1 Corinthians 3:1-23

Submitted by admin on Fri, 2009-06-19 16:37.

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Even though Paul addressed the Corinthians as his “brothers,” many among them did not manifest themselves to be spiritual persons. In important aspects of life, they failed to follow the leading of God’s spirit. The apostle could not speak to them as spiritual persons but had to speak to them as fleshly persons, “as babes in Christ.” They were believers and so were “in Christ” as members of his body. But, in certain respects, their conduct resembled that of unspiritual persons in the world of mankind alienated from God. Their behavior was infantile, and this prevented the apostle from sharing with them thoughts that were suited for truly spiritual believers who, in disposition, word, and action, proved themselves to be exemplary children of God. (3:1)

In keeping with their infantile condition, Paul imparted admonition that was suited for “babes in Christ.” He spoke of having given the Corinthians milk to drink and not the solid food that meets the needs of mature persons. In growth as disciples of Jesus Christ, they had not attained the level of strength that made solid food suitable for them, and this continued to be the case up to the time Paul wrote to them. His letter primarily served a corrective purpose and contained the kind of reproof that must often be given to immature youths. (3:2)

The infantile condition of many Corinthian believers was evident from their “fleshly” or unspiritual state. Jealousy (an envious and contentious rivalry) and strife (wrangling or discord) existed among them, revealing that they were “walking as men.” They were conducting themselves as men who were not following the lead of God’s spirit and had not truly transformed their lives to reflect the image of Christ. (3:3; see the Notes section.)

A divisive party spirit had developed among them. To illustrate this, Paul continued, “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ but another [says], I [am] of Apollos, are you not [unspiritual] men?” When believers identify themselves as specifically belonging to a particular man as their leader, they are wrongly elevating him and failing to accord the proper honor to God. They are conducting themselves as people of this world who look to other humans as their leaders and guides. (3:4)

To assist the Corinthians to have a proper estimation of men in relation to God and Christ, Paul raised the questions, “What [Who, according to other manuscripts], then, is Apollos? And what [who, according to other manuscripts] is Paul?” They were “servants” through whom the Corinthians had become believers. Paul and Apollos were not owners or lords to whom any party loyalty was owing. They were servants of God and Christ, and servants who ministered to the Corinthians. Although others had become believers through their ministry, Paul and Apollos performed their individual service “as the Lord granted each [of them].” They carried out the service that the Lord Jesus Christ had assigned to them individually. (3:5)

In his role as one who first brought the message about Christ to Corinth, Paul “planted,” for a community of believers came into existence through his ministry. Later, Apollos proved to be very helpful to those who had become believers (Acts 18:27) and so functioned toward them as would a person who “watered” growing plants. But God was the one who made things grow. Through the operation of his spirit, he made it possible for the Corinthians to have what they needed to progress and flourish as his children. Emphasizing the transcendent importance of what God does in making things grow, Paul added that neither the one doing the planting nor the one doing the watering is anything. (3:6, 7)

Although the person doing the planting and the person doing the watering may be different individuals, they “are one.” With reference to the plants, their labor has the same purpose. If the Corinthians had recognized this oneness of purpose in the service Paul and Apollos rendered, they would not have succumbed to a divisive party spirit. Whereas the laboring of Paul and Apollos was different, each one would receive his reward or wage in keeping with the work he performed. They were individually accountable to God for the way they cared for their respective tasks. (3:8)

In relation to the service they performed, Paul added, “For we are God’s fellow workers.” He and Apollos served in the furtherance of God’s work. As for the Corinthian believers, they were “God’s field, God’s building.” (3:9) Neither Paul nor Apollos were the owners of the “field” or the “building”; they were the Owner’s servants and labored at his direction.

