Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 3

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) And I.—Again, as in 1 Corinthians 2:6, the Apostle shows how general principles which he has just explained were exemplified in his own conduct. In the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 2:0 St. Paul has enunciated the general method of teaching spiritual truth as being dependent upon the receptive powers of those who are being taught. He now proceeds to point out to them that their own character, as being wanting in spirituality, was the real hindrance to his teaching them the higher spiritual truth which may be called “the wisdom” of the gospel.

As unto carnal.—Better, as being carnal. Our version may seem to imply that the Apostle spoke to them as if they were carnal, though they really were not so; but the force of the passage is that they were indeed carnal, and that the Apostle taught them not as if they were such, but as being such. “Carnal” is here the opposite of “spiritual,” and does not involve any reference to what we would commonly speak of as carnal sin.

Babes in Christ.—This is the opposite of the “full grown” in 1 Corinthians 2:6, to whom the “wisdom” could be taught. (See also Colossians 1:28, “full grown in Christ.”) It may be an interesting indication of the “manliness” of St. Paul’s character and his high estimate of it in others, that he constantly uses the words “babe” and “childhood” in a depreciatory sense. (See Romans 2:20, Galatians 4:3, Ephesians 4:14.)

Verse 2

(2) Milk . . . meat.—The use of the word “infant” naturally suggests these two images for the higher wisdom and for the simpler truths of the gospel respectively.

Hitherto ye were not able.—Better, for ye were not yet able. Up to this point the Apostle has been speaking of the condition in which he found the Corinthians when he came first to Corinth, and he proceeds from this to rebuke them for continuing in this condition. He does not blame them for having been “babes” at the outset, but he does in the following passage blame them for not having yet grown up out of infancy.

Verses 2-3

(2, 3) Neither yet now are ye able, for ye are yet carnal.—Better, but not even now are ye able, for ye are still carnal. It is for this absence of growth—for their continuing up to this time in the same condition—that the Apostle reproaches them; and he shows that the fault which they find with him for not having given them more advanced teaching really lies at their own door.

Verse 3

(3) For whereas.—Better, For since there is.

As men.—Better, after the manner of mani.e., after a merely human and not after a spiritually enlightened manner. In Romans 3:5, Galatians 1:2, also Romans 15:5, the opposite condition is expressed by the same Greek particle used with our Lord’s name, “according to Jesus Christ.”

Verse 4

(4) One saith, I am of Paul.—These and the following words explain exactly what the Apostle means by their being “carnal,” and walking after a merely human manner. Only two of the factions—those of Paul and of Apollos—are mentioned as types of the rest. The factious spirit was in each and all the “parties” the same, but the particular difference between the teaching of the higher wisdom and the simpler truths of the gospel was best illustrated by these two.

The selection for rebuke of those who called them selves by the Apostle’s own name was, no doubt, intended by him to show that it was no matter of personal jealousy on his part. He specially condemns those who magnified his name. It is for his Master alone that he is jealous.

Are ye not carnal?—Better, are ye not only men? carrying on the idea expressed in 1 Corinthians 3:3.

Verse 5

(5) The Apostle now proceeds to explain (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) what is the true position and work of Christian ministers. He asserts that all alike—both those who teach the simpler truths, and those who build up upon that primary knowledge—are only instruments in God’s hand; and in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (replying to those who sneered at and despised his simple teaching as compared to the higher instruction of Apollos) he points out that though all are only instruments used by God, yet that if there be any difference of honour or utility in the various kinds of work for which God so uses His ministers, the greater work is the planting the seed, or the laying the foundation. There can be only one foundation—it is alike necessary and unvarying—many others may build upon it, with varied material and with different results.

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos.—Better, What then is Apollos? what is Paul? and to these abrupt and startling questions the answer is, “Merely those whom Christ used, according as He gave to each his own peculiar powers as the means of your conversion.” (Such is the force of the word “believed” here as in Romans 13:11). It is therefore absurd that you should exalt them into heads of parties. They are only instruments—each used as the great Master thought best.

Verse 6

(6) I have planted, Apollos watered.—By an image borrowed from the processes of agriculture the Apostle explains the relation in which his teaching stood to that of Apollos—and how all the results were from God. This indication of St. Paul having been the founder, and Apollos the subsequent instructor, of the Corinthian Church, is in complete harmony with what we read of the early history of that Church in Acts 18:27; Acts 19:1. After St. Paul had been at Corinth (Acts 18:1), Apollos, who had been taught by Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus, came there and “helped them much which had already believed.”

