1 CORINTHIANS CHAPTER
A Reproof of Spiritual Pride. 1 Cor. 3, 1—23.
The marks of carnal men: V. 1. And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. V. 2. I have fed you with milk and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. V. 3. For ye are yet carnal; for, whereas there is among you envying and strife and divisions, are ye not carnal and walk as men? Paul has held before the Christians of Corinth the wonderful blessings which belong to all believers through the Gospel, and which should be used and exercised by them in a proper way. To his great sorrow, he is obliged to state that the Corinthians whom he addresses do not yet measure up to the standard which should be found in those that have the proper understanding. But to show his confidence in them, he addresses them also in this section as "brethren." His words are harsh, for he connects his reprimand with the statement that the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: And I, consequently, was not able to speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. He implies that he might well have expected by this time that he could address them as men that were governed in all things by the Spirit of God. Instead of that, however, he finds that he is obliged to speak to them as men that follow the thoughts of the flesh, that are governed by their unregenerate nature, by the old Adam. As to little children, to veritable babes in Christ, he must speak. Note how the addition "in Christ" softens the harshness of the censure and pleads with the better knowledge of the Corinthian Christians. But the rebuke stands: they are indeed children of God in Christ, but as yet without the experience and maturity which might justly be expected of them. This thought he drives home with an emphatic comparison: Milk I gave you to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet equal to it. He was obliged to give them nourishment suited to their age for the entire length of time that he was with them on the second journey. He could impart to them instruction only in the rudiments, the fundamentals, of Christian knowledge. Cp. Heb. 5, 13. 14. They made such slow progress in Christian knowledge that the apostle could not go beyond the simplest and easiest truths in his instruction. But the matter would not have been so serious if now, after an interval of several years, they would have been able to receive solid food and to go on to perfection in knowledge. However, even at the present time they were not yet strong enough in spiritual apprehension, they had made no progress in proportion to the expectations of their teacher. And the more presumption they showed in their party spirit, as though they had been graduated from the elementary department of Christian doctrine, the sharper was the reproof of their teacher telling them that he could not consider their promotion. And the reason he flatly tells them: For yet are you carnal. They were still governed by considerations of their flesh, of their unspiritual nature; they permitted the desires of the flesh to control their actions instead of yielding to the gentle leading of the Spirit. There was still jealousy, dissension, wrangling among them, which are essentially works of the flesh, Gal. 5, 20; they permitted partisan rivalry to hold sway among them. And that was proof positive that they were carnal, that their unregenerate, carnal self, Rom. 7, had gained the ascendency. And so the conclusion, which Paul puts in the form of a question, was right, namely, that they were conducting themselves as unregenerate men are apt to behave under like circumstances, Rom. 8, 5, that they were conforming to the average person's irreligious condition.
All ministers of Christ of equal rank: V. 4. For while one saith, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal ? V. 5. Who, then, is Paul and who is Apollos but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? V. 6. I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. V. 7. So, then, neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God, that giveth the increase. V. 8. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one; and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. Paul here repeats his chief complaint against the Corinthian Christians, that of yielding to party spirit and forming factions: For whenever any one says, I belong to the party of Paul; but another, I to that of Apollos, are you not mere men? Paul refers to only two parties in this instance, because they are sufficient to illustrate his point. And his accusation is that those of his readers that are guilty are following the example of the average man of the world, who is not governed by considerations of the will of God. The mind of Christ is unalterably opposed to disharmony and schism. Such party spirit is especially foolish in the Christian Church: What, then, is Apollos ? What, on the other hand, is Paul? To make such questions a matter of quarrel, as though Apollos and Paul, in their own persons, were anything! Ministers they are, not the authors of your faith, but servants and instruments of God to bring you to faith. The Master and Lord of the work is Jesus Christ, and those that have the benefit of the work are the members of the congregation. But as for Apollos and Paul, they have no higher ambition than to be servants, each one with his own specific gifts, as the Lord has bestowed upon him. It is the Lord's business entirely, and He furnishes the ability for the work as well as the opportunity to be active in His service, as He thinks best for the welfare of His Church. Both facts thus preclude all disposition to boast.
