1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
The first of those problems is divisions in the church, which Paul began discussing in 1:10-17. In the intervening chapter and a half (1:18 – 2:16), Paul talked about the inclination of the Corinthian Christians to place too high a value on human wisdom—and to advance Christ as the true wisdom of God.
Now in chapter three he once again focuses on the divisions in the Corinthian church. Those divisions were personified by some Corinthian Christians saying, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” (3:4; see also 1:12). Paul addressed that issue in verses 1-9, closing by saying, “For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building” (3:9). Our text picks up at that point.
1 CORINTHIANS 3:10-11. I LAID A FOUNDATION, AND ANOTHER BUILDS ON IT
10According to the grace (Greek: charis) of God which was given to me, as a wise (sophos) master builder (architekton) I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
“According to the grace (charis) of God which was given to me“ (v. 10a). As Paul addresses the problems in the Corinthian church, he regularly brings the focus back where it belongs—to God. That is what he does here. He is going to talk about himself as a master builder, but first he makes it clear that any skills that he might possess are “according to the grace (charis) of God which was given to me.”
The word charis (grace) is important in Paul’s writings, appearing over and over again. It conveys the idea of a gift given by a patron. In this instance, God is the patron, the one giving the gift—and Paul is the one who has received the gift. The gift, as we will see in a moment, is master-builder skills—not for brick and stone buildings, but for the building of the church—the people of God.
By acknowledging that his skills are a gift of God, Paul makes it clear that he deserves no credit for being a master builder. He has not achieved his skills by the rule of “practice makes perfect,” but has received them as a blessing from God. The glory, then, belongs to God, not Paul. Paul’s only choice is whether to be faithful or unfaithful to the gifts that he has been given—to the calling to which he has been called.
“as a wise (sophos) master builder (architekton) I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it“ (v. 10b). Paul introduced the metaphor of a building in verse 9 when he told the Corinthian Christians that they were God’s building. Now he continues that metaphor by indicating that he is a skilled (sophos) master builder.
The word sophos is usually translated wise, as in this epistle (1:19, 20, 25, 26, etc.). Paul’s God-given sophos (wisdom) stands in contrast to the world’s sophos. What appears to the world as wisdom is really foolishness. God has decided to save the world by the cross of Christ, which the world regards as foolishness (1:24)—but “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25).
When Paul uses the word sophos with the master builder metaphor, the image of a wise, experienced builder comes to mind—the kind of person who has experienced all sorts of problems and has learned from them—the kind of person who has earned a reputation for quality and integrity—the kind of person you would want to build your house—or your church—or your life.
The word architekton (master builder) is where we get our English word architect. It combines arch (ruler) and tekton (worker or builder).
“I laid a foundation.” Paul laid the foundation of the Corinthian church while serving as its founding pastor for eighteen months. The “another“ who served the church after Paul left for Ephesus was Apollos, “an eloquent man, came to Ephesus. He was mighty in the Scriptures”—a man who “and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24-25). During his ministry in Achaia (Corinth), Apollos “greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he powerfully refuted the Jews, publicly showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27-28).
However, Apollos is not in Corinth at present. Paul has recently urged Apollos to return to Corinth but Apollos has been unwilling to do so (16:12). We don’t know who is currently building on the foundation that Paul has laid. It could be Cephas (Peter) (1:12). In any event, it is inevitable that every Christian worker will finally leave or become infirmed or die, so there must be a succession. Someone—we know not who—is continuing the work that Paul began in Corinth.
“But let each man be careful how he builds on it“ (v. 10c). When Paul arrived in Corinth, there was no church there. He cultivated the people, founded a church, and fed them with the milk of the Gospel, because they were not yet ready for solid spiritual food (3:2).
When Apollos began to minister in Corinth, he faced a very different situation. Paul had already founded the church and had begun discipleship training. Therefore, the challenges facing Apollos—and the decisions he would be required to make—were quite different from those that Paul had faced. Also, Apollos was a different person from Paul—a person whose natural charisma and oratorical skills gave his ministry a flavor very different from that of Paul. Those kinds of differences are natural—the sort of change that can be expected in any ministerial transition. The same was surely true of the transition between Apollos and whoever followed him at Corinth.
“be careful“ But, with freedom comes responsibility. Paul and Apollos and whoever followed Apollos in Corinth were free to allow their ministries to reflect their own personalities and gifts. They were free to make decisions as new problems and opportunities surfaced. However, they are not free to be irresponsible. They are not free to depart from the Gospel that they have been given. Their decisions will have consequences in the lives of those to whom they minister. They can expect that God will hold them accountable for their faithfulness or unfaithfulness.
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ“ (v. 11). Paul now directs the spotlight onto the foundation “that has been laid”—Jesus Christ. It was God that established Jesus Christ as the foundation for all believers, and it was Paul who laid that foundation in Corinth.
