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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

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Verses 1-3

Unfortunately Their Present Behaviour Is a Sign of their Immaturity For The Objects of Their Devotion Are But Instruments of God. Their Eyes Are Fixed In The Wrong Place (3:1-7)

‘And I, brothers, could not speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly (sarkinos), as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat, for you were not yet able to bear it. No, even now you cannot. For you are yet fleshly (sarkikos). For whereas there is among you jealousies and strife, are you not fleshly and walk after the manner of men?’

Having stressed the spiritual nature of the Gospel and the men who truly preached it, and of those who are united with Christ, he now turns to the Corinthians themselves and presents his diagnosis of their condition. He declares that he cannot speak of them as ‘pneumatikoi’. They probably boasted that they were ‘spiritual’ because of their manifestations of ‘spiritual gifts’ (chapter 14). So he informs them that they are not in fact revealing themselves to be spiritual at all, but to be ‘fleshly’. This latter is not quite the same as the ‘natural man’, but only one step from it. The fleshly man has the Spirit but yields to the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17), rather than being devoid of the Spirit. Nevertheless the difference is significant. He can still say to them, ‘you are a Temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you’ (1 Corinthians 3:16).

‘Could not speak to you as to spiritual (pneumatikois), but as to carnal (sarkinois).’ To be spiritual means to be illuminated by the Spirit, to have an understanding of the wisdom of God in His divine activity, to be concentrating on the crucified and risen Christ, and responding to Him, and, as we have seen in the previous chapter, to be able to judge all things, and not to be judgeable by any. But Paul can see none of this in the Corinthians. He cannot address them as ‘spiritual’. He sees them as deficient.

But surely if 1 Corinthians 2:14 refers to Christians as against non-Christians, those indwelt by the Spirit in contrast with those not indwelt by the Spirit, then he surely is speaking to them as pneumatikoi. And if he has just described them as pneumatikoi, and as those who could discern all things, he would want them to know that he spoke to them as such, and that therefore they should be ashamed of their condition. It would help his case. It would mean that they had the basic factor which would enable their discernment, a factor which he could not deny, and that therefore it made them even more inexcusable.

The point he makes, however, is that he cannot speak to them as pneumatikoi. This suggests that 1 Corinthians 2:14 cannot refer directly to them, for in such close connection he could hardly insist that they were peumatikoi and then say he could not speak to them as such. He would want to speak with them as such. On the other hand if 1 Corinthians 2:14 refers to Jesus Christ as ‘the Spiritual One’, and their relationship with Christ is such that they are not drawing on Him, not walking in the Spirit but walking in the flesh (Galatians 5:16-19), thus not drawing on His spirituality which they have in Him, then we can understand why he can say that they are not ‘spiritual’, using the word in the same sense as in 1 Corinthians 14:37. They are not making use of the spirituality that they have in Christ, therefore they are not ‘spiritual’, and he cannot speak to them as though they were.

Those who see 1 Corinthians 2:14 as including a description of them as Christians then have to say that what Paul means is, ‘you are pneumatikoi, but I cannot speak to you as such because your lives do not reveal it’. This not only seem unlikely, but it also appears a little forced in such close proximity to 1 Corinthians 2:14.

However that may be, these Corinthians seemingly could not, or would not, receive such things for they were like ‘babes’. In Paul the word ‘babes’ does not mean what many mean today when they speak of ‘babes in Christ’ but always indicates those who lack the fullness of a position in Christ. In Romans 2:20 it parallels ‘the foolish’, those not having the full truth. In 1 Corinthians 13:11 it speaks of when Paul himself was a ‘babe’, believing childish things, prior to achieving adulthood. In Galatians 4:1; Galatians 4:3 it describes those still under the Law and under the elements of the world. In Ephesians 4:14 it speaks of those carried around on any wind of doctrine, deceived by crafty men after the wiles of error. And yet here he can speak of them as being ‘in Christ’. They are thus a contradiction in terms. They are those who have the Spirit and yet are muddled as to the truth. It possibly suggests that he his holding his verdict on them somewhat in the balance. They are not ‘natural men’ but they certainly seem to think like it. And yet they have believed.

Indeed they had been ‘fleshly’ (sarkinos), wrapped up in themselves and their own wants. And the trouble was that they did not seem to be emerging from their condition. Rather it was getting worse. They were still fleshly, but this time sarkikos, too wrapped up in their jealousies and constant bitter arguments to fully appreciate the truth of the cross. They were being controlled by the fleshly side of their nature and concentrating on personalities and their emphases and their different approaches to teaching, and on the outward trappings of their religious observations. And they were especially proud that they had been baptised by a ‘spiritual’ person. And this concentration meant that they were not looking at Christ, except possibly dimly and vaguely, but were taken up with concentrating their efforts on upholding, against all comers, their heroes, and what they taught in distinction from the others. They were thus not experiencing the word of the cross with its power. They were too taken up with strife and division on secondary matters. And because their link to the Spiritual One was weak their spirituality was low. They had not advanced their spiritual side, the spirituality that they had in Christ in the Spirit.

‘Fleshly.’ The difference between the two words sarkinos and sarkikos is not very great in their use in the New Testament, but Paul is possibly using the difference to compare the selfishness and self-expression which is the natural, though unhelpful, result of the flesh with the selfishness and sinful self-expression of badly behaved adults who still behave ‘like children’ which is even more unacceptable. We might see sarkinos as suggesting ‘behaving like someone naturally so composed’, but which is not good, and sarkikos as ‘ruled by flesh, characterised by fleshly ways, even when they should have grown out of it’, which is worse. Indeed in Romans 7:14 Paul could speak of himself as sarkinos in contrast to the Law which was psychikos. His fleshly part only too often prevented him from fulfilling what was spiritual, but did not prevent him being spiritual. Sarkikos in contrast wars against the soul (1 Peter 2:11). It describes wisdom which is contrary to the grace of God (2 Corinthians 1:12). But it can also mean simply something which is simply physical and not spiritual in a neutral sense (1 Corinthians 9:11; Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 10:4; Hebrews 7:16). 1 Peter 2:11 and 2 Corinthians 1:12 are more pertinent here. Thus the distinction is not large but possibly indicates some deterioration. However it is clearly an adjective which can be associated with Christians, although in a fashion which warns against it because of its bad effects.

