1 Corinthians 3:1-23

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Week 3– Divisions in the Church

1 Corinthians 3:1-23

By Aaron Barnes


            You can tell a lot about a person simply by listening to their conversations when things are going well for them. Take athletes for example. The way they respond to the questions asked in a postgame interview will usually let you know if they are about promoting themselves or their team. Some of the most viral videos are the ones where the athletes are asked a simple question like, “Why do you think you were able to score four touchdowns in today’s game?” Then the athlete responds with something that may sound something like, “Because I’m a bad man! I’m the strongest out there and can’t nobody stop me. If they think they can, why didn’t they?!” Is it true that the athlete is strong, fast, and capable? Sure. But they would not be able to achieve what they did without the other ten athletes on the field, the coaches who called the plays, and the other players not on the field that they practiced against. Can you imagine what the other players are thinking when they hear that interview? How about the coaches? I can imagine that there would be some divisions that would begin to happen once that interview goes live. What if a few of the players begin to think just like this one athlete? They think that they are God’s gift to football. How would that turn out? Well, simply turn on the next professional football game and give a listen. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Those athletes are a part of a much larger organization. Whether they realize it or not, they are a part of something bigger than themselves. How they respond to and act in times of plenty or times of lack impacts the organization as a whole.

In chapter three, Paul is addressing the Corinthian church’s lack of maturity which is causing divisions within the church. He is going to reveal that their actions may not be as wise as they think they are nor is their wisdom as valuable as they had hoped. In other words, they ain’t as smart as they look.

Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-23 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. When was the last time you had a difficult time admitting you were wrong? Share that with the group.
  2. Think back to the last time you had someone (maybe a trusted friend) share a hard truth with you. How did you respond? Do you wish you would have responded differently? Why?
  3. We all need help following the Lord and maturing in our faith. How can your community group come alongside you in your walk with the Lord right now?


3:1-9 – By the time we arrive in chapter three, we have seen Paul’s irritation with the state of spiritual maturity found in the Corinthian church. His annoyance is evidenced by the wording used here. He says, in not so many words, that there is no way that he could address them as spiritually mature individuals. The only other alternative he has is to address them as the spiritual babies they are. As a parent of two children ages six and under, there have been plenty of times that I feel like I can almost grasp what Paul is feeling here. Our children are precious and we adore them. They are smart. They are kind. They are loving. They love to play well with one another and other kids as well. But being children, they are not always going to understand what is right and fair. They will not always understand or be able to deduce the effects of a certain behavior or choice, whether positive or negative. And that is why we, as their parents, must step in and discipline them. We must set up healthy boundaries for them so that they will remain safe and so that they can learn how to make choices that are good and fair for all. There have been times when I felt as though I have had to repeat myself many times within a short amount of time. It is in those moments that I find myself growing weary of having to go through it again and again. “Why can’t they just do it right the first time?! Why must I continue to repeat myself and wear myself out with this same thing?!” Then I am reminded, either by God’s grace in my wife’s voice or through his Spirit in my head, “Because they’re kids, Aaron. What do you expect?” The way we approach parenting our kids is understandable because they are kids. Now let’s look at my relationship with Harvey and Michael. We are elders together, serving the Anchor Church faith family. We have all been walking with the Lord many years and strive to be obedient in our daily walk with him. If I began to see Harvey or Michael making decisions the way that my kids do, would that be seen as normal? What if they began to fight over whose turn it was to preach? Who is supposed to disciple whom? Is this supposed to be a normal thing?! Absolutely not. Why? Because they are grown men following Christ. They have matured in their faith and it is evident in their walks with God. I shouldn’t have to address them as I would my kids, sending them to “time out” for poor choices or throwing a tantrum in Target. Can you imagine what Jenae or Barb would say? YIKES!

            When Christ calls us to come to him, he gifts us faith. No matter the amount of good works or happy thoughts we have, faith is something that cannot be earned by us. It can only be received by us from God in Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. Once we have been “born again,” we have been redeemed. We must learn from God how to live a life that pleases him. We must learn the boundaries that he has established from the beginning that will lead to his glory and our eternal good. Will there be times when we will get it wrong? Yes. Will God disown us? No. Will he discipline us? Yes. Why? Because he loves us. There will be times that he allows us to feel the weight of our poor choices in order for us to turn to him in repentance and faith. Because we are his children, he will not condemn us because of our sin. We are told that God placed our sin upon Jesus and dealt with it once and for all on the day Jesus was crucified. Romans 8:1 tells us that all who are redeemed, followers of Christ, cannot and will not be condemned. We have been born again. We are in Christ now! Once this has happened, our new life begins.

