1 Corinthians 3 – Carnal Christians and Godly Ministers
A. Carnality in the Corinthian church.
1. (1) Paul confronts their condition.
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.
a. And I, brethren: These people are part of the family of God (he calls them brethren), and that is the problem. Though they have the Holy Spirit (unlike the natural man of 1 Corinthians 2:14), they are not behaving like spiritual people, but like carnal – that is, fleshly -people, like immature Christians (babes in Christ).
i. There is a significant debate as to if there can be such a thing as a carnal Christian. Some say it is a contradiction in terms; that Paul really says that these carnal ones are not Christians at all. Yet he clearly calls them brethren, and says they are babes in Christ. How could these terms be used of someone who is not a Christian?
ii. These Christians, to some extent, are thinking and acting according to the flesh, not the Spirit. Of course, the flesh does not dominate every aspect of their life, or they would then have no evidence of being born again. But Paul is addressing issues where they clearly are thinking and acting in a carnal – that is, in a fleshly – manner.
iii. “The carnal Christian is a child of God, born again and on his way to heaven, but he is traveling third class.” (Redpath) Romans 7 is a portrait of the carnal Christian; indwelt by the Spirit, but mastered by the flesh.
b. Could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal: There is a difference between being fleshy (sarkinos, used in 2 Corinthians 3:3) and being fleshly (the Greek word sarkikos, used here in this passage).
i. Fleshy is simply “made of flesh”; it can speak of the weakness that is common to every fallen human.
ii. Fleshly, when used of a person means, “characterized by the flesh.” It speaks of the one who can and should do differently but does not. Paul says that the Corinthians were sarkikos.
c. Spiritual… carnal: Paul speaks about three categories of men. There is the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14), who is patterned after Adam and rejects the things of the Spirit; there is the spiritual man (1 Corinthians 2:15), who knows the things of God; and there is the carnal man who knows the things of God, yet in some significant ways is still characterized by the flesh. Which one are you?
2. (2) How Paul treated carnal believers.
I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able.
a. I fed you with milk: Paul kept his teaching on the basics, even though they had an inflated view of their spirituality. They believed they were ready for the “deeper things,” but were not living any deeper in the basic things he already preached to them.
b. With milk and not with solid food: The difference between milk and solid food is one of degrees, not kind. Every doctrine that can be taught in seminary can be taught to children, though not in the same words.
i. There are not two gospels, one for the learned and one for the unlearned; there is no part of the gospel that we are authorized to keep back from the people.
c. You were not able to receive it: It wasn’t that God prevented them from receiving the solid food Paul gave. The real problem was the Corinthian attraction to spiritual “junk food,” based on man’s wisdom and eloquence. They were so “filled” with this junk food that they were not able to receive the spiritual solid food Paul wanted to give them.
i. Some “spiritual junk food Christians” are greatly blessed when they get a spiritual meal of solid food, but others, when presented with solid food are not able to receive it, because their spiritual “taste buds” are so conditioned to junk food, that is all they have a taste for.
3. (3-4) Evidence of their carnality.
For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
a. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal: The Corinthian Christians thought of themselves as spiritual, but their divisions show that they are in fact fleshly.
i. The problems they had in human relationships showed there was something wrong in their relationship with God. It was evidence of carnality, of a fleshly way of thinking and living.
ii. Divisions, envy and strife among Christians are not the only signs of fleshiness, but they are the ones most evident among the Corinthians.
b. Are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? Paul did not say that they were mere men (that is, not saved), only that they were behaving like mere men. Christians have a higher call than living like the rest of humanity.
i. “Spiritual people are to walk in the Spirit. If they do otherwise, they are “worldly” and are called upon to desist. Remaining worldly is not one of the options.” (Fee)
c. When one says, “I am of Paul,” … are you not carnal? We might think Paul would be more kind to his own “fan club.” Instead of letting their praise stroke his flesh, Paul denounced even his own partisans.
