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Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New TestamentMahan's Commentary

1 Corinthians 3

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Verses 1-9

God gave the increase

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

In chapter 3 Paul returns to the subject of divisions and problems in the church, which was the occasion for this epistle.

1 Corinthians 3:1 . Quite frankly, Paul is saying to the Corinthian brethren (he softens the harshness of his rebuke by calling them ‘brethren’), ‘I have not been able to talk to you as I would talk to mature, spiritual men and women because you are indicating by your attitude and behavior that you are mere infants in the faith. More than that, you are acting like natural, worldly people. You behave as non-spiritual men of flesh in whom the carnal nature predominates.’ Sometimes the term ‘babes in Christ’ is taken in a good sense (1 Peter 2:2; Luke 18:17). Here it is not good, for it refers to the understanding and the attitude (1 Corinthians 14:20).

1 Corinthians 3:2 . Paul refers more to the manner and form of his teaching than to the substance of the doctrine, for Christ is both milk to babes and strong meat to those of full age. But there is a growth in grace and in the knowledge of Christ which was hindered by their attitude and carnality. The wise teacher begins with the first principles of Christ and moves higher in the mysteries and wisdom of Christ as the hearer is able to follow (Mark 4:33; John 16:12). The gospel of Christ contains everything necessary to be known. Spiritual growth enables a person to drink deeper, comprehend more of the riches of Christ and mature in faith and conduct. We don't have one message for young believers and another for elders. The elders are able to see and understand more of the riches in Christ because of their maturity. This was the Corinthian problem growth impeded by carnality and childishness.

1 Corinthians 3:3 . To prove that the carnal nature prevailed in them and that they were not spiritually mature believers, Paul calls attention to their ‘envy, strife and divisions.’ These are fruits of the flesh and, where they prevail, it is evident that the partakers are not spiritual but carnal! (Galatians 5:22.) ‘You are behaving like unregenerate men.’ From envy comes strife, and strife leads to open divisions and factions.

1 Corinthians 3:4 . Paul specifies the particular form of division. One group was a fan club for Paul and set him up as their master above all others. Others said, ‘We prefer Apollos; we don't care for Paul.’ Some preferred Peter (1 Corinthians 1:12), while others rejected all ministers and claimed only to be followers of Christ. ‘Is not this a demonstration of carnality and flesh?’

1 Corinthians 3:5 . ‘Who is Paul? Who is Apollos? What are they? They are only ministering servants of the Lord Jesus through whom you heard the gospel.’ They are not masters, nor party heads, nor lords. They are only instruments in the hands of the Master to feed his flock (Matthew 23:8-12). The pastors are to be respected, heeded and followed as they follow Christ, but they are not to be sources of contention, nor are they to lord it over God's heritage (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-5).

1 Corinthians 3:6 . If the earth is to bring forth fruit, there is need of ploughing, planting and watering. But after all this is done, our labour would be in vain unless the Lord from heaven gives the increase by giving life through the sun and by his secret influence. In like manner, the word of God is the seed. His faithful servants plough, plant and water, but life is the miracle of divine grace! He who has received the seed has need of watering until full maturity is reached. Apollos, then, who succeeded Paul in the ministry of Corinth, is said to have watered what Paul had sown.

1 Corinthians 3:7 . ‘So neither is he who plants anything special, nor he who waters, but only God, who makes it live, grow and become greater.’ Ministers of the word are laborers together with God, ministers of Christ and stewards of the grace of God, and are to be loved, respected and heard. But they are nothing in themselves! They have nothing except what they have received. All their gifts are from God. Nothing is to be ascribed to them directly, but all glory is to our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31).

1 Corinthians 3:8 . The planter and the waterer are one. They preach one gospel. Their views, aims and end (which are the glory of God and the good of the church) are one! They have the same love and affections for one another, so there is no reason for the church to be divided over them. ‘Every man will receive his own reward according to his labour.’ While the servants' labors are different, their goal is the same not to catch the applause and approval of the world, but to please and glorify the Lord. This is not a reward of debt (for our labors are by no means meritorious) but to hear him say, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’

1 Corinthians 3:9 . This sums up what has gone before and is the best argument of all, ‘We are all fellow-laborers, fellow-workmen and joint-promoters with and for God. It is the Lord's work in which we are employed, and it is to him we devote ourselves and our service. You are God's garden, field and vineyard under cultivation; you are God's building. We ministers are but his laborers’ (Isaiah 60:21).

