What does 1 Corinthians chapter 3 mean?Paul made it crystal clear in chapter 1 that the Christians in Corinth would stand guiltless before God on the day of the Lord. Their saving faith in Christ had been affirmed by the fact that they had received gifts from the Holy Spirit. These Corinthians are undoubtedly Christians.
Now, though, Paul says the fact that they are saved does not mean he can call them spiritual people. They are not living as spiritual people. They are still living as if they were of the flesh. Paul compares them to a person stuck in infancy, who should have matured enough by now to be ready for the solid food of deeper Christian teaching. Instead, they're still on a newborn's all-milk diet. This is not an entirely unique problem, as the writer of Hebrews chastised his readers for a similar weakness (Hebrews 5:11–14). Instead of living in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and according to God's wisdom about spiritual things, the Corinthian Christians are still behaving as if they were mere, unspiritual human beings (1 Corinthians 3:1–2).
Paul's evidence of this is the issue he brought up in chapter 1. The church in Corinth is divided. Some claim to follow Paul and others Apollos and still others Peter. Likely, they are rejecting the other Christian teachers in misguided loyalty to the one they prefer. Paul wants them to move past any idea that he and Apollos are in competition with each other. He describes both as servants of the Lord who helped the Corinthians to come to faith in Christ. They each did the job the Lord gave them to do. Why would the Corinthians follow the servants instead of the master (1 Corinthians 3:3–7)?
Paul compares himself and Apollos to field hands. He planted the seed of the gospel and Apollos watered it. God, though, is the one who caused the crop of their faith to grow. The Corinthians may have pictured two young men in a field, one of them working the plow and scattering the seed, the other following with the water bucket. Neither field worker owns the field, of course, but their master sends them out because both jobs need doing. The two are not in competition with each other. They work together and both will be paid by the master. In this metaphor, Paul says, the Corinthians are the field (1 Corinthians 3:8–9).
In the next metaphor, they are a building belonging to God. Paul pictures himself here as a skilled master builder who laid a foundation in Corinth when he introduced them to faith in Christ. Christ is the foundation for the building. Now new builders have come to add to the work Paul started. Those builders must build carefully, Paul warns. Paul may be referring to every Christian who builds into the life of the church by serving each other or he may be addressing ministers, teachers, and other church leaders. In either case, the quality of their work and the materials they use matters. Will they build with materials that last or with cheap building supplies like hay and straw (1 Corinthians 3:10–12)?
A fire is coming to test their work, Paul writes. That fire is Christ's judgment of the work of Christians on the day of the Lord during the end times. Those whose work is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will receive a reward. Those whose work is shown to be weak and worthless will suffer a loss, but they will be saved by God's grace through faith in Christ. There will be no salvation, though, for anyone who destroys God's temple, the church (1 Corinthians 3:13–17).
Instead of being wise by the world's standards, Paul continues, one must become a fool in this culture to be wise before God. God will reveal the wisdom of those who deceive themselves by thinking they are wise to be worthless and futile. All things belong to those who are in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:18–23).