Verse 7

(7) Any thingi.e., “anything worth mentioning” (1 Corinthians 10:19; Galatians 2:6; Galatians 6:3).

Verse 8

(8) Are one.—The planter and the waterer are one in that they are both working in the same cause. “But,” says the Apostle (not “and,” as in our version), “each man shall receive his own reward from God, not from man, according to his labour.” There is an individuality as well as a unity in the work of the ministry. This is, however, not a thing to be noticed by men, but it will be recognised by the great Master.

Verse 9

(9) Thrice in this verse the Apostle repeats the name of God with emphasis, to explain and to impress the assertion of the previous verse, that men are to recognise the unity, and God alone the diversity, in the ministerial work and office. “We are GOD’S fellow-labourers; you are GOD’S field—GOD’S house.” The image is thus suddenly altered from agriculture to architecture, as the latter can be more amplified, and will better illustrate the great variety of work of which the Apostle proceeds subsequently to speak. This sudden change of metaphor is a characteristic of St. Paul’s style; a similar instance is to be found in 2 Corinthians 10:4-8, where the illustration given from architecture is used instead of the military metaphor which is employed in the earlier verses of that passage. See also 1 Corinthians 9:7, and Ephesians 3:17, and Colossians 2:6-7, where there is the introduction of three distinct images in rapid succession in so many sentences. It has been suggested that possibly the use of the word “field,” in the Greek “Georgion,” was the cause of the Christian name “George” becoming so popular in the Church.

Verse 10

(10) According to the grace of God.—The Apostle being about to speak of himself as “a wise masterbuilder,” takes care by commencing his statement with these words to show that he is not indulging in self-laudation, but merely pointing out what God had given him the grace to do. (See Romans 1:5; Romans 12:3.)

Wisei.e., skilful or judicious.

Another buildeth thereon.—The sequence of the work here is the same as in the planting and watering of the previous illustration. The use of the indefinite word “another” avoids what might be considered the invidiously frequent repetition of the name of Apollos, and also indicates that there were others also who came after Paul, as is evident from 1 Corinthians 4:15. (See Romans 15:20.)

But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.—Better, But let each one see in what manner he buildeth thereon. The argument in this and the following verse is that there can be only one foundation in the spiritual building—namely, the personal Jesus Christ. That foundation the Apostle has laid. None can alter it or add to it as a foundation; but there may be an immense variety in the materials with which those who come after the laying of the foundation may build up the superstructure. Therefore their own work and “how” they build (i.e., with what materials), and not the one foundation once for all and unalterably laid, should be the subject of their thought and care.

Verse 12

(12) Now if any man . . .—Better, But if any man.

Precious stones.—Not gems, but grand and costly stones, such as marble. “Hay,” dried grass used to fill up chinks in the walls. “Stubble,” stalks with the ears of corn cut off, and used for making a roof of thatch.

Many ingenious attempts have been made to apply the imagery of this passage in detail to various doctrines or Christian virtues, but it seems best to regard it as broadly and in outline bringing before the reader the two great ideas of permanent and ephemeral work, and the striking contrast between them. The truth brought forward is primarily, if not exclusively, for teachers. The image is taken from what would have met the eye of a traveller in Ephesus where St. Paul now was, or in Corinth where his letter was to be first read. It is such a contrast as may be seen (though not in precisely the same striking form of difference) in London in our own day. The stately palaces of marble and of granite, with roof and column glittering with gold and silver decorations, and close by these the wretched hovels of the poor and outcast, the walls made of laths of wood, with the interstices stuffed with straw, and a thatched roof above. Then arose before the Apostle’s vision the thought of a city being visited by a mighty conflagration, such as desolated Corinth itself in the time of Mummius. The mean structures of perishable wood and straw would be utterly consumed, while, as was actually the case in Corinth, the mighty palaces and temples would stand after the fire had exhausted itself. Thus, says St. Paul, it will be with the work of Christian teachers when the “day of the Lord is revealed in fire.” The fire of that day will prove and test the quality of each work.

