The Pursuit of God

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Applying 1 Corinthians 3: Team Paul vs. Team Apollos

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This is a continuation of Applying 1 Corinthians 2.

Brothers, in the past I could not talk to you as I talk to spiritual people. I had to talk to you as I would to people without the Spirit—babies in Christ. The teaching I gave you was like milk, not solid food, because you were not able to take solid food. And even now you are not ready. You are still not spiritual, because there is jealousy and quarreling among you, and this shows that you are not spiritual. You are acting like people of the world. (1 Cor. 3:1-3)

As he begins this new chapter, Paul’s tone is sharp and irritated, reminding us that he’s received some very bad reports about the current attendees at the Corinthian church. Here he scolds them for not maturing as fast as he feels they should. He says that back when he was originally in Corinth five years ago establishing their church, he fed them theological baby food—the super basics. Now they’re still acting like babies as they fight over stupid issues.

One of you says, “I belong to Paul,” and another says, “I belong to Apollos.” When you say things like this, you are acting like people of the world. (1 Cor. 3:4)

Paul isn’t the only instructor the Corinthians have had. Another fellow named Apollos held some kind of leadership position after Paul left Corinth. Clearly these two men were different enough in their teaching to give rise to factions. Some Corinthians prefer Paul, others like Apollos better. Factions have formed and all Paul sees is his hard work going down the drain.

Is Apollos important? No! Is Paul important? No! We are only servants of God who helped you believe. Each one of us did the work God gave us to do. I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it. But God is the One who made it grow. So the one who plants is not important, and the one who waters is not important. Only God, who makes things grow, is important. (1 Cor. 3:5-7)

This is good advice and it’s refreshing to hear Paul acknowledge that God alone should be getting the glory for the things that He does through us. This humble attitude will last for about two seconds.

The one who plants and the one who waters have the same purpose, and each will be rewarded for his own work. We are God’s workers, working together; you are like God’s farm, God’s house. (1 Cor. 3:8-9)

Human beings are addicted to comparing and ranking. In the Church today, we all know what the glory jobs are—the pastors, the prophets, the missionaries and the evangelists. How often do we hear about the church secretary or the church janitor? But where would we be if these people threw up their hands and left? When we are each following God’s leading in our own lives, He’ll assign us all to different tasks and He’ll use our efforts to accomplish great things. But when we’re not listening to God, we end up fighting over the glory roles and trying to establish little kingdoms for ourselves to rule over.

Using the gift God gave me, I laid the foundation of that house like a skilled master builder. (1 Cor. 3:10)

Paul could have just said he laid the foundation, but instead he has to say “like a skilled master builder.” He’s such a pompous guy—always dropping hints about what a fabulous job he’s doing for God.

Others are building on that foundation, but all people should be careful how they build on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 3:10-11)

Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to start calling themselves “Christians of Paul” or “Christians of Apollos”. He wants them to just be Christians who view themselves as followers of Christ.

But if people build on that foundation, using gold, silver, jewels, wood, grass, or straw, their work will be clearly seen, because the Day of Judgment will make it visible. That Day will appear with fire, and the fire will test everyone’s work to show what sort of work it was.

If the building that has been put on the foundation still stands, the builder will get a reward. But if the building is burned up, the builder will suffer loss. The builder will be saved, but it will be as one who escaped from a fire. (1 Cor. 3:12-15)

We need to be careful here. Paul’s portrayal of judgment day has us focusing too much on the product and not enough on soul intention. There are many preachers in the Church today who are putting out some very wrong theology because they simply don’t know any better. Take the sincere Catholic priest who encourages his parishioners to pray to Mary and other saints. Such idolatrous teaching is very offensive to God, but when God sees that the priest sincerely desires to please God in his heart, God will be pleased with the man himself even though the teaching the man puts out is very wrong. The Holy Spirit educates us each in a different order. No one has a complete grasp on truth. So no, it’s really not the perfection of your building that God will be examining, but rather how your soul was responding to Him as you were building it. You might show up with some ugly mud hut, but if you constructed the thing out of a sincere desire to honor God, your reward will be great.

Simply teaching technical truths doesn’t cut it with God. We could muscle our way onto some church stage and teach a bunch of right theology on a Sunday morning, but if we’re there to glorify ourselves, is God going to applaud us for the correctness of our teaching? Not hardly. We are all God’s servants, and servants should not be giving commands to their masters. It is not our place to tell the Holy Spirit when to illuminate souls with truth or what to preach about on Sunday morning.

