1 Corinthians chapter two closes with the following observation from the Apostle Paul: “As the Scriptures say, ‘Who can know what is on the Lord’s mind? Who is able to give him advice?'” (1 Corinthians 2:16 ERV). In referencing this quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, Paul effectively underscored an important point: God’s purposes are beyond the ability of our natural senses to comprehend. Yet Paul also coupled this Old Testament quote with a New Testament reality: “…But we have the mind of Christ.”
We might understand this concept in different ways depending on how we choose to interpret the word “we” as found within this passage. For instance, we might understand the phrase “…we have the mind of Christ” as a reference to Paul and his fellow Apostles. In this sense, the idea is that God supernaturally enabled the New Testament Apostles to communicate His message through the Holy Spirit. This explains why Paul could say “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit…” as we saw earlier in 1 Corinthians 2:13.
In this manner, the New Testament Scriptures provide us with access to the mind of Christ by way of these Apostolic authors. Paul elaborated on this idea in the New Testament letter of 2 Timothy when he said, “All Scripture is God-breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV). This tells us that God “breathed out” what had previously been internal to Him (and inaccessible to us) and thus enabled the Apostolic authors to share the “mind of Christ” through the New Testament books we possess today.
In another sense, “the mind of Christ” is available to anyone who has been born again of God’s Spirit. For example, Paul urged the members of the Philippian church to “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The Apostle Peter also made a similar appeal as well: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind” (1 Peter 4:1).
One source expands on this idea in observing that “…the mature Christian has ‘the mind of Christ.’ That is, he or she views life to some extent as Jesus did because that person understands things from God’s perspective, at least partially… Even though we ‘have’ (possess) the mind of Christ we need to adopt it, that is, to use it to view life as He did. One evidence of Christian maturity is the believer’s consistent employment of Christ’s attitude and viewpoint in all of life.” (1)
These important concepts will help prepare us for the message that Paul is about to deliver next in chapter three.
(1) Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [2:16] pg. 37 http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).
As mentioned earlier, we sometimes use the word “carnal” to describe a non-spiritual person who is primarily occupied with his or her own wants, needs, and/or desires. This word might also be used to describe someone who self-identifies as a Christian but fails to represent Jesus accurately in the choices and decisions of life.
In general, it would probably be fair to say that a carnal person is someone who is typically more concerned with looking good on the outside than with being good on the inside- and those who choose to take this approach to life often do so on the basis of their long-term perspective.
You see, a God-honoring person anticipates the reality of eternal life- and that reality serves to influence the direction of his or her life today. For instance, a man or woman of God has the capacity to identify right from wrong by way of the Scriptures and possesses a reason and an incentive for doing right. The positive incentive for doing right finds its origin in our love for God and a sincere desire to honor Him. Our motivation for not doing wrong (even if we can seemingly get away with it) is generated by the knowledge that we will eventually stand before God to give an account for our actions.
On the other hand, a carnal person does not anticipate eternal life and that viewpoint serves to influence the direction of his or her life as well. Since this temporal, physical life is the only life that he or she anticipates living, the concerns of a carnal person typically revolve around “what shall we eat, what shall we drink, and what shall we wear” to use Jesus’ characterization from Matthew 6:31-33.
Of course, these illustrations presume that such a person is in a position where he or she could (or should) make more appropriate choices. A person who comparatively young in the Christian faith (or “a babe in Christ” to borrow the terminology used here in 1 Corinthians 1:1-2) is someone who would not be expected to grasp deep spiritual truths.
The problem occurs when someone’s spiritual age is not commensurate with his or her spiritual maturity- and we’ll talk more about that issue next.
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2 NIV).
A person who has been a Christian for an extended period yet fails to live out the basic tenets of Christianity provides evidence that something is clearly wrong. You see, a Christian should consistently move forward in his or her spiritual development just as a student moves forward in his or her academic knowledge. Then as we subsequently grow in our spiritual knowledge, we should be able to help others who aren’t as advanced, just as an older student might assist a younger student today.
Unfortunately, it appears that the members of the church at Corinth were in the same immature state of spiritual development as they were when they first became Christians. Paul lamented this arrested state of development by saying in effect, “I would like to speak with you just as I do with others who are spiritually mature. Unfortunately, I can’t because you are still following the natural inclinations of your human nature.” (1)
So the issues faced by the Corinthian church were not simply related to the external pressures exerted by those societal attitudes, values, and belief systems that rejected God- they were internal to these members of the Corinthian church as well. We know that these men and women were members of God’s family because Paul addressed them as, “Brothers and sisters…” Yet even though these members of God’s family possessed the indwelling Holy Spirit, they were behaving more like infant members of the family than the responsible adults they should have been.
