Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-23

Chapter 3

THE SUPREME IMPORTANCE OF GOD ( 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 )

3:1-9 And I, brothers, could not talk to you as I would to spiritual men, but I had to talk to you as to those who had not yet got beyond merely human things, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food. But now not even yet can you digest solid food, because you are still under the sway of human passions. Where there is envy and strife among you, are you not under the sway of human passions and is not your behaviour on a purely human level? For when anyone says, "I belong to Paul," and, "I belong to Apollos," are you not acting like merely human creatures? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are only servants through whom you believed, and what success each of them had was the gift of God. It was I who planted; it was Apollos who watered; but it was God who made the seed grow. So that neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything; but God who made the seed grow is everything. He who plants and he who waters are in the same category. Each will receive his own reward according to his own labour. We are fellow-workers and we both belong to God; you are God's husbandry; you are God's building.

Paul has just been talking about the difference between the man who is spiritual (pneumatikos, G4152) , and who therefore can understand spiritual truths, and the man who is psuchikos ( G5591) , whose interests and aims do not go beyond physical life and who is therefore unable to grasp spiritual truth. He now accuses the Corinthians of being still at the physical stage. But he uses two new words to describe them.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1 he calls them sarkinoi ( G4560) . This word comes from sarx ( G4561) which means flesh and is so common in Paul. Now all Greek adjectives ending in -inos mean made of something or other. So Paul begins by saying that the Corinthians are made of flesh. That was not in itself a rebuke; a man just because he is a man is made of flesh, but he must not stay that way. The trouble was that the Corinthians were not only sarkinoi ( G4560) they were sarkikoi ( G4550) , which means not only made of flesh but dominated by the flesh. To Paul the flesh is much more than merely a physical thing. It means human nature apart from God, that part of man both mental and physical which provides a bridgehead for sin. So the fault that Paul finds with the Corinthians is not that they are made of flesh--all men are--but that they have allowed this lower side of their nature to dominate all their outlook and all their actions.

What is it about their life and conduct that makes Paul level such a rebuke at them? It is their party spirit, their strife and their factions. This is extremely significant because it means that you can tell what a man's relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow men. If he is at variance with his fellow men, if he is a quarrelsome, argumentative, trouble-making creature, he may be a diligent church attender, he may even be a church office-bearer, but he is not a man of God. But if a man is at one with his fellow men, if his relations with them are marked by love and unity and concord then he is on the way to being a man of God.

If a man loves God he will also love his fellow men. it was this truth that Leigh Hunt took from an old eastern tale and enshrined in his poem:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,

And to the presence in the room he said,

"What writest thou?"--The vision rais'd its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answer'd, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"

Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee then,

Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanish'd. The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And show'd the names whom love of God had bless'd,

And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

Paul goes on to show the essential folly of this party spirit with its glorification of human leaders. In a garden one man may plant a seed and another may water it; but neither can claim to have made the seed grow. That belongs to God and to God alone. The man who plants and the man who waters are on one level; neither can claim any precedence over the other; they are but servants working together for the one Master--God. God uses human instruments to bring to men the message of his truth and love; but it is he alone who wakes the hearts of men to new life. As he alone created the heart, so he alone can re-create it.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE BUILDERS ( 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 )

3:10-15 According to the grace of God that was given to me, I laid the foundation like a skilled master-builder, but another builds upon it. Let each see to it how he builds upon it; for no one can lay any other foundation beside that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds upon that foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, straw, stubble, it will become quite clear what each man's work is. The Day will show it because it is going to be revealed by fire, and the fire itself will test what kind of work each man's work is. If the work which any man erected upon that foundation remains he will receive a reward. If the work of any man will be burned up he will lose it all. But he himself will be saved, though it be like one who has passed through fire.

In this passage Paul is surely speaking from personal experience. He was of necessity a foundation layer and was forever on the move. True, he stayed for eighteen months in Corinth ( Acts 18:11) and for three years in Ephesus ( Acts 20:31); but in Thessalonica he can have stayed less than a month, and that was far more typical. There was so much ground waiting to be covered; there were so many men who had never heard the name of Jesus Christ; and, if a fair start was to be made with the evangelization of the world, Paul could only lay the foundations and move on. It was only when he was in prison that his restless spirit could stay in the one place.

Wherever he went, he laid the same foundation. That was the proclamation of the facts about and the offer of Jesus Christ. It was his tremendous function to introduce men to Jesus Christ because it is in him, and in him alone, that a man can find three things.

(a) He finds forgiveness for past sins. He finds himself in a new relationship to God and suddenly discovers that he is his friend and not his enemy. He discovers that God is like Jesus; where once he saw hatred he now sees love, and where once he saw infinite remoteness he now sees tender intimacy.

(b) He finds strength for the present. Through the presence and help of Jesus he finds courage to cope with life, for he is now no longer an isolated unit fighting a lonely battle with an adverse universe. He lives a life in which nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord. He walks life's ways and fights its battles with Christ.