These adult ‘works of the flesh’ are described in Galatians 5:19-21, and they do not make pretty reading. Strife, jealousy, bad temper, divisiveness, behaving like children without self-control. And if they continue like this, they are warned, it will be testimony to the fact that they are not really God’s children, that they ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:22). Thus it is now time that they grew up and proved that they really are children of God, by revealing that they possess ‘the things that accompany salvation’ (Hebrews 6:9), the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, self-control, and that they have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:22-24). What they must do is let Christ’s spirituality take over in their lives, and let the cross do its work.

‘-- as to fleshly, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with meat, for you were not able.’ This refers first of all to when he had previously known them, but it is then described as being still applicable. They had clearly not been fully receptive to true doctrine, to the full significance of the word of the cross. What they had received had been to them milk and not meat. Paul had not deliberately fed them milk. That was how it had turned out because of their fleshliness. This is not describing first principles taught to the new Christian. Paul would expect those to be taken as meat. It is describing what they actually received because of their inadequacy.

Or it may be that they had in fact accused him of only giving them milk because he had not taught them ‘wisdom teaching’ and that he is being sarcastic. He could be pointing out that it was only because they were babes in their ability to receive doctrine that what he fed them had to be milk. Either way the fault is theirs, and not because Paul chose to feed them only milk. For the fact seems to be that they were to be seen as blameworthy even in this, as ‘fleshly’ demands.

‘No, even now you are not able.’ These still seemed not to be able to take what he taught as ‘meat’, the deep truths of the Gospel. They still would not fully receive the word of the cross. They did not learn from it to die to self and live to Christ (Galatians 2:20). They did not give the impression of abiding in the true vine (in Christ) and of producing Christ-like fruit (John 15:1-6). They were too concerned with other things, which showed that they were still controlled by ‘the flesh’ (human aims and desires, the feeding of the ego and the gratifying of the senses, the acceptance of teaching devoid of the Spirit), rather than with divine aims and ideas, with spiritual doctrine and to be part of Christ’s pure and mutually loving people. It may be that their spiritual gifts made them think that they were spiritual. Paul makes clear that that is not so. Having Christ’s spirituality would result in their being like Christ, and had they had that sufficiently they would not behave as they do.

‘For you are yet carnal (fleshly - sarkikos).’ This is here defined in terms of human emotions and reactions, ‘jealousy and strife’. Their human side is on top and they are too concerned about earthly things, and this has led them to be jealous about such things and to fight among themselves as rivals, splitting up into different parties and fighting for personalities. They are behaving as though they were just ordinary people not affected by the word of the cross and its message and power, and not appreciative of it. They are behaving as though they were earthly and not heavenly. They walk after the manner of men who are devoid of the Spirit.

Verses 1-23

Christ Crucified For Us And The New Birth Through the Spirit Are the Two Central Foundations of Christianity (1:10-4:21).

Paul begins this section by revealing his concern that the Corinthians are in danger of splitting up into different parties around the teaching of certain leading teachers (1 Corinthians 1:10-17), and concentrating on secondary aspects of that teaching, rather than being united around the one central truth of Christ crucified, the one fact which is central to the Christian message, and around which all should be united, and which points to the One Who alone, by means of what He accomplished there, is effective in bringing about their salvation through the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:24; 1Co 1:30 ; 1 Corinthians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 2:4), and is the very foundation of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

The crucifixion of Christ, points out Paul, has brought about the raising up of a wholly new situation. The world is now divided into two. On the one hand is ‘the natural man’, devoid of the Spirit, taken up with human wisdom, divided, rejecting God’s way, despising the cross (1 Corinthians 1:19 onwards leading up to 1 Corinthians 2:14), and on the other ‘the spiritual one’, receiving true wisdom from God, trusting fully in the word of the cross, enlightened, the temple of God indwelt by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4-15; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 1:24).

The ‘natural man’ is the world in Adam, the first man, and as such earthy and without the Spirit and unable to discern the things of God, with no hope of the resurrection to life (1 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:45-47). The Spiritual One is the last Adam, the second man, the heavenly One, in Whom are found those who are heavenly, Who has given His Spirit to His own so that they might understand the things of God as manifested through the power of the word of the cross, and know the things that are freely given to them of God, and come finally to the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 Corinthians 15:42-49).

But sadly the Corinthian church, while having become a part of the second, are revealing themselves as still very much taken up with the first. They are divided, looking to earthly wisdom, arguing about different teachers as though they brought different messages, rich and yet poor, reigning and yet not reigning (1 Corinthians 1:12; 1Co 2:5 ; 1 Corinthians 3:3-4; 1 Corinthians 4:8), neglecting the word of the cross, and the Crucified One, still behaving as fleshly rather than as spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). They are not allowing the word of the cross to do its work in them.

They need to recognise that the teachers are in themselves nothing, ‘weak and foolish’ tools of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29) who must themselves account to God (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), whose task is to build on the One foundation which is Christ, for they are building the Temple of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is indeed the one Holy Spirit Who reveals through these teachers the crucified Christ and what He has done and is doing for them (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). For it is one Christ Who has been crucified and through Whom we are being saved.

