Immaturity and Self-deception, 1-23

3:1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 3:2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3:3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? 3:4 For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human?

Spiritual…worldly – we should not suppose that Paul is dividing Christians into to distinct categories – the spiritual and the worldly. The Corinthians, however, with their partisan celebrity cults, were acting like wordly (better: carnal, fleshly) people, rather than as spiritually mature people.

Infants in Christ – ‘Are you mourning, believer, because you are so weak in the divine life: because your faith is so little, your love so feeble? Cheer up, for you have cause for gratitude. Remember that in some things you are equal to the greatest and most full grown Christian. You are as much bought with blood as he is. You are as much an adopted child of God as any other believer. An infant is as truly a child of its parents as is the full grown man. You are as completely justified, for your justification is not a thing of degrees: your little faith has made you clean every whit. You have as much right to the precious things of the covenant as the most advanced believers, for your right to covenant mercies lies not in your growth, but in the covenant itself; and your faith in Jesus is not the measure, but the token of your inheritance in him. You are as rich as the richest, if not in enjoyment, yet in real possession. The smallest star that gleams is set in heaven; the faintest ray of light has affinity with the great orb of day. In the family register of glory the small and the great are written with the same pen. You are as dear to your Father’s heart as the greatest in the family. Jesus is very tender over you. You are like the smoking flax; a rougher spirit would say, “put out that smoking flax, it fills the room with an offensive odour!” but the smoking flax he will not quench. You are like a bruised reed; and any less tender hand than that of the Chief Musician would tread upon you or throw you away, but he will never break the bruised reed. Instead of being downcast by reason of what you are, you should triumph in Christ. Am I but little in Israel? Yet in Christ I am made to sit in heavenly places. Am I poor in faith? Still in Jesus I am heir of all things. Though “less than nothing I can boast, and vanity confess.” yet, if the root of the matter be in me I will rejoice in the Lord, and glory in the God of my salvation.’ (Spurgeon)

I gave you – Paul is representing himself here as a mother, or as a wet nurse.

You are still wordly – (Again, better: ‘carnal’ or fleshly’).

Are you not mere men? – Mere men, following mere men.

‘Greek culture sometimes divinized heroes into gods; some scholars have also claimed that initiates to some mystery cults were said to become gods. Later traditions divinized philosophers, and philosophers often claimed that people could be divinized by virtue, because they considered the soul a divine part within each person. Although some Jewish writers in the Greek world adopted the language of deification, the principle of one God generally kept Jews and Christians from following this concept that far. (Ge 3:5) Here Paul says: If you follow humans, then you are not only not divine; you are not even following the Spirit of God.’ (NT Background Commentary)

3:5 What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us. 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow. 3:7 So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth. 3:8 The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. 3:9 We are coworkers belonging to God. You are God’s field, God’s building.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow – Paul also uses the imagery of the harvest in Rom 1:13 and Gal 6:9.

This sequence – Paul first sowing the seed of the Gospel, then Apollos tending to that seed, is attested in Acts 24:18-19:1.

God’s fellow workers– J.I. Packer writes of the superlative privilege of God opening his heart to us, making friends with us, enlisting us as his colleagues.  We become, in Barth’s phrase, ‘covenant partners’.  ‘It is a staggering thing, but it is true—the relationship in which sinful human beings know God is one in which God, so to speak, takes them onto his staff, to be henceforth his fellow workers (see 1 Cor 3:9) and personal friends. The action of God in taking Joseph from prison to become Pharaoh’s prime minister is a picture of what he does to every Christian: from being Satan’s prisoner, you find yourself transferred to a position of trust in the service of God. At once life is transformed.’ (Knowing God)

You are God’s field – Paul may seem to lurch from an agricultural metaphor (planting and watering a field) to a religious one (building a temple).  But the two images are closer together than we might suppose: Eden, after all, was a garden-temple.

You are…God’s building – with Christ as the builder, Mt 16:18, and cornerstone, Eph 2:19-20.  It is important to note that this entire passage focuses on the people of God as his temple, with Christ himself as the foundation, v11.

