(1Cor. 3:1 ESV) But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Paul now makes clear his point from chapter 2. While God has revealed in Christ the mysteries of the ages, the Corinthians are not spiritual enough to accept the deep wisdom of God.
In v.3, “of the flesh” means “dominated by your unredeemed, sinful natures.” Their fights — evidently over who is the wisest — demonstrated their foolishness and weakness. The mature don’t divide.
(1 Cor 3:5-9) What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
Again, Paul points the Corinthians away from their human evangelists and toward God. The humans — Paul and Apollos — only planted and watered. But growth — which they desperately need — comes from God.
Now, it’s common in church leadership meetings for someone to point out this passage and say something like, “It’s not up to us to make the church grow. God does that! So rather than discussing evangelism, let’s talk about how to shorten the sermons.” But the logic is wrong. God gives the growth. Therefore, if we aren’t growing, then we’re not doing our job planting and watering. It’s never God’s fault.
(1Cor. 3:10-15 ESV) According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
As Paul will explain in v. 16, Paul is describing the congregation (not the building: the Corinthians had no church building) as a temple for the Spirit to dwell in.
The foundation is Jesus the King because this is the first lesson that must be preached: “Jesus and him crucified.” But it’s also true that it requires the work of the Living Jesus to keep the congregation intact. Jesus sustain the church.
The construction materials are divided between the flammable and inflammable. Fire was a common problem in those days. It wouldn’t be long before Rome itself would burn (whether caused by Nero or nature we’ll never know). But wood is much lighter, less expensive, and easier to work with. Building a temple of stone would be expensive, take much longer, and require far greater skill. And yet the ancients well understood that the gods deserved buildings made of marble — a substance that could withstand the elements for centuries.
And if the pagan gods deserved stone buildings, how more the One True God! And yet his temple would be built out of people, people who, properly instructed and matured, would last even longer than marble: an eternal temple for an eternal God!
Unfortunately, if the builder used poor materials — not bad people but good people poorly taught — they would not stand for long. Fire will come, the builder’s work will be tested, and if he built poorly and cheaply, the building will burn to the ground.
In short, while Paul and Apollos founded and built up a congregation, the division they were suffering raised doubts about how well the materials would survive. And the danger is greatest, not to the builders, but to the congregation. After all, if the converts leave Jesus, they’ll be lost. The missionaries will escape, but they’ll reek of smoke. The stench of their failure will be on them, but God’s grace will be with them.
In other words, while Paul and Apollos would suffer loss if the church in Corinth were to fail, their loss wouldn’t be nearly as great as the loss to the Corinthian believers. They’ll lose everything.
(1Cor. 3:16-17 ESV) Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
In each instance, “you” is plural. I keep waiting for the translation with the courage to say “y’all.” The NIV helpfully says “you yourselves,” but we Southerners know a better way to get the point across.
Paul will later speak of the Christian’s body as a temple, in chapter 6, but here it’s the congregation. Therefore, he is not speaking against smoking or drugs, but against division at the congregational level. To “destroy” God’s temple is to participate in the forces of division — even if you’re ever so certain that you’re the ones “of Christ.”
Now, the lesson is even deeper than that. You see, recent studies have concluded that the church in Corinth was a single congregation meeting in multiple houses. They were not autonomous house churches, contrary to countless books recently published in the evangelical popular press.
The solution to modern church problems won’t be found in dividing into smaller and smaller churches. In apostolic times, when the church was not officially sanctioned by Rome, it would have been much easier to form into house churches — maybe even safer because one congregation could be unaware of the membership of the other house churches. It was a police state, we often forget.
But it is becoming clear that the apostles saw the church as consisting of one congregation per city. Even in Jerusalem where the church grew to over 15,000 members, they remained a single congregation under a single eldership. Why?
Well, why not? Are we going to be united despite our differences and brokenness or not? To American ears, especially in the Churches of Christ, this sounds like heresy, in part because of our American, Postmodern distrust of authority. We don’t want to answer to anyone! Which is, of course, not a Christian attitude at all but rather a sign of worldliness. We are not our own keepers.
In 1 Cor 3, Paul makes clear that the refusal of the Corinthians to remain united is a sign of immaturity and a warning sign of damnation soon to follow. So what makes us immune from the same accusation?
And so, what duty do we have to seek the unity of congregations within the same city? And how might this be done?
Oh, and one more time: Paul says dividing a church damns. How would the history of the Churches of Christ have been different had we taken Paul seriously?
(1Cor. 3:18-23 ESV) Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
NT Wright explains —
In short, the Corinthians were like people splashing about in a muddy pool when the ocean itself was right beside them; like people drinking dirty water from a polluted tap when the finest wine, and sparkling mountain water, were theirs to command. Fancy indulging in personality cults, as though you were merely another bunch of squabbling sophists, when the entire cosmos and all its truth, mystery and wisdom were yours for the exploring! Temptations often promise more and give less — sometimes, in fact, nothing at all. Satan offers the moon, and then laughs at you when you don’t get it, while God promises you the sun itself.
… Paul didn’t take the time to write a long treatise about how this might all work out philosophically. He didn’t need to. Enough to state, again and again as he does, that when Christians look up from the world, and from their own lives, they see, not a distant or unapproachable deity, not a vague divine force that they couldn’t know much about, but the God of Israel, the creator God, who has made himself known in Jesus.
The point is that you don’t have to understand how it all works. You have to believe — on the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in particular — that it works, and that you are called to be part of it. …
That’s why all human wisdom is overturned by the divine folly of the gospel. Verses 18–20 sum up, and buttress with further biblical quotations, the point Paul has been making from various angles ever since 1:18. And the sharp command which goes with this summing-up, which we need today as much as ever, is this: don’t deceive yourself (verse 18). It is easy to do, and the results are sad. And those who think they’re not likely to deceive themselves are the very ones who are about to do so.
Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.