Sermon Discussion Questions:
Read 1 Cor 3:1-17 together
1. In 1 Cor 3:1-4, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for living like they aren't even Christians. "The most miserable of all people are half-hearted Christians," (Ray Ortlund Sr.). What does he mean by that? ("...they know enough about God to feel guilty, but not enought to be happy.")
2. Should Christians read their Bibles, pray, and go to church...even when they don't feel like it? What role should effort play in the Christian life? "Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning," (Dallas Willard).
3. What resources/privileges are available to Christians to help them turn away from the flesh and live "super-human" (cf. 1 Cor 3:3-4) lives?
4. What is the warning Paul is giving in verses 10-17? Who is Paul addressing? What is the "reward" he speaks of? (Cf. 1 Thess 2:19)
What is the difference between “forced” religion, and true faith? I have found no better summary than the writing of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man:
“Force and artificial religion,” he writes, “is commonly heavy and languid, like the motion of a weight forced upward: it is cold and spiritless, like the uneasy compliance of a wife married against her will, who carries it dutifully toward the husband whom she doth not love.” But the experience of true religion is very different, it is, “The image of the Almighty shining in the soul of man: nay, it is a real participation of his nature, it is a beam of the eternal light, a drop of that infinite ocean of goodness; and they who are endued with it, may be said to have ‘God dwelling in their souls’, and ‘Christ formed within them.’” (Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 48-49). Those who have Christ formed in them find every reason for delight, joy, happiness, peace, security, and comfort—and they are animated by an inward energy that pulls them toward their beloved. They are not coerced, they are not pulled—they desire God, and so follow Him. It is an incredibly beautiful reflection, and I would strongly commend it to you. But, if you are anything like me, there may be a thought in your mind that goes something like this: I would really like to have a faith like that, but often I don’t. I wish I always felt like that, but sometimes I just don’t desire God. And so, the second half of the book anticipates this response. Scougal, explains that when one hears of the joys of divine life, he may be discouraged and think I could never live like that. He writes:
“In a word, when I reflect on my highest…attainments, I have reason to suspect, that they are all but the effects of nature, the issues of self-love acting under several disguises; and this principle is so powerful, and so deeply rooted in me, that I can never hope to be delivered from the dominion of it. I may toss and turn as a door on the hinges, but can never get clear off, or be quite unhinged of self, which is still the center of my motions; so that all the advantage I can draw from the discovery of religion is but to see, at a huge distance, that felicity which I am not able to reach; like a man in shipwreck, who discerns the land, and envies the happiness of those who are there, but thinks it impossible for himself to get ashore,” (Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 92-93).
The book of 1 Corinthians is written to point real sinners to the real grace offered by the real God. This includes sinners who feel shipwrecked on the island of sin and are totally at a loss of how to return to the fresh seas of holiness in Christ. Our text today shows us the danger that remains for us in our sin, and the many advantages God has given for our aid.
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?
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. 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.
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.
- 1 Cor 3:1-17
The Peril, the Power, the Privilege, the Pastor
These opening four verses are shocking. They are shocking in pointing out just how difficult the battle with the flesh can be, and they are shocking in pointing forward to glory of what it means to be a Christian.
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ,” (1 Cor 3:1). Paul claims that he could not speak to the Corinthians like they were Christians “but as people of the flesh,” as people who do not have the Holy Spirit living in them. He softens the shocking rebuke at the very end by saying that they are “infants in Christ,” so he is saying that they are in Christ but on the scale of maturity, they are at the very beginning, so their diet must consist with that of infants: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh,” (1 Cor 3:2-3a).
For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Cor 3:3-4). Okay, what is going on here? The Corinthians are busy dividing the church over who is following “the right” teacher. And you can totally picture this: you have one group who loves the powerful preaching of Apollos, and they look down on the followers of Paul, and there are followers of Paul who love his depth and intellect, and so they look down on the followers of Apollos. But here Paul is saying—you shouldn’t be divided at all! Tom Schreiner writes, “The Corinthians believed their partisanship reflected their spiritual perception, but Paul says that it points to their spiritual poverty; they are actually living on a human level instead of relying on the Holy Spirit,” (TNTC, 1 Corinthians).