The apostle shows in just what way the Lord arranged matters in Corinth and made use of the talents of these two servants: I planted, Apollos watered, but God produced the growth; all the while, during the work of both men, God was giving the increase. The work in Corinth was that of obtaining a spiritual crop. To Paul's lot it fell to break the ground and to plant the seed of the Word; God caused the seed to strike root and to spring up. Then came Apollos and tended the young plants by developing the life of faith, by confirming the believers in their Christian knowledge; God's merciful power accompanied his efforts and caused the plants to bring forth fruit. It follows, then, that neither he that plants nor he that irrigates is anything; they are mere instruments in the hand of God, the Lord of the harvest, who alone gives the growth, and to whom, therefore, all glory must be given: He is everything, He alone remains, all others are excluded. This is brought out still more strongly by the thought: But the planter and the waterer are one thing; they are as one, as a single instrument in the hands of God, and they have only one interest and aim, the growth of the Church. They are not rivals, but co-laborers in the same cause; their work is not competitive, but complementary. But each will get his own wage according to his own labor. If works are done with the object of meriting anything in the sight of God, of obtaining everlasting salvation through their performance, they are useless and worse than useless. But if they are performed in simple faith and love, in the service of the Lord, for His honor and glory, then God Himself will bring forth the final reward of mercy; for the sake of Jesus He will look upon them as deserving of a wage, and He will act accordingly, Luke 19, 15. 16; Matt. 19, 28; 1 Pet. 5, 4; Dan. 12, 3. And it is especially consoling that the reward is proportioned to the work, not to its success, so that unremitting faithfulness, rather than brilliant achievement, is the standard followed by God. "We also confess what we have often testified, that, although justification and eternal life pertain to faith, nevertheless good works merit other bodily and spiritual rewards and degrees of rewards." 20)
The laborers and the foundation: V. 9. For we are laborers together with God; ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building. V. 10. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. V. 11. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. The apostle now employs a different figure in order to bring out another thought closely connected with his present discourse. The members of the congregation sin against their teachers as well as against God if they make their estimate of them according to the show of outward talent and ability. For the teachers are God's fellow-workmen ; they are employed in the task given them by the Lord to build His spiritual temple; and they are fellows in this work, not rivals; they are pulling together for the same end. Note that the service of the ministry is called work, that it requires labor, if it is to be performed correctly. On the other hand, the hearers, the members of the congregation, are God's field of tillage, a field sown with the seed of the Word of God through the labor of these ministers. And in order to stress the idea of the spiritual communion which obtains among the believers, and of the mutual adaptation of all the parts, Paul calls them God's building, a temple of the Lord, in which the Triune Godhead intends to dwell.
