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
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
“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
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!