(c) He finds hope for the future. He no longer lives in a world in which he is afraid to look forward but in one where God is in control and working together all things for good. He lives in a world where death is no longer the end, but only the prelude to greater glory. Without the foundation of Christ a man can have none of these things.

But on this foundation of Christ others built. Paul is not here thinking of the building up of wrong things, but the building up of inadequate things. A man may present to his fellow men a version of Christianity which is weak and watered down; a one-sided thing which has stressed some things too much and others too little, and in which things have got out of balance; a warped thing in which even the greatest matters have emerged distorted.

The Day that Paul refers to is the Day when Christ will come again. Then will come the final test. The wrong and the inadequate will be swept away. But, in the mercy of God, even the inadequate builder will be saved, because at least he tried to do something for Christ. At best all our versions of Christianity are inadequate; but we would be saved much inadequacy if we tested them not by our own prejudices and presuppositions, nor by agreement with this or that theologian, but set them in the light of the New Testament and, above all, in the light of the Cross. Longinus the great Greek literary critic, offers his students a test. "When you write anything," he said, "ask yourself how Homer or Demosthenes would have written it; and, still more, ask yourself how Homer and Demosthenes would have listened to it." When we speak for Christ we must speak as if Christ was listening--as indeed he is. A test like that will rescue us from many a mistake.

WISDOM AND FOOLISHNESS ( 1 Corinthians 3:16-22 )

3:16-22 Do you not know that you are God's temple, and that the Spirit of God has his dwelling place in you? If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him; for the temple of God is holy and you are that temple.

Let no one deceive you. If any one among you thinks he is wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, for it stands written, "He who clutches the wise in their cunning craftiness"; and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of their hearts are vain." So then, let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are your;, but you are Christ's and Christ is God's.

To Paul the Church was the very temple of God because it was the society in which the Spirit of God dwelt. As Origen later said, "We are most of all God's temple when we prepare ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit." But, if men introduce dissension and division into the fellowship of the Church, they destroy the temple of God in a double sense.

(a) They make it impossible for the Spirit to operate. Immediately bitterness enters a church, love goes from it. The truth can neither be spoken nor heard rightly in that atmosphere. "Where love is, God is," but, where hatred and strife are, God stands at the door and knocks and receives no entry. The very badge of the Church is love for the brethren. He who destroys that love destroys the Church and thereby destroys the temple of God.

(b) They split up the Church and reduce it to a series of disconnected ruins. No building can stand firm and four-square if sections of it are removed. The Church's greatest weakness is still its divisions. They too destroy it.

Paul goes on once again to pin down the root cause of this dissension and consequent destruction of the Church. It is the worship of intellectual, worldly wisdom. He shows the condemnation of that wisdom by two Old Testament quotations-- Job 5:13 and Psalms 94:11. It is by this very worldly wisdom that the Corinthians assess the worth of different teachers and leaders. It is this pride in the human mind which makes them evaluate and criticize the way in which the message is delivered, the correctness of the rhetoric, the weight of the oratory, the subtleties of the arguments, rather than think only of the content of the message itself The trouble about this intellectual pride is that it is always two things.

(a) It is always disputatious. It cannot keep silent and admire; it must talk and criticize. It cannot bear to have its opinions contradicted; it must prove that it and it alone is right. It is never humble enough to learn; it must always be laying down the law.

(b) Intellectual pride is characteristically exclusive. Its tendency is to look down on others rather than to sit down beside them. Its outlook is that all who do not agree with it are wrong. Long ago Cromwell wrote to the Scots, "I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken." That is precisely what intellectual pride cannot think. It tends to cut men off from each other rather than to unite them.

Paul urges the man who would be wise to become a fool. This is simply a vivid way of urging him to be humble enough to learn. No one can teach a man who thinks that he knows it all already. Plato said, "He is the wisest man who knows himself to be very ill-equipped for the study of wisdom." Quintilian said of certain students, "They would doubtless have become excellent scholars if they had not been so fully persuaded of their own scholarship." The old proverb laid it down, "He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool; avoid him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not is a wise man; teach him." The only way to become wise is to realize that we are fools; the only way to knowledge is to confess our ignorance.

In 1 Corinthians 3:22, as so often happens in his letters, the march of Paul's prose suddenly takes wings and becomes a lyric of passion and poetry. The Corinthians are doing what is to Paul an inexplicable thing. They are seeking to give themselves over into the hands of some man. Paul tells them that, in point of fact, it is not they who belong to him but he who belongs to them. This identification with some party is the acceptance of slavery by those who should be kings. In fact they are masters of all things, because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. The man who gives his strength and his heart to some little splinter of a party has surrendered everything to a petty thing, when he could have entered into possession of a fellowship and a love as wide as the universe. He has confined into narrow limits a life which should be limitless in its outlook.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.