After having likened the community of believers in Corinth to a “building,” Paul spoke about his labor in terms of construction. In keeping with the gracious favor God had given him, entrusting him with service as an apostle through the agency of his Son, Paul, as a “wise” or skilled master builder, “laid a foundation; someone else, however, [was] building [on it].” The foundation the apostle had laid was sound, for he proclaimed the truth about Christ and what he accomplished through his death. For this reason, Paul could speak of himself as a “wise master builder.” He had not made himself guilty of poor workmanship, failing to impart what the Corinthians needed to be a community established on the right foundation. Whereas he had faithfully discharged his task, Paul urged the Corinthians individually to watch how they were building on the foundation. (3:10)

There was only one acceptable foundation, and that foundation had already been laid. Paul explicitly identified Jesus Christ as the foundation. Being on the right foundation requires having the proper view of Christ as one’s Lord and of the need to live in harmony with his example and teaching. For believers, the objective of building on Christ as the foundation is to continue growing to become more like him. In the case of literal building operations, various materials may be employed—“gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” (3:11, 12)

While the foundation may be sound, the nature of the building materials will determine the permanence of the superstructure. The apostle did not specifically identify the desirable or the poor or flawed materials individuals might use when building on Christ as the foundation. Jesus Christ was laid as the foundation through the proclamation of the truth about him, and the community of believers came into existence when they responded in faith. So it logically follows that proper building on Christ as the foundation involves the kind of teaching and response to it that would have a positive effect on the life of believers. The Sacred Scriptures contain the sound teaching, and those who impart sound teaching or who apply it to themselves are building with valuable and noncombustible materials comparable to gold, silver, and precious stones. When, however, doctrines, fanciful or speculative interpretations, “church” policies and rules, or traditions that have no apostolic precedence distort or misrepresent Jesus’ example and teaching, the building work being done by persons who promote such things or who strive to conform to such things is comparable to using inferior building materials like wood, hay or straw. (3:12)

The kind of building “work” in which each individual engages will become apparent, “for the day will make it clear, because it is revealed in fire; and fire will prove what each one’s work is like.” The “day” could either refer to the future day of judgment when Christ returns in glory or any day that would result in an exposure of a builder’s work. Numerous translations make the reference to the future judgment day explicit, either capitalizing “Day” (NAB, NIV, NJB, NRSV) or adding “of judgment” (CEV, NCV, REB). (3:13)

The phrase “in fire” has commonly been linked to the word “day.” In his expanded translation, Kenneth Wuest conveys this meaning, “For the day will make it known, because it [the day] will be made clear as to its identity by means of one of its attributes, namely, fire.” Other translations likewise render the verse to denote the “day.” “That Day will appear with fire.” (NCV) “The day will show it plainly enough, for the day will arise in a blaze of fire.” (J. B. Phillips) “For that day dawns in fire.” (REB) “The Day which dawns in fire will make it clear.” (NJB) In view of Paul’s reference to building materials, however, there is a possibility that “in fire” may be understood as indicating that the previously mentioned “work” will be exposed “in fire.” The Greek word for “work” (érgon) is neuter gender, whereas the Greek word for “day” (heméra) is feminine gender. There is, however, no Greek pronoun for “it” in the text itself that definitively settles whether the intended antecedent is “work” or “day.” The passive third person singular verb for “reveal” (apokalypto) does not in itself restrict the meaning to “work” or “day.” (3:13)

Paul’s main point, though, is clear. Fire will prove the nature of the work, consuming anything comparable to wood, hay, and straw, and revealing the enduring quality of everything that can be likened to gold, silver, or precious stones. (3:13)

If, when submitted to the fire of judgment, a builder’s work remains, “he will receive a reward.” (3:14) Paul did not mention the nature of that reward but reasonably it would include God’s approval for faithful performance of work well done and additional privileges in divine service. (Compare Matthew 25:14-23; Luke 12:35-44; 19:12-19.)

The person who built with material that the fire of judgment exposed as worthless, with everything being burned up, would live, provided the foundation proved to be Christ. Such a one’s deliverance would be like that of a person who would lose everything in the fire but would himself be snatched from the flames. (3:15) Something similar happened to Lot and his daughters. They lost all their possessions but escaped the fiery destruction of Sodom.

Paul reminded the community of believers in Corinth that they were “God’s temple” in which he resided by means of his spirit. (3:16) This added to the seriousness of the wrong kind of teaching individuals promoted or followed. Destructive teaching constituted an assault on God’s property.

