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But in practical experience the Corinthians were not properly regarding, nor depending on, the wisdom of the Spirit of God, who had been given to them. Paul could not write to them as spiritual, but as unto "carnal," or "fleshly," or as unto "babes in Christ." Actually they were not babes, but were as babes, a matter of shame, for this was not normal. When they ought to have been able to digest solid food, Paul had found it necessary still to feed them with milk, the most elementary truths of the Word; and even now they could not bear the solid food of which they were in need. Therefore, instead of teaching them, he must first reprove their carnality.
The evidence of their fleshliness was in their emulation, strife, and factions. The spirit of rivalry is how contrary to Him, who, being Himself the Highest, has come amongst us "meek and lowly in heart." And of course the fleshly effort of one to be in a high place will awake the fleshly resentment of another, and strife follows, with its consequent breaking of the people of God into factions.
Paul considered it no honor to be flattered by such followers, and insists that, whether himself or Apollos, they were only ministering servants whom God had used for their blessing, giving each servant his particular gift and function. When one sends a messenger with a message, it is most unbecoming that the messenger should be given a place of high honor. He should be respected simply for his message, and his message carefully considered; but he must not be given the honor that belongs only to his master. And his message is to be carefully checked, as to whether it is simply and only the word of the master faithfully given.
Paul had planted, Apollos had watered, each doing the work for which he was fitted. Labour is surely involved in each case, but it was God who gave them ability for this. Moreover their labour was nothing if God did not cause the seed to grow: the work of God alone is that which is of true value. Certainly the servant working as under the clear direction of God will be blessed; but all the honor belongs to God, who gives the increase. Paul's establishing of the assembly at Corinth was surely accompanied by labour and travail; and Apollos would not water this with the refreshing ministry of the Word, apart from serious exercise of soul; but they were both servants of one Master. They were united as to their labours, not rivals, as the factions in Corinth would make them. And the Corinthians were not told to reward them according to their own estimate of their value. God would do this, according to their labour, after their labour was finished.
For they were "God's fellow-workmen" (J. N. Darby Trans.), that is, working together in subjection to God's authority, concerned that only the work of God should prosper. And the Corinthians were "God's husbandry, God's building," that is, the object of God's own workmanship. What a fact to lift their souls far above any thought of glorifying man! If they were the product merely of one man's workmanship, of what real value was this?
Yet Paul was given by God the special grace, as a wise master builder, to lay the foundation. And they were not called upon to merely admire the master builder, but to build. They were to be diligent too, as to how they built upon the foundation. For the foundation is Jesus Christ, and this has been permanently laid: nothing can change it, nor substitute for it. He is the Rock on which His Church is built, the foundation of all spiritual prosperity and blessing. Every believer builds upon this foundation, and of course the unbeliever has no place as a builder here.
It may be questioned in what sense Paul laid the foundation, if the foundation is Christ. Is it not in the fact of Paul's declaring the whole truth concerning Christ in every relationship to the present dispensation of grace - Christ crucified, raised, glorified, Head of the new creation, Head of the church, His body, with all the precious truths connected with these things? The foundation therefore involves the complete revelation of Christ personally and His magnificent work. It is this upon which the assembly is built.
What believers build here is not the building basically, for God does this of living stones (1 Peter 2:5; Ephesians 2:20-22); but that which adorns the building, "gold, silver, precious stones." These three are of value, of course, for fire will not destroy them, but will rather tend to bring out their purity and beauty. Gold is a symbol of the glory of God: silver of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: and the precious stones of the fruit of the Spirit of God. What is done therefore honestly for God's glory, what is done out of appreciation of the sacrifice of Christ, what is done as the response of the soul to the Spirit's working, will be rewarded. It is actually the working of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that produces all that is acceptable to Him, yet the builder is rewarded for it! - for of course he has responded to such working in grace, and the heart of God has pure delight in the response of faith to Himself.
The "wood, hay, and stubble" may vary in their value, just as certain works may be good or better from a fleshly, material viewpoint, but when the crucial test of fire tries them, none will endure. The pure holiness of God will manifest everything for what it is, and at the judgment seat of Christ that which abides the fire will be rewarded; but if one's work is burned, he will suffer loss. Since he is himself on the foundation, the burning will not touch his person, but as to his works he suffers loss. Lot is a most painful example of this in Genesis 19:1-38: he escaped the awesome judgment of Sodom, but all his possessions were burned up. How tragically sad that a believer may have nothing to show in the way of real spiritual value for all the years God has given him on earth!
The building here is of course the building up of souls personally and of the Church collectively. Let us seek full part in this. Verse 16 urges upon us that the Church is the temple of God: in this the Corinthians had their place, and the Spirit of God dwelt in them, not only individually, but corporately: they were the display of the Spirit's work in a united way. It is an unchangeable truth, and certainly worthy of our full response to it.
Verse 17 however does not speak of a builder, but a destroyer, and therefore not a believer at all. There are those on the outside willing to do Satan's work of destruction; and sometimes "grievous wolves enter in" among the saints with the intention of destroying. In our verse, the marginal reading, "destroy" is correct, rather than "defile." Such an one God would destroy. But while this strictly refers to an enemy, yet let the believer be diligent not to resemble a destroyer in the slightest way. "For the temple of God is holy, which ye are."
Such truth should lead to wholesome self-judgment now, for it is far better to confess our own foolishness that we may be wise, than to glory in a false show of wisdom. Let us keep from glorying in human wisdom or in men. "For all things are yours," whether God's servants, given for the help of all saints; or the world, life, or death, etc., all are intended for the spiritual benefit of saints of God, servants to their need, not masters. For "ye are Christ's," not then mere servants of men or things, but Christ's own bondservants. And Christ is God's, in Manhood come in perfect subjection to God, devoted utterly to the service of His Master. Here is the supreme Example of proper subjection to true authority.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18