1CORINTHIANS 3:1-23 – CONFRONTING THE DIVISIONS
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
In chapter 3 Paul continues his exposure of the Corinthians' inadequate perception of God's word. He began this exposure in 1:10ff where he mentioned the teacher-based divisions within the church. All that he has said from there up to the end of chapter 2 has been addressing the source out of which that issue arose: misconceptions about God's truth and how God's truth is known.
He now returns to those divisions. After making a connection between his teaching in 1:18-2:16 and his readers, he gives teaching on the role and responsibility of the teachers of God's truth, to further expose the wrongness of the Corinthians' teacher-based divisions.
A. THE FAILURE OF THE CORINTHIANS – 3:1-4
In 2:14-16 Paul made a distinction between the 'man without the Spirit' and 'the spiritual man'. The first cannot understand God's truth, the second can and does. Although his readers have the indwelling Spirit [see 3:16, 6:19] they had been and still were thinking and acting like people who do not have the Spirit.
Read 3:1-4. How does Paul describe his readers?
'… not … spiritual but … worldly …' verse 1
Paul has just stated that the 'spiritual man' has the mind of Christ [2:15,16], and the 'man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him' [2:14]. In this statement in 3:1 Paul is telling his readers that he could not, and still cannot, address them in the way he should be able to address believers [people with the Spirit]; he could only address them like he would unbelievers [people without the Spirit, people of the world]. Note that he is not saying they are not believers or that they do not have the Spirit. Much has been said already, and more will be said, that indicates that his readers were indeed believers, and in many ways were spiritually rich.
Study these verses. How do they affirm that Paul's Corinthian readers were already believers?
Although these people were believers, and were in Christ enriched in every way, and particularly in all their speaking and in all their knowledge [1:5], Paul could not address them as people who are indwelt and taught by the Spirit ought to be addressed. There was a huge block in their perception, which caused a huge block in their values.
'… mere infants in Christ …' verse 1
To further emphasise the problem in their perception he calls them 'mere infants' – the Greek word, nepios, literally means unable to speak. In other words, he equates them with babies who have not yet learned to speak. That's how immature they are in their understanding, despite the fact that they have been enriched in Christ 'in all your knowledge'. They actually know at lot. But they do not understand it, nor its source, nor its significance as it relates to their lives and their relationships.
[This failure of the Corinthian believers will be referred to at various points in the letter as Paul addresses a range of problems in the behaviour and attitudes of his readers in both their daily lives and their corporate worship. It would seem quite evident that this problem of thinking how the world thinks, that he is addressing in the first four chapters, is at the back of most of the other issues he addresses.]
'… you are still not ready …' verse 2
Previously Paul had taught them with 'milk' – basic teaching – because they were not at that stage ready for 'solid' teaching. At that stage, when they were very new believers, that was okay. But it is not okay now.
'You are still worldly … ' verse 3
They are still thinking the way the world thinks – the way people without the Spirit think. As proof of this he mentions the 'jealousy' and 'quarrelling' among them. They are not seeing themselves and others the way God sees them, but the way people of the world see themselves and others.
'… acting like mere men …' verse 3,4
Not like people instructed and indwelt by the Spirit of God, but simply like people. And here Paul returns to the teacher-based factions, and states that when they speak like that – 'I follow Paul', 'I follow Apollos' – they are living like 'mere men'. There is nothing of the Spirit of God in such partisanship and one-up-man-ship.
Paul's allegation against these Corinthians consists in this: that, although they are born of the Spirit, instructed by the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, and even gifted by the Spirit, they are not demonstrating the maturity in understanding that should have been theirs by now, and should have been evident in the way they defined themselves. The truth is not impacting their basic mindset. They still live with the mindset of the world.
B. THE WRONGNESS OF BOASTING ABOUT MEN – 3:5-23
Using the example of himself and Apollos, Paul now teaches why it is wrong to define oneself by anyone or anything other than the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified. Boasting about anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ, and getting one's significance from anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ, is out of bounds for those who are saved by Christ. Such boasting and such alignment is the way the world – those without the Spirit, mere men - thinks and acts.
Read 3:5-9. How does Paul describe himself and Apollos?