This new life has many great perks. One of those perks is being born into a new family. That means that we have brothers and sisters. YAY! We have older brothers and sisters who will teach us how to study the bible, how to pray, and how to live this new life. What great news this is! We don’t have to do this on our own. Over the course of a few years, it would make sense that we would have some sort of noticeable growth in our new life. Why is that? Because, just like babies grow over time the more we care for them in healthy ways, we grow in spiritual maturity because we are being cared for in healthy ways. However, the flipside is also true. If we neglect our physical health, we cannot and should not expect to see growth in our physical abilities. If we neglect our spiritual health, we cannot and should not expect to see growth in that area. Paul is responding to a people that began as spiritual babies because they were new to the Christian faith. However, years later, they should be more mature. They should be mature men and women of the faith. But that was NOT the case. Their lack of spiritual maturity was coming out in their inability to “get along with” their brothers and sisters in the church at Corinth. They were divided over silly and juvenile things. One of the things that divided them was which leader that they belonged to – Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Paul addresses this quickly and follows it up with, “Why does this even matter?!” (my paraphrase). In verse five, Paul quickly addresses this in a simple way. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” He says that it was God that made it all happen. Apollos and Paul were just instruments in the hands of the Father to bring about his sovereign will of redemption. The Bible says that we are all ministers of the gospel. It is God who calls individuals to himself. It is God that saves. But he uses us to share the gospel. God is the one who causes all things. He chooses to use us to be a part of his story of redemption. One commentator says it this way, “So today, some of us can preach the word and all of us can pray for unsaved relatives and friends, but the actual work of salvation can only be done by the Lord.”[1] Let us be a people that strive for unity around this truth and who do not bicker about who should be honored more highly.

3:10-15 – In verses ten through fifteen, we see Paul share how the Corinthian church was planted. It’s a relatively basic plan. He came to Corinth. He preached Christ crucified. God saved people. Paul gathered them in house churches. He taught them the scriptures. PRESTO! This is a concept that I am certain that we all, as believers, give a mental nod. However, I do not think that we are consistent in practicing this over time. How can I make a claim like this? Because I am guilty of it.

When I came to the University of Alabama to finish my degree in 2007, I knew that I was being prepared for full-time ministry on some level, but was not exactly certain what that looked like. Being in my early 20s, I began my ministry as a student minister at a church in Northport. All I knew was what I had seen in the past. Gather students. Preach the gospel. Eat lots of pizza. Preach the gospel more. Rinse and repeat. By God’s grace, over time more students came and it was evident that they were growing in their spiritual walk with God. Then it happened. If we are not careful to establish a circle of trusted godly friends who will tell us what we need to hear and guide us to the truth, we will all fall into this trap. The trap I am referring to is pride. I began to think that I was the best thing since sliced bread. So I began to try things that I saw “bigger ministries” doing, because it was only logical, right?! If I want to have a bigger ministry, I need to BE BIGGER! This line of thinking didn’t really work out. Thankfully, God was gracious and called me back to the truth of the ministry that was taking place. It was his doing. Yes, I was the mouth piece that he was using in that place at that time, but it was not ultimately up to me.

A few years passed and I moved to take a college ministry position in Tuscaloosa. Once again, I did what I knew to be effective. Love people well. Gather them into groups. Preach the gospel. And so here we go again. Sure enough, it was not too long before God began to bring more and more students. He began to save them and use them to redeem others as well. God was doing a great and mighty thing in that church! College students were going to the mission field in other states and countries. God was calling others into vocational ministry. He was using the college ministry to change the church as a whole. Then it happened again. I began to give in to the temptation of pride calling me to think more highly of myself than I should. My role was simply to preach the gospel and make disciples. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Thankfully, and by God’s grace, he had given me a friend a year or so earlier. It was in those prideful moments that this friend made a statement that I will never forget. He said, “Aaron, don’t forget that you really aren’t that cool. God doesn’t need you. He could use anyone right now for this church. However, he did choose you for this church at this moment in time. So don’t begin to think that you’re untouchable. This church will be here long after you’re gone.” First of all, WOW! Secondly, I am forever grateful to God that he gave me that truth through my friend when he did. Who knows where I would have ended up? It was because of God’s grace and that truth in that moment that we went back to the basics. Preach the gospel. Make disciples who make disciples. Let God get the glory. Let him build his church. Be faithful in the ordinary, mundane of life.