What should therefore be all important to them is Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), the word of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18), foreordained before the creation (1 Corinthians 2:7), the central message they proclaim (1 Corinthians 3:11), and around which they must unite, for it is He who has been made to them the wisdom from God, even righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). He is the one foundation on which they are built (1 Corinthians 3:11). The church is one and it is this message that separates them from the outside world which in its folly and blindness despises Him ( 1Co 1:20-23 ; 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 2:8) and what He came to accomplish. Thus must they maintain unity in Him, partaking in His one body (1 Corinthians 10:17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13), presenting a united witness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:10-12), recognising that they are the one Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16), rather than splitting up into a group of different argumentative philosophical groups having lost the recognition that what they have come to believe in Christ is central to the whole future of all things. They need the grand vision.

Verse 4

‘For when one says, “I am of Paul.” And another, “I am of Apollos.’ Are you not men?’

Instead of concentrating on learning about and knowing Christ, and loving one another, and pleasing God, and dying to themselves, they have taken sides supporting one or another particular approach to things, and certain particular men, possibly even using their spiritual gifts to that end, and have caused dissension on the basis of it (Paul and Apollos are only being cited as examples - 1 Corinthians 4:6). ‘Are you not men?’ That is, are you not behaving like ‘natural’ men (1 Corinthians 2:14)? Are you not behaving like mere men who have had no spiritual illumination.

“I am of Paul.” And another, “I am of Apollos”. The names of Paul and Apollos are given as examples to represent all who preach in Christ’s name (1 Corinthians 4:6). The point is that to lay too much emphasis on any man of God is wrong. They do not belong to Paul. They do not belong to Apollos. All are servants of the One on Whom attention should be set, that is, Christ. They belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 3:23).

Verses 5-6

‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Ministers through whom you believed, and each one as the Lord gave to him. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.’

Elsewhere Paul will tell Christians that they must honour those who labour in preaching the Gospel and teaching the church the word of God (1 Timothy 5:17). But here he is concerned because too much emphasis is being placed on them to the detriment of the Corinthians. It is preventing them from concentrating on Christ. They are making too much of preachers, even good preachers, and their particular slants. So he points out that different men play their part in ministering the Gospel and the word of God, but that any success is not theirs but God’s. Thus none are to be exalted. They only do what it is their duty (and privilege) to do (Luke 17:10).

‘Ministers through whom you believed, and each one as the Lord gave to him.’ He, Apollos and others (and it is probably mainly the others that he has in mind) are merely ‘diakonoi’. The word means servants, waiters at table, those who are there to offer assistance. Thus they must not make much of themselves or attract attention to themselves but humbly carry out the task given to them by Christ. They only have the opportunity because the Lord gave it to them. Thus they should be grateful and not seek prominence. And this is how the Corinthians, and we, should see them (while at the same time giving them respect because of Whose servants they are. This does not encourage disdain, but true recognition of what they are).

Note the impersonal way in which he speaks of himself and Apollos. He is eager not to impose himself on the illustration personally. He is speaking of all who claim to present the true doctrines of the Christian faith, not just disputes about Apollos and himself.

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.’ See Acts 18:1-11; Acts 18:27 to Acts 19:1. Paul first entered Corinth and preached in the synagogue. But due to the poor reception he received, although a number believed, including Crispus the ruler of that synagogue, he deserted the synagogue and began to preach in a private residence with great success, thus founding the church at Corinth. And he laboured there for one and a half years ‘teaching the word of God among them’. But inevitably he had to move on. Then Apollos later came to Corinth and ‘helped them much who had believed through grace’ and powerfully used the Scriptures to show that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:27-28). Thus, just as plants have to be planted and then watered and tended, so Paul planted, and Apollos watered and tended, each helping in establishing the church.

‘But’, says Paul, ‘it was not us who did it.’ The reason for the success was God’s activity. It was God who ‘went on giving the increase’. The sower sows the spiritual seed, and the gardener waters the spiritual plants. But it is God Who continually makes them grow and establishes them. Therefore the credit should go to Him and not to Paul and Apollos. We do not glorify the sower for sowing. We do not glorify the irrigator or the gardener for watering their seeds. They do what all do. It is to God then that the glory should go for the spiritual harvest.

The first two verbs are aorists, indicating here a period which came to an end. But God ‘continues to give the increase’ (imperfect). And that is the point. Men move on but God is always there carrying on His work through others and by His Spirit.

Verse 7

‘So then neither is he who plants anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.’

So while we must properly appreciate what ministers do, if they do it humbly and faithfully, we must remember, and they must remember, that they are merely earthly vessels. Sometimes their work will prosper, and sometimes it will seem to languish (although the seed grows secretly). It will all depend on God’s activity, without which their work is useless. And sometimes work will seem to prosper which is earthly work and not heavenly work at all. But anything worthwhile that comes out of it will be God’s work, not theirs. It will be accomplished through the word of the cross, not through the word of men.

Verses 8-9

‘Now he who plants and he who waters are one. But each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are God’s fellow-workers. You are God’s prepared land, you are God’s building.’

Paul continues his illustration and then changes it to a new illustration. He is dealing first with the illustration of agricultural work. Then he changes to the illustration of building. So Christians are first depicted as land prepared for the growth of crops (georgion - cultivated land). And men of God, if they are true men of God, labour on them, planting and watering. And they are all one in the work. Their aim is one, and their unity is one. ‘That they may be one as we are’ (John 17:11). And each will benefit individually according to how they labour. They work together as one, but as each is responsible individually, so each will be rewarded individually. For only God can see the heart. But the stress is also on the fact that they are only labourers in a small part of the field. It is Christ Who is central to it all. They are not of great importance, He is all important.

