Important Imperatives for Christians 

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

By Paul Robison

There was a father who was reading in his study, and he heard a commotion outside his window.  It was his daughter who was playing with her friends.  As they were playing, they got louder and louder.  Their speech became heated, argumentative, harsh, and attacking.  They kept going at it like this for such a long time that the father couldn't stand it any longer.  He pushed a window open and said, “Can't you kids play a little more quietly?  Why is there all this continual noise?”  After his reprimand, his daughter responded quickly, “But, Daddy, we were just playing church” (Flynn in Swindoll).
We've been studying about a congregation that had become argumentative to the point of creating divisions, but the apostle Paul still called them “the church of God at Corinth” (1:2).  He had heard of problems from several sources and began dictating a letter in 54 A. D. 
Immediately, Paul tries to help them get their focus back on Jesus in the opening verses.  These young members in the faith had carried their culture’s exaltation of philosophers, eloquent speech, and worldly wisdom right into the church by exalting their favorite preachers and those who had baptized them.  This created cliques in the congregation that were quarreling with each other as to which group was best.  Paul gets right down to business and says they should not be divided, but they should be “perfectly joined together” with a proper focus.  They should focus on unity, on Jesus, on revelation, and on Christ crucified (God’s wisdom), and not their culture’s values (worldly wisdom).  Then, Paul stresses focusing on divine wisdom and not the world's wisdom.  In the next section of the letter, Paul begins to give a direct response to divisive members.  He exhorts them to have God's spirit and the Holy Spirit's wisdom.  He wants them to be spiritual people and maturing and peace-loving members.  He encourages them to exalt God and trust in His power.  At the close of chapter three, Paul keeps addressing these same divisive members.  Many of Paul's statements in this section can be turned into imperatives for our consideration, and these can be grouped under three headings: God's building, the Spirit's dwelling place, and Christ's people.  Let's look at these headings and imperatives more closely.
The first heading is God's building.  Open your Bibles and let's read from verse 10: “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it.  But let each one take heed how he builds on it.  For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is.  If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.  If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will saved, yet so as through the fire.”  Paul has laid the foundation of God's building, and that foundation was Jesus Christ.  Apollos had done some building on that foundation, but it is interesting that Apollos is not named here.  Notice who is named: “another builds”, “let each one take heed,” “can anyone lay,” “if anyone builds,” “test each one's work,” “if anyone's work.”  It sounds like Paul is expecting some of the Corinthian members themselves to build on his foundation, which they have been doing, but in the wrong way.  In fact, they should be building with the gold, silver, and precious stones of the Gospel and the apostles' teachings, but they haven't been doing that.
They've been building with the wood, hay, and straw of earthly wisdom, of their culture's values: putting the emphasis on eloquence and boasting about style.  Some commentators see “the Day of testing” as the final judgment, and some see it as a day of persecution.  A day of persecution with its fires of testing makes more sense with the overall context and with what follows as well.  Those building on Paul's foundation with their culture's values are going to be in for a rude awakening in the day of persecution because members who put their faith in those values won't endure under testing.  Those who build like Paul, Apollos, and the apostles on Christ crucified will have the reward that their converts will endure and remain faithful.  Those converts that are disloyal will cause pain to those who taught them inadequately, but those teachers themselves can still be saved if they will let such pain help them to get back to teaching the Gospel and exalting Christ alone.  One commentator stated it this way: “When a laborer builds wood, hay, and stubble upon the foundation, all such will turn back into the world …. and the laborer loses his reward.  On the other hand, those of his converts who prove themselves to be [worthy] in service of God will be admitted [later in heaven], and this will be a reward to him” (Lipscomb).  With this background, now let's look at several important imperatives.
The first imperative is: Take care how you build (seen in the last part of verse 10)!  The New Testament helps us to understand how we should build.  In Acts 20:32, Paul gave the elders of Ephesians this admonition: “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”  Paul says to these church leaders that they should keep God at the forefront, He should be their focus.  Then, Paul also stresses the “word of His grace”.  This can be interpreted in two ways. 
If Paul stresses the term “word”, then the idea is to share with others what the Scriptures teach.  Jesus and His teachings must continue to be all Christians’ guiding North Star!  But if Paul was stressing the term “grace”, then Paul wants Christians to continually stress the message of God’s grace.  Without God’s new covenant, initiated by the shedding of Jesus’ blood, none of us as Christians could enjoy all the spiritual blessings that God has also provided through Christ!  So, we can build by stressing God, the Scriptures, and His grace.  Take care how you build! 
Another imperative is based on verse 11: Remember that Jesus is the only foundation!  Recall how once Jesus told Peter these words: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  The rock was not Peter, but his confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  The apostle Paul’s affirmation to the Corinthians confirms that Jesus is the rock; He is the only foundation upon which the church is built.  Notice how our text also affirms that Jesus is only foundation that can be laid; there is nobody else!  Jesus is the unique Son of God who is the only Savior and Mediator who has brought reconciliation between God and mankind (Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21).  So, let’s remember that Jesus is the only foundation upon which the church can be built! 