Eugene Peterson says that faith is long obedience in the same direction. That is what I see Paul doing throughout his ministry. He was being faithful to preach the truth: Christ crucified. Paul says that each person’s work will be tested over time. If what is used to build the church is anything other than the gospel, it is referred to as “wood, straw, and hay.” [2] That wood, straw, and hay will be gone over time. Those are things that cannot last. Let me illustrate it this way. What has been constant over the years? God’s word, the Bible, is constant because it contains the very words of God. Because God never changes, the Bible never changes. What will change? People. Music. Clothing. Those things will always change year after year and from one context to the next. The one constant is God’s word. So, wouldn’t it make sense for us to stick to what never changes? Yes, Aaron. It would make sense. Now, does that mean that we need to cling to the things in the past, such as, the pastor we used to have, the clothing we used to wear, or the way the community used to look? No. Those things and people are temporary. What is most important is the gospel. What is also as important is reaching people with the gospel. We need to be seeking ways to establish relationships with more people, so that we can present the gospel to them. Mega churches will fade away. Celebrity pastors will fade away. The only constant is God’s word. This is Paul’s point in verses ten through fifteen. If it is going to be a church, the only foundation that can be laid is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then each one that comes in after to build upon that foundation must be careful as to how they build and what is used to build upon that foundation. This is one more reason I am thankful for this season of ministry with Anchor Church. We say it every Sunday. We are here to know Jesus and make him known. Nothing more and nothing less. We will work to establish relationships with others in order that the gospel can be preached. We do not look to other churches or other pastors for validation. We seek to be faithful to God and his calling to make disciples.

3:16-17 – Why did Paul interrupt his stream of thought to interject about the Temple of God? Why wouldn’t he have just continued on with the church fighting against divisions within itself? The first few times I read over these verses in preparation for this study guide, I read them as simply that…great thoughts about the church as a whole, but not pertinent to this portion of text. After all, Paul began Chapter 3 dealing with spiritual immaturity and silly arguments. It wasn’t until I slowed down long enough to consider that maybe there’s more to this discussion given the time that has expired between Paul and today. It could be that because today’s church culture and our thoughts on the Temple are so far removed from biblical times, I have failed to see the significance behind Paul’s discussion of the Temple.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve were able to be in the presence of God. This changed after they sinned. Because of the holiness of God, Adam and Eve were removed from the presence of God. Because of his holiness, they and their descendants would be destroyed in the presence of God. For this reason, in his grace, God gave instructions to his people, Israel, to construct the Tabernacle, which would later be replaced by the Temple, where his people could meet with him. The first glimpse we see God dwelling with his people outside of the Garden of Eden is the Tabernacle in Exodus 26. In this chapter, God gave Moses specific instructions for erecting a mobile structure where God would meet with his people, specifically the High Priest, only once a year. This Tabernacle would contain a few specific items that would be used for worship. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the presence of God, would be there. The room where the ark would be stored was called the Holy of Holies. No one was allowed in this specific room, except the High Priest on a specific day. On that day, The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), the High Priest would enter the Tabernacle and follow a ritual of praying, changing of clothes, and other worshipful acts. He would go into the Holy of Holies to offer up a sacrifice for the atonement for himself and then the people of Israel. No one could approach God apart from the High Priest. It was his job to intercede for the people. The people had to go to the priest and confess their sin; then the priest would offer their sacrifice. Do you see how difficult this would be? Do you feel the weight of the situation? This is a very important part of the gospel narrative. God was making a way for his people to experience his presence. It is important to note that the sin sacrifices made at the tabernacle covered their sin so they could be near God, but the sacrifices did not save them. They were not redeemed by their works. Redemption can only come by faith in the promises of God. It was their faith in the one that God would send who would fulfill the need for a sacrifice that led to their salvation. It was not and cannot ever be by works. Salvation has always been by faith in the promises of God that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