So despite the fact that these Corinthian believers had the benefit of Paul and Apollos’ teaching for an extended period, they had not advanced any further than an elementary stage of spiritual development. Because of this, Paul used the analogy of milk vs. solid food to drive home his point. Milk is appropriate for an infant who is incapable of digesting anything else. But an adult who is capable of digesting a solid meal yet chooses to subsist on nothing more than milk is someone who is likely to be seriously malnourished.
Just as such malnourishment is likely to be have a negative impact on someone’s physical health, Paul will go on to identify the results of such spiritual malnourishment next.
(1) See also 1 Corinthians 2:6
“for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4).
Paul’s observation here in 1 Corinthians 3:3-4 builds on his message from earlier in 1 Corinthians chapter one- the church at Corinth had divided over various individual leaders. There was one faction among the members of this congregation who said, “I follow Paul”; another said, “I follow Apollos”; a third group stated, “I follow Cephas”; and a fourth contingent simply said, “I follow Christ.”
So the congregation at Corinth had splintered over various personalities- and this reference to envy, strife, and division brings to mind the following admonition from James 3:14-16…
“But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”
Before we consider the application of this passage, it might be helpful to first define our terms. First, “envy” involves a feeling of disapproval when others are blessed or successful. A “bitterly envious” person might be identified with someone who derives pleasure from seeing another person fail. Another source tells us that “envy” can also be understood to refer to a contentious rivalry. (1)
Then there is the word “strife,” a word that carries the idea of discord, animosity, and antagonism. In a similar manner, the concept of “division” refers to the idea of dissension or separation. Of course, these characteristics were not unique to the members of the New Testament church at Corinth, for even some of Jesus’ own disciples exhibited a similar lack of maturity in their own relationships with him.
For example, there were at least two occasions when Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves as to who was the greatest among them (see Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 22:24-27). James and John also asked for positions of preeminence with Jesus, a request that was not well received among the other disciples (see Mark 10:35-45).
So if the members of the Corinthian church (who had the advantage of learning from both Paul and Apollos) and the disciples (who had direct access to Jesus Himself) could fall prey to this sort of spiritual danger, how much more so should we be on guard against such things today?
(1) G2205 zelos Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“For whenever someone says, ‘I’m with Paul,’ and another, ‘I’m with Apollos,’ are you not unspiritual people? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given” (1 Corinthians 3:4-5 HCSB).
This passage provides us with a number of important applications for both congregations and congregational leaders within the church today.
From a leadership perspective, a minister should not lose sight of the fact that the word “minister” means “to serve.” In certain respects, this means that a good minister is sometimes more of a facilitator. In other words, he or she makes it easier for God’s people to worship Him, learn from Him, and grow in Christ-likeness.
While God may use the individual personalities, life experiences, communication styles, and unique personal characteristics of each leader to effectively connect with a particular audience, it helps to remember that God Himself is the ultimate source of any good that comes through those who represent Him.
One of the ways in which a good minister can effectively fulfill this role is by taking steps to ensure that a congregation is focused on Jesus and not upon themselves. This means that a good minister may sometimes be an “invisible” minister- a person who makes certain to step away from the personal spotlight to shine it upon Jesus.
An honorable minister continually directs others to Christ, for in reality, he or she is (or should be) an agent through whom God works to enable others to grow in faith. As Paul himself observed, “Apollos and I are merely servants who helped you to have faith. It was the Lord who made it all happen” (CEV).
From a congregational perspective, the act of elevating a minister to an inappropriate level of honor effectively serves to rob Jesus of His followers. After all, the members of the church at Corinth were Christians– they were not Paulians, Apollosians, Cephasians, or anything other than followers of Christ.
Whether a minister directly interacts with others within a local congregation or whether that ministry takes place remotely through various forms of media, it is important to take steps to avoid elevating a preferred minister to a similarly inappropriate position.
As one commentary points out, “Apollos and Paul were servants… through whom the Corinthians had come to believe in the Lord Jesus. They were simply agents and not the heads of rival schools. How unwise then of the Corinthians to raise servants to the rank of master. Ironside quaintly comments at this point, ‘Imagine a household divided over servants!'” (1)
(1) William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 3:5, pg.1754
“After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply God’s servants, by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do” (1 Corinthians 3:4-5 GNB).
Given the great diversity that exists among human beings, it seems reasonable to expect that God would call ministers with different characteristics to serve the wide variety of congregations that exist. These individual characteristics (such as age, cultural background, language, experience, and personality, among others) help enable a Pastor, teacher, or other church leader to effectively minister to the many diverse people groups that exist.
While God has certainly provided many gifted ministers, it is possible to become so enamored with a particularly talented leader that we must guard against the tendency to lift that person to an inappropriate place of prominence. In fact, this may even be more of a concern in an age where satellite and internet technologies provide us with 24/7 access to many accomplished leaders, speakers, and teachers.
