the action is profoundly religious. Everything goes back to God. Read the genealogies in the New Testament: "Which was the son of " and the strain rolls on, until it culminates in the declaration, "Which was the Son of God." The little flower belongs to the garden, the garden belongs to the earth, the earth is rooted in the sun, and the sun is rooted in God. All things ascend to the level whence they descended. This is the rhythm of the great movement. When the Mediator rises from his mediatorial seat he shall deliver up the kingdom to God and the Father, and God shall be all in all. What are we building? Every man is a builder. That cannot be avoided. What are we building? A house of God, a temple? or a house of darkness, a chamber of imagery, a pit in the earth? What are we building? A house that lifts itself towards the skies as if by right, a house conscious of its own glory and ultimate dignity, a house that already sees its own pinnacles flashing in the morning light? or a house that can only be entered at night by beasts of prey? Let every man take heed how he buildeth!
Almighty God, thou livest to give. Thou givest unto all men liberally, and upbraidest not. There is no man who has not more than enough, if he reckoned it aright. Thou art not the God of rebukes, but the God of benediction; thou dost not live in judgment, but in mercy, in healing, in pity; thou dost redeem the world by the Cross of thy Son, We bless thee that Christ is the Amen of God; we rejoice in his Verily, verily. Through that roof no rain can come; into that sanctuary no ravenous beast can enter. We stand in the Yea of God. We rejoice in thy promises, which are exceeding great and precious, yet not too great to be redeemed, though too precious to be lost in any syllable. We have not, because we ask not. We might live in the rocks of heaven, we might make the whole week one calm Sabbath, and never lay down the trumpet from our lips. We bless thee, if in any degree we enjoy the sunshine of thy love: but whatever thou dost give is but an earnest; we cannot ever have more than the firstfruits: who can reap the fields of infinity? who can overtake the bounty of God? Now that we have begun to taste the sweets and hear the music of life, how wondrous it is! This is the dawn of immortality. In life is liberty, joy, music. If our life be hidden with Christ in God we cannot die, death is dead. Help us to enter into thy promises, to abide in the sanctuary of the Almighty, and to hide ourselves in the pavilion of God. Thou hast roofed in thy sanctuary that we might find in it lodgment and rest and hospitality. Deliver us from the spirit of wandering, lest we roam away and fail to find our way back again; may we follow the footprints of the shepherds, may we pitch our tents where they pitched theirs: may our adventure never become our lunacy, may we inquire for the old way, and lovingly haunt the old paths, the thoroughfares of heaven. Deliver us from instability of heart, from being here and there, from attempting to go in opposite directions at the same time; save us from the folly of speculation, whilst always keeping an open mind towards the windows of heaven. The Lord lift us up above ourselves: we are the creatures of time and space, and we are soon overborne: give us one touch of the spirit of immortality, and we shall hold earth and time and space in contempt; our light affliction will be but for a moment, if we look at the things which are not seen, the eternal things, the everlasting Yes. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16