God desires to be with his people. In the New Testament, He makes a way for people to be with him by creating the Temple system. It isn’t too long in Jesus’ ministry, before he begins to refer to himself as greater than the Tabernacle or Temple could ever be. In John 4, Jesus is at a well with a Samaritan woman. In his conversation with her, she asks which place is THE place to worship. In her question, you can hear her asking for more than just a direct answer. In Jesus’ fashion, being the Son of God, he responds to her with this statement, 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he,” (John 4:21-26). His point was not that one place was supposed to be better than the other. His point was, and still is, that God desires a relationship with his people and he wants to dwell with his people. Jesus has come to accomplish this in a way the Tabernacle or Temple never could. John 1:14 tells us that God came to this earth and took on flesh to dwell among us as Jesus. Again, the English language used here can lead us to gloss over the importance of this act by God. Let’s look at the verse. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,..” The actual language used here, in the original manuscript, is that Jesus, the Son of God, became a human and tabernacled with humanity. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, had taken on flesh to dwell with his people.

In John 14, when Jesus is about to be handed over to the Sanhedrin and then be crucified, he reassures his disciples that when he leaves, he won’t leave them all alone in the world. God would send the Holy Spirit to live in and with them. As his followers, the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth and remind them of the teachings of Jesus. This is huge! Never before had God’s Holy Spirit been with man in this way. We see the Spirit empower people in the Old Testament, but we never see him indwelling people. What Jesus speaks of in John 14 is a new thing. God won’t just be in the vicinity of his people at the Tabernacle or Temple, nor will he only be in their physical presence. His Holy Spirit will dwell within his people. Jesus was going to the cross to satisfy the sin debt humanity owed and to purchase a new life for believers.  Within the Tabernacle and the Temple, there was a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the other parts of the buildings. In Matthew 27, we read that when Jesus was crucified, the curtain was torn into two pieces; top to bottom. This was signifying that Jesus had achieved what man could not. No longer would man need the High Priest to intercede before God on his behalf. Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16) had offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for sin once and for all. Humanity would no longer need a human intercessor. Instead, the Holy Spirit would be poured out on God’s people, dwelling within them and preparing them for the fullness of God at the return of Jesus. This would be accomplished by and for God.

Let’s return to context at hand in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Paul is addressing the lack of spiritual maturity found within the church at Corinth. Paul has just walked the Corinthians through an illustration of different building materials through which the church is being built up. Jesus is the foundation of it all. Paul is careful to make the statement that whatever is used to build upon the foundation, Jesus, will be made evident over time. Then it is right after that where he makes this statement about them being the Temple. Over the years, I have heard this used in preaching against lazy lifestyles, overeating, alcohol abuse, and other things that might plague humanity. While that may have some bearing on us as believers, what Paul says here and how he says it refers to much more than behavior modification. Paul says, “…youare God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you.” The word YOU here is in the plural form. The Holy Spirit dwells within God’s people, and he is building his people into the church, the body of Christ, the temple in which his Spirit is now dwelling. When God saves an individual, he simultaneously places them within a body of believers so that they can grow and mature, going on to make disciples. So when Paul goes on to say that God will destroy whomever destroys the Temple, he is talking about the one that actively works against the building up of the Church. Should we care for our bodies and exercise authority over creation so that we, along with all creation, flourish? Yes. But what Paul is getting at is their lack of spiritual maturity could be working against the building up of God’s people and could possibly be hindering others from coming to Christ. That’s why he makes this statement at this point in his letter. Let us be a people that live out the calling that God has placed upon us, living in his power, to carry out his mission of being that royal priesthood that shows and shares the love of Christ and points others to him daily. Let us be a people that live to know him and make him known.

3:18-23 – Verse eighteen is a stark reminder for us all to remember our role in this life. “18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.[3] Could we gather a bigger crowd if we were to preach sermons based on the current events and limit them to more of a 25 minute pep talk? What if instead of encouraging one another to be in discipleship groups, we encourage one another to gather in groups and talk about the latest and most shocking news of the day? Sure. I imagine that our numbers would skyrocket. We could possibly become one of the quickest growing churches in our area. This is not to say that rapid church growth is bad. But if church growth has come from abandoning fidelity to what God has called us to, think of the cost. Although those things may seem harmless on the front end, the effects would be spiritually damaging for generations to come. Relying on our own “wisdom” or the latest church growth technique may sound great, but if they rely on honing a certain skill over and above the very words of God[4] then we would be better off without them. Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 3:19-21 with why man’s wisdom is not on the same playing field with God and what he is doing, “19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men…” Paul refers to our wisdom as actual folly. It is the opposite of what we think it to be. What we need more of is God’s word. What we need more of is his Spirit in our faith family. What we need is more of him and less of us.