3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 3:12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 3:13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 3:14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 3:15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

By the grace – Paul’s work has been carried out with the enabling power of God.

I laid a foundation – this was Paul’s work at Corinth: others built on that foundation.

Builder = ‘architekton‘ – the man who superintended the building work. Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth is as planter, v6, builder, v10, and father, 4:15. Apollos and the others are waterers, after-builders, and tutors.  Paul’s mention of himself as ‘an expert builder’ may be an allusion to the skilled workmen who built the tabernacle, Ex 31:4; 35:31f.

Someone else…each one – Paul is referring specifically to his fellow-builders, such as Apollos.

What is being built here? Perhaps it is best to see it as ‘the Church as the witness of the truth.’ (Lightfoot)

No-one can lay any foundation – lest people imagine that they can lay any foundation they choose. No Christianity is worth the name which does not give Jesus Christ the first and foremost place.

Gold, silver, costly stones – These were all materials that were used in the construction of the temple.

But while it impossible to have any foundation other than Christ, all kinds of materials may go into the construction of the superstructure. Some are worthy of the foundation, whereas others are worthless. But ‘hay’ and ‘straw’ we may understand those teachings and practices which, although not damnable, (cf 2 Pet 2:1) yet do not have God’s truth in them.

‘Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (Jn 5:24). Paul said, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). How can these two statements be fitted together? How do free forgiveness and justification by faith square with judgment according to works?

‘The answer seems to be as follows. First, the gift of justification certainly shields believers from being condemned and banished from God’s presence as sinners. This appears from the vision of judgment in Revelation 20:11–15, where alongside “the books” recording each person’s works “the book of life” is opened, and those whose names are written there are not “thrown into the lake of fire” as the rest are. But, second, the gift of justification does not at all shield believers from being assessed as Christians, and from forfeiting good which others will enjoy if it turns out that as Christians they have been slack, mischievous and destructive. This appears from Paul’s warning to the Corinthians to be careful what lifestyle they build on Christ, the one foundation. “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work shall 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 man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor 3:12–15). Reward and loss signify an enriched or impoverished relationship with God, though in what ways it is beyond our present power to know.’ (Packer, Knowing God)

Three men worked on a large building project. One was asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m mixing mortar,” he said. The second man said, “I’m helping put up this great stone wall.” When the third man was asked, he replied, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God.”

Those three men could just as well have been working on a car, a truck, a house, a road, or any legitimate product or service a man or woman might provide. Most people work to earn a living, attain success, or amass wealth. Such reasons, however, must not be the Christian’s primary motive for working. Like the third man in our story, we need to see that what gives work eternal value is not the product or service of our labor but the process of laboring itself-doing the job faithfully to the glory of the Lord.

(Source unknown)

As we cross the border between two countries, we may be searched, in order to see if we are carrying any forbidden articles.  So, for us all, there will come a day of testing. This is, no doubt, the Day of the Lord; the Day of Judgement, 1 Thess 5:4; Heb 10:25. This will be a day of joy for believers, but will also be a day when their work will be judged. It is likened to a consuming fire. ‘Fire purges out the dross, and leaves behind the pure metal. Here the picture is that of fire sweeping through a building. It consumes the combustible, and leaves what has been well built.’ (Morris)

It ie, the Day, will be revealed with fire – cf. Mal 3:2; 4:1.  These allusions continue the temple analogy that is evident throughout the current passage.

It is ‘the quality’ (not the quantity) of each man’s work which will count.

His reward – ie, his wage. This reward is not salvation, for he already possesses that. We think of the joy of our Master’s approval, of the happiness of seeing in heaven those souls we have helped to sanctify, and of the possession of a glorious position in the new order of things. Cf Lk 19:16-19; Rev 22:12.

He himself will be saved – the distinction is not between the saved and the lost, but between Christians who have built well and those who have built poorly. Lord, may it not be that, having been saved by faith, all my work for you is but hay and straw! Cf Zec 3:2 Jude 1:23.

There was a very wealthy woman who lived in a palatial home, surrounded by fine tapestries, linens, imported china, expensive bric-a-brac, and who indulged in every luxury. She died and went to the gates of Heaven, but to her astonishment there was no fanfare of trumpets when she arrived. An angel was chosen to accompany her to the home that was to be her grandeur and magnificence. finally they came to a street of much less glamor, and way down at the end of it was a very humble little cottage. They turned to enter, and the woman stopped and looked about with tragic disappointment on her countenance. The angel said to her, “This is to be your eternal home.” “Oh but,” she said, “I have been accustomed only to the finest and most expensive. There are many, many beautiful homes which we passed similar to mine on earth. There must be some mistake.” “Ah,” said the angel, “but we built your eternal home here out of the material which you have sent us from earth, and this is the best we could do with what you have sent.”

(Source unknown)

Escaping through flames

Does this verse support the doctrine of Purgatory?

1 Corinthians 3:15 – ‘If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’

Does this verse support the doctrine of purgatory?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.  The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”  From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.  The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

Purgatory, in other words, purifies those who, when they die, are neither good enough for heaven nor bad enough for hell.

The following bases for this doctrine are appealed to:

  • 2 Maccabees 12:44f, where Judas Maccabeus makes provision for the atonement of the dead.
  • The practice of the ancient church of praying for the dead.
  • The present verse (although most Catholics agree that there is no explicit biblical evidence for the doctrine of Purgatory).

Other Bible passages that might be cited as relevant include:

Mt 5:8 – ‘“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’

Mt 12:32 – ‘Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.’

Phil 1:6 – ‘For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.’

Heb 12:14 ‘Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.’

With regard to 1 Cor 3:11-15,

  • The flames here are of judgement, not of purgation;
  • the fire is figurative, like the building;
  • within this imagery, it is not believers who are burned or purged, but their works;
  • the salvation in question is not ‘by’ but ‘through’ the flames.
  • the issue is not purification from sin but loss of reward for service;
  • the purpose of the fire is not to sanctify believers but to test (‘assay’) their works; the fire is a means of valuation, not of purification;
  • only church leaders, such as Paul and Barnabas, are being discussed here; it is not certain that Paul’s words are generally applicable;
  • the fire is lit at Christ’s coming (‘the day’), and does not burn during the intermediate state (i.e., between the believer’s death and that coming.

Sam Storms concludes:

‘There is no biblical warrant for the doctrine of purgatory. In keeping with Philippians 1:19ff. and 2 Corinthians 5:8–10, among other texts,…upon physical death all believers pass immediately into the presence of Christ in heaven, there to enjoy conscious fellowship and joy with him forever.’

(Deciphering Difficult Texts)


‘The Churches of these latter days are full of weak, powerless, and uninfluential believers, saved at last, “but so as by fire,” but never shaking the world, and knowing nothing of an “abundant entrance..” (1 Cor 3:15; 2 Pet 1:11) Despondency and Feeble-mind and Much-afraid, in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” reached the celestial city as really and truly as Valiant-for-the-truth and Greatheart. But they certainly did not reach it with the same comfort, and did not do a tenth part of the same good in the world! I fear there are many like them in these days!’ (J.C. Ryle)

3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 3:17 If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.

On the greatness of the gift of the Holy Spirit:

‘God gives the Spirit; we receive him.  Indeed, the greatest gift the Christian has ever received, ever will or could receive, is the Spirit of God himself.  He enters our human personality and changes us from within.  He fills us with love, joy and peace.  He subdues our passions and transforms our characters into the likeness of Christ.  Today there is no man-made temple in which God dwells.  Instead, his temple is his people.  He inhabits both the individual believers and the Christian community.’ (Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church)

You yourselves are God’s temple (2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21,22; Heb 3:6; 1 Pet 2:5) and…God’s Spirit lives in you – ‘The word rendered “temple” here means, classically, “the dwelling-place of a deity.” In the NT, when applied to the temple of Jerusalem, it denotes the holy of holies – that most sacred part of it where of old the Shekinah, or visible symbol of the Divine presence, was manifested. As applied to believers under the new economy, it means that they are “a habitation of God through the Spirit”.’ (Eph 2:22) (David Brown)

‘When our tongues praise, then the organs in God’s spiritual temple are sounding. How sad is it that God has no more glory from us in this way! Many are full of murmuring and discontent, but seldom bring glory to God, by giving him the praise due to his name.’ (Thomas Watson)

Cf. 1 Cor 6:19

God’s temple – ‘This image was probably widely enough known that Paul’s readers would understand it immediately.’ (NT Background Commentary)

Because the church belongs to God, it is precious and beloved in his sight; he will watch over it jealously.

3:18 Guard against self-deception, each of you. If someone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish so that he can become wise. 3:19 For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. As it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” 3:20 And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 3:21 So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, 3:22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, 3:23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

‘To God’s revealed message men must humbly submit…I believe that this “let him become a fool” is one of the hardest words of Scripture to the proud hearts and minds of men. Like the brilliant intellectuals of ancient Greece our contemporaries have unbounded confidence in the human reason. They want to think their way to God by themselves, and to gain credit for discovering God by their own effort. But God resists such swellings of pride on the part of the finite creature. Of course men have been given minds to use, and they are never to stifle or smother them, but they must humble them reverently before the revelation of God, becoming in Paul’s word “fools” and in Christ’s word “babes.” It is only babe to whom God reveals himself and only fools whom he makes wise.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 90)

“He catches the wise in their craftiness” – Paul’s teaching here harks back to 1 Cor 1:20.  The apostle confirms this with a quotation from Job 5:15 (though not following the LXX translation).  The words are those of Eliphaz which, although often unhelpful to Job and not approved by the Lord (Job 42:7), on this occasion faithfully convey God’s truth.

As Archer observes:

‘many of the general principles the comforters brought up in their dialogue with Job were quite true in themselves, even though they may not have been appropriate to Job’s situation, and may by inference have been grossly unfair to him. But we should remember that Job himself declared to them, “Who does not know such things as these?” (Job 12:3)–i.e., those religious platitudes that they had been preaching to him.’ (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties)

v20 The quotation is from Psa 94:11.

No more boasting about men! – ‘The shameful cult of human personalities which tarnished the life of the first-century Christian church still persists in Christendom, and a most improper and unbecoming regard is paid to some church leaders today…I fear that the whole frame of mind in which some Christian people go to church is wrong.  They do not go to worship God or to hear God’s Word.  They go to hear a man.  So it is not the message to which they listen, but the oratory…They say afterwards how much they enjoyed or did not enjoy it.  But sermons are not intended to be “enjoyed”.  Their purpose is to give profit to the hearers, not pleasure.  Sermons are not artistic creations to be critically evaluated for their form.  They are “tools, and not works of art” [Philips Brooks].  A sermon is never an end in itself, but a means to an end, the end being “saving souls”.  I have no hesitation in saying that people who “congratulate” a preacher on his sermon, and preachers who expect such congratulation from their people, are alike most offensive to God.  Men are called to preach not themselves but Christ Jesus as Saviour and Lord [1 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 4:5].  What matters, therefore, is Christ himself who is proclaimed, and not the men who proclaim him.  To think or act otherwise is not only to usurp God’s glory, but to leopordize the preacher’s whole ministry, bringing it first into discredit and finally to ruin.’ (Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait, p90f)

All things are yours – According to Ciampa and Rosner,

‘the thought fits in with the building analogy of 1 Cor 3:5–15. All the workers belong to the same project. It impoverishes the church to limit itself to one particular expression of the faith, be it in styles of leadership, worship, preaching, evangelism, or music. What belongs to God as the owner and project supervisor belongs to us.’

Death is yours – ‘Is a prince afraid to cross a narrow sea, who shall be crowned when he comes to shore? Death to the saints shall be an usher to bring them into the presence of the King of glory. This thought puts lilies and roses into the ghastly face of death, and makes it look amiable. Death brings us to a crown of glory which fades not away. The day of death is better to a believer than the day of his birth. Death is aditus ad gloriam, an entrance into a blessed eternity. Fear not death, but rather let your hearts revive when you think these rattling wheels of death’s chariot are but to carry you home to an everlasting kingdom.’ (Thomas Watson)

All are yours – Paul’s thought has moved on, by a natural transition, to the general sovereignty of the church as the people of God. It is in Christ, and in the community that is in Christ, that humanity recovers its lost lordship, and because Christ is the Lord over the world, over life and death (through his crucifixion and resurrection), and over both this age and the age to come, that his people are no longer the servants of destiny and corruption, but free lords over all things.’ (Barrett)

One implication of this striking phrase is that there can be no legitimate field of enquiry – whether in science, philosophy, or any other subject – about which the Christian can say, ‘That does not concern me.’ ‘There are,’ accordingly, ‘no uninteresting things; there are only uninterested people.’ (G. K. Chesterton)

You are of Christ – lit. ‘You are Christ’s’.  ‘You are his by donation, for the Father gave you to the Son; his by his bloody purchase, for he counted down the price for your redemption; his by dedication, for you have consecrated yourself to him; his by relation, for you are named by his name, and made one of his brethren and joint heirs. Labour practically to show the world that you are the servant, the friend, the bride of Jesus. When tempted to sin, reply, “I cannot do this great wickedness, for I am Christ’s.” Immortal principles forbid the friend of Christ to sin. When wealth is before you to be won by sin, say that you are Christ’s, and touch it not. Are you exposed to difficulties and dangers? Stand fast in the evil day, remembering that you are Christ’s. Are you placed where others are sitting down idly, doing nothing? Rise to the work with all your powers; and when the sweat stands upon your brow, and you are tempted to loiter, cry, “No, I cannot stop, for I am Christ’s. If I were not purchased by blood, I might be like Issachar, crouching between two burdens; but I am Christ’s, and cannot loiter.” When the siren song of pleasure would tempt you from the path of right, reply, “Thy music cannot charm me; I am Christ’s.” When the cause of God invites thee, give thy goods and thyself away, for thou art Christ’s. Never belie thy profession. Be thou ever one of those whose manners are Christian, whose speech is like the Nazarene, whose conduct and conversation are so redolent of heaven, that all who see you may know that you are the Saviour’s, recognizing in you his features of love and his countenance of holiness. “I am a Roman!” was of old a reason for integrity; far more, then, let it be your argument for holiness, “I am Christ’s!” ‘ (Spurgeon, emphasis added)

As Blomberg puts it: ‘The Corinthians have everything they could legitimately need or want in Jesus. Indeed, Paul turns their slogans upside down. They do not belong to human leaders; those leaders, as servants (v. 5), belong to them, as does everything else in creation, present and future, inasmuch as they are in Christ who shares in all the Father’s sovereignty (cf. Rom. 8:38–39).’

Morris quotes Thrall: ‘Every possible experience in life, and even the experience of death itself, belongs to Christians, in the sense that in the end it will turn out to be for their good.’

Don’t go beyond what is written

Rohr seems to entertain a kind of panentheism: ‘In the chirp of every bird excited about a new morning, in the hard beauty of every sandstone cliff, in the deep satisfaction at every job well done, in the passion of sex, and even in a clerk’s gratuitous smile to a department store customer or in the passivity of the hospital bed, “the world, life or death, the present or the future— all belong to you; [and] you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God,…It is one Trinitarian Flow since the beginning.’  (Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation (Kindle Locations 552-557). SPCK. Kindle Edition.).

This is going well beyond Paul’s meaning here, however, which is, that whereas the Corinthians were focusing on this or that Christian leader (Paul, Apollos, and so on), God in Christ has given them everything they need to resource their Christian lives.