What does 1 Corinthians 3 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
First Corinthians 3:1–9 describes Paul's rebuke of the Corinthian Christians as infants in Christ. As a contrast to a spiritually-indwelt believer, Paul uses the concept of being ''merely human.'' Such persons are not ready for solid food, still behaving as immature, undeveloped believers. Instead of following Paul or Apollos, or some other human being, they should follow God, the master of all. Different leaders might be called to different tasks in God's will, but none are ultimately more important than others.
First Corinthians 3:10–15 expands on Paul's earlier point that only God, not any fallible human being, is worthy. Each person must build their ''works'' on a foundation of Christ. Those works will be subject to judgment, to see what has eternal value. Lasting works are based in valuable, durable, precious things like wisdom and truth. Cheap and fragile materials won't stand the fire of God's judgment.
First Corinthians 3:16–23 is the third metaphor Paul uses to explain the relationship between works, spiritual growth, and God's judgment of our efforts. An emphasis here is on the superiority of God's wisdom compared to the fallible knowledge of man, echoing statements from chapters 1 and 2. Paul's main point here, again, is that we ought to focus on allegiance to Christ and His will, rather than being divided over loyalty to different human teachers.
Chapter Summary:
Paul cannot call the Corinthian Christians ''spiritual'' people. Though they are in Christ, they continue to live to the flesh. They are spiritual infants, not ready for solid food. Divisions among them prove they are still serving themselves, picking sides in a senseless debate between Christian teachers. Paul insists that both he and Apollos are mere servants of the Lord and co-workers. They are not in competition. Those who lead the Corinthians must build carefully because their work will be tested on the day of the Lord. Christian leaders who build the church will have their work judged by Christ to see if they have built on the foundation of Christ. All human wisdom will be shown to be futile and worthless.
Chapter Context:
First Corinthians 3 follows Paul's teaching that only spiritual people can understand the wisdom of God. Paul cannot fully call the Corinthian Christians spiritual people, though, because they continue to live of the flesh, as if they were still infants trapped in an immature condition. Evidence includes the divisions among them. Paul insist that he and Apollos are both servants of the same master. The Corinthians should follow God, not them. Those whose work is worthless will suffer loss, but they will be saved. After this, Paul will expound on the idea that believers ought to set Christ as their example, rather than being defined in terms of their earthly leaders.
Book Summary:
First Corinthians is one of the more practical books of the New Testament. Paul writes to a church immersed in a city associated with trade, but also with corruption and immorality. These believers are struggling to properly apply spiritual gifts and to resist the ungodly practices of the surrounding culture. Paul's letter gives instructions for real-life concerns such as marriage and spirituality. He also deals with the importance of unity and gives one of the Bible's more well-known descriptions of love in chapter 13.
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