‘We are fellow-workers of God.’ ‘Of God’ may mean ‘who belong to God’, or ‘who act together as fellow-workers on God’s behalf’ or ‘as fellow-workers with God’. As the emphasis is on their service for Him one of the first two is almost certainly correct (note that ‘of God’ is repeated three times, in the two final examples definitely signifying possession)). The point is that they work together under God’s management to fulfil God’s work. It is the prepared land and the building which are important, not the farmers and builders. But we may also see the point as being that both the fellow-workers and the cultivated land/building belong to God. They share the same level as being His possessions. It is both a glorious fact and a great leveller.

If we take it to mean ‘in partnership with God’, which is least likely, we must remember that in that case He is the driving force, and they are very much junior assistants. They are sun-ergos, ‘workers together’ with God, working under His direction, and it is He Who pays their wages depending on the quality of their work. The thanks are due to the Owner and Managing Director and not his workers (although of course we may politely thank them too).

Then he changes his illustration to that of building, because he now wants to stress the centrality of Christ. The church of Corinth (and all churches) are seen as something being built. Initially therefore the following verses apply to Paul and Apollos and all those who labour likemindedly. But clearly in the final analysis they apply to all who work for God.

‘You are God’s cultivated land.’ God’s people are the cultivated, fruitful land. The workers are privileged to have been called to work on that land. They dig, and plough, and sow, and water. But it is God Who gives the increase. Without Him all their work would be in vain.

‘God’s building.’ The new illustration is necessary to bring Christ into the picture.

Verses 8-15

That Is Why These Teachers Are United In Their Work Knowing They Must Account To God For Their Ministry (3:8-15).

Paul now puts all these teachers, including himself, firmly in their place. They are but domestic servants whose responsibility is to point to the foundation Jesus Christ and to build on Him. Christ is all. Their works and teaching will one day be tested and either rewarded or dealt with as rubbish, but the foundation will endure for ever, and that foundation is Christ. For all is building up to the supreme glory of Christ, until finally all is of God (1 Corinthians 3:22-23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28)

Verse 10

‘According to the grace (of God) which was given to me, I laid a foundation like a wise master-builder, and another builds on it. But let each man be very careful how he builds on it.’

Following up the illustration Paul sees himself as the wise master-builder. This is a reminder of the high position God has given him. He is not inferior to these other preachers some of whom make so much of themselves. The master builder was in overall control with many builders under him. By ‘wise’ he probably means expert and efficient while also having in mind his previous references to God’s wisdom. He ensures that he builds as a good master builder and builds in accordance with God’s true wisdom. Along with his helpers, for as a master builder he has others working with him, he has laid a sound foundation, and he intends to use sound materials. Then others (in this case including Apollos by name) build on it. Each is hopefully doing the work of God, and each has one purpose in mind, to work with the others in making the building the best that it can be for God. Thus the picture in context is of spiritual teaching which will strengthen and establish the church of God, commencing with vital first principles as a foundation (the preaching of the cross, and the crucified One - 1 Corinthians 1:17-18; 1 Corinthians 2:2) and going on with further spiritual teaching, but not being too taken up with secondary matters. They are to plan their activity with greatest care under the guidance of God.

‘According to the grace of God which was given to me.’ Paul reminds them of his special calling, while recognising that it was all of God. He had been especially chosen as the master builder, and God had uniquely called him so that even the twelve Apostles had acknowledged his equality with them in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8-9; Romans 11:13). He was not arrogant at the thought of being a preacher, and especially of being a church founder, he was humbled by the thought. He recognises what a great privilege it was. And he recognises that he did not deserve it. In fact the opposite (1 Corinthians 15:9). It was all of the unmerited favour of God freely bestowed on him, and what had been accomplished was also all His doing.

And not only so, he also recognises his continued dependence on that grace, that unmerited favour of God for he knows that he can do nothing without it (if only the others would do the same).

‘The grace (of God).’ P46 omits ‘of God’, and so does Clement when citing it. For when Paul speaks of God’s grace, His undeserved active favour, towards individuals he does not usually include the genitive (Romans 12:3; Galatians 2:9). But the idea is always implicit.

Verse 11

‘For no man can lay another foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’

But now we come the crux of the illustration, there is only one foundation. All centres on Christ. They all profess to be labouring for God but woe betide them if they build on any other foundation. For there is no other. All who do God’s work properly must do so basing all they do on the one true foundation as Paul did, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. That is the foundation Paul initially laid for the Corinthian church by his preaching of the cross and the Crucified One. That is the only sound foundation that any man of God can lay for any church. There is no other. Thus the attention of all must primarily be on Jesus Christ.

It is in Christ as the Crucified One, and all that that implies of Godhood and Manhood and redemption, and righteousness and sanctification and eternal life, that all truth is found. And anything built on that foundation must be founded and established in Him and His work, for He is the foundation, the One on Whom all else rests. All must finally centre on Him. And it is He Who is the foundation of the Corinthian church.

Thus all of his fellow-preachers are, if they are true, to be united in looking to and building on that one foundation. Jesus Christ must be all. And the Corinthians themselves must be looking towards that Foundation, and resting on Him and not be gazing at the workers. For one day how they build will be tested. But the foundation will not need testing. The foundation is secure, permanent and true. Christ is beyond testing. He is the Truth.

But on that firmly laid Foundation on which the Corinthian church, and the world church, is built, on which the whole true church is built, and in a sense each individual member is built, there will be much building activity. The materials used for the building as now described clearly refer to sound or unsound approaches to teaching, true or deceptive doctrine, true wisdom and understanding or false wisdom and understanding. But the principle clearly applies more widely, for it also applies to all work done for God.

Note that the foundation is said to be ‘Jesus Christ’ not ‘the Gospel of Christ’. That is so that all eyes might look to Him as such on Whom alone all that they preach should rest. Of course the Gospel is Christ. That is what it is all about. But the centrality of Christ Himself, as against all others, is being stressed here. He is all.