There is a self-centered vanity and pride that gives rise to the jealousy and contentions the Corinthians are experiencing. And this fleshly pride is what is choking the Corinthians from growing into maturity—they cannot bear to hear the whole of Paul’s teaching.
But notice the subtle danger here: the Corinthians were not saying, “I would like to reject the Spirit and live according to the flesh.” What were they saying: I follow Paul, I follow Apollos. And the reasons, we can assume, they were saying those things had something to do with Paul and Apollos’ ability to talk about spiritual things. And yet, like Indiana Jones swapping out the treasure with a sandbag, their flesh had subtly swapped out a love for Jesus with a love for the teacher. Following Paul or Apollos was now primary, not Christ. You will likely not be seduced by the flesh in only overtly sinful ways. You will also be tempted to take something good, like following Paul or Apollos, or volunteering at a homeless shelter, or studying theology, and make that good thing an absolute thing, something more important than Jesus Himself. The flesh is devious, tricky, and we must have our guard up.
Here is the sobering word to us all today: it is possible for you to live a miserable life in church. Here is what it looks like: your life is dominated by the priorities, schedule, cravings, politics, ambitions, habits, and lusts of the rest of the world, but with a metal sliver of God wedged painfully in. God becomes almost an irritant, rather than a help. You know you should follow Jesus, kill sin, rely on the Holy Spirit, commune with God…but you are so busy with everything else, so trapped in sin, so enamored with creating your own boutique lifestyle that actually dropping the clutch in your faith feels impossible. So you live with a constant buzz of guilt in the back of your mind, you ask God to forgive you, but you don’t really know how to exit the spin cycle. You can subsist on the thinnest and most meager of spiritual rations, just milk.
Ray Ortlund Sr. often said that the most miserable of all people are half-hearted Christians because they know enough about God to feel guilty, but not enough to be happy. The Corinthians were living in the no-man’s land of being “in Christ” but living so dominated by the flesh that Paul says that he can’t even speak to them like they are Christians! They may, as the man in chapter five will show us, in time prove to actually not even be in Christ.
Quinault Baptist Church, heed this warning. Don’t live this way. Heed the many warnings the Bible gives us: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” (Rom 13:14). Here Paul speaks of the flesh like it is an appetite. If you feed it, it grows stronger. There is an energy inside of you that is tethered to sin that is not neutral. When you feed it, it gets bigger. It is eager to grow, and eager to make your life a living Hell. Don’t feed it. Instead, put on Christ. Which leads to the flipside of what Paul is saying.
When Paul says rebukes the Corinthians: For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Cor 3:3) and “…are you not being merely human?” (1 Cor 3:4). What is he inferring from that? That ordinary, normal Christian life is literally super-human. We are not to be people of the flesh, but people of the Spirit. Paul tells the Galatians: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” (Gal 5:16). There is a plane of existence that marks and defines normal human life with all its attendant fears, desires, resources, and priorities. And while it is possible for you to sink there, that isn’t where you live anymore. You now walk by the Spirit, live in the Spirit, and are filled with the Spirit. Just to be most concrete and precise: the Holy Spirit is God Himself. So, when we are saying “walk by the Spirit,” we are saying that God’s personal presence, strength, and resources are available to you.
But you have a choice to make. The Corinthians were choosing the neglect the power available to them in the Spirit. You can make a real choice today to walk in the Spirit. The Bible says that we can “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19), “grieve the Spirit” (Eph 4:30), or neglect the Spirit by indulging in the flesh (Gal 5:16ff), or we can “set our minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5-6), and “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh,” and “be filled with the Spirit,” (Eph 5:18). The flesh quenches the Spirit, or the Spirit quenches the flesh. Sin will either throttle the Spirit, or the Spirit will throttle sin.