One commentator elaborated on this modern-day application of 1 Corinthians 3:4-5 with the following observation…
“‘I belong to Paul.’ ‘I belong to Apollos.’ Familiar cries in a world of hi-tech religion. See huge Sunday crowds squint under the glare of spotlights as ‘their’ preachers dazzle millions of electronic viewers with wisdom and rhetorical charm. Overhear the Christian public admire TV evangelists and big-time clergy: ‘Oh, I like to listen to _____.’ ‘Well, he’s O.K. but I like _____ better.’ You fill in the blanks.
Yes, everyone has their favorite preacher nowadays. In spite of all the notorious hucksters, ‘preacher religion’ is in. The result? An increasingly fragmented church. ‘I belong to Paul and you don’t.’ It is enough to make Corinth look tame by comparison.” (1)
For those who feel the urge to bestow (or receive) this kind of recognition, the following quote from Jesus may help to provide a more appropriate perspective…
“And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.
So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’ ” (Luke 17:7-10).
(1) C. Thomas Rhyne, “Expository Articles: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9,” Interpretation 44:2 (April 1990):177. Quoted in Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [3:9] pg. 41-42 http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).
Although the city of Corinth served as a active commercial center during the New Testament era, the agricultural illustration found within this passage provided a frame of reference that would have been familiar to most first-century readers.
First, Paul’s statement, “I planted…” indicates that he was personally involved in establishing the church at Corinth. The reference to “Apollos watered…” undoubtedly refers to Apollos’ role in promoting the spiritual growth of these Corinthian believers following Paul’s departure. That ministry likely included preaching (the public proclamation of the Gospel), teaching (the communication of Biblical truth and its application), and perhaps counseling (one-on-one instruction in applying God’s Word to a particular circumstance or situation).
Now before we continue, let’s take a moment to consider a few other important elements within this illustration that are left unmentioned. For instance, the act of planting presumes that a laborer has both seed and soil available for this purpose. The labor associated with watering implies that sunlight, oxygen, and favorable temperatures also exist, for it would be useless to water a crop that could not possibly survive without these essential elements for growth.
While it might seem redundant to mention these basic requirements, the assumed presence of these unnamed (but indispensable) necessities should prompt us to ask an important question: “Who provided these elements to the person who planted the seed and the person who watered it?” Well, Paul provides us with a gentle reminder within this passage: “God gave the increase…”
You see, God not only promoted the growth of the seed that these laborers worked with, He also provided the seed itself along with the right environmental conditions to facilitate it’s development. No wonder Paul observed, “neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters…”
Because of this, the fact that the Corinthian church sought to elevate the status of these individual ministers to an inappropriate level served to indicate that their priorities were seriously misaligned. Each minister was equally valuable for as Paul said, “he who plants and he who waters are one…” Any attempt to focus attention away from the God who was ultimately responsible for their growth and development effectively deprived God of an honor that was rightfully His.
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:6-8 NIV).
The illustration found here in 1 Corinthians 3:6-8 brings one of Jesus’ parables to mind…
“(Jesus) said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come'” (Mark 4:26-29).
After a field has been cultivated and planted, there is a period of time when there are no visible results that attest to the farmer’s work. Yet even though the farmer expends a considerable amount of effort with no immediate return, there is little cause for discouragement. That’s because the germination process takes place below the surface and away from view- and once that unseen process is complete, the farmer will begin to see the growth that results from his or her work.
This parable helps to explain why the Apostle Paul sought to shift the focus of his audience away from their individual leaders to the One who was truly responsible for their spiritual growth. While it might have been natural for these Corinthian believers to concentrate on these visible laborers, the real work of spiritual growth had been initiated by God and took place below the surface and out of sight, so to speak.
While its true that God’s work may not always be immediately visible, this does not mean that we are justified in shifting the credit for our spiritual development away from the One who facilitates such growth to those who represent Him. As Paul reminded the members of this congregation, “The planter and the waterer are nothing compared with him who gives life to the seed. Planter and waterer are alike insignificant…” (Phillips).
Because of this, Paul encouraged his readers to view their individual leaders from a different perspective. Although Paul, Apollos, and Cephas each worked to fulfill their individual ministry responsibilities, God undertook the obligation of promoting their spiritual growth in a manner that was not necessarily visible or obvious- just like the seed growing unnoticed within this parable.
“There is no difference between the one who plants and the one who waters; God will reward each one according to the work each has done” (1 Corinthians 3:8).
Those who are active in the areas of business or athletics are surely familiar with the idea that competition breeds excellence.
For instance, a competitive market environment helps compel a business or corporation to work to provide a product or service that offers greater value than a competitor’s offering. Then there are athletes who diligently train, work, and practice in order to improve their skills and maintain a position on a team. In each instance, honest competition serves to bring forth excellence in both the marketplace and on the field.
