Chapter 3

In this chapter we learn how God builds His church. He is in control of the spiritual results of the gospel

Verse 1, "And I brethren, could not speak unto you"

Paul is writing to a mixed church. There were many believers in the congregation, but also some unbelievers who were causing trouble. So a big question arises. How can he address the whole congregation in the same letter? There is no alternative to addressing a church of any spiritual condition except in general, as a group of worshipers, as a congregation. No one, even with the insight of Paul, can judge on an individual basis who is and who is not a true Christian. After all, every man being still encumbered with a sinful body is liable to make faulty judgments. Often a man does not have all the information. Besides, this kind of judgment is God's role anyway. Paul just trusted the Holy Spirit to apply specific truth to specific listeners. No church has a membership of 100 percent believers. A minister's harsh words are a benefit to the believers in the congregation as they examine their own personal walk and simultaneously a warning to the unbelievers to take heed and turn from their sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. In addition, the whole congregation is affected by the sins of any of its members. Believers who are in authority and those who are not must be concerned for the spiritual welfare of all in the congregation and for the witness of the congregation as a whole.

The general form of address is common in the Bible. We cannot assume the spiritual character of any particular individual by the nature of the statement made to the whole congregation. Elijah and Jeremiah said terrible things to Israel. But there were always some who were saved in that nation. In Corinth also the "brethren" heard both the wonderful statements of I Corinthians 1:2-8 and the awful statement of I Corinthians 3:2,3. These statements are directed to a mixed congregation, some believers, some unbelievers. Only the Holy Spirit knows the hearts of a particular individual and uses the words spoken to the congregation as He wills.

"As unto spiritual but as unto carnal"

This statement is addressed to the whole congregation, corporately. It is a theoretical statement. It is like a principle, true if the situation applies. But not every individual is like this.


This word, sarkinos, is a general term for the body, that is, the physical part of man. Man has a physical and a spiritual part. It is not a sin, in itself, to have a physical part. Jesus had a physical part and yet had no sin. However, when Adam sinned, his the spiritual part died (Gen. 2:17; Eph. 2:1) and his physical part became corrupt and cursed (Rom. 5:12). That is the legacy he passed on to all of his descendants. Therefore, the physical or carnal part dominates all men (Rom. 7:16-22). So Paul is appealing to the congregation as if there were some who only had a physical part. That is, he talks as if they had no spiritual life. A man who has not been born again in the spirit part and demonstrates no spiritual life has only physical life. He is carnal, but only carnal. His carnal nature dominates his life. Carnal is the proper term to describe him.

The word "carnal," as Paul uses it, is more than an observation. It is a declaration. He calls some in the congregation carnal, period. Nothing else is said about their spirit because they show no spiritual life and are not saved. They walk by sight and not by faith. That is all they can do (I Cor. 2:9,14). The physical part of a man has no spiritual motivation or power. Therefore, Paul uses "carnal" as speaking to an unsaved man, and God applies it to specific people in the congregation as He wills.

Notice the same use of the word "carnal" in Romans 8.

Verse 5 "flesh" is the same as "carnal" and describes an unsaved mind.

Verse 6 "carnal" = death

Verse 7 "carnal" = an enemy, at war with God and cannot be subject to God

Verse 8 "carnal" = cannot please God. What an awful verdict.

Verse 9 This is an either/or, statement. We are either in the Spirit or in the flesh.

But what about Romans 7:14 in which Paul describes himself as carnal? Is he saying that he is an unbeliever? First of all, we sense a difference. Paul was in many ways a mature Christian, whereas many Corinthians were weak. Secondly, while he is human and so has a carnal part (Rom. 7:18), he also has a spiritual part (Rom. 7:25). Paul continues after verse 14 in his own case to say that he has an alive spiritual part too. Some Corinthians acted as if they had only a carnal part and were therefore called "carnal." It is the description of what they were without any further comments. It is similar to I Corinthians 6:9,10, which is not a description of what unbelievers do, but what they are. The description is the complete story about them.

Paul uses the word "carnal" in Romans to teach something about a Christian's reaction to sin. He uses the word "carnal" to acknowledge that he has a physical part full of sin. However, he does not stop there. He goes on to make the point that he is a walking civil war (Rom. 7:23). An unbeliever is sold to sin and willingly pursues it. However, a Christian, as Paul is, is alive spiritually and sensitive to sin. He hates it, and day by day turns from it (Rom. 8:5,9). Someday, every Christian's body will be changed too (Rom. 8:11). But now the triumph of the spirit is shown in the Spirit's power over the flesh.