The apostle now brings out the individual responsibility: According to the grace of God which is given me, as a wise master builder, as a chief engineer that knows his business, I have laid a foundation, but another builds on it. Note that the grace of God is placed into the foreground; Paul intimates that without it the work could neither have been attempted nor carried to the present state. The grace of God is the real motive force in the work of the Church at all times. And Paul knows that by this grace his work was done wisely; he had laid a foundation. Paul was not the possessor of only a single gift of grace, by which he would have been able to serve in only one single capacity in the Church, as exhorter or as pastor only, but he had been endowed with such talents as to make him a directive agent: he had great executive ability, he was a forceful preacher, he possessed great tact in approaching difficult cases, he could adapt himself to a great variety of conditions with great readiness. That was the reason why the grace of the Lord had selected him to found so many of the first congregations, as that of Corinth. On his foundation, the basis which he had laid, another would erect the building. That was the inevitable result in Corinth and elsewhere. Until the end of time the Christian ministers, by the preaching of the Gospel, are building up the temple of God on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And the warning of Paul is always timely: But let each one take heed how he builds upon it, how he attempts to construct the temple of the Lord. A mere zeal for the Lord, a mere avidity for work, is not sufficient to determine the method of the ministry of Christ. The minor workman must follow the directions of the master builder, the lines plainly laid down, and he must use fit material. If the teaching of any Christian preacher does not agree with the doctrine of Jesus Christ and the apostles, especially if it leads to justification by works and thus, under the name of faith, makes false Christians and work-saints, as Luther writes, then the methods must be condemned absolutely. For, as the apostle solemnly declares: Other foundation can no man lay except that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ, v. 11. If men, teachers, arise inside or outside of the Church, claiming that they have a new way of salvation, a different way to heaven than Christ, who alone is the Way, then they are base deceivers, attempting to lay another foundation in opposition to the one and only existing one, which is Jesus Christ. This foundation was laid by God from eternity, when He destined His Son to be the corner-stone and foundation of the great Church, the spiritual temple dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and this foundation will remain as the only foundation, in spite of all the efforts of the enemies to overthrow it. As Luther says: "I have experienced and noted in all histories of all Christendom that all those that correctly had and held the chief article of Jesus Christ, remained well and secure in the true Christian faith. And though they may have erred and sinned otherwise, yet they were finally preserved. For he who herein stands correct and firm that Jesus Christ is true God and man, who died for us and rose again, for him all the other articles will fall in line and stand firmly by his side, so altogether sure it is what St. Paul says, Christ is the chief good, basis, foundation, and all in one." 21)
The building itself: V. 12. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, v. 13. every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. V. 14. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. V. 15. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. Paul here treats of the superstructure which is erected upon the one foundation, and distinguishes between rich and durable material on the one hand, and poor, paltry, and perishing on the other, both, however, serviceable for the erection of the building. He is not referring to the believers that make up the temple of God so much as to the doctrine by which they are won for Christ, and the manner in which their faith serves the entire building in all forms of Christian works, both pictures, however, being closely associated in his mind. However, among these [in the body which is built upon the true foundation, i.e., upon Christ and faith] there are also many weak persons, who build upon the foundation stubble that will perish, i.e., certain unprofitable opinions [some human thoughts and opinions], which, nevertheless, because they do not overthrow the foundation, are both forgiven them and also corrected. And the writings of the holy Fathers testify that sometimes even they built stubble upon the foundation, but that this did not overthrow their faith.22) And we need not even think of human thoughts, opinions, and faults, but only of the great diversity of gifts and abilities in the kingdom of God, since the building is all done on the basis of the same good foundation, Jesus Christ. "Whether it be the gold of prophecy, or the silver of doctrine, or the precious stones of hymns, or the wood of keeping rank, or the hay of discipline, or the stalks of alms; whether it be high, brilliant endowment or endowment for the service in small, insignificant things; whether it be the oratory of spiritual tongues or the hand that offers assistance: everything may serve for the benefit of the congregation and reward the worker in the building of God, if he but offers it in the intention of Christ, that it may serve for the growth of the building on the foundation which is laid, not only as a mere outward appendage, but grown together inwardly with the foundation and charged with the love of the Spirit." 23) Of all these attempts the apostle says: The work of each man will become manifest, for the day will disclose it. So much, indeed, is evident even now with what kind of material every one is serving in the Church; it can be seen to some extent what special abilities he possesses; but how a person works, what success he has in his efforts, whether they redound to the blessing or the harm of the believers in the Church, that shall be disclosed and made manifest on the day, the great day, the Day of Judgment and of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For on that day it shall be revealed with fire, in fire, and the work of every man, what kind it is, that fire will assay, will show. It is a probationary, not a purgatorial fire; and not the persons are subjected to this fire, but their works in the Church. The idea of a physical purgatory is absolutely remote to this passage. Consuming fire is the element of the last day, and in flaming fire the Lord Jesus will reveal Himself from heaven, 2 Thess. 1, 8. "This fire will reveal what was worldly and perishable as well as what was spiritual and imperishable in the building of God. . . . Outward honor and dishonor, splendor of wisdom and cover of foolishness, will then be judged infallibly; the fire of probation will penetrate through all pretext into the inner substance, and only that will remain which was built in a Christian manner, borne up by and of the same material as the indestructible foundation, Jesus Christ. . . . The dross of reason and the vagaries of men, even if they be meant ever so well, will be mingled with the ashes, and in the light of the perfect knowledge, wherewith the fire of that day will shine round about us, will be revealed what was imagination and what was divine wisdom, what was hollow talk of art and what powerful word, what was mere opinion and what infallible truth." 24) Note that all this presupposes a building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and His blessed Word.