While such competition may be valuable in the business or athletic arena, a different set of values should exist for those who serve within Jesus’ church. While individual Christians may each possess a calling to serve in a particular area of ministry, these roles and functions should be viewed as complimentary vocations and not as competitive endeavors.
1 Corinthians 3:8 emphasizes this point when it tells us, “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose” (NIV). In other words, we should recognize that there is a diversity of labor with a uniformity of purpose within the church. Paul went on to elaborate on this concept in his New Testament letter to the church at Ephesus…
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
Instead of viewing a preferred minister as an individual who is competitively engaged with other leaders, we should recognize that all work together to accomplish a common goal- edifying (or building up) the church, the body of Christ. The act of elevating one minister over another serves to miss the point: each leader is involved in an individual (but united) effort.
Once source lends clarity to this idea in stating, “The purpose of this phrase is to portray unified action on the part of ministers underneath God’s sovereign control. Although they are in fact individuals, they are used by God with a single purpose to accomplish his will in facilitating growth.” (1)
So while competition may breed excellence among athletes or business counterparts, a different economy should exist among God’s people. However, this does not mean that we should leave the pursuit of excellence in ministry, an aspect of 1 Corinthians 3:8 that we will examine next.
(1) NET Bible notes on 1 Corinthians 3:8 https://lumina.bible.org/bible/1+Corinthians+3
“He who plants and he who waters are one [in importance and esteem, working toward the same purpose]; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8 AMP).
A good craftsman can often be known by the quality of his work and the same might also be said of the work of God’s people today. The quality associated with our work for Christ will be the subject of our attention for the next few verses of 1 Corinthians chapter three.
Paul the Apostle begins this short section by observing, “…each one shall receive his own reward according to his own labor” (MKJV). Since we live in a world that generally rewards someone for producing results (and not necessarily for the work and effort that went into attaining those results), this may seem counter-intuitive at first glance.
Unlike the measure of reward that generally exists within our world today, notice that 1 Corinthians 3:8 tells us that “…each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (emphasis added). In other words, the effort we put into employing the time, talent, skill, ability, and opportunity that God provides for us is what will ultimately be rewarded and not necessarily the success we experience as a result of such efforts.
It helps to remember that effort and production are two different things- and it is possible to expend a great deal of effort in God’s service with little or no apparent result. While there may be any number of potential explanations for a lack of success in ministry (including a few that are not so good), our responsibility is to be faithful to God’s calling on our lives; God’s responsibility is to produce results as He sees fit. To borrow Paul’s agricultural illustration from the previous verse, “It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow” (MSG).
This should help provide the encouragement and motivation for doing our very best with the opportunities that God extends to us today, even if those efforts may seem to result in little or no visible success. As Paul once said in another of his New Testament letters…
“Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive His approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NLT).
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it” (1 Corinthians 3:9-10).
In shifting from the world of agriculture to the world of building and architecture within this passage, the Apostle Paul will reach into his rich treasury of analogies once again to illustrate the preeminence of God in contrast to those who represent Him. This passage will provide us with an important distinction to keep in mind, for if we fail to do so, we may drift into a position of spiritual danger.
You see, a minister is a fellow worker with God in the sense that he or she works in cooperation with Him. This should not be understood to imply that God requires our effort or assistance in any way; instead, it is God’s good pleasure to employ His people in the work that He seeks to accomplish. We are “…co-workers in God’s service…” (NIV) only because God graciously allows us to participate in the work that He seeks to do.
This distinction is especially important to remember in the area of church leadership. God has blessed many capable and accomplished ministers with the ability to lead His people and provide them with guidance and direction from the Scriptures. While it is certainly true that God calls individual leaders to shepherd His people, it is important to remember that such leaders represent the Good Shepherd and are responsible to direct the people entrusted to their care to Him.
For example, we should be concerned whenever a spiritual leader claims to be the exclusive channel of God’s revelation or aspires to make others solely reliant upon his or her teaching, leadership, or ministerial vision for direction from God. Any attempt to do so may result from an incorrect understanding of the role of a pastoral leader as a fellow worker with God.
So while it is important to “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account…” (Hebrews 13:17), we must remember to couple this essential responsibility with another Biblical admonition: “…examine all things; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Paul will go on to build upon this idea using the concept of an architect or building designer and we’ll take a closer look at his use of that illustration next.
“For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building. Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful” (1 Corinthians 3:9-10 NLT).
In seeking to realign the Corinthian’s understanding regarding their view of church leadership, Paul the Apostle made use of a construction analogy to help communicate a crucial point. This analogy compared the members of the Corinthian church to a building erected by God. In other words, these believers were not a monument to Paul, Apollos, or anyone else; the individual leaders who ministered to their congregation were simply laborers who were responsible to work within the building that God constructed.