"as unto babes"

There is a word, paidion, that is used many times for believers (Matt. 18:3). However, the word here, nepios, has no clear use for believers. In fact, it is used often in a negative way. For example, in Romans 2:20 it is tied to fools and concerns someone who has only a form of the Gospel, but really possesses only natural knowledge. In Galatians 4:1,3 and especially Ephesians 4:14, the same word, nepios, refers to someone who has no spiritual understanding, which agrees with its use in Chapter 3.

This answers those who teach that people to whom Paul refers must be saved, because Paul calls them "in Christ" in I Corinthians 3:1. We must understand that to mean only that they appear to be saved.

Verse 2

The words "milk," gala, and "meat," bromro, remind us of the physical development of children. As their teeth grow and stomachs mature, they are able to add meat to their diet. (There is a similar discussion in Heb. 5:12-14, but the word chosen for "meat" there is not bromo as in I Corinthians.)

The word "milk" is used only five times in the New Testament. In I Peter 2:2 it is used in the phrase "milk of the word" (logikon). The word "milk" is tied to things that are logical, or reasonable, or rational. In Hebrews 5:12,13 we learn that milk is for those who are not yet tried by the word of God ("unskillful," apeiros = not + tried). These people are unbelievers. The idea is that milk is the basic logic, or reasoning from the Bible that is addressed to unbelievers. As in Acts 17, it is the biblically based logic that is in an evangelistic appeal. In fact, I Pet. 2:2 ends by saying that by the milk the readers can grow. The word translated "grow" appears as "gave the increase" in I Corinthians 3:7, referring to salvation. Thus in I Peter 2:2, it is as if that was the goal of the milk of logic.

The word "meat" which can be used for physical meat is used also to refer to obedience to God's revealed will (John 4:34) and to Jesus Christ Himself (John 6:55). This word is more closely associated with the full revealed will of God which is used to appeal to those who know the word and can presumably understand it, such as believers.

The contrast in this verse is far sharper than the idea that milk is for baby Christians, but meat is for mature Christians. The idea of the verse is that Paul reminds them of the time when he first came to them and fed them with milk. That was appropriate for those who have first heard the Gospel, who as unbelievers cannot be expected to understand the Word of God. The problem is that many act as if "neither yet now are ye able" to bear the meat. Does Paul have to talk to them as candidates for evangelism as he did when he first came to Corinth? Can't he expect them to know and understand the Word of God? Aren't they spiritual people now?

Verse 3 "ye are yet carnal"

This phrase explains why the above verse is so. The idea is that carnal is all they are and describes the fact that there is no evidence of spiritual life. Yesterday they were carnal, and today they still are. The words are directed to those to whom they apply, namely, the unsaved ones of the congregation.


This is the natural behavior of those who are only carnal, physically alive but spiritually dead. Their focus is upon this world, and preoccupied by their "rights," rather than God's word. (A good comment on this is James 4:1-10.)

"are ye not carnal, and walk as men?"

The idea of the words "as men" is "according to men" or "in agreement with men." That is the voice to which some in the congregation listen. Their behavior is what we would expect from someone captured by a carnal nature as men in general or as unsaved men are.

God uses the terms "carnal" and "believer," but never both together as one term, for that would lead to the wrong conclusion: namely, a Christian dominated by his carnal nature. As we saw in Romans 7, a Christian possesses a carnal part and a spiritual part, but the spiritual part delivers him from dominion by his carnal part and he can serve God. (I Corinthians 2:14,15 prepares us for such an idea by showing the two parts of a man and what they can and cannot do.) If a person is truly a Christian, then he cannot be described as carnal. There is not such a thing as a carnal Christian. Such a specimen does not exist. A Christian's spiritual life dominates his flesh and is described as spiritual instead (Rom. 8:5-14).

Verse 4 "I...I...are ye not carnal?"

Although the word "carnal" here is sarkos, a general term for their fleshly life, the focus is upon the carnal attitude mentioned in verse 3, namely valuing men above all else. So the idea of verse four can be understood as "If you divide yourselves into groups with a man as your leader, aren't you walking as man in general or how unsaved man walks?"

They did not understand the message because they focused upon the messenger. Again, they had an earthly preoccupation. In this case each man mentioned by name was an authorized true messenger from God. However, they must not follow founders of a church or eminent leaders. They must follow God's Word.

Today the problem is worse than following one faithful leader or another faithful leader. Many messengers are not faithful. Therefore it is even more important not to focus upon the men. The question must always be, "What does the man say compared to the Bible?" True messengers do not always say nice things that make us feel good. The Gospel cuts, offends, and drives some away. Also, we do not assess a minister by the size of the congregation he leads. It can be small because he is unfaithful or small because he is faithful. It can be large because he is unfaithful or large because he is faithful.