            Still, I am almost haunted by verse eighteen. Mainly it is those first few words. “Let no one deceive himself.” Paul says that it is possible that we can actually deceive ourselves. Typically, when I am considering the thought of being lied to, or being deceived, I do not think about the deceiver being myself. Because I would never lie to myself…would I? Let’s think about that one. Have you ever been so sure of something insignificant only to find out a few days later that you were wrong? Maybe it was something like the time you got home, whose turn it was to do dishes, who took the garbage out last…something like that. I know it is VERY possible (often likely) that I fall into that at times. But in that moment, we cannot be convinced. We are sure of it. We know that we are right and they are wrong. Right?!

Now let’s dig a little deeper. What about our spiritual walk? Has there ever been a moment when you thought you had it right only to find out that you did not, in fact, have it right? If you are a born again child of God, then yes. You have had a moment like that in your past. You were not born a follower of Christ. He has shown you your sin, convicted you, and gifted you faith which has now brought about salvation in your life. But before knowing Christ, we cannot be convinced otherwise. We are sure of ourselves. We know what we are doing. We do not need anyone’s help…until we do. You see, even though we have been born again and the power of sin no longer reigns over us, the presence of sin is still very much a reality. And because of that, we will continue to struggle with daily obedience to Christ. Within that struggle, it is possible that we can deceive ourselves. Here’s how that typically works its way out in my own life. I read scripture or hear a sermon preached on a certain topic or text. Upon hearing that preached, if I like it, I immediately respond with a resounding “AMEN!” But if I do not like it, there is a conflict that takes place in my mind. This is what the Bible says. This is what my heart feels. In this moment of conflict, I have to make a choice. Will I decide to submit my feelings to the authority of God’s word or will I, in my own wisdom, walk in my own way? Unfortunately, there have been multiple times that I have chosen the latter. In my own pride, I began to deceive myself. If left to walk in that deception long enough, I would continue to spread a false gospel and many others would be impacted because of my sin. But by God’s grace, he has brought me back to truth. He does this because of who he is and not because of who I am. It is possible that we can say things loud enough and long enough that we begin to believe them. We become so convinced that our ways of thinking are correct that we change the way Scripture is read and translated. Because after all, if this is what I feel, it cannot be wrong…can it? (Hint—it can).

Friend, please hear me. God loves you. I love you. In Christ, you are fully known and fully accepted. Because of those truths, I say this: It really does not matter how sincere you are about how you feel about that thing, person, or belief. If it is contrary to Scripture, you are wrong. God loves you and for his glory he is calling you to himself. We must care for one another as Paul does the church in Corinth. They were not growing in their walk with Christ and he could not let that go. We seek to know Jesus and make him known. For that to take place in our lives, we must walk in a way that is consistent with Scripture and over time we will mature in our faith. We must not seek to live on the milk of this world that is driven by feelings and emotions. Is it easier to swallow? Of course. Because it’s baby food. We must seek to learn to love the meat of God’s word. It won’t always be as easy to swallow, but in the end it is what we need. We need more of him and less of this world.

The Main Point

Healthy things grow and mature. As born again followers of Christ, we should seek to grow in our spiritual maturity, moving from the milk for babies to the meat for adults. If we are not seeking to grow in our walk with the Lord, we cannot expect to be spiritually healthy.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Romans 12:9-21 – We are to act in a godly manner regardless of the audience. We are to be acting in loving ways toward all people because of who God is and what he has done within us.
  • Galatians 6:1-10 – This reminds us of our obligation to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • Hebrews 4:12-14 – This Scripture reminds us of the biblical truth that the bible is God’s words. One of the purposes of the Bible is to reveal to us, by God’s Holy Spirit, our sin that we might be able to repent.

[1] W. Harold Mare, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1976), 1754.

[2] 1 Corinthians 3:12-14

[3] 1 Corinthians 3:18

[4] Hebrews 4:12-13

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