In this instance, Paul’s function was much like that of a “skillful architect” (AMPC) or “wise master builder” (MKJV). Paul was appointed to this position through God’s grace in order to lay the foundation of Jesus’ church in Corinth. This recognition served to arm Paul with the proper degree of humility to accept his role: “…Through God’s loving-favor to me, I laid the stones on which the building was to be built” (NLV). Without this perspective, Paul’s crucial role in this process may have led him to assume a greater degree of honor than he actually deserved.
Paul’s role in this process has been described by one source as “a… superintendent in the erection of buildings.” (1) Yet Paul’s description of himself as an “expert” in undertaking this assignment was no mere expression of vanity on his part, for the following verses will make it clear that it is possible to carry out such responsibilities in an unwise or haphazard manner.
The Biblical book of Romans tells us that Paul saw himself as church-planter, at least in part, (2) and his God-given expertise in this area was validated by his selection of materials for use in erecting such foundations: “The sermons I preached were not delivered with the kind of persuasive elegance some have come to expect, but they were effective because I relied on God’s Spirit to demonstrate God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4 Voice).
As one commentator aptly observes, “The ministry of the gospel demands the best skill in selection and use of ‘building materials.’ Paul refers to his own extreme care, as if he were a master technician, using precisely and exactly the right “material” for the foundation of the church in Corinth.” (3)
(1) G753 architekton Thayer’s Greek Definitions
(2) See Romans 15:20
(3) Paul T. Butler, Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In First Corinthians Copyright © 1985 College Press Publishing Company
“For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care” (1 Corinthians 3:9-10 NIV).
In referring to his role as a “skilled master builder“ (ESV), the Apostle Paul utilized the word architekton, a word from which we derive the modern-day concept of an architect.
In a contemporary system of building design and construction, an architect is responsible to listen to needs of a client, execute a building design based on those requirements, and translate that information into blueprints for others to follow. After receiving those blueprints, a general contractor typically then goes on to manage the building process and assign sub-contractors to carry out the carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, and various other aspects of the project.
While these responsibilities are generally assumed by many different people today, the ancient version of an architekton described someone who took on both the design and construction responsibilities associated with a building project. In this instance, Paul was used by God to “design” (or establish) the church in Corinth and build (or “construct”) the foundation upon which it could grow. It then became the responsibility of others (such as Apollos in the case of the Corinthian church) to come and build upon that work using their individual God-given skills, for as Paul observed earlier, “Each one of us did the work God gave us to do” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ERV).
The role of these “sub-contractors” in this spiritual building process should not be overlooked. You see, a building with a strong foundation and poorly constructed walls may eventually collapse. A structure that features strong walls, a good foundation, and sub-standard electrical work may experience a fire that consumes both. The point is that a building that starts with an excellent foundation may suffer great damage as a result of the construction work that others subsequently perform.
These realities serve to illustrate the importance of building a strong, Christ-oriented spiritual life both individually and corporately. As one commentator remarks, “The foundation of a building determines its limitations. Any part added without a foundation would eventually weaken and fall by the shifting movement of the ground underneath. Jesus used this same analogy in regard to a person’s response to the Scriptures. If there was not sincere obedience to the Word of God, life would be like a house built upon sand destined to fall as the sand began to shift.”(1) (see Matthew 7:24-29).
(1) Bob Caldwell, 1 Corinthians 3 Sectarianism Is Carnal [v.11]
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is” (1 Corinthians 3:11-13).
When the Apostle Paul arrived in Corinth, he had an important goal in seeking to establish a strong spiritual foundation in the lives of those who accepted Jesus: “…when I first came to you I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message. For I decided that I would speak only of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 TLB).
Having established this good foundation, Paul then went on to issue a warning concerning those who might seek to build upon that initial work: “As others build on the foundation (whether with gold, silver, gemstones, wood, hay, or straw), the quality of each person’s work will be revealed in time as it is tested by fire” (Voice).
While the primary application of this passage involves the importance of good church leadership, there is a personal application embedded within this passage as well. For instance, some seek to build their lives upon an ideology. Others are committed to the support of a particular cause. Then there are those who build their lives upon a career, a relationship, or the pursuit of financial or material wealth, to name a few examples.
As the passage above implies, a life that is not built upon the foundation of Christ will have no support on the day when we are called to give an account for our choices and decisions- and the fact that it is possible to utilize a variety of “building materials” (some strong, valuable, and enduring and others much less so) tells us that the way in which we invest our lives today is something that will carry an eternal impact.
A person who is neglectful of his or her spiritual life may discover that it is very easy to begin investing in things that offer little or no eternal value. We can help ensure that we are maintaining the right priorities by following the example of the early church by regularly engaging in prayer, Bible study, communion, and regular church attendance (see Acts 2:42).