Verse 5, "Who then is...?"

This is a good question to ask. In their case, every man mentioned brought the same faithful message. The Corinthians' sin was that they did not recognize the messenger as simply a conduit for a message from God. Today, every believer does not necessarily bring the same message. We must compare what they say to the Bible to see if it is from God.

"ministers by whom"

They are tools in God's hands. Their job is to point beyond themselves to spiritual realities. If we cling to the man, his job is pointless.


This does not necessarily mean they were saved (Acts 8:13,22,23; James 2:19), but they at least had a mental impression of the Gospel. True salvation results in a changed life. Christ is always Lord when He is Savior. There are neither carnal Christians nor classes or grades of Christians based upon degrees of commitment or levels of discipleship.

The idea of this verse could also be that those in the congregation who truly believed or were saved believed because the messengers were ministers of the true Gospel and not because of the men themselves. In this light the thought is "Do not get too infatuated with the men. They did not do anything for you. Any blessings you have are the result of the Word of God which they brought!"

"even as...man?"

God gave the job of the ministry of the Word to all believers. Witnessing is a common job of us all. Paul is saying, "Honoring one man is really silly because all believers have the same message to bring. Any ministers of the word who would come to Corinth would say the same thing, because they all have the same mind (2:16)." No one has a corner on the gospel message or is to be especially honored.

Verse 6 "But God"

It is all God's work.

"I planted"

Historically, this refers to Acts 18:4-11. Paul brought them the Gospel. He planted the seed of the Word of God. If we are not careful, it would be easy to focus upon Paul's personal effort, as if the planting was all his own work. But the Bible has more to say. God really does the planting, not Paul (I Cor. 15:10; Isa. 61:3).

Incidentally, this phrase highlights an important principle in Bible study. A phrase may at first seem to teach one thing, but further study may reveal that something completely different is in view. So it is essential that we compare Scripture with Scripture (2:13). For example, sometimes words are used in a way that could lead us to believe salvation is based on something we do, but further comparison shows just the opposite to be true.  Here are four examples:

"received"  - It seems to be of us (John 1:12) ... but it is really of God (John 3:27)

"faith"  - It seems to be of us (Mark 11:22) ... but it is really of God (John 6:29; Phil. 1:29)

"come"  - It seems to be of us (John 6:37) ... but it is really of God (John 6:44)

"repent"  - It seems to be of us (II Peter 3:9) ... but it is really of God (Acts 5:31; II Tim. 2:25)


With what? The Word of God (Isa. 41:18; John 7:38).

Verse 7

This says the same thing as verse 6, but with a slightly different emphasis. In verse 6 the focus is upon the action, with the focus on the person in verse 7. In both what is done and who does it, the glory is not the minister's, but God's (I Cor. 1:31).

Verse 8 "are one"

Actually, the words mean "the one (thing)," focusing upon an indivisible unit. God is not divisible or divided. He does not confuse His purposes (I Cor. 14:33), and He does not divide His kingdom or His ministers into completing groups. He does not have men say or do different things and create rival followings (Eph. 4:4-6).

"His own reward...his own labor"

This phrase does not say "a reward for his labor," as if the focus was upon payment due for services rendered. But the focus is his "own." The particular job as well as the results that come out of it fit each of us. They are gifts of grace that match us. The concept of labors or jobs will be discussed in detail in Chapter 12. The concept of rewards will be expanded as we look at verse 14.

Verse 9 "For we are labourers together with God"

This supports the proper view of both our labor and rewards. What we do is totally the work of God (Phil. 2:13; Gal. 2:20). Our assignment is His choice, our achievement is His work, our results depend upon His grace.

The phrase "laborers together with" does not refer to our salvation, but to the proclamation of God's Word and the gathering of His people into His kingdom. The implication is that God is really the witness, and we are doing it with Him (Luke 4:18; II Cor. 5:20).

"ye are God's husbandry"

This refers to the organized church. It exists because of God's work. It represents Him on earth, even though it is a mixed congregation. The word "husbandry" can be thought of as those things that a farmer tills and labors in so that he can get a harvest. But to be more precise, John 15 and Romans 11 explain that there is only one vine. God's concern is to add branches, clean fruitful branches (saved people), by means of His Word, and cut off unfruitful branches (unsaved people).