B.1 They are 'only servants' – verse 5-9
As 'servants' both Paul and Apollos were each 'assigned' his task by the Lord [3:5]. They each did what they were assigned by God [3:6], but the outcome was the work of God [3:6]. They and their work were nothing [3:7]. The only one who is 'anything' is God. Unless God is also at work, their work – their preaching and teaching – achieves nothing.
Note that while the work of Paul and Apollos – planted, watered – was something that was finished when they stopped speaking [the two verbs are Aorist Tense], the work of God - 'God made it grow' [NIV] - was something that continued even after Paul and Apollos ended their message – literally, God 'was making it grow'. There was an on-going work of God in the hearts and minds of the hearers long after the speakers stopped speaking. In other words, it was not the speakers of the messages that brought these Corinthians to faith, it was God who brought them to faith as he, by his Spirit, worked with the message of Christ crucified planted and watered by the human messengers.
Both of these 'servants' – the one who plants and the one who waters – have 'one purpose' [3:8]: to make known the message of Christ crucified. Although the 'labour' of each is distinct, it has a common goal. They are not competing against each other. They are not engaged in ministry to gain praise for themselves. They are 'fellow workers'.
The Greek reads:
Of God we are fellow workers
Of God (the) field [or the cultivation of the field]
Of God (the) building [or the construction of the building] you are.
Everything is 'of God' – their shared role and responsibility as 'fellow workers', the cultivation of the 'field' bringing it to the point of harvest, the construction of the 'building' bring it to completion.
It is only because they are fellow workers of God that their work comes to anything. The end result – 'God's field', 'God's building', 'you' (the fact that you now believe) – is God's work, not Paul's nor Apollos' [3:9].
In 3:8 Paul mentions each preacher/teacher being 'rewarded according to his own labour'. He says more about this in the next section.
B.2 The message is the important thing, not the messenger – 3:10-15
Taking up the imagery of the construction of a building, Paul likens himself to a master-builder who laid a solid foundation to the building, and now other builders are constructing the building on the foundation he laid.
Read 3:10-15. Answer these questions:
What was the foundation Paul laid?
What is significant about this foundation? [verse 11]
What images does Paul use in verse 12 to refer to good and bad messages?
When will the true quality of the messages be evident? [verse 13]
What does Paul mean by 'the Day'?
What is 'the fire' which exposes 'the quality of each man's work'?
What are the two possible outcomes for the messenger? [verse 14,15]
In symbolic language Paul teaches:
 There is only one foundation: Jesus Christ [verse 11]. This was the content of Paul's message [verse 10]. Paul does not state, but he does infer, that if anyone lays a different foundation, it is actually no foundation at all. No other foundation can be laid for God's building. Anything built on any other foundation will not result in God's building [which in verses 16 &17 is called God's temple] because its very foundation will be both wrong and inadequate. It will not last. [Compare Jesus' parable of the two foundations in Matthew 7:24-27].
 Not only the foundation, but also the structure, the building, must be right. Note 'each one should be careful how he builds' [3:10b]. A messenger who places different, erroneous or inadequate teaching onto the foundation of 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' cannot expect that what he has 'built' by such teaching will be of any value [3:12-13a].
 The Day, that is the Day of Judgment [symbolised by the reference to 'fire'], will expose the real nature of the teaching that has been built on the foundation of Jesus Christ [3:13].
This is an acutely serious thing that Paul is writing of here. We only have to read all that the New Testament says about false teaching to understand what a terrible thing it is for a teacher to teach error, or to minimise the truth. We can see the impact of false teaching in Paul's letters to the Galatians and Colossians particularly. There Christians were being deprived of the joy of a grace-based salvation, and struggling under a great burden of rules, regulations and rituals being imposed by teachers who were building on the foundation of Jesus Christ with what Paul symbolises here in 1Corinthians as 'wood, hay or straw' – things that cannot endure 'fire', but are consumed by it.
In Galatians Paul was extremely harsh in his disapproval of anyone who taught anything that did not tessellate with the foundation of Jesus Christ: twice he said 'let him be eternally condemned!' [Galatians 1:8,9]
 The 'fire' tests the quality of each man's work [3:13b]. Those whose work survives the judgment receive a fitting reward [3:14]. Those whose work does not survive the judgment 'suffer loss'. And here Paul is much less harsh in his condemnation than he was to the false teachers in Galatia: 'he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames' [3:15]. Paul is not here questioning the integrity of the teacher's faith; he assumes that the teacher is a genuine believer. He is, however, talking about the quality of the teaching given. He is also indicating that there is a very fine line between being a person of genuine faith but also false teaching, and being a person of both false teaching and false faith. That line is: does the teacher acknowledge the only foundation of Jesus Christ and him crucified, or does he not? Only if his foundation is correct will he escape the judgment that consumes the false teaching he added to that foundation.