A person who builds his or her life with those construction materials is someone who is certain to make the right kind of investment.
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value” (1 Corinthians 3:11-13 NLT).
One time-tested method of purifying metal involves heating a metallic ore until it has reached a liquid state. Once it has been brought to a sufficient temperature in this manner, any impurities that may exist within that ore will generally rise to the top where they may be skimmed off and removed. The result is a purified metal that offers greater strength and durability than one that had not been treated in this manner.
Of course, this method of purification is only effective when working with non-combustible materials. While flammable substances like wood, hay, and straw each have their place, a person who attempts to purify such materials in this manner will end up with nothing more than a pile of charred remains.
The Apostle Paul made use of this imagery in a way that we can use to illustrate the importance of examining our decision-making priorities. You see, a prayerful self-assessment can often help determine whether we are truly investing our lives in things of eternal value or things that may represent little more than the Biblical equivalent of wood, hay, and straw.
Admittedly, it can often be difficult to be honest with ourselves in this regard but a realistic look at our priorities now may help us avoid an unpleasant surprise when God later tests and reveals the true nature of our lives and work. Knowing that God will review our lives in this manner should encourage us to take a prayerful inventory of those things that our lives are currently built upon and prompt us to seek His help in those areas where we may be falling short.
In a more positive sense, it may also be said that a person who truly loves God can actually look forward to the day when “Everyone’s work will be put through the fire so that all can see whether or not it keeps its value, and what was really accomplished” (TLB). Such a process will serve to permanently eliminate anything that did not legitimately honor our Creator, leaving only those works that we can use to glorify Him for the good that He accomplished within our lives.
“…Christ is the only foundation. Whatever we build on that foundation will be tested by fire on the day of judgment. Then everyone will find out if we have used gold, silver, and precious stones, or wood, hay, and straw” (1 Corinthians 3:11-13 CEV).
In referencing the “construction materials” mentioned within this passage, the Apostle Paul made use of a metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate something else in order to make a comparison. (1)
While we might ask why God would inspire Paul to use this kind of literary device instead of choosing to communicate in a more plainspoken manner, the use of such imagery helps provide us with a fuller, richer understanding of God’s Word than we might otherwise gain from the use of drab, colorless. or uninteresting language.
In this instance, “The three expensive materials suggest sound doctrine which the builder ‘builds’ into people’s lives, and the three valueless materials are false doctrines.” (2) Paul also touched upon the value associated with these spiritual equivalents of “gold, silver, and precious stones” in his Biblical letter to Titus…
“But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
The importance of promoting “sound doctrine” is something that is repeated a number of times within Paul’s New Testament letters to Titus and Timothy. When used in this context, the word “sound” means, “to be uncorrupted” (3) while “doctrine” refers to “a body of beliefs about God, man, Christ, the church, and other related concepts considered authoritative and thus worthy of acceptance by all members of the community of faith.” (4)
With these definitions in mind, we can define “sound doctrine” as an assertion or belief that corresponds with genuine Biblical teaching on the subjects of God, humanity, Christ, and the church, among others. A leader who is committed to such instruction is one who will undoubtedly build with the spiritual equivalents of gold, silver, and precious stones in the lives of others.
A minister who is dedicated to teaching through the individual books of the Bible (as opposed to a general speaking approach that focuses on a weekly topic with a few supporting Biblical verses) is someone who can help ensure that others are given the best materials with which to build their spiritual lives. (5)
While topical messages certainly have their place, a commitment to teaching through the Scriptures generally provides the best opportunity to enrich the spiritual lives of those who listen.
(1) “metaphor” The Free Dictionary
(2) John F. Walvoord, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament 1 Corinthians 3:12 pg 511
(3) G5198 hugiaino, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries
(4) Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
(5) As Paul himself said in Acts 20:27, “…I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.“
“…the quality of each person’s work will be seen when the Day of Christ exposes it. For on that Day fire will reveal everyone’s work; the fire will test it and show its real quality” (1 Corinthians 3:13 GNB).
The use of such action words as “seen,” “exposes,” “reveal,” “test,” and “show” within this verse makes it easy to grasp the main thought of this passage: everything will eventually be seen for what it really is. This makes it important to seek God daily for the wisdom, perception, and discernment necessary to determine if our work is really of lasting value or if it is little more than the spiritual equivalent of wood, hay, and straw.
For instance, it is possible for someone to exhibit the external qualities of charity, benevolence, and humanitarianism even while motivated by an entirely self-serving agenda. Therefore, its important to consider the fact that our works will ultimately be tested to determine their true nature- and a person who engaged in a lifetime of “good works” that were ultimately driven by a self-centered motive will eventually be left with nothing of eternal value.