Verse 13

(13) Revealed by fire.—Better, revealed in fire. For the general scope of this passage, see 1 Corinthians 3:12 above. The day of the coming of the Lord is always thus represented as bursting suddenly with a rush of light and blaze of fire upon the earth. (See Malachi 3:1-3; Malachi 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:8.)

Verse 14

(14) This is the general application to Christian teachers of what has gone before. Those who have built well shall have their reward in their work having survived the trial of the fire; those who have built otherwise shall lose everything—their work, which should have remained as their reward, will perish in the fire—and they themselves will be as men who only make good their escape by rushing through a conflagration, leaving all that was theirs to be destroyed. (See Mark 9:49.)

Verse 15

(15) So as.—These words remind us that the whole passage, and especially the reference to fire, is to be regarded as metaphorical, and not to be understood in a literal and physical sense. Forgetting this, Roman divines have evolved from these words the doctrine of purgatory.

Verse 16

(16) The temple of God.—From the thought of grand edifices in general the Apostle goes on to the particular case of a building which is not only splendid but “holy”—the temple of God—thus reminding the reader that the rich and valuable metals and stones spoken of previously are to represent spiritual attainments. He introduces the passage with the words “Do ye not know,” implying that their conduct was such as could only be pursued by those who were either ignorant or forgetful of the truth of which he now reminds them.

Verse 17

(17) If any man defile.—Better, If any man destroy—the opposite of “building up,” which should be the work of the Christian teacher; the architectural image being still in view.

Which temple ye are.—Literally, the which are ye, “which” referring rather to holy than to the temple; the argument being that as they are “holy” by the indwelling of God’s Spirit, therefore they are the temple of God. As God commanded the punishment of death to be inflicted on whoever defiled the actual Temple (see Exodus 28:43; Leviticus 16:2), because it was holy unto the Lord, and His presence dwelt there; so they, having the same Spirit in them, were a temple also holy unto the Lord, and God would not leave him unpunished who destroyed or marred this spiritual temple.

Verse 18

(18) Passing from the difference between the work of one teacher and that of another, which has occupied him since 1 Corinthians 3:5, the Apostle now returns to the subject from which he branched off there (the magnifying of one teacher above another), and proceeds to show (1 Corinthians 3:18-21) that merely human wisdom is in itself worthless for spiritual purposes, and, therefore, that the possession of it alone is no reason for the exaltation of the teacher who is endowed with it. For the full meaning of the “wisdom” which the Apostle speaks of here, see 1 Corinthians 1:20.

Let him become a fooli.e., in the sight of the world, in order that he may become “wise” in the sight of God.

Verse 19

(19) With God.—Better, in the sight of God (Romans 2:13).

For it is written.—By two passages, one from Job, and the other from the Psalms, St. Paul proves the truth of his previous assertion regarding God’s estimate of mere “worldly wisdom.” It may be noticed that with the exception of the reference in James 5:11 to the “proverbial patience” of Job, of which the writer says “ye have heard” (not read), this is the only allusion to the book of Job or to Job in the New Testament.

Verse 21

(21) Therefore.—Not because of what has been mentioned, but introducing what he is about to mention. Let party-spirit cease. Do not degrade yourselves by calling yourselves after the names of any man, for everything is yours—then teachers only exist for you. The enthusiasm of the Apostle, as he speaks of the privileges of Christians, leads him on beyond the bare assertion necessary to the logical conclusion of the argument, and enlarging the idea he dwells, in a few brief and impressive utterances, on the limitless possessions—in life and in death, in the present life and that which is future—which belong to those who are united with Christ. But they must remember that all this is theirs because they “are Christ’s.” They are possessors because possessed by Him. “His service is their perfect freedom” as the Collect in the English Prayer Book puts it, or, more strikingly, as it occurs in the Latin version, “Whom to serve, is to reign.”

Verse 23

(23) And Christ is God’s.—Probably these words were added, not only as being the great climax of the gradual ascent up which the Apostle’s thoughts and language have gone in the whole passage, but as avoiding any danger of the party who called themselves by the name of Christ, arrogating anything to themselves from the previous words, “Ye are Christ’s,” if the passage had concluded with them. Christ is God’s as being Mediator (as John 14:28; John 17:3.) There was no danger, in that early age of the Church, of these words being misunderstood (as some have endeavoured to misunderstand them since) as in the least implying a want of absolute identity between the Son, in regard of His Divine Nature, and the Father.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.