Verses 12-13

‘But if any man builds on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble, each man’s work will be revealed for what it is, for the day will make it clear to us, because it is tested out in fire, and the fire will prove each man’s work of what sort it is.’

He now moves on to consider building on the foundation that has been laid. Christ is the foundation. Christians are God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9). Now he comes to the adornment provide by the teachers. All who teach the word of God and the testimony of Jesus in any way must take heed of the materials that they use on the building .Their teaching, and all that they do, may be like gold, silver and costly stones, precious and valuable, surviving the test, precious, revealing the glory of God (compare Revelation 21:11; Revelation 21:18-21). Or it may be like wood, hay and stubble, temporary materials which are burned up and finally fail the test. It may consist of the wisdom of God which stands permanent in all its glory like the great Temple in Jerusalem, bejewelled, splendid and permanent, or it may consist of the wisdom of men and be like the booths erected at the Feast of Tabernacles, temporary and fleeting.

How much Paul foresaw of the future. He foresaw the building up of churches on sound teaching which would produce flourishing and spiritual Christians, and which would thus prosper, and, sadly, he foresaw the building up of churches on unsound and fallacious teaching which would not produce satisfactory fruit, and would wither and die inwardly, even if they continued to appear fine outwardly, and he knows that they will one day be destroyed, and that the destruction of them will be great (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The ideas behind the detail are based, although not directly, on Old Testament thoughts and passages. It is important to interpret them carefully for while the Old Testament passages are the basis for the ideas, the application is very different.

‘Gold, silver and costly stones.’ The main point behind the description is of that which is most valuable in man’s eyes used as building material, that which all men basically desire, and it has reference to the ‘wisdom’ previously mentioned - (1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; compare 1 Corinthians 2:10-12)). Paul may well have in mind Proverbs 3:14-15 which is describing true wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 3:13) based on God’s instruction (Torah) and commandments (Proverbs 3:1). ‘The merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. It is more precious than rubies, and none of the things that you can desire are to be compared to her.’ Also in mind may be Job 28:12 (Job is cited later), again speaking of wisdom and understanding, which ‘cannot be obtained for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for its price, it cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx or the sapphire, --- the price of wisdom is above rubies’ (Job 28:15-18). Both these contexts link wisdom and understanding to gold, silver and costly stones, although, be it noted, in both cases the latter are not even comparable (see also Proverbs 8:19). However, as Paul has in mind heavenly gold, silver and costly stones, signifying true spiritual wisdom and understanding, he may well have this comparison in mind. Thus gold, silver and precious stones are the true wisdom of God given through His Holy Spirit to those who build wisely.

‘Wood, hay, stubble.’ The main point here is that of cheap and temporary building materials and adornments, and of what is worthless and useless, that which is easily destroyed in fire. What men really value they build permanently and gloriously. What is seen as of secondary value is built of lesser materials. Wood and stubble are temporary and fleeting. They are described as burned up in Malachi 4:1 which speaks of ‘the day that is coming’ (compare1 Corinthians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 3:13) which will burn as a furnace and in which all who are proud and all who work wickedness will be stubble, and ‘the day that is coming will burn them up, says Yahweh of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.’ The idea of Malachi is of judgment of the people, but that jusdgment is certainly based on their lack of wisdom and understanding (1 Corinthians 3:7). They are destroyed because their wisdom is false wisdom. It is clearly lacking. They have turned from God’s revealed wisdom to their own wisdom. Thus false wisdom and understanding is there clearly connected with combustible material that is burned up.

Furthermore Malachi contrasts God’s own peculiar treasure (1 Corinthians 3:17) with these false materials, and differentiates between those who serve God truly, and those who do not serve Him because of their false wisdom and understanding (1 Corinthians 3:18), and contrasts those destroyed like stubble with those who are like gold and silver passing through the furnace and coming out refined (1 Corinthians 3:3). Together with the reference to ‘the day’ it is difficult to avoid the suggestion that Paul has this passage in mind, while altering the ideas and fitting them into his scenario.

So everyone who teaches God’s word must beware how he teaches, for their teaching can consist of wisdom and understanding that is permanent, based on the One Who is the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30), the true foundation, or it can be that which is only fit to be destroyed.

‘Each man’s work will be revealed for what it is, for the day will make it clear to us, because it is tested out in fire.’ Surely here Malachi is in mind. The idea here is that the teaching of those who claim to teach God’s word will be put to the test and proved as to its real worth. Whether Paul, or Apollos, or the local minister, or the Sunday School teacher, the work of each will be tested and proved, and will either stand the test or burn to ashes in the great Day that is coming.

‘The day will make it clear to us.’ With daytime comes light. All is to be seen in the light of the Day, the great Day of the Lord when God Himself will act openly and when all will be shown to be what it is, both men’s teaching and their behaviour and obedience (Malachi 3:2-3; Malachi 4:1).

This may be translated in the middle voice. ‘The day will manifest itself in fire’. Or it may be translated as the passive, ‘The day is to be revealed in fire’. Compare 2 Thessalonians 1:8, ‘in flaming fire rendering vengeance to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.’

God’s coming day is a day of fire for all. It will be a purifier and refiner of His people and a destroyer of those who have rejected His truth and wisdom.

‘It is tested out in fire, and the fire will prove each man’s work of what sort it is.’ The fire will test all doctrine and wisdom that has been taught, and the lives and motives that lie behind them, and will either approve them or destroy them. There is no thought here of direct judgment on people. No person is strictly thought of as being destroyed or refined (unlike in Malachi 3:3). It is the person’s work that is destroyed. There is no thought here of Purgatory (except in so far as the unscriptural doctrine of Purgatory will be one of the teachings destroyed) or of judgmental fires burning up the wicked (although the latter is found regularly elsewhere). The ‘fire’ is the penetrative eye of the One Who has eyes like a flame of fire (Revelation 1:14 compare Daniel 10:6) searching out and passing judgment on the teachings and activities of men of God, from Whom nothing can be hidden.