The Corinthians, however, have been tempted to build on an altogether different foundation—human wisdom (sophos). Paul has already stated that human wisdom and eloquence run the danger of emptying the cross of its power (1:17)—and that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise” (1:19)—and that human wisdom is foolishness, but the foolishness of the cross is true wisdom (1:18-31). Human wisdom is a foundation of sand, which cannot stand the test of time. Jesus Christ is the rock foundation who will prove true through eternity.
1 CORINTHIANS 3:12-15. ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ONE’S FOUNDATIONS
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. Paul talks about the different materials that a person could use to build a foundation—”gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble” (3:12), and says that in the Day of the Lord the work of each builder will be tested by fire. The builder whose work survives will be rewarded, but the builder whose work is burned up will suffer.
That does not mean that God intends to reward pastors with large churches and to penalize pastors with small churches. God will not judge Christian workers for their results, but only for their faithfulness. It is God, after all, who is responsible for giving growth (3:6-7). The individual worker is responsible only for planting and watering.
1 CORINTHIANS 3:16-17. YOU ARE THE TEMPLE OF GOD
16Don’t you know that you are a temple (Greek: naos) of God, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (humin) 17If anyone destroys (phtheirei) the temple of God, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy (hagios), which you (humeis) are.
“Don’t you know that you are a temple of God (naos), and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (humeis—”you” plural) (v. 16). Paul draws on the image of the Jerusalem temple when he tells the Corinthian Christians that they are God’s temple (naos). There is another Greek word for temple, heiron, that encompasses the whole of the temple facility (which would include the Court of the Gentiles), but the word naos points to the inner sanctuary, the dwelling place of God.
Is it the church or individual Christians who are God’s temple? Scholars tend to agree that, in this verse, Paul is saying that the church is the temple of God. The primary justification for this interpretation is that “you” in this verse is consistently plural, while “temple” is singular.
Scholars also tend to agree that, in 6:19 where Paul uses similar language, he is talking about the individual as the temple of God. We should note that “you” in that verse is also consistently plural and “temple” is singular, so there is no difference between 3:16 and 6:19 in that regard. However, in chapter 6, Paul is saying that Christians should not consort with prostitutes, because Christians have become members of Christ and should not “take the members of Christ, and make them members of a prostitute” (6:15). He goes on to say, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you” (6:19). Even though “you” and “your” are plural in 6:19, the context makes it clear that Paul is saying that individual Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Given that there is no difference between 3:16 and 6:19 with regard to the plural “you” and singular “temple,” the argument that it is the church that is the temple of God in 3:16 loses a good deal of its force. Nevertheless, we are not faced not with an either/or situation here, but a both/and situation. Both the church and individual Christians are the temple of God. God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit—indwells both.
“If anyone destroys (phtheirei) the temple of God, God will destroy him“ (v. 17a). If scholars are correct that verse 16 is talking about the church as the temple of God, the person who destroys the church is in mortal danger.
The word phtheiro is often translated “corrupt” or “defile,” so Paul is saying that anyone who corrupts the church—defiles it—destroys it—can expect that God will destroy him/her. This is the kind of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” rough justice that would be inappropriate for Christians to implement. However, it is not inappropriate for God to implement it. We are to defer to God’s judgment which, in most cases, will be gracious and merciful. However, corrupting or destroying the church is such a grievous sin that the sinner can expect severe punishment.
“for God’s temple is holy (hagios), which you (humeis–you plural) are“ (v. 17b). The Greek word, hagios, speaks of holiness, which means being set apart for a holy purpose. This understanding of holiness has its roots in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew word is qadosh. The sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service.
To become holy, a person must separate him/herself from that which is common. To be holy is to be “called out” from the sinful world into a deep and abiding relationship with God so that the person becomes more God-like—more holy—less like the sinful world-at-large.
In this verse, Paul tells us that the church—in particular the Corinthian church—is holy, set apart for a Godly purpose.
1 CORINTHIANS 3:18-20. BECOME A FOOL SO THAT YOU MAY BECOME WISE
18Let no one deceive himself. If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He has taken the wise in their craftiness.” 20And again, “The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless.”
“Let no one deceive himself“ (v. 18a). This little sentence makes it clear that Paul believes that these Corinthian Christians have been doing (or are in serious danger of doing) what he tells them not to do. They must be careful not to deceive themselves—to believe what is false in favor or that which is true.
It would be easy to overlook this little sentence, because Paul is dealing in this passage with matters that seem much more serious—the Corinthians’ emphasis on human wisdom and the divisions in the Corinthian church—but we need to take a moment to examine what Paul is saying here.