Do you not know that you are a temple of Yahweh and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of Yahweh, Yahweh will destroy him, for the temple of Yahweh is holy, and that is what you are. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

Paul has already called the believers in Corinth the house of God. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh commonly referred to His Temple in Jerusalem as His “House”. Paul now flips over to temple language so he can make his metaphor more powerful. Jews know that Yahweh’s physical Temple was not to be messed with. The entire church body in Corinth is what Paul is calling Yahweh’s temple in this passage, and he wants the believers to view this living “temple” as just as sacred as Yahweh’s physical Temple in Jerusalem. Paul says that the foundation of this living temple has been laid by him, and that foundation is faith in Christ. He now says that if any individual comes along to try and destroy that “temple”—which means trying to lead the Corinthians astray with false teaching—that person will be destroyed by God.

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He catches those who are wise in their own clever traps.” [Job 5:13] And again, “Yahweh knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” [Ps. 94:11] (1 Cor. 3:18-20)

It’s often when we get wise in our own eyes that we start talking like idiots. This is because the Holy Spirit hates our glory-hogging arrogance and He intentionally scrambles our brains so that we start thinking foolishness is wise.

Now in this chapter, Paul keeps calling the wisdom of God foolishness. As a Christian, you might find this to be rather insulting language. Here is where you need to remember the unique position the Jews are in. They are having to change Covenants. It sounds more than a little nutty to say some normal looking Jewish guy was God Almighty. When you have spent your whole life believing in one God, and suddenly you’re supposed to believe in three Gods, that’s just uncomfortable. And let’s not forget that Paul was a smarty pants Pharisee who spent his life being revered by other Jews for his great adherence to Yahweh’s Law. Now Paul is saying that that same Law leads to death and Christ is the only way. Paul is the guy who used to promote himself as Yahweh’s champion by going around executing Christians and torturing them into blaspheming Christ. Now Paul is saying that Christ is the only way to salvation. Talk about looking like Israel’s biggest hypocrite.

The line from Job that Paul quotes is from a long speech by Eliphaz—Job’s unsympathetic friend who is unloading a long, condescending lecture onto Job’s miserable head. Much of what Job’s friends say about Yahweh is technically correct, even though their attitudes are nasty at the time they are talking. Paul is trying to emphasize that no human can fool God, so he quotes Eliphaz as saying that Yahweh finds creative ways to use people’s so-called wisdom against them.

To further support his bashing on the wisdom of humans, Paul borrows from Psalm 94, in which an unknown poet’s emotions are swinging all over the map. He starts off demanding that Yahweh rise up and do something to stop wicked people who seem to be getting away with everything. Then the psalmist starts railing against all those who don’t respect Yahweh. He calls such people stupid and warns them that Yahweh sees their disrespect and He’ll discipline them accordingly. Here’s Paul’s quotation in context:

Pay attention, you stupid people! Fools, when will you be wise?
Can the One who shaped the ear not hear, the One who formed the eye not see?
The One who instructs nations, the One who teaches man knowledge—does He not discipline?
Yahweh knows man’s thoughts; they are meaningless. (Ps. 94:8-11)

After bashing all over the wisdom of men, Paul once again scolds the Corinthians for idolizing human leaders like himself, Apollos, and the apostle Peter (aka Cephas). He wants them to stop with the warring factions and focus on God instead.

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to Yahweh. (1 Cor. 3:20-23)

When he gets all riled up like this, Paul tends to throw out extreme statements which are really not correct. Do all things belong to Christians? Not hardly. For a leader like Paul to tell Christians that other people, the world, life, death, the present, and the future all belong to them is utterly ridiculous. No, we Christians really don’t own the world, and we certainly don’t own death and other people. Paul is just babbling here. We do belong to Christ, but notice how Paul sets up this weird rank system that makes it sound like Christ is lower than Yahweh. You’ll find the New Testament Jews doing this a lot, because to them, Yahweh is still top dog. It’s very hard for them to fully accept that Christ is Yahweh’s equal, not some kind of subordinate. So Paul says that Christ belongs to Yahweh. Well, no, this is not an honoring way to speak about Christ. Christ is not a piece of furniture, He is God Almighty. He’s Yahweh’s Peer, not something Yahweh owns. We want to like Paul, but the man makes it very difficult when he keeps corrupting his letters with this kind of guff.

UP NEXT: Applying 1 Corinthians 4: Paul is Da Man

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