Of the two images, one from farming, the second from construction, this second one is continued on from verses 10 to 16. The discussion in Chapter 3, and especially the next few verses, concerns the construction of one building which is the organized church, composed of saved and unsaved members. God Himself builds His church through the witness of His people. Many people hear that witness, some are saved and join the church for the right reasons, and some are not saved and join the church for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, they are all still part of the organized church. There are true Christians within the organized church that are part of the eternal spiritual church worldwide and of all times in history. The unbelievers are only members of the organized church.

The discussion here is not about personal growth. It is not a focus upon personal faithfulness (that is, weak versus strong Christians), but upon how the church grows as the Gospel goes out. The building is the whole congregation (Eph. 2:19-22; I Tim. 3:15; Heb. 3:6), not an individual person.

Verses 10 to 14 are talking about people being added to the church. They are not an analysis or inventory of an individual Christian's works. The big issue is this: What happens to the church when we bring the Gospel?

Verse 10 "According...grace...given unto me"

The grace that God gave refers to Paul's position as an apostle (I Cor. 15:9,10). That is Paul's special "labor."

"as a wise"

This refers to the fact that he was saved. True wisdom is to look at things from God's point of view (Job 28:28), a spiritual sight only given by God Himself. Paul was wise because he was given the mind of Christ, who is true wisdom (I Cor. 1:30).


Actually, it means an "arche" or first builder. It refers to the fact that it was Paul's peculiar role to bring the Gospel where no one had gone before. He was sort of a pioneer sent to unevangelized territory (Rom. 15:20).

"I have laid"

From the rest of the Bible we know this phrase means, "God laid through me." Laid what? Laid the foundation. What is that? It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (verse 11). So, to lay a foundation is to bring the Gospel to an unevangelized area, which God uses to form His church. The foundation determines the basic character of the whole building. It sets the building's basic structure and design: its location, shape, orientation, and especially its strength (Matt. 7:24 ff). All these things Jesus Christ is to His church.

"and another...thereon"

Other men who came after Paul continued to bring the Gospel. And God added more believers to the congregation that was formed after Paul preached.


This is a warning and leads into the discussion of the following verses. Paul will now discuss the question, "What can we expect as results of the preaching of faithful and unfaithful ministers?" Again we must fix in our minds the fact that the chapter is talking about building the church, not about an inventory of an individual person's works in his own life. The verb "buildeth" here is linked to the noun "building" in verse 9, which is what is being built.

"every man"

Actually it means "each man." The focus is upon each individual, not upon the church as a group. If someone is a Christian, he is a builder. The people of God are referred to as temple builders throughout the Bible, Old Testament too (Ex. 31, Zech. 6:11-15).

If a person is faithful, he can expect God to use His Word which he proclaims. Also, the individual Christian gives his time, possessions, prayers, energy, and anything else he has to spread the Gospel. All these things God uses to build the building.

Verse 11 "that is laid"

This is not a past tense verb as if it necessarily refers to the Cross as in John 10:17 or 15:13 (a different word, anyway). Rather it is present tense and refers primarily to the work of Paul bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In fact, the concept is really that God Himself is laying the foundation. He is really the Gospel bringer and the one who prospers His own Word. So this verse is a mild rebuke against anyone who thinks they have another method of establishing a church. Only God has the power to lay the foundation. That is why Paul said, "Who is sufficient for these things?" (II Cor. 2:14-3:5).

Verse 12 "if any man build upon this foundation"

There is no foundation other than Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible. We build by adding people to the church as we bring the Gospel. The first word, "if," begins a conditional phrase. The idea of the verse is "We will now consider two possible kinds of people who can be added to the church."

This verse contains an inventory of the church. The following words represent people. It is not a list of the quality of works a person does in his life, but a list of the kind of people that are part of the building as a result of another's evangelistic efforts.

"gold" Job 23:10; Zech. 13:9

"silver" Ps. 66:10; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3

"precious stones" Ex. 39:14; Rev. 21:19

The above three words refer to believers, those who join the church and are truly spiritual people redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

"wood" Prov. 26:21; Jer. 5:14

"hay" Ps. 92:7; Isa. 40:6-8; I Pet. 1:24

"stubble" Mal. 4:1; Ps. 1:4

The above three words refer to unbelievers, those who join the church and are not spiritual people nor redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

People join the organized church. Some are saved, but some are not and join for their own reasons or because the message was not biblical and appealed to them in a wrong way. Yet they are all on the foundation. They are not attached to some other organization. They are outwardly part of the church.

