Chapter three provides our first look at the spiritual level of these believers. In chapter one Paul said that they were divided rather than united, but 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 finally reveals why. For Paul, all people can be classified into three spiritual states. First are the “unregenerate,” those who have not believed in Christ for salvation. Their lives are driven by their sinful natures. Second are the “carnal” or “fleshly,” those who have believed in Christ for salvation (truly saved) but are still driven by their sinful natures, like the unregenerate. Paul also refers to these as “infants in Christ.” A bystander may not be able to tell the difference between an unregenerate person and a carnal Christian. 1 Third are the “spiritual,” those who have believed in Christ for salvation and are driven by the Holy Spirit. Continuing the infant analogy, Paul said that they had been saved long enough to be able to handle “solid food” (probably “the deep things of God” in 1 Corinthians 2:10), but instead they were still dependent on “milk.”
These people were so wrapped up in individual accomplishments and recognition that they had turned the church of God into personality cults behind the apostles (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Could they not see that Paul and Apollos and the others were simply servants carrying out God’s work? One of the greatest principles any church leader or member must hold to is that, no matter who “planted” or “watered…God caused it to grow.” Those who faithfully carry out the planting and watering will receive rewards based on their work, but no one can grow the church of God except God himself. 2 We simply have the privilege of working alongside him.
Quickly changing analogies, Paul shifted from a field to a building (1 Corinthians 3:9-15). 3 Now he was a builder, laying the foundation for the Corinthians upon which they could build their lives and church. Paul reminded them that nothing is worth building if not built on Jesus; he is the only solid foundation (see Psalm 127:1 and Matthew 7:24-27 for similar concepts). However, it is left to each Christian how he or she will build on that foundation. Some will build with high quality materials (“gold, silver, precious stones”) while others will use low quality materials (“wood, hay, or straw”). These materials are the works that we accomplish in this life. 4 On “the Day” (the Judgment Seat of Christ, 2 Corinthians 5:10) those works will be tested by God’s judgment fire. Those buildings that survive the judgment will bring reward; those that do not survive will reveal only loss. However, Paul was quick to add that reward was the only loss, never salvation itself.
Because of the coming judgment of our works and lives, Paul closed this chapter with a warning (1 Corinthians 3:16-23). We must be mindful that God’s Holy Spirit indwells us, so we should manage our lives well. We must intentionally trade in worldly wisdom, which is not wisdom at all, for godly wisdom which will benefit us eternally. We must give up our silly factions and temporal desires, remembering that we can inherit all things with Christ, if we would remain faithful to him, as he remained faithful to God.
- This is one of the most devastating passages for proponents of Lordship Salvation, who teach that a Christian cannot live extended periods of time in sin. Whereas they would question the person’s salvation, Paul questioned only their maturity, while still acknowledging they were truly “in Christ.” While a Christian should not live like this, it is biblically wrong to say that he or she cannot live like this. ↩
- Jesus plainly declared, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). ↩
- Much has been written about Paul’s liberal use of mixed metaphors throughout his writing. One has to pay attention or risk getting lost as he tended to jump from one illustration to another with no warning, as shown in 1 Corinthians 3:9. ↩
- Paul’s word selection in 2 Corinthians 5:10 when referring to the same judgment shows that he meant the quality of our works, probably based on our hearts and motives, not just the quantity. ↩