For those within the church, the following observation offered by one commentator is highly instructive…
“Paul had laid God’s foundation. Apollos had continued to instruct the new converts. Now, some of the Christians of the congregation in Corinth were beginning to teach and lead in building the church. But it was evident to Paul that care was not being taken in their building.
They were producing disciples who were jealous, indifferent to immorality in the church, bringing litigations against one another in pagan courts, careless about marriage, uncaring about weaker brethren, disrespectful in the corporate worship of the church and toward God ordained structures of human authority, both prideful and envious in the matter of supernatural gifts, teaching confusion about the bodily resurrection, and slack in matters of Christian stewardship.
The teaching leadership of the Corinthian church was constructing God’s building with weak and unendurable material. They were not building up Christian people who had strong, self-disciplined, servant-minded faith in Christ and his Word.” (1)
To some extent, the impact of our lives upon the lives of others may help determine if we are building a life from the right kind of spiritual materials. Remember that our choices and decisions serve to impact others within our circle of influence- and the things we teach with our lives will leave an impression upon others for better or worse. A prayerful assessment of that impact may help to reveal the true quality of our spiritual building materials.
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (1 Co 3:11–15). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15 GNB).
Whether they realized it or not, the teachers who followed Paul and Apollos within the Corinthian church had contributed to the development of a congregation that had splintered into various factions, condoned inappropriate sexual activity (as we’ll see next in 1 Corinthians chapter five) and were suing one another in court (as we will go on to read in 1 Corinthians chapter six).
Now to be fair, it is impossible for a congregational leader (or any other human being) to compel another person to live a God-honoring life. The unfortunate truth is that there may always be some who elect to chart a different course despite the best efforts of a Godly minister.
Nevertheless, it is also generally true that a congregation is not likely to be more spiritual than those who lead it- and the problems within the Corinthian fellowship can be attributed (at least to some degree) to the fact that their leaders had done a poor job in contributing to the spiritual development of those who were entrusted to their care.
The Apostle Paul served to focus his readers’ attention upon this issue by reminding them that a reward awaits those who work to enhance the spiritual lives of others while a loss awaits those who fail to do so. One commentator addresses this subject in a very forthright manner…
“If the idea of serving God for a reward makes you uncomfortable, may I suggest that you read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? There Jesus repeatedly appealed to His hearers to follow His teaching with the prospect of receiving an eternal reward for doing so.
Scripture appeals to us on many levels to serve the Lord. Certainly love for Him should be our primary motivation. However the biblical writers also urged believers to serve the Lord out of love for other people, the fear of the Lord, the prospect of having to give an account of our lives to Him at the judgment seat, and for other reasons.” (1)
The reality is that everyone can build upon the foundation of Christ by reading and applying the truth of Scripture (Matthew 7:24-27), following the example of God-honoring leaders (Philippians 4:9), and being diligent to grow in Christ-likeness (2 Peter 1:5-8). Those who attend to these things will ultimately be rewarded for living the kind of life that serves to honor God and positively impact others.
(1) Dr. Constable’s Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition (3:14-15) [pg. 44] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
The various analogies employed thus far within 1 Corinthians chapter three have been building towards the conclusion of verses sixteen and seventeen: “Don’t you realise that you yourselves are the temple of God, and God’s Spirit lives in you?” (Phillips).
This phrase “Do you not know…” (alternatively translated “Surely you know…” [GNB] or “Don’t you understand…” [Voice]) is a rhetorical tool that serves to introduce us to an unquestioned reality of the Christian life. In this instance, the indisputable truth is that you (as a member of the church both individually and corporately) are God’s temple.
This concept is not unique to this passage, for Jesus used similar terminology in referring to Himself (see John 2:18-22). Paul also made use of this idea in the Biblical book of Ephesians as well…
“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18-22).
Of course, this passage may also represent something of a challenge when we stop to consider it. You see, while Paul tells us that the household of God has been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets within the book of Ephesians, he earlier told the Corinthian church, “…no one can lay any other foundation than the one that is already laid, and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11 GW).
The answer to this apparent dichotomy can be found in the fact that Paul identifies Jesus as “the chief cornerstone” in his letter to the church at Ephesus. The chief cornerstone was the first stone placed during the construction of a New Testament-era building and it served as the standard for all the construction that followed. One commentator clarifies this relationship between the foundation and cornerstone in the following manner…
“Christ is the foundation in a primary sense, and His chosen apostles are the foundation in a secondary sense. Christ is, as it were, the substructure, and the apostles are the foundation built on that (see Matt. 16:16–18) Christ is the kingpin that holds the apostolic foundation of the church together.” (1)
(1) Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile'” (1 Corinthians 3:18-20).
