1 Corinthians 3

1 Corinthians 3  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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IN THE OPENING verses of chapter 3, the Apostle brings the Corinthians face to face with their true condition in very plain words. Enriched as they were “in all utterance, and in all knowledge,” (ch. 1:5) they may have imagined themselves to be worthy of high commendation. In point of fact they came under definite censure. They were not spiritual but carnal.
They were not natural, for “the natural man” (ch. 2:14) is man in his unconverted condition. Nor were they spiritual, for the spiritual man is man enlightened and controlled by the Spirit of God. They were carnal, for the carnal man, as spoken of in this passage, is man, who though possessing the Spirit, is controlled not by the Spirit but by the flesh. Being carnal, Paul had hitherto fed them with milk not meat; that is, he had only instructed them in the elementary things of the faith, and had not said much to them of that hidden wisdom of God, to which he alluded in chapter 2.
The Corinthians however might resent Paul’s charge against them and wish to rebut it. So Paul proves his point by again referring to their divisions under party leaders, which generated envyings and strifes. In all this they were walking according to man and not according to the Spirit of God.
If the Apostle Paul wrote to us today, what would he say? What could he say, but the same thing with greatly added emphasis? The division of true saints into, or among, the many parties or sects could hardly go further than it has gone We ton might wish to rebut the charge We might say—But are we not earnest? Have we not much light? Do we not expound Scripture correctly? The reply would come to us—While some say, I am of A—, and a few, I am of B—, while many say, I am of X—, and a multitude say, I am of Z—, are ye not carnal?
In so saying we are not unmindful of the fact that there are to be found some who are spiritually minded. There were some amongst the Corinthians, as a later chapter reveals. But this we do say, that they who really are spiritual will be the last people on earth who desire to stand out as exceptions, prominent and distinguished. They know that this would be the very way to help on the evil here denounced, for they would promptly find themselves made into leaders of parties! NO. Their spirituality will rather express itself in humility of mind, and that confession which makes the sin of all the people of God their own. They will pray in the spirit of Ezra 9 Ezra said, “OUR iniquities are increased over our head, and OUR trespass is grown up into the heavens,” though personally he had had very little share in all the wickedness, but rather was marked by a very exceptional piety.
The same humble spirit marks Paul here. He promptly disclaims for himself any place of importance, and for Apollos also. Evidently he had full confidence in Apollos, that in this matter he was wholly like-minded with himself, and therefore he could freely use his name. Whilst his omission here of the name of Cephas (Peter), is a witness to his own delicacy of feeling; since there had once been a serious issue between himself and Peter, as Gal. 2 bears witness.
Neither Paul nor Apollos were anything more than servants by whom God had been pleased to work. God was the great Workman. In this passage (verses 5 to 11) the Corinthians are viewed in a twofold way, as God’s husbandry, and as God’s building. Paul and Apollos were but “God’s fellow-workmen” (ch. 3:9). That is the force of the first clause of verse 9. They were not competing workmen, much less were they antagonistic workmen. They were fellow-workmen, and both belonged to God.
Each however had his own distinctive work. In the husbandry, Paul planted and Apollos followed to water the young plants: in the building, Paul was the wise architect who laid the foundation, and Apollos built upon it. Their labors were diverse, but their object was one. This is emphasized in verses 7 and 8. Paul and Apollos in themselves were nothing, yet they worked each in his appointed sphere. And both were one as to their object and aim, though each should finally be rewarded according to their own labor. Thus among His servants does God maintain both unity and diversity, and there is to be no pitting of one against another.
So much for Paul and Apollos. But they were not the only laborers who had taken part in the work at Corinth. So at the end of verse 10 the application of the figure is widened out to embrace “every man,” that is, every man who had put his hand to the work at Corinth. It applies of course equally to any man who puts his hand to any work of God, anywhere, and at any time. It applies therefore to us today.
The foundation had been well and irrevocably laid by Paul when he first visited Corinth and stayed for a year and a half. It had been the right foundation—Jesus Christ. The question now was as to his successors. Not so much how they built as what they built in. Was it substance precious in nature, and capable of standing the fire? Or was it common in substance, and easily consumed? The day is coming when the fire test will be applied. Everything will be made manifest. The true character of all our work will be revealed. Not merely how much we have done, but “of what sort” it is. How searching is the thought that, “THE DAY shall declare it” (ch. 3:13).
When that day sheds its light upon us and applies its test, it may leave our work standing. If so, we shall receive reward. God grant it may be so for each of us!
On the other hand, our work may be consumed and fall in ruins, yet we ourselves be saved, “so as through fire” (Ezek. 23:37). When the three Hebrews passed through the fire, as recorded in Dan. 3, they and their clothes were wholly untouched: only their bonds were consumed. What loss for us if we come through the fire naked, stripped of all that with which we had clothed ourselves as the fruit of our labors here.
But further, there was evidently a doubt in the Apostle’s mind whether all those who had wrought at Corinth were truly converted men. Hence the solemn warning of verses 16 and 17. Work may be done which is positively destructive in its effect upon the building. This raises a further important question. What is the nature of this building, which is God’s?
The Apostle asks the Corinthians if they did not know that as God’s building they had the character of His temple? In them as His temple God dwelt by His Spirit. This gave to them collectively a very sacred character. To do work which would “defile,” or “corrupt,” or “destroy,” God’s temple was terribly serious. If in the coming day any man’s work is found to be of that destructive character, God will destroy him.
Apparently some who were going about in those days and doing, as Paul feared, this destructive work, were men who had a good deal of the wisdom of this world, and posed therefore amongst the saints, as very superior persons. This would account for the pungent words that fill verses 18 to 20. The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. So let no man deceive himself on this point. And if the destructive workers still go about, deceived themselves, and deceiving others, let us not be deceived by them.
What woe and destruction must await the destructive critics, the semi-infidel modernistic teachers, of Christendom! Inflated by the wisdom of this world, they take it upon themselves to deny and contradict the wisdom of God. They may imagine that they only have to expect the opposition of unlearned and old-fashioned Christians. They forget the day that shall declare God’s judgment—THE DAY!
Let us not glory in men. Some of those in whom the Corinthians had been glorying may have been men of quite undesirable type. But let us not glory in the best of men. On the one hand, no man is worth it, as chapter i. showed us. On the other hand, as emphasized here, grace has given us a place which should put us far above glorying in a mere man. “All things” are ours. All things? That is rather a staggering statement. Is it really all things? Well, look at the wide sweep of verse 22. The best of saints on the one hand, and the world on the other. Life on the one hand and death on the other. Things present on the one hand and things to come on the other. All are ours.
How are they ours? Verse 23 answers that. They are ours because we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. All things are God’s. No one can dispute that, and there we begin. But then God has His Christ, who is the Heir of all things. And, most wonderful to say, the Christ proposes to practically possess Himself of His mighty possessions by putting His saints into possession. Even in Dan. 7 this is hinted at. The “Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:22) takes the supreme throne. When He does, “One like the Son of Man” (Matt. 17:12) appears, and to Him there was given “dominion and glory and a kingdom” (Dan. 7:14). But that is not the end of the story, for we further read, “the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom” (Dan. 7:22). Read that chapter before proceeding further.
So all things are ours, and we must never forget it. The remembrance of it will lift us above the world with its false attractions, above the wisdom of this world, above glorying in man, in even the best of saints.