How do we live by the Spirit? Of course, we put ourselves under the faith-giving Word of God, we pray, we come to church, we repent of sin. But I want to single in on one thing: we put in effort. I believe it was Don Carson who said that grace is opposed to earning, but not effort. We could see this by looking at Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:13-14 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you,” or his teaching later in Corinthians that he, as an apostle, “worked harder” than any other apostle, but it was instead “God’s grace” that worked (1 Cor 15:10), but I think we can see this even in our passage here. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” (1 Cor 3:6). Paul and Apollos worked, but God gave the growth. God’s hand in bring growth did not make Paul and Apollos’ effort meaningless. Nor did Paul and Apollos’ work rule out God’s work. God’s work is given primacy—only God can bring growth, yes and amen. The only hope you have in your walking by the Spirit is that God gives growth. Yet, that doesn’t exclude our effort, or in the words of AW Tozer, “going hard after God.”
After explaining that it is only the work of God, “and all our natural endeavors can neither produce” true religion in our souls, once we have been saved and filled with the Spirit then, Scougal writes, we must work: “ We must not expect that this whole work should be done without any concurring endeavors on our own: we must not lie loitering in the ditch, and wait till Omnipotence pulls us from thence; no, no! we must bestir ourselves, and actuate those powers which we have already received,” (Scougal, p. 98).
Wherever there is true grace there is a desire for more grace. (Matthew Henry)
You are God’s
You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:9b)
We will dig into these images in just a moment, but consider the simple fact that you know who you are because of whose you are. You are God’s. God the omnipotent one. Any farmer or builder cares for his work. He makes sure that the field is tended, that the building is rightly made. What farmer abandons his field? What architect would stand by unthinkingly as people deface his building? He cares for what He has made, so He tends to it, protects it, watches over it. And what of our heavenly Father, who lacks no power nor insight? Who has no shade of indifference in his heart, but has a tender regard for His own, who love us with an unbreakable, unconditional love? Look at the fierce protection God has over His people: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple,” (1 Cor 3:17).
Other religions inspire us to put forward effort so that we may earn God’s approval. Christianity inspires us to put forward effort because—even when we were steeped in sin and enemies of God—He made us His own.
Jesus Christ is Your Foundation
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 3:11)
What is the starting place to build your life on? Here Paul says that the foundation of a Christian is Jesus Christ. This means that Jesus is our final authority, He is the bedrock on which the home of our life is built (Matt 7:24-27). Jesus is not a counselor among many, He is our King, our Lord, our God to whom total obedience is deserved. But He is also a compassionate, gentle hearted, and merciful King. He is a King who uses His authority to deny Himself, and to suffer on our behalf, to take the full punishment all my sins had deserved, and purchase me forgiveness. All forgiveness comes with a price, it is an absorbing of loss—Jesus absorbed the cost, absorbed the debt, absorbed the pain our sins deserved, completely. Which means that because of Jesus, a tidal wave of grace has swallowed up my sins I have committed, the sins I am committing, and the sins I will commit—totally. This is why Hebrews says that Jesus saves “to the uttermost” (Heb 7:24-25). He has taken it all, all, every last bit of it. To reappropriate an old saying of Abraham Kuyper, there is not one square-inch of your guilt and sin that your merciful Savior does not look at and say, “Mine!”
We build our life on Jesus as the foundation because everything else in the Christian life flows out of His sin-atoning work on the Cross and life-giving resurrection from the tomb.
The Holy Spirit Dwells in You
Do you not know that…God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
God has not left you to your own capacities and resources. He has given you Himself. The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal power or force. He is not the JV version of God. He is not an angel or something God created to help us. He is God, His very presence. And He is described as the comforter, the teacher, the convicter of sin, the sustainer, and the one who gives life. Paul tells the Ephesians that they have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory,” (Eph 1:14). What does that mean? That means that those who have received the Holy Spirit are guaranteed by God to receive the full inheritance that God has stored in heaven for them. We now receive an experience of God that is partial, clouded by sin, we can still grieve the Spirit—but there will be a day when the dark clouds of sin will melt away before the sunshine of God’s full, unmediated presence, and our hearts shall be so full of Him that no sin shall remain. If you have the Spirit, Christian, that day is coming for you. So strive now towards that end, run the race well, and keep in step with the Spirit.
