An older brother, a minister, once suggested to me that I should write about one portion of this chapter. He didn’t tell me what I should write, but appeared to have confidence that I would be able to cut through the misinterpretations of the apostle Paul’s words that are often repeated in our day and make plain what he was really saying.
Twenty years have passed, the brother no longer walks this earth. But that suggestion and the confidence implicit in it have continued to echo in the recesses of my mind. Today it is time to sit down and make it happen. I will discuss the whole chapter because I don’t believe we can understand any one part of it if we do not understand the whole.
1 Corinthians 3:1 ¶ And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
The brethren at Corinth did not have confidence in one another, or in the church. They had been converted, yet they were still set in the pagan pattern of following a teacher, rather than being followers of Christ. For this reason Paul told them they were still babies, at the very beginning of the life of faith, still feeding on only the simplest spiritual nourishment.
5 ¶ Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?
6 I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth;but God that giveth the increase.
8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.
9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.
10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.
Paul is telling the Corinthians that the new spiritual life they have found came from God, he and Apollos are only servants. He begins with the metaphor of a vine that they have planted and watered, but the life in the vine came from God, not Paul or Apollos. Then he switches to the metaphor of a building, saying that all together they are one building. The foundation has been laid and many are building upon it, but they must be careful how they build.
11 ¶ For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
The only possible foundation for the building of God, the church, is Jesus Christ. As there is only one foundation, there is only one building. The verses that follow are not meant to be understood in an individualistic way. They speak of the materials used to build the church, some are precious metals and stones that come from God and cannot burn. But ministers, parents, all of us really, will sometimes use our own reasoning to try and build the church, but these materials tend to weaken the structure, rather than strengthen it.
Yet there is grace for those who are building upon the true foundation, even if some if their efforts will not stand the test of fire. Paul is not saying that our personal salvation is at risk when in ignorance we use inferior materials, his words should lead us to sanctification, to let burn what will burn so that we may continue to build with the materials that are durable.
16 ¶ Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
English-speaking readers of today find these verses difficult to understand. Our language has dropped the singular pronouns thee and thou, and even the plural pronoun ye, replacing all three with the plural you. Those pronouns had a purpose and we need to understand them to grasp what is being said in passages such as this.
When Paul uses the plural pronouns ye and you in these verses he is addressing the church as a whole, all members. But the temple of God is singular. He does not say “thou art the temple of God,” or “ye are the temples of God.” He is saying that altogether we are part of one temple, or church. This distinction is not something created by stuffy old translators 400 years ago, this is exactly the way Paul wrote in Greek.
Other passages that speak of the church as a single building or temple are found in 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:5-7 and Revelation 3:15.
There is one passage which says something a little different: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19 ). Some people want to take this verse as the key to understanding all the others just cited. But that is to make those verses contradict what they so clearly state. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is to read it in the light of the passage from 1 Peter which speaks of living stones. The temple of God is not built with stones that have no life in them. Just as in the case of Solomon’s temple, they must be prepared to fit before they are added to the temple.
When we interpret 1 Corinthians 3:16 as referring to each believer as an individual temple then it is easy to interpret verse 17 to refer to things that defile our own body, such as smoking, drug use, and immorality. Those are serious concerns, and they are addressed in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20). But this verse goes deeper than that.
Think of Achan in Joshua chapter 7. Achan took things that he knew he should not have and hid them in his tent, thinking that what others didn’t know could not harm him. But his action defiled the whole company of God’s people and God did not help them fight against their enemy, leading to much loss of life. When Achan’s sin was punished, then God once more gave the people victory over their enemies.
We are tempted to think as Achan did: “Nobody sees or knows what goes on in my private world. What harm can it do? ” It does great harm, not just to me but to all the church, even if no one knows the source of that harm. A living stone in the wall of God’s temple who permits himself such defilement causes the whole temple to be defiled. That stone no longer has the life of God within and must be removed and cast aside.
The difference between such a person and Achan is that in the gospel era there is opportunity for the defiled stone to have the fire of the Holy Spirit rekindled within and then be returned to a place in the wall of the temple.
18 ¶ Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.
20 And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.
The wisdom of this world tells us that once a person has given his heart to God it is impossible for him to once again be lost. We have an enemy who delights in feeding us that kind of wisdom because it hinders us from hearing God’s call to repent and re-consecrate our lives to Him. It is better to think of ourselves as fools and ask God to direct us in the way that will safely bring us to our eternal home in heaven.
21 ¶ Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours;
22 Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours;
23 And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.
God has given servants to the church to preach the gospel, to teach and to guide His people. Let us honour and respect such men; but we must not glorify them or compare them with one another. Each one has gifts to help in building the walls of Zion. Those gifts are given to help us and to glorify Jesus Christ and God.