The next imperative is: Build with your best and with testing in mind!  Paul built with “Christ crucified”, so we must also stress God’s mercy, sacrifice, doing God’s will, unselfishness, and trusting God under persecution; all themes connected with the cross.  Whether it’s the judgment day or a day of persecution, a time of testing is going to come in which our work will be tested.  If we choose to exalt Christ crucified, our culture will certainly ridicule and persecute us.  Let’s build with our best and with future testing in mind! 
Another imperative is: Don’t believe in purgatory!  The official catechism of one huge religious organization, which is overseen now by the man who wrote the catechism, states this about purgatory: “All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the necessary holiness to enter the joy of heaven. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire ...”  And just guess in their footnote, what passage is cited?  1 Corinthians 3:15 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, '95:291).  Here is why this teaching is false.  First of all, we have seen that this passage is not dealing with what takes place after death.  It is dealing with teaching done in this life as one builds on the foundation of Christ.  Secondly, Paul uses a metaphorical expression, which should not be interpreted literally: “... he will be saved, yet so as through fire.” 
“As through fire” is a comparison stressing the difficult involved in the teacher's salvation.  The text does not say “in the fire” or “by the fire” as those who promote purgatory sustain.  Thirdly, this reference is to a fire of testing and not a fire of purification.  One commentator had this good insight: “The doctrine of purgatory is not merely unscriptural ..., there being not one word in the entire scriptures to support such a monstrous thesis; but it is effectively refuted in a single question: ‘If any church believes in such a thing, and in their own power, through prayer, to deliver men from it; why do they not pray all men out of it immediately for sweet charity’s sake?’” (Coffman)  Purgatory is a man-made false doctrine which has brought much wealth to the Vatican.  Don't believe in purgatory!  These imperatives are found under the heading of “God's building”.
The next heading is the Spirit's dwelling place.  Paul has earlier referred to the church at Corinth as God's field and God's building.  Now despite all their shortcomings and problems, he refers to them as God's temple, the Holy Spirit's dwelling place!  Isn't that amazing!  Paul's love for and patience with his converts is astounding!  Let's read now verses 16-17: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?  If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him.  For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”  “Do you not know” is used ten times in this letter, and it means that Paul is probably reminding his audience of something that they had already been taught.  The “you” here is plural, which means Paul is showing that the church collectively, as a congregation, is God's temple and the Spirit's dwelling place.  Remember how Corinth was full of temples?  Just inside the northern city wall was the temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  Near the forum was a temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  At another end of the forum was a temple to the emperor built by Tiberius.  On the lookout mountain near Corinth, there was another temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which employed one thousand male and female prostitutes.  The philosophers would debate at the temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea.  The members at Corinth understood temples very well.  What elements made a temple in Paul's day?  A temple had an outside porch, often with steps, which led to the sanctuary proper, and in it was a statue of the god or goddess, as well as an altar for sacrifices.  Temples sometimes had rooms for others purposes, but the porch, sanctuary, statue, and altar were the essentials, usually with a priest who cared for them all.  Paul stresses that the members in Corinth are the sanctuary of the living God, and His Holy Spirit dwells in and among them!
Now let's look at some more imperatives.  The first one is: Let's realize that we are God's temple too, and the dwelling place of His Holy Spirit. 
God's temple is now a congregation of God's people.  The church manifests God's presence to the world, and the statue has been replace with God's powerful Holy Spirit!  Isn't it amazing to realize that when we are gathered together as a congregation, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit dwell right here in our midst!  How close God wants to be to us! 
This reality brings us to our next imperative: Don't defile God's temple, but keep it holy!  Remember how Jesus once did some house-cleaning at the temple because men had caused it to become a house of merchandise rather than a house of prayer?  We can destroy God's church by replacing the Bible with philosophy, by besmearing the truth with false teaching, by appealing to the carnal rather than the spiritual, by exalting our culture's values over the Holy Spirit's values, by trusting in our worldly wisdom instead of trusting in God's wisdom, by putting our faith in our preacher's power rather than God's power!  Note the powerful warning in verse 17: “If anyone defies [the word is literally “destroys”] the temple of God [and remember that's the people of God], God will destroy Him.”  If you don't want to know God's wrath nor to tangle with Him, you'd better be loving God's people and building them up!  He who destroys God's church will end up facing the God who is a consuming fire!  And now notice what Paul says next, “For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”  God wants us to remain a holy temple, a people set apart for doing His will in this world.  Now here is a question for your reflection: if you think like the world, and live like the world, and dress like the world, and party like the world, and covet like the world, and gamble like the world, how can we be God's holy temple in which His Holy Spirit dwells?  Every time we listen to Satan and sin, we add more water or sand on the fire of God's Spirit, and little by little we smother His influence until we've made this holy temple into wretched tavern.  And all the while, our neighbors are watching and turning away from the church!  Realize that you are the Holy Spirit's dwelling place!  Don't defile or destroy God's temple, but keep it holy!  These imperatives fall under the heading “the Holy Spirit's dwelling place”.
