1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
In 1 Corinthians 3:10 we pick up Paul’s teaching where he previously left off: with the image of a building. In the preceding verses Paul uses agricultural imagery to make a point: Paul, Apollos, and every leader in the church are servants, meant to either plant or water, while God causes the growth. Paul and Apollos are co-workers: dividing along personality boundaries aren’t the point. Paul transitions from this agricultural imagery to the world of construction. The people are God’s field…God’s building.
Paul makes it clear that the source of his master craftsmanship ability is God’s grace. Paul’s grace-filled skill allows him to build a foundation, on which someone else will build. There is no conflict for Paul in this process: Paul sees himself and others as co-workers, laboring together for the building of the church on the foundation, Christ. This is not a matter of division, but co-laboring. Paul does, however, give warning for those building upon the foundation: take heed of how you build on the foundation, for a day will come when fire will test your work, and only those who built in the best way possible, with the best materials, will stand. The imagery is clearly aligned with the construction of a building: who would want to live in a house that is poorly constructed, such that a fire would cause total destruction?
Do we today do the work of ministry, the work of building up the church, the body of Christ, in the best ways possible? Will our work stand after enduring the flames or did we build with straw? The text doesn’t seem to indicate precisely what the materials represent, but the idea translates: there are some ways of building the church that will not last. Do we build with sound biblical instruction, with practices that will solidify the depth of the gospel in our church members, with prayer…with the means of grace? Do we build with an eye toward attraction to the detriment of building with materials that will sustain the church when a fire threatens its destruction? The temptation for many in ministry, and in life outside of the particularities of ministry, is to do what will draw us the most attention, will cause us to feel egotistically satisfied, to pursue the elevation of our own image. Doing so breaks apart a strong structure because doing so relies heavily on cheap materials. The flashy stuff.
The flashy stuff can be effective, but strong materials come first, flashiness for the sake of reach comes second. Using modern materials and methods to draw people to church and thus God is good, but not if they’re used to lay the foundation of the faith. Drawing a horse to the pond is good so long as there’s water.
It seems the Corinthian church began to build its faith on personalities. They’ve chosen Apollos, Paul, or Peter as though the gospel foundations rested upon these men rather than Christ. Paul corrects their flawed thought and redirects them to the foundation that Apollos, Paul, and Peter have built upon: Christ. Unity comes through shared understanding, and in this instance the shared understanding Paul wants to impress upon the Corinthians is the foundation on which all church-builders build.
Paul moves forward with a call for the Corinthian church to understand its identity: they are God’s temple and the Spirit of God lives in them. The temple imagery correlates easily with the previous building metaphor and we understand his point: Jesus is the foundation, you are the temple built upon it, and by elevating one person above Christ we are destroying the temple. And God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. I think this is remarkable language and worthy of our consideration today. God will destroy the one who destroys. God’s love for His people is so great that He will come to their defense, destroying anyone who tries to destroy the true temple. This serves as a warning to those who would attempt to elevate one person over another and forget the centrality, the foundational place, of Christ in His church.
Those taking sides likely boasted in the wisdom of their leader, thus Paul tells them to stop deceiving themselves and to avoid trying to see themselves as the world might. The temptation for the Corinthians, as with us today, is to measure ourselves by the standards of the world rather than God’s. Stoics in Paul’s time affirmed “all things are ours” as a means of “self-sufficiency and mastery over all circumstances” while Paul contradicts this idea with the reality that all Christians are dependent on God in v. 23: “Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (Garland 124).
Seeing ourselves as wise in the world’s eyes and following one leader over another as a means of moving Christ from his foundational place leads to temple destruction, and thus our own. Keeping Christ as the foundation of the building leaves us united, worshipping the One who rightly reinstates and reconnects our healthy dependence on God.
Garland, David E. (2003) 1 Corinthians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
About the Contributor
National Recruiter, Asbury Theological Seminary