Paul has written all of this as part of his exposure of the wrongness of boasting about the messengers. It is not the messenger who is important. It is the message that is important. No matter how wise or powerful or eloquent a messenger appears to be, that is all useless if the message he speaks is not correct.
C. AN IMPORTANT PERSPECTIVE: YOU ARE GOD’S TEMPLE – 3:16,17
Paul has previously said that 'you', the Corinthian believers, are God's field, God's building. Now he says 'Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you'. This is something that they ought to know, and on which they ought to be basing their perspectives and attitudes.
The workers in God's 'field' are responsible to God for what they do, how they work, in his field. Similarly, those working on God's 'building'. The 'field' belongs to God. The 'building' belongs to God. That alone makes the work of the labourer a serious responsibility. But 'field' and 'building' are merely everyday images of a greater reality, a heavier responsibility.
Paul statement 'you yourselves are God's temple' takes his imagery out of the secular and into the spiritual. Here he reminds his readers of the reality of the temple, a physical building rich with intense spiritual significance. The Greek word used is naos, which refers to the inner sanctuary – the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, not hieron, which refers to the entire structure.
Make a list of everything you know about these inner sanctuaries of the physical temple that made the temple extremely important.
The holiness of the temple
The Old Testament Tabernacle, and the Temple that replaced it, and all the various utensils and furniture contained in it, plus the Levitical priesthood who served in it, and the sacrifices they offered to God on behalf of the people – all were declared 'holy' by God, not for common or ordinary use. The defilement, or the inappropriate use, of any of these components of the Temple and its worship, incurred serious penalty. In this context the meaning of the word 'holy' is not about moral goodness or perfection – even the basins used were deemed 'holy', and the incense recipe was deemed 'holy'. All of these things, people, festivals and so on are 'holy' because they belong to God and are for God's use. God, in making them his own, declared them 'holy'.
Suggested reading about the 'holy' (NIV, sometimes, 'sacred') 'tabernacle/temple' and its contents:
Leviticus 23:2 etc
Psalm 5:7; 11:4
The temple [the Most Holy Place] as the dwelling place of God
While the Israelites were well aware that God did not dwell in a house built by human hands, they viewed the Tabernacle and the later Temple as his 'dwelling place'. This was, to a large extent, symbolic. But it was symbolic of a present reality: that God was present with his people.
It was over the Tabernacle that the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night provided the Israelites with both guidance and protection: the presence of their powerful God with them.
It was in both the Tabernacle and the Temple that God met with his people, via the Levitical priests, when they came in penitence and faith, in both the daily offerings and the annual Day of Atonement.
But this 'presence of God' in the Temple also put serious boundaries around what was to be done in and with the Temple.
Believers as 'God's temple'
Paul refers to the Corinthian believers as the dwelling place of God in two ways:
 He says they are 'God's temple'. This emphasises two truths: that God lives in them, and that they belong to God.
 He says that 'God's Spirit lives' in them. Which explains how God lives in them.
Because God dwells in believers they are 'sacred' [NIV], that is, 'holy' [verse 17].
Note: in 3:16,17 Paul is teaching that believers corporately are God's 'temple'. The 'you' in these verses is plural. In 6:19 he refers to individual believers as the 'temple' [the 'you' and 'your' there are singular].
When we remember the great significance placed on the Old Testament Temple – it is holy, it is not for common use, it is for God's use, it must not be desecrated – we can begin to understand the significance of Paul's statement here in the context of his rebuke of the Corinthian failure.
He makes a pointed statement, a serious warning: 'If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him …' Just as in the Old Testament misuse and abuse of the Temple, and especially the Most Holy Place, incurred God's wrath, so Paul teaches that anyone who harms ['destroys'] those who believe in Jesus Christ will incur God's punishment.
In the context of 1Corinthians 1-4 this means:
Where the exaltation of one teacher/preacher over another results in harm to the body of believers, God will 'destroy' those who caused that harm.