The result of the test is now shown: If the work of any man will remain that he has built, he will receive a reward; if any man's work shall be burned up, he will suffer loss; himself, however, will be saved, but in this manner as through fire. The statement is very general and refers to every kind of material, to all the various abilities and gifts. For whether a Christian is highly, moderately, or poorly gifted, so far as the work of the Church is concerned, that is of little or no consequence; everything rather depends upon this, that the work in the Church be free from the dross of human reason and vanity, that it rest upon the true foundation, and that it be actuated by love of Christ. In such measure as any Christian's work will stand the test of the last day he will receive the reward of grace. And whatever part of the work will not stand up under the test of the fire of that day will be consumed. By so much as the imperfections of every man's work will be revealed, by so much will his reward of mercy be reduced, by so much will he forfeit what he might have possessed, had his work all measured up to the standard set by God. But though such a person will not have the enjoyment of an unusual degree of glory, yet he will have the possession of the heavenly salvation, but so as through fire. He is like a person that has escaped with his naked life from a fire that threatened death and destruction, or like one that escapes from a shipwreck, but loses both money and goods. The special reward which God promises to faithful and excellent work such people lose, but that which is not the wages of their work, but only Christ's merit, namely, life and salvation, that they inherit, because they retained faith in the forgiveness of their sins, also of their hidden sins, to their end. Mark that the apostle throughout the passage has in mind especially the teachers of the Church, but that the others, in all their several posts in the Church, are by no means excluded.
Every Christian a temple of God: V. 16. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? V. 17. If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. V. 18. Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise. V. 19. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. V. 20. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise that they are vain. This is not merely a warning lest any of the readers find themselves sharing the fate of such whose efforts will not stand the test of the last day, but it is an arraignment of those who become destroyers of God's house, whom therefore, in turn, God will destroy. To bring this out, Paul shows a different side of the picture: Do you not know that a temple of God you are, and that the Spirit of God lives in you? All Christians, being built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and the apostles, have received the Holy Spirit, the Triune God, as the tenant of their hearts. Their hearts have become a shrine, a true temple, of the Godhead. And the underlying idea is that they all, because of this indwelling, together form the great temple of the invisible Church, the habitation of God through the Spirit. If, therefore, any person will corrupt, defile, desecrate the temple of God, this man will God destroy. If the agitators and false teachers in Corinth, if the errorists of all times, will persist in defiling the holy place of the pure temple of God in the individual Christian as well as in the Church as such, by a perversion of doctrine, by inciting wrangling and strife, then the wrath of God will strike them at last. For the holiness of God can never permit such a defilement to go unpunished; every injury of that kind is a desecration of the sanctity of the temple. And the added clause, "which you are," reminds the Corinthians of the obligation which is imposed upon them by their sanctity; it urges them to be on a sharp lookout against the defilers of their temple, and not to permit the desecration to take place. The work in which they are engaged is a sacred work; they themselves are hallowed and consecrated to God; therefore they must watch over their sanctity with a jealous eye.