Verses 14-15

‘If any man’s work shall remain which he has built on it, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned he shall suffer loss. But he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.’

The fire tests the work, it does not destroy the men (that is referred to later as a possibility for some - 1 Corinthians 3:17). Yet as the works stand firm and are purified, or as they are burned up, the men too experience the refining work of God. They are ‘saved as through fire’. (Note that it is ‘as through fire’, an illustration, not ‘through fire’ as a physical fact).

‘As through fire.’ The picture may be of God’s judgment in the terms regularly depicted in the Old Testament of a great city being burned as a judgment from God, with all that it has stood for being burned up, and the inhabitants escaping through the flames for their lives, ‘brands plucked from the burning’ (Zechariah 3:2; Amos 4:11).

‘On it.’ That is, on the foundation laid, which is Jesus Christ Himself and the basic teaching concerning Him as the crucified One, the word of the cross (1 Corinthians 3:10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 2:2).

‘If any man’s work shall remain.’ This has in mind the building work that has stood the test of fire, the gold and silver and costly stones. For such work the teacher will ‘receive a reward’. It is not a deserved reward. Go is in debt to no man. It is the reward of grace (see Romans 4:4-5). While strictly applying to the work of teaching true doctrine and wisdom the principle can be applied more widely to all means of testimony including the shining light of a godly life (Matthew 5:16). Compare for these ideas 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12; 1 Peter 4:5.

It should be noted that there is nothing in the illustration suggesting that any will be lost. All thought of here will be saved. It is not salvation that they are earning. That is the gracious gift of God. It is the reward that is also the great gift of a gracious God given in recognition of their faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 4:4-5).

‘If any man’s work shall be burned he shall suffer loss.’ This refers to the building work built with the wrong materials, which has not benefited the church of Christ. The teacher suffers loss because he has achieved nothing (the case is exaggerated for effect). But his salvation is not in doubt.

‘He will suffer loss.’ The verb can mean ‘will be punished’. But it the New Testament it almost always refers to the suffering of loss, the destruction of what is theirs.

‘He himself shall be saved.’ This is not referring to false teachers who ‘even deny the Master Who bought them’ (1 Corinthians 3:17; 2 Peter 2:1), but to those who, while to some extent true to the central faith, have not taught wisely or in a spiritual way (1 Corinthians 2:13). They have allowed themselves to be esteemed more than they should be, and built up theories for man’s admiration. They have turned eyes on themselves and their ideas rather than on the crucified Messiah.

‘Yet so as through fire.’ The fire has removed the work that counted against them so that they can now come before the Judge without stain having come through the fire, although also sadly without reward, for they do so as those escaping from the flames but leaving all their life’s work behind. They have had their reward on earth.

One purpose of the whole passage is to bring out that true servants of God can in fact be at fault in the content and method of their teaching and in the way they seek to build up the church of Christ so that, even though they hold the central truths, their labours are of little value. It is partly to make such men consider their ways, and to make the church more discerning in the teaching it accepts, that Paul speaks like this. It is to stress the need to centralise on the preaching of the cross and of Christ the Crucified One, and to recognise that it should be central in all ministry. For the lack of this latter was the besetting sin of the Corinthians.

Of course neither of the two extremes strictly apply. No man’s teaching, apart from Christ’s, is perfect, ever being only gold, silver and costly stones, and no man’s teaching is totally useless, to be all burned up in the fire. Indeed each man shall have his praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:5). But the main lessons are brought out by vivid contrast. Each man’s work will be thoroughly tested, and where necessary it will be purged, bringing reward or loss.

The thought is partially parallel with the teaching of Jesus in John 15:0. There the disciples are the branches which should bear fruit, and there will be varying levels of fruit. But there the branches that do not bear fruit are thrown in the fire to be burned because they are useless. They have produced nothing at all, not even spiritual life.

Verses 16-17

‘Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.’

‘Do you not know.’ A favourite expression to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1Co 5:6 ; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1Co 6:15-16 ; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Corinthians 9:24). He is stressing that they do not appear to know, or are ignoring, what they ought to know. It is only used once elsewhere (Romans 6:16).

The thought of God’s building leads on to the thought of His people being built together as His temple (compare Ephesians 2:20-22). The thought has been progressive - God’s cultivated field, God’s building, God’s temple; growth, establishment in truth, indwelling by the Holy God. The temple has not specifically been in mind up to this point, or it would have been mentioned earlier, but the idea springs from the previous idea of God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 are in fact an advancement and an added warning. We come back to the main point in 1 Corinthians 3:18-23. But as Paul contemplated God’s building he was filled with awe at what the people of God, His ‘church’, represented. They are the holy temple of the living God, His dwelling-place on earth, sanctified as belonging to Him. And he is filled with apprehension as to what would happen to those who sought to destroy it. As men who touched the holy Mount were to be immediately struck dead because the living God was manifested there (Exodus 19:12-13), how much worse it will be for those who seek to destroy the holy dwelling-place of God.

‘Do you not know that God’s temple you are?’ The word for temple is ‘naos’, the sanctuary, the innermost and most holy part of the temple, the part where God was most seen as dwelling. For that is the thought that is being stressed, that they are the dwelling place of God through His Spirit. Just as God descended on the Tabernacle of old (Exodus 40:34-35), so has He descended on His people (Acts 2:1-2). It is thus needless to ask whether the whole temple is in mind, or just the inner sanctuary. For whichever it is the emphasis is the same. It is the personal dwelling-place of God that is in mind.

‘The temple of God.’ Lack of the article does not indicate just one of many temples. This is indeed the only temple. But when the predicate is placed prior to the verb it is regularly without the article (compare ‘the Lord’ in 1 Corinthians 4:5; John 1:1). It is the essential Temple of God, the temple not made with hands, but made by God Himself.