Where a 'labourer' builds 'wood, hay or straw' onto the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, and thereby harms the body of believers, God will 'destroy' those who cause such harm.
Both of these relate to Paul's exposure of the inability of human wisdom to understand the message of the Gospel, and the inappropriateness of preaching/teaching messages which exult human wisdom and eloquence but do not present or affirm the message of Christ crucified. Such messages, and the perspective they communicate, are destructive to believers both corporately and individually.
The fact that believers are God's holy, sacred dwelling place makes the responsibility of teaching them, preaching to them, an extremely serious activity. The human messenger is here dealing with something that is extremely precious to God.
This task ought never to be undertaken lightly.
This task ought never to be undertaken for self-glory or self-authentication.
This task ought never take attention away from the message of Christ crucified and onto the preacher.
This task ought never, in any way, contradict or undermine the message of Christ and him crucified.
These people, this audience, these readers, this church gathering – belongs to God.
D. A SECOND IMPORTANT PERSPECTIVE: ALL THINGS ARE YOURS – 3:18-23
Read 3:18-23. List Paul’s additional reasons given to encourage a change in the Corinthians’ attitude.
In these verses Paul draws his readers' attention to a further perspective. In doing so he refers back to what he has already said about the 'wisdom of this world' and the 'foolishness of God'.
The Corinthians, in aligning themselves with their favourite teachers on the basis of their 'wisdom' and eloquence [judged by human standards], were setting themselves up as 'wise', according to human standards. In this way they were creating divisions at more than one level:
They were setting the teachers in contrast and competition with each other.
They were making divisions within the church on the basis of alignment with teachers.
They were inferring, even assuming, a greater wisdom and importance for those who followed the 'wiser' teacher. Such assumptions create feelings of superiority and inferiority.
Paul has a number of things to say aimed at breaking down this false perspective:
 Anyone who is doing this 'should become a “fool”' - verse 18. In other words, those who think themselves 'wise' [on the basis of human values], should stop viewing themselves, their fellow believers and their teachers on this worldly basis, and start seeing themselves, their fellow believers and their teachers from the perspective of 'Christ crucified' – and thus be considered a 'fool' in terms of human values.
 They should do this because
'the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight' [verse 19], which Paul has already stressed in chapter 1.
'He catches the wise in their craftiness' [verse 19]. This highlights the stupidity of basing one's values on the values of those who are 'wise' by human standards. God, by the message of Christ and him crucified, exposes and negates the validity of such wisdom. Indeed, this 'wisdom', these godless or anti-god values, mean judgment for 'the wise' unless they repent, unless they change their minds.
'The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile' [verse 20]. While the Corinthian believers were exalting and copying the perspective of 'the wise', God knows that human wisdom cannot and does not lead anywhere. It cannot make God known. It cannot save. It cannot redeem. It cannot restore human relationship with God. It may appear powerful and eloquent, but it is, in terms of lasting spiritual value and impact, totally empty.
 All of this points to the wrongness of the Corinthians exalting themselves by exalting their teachers. And here Paul gives a clear command: 'So then, no more boasting about men' – [verse 21]. No more putting one teacher above another on the basis of the power and eloquence of their oratory, and no more putting themselves above other believers who did not exalt that teacher. Remember 1:30,31, where Paul said that our only boasting should be 'in the Lord'.
In verse 21-23 Paul states the second important perspective that outlaws the teacher-based divisions of the Corinthians. The first was 'you are God's temple' [verse 16]. The second is 'All things are yours…' [verse 21].
This seems, at first, quite a surprising thing to say to people who are exalting their teachers, and therefore exalting themselves for their alignment with their teachers, rather than exalting the message and the Christ of the message. But when we think about this a bit more, we can understand why Paul states this truth.
The Corinthians, by exalting the teacher of their choice, were drawing significance for themselves from that teacher. They valued themselves by the value of the teacher: his 'wisdom', his eloquence, and so on. They took their identity, and maybe also their security, from him.
Although this, in a worldly sense, increased their perception of themselves, it was actually limiting themselves and their value and identity to the value of their teacher.