Therefore, the man who made himself guilty of introducing destructive elements among believers would face grave judgment. His attempt to destroy God’s temple would result in ruin for him, for God would inflict on him the punishment of destruction. This is because, as Paul continued, “God’s temple is holy, which temple you [Corinthian believers] are.” The holiness or purity of the “temple” or community of believers must be preserved, and anyone who exerted a corrupt influence would merit severe divine judgment. (3:17)

Among the Corinthian believers, many seem to have been impressed by the “wisdom of the age,” greatly admiring those who were eloquent and influential. This appears to be the reason Paul warned about not being self-deceived regarding such wisdom and added, “If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool so that he may become wise.” (3:18)

The kind of wisdom in which the people of that age took pride did not allow them to see the wisdom of God reflected in the arrangement for having their sins forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice and gaining an approved relationship with him as his children. It was a wisdom that relied on human ability to persuade and impress. Believers who regarded themselves as possessing this kind of wisdom needed to become fools, ceasing to rely on their own ability to impress, persuade, or sway others. As a result of coming to be persons who did not rely on or glory in impressive persuasive power, they would become truly wise. They would recognize the transcendent wisdom of God, grow as spiritual persons, and be freed from the party spirit that had come into existence because of judging others on the basis of values stemming from worldly wisdom. (3:18)

For many believers in Corinth, a change in attitude regarding worldly wisdom was needed if they were to cease being “babes in Christ.” Paul continued, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” He then quoted words found in the holy writings, “He catches the wise in their cleverness.” (Job 5:13) “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are empty.” (Psalm 94:11; [93:11, LXX]) In its application, worldly wisdom leads to wrong evaluations based on mere appearances and cannot fathom the things that are truly spiritual. From God’s standpoint, this wisdom is foolishness. (3:19, 20)

By means of worldly wisdom, the noble standing that God’s approved children enjoy cannot be attained. Those who may be admired in the world of mankind may be very clever in attaining their objectives. When, though, their wisdom stands in opposition to God’s ways, they eventually reap the consequences of their folly. Through the outworking of his moral law, God catches them in their “cleverness” or “cunning.” (3:19; see the Notes section.)

Similarly, when the thoughts of the “wise” are contrary to God’s ways, they are empty, futile, or vain. He knows these thoughts for what they are. They are worthless and will come to nothing. (3:20; see the Notes section.)

The aspects of worldly wisdom that sway humans (impressive personal bearing and persuasive power) tend to promote a divisive party spirit. Addressing this problem among the Corinthian believers, Paul emphasized the right view of men. The Corinthians were not to look to men as leaders, boasting in such men or taking pride in being among those with a special attachment to them. They were not to regard themselves as belonging to any human who may have been of spiritual help to them. Instead, they were to consider everyone who may have contributed to their spiritual life as belonging to them. Believers are not owned by fellow believers, but belong to one another as members of a beloved family of God’s children. (3:21)

The apostle continued, “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things now present or future — all belong to you, but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Paul, Apollos, and Cephas were their brothers in Christ. They were servants of the community of believers as a whole. In the world of mankind, essential services and functions are performed, and from these believers derive benefits. Rightly, then, they can look upon the world as a servant, a functioning society of people that provides food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. The life believers enjoy is at their disposal, to be used as a servant in a way that is appropriate for God’s children. Even death is a servant. Through death, believers gain entrance into the fullness of eternal life upon being resurrected. Nothing that then existed in the human sphere or which would come to exist in the future would occupy the position of an owner. Believers belong to Christ. He is their Lord or Owner who laid down his life for them. Ultimately, believers belong to God, for Christ belongs to his Father as his unique Son. (3:22, 23)


In 1 Corinthians 3:3, a number of manuscripts mention “divisions” (dichostasíai) as also existing among the Corinthians. This would mean that certain ones had cut themselves off from others, not associating freely with them.

The quotation from Job 5:13 in 1 Corinthians 3:19 does not reflect the wording of the extant Greek text of the Septuagint. Of the principal words, only the term for “wise” is identical. Nevertheless, the meaning of the text is the same. In the context of Job 5, Eliphaz used the words to reprove Job, implying that he had sinned and, for this reason, had been seized in his cleverness. While Eliphaz erred in his judgment of Job’s situation, his comments conveyed the truth that God catches or seizes the wise in their cleverness or cunning. Appropriately, therefore, the apostle used the words in keeping with this truth.

In 1 Corinthians 3:20, the quotation from Psalm 94:11 (93:11, LXX) follows the wording of the extant Septuagint text, with the exception of one word. Instead of the broader term “men,” the apostle used the more restrictive noun “wise.” In the context of Psalm 94, the men to whom reference is made would have viewed themselves as wise.