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Lowell Brueckner

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1 Corinthians 3


Chapter 3

Carnality versus spirituality

1.    But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.

2.      I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready,

3.      for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?

4.      For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

The Corinthians were in a contradictory state. On the one hand they were certainly people, who were recipients of the grace of God. They were rich in Christian speech and wisdom, and were receiving and practicing spiritual gifts. Yet, Paul said that they were still in the flesh. He went to Corinth somewhere near 52 A.D. and this letter is written from Ephesus around 56 to 57 A.D., so they had been Christians for four or five years. They are still infants (1).

Fleshly-minded people follow men and put their trust in men and their ministries. Because different men and ministries have been presented to the Corinthians, there are different opinions about which one has been the most profitable to them (4). Therefore there is jealousy and strife between the different members of the church (3). In his second letter to them, Paul revealed his goal to betroth “you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Co.11:2). When this goal is reached in a practical, heart-felt sense, then Christians reach a spiritual state and the factions cease. 

Fleshly-minded people think like men and function, in a practical sense, according to human ability and wisdom. The wonderful truth of being espoused to Christ alone has not yet illuminated their minds and hearts and so they remain in a carnal state. They have profited from the “pure spiritual milk”, but are still not ready for solid food (2).

Isaiah 55:7-9 demands repentance from a sinner’s ways and thoughts: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord.” If a person is to turn to God, he must forsake his ways and thoughts, because God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” God’s ways and thoughts are far superior to his: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Mature Christians not only have the mind of Christ dwelling in them, as stated in chapter 2:16, but His thinking dominates their thoughts and His ways dominate their actions. They are experiencing a radical change, being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Ro.12:2a). Because they are learning God’s ways, they are able to “discern what is the will of God” (Ro.12:2b). Because they think and act in a godly way, different from the world around them, therefore they are not “conformed to this world” (Ro.12:2c). They live in a completely different realm, not only from the world’s people, but from that of Christians, who still, in large part, see things from a worldly perspective.

Christians are not to be mere men and women. The most basic and decisive difference, which exists on this planet is not a racial or national one, between Africans, Asians, Europeans, or Native Americans, nor is it a sexual one, between males and females. The great distinction between created beings is whether they have been born twice or only once. A Christian is born-again; he is born from above, his citizenship is in heaven, and he is a supernatural child of God.

Jesus taught this clearly to His disciples: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn.15:19). This hatred, caused by the marked contrast between Christians and the citizens of the world, is the reason that martyrdom multiplies in this “civilized” 21th Century. The 20th Century produced more martyrs than ever before, since and including the time of the apostles.

God and His servants

5.      What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.

6.      I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

7.      So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

8.      He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.

9.      For we are God’s fellow workers. 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 upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.

11.  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Paul defines himself, Apollos and their particular ministries. The Greek noun is diakonos and we have it translated here servants. A true minister of the gospel is a servant; first, he is a servant of Christ and then he is a servant of the people. He never rises to any level beyond that. The Lord has called him and given him his assignment. He is called to serve the people, in order that they might come into faith (5).

Paul was basically a planter in Corinth and Apollos was the irrigator. Their lowly service was dwarfed by the life-producing power of God (6). In a true sense, Paul and Apollos are observers, who have the privilege of being close enough to God, in order to contemplate His matchless work. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares reveals that even in the matter of sowing the seed, human beings are simple laborers, but Christ must cause the seed to penetrate the soil and sprout: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” (Mt.13:37). All the credit and all the glory belongs to God and the believer must focus on Him (7).

Christ’s true ministers work together for a common goal. So it was between Paul and Apollos and so it must be today. If there is strife and jealousy among the ministers, nothing more can be expected from the converts. That will be a condition taken into account, when the rewards are handed out. However, the rewards themselves will be given individually: “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Ro.14:12). There will be no team awards (8).

Every servant is called of God and labors with Him and under Him. I see no room for self-appointment or man-made plans. The servant will be in the yoke with Christ, working closely with him, to carry out the purposes of God. The disciple must follow Christ; the yoke is not elastic! Paul says that the Corinthians are God’s field or God’s building (9).

He changes the analogy now, in order to speak as a constructor. However the former analogy of a field, in which only God gives the growth, is still in play. When it comes to building, “except the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps.127:1). Because the minister is a simple servant does not mean that he is not skilled. He is working with divine grace and heaven’s work requires supernatural skill and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The apostolic ministry is foundational, upon which everything else must be built. The building is only one and God is the architect, therefore He will bring in many other skilled constructors. We will learn in the following verses that working on the right building does not necessarily mean that all will build with the best materials. Care must be taken (10).

The foundation of all, in which God is involved, is Jesus Christ. Christ gives us another analogy in John 15:1-8 and begins, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” There are many vines, but He is the only true vine and the only one, which the Father planted and, in which He is intimately involved (11).  

Building materials

12.  Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-

13.  each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.

14.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.

15.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Paul gives us a vitally important lesson, which we must learn as Christians. He showed that the Corinthians, although partakers of God’s grace and supernaturally endowed with spiritual gifts, were nevertheless carnal. Now we will see that the work, in which true Christians are involved, is not necessarily spiritual, but can be very carnal. The famous lady missionary, Amy Carmichael said, “The work will never go deeper than we have gone ourselves.” If we are carnal, the work will be carnal.

He is still talking about God’s building and not about the personal life of an individual believer. I am happy that he uses valuable elements as examples of the building materials, because he is discussing a most extravagant building. It seems to me that some missionaries take the highest task on earth rather for granted, when I hear them speak somewhat glibly of “church planting”. In the first place, Christ said, “I will build my church” (Mt.16:18) and in this chapter we are learning that the apostle is a fellow worker with God. Christ is the architect of the general body of the church and is the one who calls workers, initiates and oversees every detail of the local church .The blue print should not be drawn by human hands.

