Confronting Spiritual Immaturity (vv. 1-9)
Paul has been focused on wisdom since 1:17 because that was one of the primary worldly idols of the Corinthian church. He has explained that:
-God didn’t send him to them with human wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1:17, 2:1)
-The world could not come to know God through its wisdom, but rather through the gospel message and the revelation of truth through the Holy Spirit. (1:21, 2:4, 2:10)
-The wisdom of God and the power of God are found in the cross of Christ (1:24)
-Only those with the Spirit of God can understand the wisdom of God (2:14)
Now, in chapter 3, Paul responds to what we assume was their complaint to him regarding the fact that he didn’t come to them in wisdom by explaining that the reason he couldn’t come to them with the full wisdom of God was because they weren’t ready for it. He goes so far as to say they are mere infants in Christ so he had to give them milk rather than solid food, and the fact was that they still weren’t ready for solid food. The proof was their worldliness. Not only were they seeking worldly wisdom, but they also showed their worldliness by their jealousy, their quarreling (v.3), and the fact that they were following men rather than God (v. 4). Here in chapter 3 Paul instructs them to stop this quarreling and focus their minds on glorifying Christ through unity.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Paul explains that they had abandoned the gospel in order to go after something that looked like solid food (worldly wisdom) but had no nutritional value. Although he wanted them to grow in their knowledge, his concern here wasn’t that they progress into deeper teaching, but rather that they would abandon their present childish behavior. He wanted to help them see that the problem wasn’t with the message, but with the recipients who had put themselves in a position so as not to be able to hear and understand what was being said to them. Their behavior stemmed from a merely human and thoroughly self-centered point-of-view. What was intolerable to Paul was for them to have received the Holy Spirit and to continue to live as if they were still in the flesh.
The church at Corinth was divided in large part because of their lack of spiritual maturity, which resulted in selfishness. Whenever you see division in a church, it’s always spiritual babies. As cute as babies are, we all know that they are the most selfish human beings in the world. When they want something, they want it now. If they don’t get what they want they fuss and throw tantrums. Worldliness manifests itself in selfishness, and selfishness is the mother of division. These believers sounded like babies or toddlers didn’t they? “I follow Paul.” “Well, I follow Apollos.” “Oh yeah? Well I follow Peter.” Paul wanted them to see how ridiculous this was, so he zeroed in on himself and Apollos and explained that, like everyone else in the church, they were simply fellow servants of the Master.
Paul explains in verse 5 that both he and Apollos were servants of God, so there was no need for anyone to claim them as their preferred leader. As servants they each played their role and Paul wanted to challenge the church with the idea that they shouldn’t be following servants, rather they should be following the Master. In making this point, Paul stresses both the unity and diversity of the body of Christ. We all have different roles, but we are all working toward the same goal. He wanted them to remember that they were all fellow workers (v. 9), both the members of the church and their leaders, so everything should flow from their unity in following and serving Christ, for they were all workers in His field, all builders of His building. As we’ve talked about before, if we will all get busy serving within the church and sharing our faith, we won’t have time to cause trouble within the body because we’ll be too busy contributing to its health. This is what Paul wanted among this young church.
Beware Leaders! (vv. 10-17)
Paul moves on from talking about spiritual maturity in the first section to a warning for the leaders of the church in verses 10-17. He explains that he came and built the foundation of the church by proclaiming the gospel, but now they were in danger of destroying it by building onto it with corruptible materials such as human wisdom.
1 Corinthians 3:10-17
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
Here Paul is calling out the leaders and the teachers of the church. He warns them in verse 10 to be careful how they build so as to ensure that there is no foundation other than Christ. It’s important for us to note here that in this metaphor, the church, not the individual, is the building. The gold, metal, and costly stones represent what is compatible with the foundation and the wood, hay, and straw represent perishable things (such as worldly wisdom) that will not last.
Paul warns the church leaders and teachers that whatever they build will be tested and revealed through God’s judgment. If what they build “survives” God’s judgment they will be rewarded, but if their work is shown to be corruptible then they will suffer loss. Paul doesn’t explain exactly what suffering loss will look like, but he is quick to point out that it does not mean the loss of salvation (v. 15).
Let me stop here for a minute and talk about God’s judgment and how this works. There are several judgments in Scripture. There is the judgment of Israel in Ezekiel 20. There is the judgment of self in 1 Corinthians 11:31 which tells us that if we judge ourselves and make corrections we will not have to face as much discipline from God. Matthew 25 talks about the judgment of the nations. There is, of course, the judgment of sin, which took place on the cross of Christ. There will be the judgment of Satan and his demons as discussed in Jude 6. There will be the judgment of the unsaved at the Great White Throne judgment which is explained in Revelation 20. And there is the judgment of the believer’s works, which Paul mentions here. So how does this judgment of the believer’s works play out?
This judgment is what is referred to as the Judgment Seat of Christ and this is only for believers. This Judgment Seat of Christ is discussed in Romans 14 and 2 Corinthians 5 and the point of this judgment is that at this time, every Christian’s work will be tested. Romans 14:12 explains that, “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” This might go against some of your thoughts about what heaven will be like when we get there, but this is what the Bible teaches.
We are not going to stand before St. Peter at the pearly gates. Often you hear people talking about standing before St. Peter and him standing there with some kind of checklist to see whether or not you made the cut. Scripture says nothing in that regard. There is no future judgment to see whether you get in or not. Your faith in Jesus Christ (or lack thereof) has already sealed that decision. According to Philippians 3:20 if you have given your life to Christ you are already a citizen of heaven. If you have not given Him your life, your current future is not a question mark, it is an eternity separated from God in Hell; HOWEVER you have the ability to change that by submitting to Christ.