Not only does the Bible teach that a person can really be part of the organized church and not be saved, the Bible also uses words to describe unsaved members of the organized church as if they were saved. In II Peter 2:1, the words "false" and "prophet" are applied to the same person. These are people who are "among" the believers, part of them from all appearances. In fact, they are people who in a sense were "bought" by the Lord Jesus. When we turn back to Deuteronomy 32:5 and 6, we read that the same people God condemns as a perverse and crooked generation are also those who are described as "bought by their father." In fact, later on, in Deuteronomy 32:15, we read that apostate Israel, called Jeshurun, is condemned for lightly esteeming the "rock of his salvation." The explanation must be that they were outwardly identified with those who were truly bought by their father and redeemed by the rock, but were never really saved. The same point is made clearer in Chapter 10 of I Corinthians and will be discussed when we come to that chapter.

In summary we can think of God in history dealing with both an organization and a living organism. He uses the organization for His purposes (national Israel in the Old Testament, the outward church today) and saves the organism (all true believers) for His glory.

God allows the church to be mixed at this time (Matt. 13:24-43). Verse 12 reminds us of the fact that while we faithfully preach the Lord Jesus alone as Paul did (I Cor. 2:2), the people who join the church may be saved or may not be saved.

Verse 13

This verse through verse 16 explains in more detail what happens when someone preaches faithfully.

"Every man's work"

Actually it is more clearly written, "the work of each one," referring to the results of each one who brings the Gospel. The word "work" here, a noun, is used much like we would use the word to refer to the results of an artist's efforts. A sculpture or a symphony is an artist's work. We, too, as believers, are God's workmanship (Eph. 2:10). Work, then, specifically refers to people, those who are added to the church. Are they genuine believers or not?

"shall be made manifest"

The secret will not be kept forever. As a principle, you can count on the fact that people who join the church will eventually show themselves for who they really are. "Manifest" is translated "outward" in Romans 2:28 or "appear" in I Timothy 4:15. The verb in Greek is a future tense, but in Greek the future is an extension of the present. That means what is true today will still be true tomorrow and the next day because a person is what he is, and his sinful heart will find him out (Luke 6:43-45). In fact, the verb is in the middle voice, or reflexive, which means a person manifests himself. He does not need any coaching. He eventually reveals himself for what he is.

"for the day"

As the rest of the verse shows, this refers to both the present light of day and the future judgment day.


The word is used in I Corinthians 1:11, Hebrews 9:8 and 12:27 to convey the idea of explaining or giving the true meaning of something. This is a future tense and continues the thought of the beginning of the verse. This is the way in which the people will be manifested. The day will both now and later on clarify who are the true and who are the pretenders.

"because it shall be revealed by fire"

The fire is the Word of God (Jer. 23:28,29). It is not hell. Hell is not a place of revelation. Revelation takes place at the time of judgment. Hell is the assignment that follows after revelation and judgement of sin at the end of time. The verb is present continuous. This phrase emphasizes that right now the works added to the church are revealed by the Word of God. As we shall see, I Corinthians 5 illustrates how unbelievers are revealed when they are compared to the Bible.

"and the fire shall try"

The verb "try" is future and means "to examine whether a thing is true or false." The idea is that the Word of God will always continue to examine and reveal, culminating in the great trial at the end of time (John 12:48; Rom. 2:16; notice I Cor. 1:8). The verse in Zech. 13:9 that seems to imply there is a judgment trial of believers by fire actually is referring to the cross or the identification all believers have with Christ as He brought their sins to the cross with Him. He was tried by God's Law and endured the fires of hell on their behalf.

We can summarize verses 12 and 13 this way. If each one who brings the Gospel is faithful, if each one focuses upon the spiritual Gospel of the Bible, then that Word will make manifest the true nature of each person (work) in the church (building). The Word of God which the builders use will show who are and who are not believers in the church. The Word of God will show up the true believers in a congregation, (gold, silver, and precious stones) as well as the unbelievers (wood, hay, and stubble), today and especially on judgment day. At that time the judging fire of God's Word will consume the unbelievers.

Today, when the whole counsel of God is brought, people show themselves for what they really are. There are no carnal Christians. They are either carnal or they are Christians. The Word of God either corrects them or condemns them. In the future there can be no unsaved people in heaven or people who lose their salvation. In that day the Word will show people for what they always were. The grace of God is sure. There will be no one who can secretly escape or go unnoticed who deserves condemnation. Neither will there be anyone accidentally missed or lost who is one of God's children.

Verse 14

In the next two verses, Paul considers the two possible cases that can result from faithful preaching. First, in this verse, he takes the case in which the listeners of faithful preaching became true believers.