The apostle divide the materials into two basic groups… that which is flammable and that which is incombustible. There are three examples given of each kind: gold, silver and precious stones, then wood, hay and straw (12). We note again, as in verse 8 (also in verse 10) that the rewards or lack of rewards involve the individual worker. I will then point out that in the ESV that the word Day begins with a capital letter… a very specific day. Most certainly, Paul refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ, where each one will give account of his own work. The root word for manifest means shining, and the revealing element is the fire of God. The flaming eyes of Christ which clearly discern every work, will set the individual work on fire, and the true substance of that work will be clear to everyone (13), though its success today might have many people confused.  

If it burns, it is obvious that it is a work of the flesh, that is, a work of man’s intelligence and capabilities. I believe that to build with gold, silver and precious stones is to build purely in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is to build spiritually and supernaturally, with that which originates in heaven (14). To build with wood, hay and straw is to rely on human capabilities. Warren Wiersbe states what I have always firmly believed and states it better and more concisely than I could do:

“There is a wisdom of this world that works for the world, but it will not work for the church. The world depends on promotion, prestige, and the influence of money and important people. The church depends on prayer, the power of the Spirit, humility, sacrifice, and service. The church that imitates the world may seem to succeed in time, but it will turn to ashes in eternity. The church in the book of Acts had none of the ‘secrets of success’ that seem to be important today. They owned no property; they had no influence in government; they had no treasury (‘Silver and gold have I none,’ said Peter); their leaders were ordinary men without special education in the accepted schools; they held no attendance contests; they brought in no celebrities; and yet they turned the world upside down!”

“God has a specific plan for each local church (Phil.2:12-13). Each pastor and church leader must seek the mind of God for His wisdom. 1 Corinthians 3:19 warns that man’s wisdom will only trap him (a quotation from Job 5:13) and 1 Corinthians 3:20 warns that man’s wisdom only leads to vanity and futility (a quotation from Ps.94:11). Though the church must be identified with the needs of the world, it must not imitate the wisdom of the world.”

The text makes it clear; the builder will be saved (15). This is not a lesson concerning salvation and the trial is not one of condemnation, but of rewards. There are many Christian workers and much ‘church building’, which will burn, when it is brought to the test. The great need of our times, when so many attractive means are available, is to see a people, who know what it means to move under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. It is essential and yet extremely rare! Before the flaming eyes of Christ, the decorative materials used to draw, entertain, and train disciples are seen as cheap word, hay and straw.

God’s temple, God’s ministers, and God’s Christ

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 him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

18.  Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.

19.  For the wisdom of this world is folly 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 in men. 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 are yours,

23.  and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.

God spared nothing in bringing salvation to men: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Ro.8:32). We work with Him, as He builds His temple. He also gave us the very best in order to carry out the building of His temple, using evangelism, missions, and Christian discipleship and edification. He poured out upon us His Holy Spirit (16). In other words, He did more than shower blessings upon us; He gave us Himself. All has been purchased through the cost of the blood of His Son. That truth boggles the mind and sets the mission of the church far above anything upon earth. You must meditate upon it in order to begin to grasp its significance. I can try to summarize it with four adjectives: We are involved in the spiritual, the heavenly, the supernatural and the eternal!

Many have not appreciated the supreme value of that, in which the Christian is involved, in fact it can even be demeaned. Some cross a thin line and actually oppose and try to destroy the work of the Lord (17). The apostle gives them a dire warning. The Reformation cost the blood of martyrs and so did the period following it. Revival movements, which brought hundreds of thousands to their knees in repentance, were challenged by those, who thought that they were defending the church.

Paul returns to the argument against human wisdom. He quoted Isaiah in chapter 1, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.” All is due to men, who are motivated by it and by a worldly mentality. They are tied to the earth and fearful of losing the praise of men. Those who are most beautifully adorned with the wisdom of men are the most beggarly paupers before God.   There is only one way to deal with that blemish, when it is found in an individual in the church. He must repent and be stripped of those earthly rags. He must unlearn, before he can grasp the hidden, secret thoughts and ways of God (18).

We should return to Wiersbe’s comments on verses 19 and 20: 1 Corinthians 3:19 warns that man’s wisdom will only trap him and 1 Corinthians 3:20 warns that man’s wisdom only leads to vanity and futility. In order to comprehend that worldly wisdom has trapped a huge percentage of modern church leadership, all we have to do is see the prominence of business meetings over prayer meetings.

Paul concludes the admonition against the tendency to argue and divide in Corinth, due to loyalty to different men. He has related it to carnality and shown its combustible nature before Christ’s Tribunal. Let all eyes turn to Christ and the glory of God (21). The apostle endeavors to reason with them that there is nothing to argue about. There is no reason why every believer cannot enjoy the benefits of more than one leader. They are all at the member’s disposal and in addition, all of nature and the happenstances of world events are all geared to the benefit of the church (22).

The petty differences in the church can all be chalked up to a lack of illumination, concerning the nature of the wonder and glory into which we have been immersed. I have tried to shed a little light on it in this article. I am saying that we are involved in something infinitely superior to the highest of earth’s aspirations, as sure as the ways of God are infinitely above anything on earth. You are brought into fellowship with Christ, “the ruler of kings on earth” (Rv.1:5). You have been inducted into the eternal purpose of the Omniscient and Almighty. Meditate upon that and there will be no time to strive with human thoughts and ways (22).  


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