There are others who think that Christians will face a judgment in heaven where the sins they committed after becoming a Christian will be punished. If that were true, we’d spend all of eternity having that take place. We know that this is not true because all of our sin was payed for on the cross. When Jesus died for your sins, they were all future at that time. He died for every sin you ever have or ever will commit. You will not be judged for your sin if you have placed your faith in Christ.
So what is the Judgment Seat of Christ? It is simply a place of rewards. There will be no condemnation. Look at the next chapter, 1 Cor. 4:5
“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”
Do you see what it says at the end of verse 5? “Each will receive his praise from God.” There won’t be anyone condemned. There won’t be anyone shipped from heaven to hell. There won’t be anyone who has to be punished – Jesus took ALL of our punishment. There will only be praise, but there will be varying degrees of praise based on your works. When 2 Corinthians 5 speaks of the Judgment Seat of Christ, it’s not referring to a court-like setting, the picture is more like that of an Olympics reward ceremony where the winners of the different events go up to the podium and received their rewards – gold, silver, or bronze – based on how they did. Every believer will receive rewards, but some will receive more than others. Paul’s point in this illustration was that the church didn’t need to elevate one man over another, rather they needed to work together to build God’s building and they needed to be sure that they were building in such a way that God would be pleased.
So we see in all of this that the church and the teaching of a church are incredibly important to God. Paul continues to spell this out in verses 16-17 as he warns those who were contributing to the disunity of the church at Corinth saying, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” This is an incredibly serious warning from Paul about the importance of the church. We must remember that Scripture refers to the church with terms such as the body of Christ and the bride of Christ. Jesus promised that the gates of Hell would never overcome His church (Matt. 16:18). The church is God’s plan for the salvation of the world, and there is no other plan. We, His followers, must be about the work of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the Word, and loving people into the kingdom of God or it will not happen.
Unity in Christ (vv. 18-23)
In the final section of chapter 3 (verses 18-23) Paul concludes his thoughts on wisdom by teaching the church one last time to turn away from the foolish wisdom of the world and unite together in the true wisdom of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:18-23
Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”[a]; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”[b] 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas[c] or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Paul begins this section urging his audience not to deceive, or fool, themselves. He tells them that if they are judging their wisdom by the wisdom of this age, they should change their mindset and become a fool in the eyes of the world by taking on God’s wisdom. In verse 19 he reverses the statements he made in 1:18-25 by saying that while God’s wisdom was foolishness to those who are perishing, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. And so he concludes the argument he’s been building since chapter 1 by stating, “So then, no more boasting about men!” (v. 21) Paul wanted them to stop boasting in themselves because they clearly weren’t wise or spiritually mature. He wanted them to stop boasting in mere men such as Paul, Apollos, or Peter. And he wanted them to stop boasting in the wisdom of the world, because it was all foolishness in God’s sight.
He wanted them to understand their riches in Christ and focus on His kingdom, so he explained that “all things are yours… [because] you are of Christ and Christ is of God.” (v. 21-22) Paul’s point was that in the end it all comes back to God. It’s not about them as church members, it’s not about Paul or Apollos, it’s certainly not about the temporary things of this world, it’s all about God, so the purpose of our lives must be to bring Him glory. The members of the Corinthian church were glorying in men, and that was wrong. They were comparing men (1 Cor. 4:6) and dividing the church by worldly deeds. Had they been seeking to glorify God instead, there would have been harmony in the church.
Paul points out that each believer possesses all things in Christ. What he means is that each one of God’s servants belongs to each believer. No member of the church should say, “I belong to Paul!” or “I like Peter!” because each servant belongs to each member equally. We must not permit our personal preferences to become divisive within the body.
Paul says, “All are yours” – the world, life, death, things present, things to come! Do you realize how rich we are in Christ? If believers understand that all things belong to all believers, then there would never be competition and rivalry within the body of Christ! “Get your eyes off of men!” Paul admonished. “Keep your eyes on Christ, and work with Him in building the church!”
Paul closes by reminding the church that they belonged to Christ – this balances things. “All things are yours” is Christian liberty. “You are Christ’s” is Christian responsibility. We need both liberty and responsibility if we are to build a church that will not crumble when the waves hit.
Laying Down Our Crowns
I want to encourage you this morning to remember, as Paul reminded the church at Corinth, that a day of rewards is coming. We don’t know when that day will come, but Scripture teaches often that it is imminent. When that day comes, what kind of rewards do you hope for? What kind of rewards would your life currently bring?
I believe that the purpose of the rewards we receive will be to lay them down as a sacrifice of praise to Jesus. The more rewards you earn, the more praise you will get to offer King Jesus. Look quickly at Revelation chapter 4. This is what it reads in verses 4-11:
Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things,and by your will they were created and have their being.”
In this passage we see 24 elders. There’s a lot of debate about who they represent. I believe they represent the church because it says that they have a victor’s crown. Not a royal crown, but a victor’s crown. These are men who have won a battle, and are wearing white, which is the clothing of the redeemed. And verses 10-11 say, “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.”
I believe this is a picture of the church casting its crowns at the feet of Christ.
And I want to encourage you to remember that one of the reasons that we want to win some crowns is to show the Lord we love Him. We want to prove our love of Him through our faithful service.
But another reason is that we may cast them at His feet in praise and adoration. That’s the desire of my heart – to lay down a vast treasure before the Lord in praise and thanksgiving of His love for me and His salvation of my soul.
May this be the aim of our lives.