"If any man's work abide"

It is the gold, silver, and precious stones that abide. Only true believers remain because they are in Christ (John 15:4-7). Paul could personally identify with what he has written. It was his own desire that many who heard him would prove to be saved so that his work would not be in vain (Phil. 2:15,16). Ultimately judgment day will see how God used a timid person's prayer or the bold preaching of an evangelist. The practical implication of the first half of the verse can be expressed in this way, "Do not wonder or worry about the results, that is God's business. Things abide 'if' he wills. You just be faithful by building on the one foundation."

"he shall receive a reward"

What does the idea of a reward have to do with building the church? Why does God bring it up? First of all, this phrase is not a logical result of the previous phrase. This is just a principle given or a reminder of what all builders can expect. There is not a connection between the positive results of a person's witness and any expected remuneration for that effort. The first part of the verse is a conditional statement. It could be that many, some, or none abide. What a person receives is a result of the grace of God and is the common expectation of all believers independent of the results of their witness.

The second part of the verse is true for all believers. It is as if Paul said, "No matter what abides, no matter who proves to be a true believer among those to whom you witnessed, if you are a believer you will get a reward." The phrase is not "your reward" as if you earned it, but a reward earned by someone else and given to you. Jesus Christ earned the reward or inheritance of eternal life, and gave it to all His people. He deserved and obtained a reward for His work on the cross. By grace He gives it to His people.

Paul knows the problem of this congregation. He wants to counter the inordinate focus of many upon the physical results in church work as well as any unholy motive of gain for witnessing. The point of the whole verse can be expressed as, "Do not worry about the amount of positive results you or others seem to achieve. Your future blessing is not related to that. Your reward will come no matter what." Christians do not witness out of envy or gain, but out of love for their Savior. Any result of their efforts is God's grace.

This point will be made more than once. In I Corinthians 3:21-23 he teaches that Christians receive all things, in I Corinthians 4:7,8 that they have nothing that is not a gift of God, and in I Corinthians 9:17,18 that their desire is to freely make the gift of God available to all men, independent of anything else.

Verse 15

"If any man's work shall be burned"

In this verse, Paul takes the second case, in which the listeners of faithful preaching do not become true believers. A more accurate rendering of the verse that clarifies things a bit is:

"If anyone's work ..... will be burned"  +  "If anyone's work ..... will suffer loss"

Both verbs are related to the noun "work" and not to some word "he." They are both third person singular future passive and are related to the same subject. The "wood, hay, and stubble" that are burned and lost. The second verb is especially ominous. It's root zeemioo conveys the idea of the loss of life in hell (Matt. 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25, "castaway"). Witnessing, but having some not believe, was Paul's experience too (Acts 28:24; II Tim. 4:10).

"but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire" (or "through fire")

Again this is a principle that is logically independent of the first part of the verse, in the sense that there is no cause and effect relationship. Like verse 14, this phrase is a reminder. It refers to the salvation experience common to all those who are saved and faithfully bring the Gospel. All true believers go through the fire of judgment in Christ at the cross. It is as though they went through the fire of hell.

Again we ask, "What does the idea of judgment have to do with building the church? Why does Paul bring it up here?" A church that would improperly focus upon the success of a man's ministry would also improperly focus upon the apparent lack of success of a man's ministry. The point of the whole verse can be expressed as, "Do not fear if you see no results of your witness nor should you judge another by the apparent lack in theirs." A man's personal salvation is not in jeopardy because some, or even many, of those who hear him do not become saved. All believers have faced the judgment in Christ and are now secure. So any apparent lack of success is ultimately in the plan of God. It is the job of each Christian to simply remain faithful as he witnesses.

Taking verses 14 and 15 together, we can say, "When you witness do not boast or fear. Your salvation is secure and independent of your witness. When you observe others, do not praise or condemn them based upon the results of their witness. Their salvation is secure too." Christians do not preach with a view toward gain or reprimand. They preach out of love for the God who has saved them. Results are completely in God's hands. Their personal concern as a Christian is to be faithful.

Because of the difficulty of these verses and others which lead many to believe that a Christian can expect some special reward or fear some special judgment based upon his conduct on this earth, it would be well to briefly discuss both the idea of rewards and judgment in their relationship to believers. Therefore the Bible's teaching on rewards and judgment is outlined in two supplementary articles that you can select and read.  You will find them at  1Cor 3 Suppl A and 1Cor 3 Suppl B.

Verse 16 "Know ye not"

This is a second person plural verb and refers to the whole congregation. The phrase is sort of a statement of surprise, implying that they ought to know ("Didn't you know?"), and sort of a reminder ("If you don't know, let me tell you."). The expression is found several times in I Corinthians (5:6; 6:3,9,15; 9:13,24).