Earlier in 1 Corinthians chapter one, Paul the Apostle offered the following observation: “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:8). But here now in 1 Corinthians chapter three, the Apostle makes a similar point from the opposite perspective: “Don’t deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise in the ways of this world, you should give up that wisdom in order to become really wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18 GW).
Much like the gathering clouds that serve to predict the onset of a storm, the members of the Corinthian church had chosen to adopt certain inappropriate attitudes that eventually led to predictable (and disastrous) results. For instance, Paul has already identified one such example in drawing their attention to the fact that the members of this church were divided in support of their individual leaders.
Knowing this, its easy to see how a sense of elitism may have developed among the members of this congregation as each individual member touted the superiority of his or her preferred minister while critiquing others who failed to attain to their own personal standard. Unfortunately, this attitude effectively served to promote a human-centered philosophy that viewed “good” and “bad” as nothing more than individual preferences with little or no regard for God’s assessment.
Its reasonable to accept the fact that different people will hold different opinions, and this is especially true in regard to our preferences in speakers, teachers, and other communicators. However, a person who subjects his or her opinion to the God-given wisdom of the Scriptures (even at the risk of being characterized as a fool) is someone who can avoid the snare of self-deception. As one author says…
“Spiritual and religious pursuits are uniquely vulnerable to a broad range of potential self-deception. Paul warns of this here and points to the prideful and divisive result of such deception as its most obvious warning sign. However, it has been the experience throughout the centuries that divisive and prideful believers see it as a proof of how right they are and how wrong all others are when this accusation begins.” (1)
(1) Bob Caldwell, 1 Corinthians 3, Avoid Worldly Wisdom [v.18]
“For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. As it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness'” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NET).
As part of his effort to address the factional mindset that had developed within the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul next turned to a quotation from the Old Testament book of Job.
The Biblical account of Job tells us how God permitted Job to endure a number of devastating setbacks for reasons that were completely unknown to him. A small group of friends then arrived to console Job and during that time, one of his friends was quoted as follows: “(God) traps the wise in their craftiness so that the plans of the deceptive are quickly brought to an end” (Job 5:13 HCSB). This is the portion of Scripture that Paul referenced here in 1 Corinthians 3:19.
However, those who are familiar with the book of Job may be aware of God’s response concerning the person who spoke these words: “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me, as My servant Job has” (Job 42:7 HCSB). When taken together, the question is this: “How could Paul appeal to this portion of Scripture when God clearly stated that the person who spoke those words was wrong about Him?”
To answer this question, its important to look at the larger context in which God made this response. For instance, a person who reads through the book of Job will quickly discover that Job’s friends repeatedly accused him of secretly engaging in sinful behavior. In their opinion, it was Job’s hidden, sinful conduct that led God to punish him. However, those of us who have access to the complete Biblical account of Job’s story know that this was not the case at all.
Therefore, Job’s friends misrepresented God in this matter and God understandably expressed His displeasure with their response. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that everything they said about God was incorrect. In this instance, Job’s friends made an accurate statement about God even though they misrepresented Him within the larger context. This enabled Paul to use this passage to support his position by way of the familiar phrase, “it is written,” a formula that signals full Biblical authority for a statement or belief.
As an aside, this incident concerning Job serves to preview the opening verses of chapter four where Paul will go on to discuss the need to avoid passing judgment upon others in areas where we have limited or no information.
“Therefore let no one boast 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” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
The Biblical use of the word “therefore” (as seen within the final verses of 1 Corinthians chapter three), generally signals an author’s intent to summarize and apply a teaching or idea. In this instance, the directive to “…let no one boast about human leaders” (NRSV) represents the type of response that the Apostle Paul sought to elicit from his readers.
He then went on to support that directive by stating “all things are yours” and providing a summary list of all that entailed…
Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. God had graciously provided each of these leaders for the mutual enrichment of all within the Corinthian fellowship.
the world. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul used this term to represent those belief systems that rejected the idea of a Creator. However, this passage utilizes a word (“kosmos“) that encompasses the natural world along with the rest of the universe as well.
life. This not only represented the blessing of physical life now but eternal life in the future.
death. While few look forward to the prospect of dying, a Godly man or woman need not fear death. As Paul himself said to the church that met in the town of Philippi, “…to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Death belongs to a Christian in the sense that it serves as a means of departure from the trials and difficulties of life and entry into the presence of God (see 2 Corinthians 5:8).
things present. The present represents our sole opportunity to do the work that God has given us to do since we can no longer reclaim yesterday and tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Or things to come. Psalm 16:11 tells us, “…in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” There is much to look forward to for those who sincerely love God.
All are yours. In light of these things, let us not seek to limit God in that which He may desire to give us.
And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. All of the Corinthian believers belonged to Christ and not to any individual leader. The reference to “Christ is God’s” does not negate His divine nature but stresses the familial relationship that Jesus enjoyed with His heavenly Father.