In contrast to this limited 'value' derived from their teacher, their value by virtue of their alignment with Jesus Christ is unlimited. Paul stresses this when he says:
'all things are yours …'
Paul made a similar affirmation to the Roman believers: 'He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' [Romans 8:32] He also described himself as 'having nothing, and yet possessing everything' [2Corinthians 6:10].
The reason for this 'all things are yours' will become clear at the end of Paul's statement.
'… whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas …' these teachers are all, as Paul has already stated in 3:5 and will state again in 4:1, 'servants' of Jesus Christ, engaged by Christ to work as labourers in his 'field' and workers on his 'building'. They are not there to be exalted by the believers, they are there to serve the believers. All of the teachers, not just one, belong to the church, placed in the church as a gift, to bring the church to maturity [Ephesians 4:7-16]. The teachers all belong to the church, not the church to the teachers. To focus on one is to impoverish oneself.
'whether … the world or life or death or the present or the future ...' Paul has said 'all things are yours', and here he explains how far this extends. These Corinthians, and any Christians who define themselves by such a limited thing as their human teacher or the supposed wisdom or eloquence or renown of their human teacher, are demonstrating that they have an extremely minimal understanding of what God has done, and is doing, for them in and through Jesus Christ and his death.
'… the world ...'
In and through the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ the original blessedness of dominion over all the earth and its creatures is restored [Genesis 1:28].
Here is reaffirmed Christ's statement: 'Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth' [Matthew 5:5], and the promise 'we will also reign with him' [2Timothy 2:12], both anticipating the believers' inheritance of the 'new heaven and a new earth' in Revelation 21:1.
The 'world', the whole world and everything in it, belongs to the believers. This does not yet appear to be true
'… or life or death …'
Prior to their regeneration 'death' was their enemy, their master. Death reigned [Romans 5:17], but now that they have been redeemed by the death of Jesus, death is dethroned. They are no longer its slaves, trapped in fear [Hebrews 2:14,15]. It has no more authority over them. Rather it takes them straight into the presence of Jesus [Philippians 1:25]. Even now they 'reign in life' [Romans 5:17], and actually possess 'life' [John 3:36; 1John 5:12]. Already they have in Christ that real human 'life' which was replaced by death and became inaccessible to them in Genesis 3.
'… or the present or the future …'
Whatever the present circumstances and whatever the future holds, it is all used by God for the good of those who belong to him [Romans 8:28]. Nothing in the present, and nothing in the future, can ever separate believers from God [Romans 8:35-39]. Because God is for us, clearly demonstrated in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, both the present and the future also 'for' us.
'… – all are yours …' Every believer, regardless of how weak or lowly or foolish or despised or insignificant they are when classified by the values of the world [see 1:26-29], possesses all things. Those teachers the Corinthians were exalting, and from whom they were drawing significance, are not greater than the people they taught. By their words and attitudes that created teacher-based divisions the Corinthians expressed an assumption that certain teachers were greater, and created a secondary assumption of personal superiority grounded in the greatness of their teacher. Paul's 'all things are yours' exposes these assumptions as lies.
'… and you are of Christ …' [NIV] 'and you are Christ's' [KJV]. You belong to Christ: Christ's creation, Christ's re-creation, and therefore Christ's possession. Your identity as believers, all that you are and all that you have, is totally due to Christ.
You are all, therefore, equally blessed by God, equally loved by God, equally accepted by God. There is no room here for glorying in human teachers, human wisdom or human eloquence.
'… and Christ is of God' [NIV], '… 'Christ is God's' [KJV]
This is true at a number of levels:
Jesus Christ, regarding his deity, is the one and only, eternal Son of the eternal Father. One with the Father. As such he is extremely loved. As such he shares the Father's glory. God's Son.
Jesus Christ, regarding his real humanity, is the one true man, wholly imaging God, wholly committed to God and obedient to God. God's man.
Jesus Christ, regarding his incarnation, death and resurrection, was sent by God into the world to do everything necessary for human redemption. God's eternal plan, determined before time began [2:7].
This is the Christ to whom believers belong, and in belonging to Christ belong also to God, because God included them in Christ before the creation of the world. Because they belong to his beloved Son, because they have been purchased by the blood of God's beloved Son, believers are incredibly precious to God. All this boasting about their human teachers, all of this questing for significance, reveals to the apostle Paul that his Corinthian readers have not yet grasped how extremely precious to God, how extremely loved by God and blessed by God in Christ, they are.