The word is really "shrine," a place of worship. The congregation is not a common or ordinary society. It is a group separated from the world for spiritual worship of God. The church is not a club like others in the world. It has a spiritual and biblical base and purpose.

The point in the flow of the discussion is that when a person witnesses, even if the result is a congregation of mixed believers and unbelievers, it is still the representative of God on earth. He recognizes it as that. For...

"the Spirit of God dwelleth in you (plural)"

As a whole the congregation is still God's building, used for worship and to declare God's name in the world (Matt. 16:19; 18:20; II Cor. 5:20).

Verse 17 "If any man defile"

The verb "defile," phthiro, is used to describe the results of sinful deception, such as false teachers (II Cor. 11:3 "corrupted", Rev. 19:2 "corrupt"). At this point in the discussion, Paul begins to consider the question, "What about the situation where some do not build faithfully?"

While, as we just learned, the results of a witness is in God's hands, we must nevertheless be sure that we are not corrupting the temple of God by using man's wisdom and bringing a materialistic and not a spiritual message. The corruption comes not only through a false witness, but also through those unbelievers who join the congregation and spread their sinful ways.

"him shall God destroy"

The verb "destroy" is identical to "defile" in the previous phrase. The evil which false witnesses bring to the congregation will be visited upon themselves.

The warning is stern because the temple is God's property. The behavior of the church reflects upon God (Rom. 2:24; II Pet. 2:2). The idea is not that we can cause someone to lose their salvation. True believers are never corrupted spiritually. However, the behavior of the congregation as a whole can be affected by those who enter the church either because they heard unfaithful preaching or because they have their own evil personal motives.

"for...ye are"

Again this is a description of the congregation as a whole. The word "holy" can but does not necessarily mean "saved." Essentially, "holy" means "separated or dedicated for a certain purpose by God." The separation is particularly for worship and witnessing. The whole congregation is holy when Jesus is the Lord of that congregation, when His Word is the one and only authority. Similarly, the whole congregation is holy by association with those in the congregation who are truly saved and holy (I Cor. 7:14). The congregation is holy because some spiritual people are in it, because there are members whose Lord is Jesus. If there were no Christian members at all, then it would cease to represent God, and it would not be holy. Spiritual people worship pleasingly to God and bring the true Gospel. If they have no believing members, a congregation may call themselves a church, but they are not God's church.

Verse 18 "deceive himself"

This adds the idea that while a man may be an unfaithful witness, he may still be convinced that he is faithful or wiser than his fellow worshipers. Is it possible for a man to be self deceived? Yes, it is the result of sin (Rom. 7:11) and is God's condemnation upon sin (Rom. 1:24,25; II Thess. 2:9-12). It is especially possible to be deceived if a person is reinforced in his deception by the wisdom of the world. That leads us to the rest of the verse.


Paul is saying, "There are standards set up by man to determine who is wise. If by those standards you are wise, then you are not wise by God's standards. If you continue to focus upon the world's standards, you will be convinced that you are wise. If your focus is upon the Word, you will realize you have been deceived and are not truly wise. Hopefully you will then seek the wisdom of God."

It is bad enough to be wise by the world's standards. It is even worse for someone to be deceived into thinking he is wise when he is not. But it is worst of all to try to use that wisdom to build the temple of God. Worst for the congregation and worst for person who is living a lie.

"let him become a fool"

This cannot be a command to be a fool or unbeliever. Rather, it must mean to be a fool in the eyes of the world (1:18,21,25).

"that he may be wise"

This means to be truly wise, spiritually wise. When someone uses their talents and time for the Lord and the salvation of others and not for personal achievement, when they refuse to take advantage of what the world offers because it contradicts the Word, they will be called a fool by the world, but wise by God.

Verse 19

Verses 18 through 23 describe two ways of deciding whether a man is wise or successful. There is a standard of men and there is a standard of God. Paul is saying, "We must not be impressed by the world's standards or goals (verse 18) because God is not (verse 19)."

God is not impressed by the world. He has his own standard. Verse 19 states that man is on the threshold of judgment, so he is no standard. Additionally, verse 20 states man is empty of wisdom, so he is no standard. Verses 21 through 23 state that a Christian has different standards and goals. He is not even in competition with the men of the world. In fact, to compete and strive with the world is to despise what God offers by grace.