You are a Member of God’s Temple, the Church
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
In the Old Testament, Israel had a physical building for a temple and it was there that God’s presence was localized. Now, under the New Covenant, God’s temple isn’t found in a building, but in a people—we are the temple because we are where God’s Spirit now dwells. It is in the Church now where heaven and earth meet, where God’s heavenly presence is made known here on earth.
A Christian by themselves cannot experience what Paul is talking about here. In Greek, all of the “you’s” in this verse are plural. Later, Paul will compare the individual Christian’s body to a temple, but that is the only time in the whole New Testament that a single Christian is called a temple of the Holy Spirit. Every other reference refers to the Church. Paul, to the Ephesians explains that the church, “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit,” (Eph 2:20-22, cf. 1 Pet 2:5).
Christian, have you considered the remarkable blessing you have in this local church? You become the people you are with. And if you rake the coals of a fire out so they are separate from each other, they cool and dwindle. But heap them together, and they burn hot and bright.
You Have Accountable Pastors
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. (1 Cor 3:5-8)
One of the gifts that we are told God gives to churches, and thus to Christians, are pastors (Eph 4:9-11). From this passage we see that teachers of God’s Word should work hard (vs. 6), remain humbly dependent on the Lord for growth (vs. 7), and await “wages according to his labor” (vs. 8). What does that last part mean? That could just mean that a pastor will be paid by his congregation. But I think Paul is referring to a different payment, a heavenly payment, because of what he says next.
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. (1 Cor 3:10-11)
So, Paul laid the foundation of Jesus Christ in the sense that he was the one who first preached the gospel, which is the foundation of the church. Then, Paul left to go start other churches, but he issues this warning to other pastors and teachers who would come behind him: let each one take care how he builds upon that foundation.
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. (1 Cor 3:12-13)
This can be hard to discern exactly what Paul means here, but there are two groups of building materials Paul has in mind: those that will persist through the testing fire, and those that will perish. Since the foundation stone is the teaching Paul brought of Jesus Christ, I think it is likely that the gold, silver and precious stones refers to good, sound doctrinal teaching, while the wood, hay, and straw refer to off-center, ineffective, and unfruitful teaching. I don’t think it is referring to outright false teaching, because of what Paul says next:
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. (1 Cor 3:14-15)
Pastors and teachers who taught good, sound doctrine will receive a reward. What is the reward that Paul speaks of here? We don’t know. We can speculate, but I think it wise to simply trust the generosity of God’s heart and know that He is no miser and if He promises a reward, we can be certain that it shall be great (cf. 1 Thess 2:19). This happens while pastors and teachers who taught wood-hay-straw teachings will receive no reward, but will still be saved. We know that these people are not false teachers because we are told in verse 17 what happens to false teachers: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple, (1 Cor 3:17).”
Sometimes this passage is used as support for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but this clearly is wrong because Paul is not referring to all Christians (only teachers) and isn’t referring to a temporary holding place prior to judgment, but to the final judgment day itself. What are we seeing here? We are seeing what James referred to in his warning: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness,” (James 3:1).
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Heb 13:17)
Pastors are held accountable to God, and so we approach this calling with great trepidation and caution. But take advantage of this great privilege! God has given you Joe Bellanti, Reece Loeffler, George Booth, Aaron Burkhart, and myself as your pastors who are charged with building carefully and discerningly. We are keeping watch over your souls and know we will have to give an account.
Trust your pastors, follow them. Make it easy for them to minister to you, to seek you out. Don’t just wait for them to engage, engage them. Above all, pray for us. We have a fearful judgment day that awaits us.
Consider what you have going for you:
God is for you and has made you His
The Son is your foundation
The Spirit indwells you
You are a member of the church
With pastors watching over your souls
Other resources and privileges at our disposal
- Your natural design, “sin and corruption are but usurpers…and is not he who made our souls able to rectify and mend them again?” (Scougal)
- God’s providence, “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28)
- Angels, Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:14)
- The Universal Church, “Your kingdom come, your will be done”
Before you surrender to despair over your spiritual state, consider the great surge of resources you have at your disposal, and all that God is doing to keep you to Himself. Like the prophet Elijah, we can say: “Fear not, for they that be with us, are more than they that be against us” – 2 Kings 6:16-17