Verses 10-23

Ministers of the gospel exhorted

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

It is quite obvious that most of what is written in these verses is directed to, or talking about, those who minister the gospel.

1 Corinthians 3:10 . Paul attributes his gifts, his usefulness and his success as a laborer and builder in the church to ‘the grace of God’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). Ministers are instruments God makes use of, and they labour in vain unless the Lord builds the house (Psalms 127:1). Paul calls himself ‘a wise masterbuilder’ in respect to the foolish false teachers and because he was the chief apostle to the Gentiles. ‘The foundation’ he laid is Christ (his person and work), and he warns those ministers who follow him to be careful how they carry on the work of building on this foundation.

1 Corinthians 3:11 . This statement consists of two parts. First, Christ is the only foundation of the church. Second, this Corinthian church had been rightly founded upon Christ through Paul's preaching (1 Corinthians 1:23-24; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Christ alone is our righteousness, redemption, sanctification, wisdom and satisfaction for life and glory (Ephesians 2:19-21). Any other foundation is sand and will perish (Isaiah 28:16).

1 Corinthians 3:12 . Paul and the apostles have laid the foundation, which is Christ. Those ministers who follow (preaching the gospel of his grace, the valuable truths of the gospel which agree with the foundation) are said to build lasting and permanent fruits, such as gold, silver and precious stones. The fruit of their ministry will stand the test of time and the fires of judgment. Other ministers' works are compared to wood, hay and stubble, which can survive neither time nor fire. It is doubtful that Paul refers to heretical doctrine, denial of Christ, or another gospel which would overturn the foundation, but these ministers, while professing Christ, preach empty, useless and trifling things, such as philosophy, intellectualism, form, ceremony and traditions. Without any bad design, through education, ambition or ignorance, these elements may find their way into a man's ministry and produce bad results.

1 Corinthians 3:13. The doctrine a man preaches and the fruits of his ministry will sooner or later be made manifest to himself and to his hearers, who shall dearly see the deformity of the building and the false hope created by these fleshly efforts. Certainly the Day of Judgment will reveal the false and the true, but some believe that Paul is saying that in this world, before the great day of the Lord, true hope and true union with Christ, as opposed to false profession, will be revealed. By ‘fire’ is meant, not the destruction of the world and all evil, but the fire of trial, affliction and testing, which is for a revelation of true faith (James 1:2-3). If a man is a true minister of the gospel, before the end of his life, he and his hearers will know whether what they have built on Christ, the foundation, is lasting, precious material or wood, hay and stubble.

1 Corinthians 3:14. If a minister's work and doctrine will bear the test of the word, the test of time and the test of trial and affliction. It will shine all the brighter for being tried and he will receive the reward of personal joy, the gratitude of those to whom he ministered and the praise of Christ, who will say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’

1 Corinthians 3:15. If a minister's labour and work crumble about him and prove to be false professions and useless human religion, he will suffer the loss of all labour, efforts and praise which he received from man. He will see the folly of whatever drew him into the way of preaching. But he, himself, shall be saved (notwithstanding all the imperfections of his ministry) upon the foundation of Christ. He will be like a man burned out of house and home; he escapes with his own life but loses all about him.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17. The church is ‘the temple of God.’ God dwells in them and with them. ‘If any man by the wisdom of the world (through philosophy, vain deceit, bringing in false doctrines and heresies) corrupt their minds from the simplicity of Christ, and make divisions among them, him shall God destroy, body and soul, in hell.’ God's church is holy, or sacred to him. He will not hold him guiltless who defiles it with error.

1 Corinthians 3:18-20. Here Paul puts his finger on the true sore! The whole mischief originated in this preachers and people were wise in their own conceit. Carnal and worldly wisdom must be discarded as dull and foolish. For a man to be wise in a spiritual sense, he must be convinced of his own sinfulness, folly and inability, and must embrace the gospel of Christ, which is foolishness to this world and despised by men. He must deny his worldly wisdom and his righteous self and wholly rest and rely on Christ (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

1 Corinthians 3:21-23. The apostle goes back to the beginning of this theme (1 Corinthians 3:3-4). 'Let no man glory in ministers, who (even the best of them), are but men. All ministers and all they are endowed with are for your benefit and advantage and for God's glory. All things are for your good and your eternal salvation (Romans 8:28-31). All that God does in and with this world is for your sake. Life, death, things present and things to come are designed to make you like Christ, because you are Christ's and he is God's Beloved, Anointed and Heir, in whom God has vested all things.'

Bibliographical Information
Mahan, Henry. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3". Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. 2013.