"the wisdom of the world is foolishness"

All the great works of art and literature, all the scientific theories and discoveries, all the achievements of engineering and technology of the world are foolishness. What an amazing statement. But it is the statement of the greatest intellect, God the creator. The word "world" is cosmos, which represents the whole creation. The idea is not that man's ideas are wrong and useless, although most of them are. The problem is far deeper than that. All that man learns from this physical cosmos, this physical creation, even what he learns accurately, is of no spiritual value and useless for his soul. We major in spiritual things. Anything else is a waste of time, resources, and effort (Eccl. 1:1-8,17,18; 8:17; 12:11-14).

"For it is written"

This is a quote of Job 5:13. One theme of this chapter in Job is the inability of man to save himself from destruction (5:4). In fact, the idea is that man is destroyed by the very evil that he practices (5:2,13). Man designs and works toward his own goals (5:12). However, God will use those same plans to destroy him (Job 5:13). The quote is used to support the idea that man's wisdom is foolishness. That is, man designs his own gospel, tries to build the church by means of the wisdom of the world. That is the work of a foolish unbeliever who thinks he is serving God. Such a man does not want the wisdom of God and God lets him go on his way to destruction.


The same word is used in Luke 20:23 and is used to imply malice of forethought. Whether the false witnesses realize it or not, their own worldly wisdom is not an innocent mistake. They are tools of Satan. They are deliberate in their rebellion. For they, meeting opposition from faithful believers, take whatever devious steps they can to see to it that their ways prevail. Unfaithful people believe the ends justify the means. In the case of unbelievers, the ends are always just as wrong as the means.

Verse 20 "And again"

This is a second quote used to support the idea that people do not get away with anything and, in fact, are caught in the web they weave for others. The verse quoted is Psalm 94:11. When we look at the verses in Psalm 94 leading up to this verse, we see that the wicked apparently are successful in their evil (verses 3-6). The wicked themselves believe that they are successful (verse 7) in large measure because they were careful to use craft and deceit (verse 11). But God sees all, and He will destroy the wicked in the evil of their own making (verse 23).

The word "vanity" means more than emptiness or uselessness. "Foolishness" is more than a lack of wisdom. "Vanity" and "foolishness" describe evil rebellion. The wicked bring a gospel of their own invention and build a church by their own efforts. But their gospel will not bring them salvation. Instead, it will ensure their condemnation.

Verse 21, "Therefore"

As a warning conclusion, Paul says, "Be careful how you build (what gospel you bring) and on what foundation you have been placed (what gospel you listen to and follow)." Be sure it is not a gospel of man. Man's wisdom is reserved for judgment by God on the last day. Do not focus upon the man but the message. Do not be impressed by a message made by men, but the message of the Word.

"For all things are yours"

Besides, as this phrase reminds us, if you truly are saved, all of the things that God can give you are yours (Rom. 8:32). You do not need man's wisdom to obtain anything else that is important.

Verse 22, "Whether..."

This verse continues the thought of the last half of the previous verse. The idea is that it does not matter which of God's ministers bring you the Gospel. You will not receive more or less because a certain man brings you the Gospel. All believers receive the same. All receive what God has for them.

"Paul, Apollos, Cephas"

All believers receive all that these men can give of God's thing.


All believers receive the same, a new world (Matt. 5:5; II Pet. 3:13).


All believers receive the same, victory over death (I Cor. 15:56,57; Phil. 1:21).


All believers receive the same, eternal life (Luke 18:30).

Verse 23, "And ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's"

Paul means, "You belong to God because you belong to Christ." There is only one relationship with God, a Christian one, one through Christ (I Cor. 3:11; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; I Tim. 2:5).

It is easy to see how we could be possessions of Christ inasmuch as he purchased us with His own life (I Pet. 2:18,19). But it is not so apparent how Christ could be God's possession. After all, Jesus Christ is God. There is no separation of Him from Eternal God. The explanation is that Jesus has taken the role of the Christ, the Messiah. The Son of God has the role of the anointed one. He is God's appointed one to do the work of saving man and building the church. The possession is in the sense of God using the office of Christ to do a job. God designed the office and empowers it. The verse concerns the exclusive credit and glory which God gets as the builder of the church. God alone has Christ to do the job. The Messiah belongs to God alone and no one else. The motivation for the verse is found in the chapter. Many people bring the Gospel, some faithfully, some unfaithfully, but the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ, and the increase is God's, no matter what men may do.

A conclusion or summary to Chapters 1 through 3 can be put this way: The work of the ministry of the Gospel is all of God, and the focus is entirely spiritual. In Chapter 1, we are taught to focus on a spiritual message. In Chapter 2, we are taught to focus on a spiritual method. In Chapter 3, we are taught to focus on spiritual results. These first three chapters put the ministry of the Gospel in the right perspective.

Home     1Cor. Page     Top of Page     1Cor 1 Study