Since there was great danger that some of the Corinthian Christians might have been so thoroughly imbued with the glittering show of human wisdom in the work of the Church as not to heed the apostle's warning, he adds another word. No one in their midst should deceive himself; no one should be involved in misapprehension and blindness; no one should presume willfully to know more concerning this matter than the apostle. If any one among them had the idea that he was wise in the wisdom of this transitory world, he had better become a fool according to the standards of this world, for then only could he become wise in the sight of God. "Those who follow human wisdom exalt human masters at the expense of God's glory, and there are teachers who lend themselves to this error and thus build unworthily on the Christian foundation, — some who are even destroying, under a show of building, the temple of God." 25) The power of the Word of God over the heart of man must be demonstrated in this way, that he places all the wisdom of this world at the disposal of the true wisdom from above, and that he rejects all wisdom which in any way conflicts with the revealed truth of the Bible, though he be mocked and derided a thousand times as a hopeless fool and as a narrow-minded bigot. For it is only by taking all human thoughts and opinions captive under the obedience of Christ that a person will be placed in the position that he may understand the wisdom of God in the Word of Salvation. In support of this St. Paul reaffirms what he has spoken of at length in chapter 1: For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; and as such it deserves only one fate, namely, to be cast aside as worthless before God. This statement the apostle substantiates by two passages from the Old Testament. In Job 5, 13 it is said of the Lord: He that grips, catches, the wise in their own craftiness, their supposed wisdom. The wisdom of the world is here pictured as a craft, a subtle trade, which is carried on to the detriment of others. But God catches those that practice such cunning in their own wiles, thus showing how foolish their professions are. The second passage is from Ps. 94, 11: The Lord understands the arguings of the wise that they are futile. What is true of the vanity of human thoughts in general is true in particular of those that assume the leading position in the counsels of human philosophy. Whenever they leave the eternal truth of God's Word, they become groundless, void of truth, and therefore full of folly.
The conclusion: V. 21. Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; v. 22. whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; v. 23. and ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's. This being true, that the world's wisdom is foolishness before God, let therefore no one glory in men. Both the self-praise of the world's wise men and the foolish adoration given to them is here condemned; and this all the more so, since everything is to serve the Christians in the Church, in their faith. So closely is the Church, so intimately are all believers, connected with Christ that they partake of His wonderful glory, Eph. 1, 19—23. They are no longer in any way dependent upon men, upon the wisdom of this world, but have a direct claim upon the service of everything which belongs to God and Christ. At the service of the believers, by the grace of God, stand Paul and Apollos and Cephas, all the apostles and ministers whom He has sent to proclaim the glorious truths of salvation. At their service stands the world itself, the whole world with all its forces and resources; the right use of them all is in furthering the cause of Christ. In the service of the believers stand both life and death; whether they live, they live to the Lord, and whether they die, they die to the Lord, Rom. 14, 8. In their service stand both things present and things to come; all states, conditions, offices, trades, professions, everything should aid in the spread of the Gospel, of the Christian faith. "Everything in the wide world belongs to Christ the Ruler. What emperors, kings, princes, government, and subjects have and possess, that is all Christ's. It has all been subjected to Him. All men must be under this King and Ruler, either in grace or in disgrace. Christ has everything in His hand and power." 26) And so Paul concludes in a burst of confident triumph: But you are Christ's, but Christ is God's. Since the believers belong to Christ by faith, in and through Him their royal power is exercised. In this relation, therefore, there is praise for no one but Christ. And Christ is God's, the believers thus, through the Son, being united also with the Father and partaking of His eternal power. God, therefore, is all in all, and it behooves all Christians, instead of spending valuable time in petty bickerings, in forming factions, and in boasting in men, to devote the energy of faith to the spread of His honor and glory. God's field of tillage, God's building, God's temple, we Christians are, because we belong to Christ. And this great honor, on whose account we fall down before God in humble adoration, teaches us to deny the ungodliness of the praise of men and to glory in the Lord alone.
Summary. The apostle reproves the Corinthians for their carnal behavior in forming factions, shows the equality of all ministers, points to Christ as the only Foundation of the Church, predicts that the fiery test of the last day will burn away everything but the substance of the works done in the Church, and warns against the desecrating of the temple of God.