The third heading is Christ's people.  Let's now read our text from verse 18: “Let no one deceive himself.  If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  For it is written: 'He catches the wise in their own craftiness'; and again, 'The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile'.  Therefore, let no one boast in men.  For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours.  And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.”  Paul is really getting down to brass tacks, isn't he?  Those brethren in Corinth, who were destroying God's temple with their cliques, need to give up their worldly wisdom!  Those who think that they are so crafty and wise will soon know that they can't hold a candle when the light of God's glory shines forth! 
Paul quotes two passages from the Old Testament to back up that very point!  So, there is no need to boast in any preacher and to try to rally disciples around him.  Do you wonder what Paul's clique must have felt like when they heard those words?  Have you ever exalted some preacher over Jesus?  And there's those three cliques being mentioned again; there's no Christ party mentioned here because Paul wants all of these brethren to get back into Christ's one, united family!  If a Christian is following Christ devotedly, he or she had found the Source of all wisdom.
Now let's note quickly some more imperatives.  Be humble and practice God's way.  We may think: “How in the world could those brethren in Corinth bring all their culture's values right into the church?”  Very easily, they were just doing what they thought was right according to what they had learned while growing up.  Isn't that pretty easy for us to do as well? 
Let's try to learn and to follow exactly what God's wants done, and then practice His way.  Be humble and practice God's way! 
The next imperative is stated explicitly in verse 21: “Therefore let one boast in men.”  Don't boast in any man!  Don't be arrogant and point to any other man as the source for people's salvation.  Benedict XVI, Ron Hubbard, Billy Graham, John Hagee, Joel Osteen, Thomas Monson, and Don Adams can't save you.  In the churches of Christ, we have no international governing board nor a presiding president.  Don't boast in men! 
Next, let's realize that all spiritual blessings are in Christ!  What Paul writes in Ephesians 1:3, that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing thorough Christ, is essentially the same thing that Paul is telling these Christians at Corinth.  What's amazing too is that these Christians do not yet have the completed New Testament, and Paul still tells them that they have all blessings as part of their eternal salvation.  The New Testament is God's final revelation, and we don't need any new revelations.  Realize that all spiritual blessings are found in Christ alone!
The final imperative is: Let Christ possess you!  “And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.”  One commentator made this good remark: “The man who gives his strength and his heart to some little splinter of a party has surrendered everything to a petty thing, when he could have entered into possession of a fellowship and love as wide as the universe” (Barclay).  Another gave this good observation: “What a climax!  How the last words light up the whole situation and show how ... indescribably foolish and wrong was the party strife of the Corinthians.  As there is one God over all, one Lord Jesus Christ, so there is one church, in whose unbroken life, the peace of God should find itself reflected” (Lipscomb).  Let Christ possess you!        
A preacher in Oklahoma was hired to work at a long-standing congregation which wasn't growing.  He had stars in his eyes and great hopes for the future.  He thought he could turn it around and gave it his best effort week after week, but to no avail.  Finally, inspiration hit, and he tried something a little different.  He announced in the local newspaper on Saturday that the church had died, and on Sunday afternoon there would be a funeral service for the church itself, and all who wished could attend.  For the first time in his years there, the place was packed.  In fact, there were people outside the building standing on their tiptoes to look through the windows to see this most unusual service.  There was even a casket down front, and it was smothered with flowers.  The preacher told the audience that as soon as the eulogy was finished, they could pass by and view the remains of the beloved that they were putting to rest that day.  Everybody could hardly wait for him to finish his zealous message.  He then slowly opened the casket and pushed aside the flowers, and then the members walked by, filing out one by one, to look in and leave sheepishly, feeling guilty as they walked out the door, because inside the casket he had placed large mirror.  As they walked by, they actually saw the church that had died.  The moral of the story is: The church's ministry is a ministry of people.  When a church lives, it's because the people within are vital, alive, and loving.  When a church dies, it's because the members within are withered, dead, and uncaring (Cory in Swindoll).  Let's remember that we are God's building, the Spirit's dwelling place, and Christ's people.  Let's quit being argumentative and cliquish!  Let's build with our best on Jesus and quit destroying other members!  Let's be humble, stop boasting about preachers, and let Christ possess us!  As we have seen, all spiritual blessings are in Christ.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  Do you need to put on Christ today through baptism so that you can start enjoying the spiritual blessings that He provides?  They are eternal, spiritual, and holy blessings!  You can't find these blessings anywhere but in the church that Jesus built.  Become a member in that church today, and your life will rest on the firm foundation of Jesus!  If you've been just playing church by destroying it, by extinguishing the Spirit through sin, or by losing your vitality, repent today and confess your desire to live faithfully once again!