Beliefs have consequences, because people tend to act on their beliefs. If people believe something that isn’t true, they will tend to behave in a way that will ultimately backfire and cause them pain. As one example, the person who believes that he/she “deserves” something expensive—a new car or boat or kitchen—will be sorely tempted to buy that item even if it means going into debt that he/she cannot afford. That sort of decision, based on a false premise, can lead to financial disaster. As another example, a man who believes that it is all right for a man to beat his wife if she fails to meet his standards will probably beat his wife. False beliefs lead to foolish or sinful actions.
“If anyone thinks that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise“ (v. 18b). When Paul tells the Corinthian Christians not to deceive themselves, he is trying to help them to avoid basing their lives on human wisdom, which will, at some point, fail them and fail them badly. He is counseling them to become fools—to become conscious of their own lack of understanding—so that they can become open to receiving the wisdom that god has to offer them.
“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God“ (v. 19a). This is a thought that Paul repeats over and over again in this letter. If we stop and consider it, we will know that Paul is right. I can just imagine God watching people, many of whom act very foolishly, and all of whom have foolish moments. God must weep when he sees some of the foolish things that we do.
Or consider the modern sophos—science. The scientific method is the height of worldly wisdom. It involves data, experiments, hypotheses, and testing, and has opened the door to medical miracles, space travel, and more. But even our scientific sophos has real limitations. What I learned in my high school physics class fifty years ago is hopelessly out of date today—and what students learn today will be hopelessly out of date fifty years from now. That isn’t to say that the scientific method is bad, but that it can never do more than scratch the surface of God’s magnificent creation.
“For it is written, ‘He has taken the wise in their craftiness‘“ (v. 19b). Paul cites two verses from the Hebrew scriptures to give authority to his argument about “the wisdom of this world.” The first is from Job 5:13, which says that God “takes (Hebrew: loked—traps) the wise in their own craftiness” and brings their plans to an end.
“And again, ‘The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that it is worthless‘“ (v. 20). Paul’s second scripture citation is from Psalm 94:11, which says, “Yahweh knows the thoughts of man, that they are futile” (Hebrew: habel—vanity, meaningless). That psalm tells of the judgment that God will bring to pass on “the proud” (v. 2)—”the wicked” (v. 3)—those who “pour out arrogant words” (v. 4)—and those who say, “Yahweh will not see” (v. 7).
1 CORINTHIANS 3:21-23. LET NO ONE BOAST ABOUT HUMAN LEADERS
21Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, 23and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
“Therefore let no one boast in men” (v. 21a). This hearkens back to the fact that Corinthian Christians were saying, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas” (1:12)—words reflecting deep divisions in the Corinthian church.
“For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas” (vv. 21b-22a). It is foolish for them to say “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas” when they already have access to Paul AND Apollos AND Cephas. They have everything in their possession, and are foolish to reject the rest of their spiritual inheritance.
“or the world (kosmos), or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours“ (v. 22b). Paul mentions five things here—four of which are among the list of threats that Christ has conquered (Romans 8:38). The Romans 8 text doesn’t mention the world (kosmos).
• While most of us would love to possess the world (kosmos), the New Testament often presents the kosmos as an entity opposed to God. However, “For God so loved the kosmos, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life”(John 3:16)—so it is the transformed kosmos rather than the natural kosmos that is worthy of possession. It is that transformed kosmos that the Christian has inherited.
• While we cherish life, we fear death. But the Christian has reason to believe that Christ’s resurrection has broken death’s back—and that the dead will be resurrected to new life (chapter 15). Therefore, death is no longer something to fear.
• We understand that the present is ours, but Paul says that the future is ours as well. In doing so, he points to the victory that will be ours at the final judgment.
“and you are Christ’s“ (v. 23a). Given the problems in the Corinthian church, it almost seems as if Paul is stretching a point by telling Corinthian Christians that they belong to Christ. However, Christ has come as a physician to heal those who are sick, not those who are well (Matthew 9:12), so these Corinthian Christians can be certain that the work of the Great Physician applies to them.
Paul’s assertion that they belong to Christ is a veiled call to a new way of living. Their bickering and pride are not appropriate for Christians. Christ has begun the work of making them into a new people. Now it is time for them to begin acting like Christ’s people.
“and Christ is God’s“ (v. 23b). This is the final piece of the puzzle. The Corinthian Christians belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God—so the Corinthian Christians also belong to God.
Given that Christ is God in human form, it might seem odd that Paul would state that “Christ is God’s”—as if Christ were a subordinate figure. However, we have similar language in two other places in this letter. In chapter 11, Paul says, “the head of Christ is God” (11:3), and in chapter 15, he says, “the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all” (15:28).
Perhaps the best way of understanding this is to look at what Paul has to say about the incarnation in his epistle to the Philippians. There, he talks about Christ Jesus, who had been in the form of God, emptying himself to be born in human likeness and to die on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). However, the cross was not the end of the story. “Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan