From 1:10 till 3:4 Paul has been addressing the problem of divisions within the Corinthian community. These divisions were caused in part by leaders, teachers, or speakers who were trying to gain status and wider respect for themselves by developing unique teachings that had an appearance of wisdom. From how Paul tied this wisdom to the current “age” indicates that this wisdom was likely influenced by philosophical ideas that were circulating within aristocratic, wealthy Graeco-Roman circles. The sermons of these teachers were highly charged and very dramatic in order to rally people around themselves. People were swayed by the speakers’ flare rather than by biblical truth. This caused a fracturing within the Corinthian community, unleashing a very unhealthy dynamic. Some sought to advance their own standing by attaching themselves to different disparate leaders and their groups. This rallying behind a leader was typical of what happens in “patron-client” cultures. Patrons would support these leaders in order to enhance their own prestige within the community. Also, the leaders would be expected to serve those who became their patrons. People with less money and prestige were willing to become “clients” of a leader and his patron in order to get “borrowed” prestige for themselves.
The Corinthian believing community as a result of all this was a mess.
In 3:5-23 Paul tries to resolve this disturbing development in the community by creating a new vision of what it means to belong to and work in God’s kingdom.
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20 and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (NRSV).
To create this new vision Paul put all of God’s servants on an equal plane. First, in 3:5-9 Paul compared himself with Apollos. By mentioning Apollos before himself Paul demonstrated remarkable humility. Who puts the other first if there is a contest between them? In addition, Paul would have had a reason to put himself first. Apollos was most likely a much better orator and teacher than Paul (see Acts 18:24-28). In spite of Apollos’ gifting, Paul was not personally threatened by Apollos’ gifting. Paul’s ministry and calling were rooted in Christ’s call, not in his extraordinary talents. In this, Paul evidently recognized something that the writers of the historical OT documents recognized. True success depends upon the calling and anointing of the Lord, not on personal ability (see 1 Sam. 17:47; 18:12, 28). Therefore, one does not need to compete with another in the Lord’s work. Paul equalizes the space between Apollos and himself, saying that the two of them were simply servants of God. The Lord had used both of them to lead the Corinthians to Christ. Through this comparison Paul paved the way for the Church to value all workers of the Lord in an equal way.
Second, in verse 5 Paul points out that neither of them put themselves forward to serve the Lord. They were chosen and assigned by God to work together with him to see his kingdom built. Putting this in contemporary terms, NT Wright in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (2004) compares Paul, Apollos, and other teachers to waiters in a restaurant. God is the one who chooses and cooks the food. The waiters are simply those who serve it. So, we shouldn’t make a big deal about which waiter brings the food to the table. Our focus should be on God and Jesus. The question about whether or not the waiters are doing a good job comes up later.
When people get caught up with personalities and with groups, a number of spiritual-social problems can arise. First, those who attach themselves to a person, or a church, or even a denomination tend to download the teachings they hear. Second, since they are members of a particular “group,” they end up maintaining the “party line.” Third, when people download, the work of the Holy Spirit is hindered. As we mediate and reflect on the Scripture, the Holy Spirit reveals and works into us the mind and character of the crucified Christ. When people get caught up with personalities, this reflection and integration of the mind and character of Christ into one’s lives does not take place. As a result, the group’s beliefs are elevated over the beliefs of others. Group members feel justified in demeaning those who are not part of their group. Fourth, if anyone from within their group starts thinking on their own and disagreeing, the group rejects these “dissenters.” When onlookers see this rejection taking place, Christ’s name is dishonored. When downloading happens over the long term, there are two other unexpected outcomes: nominalism and irrelevance.
Now, some level of downloading happens with many if not most new believers. It surely happened with me. Everything was new. The teachings of the group I belonged provided me the initial basis from which I could live out my faith. Over time I began to reflect on the teachings I heard. I wanted to know if they really lined up with Scripture. So, I studied the Word; and I read widely. What I did not understand at the time was how important was this process of learning and reflection. The Spirit integrates our study of Scripture with our experiences in order to help us understand how we are to live. This process of reflective study can often result in us nuancing our faith in distinctive ways. However, when people are caught up with a given personality or a group, they do not take the time for personal reflection and they are not properly empowered to integrate their faith into their lives. Their goal is to repeat what they have been taught.
Paul winds up his equalizing vision with verses 8 and 9. There is no reason for getting caught up with personalities. God’s people have the same purpose, and God will reward each person according to the work they have done. Since there is unity of purpose and unity of service, there should be unity in the body. There is only one body, or in the words of Paul: one field, one building.
In 3:10-17 Paul warns the builders to watch out how they are building. No matter what we are doing or where we are working, God has called each one of us work with him in building His Temple. Even in the most restrictive places of the world, God has called his people to work together with him.
So, Paul tells the Corinthians that he laid the foundation of the building for them, and there is only one foundation for the Temple of God- Jesus himself. In this we can see that Paul has no time for advancing himself. His goal is to see Jesus take the proper place in the minds and hearts of the Church- the first and foremost place. Everyone and everything else pales in comparison with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then Paul directs the Corinthians to think about what kind of materials are being used to build God’s Temple. Paul contrasts expensive non-combustible elements (gold, siver, precious stones) with cheap combustible elements (wood, hay, and straw). The point is that the foundation is laid. If there are workmen who build on this foundation with wrong materials (such as, self-aggrandizement, personal gain, sophism), they may be saved but their works will be destroyed by fire. Those who build with proper materials (directing people to Christ, and facilitating their discovery of the mind and character of Christ and facilitating the Spirit’s work in these being developed within them) then their works will remain when the fire comes.
Many scholars think that this fire is eschatological, that is, at the end of time. It may be. However, the fire may be the numerous trials we encounter in this life. Does the work of the builders enable Christ’s followers to stand when they face numerous trials, such as the death of a loved one or rejection by other members of the community. Do they help Jesus’ followers to patiently and kindly enduring mistreatment and have the ability to forgive when wrongly and viciously maligned?
Paul’s reference to the Temple as being holy (3:16-17) draws upon the Corinthians understanding of ancient temples and shrines. Temples and shrines demonstrated the character of the god whose image they contained. In making this parallel, Paul throws down a serious challenge. Since the Temple is the community of faith, and since the Spirit of God dwells within the community, does the community demonstrate in its life together the holy character of God in Christ? If it does not adequately demonstrate God’ character, why? Who is at fault? Paul warns them that whoever is at fault is in serious danger. God will hold them accountable.
Paul does not want anyone to be deceived. If people have been caught up in this divisiveness within the community, pursuing a wisdom that appeared prestigious, then they should humble themselves immediately and allow themselves to become fools. Such wisdom can only accomplish so much, and those who think they are wise will incur God’s displeasure.
Verse 21 shows that the divisions in the Corinthian community were based on personalities. Paul exhorted them that no one should boast in human leaders or teachers. These leader-teachers wanted to draw disciples around them and they wanted to be accoladed. Paul had no time for self-advancement. Therefore, Paul created a new vision of the Church for the Corinthian community. These teachers and their disciples had it all backwards. Members of the community were not supposed to belong to a “teacher.” Teachers actually belonged to the community; and the community belonged to Christ, and Christ belonged to God.
In Paul’s eyes, when we are truly submitted to God, all the promises of God, all the wisdom of God, and all the gifts from God for the Church are ours.
This new vision of equality and everything belonging to the Church should challenge us about how we view the things that divide us as believers. As international and interdenominational communities, we should be free to disagree about points of doctrine, belief, and even praxis. We should listen to one another and learn from one another. God may have given one group wisdom about one life issue and another group wisdom about another. We can become rich by our reflective cross-pollination. Paul encourages us to be careful how we disagree. We can disagree (hold differing opinions) without being disagreeable. What will help us in doing this is avoiding even the slightest tinge of elitism. Paul says we are all equal. We are all called and appointed servants of God. We are all his workmen seeking to build his Temple on his one foundation- Christ. God is the one who will establish our work or allow it to be burnt up. According to Paul, what will help ensure the permanence of our work is if we allow the Spirit to work in us and empower us to live out the mind and the character of the Crucified Christ. May Paul’s vision of God’s kingdom and Temple become ours!