‘And that the Spirit of God dwells in you.’ This is a reference to the presence of the Spirit in all who are His (Romans 8:9), but the emphasis here is different. Here it is less on what benefit we have received by receiving the Spirit, and more on the holy position we have been put in by His indwelling. We are God’s holy, set apart and unique dwelling-place on whom God has descended in glory. We are sanctified by God. The earthly temple has been thrust aside and has been replaced by the temple which is God’s people, wherever they are, and they are one and indwelt by the holy God. Thus they are precious and under God’s specific protection. That is why those who minister to them must especially beware of how they minister. They are dealing with God’s holy dwelling-place. ‘For the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.’

‘The Spirit of God.’ The Spirit is God in His fullness revealed as active on earth. We are in danger of so distinguishing the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son that we can overlook that He represents the fullness of the Godhead in spiritually manifested, visibly active form (as Jesus was the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9)). He is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20), the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6), the unique and ‘totally other’ (in contrast to this world) ‘Holy’ Spirit, God represented in person on earth.

‘If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him.’ Again the thought has moved on. This is not a reference to the builders, whether adequate or inadequate, but to the preciousness and sacredness of God’s people in His sight, and the assurance of full judgment on those who seek to destroy them, whether the persecuting Jews, the antagonistic Romans, belligerent peoples of other religions, or, worst of all, deceitful philosophers and the false preachers and teachers who have removed the heart from the Gospel and totally distorted it (for examples of the last see 2Pe 2:1 ; 1 John 2:18; 2 John 1:7; Jude 1:4).

Of course there is the hint of warning here. The teachers in Corinth must beware lest they turn out not only to be hindrances but actually destroyers. Let them take heed and ensure that they point their hearers to the true foundation. Then they will be able to be sure that the worst of all scenarios will not be theirs. Not all will necessarily turn out to have been truly saved.

It is noteworthy here, in view of what we have seen earlier, that Paul still sees the Corinthians as God’s Temple. Lacking they may be, but they are His dwellingplace. They are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called His holy ones (1 Corinthians 1:2). He is not in total despair of them. But what he does dread is the terrible fate that awaits those among them who seek to lead them astray. For them he can only forecast the worst. The Greek is emphatic ‘if anyone the Temple of God destroys, destroy him God will’. He will receive what he has sown.

Having made the point the thought now moves back to those who are true ministers of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (the then Old and New Testaments, although the latter mainly at this stage in oral form).

Verses 16-23

The Church Is God’s Sacred Sanctuary For The Spirit of God Dwells In Them And They Are Hid With Christ in God. Let Divisive Teachers Therefore Beware (3:16-23).

Paul now applies his building analogy to the idea of the Temple. When men seek to establish a religion they build a Temple. Well this is what God is also doing. On the foundation of Jesus Christ He is building His Temple, and this Temple is His people. It is not quite the same illustration. Previously the building being constructed was a general one (although the Temple could well have been called to mind) for Paul wanted the Corinthians to think of buildings that they knew. That building was God’s people (‘you are God’s building’ - 1 Corinthians 3:9) but the construction was pictured as being adorned with gold, silver, precious stones and so on. It was a picture of the church being adorned and established by the teaching and wisdom (either true or less true) of those who took responsibility for it. Now the building has become the whole people of God, established by God, in whom God has come to dwell by His Spirit.

Verses 18-19

‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man thinks that he is wise among you in this world (or ‘age’), let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.’

Paul comes back to what has been his theme all along. The need to recognise the wisdom of God, that is, to recognise in Christ crucified the wisdom of God which must be central in all they teach (1 Corinthians 1:30), and not to be taken up with the wisdom of the world. There is to be no doubt about it. They must not deceive themselves. The man who thinks himself wise must deliberately become a ‘fool’ (moros) in the world’s eyes and in the eyes of the times in which he lives, in order to become wise. He must recognise in the foolishness of the cross his central message. Then he will be truly wise. For otherwise the wisdom that he has will be foolishness in God’s eyes.

‘If any man thinks.’ Compare 1 Corinthians 8:2; 1 Corinthians 14:37. Men thinks so much of themselves. Well let them think truly. If they think they are wise, or knowledgeable, or spiritual, let them consider. Let them be sure that they are right.

For if a man tries to build up a reputation for wisdom in any other way than through God’s wisdom (and how we love to be thought wise) let him remember that whatever men think of it, the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God. Paul is not of course denying the usefulness of practical knowledge, he is speaking of ‘wisdom’ with regard to metaphysics and the things of God. Religion without the centrality of Christ the Crucified One is folly in God’s eyes.

The word ‘fool’ was used by Stoic and Cynic philosophers to describe those who showed no interest in philosophy. Paul turns the idea on themselves. He claims that they, and all who philosophise about God apart from Christ, are in fact such fools. That the real fool is actually the pagan philosopher, for he ignores God’s message and God’s ways now revealed in Christ.

‘This world.’ The word is difficult of exact translation for it signifies both ‘this world’ as against the world of heavenly minded people, and ‘this age’ as prior to, and opposed to, the coming age when God will be all in all. But in both cases the emphasis is the same. ‘This world’ is the world as it is over against the true God. It disregards God and is unaware of what He really is, and is basically antagonistic towards Him. ‘This age’ is the same. It represents the ideas of those who live in an age which is prior to, inferior to and opposed to the age of God, taken up with the present, treating God casually, and disregarding of the future. But while the Christian lives in this world and in this age, he is not of this world and he is not of this age. His thoughts are on God and His ways. He obeys God rather than men (although recognising earthly authority as for the good of all). He already has and lives out ‘eternal life’, the ‘life of the coming age’ and his citizenship is in Heaven, where his thoughts are also fixed. He knows that he lives in the heavenlies (Ephesians 1:19 to Ephesians 2:6).