B. How to regard leaders in the church.
1. (5-7) The foolishness of exalting church leaders.
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.
a. Who then is Paul? Paul and Apollos are not the ones you believed on for salvation; they only brought Jesus to you. They are through whom you believed, not on whom you believed.
i. “So what was the use of fighting which of two nothings was the greater?” (Maclaren)
b. I planted, Apollos watered: Christian workers have different jobs and see different results, but God is the one who gets the work done. Only God… gives the increase.
i. When a farmer plants a seed, and waters it, he really does not make it grow. The miracle of life does that. All the farmer can do is provide the right environment for growth, and trust in the miracle of life. We do the same thing in ministering Jesus to other people.
ii. Some people are frustrated because they want to water when God has called them to plant, or they want to plant when God has called them to water. Others are frustrated because they want to make the increase happen, when only God can do that. Real fruitfulness in ministry happens when we are peacefully content with what God has called us to do.
c. I planted, Apollos watered: Planted and watered are in the ancient Greek aorist tense, marking definite acts in the past. Gives the increase is in the imperfect tense, marking the continued work of God.
2. (8-9) Christian workers work together, but are rewarded according to their own labor.
Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.
a. He who plants and he who waters are one: In combating the Corinthian desire to divide among leaders, Paul reminds them they are all on the same team.
i. How silly to say, “Planting is what is really important. Those waterers are really missing the boat.” Or to think, “Watering is where it’s at. Those planters better get their priorities straight.” The fact is planters and waterers are both necessary, both need each other, and both are working towards the same goal.
b. Each one will receive his own reward: All work together, but each is rewarded individually. Reward is not given according to gifts, talents, or even success, but according to their own labor.
i. God knows how to reward properly. On earth, many ministers either receive too much or too little reward.
ii. “The faithful, laborious minister or missionary who labours in obscurity and without apparent fruit, will meet a reward far beyond that of those who, with less self-denial and effort, are made the instruments of great results.” (Hodge)
iii. Young preachers used to ask G. Campbell Morgan the secret to his preaching success. He would answer: “I always say to them the same thing: work; hard work; and again, work!”
c. We are God’s fellow workers: God gives us the amazing opportunity to work with Him. We cannot work without Him, and He will not work without us (generally speaking). God wants you as His working partner.
i. When you consider all the ways God could have done His work, it is even more amazing to know He wants our participation.
d. You are God’s field, you are God’s building: The work Paul did with God was to work “on” God’s people. They were his “field” (using the picture of a farmer planting and watering), and they were his “building” (using the picture of a builder).
3. (10-15) The church as a building.
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
a. According to the grace of God: In describing Paul’s work among the Corinthians, he begins with a declaration of grace. He knew that his status as a worker in God’s field, or on God’s building, was based on God’s undeserved favor, not on his own deserving or merit.
i. It is an exalted thing to be a fellow worker with God. But God doesn’t choose exalted people to do His work. It isn’t anything in them that makes them worthy to be His worker, it is according to the grace of God.
b. I have laid the foundation: When Paul founded the church in Corinth (Acts 18), he set the only foundation that can be laid – the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet he knew that others would come after him and build on the foundation he set.
i. So, let each one take heed how he builds on it. There is only one foundation for the church. If it isn’t founded on Jesus Christ, it isn’t a church at all. So one can’t build on any other foundation; but one can build unworthily on the one foundation.
c. Each one’s work will become clear: God will test the building work of all His fellow workers, so each one’s work will become clear. Some build with precious things like gold, silver, precious stones; others build with unworthy materials like wood, hay, and straw.
i. By using the figures of gold, silver, and precious stones, Paul seems to have in mind the building materials used in the construction of the temple (1 Chronicles 22:14, 22:16, and 29:2). The “building” is what God builds in His people with the help of His fellow workers.
ii. Precious stones doesn’t mean jewels, but fine stone materials like marble and granite. Mixing the wisdom of men with the wisdom of God in the work of building the church is like using alternate layers of straw and marble in building. Straw may be fine, it may have a place (in the barn), but it is an inadequate building material. In the same way, human wisdom and fleshly attractions may have a place in life, but not in the building of the church.
