1 Corinthians 3
In looking at 1 Corinthians 1-3 these last three days and skimming more chapters in the book to remember what Paul says to the people of Corinth, we can see over and over again that Paul is showing them God’s great wisdom, strength, and power. At this time in history, Corinth was a gateway for many cultures. Greek influence was strong there and they prided themselves in their philosophy and wisdom. Roman influence was very strong there as it was the time of the great Roman Empire; Corinth was in the middle of the empire, also, they had easy access to Rome via boats. Jewish influence was also strong in Corinth; the Jews from the Holy Land had been venturing beyond the Promised Land, being dispersed by persecution, a search for more religious freedom, and a desire for more wealth and power. Other smaller influences were known in Corinth, but these three were the cultures that most profoundly affected the Corinth at that time.
Paul addresses the people of Corinth, people from the surrounding countries and cultures and others as well. He addresses them about their envy, slander, hate, debauchery, and depravity. Corinth was known so much so for its debauchery that a term was coined, “Corinthianize,” which meant to make one or another so wanton in their morals. Paul was writing to the people to whom he had preached before about Jesus Christ and His salvation. He spoke mainly to the body of Christ, the church in Corinth. As an aside, he was also speaking generally to all others who were watching and knew that what was going on was wrong. He stood strong for God and proclaimed in this letter that this was not the way of God and they were not building upon the foundation Paul had laid before them on his previous visit to Corinth.
If you remember, in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, you read and hear Paul telling them that the wisdom of God came through the foolish things of the world. Even the most intelligent, learned, powerful, and strong were not as wise, powerful, and strong as God’s weakest vessel. God proved this by using the unwise, the weak, and the ignoble to show His wisdom, power, and might. If you read any of the Gospels, you will find that those who considered themselves learned, strong, and powerful were the ones who were most likely not able to believe and follow Jesus. Paul reiterates that here for the Corinthians. He adds a sting though. He tells them that whatever they have cherished and used to build upon the foundation of what he preached to them, the foundation of Jesus Christ being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, would be tested with fire. Each person’s reward from the God would be determined by how well upon the foundation of Christ each person built. Was what the person built on the foundation burned up in the fire of testing? Then the reward from God would not come because they had received their reward on earth, an earthly gratification. Was a person more inclined to seek glory for him or herself? That is usurping God’s glory in their own lives; their reward would not be as great as if they gave all the glory to God. Was a person more inclined to follow the desires of addiction to food, alcohol, drugs, and clothes? That person’s priorities would not survive a fire. Those are not more important than God and cannot get them into heaven. Was a person more inclined to seek education to be able to break down another in argument? That person’s reward is also only for this earthly life. The choice to be mightier with word or sword or power will not grow a person to be more Christ like. Each of these things, wealth, acquirements, education, power, prestige, and strength, remove the focus and glory from God and place the glory upon ourselves now in our mortal lives. We receive the reward we desire in this age and will lose reward when God judges us. Our reward from God will be less. When God is the one whom you are trying to imitate, into whose likeness you are striving to become more like, this growth will stand the trial of fire because it is God who is glorified in your body, actions, and spirit as you walk each day in life now. You will get your reward from God upon judgment, Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 3:14.
Paul speaks throughout this letter to the Corinthians reminding them of the wisdom of God as opposed to the smallness of the wisdom of man. Consider what Paul said in chapter 1:19-21, 25 (Amplified version),
19 For it is written, I will baffle and render useless and destroy the learning of the learned and the philosophy of the philosophers and the cleverness of the clever and the discernment of the discerning; I will frustrate and nullify them and bring them to nothing. 20 Where is the wise man (the philosopher)? Where is the scribe (the scholar)? Where is the investigator (the logician, the debater) of this present time and age? Has not God shown up the nonsense and the folly of this world’s wisdom? 21For when the world with all its earthly wisdom failed to perceive and recognize and know God by means of its own philosophy, God in His wisdom was pleased through the foolishness of preaching salvation, procured by Christ and to be had through Him, to save those who believed..25 This is because the foolish thing that has its source in God is wiser than men, and the weak thing that springs from God is stronger than men.
You will notice that Paul captures each of the main cultures of people in Corinth at the time within this chapter, the philosophical and learned, the powerful and strong. He addresses the Greeks and Jewish scribes who are proud of their education. Later in verses 27-28, Paul also includes the Jews who think they are wise in their faith and culture, but who are blinded by their pride so they cannot see that God’s wisdom surpasses all understanding. In verse 28 Paul addresses the noble Romans and the Jews in power within the circles of the children of Israel. He tells them that God chose the lowly, the insignificant, and those treated with contempt as well as those things and people considered as nothing to “depose and bring to nothing the things that are” or consider themselves/are considered great. God did this so that “no mortal man should have any reason to take the glory for himself or boast about what he has done, but so that God may receive all the glory” (vs. 29). Paul speaks directly to those who consider themselves too highly, be they ones who accepted Christ’s salvation offered to them previously or not. He is showing them that even in the greatest of the clever, strong, and mighty of humans, they are not so wise, strong, or mighty after all when compared to the surpassing greatness of God or of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord (Philippians 3:8).
One of Paul’s themes in 1 Corinthians is the greatness of God, even compared to the greatest of the most wise, strong, and powerful man. In chapter three, Paul begins to get down to “brass tacks” unlike in chapters 1 and 2. He chastises them while at the same time reminding them in love that the foundation that was laid down in these baby Christians’ lives was based on the preaching of Christ crucified for all people. He tells them clearly that by now they should be partaking of heartier food than the milk of babes. Their growth in faith should have been at the point where they are taking in solid food; yet, Paul finds that they have turned to building upon the foundation of Christ with self-glorification, vanity, and deceit, not growth in their faith and knowledge of God and His ways. He hears from others that they are fighting and there are factions among them, that there is envy and jealousy (3:3). He states that this is an unspiritual and worldly way to act instead of a godly way. He tells them to safeguard what is built upon the foundation of Christ that he preached to them. Based upon what they are fed and watered, by what they allow themselves to consume, will determine their growth. God will grow you, he says, but you must choose the right food with which to nourish yourself. He tells them in 3:16 that they, individually and corporately, are God’s temple; they are holy and consecrated to the Lord. With what they choose to nourish themselves will determine their growth in God. Paul gets quite to the point here. “If anyone does hurt to God’s temple (you individually or corporately as a church) or corrupts it with false doctrine or destroys it, God will do hurt to him and bring him to the corruption of death, for the temple of God is holy” (3:17 AMP).
Finally, Paul comes back to a main premise of this letter; he tells them to “become fools according to worldly standards so that they can become really wise, for this world’s wisdom is foolishness with God and He lays hold of the wise in their own craftiness” (3:18-19). Paul beseeches them to seek after God and His wisdom so they can have true wisdom, not that which the world considers wisdom which is mere folly. Lastly, Paul reminds them, most of all, “You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (3:23). You gave your lives to Christ so you are God’s; build upon the foundation of which you allowed to be laid and which you accepted as truth. Choose God’s wisdom, glory, and reward as your desire and reward so that you may grow to be more like Christ and wiser than the wisest man.
The question remains for us, have we tried to acquire understanding and wisdom to determine how to venture on the paths of our lives? Has it brought meaning and purpose to our lives? Subsequently, have we found the navigator Who does know all the routes and whose way is straight and sure and leads to everlasting life? It is not hard. What seems foolish in the eyes of the learned is actually the wisdom of God made understandable and believable so that all may come to know the surpassing greatness, love, and power of God as shown and given through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus the Christ. This letter from Paul to the Corinthians as well as the occurrences in Corinth were attested to by Clement of Rome in his “First Epistle to the Corinthians,” by Polycarp in his “Epistle to the Philippians,” and by Irenaus in his writing “Against Heresies.” These men attest to these occurrences, as well as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is true. He is the way, the truth, and the life. It is truly simple, believe on Jesus, accept the gift of salvation He gave for your wrong doings, and keep on seeking Him and His knowledge and wisdom. His ways are higher than our ways; His ways are always best. Seek first the kingdom of God. What will you choose self-glorification with no true growth and no reward from God upon judgment, or glorification of God with true, everlasting, and continued growth into Christ-likeness and rewards from God upon judgment? Is it that hard to choose?