Verses 19-20

‘For it is written.’ Paul now establishes his position from Scripture. This is not just an afterthought. He has been leading up to this. What he has been saying is in fact what the Scripture, God’s revealed word to man, itself says, and that is that man’s wisdom can only get him into trouble when he is thinking and talking about God.

Compare the commencement of this whole argument in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. There too he began with ‘it is written’ (1 Corinthians 1:19) and referred to this age and this world. There the wisdom of this age and of this world were to be destroyed. Now having considered all it is to bring them low and be their downfall and to pass away as a breath.

For those who think themselves wise, but are not wise in Christ, have a bleak future to look forward to. God’s views on earthly wisdom are clearly given in the Scriptures. The thoughts and aims of the ‘wise’ are vain, for they finally get them nowhere and accomplish nothing. They are trapped in their own crafty inventions, their own clever reasonings. And they end with nothing, receiving the only end possible for those who have rejected God’s wisdom.

‘It is written’ signifies reference to the divinely inspired Scriptures. The first Scripture is cited from Job 5:13. Note how this brings out that the Book of Job is in his mind. There we read, ‘He takes the wise in their own craftiness.’ The thought is that the wise go racing on with their foolish ideas about God and build them up with great astuteness, only to be brought crashing down. That God interferes to prevent the crafty from achieving their ends, even utilising their own cleverness against them. In the end they are trapped by their own cleverness.

There is clear warning here. Beware of operating away from God’s word. Go running off on your own in order to establish how wise you are, and you will finish up falling over yourself. That is in fact what philosophy today has indeed accomplished. It has brought itself to a standstill. God is no longer at the centre of its programme. They disdain the idea that God can be known. Thus , Paul is saying, the truly wise will be those who are not such as to deserve the opprobrium of God by being caught up in their own cleverness.

The second is taken from Psalms 94:11 where we read, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of man, that they are a breath (that is, temporary and passing).’ Paul speaks of ‘the wise’ instead of ‘man’ because he is directly connecting the verse with his argument. The substitution, however, simply brings out the idea of ‘the thinking man of the world’ (the thoughts of man) which is inherent in the Psalm. Both agree that the thoughts of such men are vain. Thus the word of God, says Paul, confirms that men’s thoughts in contrast to God’s thoughts are nothing but a passing breath.

Verses 21-23

‘Wherefore let no one glory 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 to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.’

So their eyes are not to be turned on men and their supposed wisdom, nor must they glory in men. They are but passing. Indeed such things are not of real importance. They are merely the possessions of those who are God’s. Rather they are to glory in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). They are to recognise that because they belong to Christ, and Christ is God’s, they possess all things (John 16:15; John 17:10). They actually possess Paul, Apollos and Cephas because they are but God’s servants. They actually possess the world which is God’s creation. They possess life which is under the control of Christ their Master (John 5:21; John 5:24-26; John 5:28-29), and they possess death which He has conquered (Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelation 1:18). And they possess things present and things to come. For both the present and the future are under His control, because He is the On Who is, and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty (Revelation 1:8), the One Who is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

‘Or life, or death, or things present, or things to come.’ For this compare Romans 8:38 where such phrases are linked with creatures in the heavenly world, angels, principalities and powers. Men’s destinies are controlled by greater powers than they know, but they Who are Christ’s need not be afraid for He controls all and all are subject to Him (see also Ephesians 1:21-22).

‘All things are yours.’ Not because they had an intrinsic right to them but because they belong to Christ, to Whom all else belongs. Thus in Christ they are above both earthly and heavenly creatures and teachers, and need and should look to none but Him (Ephesians 1:19 to Ephesians 2:10).

‘And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.’ Here is the nub of the matter. They belong to Christ and are in Him (see John 17:9-26). They are His own treasured possession (Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9-10). That is why they share all that is His. Why then look to men’s wisdom when they can know Christ Who is the wisdom of God, and indeed belong to Him? And not only that but they share with Him in the glory of His presence, dwelling in Him and He in them. They are His body, the fullness of Him Who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).

And what is more He is of the Godhead and dwells in God and God in Him (John 14:11). He belongs wholly to God. And as He is in the Father so we are in Him and He in us (John 14:20). And God is supreme over all things.

‘And Christ is God’s.’ Here we reach the ultimate of existence. Christ is the connection between God and men, not only because He is the supreme Man, the Spiritual One (1 Corinthians 2:15) but also because he belongs to God. He is of God and He is the mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). For the new revelation is that He can only be this because He is both God and Man. He is enveloped in the Godhead. In the beginning He already existed as God in full communion with the Father (Jonah 1:1-2). Before creation was, He was. But in His manhood He took the form of a servant, thrusting aside His equality with God (Philippians 2:6-8).

In His Godhood (to the manifestation of which God restored Him - John 17:5), He is Lord over all, Yahweh (‘kurios’ - ‘the Lord’), to Whom every knee shall bow (Philippians 2:9-11). Yet in His manhood He could say in His humiliation as man, ‘My Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28).

In His Godhood He is One with the Father, in such a way that he who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9-11), so that He has essentially the right to equal honour with the Father (John 5:23). Thus He and the Father are One in all things (John 10:30). Indeed in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), a fullness revealed as He tabernacled among us (John 1:14; John 1:18).

Thus when He, having become man and representing man, has finally gathered all together to reconcile them with the Father, He Himself as representing Man and creation will subject Himself to the Godhead, and God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). The Triune God will, as it were, have taken all to Himself.

So how foolish it would be to glory in men and the puny wisdom that they teach. And this now leads on to the final reminder that all such men will have to give account of themselves to God.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-corinthians-3.html. 2013.
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