d. The fire will test each one’s work: When God tests our work, it will be revealed what kind of work it was. Just as fire will destroy wood, hay, and straw, but not gold, silver, and precious stones; so the work of some will be revealed as nothing on that Day.
i. Notice that the amount of the work isn’t going to be evaluated (though it does have some relevance). Paul says the work will be tested to see what sort it is. If one did a lot of the wrong sort of work, it will be as if he did nothing. His work will be burned and will vanish in eternity. Moody wisely said that converts ought to be weighed as well as counted.
ii. Paul also referred to this great testing in 2 Corinthians 5:10: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. When our work is tested before the Lord, we will be rewarded according to what remains.
iii. It is a sobering thought: many, many people who believe they are serving God, but are doing it in an unworthy manner or with unworthy “materials” will come to find in eternity that they have, in reality, done nothing for the Lord. Some will be saved, but with a life that was wasted, and receive no crown to give to Jesus, for His glory (as in Revelation 4:10-11). He himself will be saved, yet so as through the fire shows that some will be saved, but barely saved, and saved with everything gone.
e. If anyone’s work: The fire does not purify the worker, it tests their workmanship. Roman Catholics use this passage to teach purgatory, the idea that when we die, we go to a place where we are purified by fire before we go to heaven. The idea of purgatory has nothing to do with this passage, and nothing to do with any other passage in the Bible. Purgatory is strictly a human invention, and denies the finished work of Jesus for the believer.
i. This passage has first application to Christian leaders, because this is Paul’s topic in context, but the application extends to all servants of God.
4. (16-17) The church as a temple.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
a. You are the temple of God: Paul will later (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) speak as individual Christians being temples. Here his emphasis is on the church as a whole (though it has application to individuals).
i. When Paul calls the church a temple, don’t think he is using a picture. The physical temple was the picture; God’s dwelling in us is the reality.
b. You are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you: What makes the church a temple? The Spirit of God dwells in you. The ancient Greek word used for temple (naos) refers to the actual sanctuary, the place of the deity’s dwelling, in contrast to the broader word hieron, which was the temple area in general.
c. If anyone defiles the temple of God: If you defile the church, God will destroy you. God’s temple – His church – is holy, and it matters to God how we treat His holy temple.
C. How to glorify God.
1. (18-20) Glorify Him by pursuing real wisdom.
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; and again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
a. If anyone among you seems to be wise: Paul is being a little sarcastic here. Of course the Corinthians considered themselves wise in this age! That was one of their problems, their love of worldly wisdom.
b. Let him become a fool that he may become wise: What is one to do if they are wise in this age? If they are wise according to a human measure of wisdom? They are to become a fool that he may become wise.
i. Paul asks them to renounce all worldly wisdom, all humanism (man-centered philosophy), even if it means being called a fool. If one is not willing to be considered a fool by those who value only human wisdom, they will never be able to truly become wise.
c. The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise: God has evaluated the wisdom of this world, and He considers it foolishness, craftiness, and futile. Will we agree with God’s evaluation or not?
2. (21-23) Glorify God by seeing His servants in the right perspective.
Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come; all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
a. Let no one glory in men: How prone we are to glory in men! We are more excited about being with the influential and famous of this world than about being with God. We value the gifts and honors of men more than the gifts and honors God gives. How we need to hear, let no one glory in men!
b. For all things are yours: To say I am of Paul or I am of Apollos is to have a view that is too narrow, too constricted. Both Paul and Apollos belong to you; the whole universe is yours in Christ.
i. Why, even death is “ours”; it is our servant, not our master! Death may be to us as the angel who touched Peter in Acts 12, causing his chains to fall off, and leading him through a gate that opens by itself, into real freedom.
c. All are yours: This is Christian liberty. And you are Christ’s: This is Christian responsibility.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission