As previously noted, in 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:8 Paul presented three kinds of men: the natural, the carnal, and the spiritual. He introduced the natural man and the spiritual man in 2:14-16, and in chapter 3 he introduced the carnal man.
Carnal Christians (1 Corinthians 3:1-8)
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal.” Let us look at the word “carnal.” The Greek word translated “carnal” is an adjective form of the word meaning “flesh.” The term “flesh,” as used doctrinally in Scripture, refers not to human flesh as such, but to the nature that we have received from Adam—“That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6).
Now in Biblical terms a carnal man, strange as it may seem, is a believer. There are many such persons. The carnal man has been regenerated, he has received a new nature, and his spirit has been quickened into newness of life. That spirit that fell into the basement is being elevated into its proper place by divine power, but the man is still under the control of that old fleshly nature in large measure. Many a Christian’s life is made up of mingled victories and defeats. As he walks with God, as he takes the place of lowliness and humiliation before God, as he feeds on the Word, and as he breathes the atmosphere of prayer, his spiritual life is developed and he grows in grace and in the knowledge of God. But if this believer is slothful in availing himself of the means of grace, he may find that even after being saved for some years, he is still far from being the kind of Christian that the Lord wants him to be.
What does Scripture say about the carnal believer? In 1 Corinthians 3:3 we read: “Ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions [factions], are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” Let’s say that you enjoy making the acquaintance of a fellow Christian, one who has really trusted the Lord Jesus Christ, but as you get to know him more intimately, you find he is a very selfish person. He is delightful to be with as long as he can have his own way. As long as he can run everything to suit himself, he is perfectly happy and agreeable, but if you cross him in the least degree, if you suggest something that is contrary to his own desires, at once there is a stirring of the flesh within him; and he is shown to be a carnal man because there is strife.
Think of the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how He was treated, He was always the meek and lowly One. His enemies could not rouse His temper by ill-treatment, and yet He had a temper. A spiritual Christian is not one who has no temper. Just as a knife amounts to very little if not properly tempered, the Christian amounts to nothing if he is not properly tempered. We read of our Lord Jesus Christ being angry. Once when He was in a synagogue on a sabbath day, a poor man with a withered hand was there, and His enemies watched Him to see whether He would heal him on the sabbath. He asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days…?” and when they would not answer Him, He “looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:1-5).
What made Him angry? It was their hypocrisy. Hypocrisy always provoked the indignation of the Lord Jesus Christ. They could heap every insult on Him they desired; that never roused Him to anger. But when they heaped insults on one of the least of His children, that stirred Him to the very depths of His being. When Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the Christians, Christ Jesus spoke to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) He never talked that way to people when they ill-treated Him on earth, but when they ill-treat His own while He is in glory, He feels it keenly. When you find a Christian who is quick to resent what you do to him but not at all quick to resent what is done to others, you may be sure he is still carnal.
Envy is another mark of carnality. We are members of one body. If I and every other Christian are really members of the same body, I ought to be delighted when my brothers in Christ are honored (just as delighted as I would be if I were the one being honored) and I ought to be deeply concerned when my brothers are distressed and in trouble (just as concerned as I would be if I were in their place). Scripture says that if “one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). And we are exhorted to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Romans 12:15).
How different it often is! I can do something reasonably well, but someone else’s work is preferred before mine, so I cannot appreciate what he does. I think I can preach a good sermon, but someone else’s preaching is enjoyed more than mine, so instead of saying, “Thank God for the way He is using His servant,” I sit in a corner and think, What is it that makes the people so interested? I don’t see anything in that kind of preaching. When I do this, I am carnal, and if you cannot enjoy having someone else preferred above you, you are carnal.
Some carnal men are faction-makers, division-makers; they try to bring in strife among the people of God. At Corinth the Christians were divided into little cliques, saying, “I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos.” Everyone had his favorite and Paul said in effect, “That is just carnality. When you go on like that, you are acting like little babies.” Christians would be ashamed if they realized that when they compare one with another and say unkind things about some and laud others to the skies, their words sound like baby-talk.
Paul was telling us that such talk only reveals carnality. He told the Corinthians in effect, “There you are in Corinth. You have such wonderful attainments and are so proud because you have all the spiritual gifts. Yet you are so immature that I cannot explain the things that I would like to explain to you. I have had to feed you with milk, and even now you are still not able to eat meat. You are still big babies.”
The Corinthians gloried in men and in great swelling words. Some I suppose listened to Paul and said, “We don’t get anything out of his preaching; we learned all that years ago. Why doesn’t he go into the deeper things?” The reason was that they were “babes in Christ.”
A candidate for the pastorate of a country church preached for the congregation on the text, “Thou shalt not steal.” The congregation thought the sermon was great and the pulpit committee met after the service to decide whether or not to give him a call. Finally one of the members spoke up and said, “I don’t believe in calling any man on the basis of one sermon. That was a fine sermon he preached, but I think we should ask this brother to come back again before we call him.” So they decided to ask him to come back the next Sunday.
He came back, used the same text, “Thou shalt not steal,” and preached the same sermon. At the close of the service the committee met again and said, “He must have forgotten that he preached that sermon last Sunday. We had better ask him back again.”
So the next Sunday he got up in the pulpit and said, “You will find the text for my sermon in the twentieth chapter of Exodus: ‘Thou shalt not steal.’“ Before he could go on, a member of the pulpit committee got up and said, “You are forgetting that you preached that sermon here twice already; we want to hear you preach on something else.” The preacher replied, “I am going to preach on that text every time I come to this church until you learn to keep away from Widow Jones’ hencoop at night.”
Paul too had to keep repeating himself. He said in effect, “I cannot unfold the great things to you because you are still little babies. You are not developed yet; you are just carnal.”
The spiritual are a different class, walking on a higher plane than the carnal. As believers we should be spiritual Christians, controlled by God and guided by the Holy Spirit. The apostle wanted the Corinthians to be spiritual and thus occupied not with man, but with Christ; so he asked, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” And what are ministers? They are servants.
Just imagine a wealthy family with a number of servants—Chloe, Nellie, Tom, and Bill—and the whole family is upset because various members are saying, “I am of Chloe,” or “I am of Nellie,” or “I am of Tom,” and “I am of Bill.” The whole family is divided over the servants. What absurdity!
God’s ministers are the servants of the people of God; let the people accept the service thankfully, but never let them put the servant in the place of the Master. Paul said, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” The servant has no power to cause the Word to produce fruit. “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” The servant is nothing; God is everything. “He that planteth and he that watereth are one”; they are both just nothing—two ciphers. But put Christ in front of the ciphers and then you have something worthwhile. However, “every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.”
The Test of Fire (1 Corinthians 3:9-23)
The apostle had warned the people of God against putting His servants in a place that belongs only to the blessed Lord. Every minister is simply what that name implies: a servant. The danger is that the servant will be exalted and the Master lost sight of, or that the servant will be so censored and blamed that the message will be refused and the Master dishonored. The servants in themselves are nothing but channels through whom God speaks to His people. The important thing is the message they bring. And so now Paul spoke of himself and his fellow servants as “labourers together with God.”
God could do all His work without us. He does not need to use us to spread His gospel. He could write it in letters of fire across the heavens or He could send angels of glory to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8), just as He sent them to proclaim the birth of Christ and direct the shepherds to Bethlehem’s manger. The wonderful thing is that He has chosen to give to us the privilege of making known the riches of His grace—a holy privilege that carries with it a heavy responsibility.
This responsibility should lead every servant of Christ to ask himself, “Am I really in touch with God? Am I seeking my own interests? Can it be that I am actuated by selfish motives or vainglory? Am I simply trying to attract attention to myself and my ministry instead of taking a place like that of John the Baptist who, pointing the people away from himself to Christ, said, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30)?” John’s attitude, which was shared by Paul, will be the attitude of every true minister of God.
The laborers work “together with God”—they are not left to work in their own strength. They are to give out their message in dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit, and that is the difference between preaching and worldly oratory. An orator may take a passage from the Bible and expound on it in a most thrilling way, but if he is not doing it in the power of the Holy Ghost, he is not preaching. On the other hand, if a poor unlettered man stands up and preaches the gospel in halting English but with divine power, men’s hard hearts will be broken and they will be led to confess their sins and trust the Savior. That is what Paul meant when he said, “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
God’s servants would preach better if you prayed for them more; there would be more response to their preaching if they were more upheld in the secret closet of prayer by the people of God. How the apostle felt his dependence on the prayers of God’s people! He pleaded often with the saints to remember him in prayer that he might preach as he ought to preach. So I plead with you, for Christ’s sake and for the sake of dying men and women, take the ministry to God in prayer daily that those who preach the Word may proclaim it “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4). It is only as God works in and through us preachers that anything is accomplished.
Turning from preachers in particular to God’s servants as a whole, Paul likened them to a field and a building. First we read, “Ye are God’s husbandry [tilled field].” You remember how the Lord Jesus Christ used similar figurative language in Matthew 13. The sower sowed the Word, and the people who believed it were like wheat in a field. So a tilled field of wheat is a beautiful picture of God’s people. One lovely thing to notice in that picture is that the heads of wheat rising up toward the sun are much the same height. Likewise we are all “members one of another”; one is not to tower above the other, but together we are to bring forth fruit to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then we read, “Ye are God’s building.” The building in 3:9 is really the temple referred to in 3:16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” When Solomon built his temple, he built it on the solid rock of mount Moriah. The hilly nature of the terrain made it necessary to create a level foundation, so stones were collected in the quarries below and brought up to make a great platform for the building to stand on. Thus when the apostle said, “Ye are God’s building,” he meant that the church of God collectively is the temple of God.
In 3:16 Paul was not speaking of the individual. In 6:19 he was; there he wrote, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?” And in one sense you are a temple of God apart from every other believer, but in 3:16 the apostle was speaking of the assembly of God, which as a whole constitutes the temple of God, “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Continuing the comparison to the temple in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul said, “I have laid the foundation.” Just as a foundation was laid before the temple was erected, Paul came to Corinth and by preaching the Word laid the foundation of the church; that is, he was used to bring the first members into the church of God in that locality. Very few of us can do foundation work like that these days. Our missionaries often have that privilege—they usually do not have to build on another man’s foundation—but most of us work where the foundation has already been laid.
Paul laid the foundation in Corinth—it did not need to be laid again—and others were building on it, but the apostle warned, “Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” In other words, they should preach the truth of God in the power of the Holy Ghost and not allow unscriptural and worldly and carnal things to mar the work that the Spirit of God was doing.
Paul continued, “Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble…” The word translated “precious” in 3:12 should be translated “costly,” so “precious stones” refers not to diamonds and rubies, but to the great and costly stones built into the temple of old. Paul was saying that converts should be added onto the foundation of the spiritual temple of the Lord, for if unconverted, worldly, careless people are brought in, they will hurt and hinder the work of Christ.
This twelfth verse primarily has to do with building up the church through the servants of God, but if you apply the words to each individual believer, the same principle abides. If you are a Christian, you rest on the one foundation, Christ, and you are building a life, a character. How are you building and with what are you building? You may build with gold, which speaks of divine righteousness; silver, which speaks of redemption; and costly stones, which speak of that which will stand the test of that coming day. On the other hand, you may build with wood, hay, and stubble. Wood may be fashioned to be very beautiful and has a certain value attached to it; hay, though less valuable than wood, has a measure of worth because it contains nourishment; stubble is utterly worthless. Wood, hay, and stubble speak of life-building materials that will not stand the test of fire. Stubble should have no place whatever in the lives of the people of God. How are you building?
God takes care of us so marvelously. When we wonder how we are ever going to get through, God brings us through. We have found that the things we have worried about should have just been left with Him. Someone has well said, “I have had a great many troubles in my life, but most of them never happened.” God has been so gracious. Is this not a good time to look back and take stock? How have you been building?
Everything in our lives that has glorified God will be looked on in that day of testing as the gold that has His approval. If we have acted like men and women redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, our actions will shine out as silver. All things that have been in accordance with the Word and have sprung from the renewed nature that we have through grace, will be like costly stones built into the edifices of our lives.
How have you been building? Do you see a great many things that make you pause and say, “There has been so much selfishness, so much carnality, so much downright bad temper, and so much that is unchristlike”? Then, dear believer, go to God and judge all these things in His presence, and they will be burned up now and you won’t have to face them later. If you do not judge them now, you will have to face them at the judgment seat of Christ. “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (11:31). We are called to confess all the things that the Spirit shows us are merely of the flesh.
A great deal that is called Christian work is done in the energy of the flesh. It is not done for the glory of God at all. What motives actuate us? How do we feel if others are preferred before us? Asking ourselves these questions is a good way to test ourselves to see whether what we are doing is for the Lord. Only that which is done for Christ will be rewarded in that day. He Himself will point out the differences.
“Every man’s work shall be made manifest,” Paul said. He was referring not to the judgment of the great white throne, but to the judgment seat of Christ, before which believers will stand at the Lord’s coming. “The day [the day of Christ] shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire.” Paul was referring to the purging, testing fire of divine approval, discernment, and righteousness, for He is going to judge everything by His standards, not by ours. “The fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” I beg of you, consider that little word s-o-r-t. The apostle did not say “how much it is”—there may be much that amounts to very little in that day. He said “of what sort it is.” It is the character of our work that counts; the motives that lie behind our service are what matter. The secrets of the heart are to be revealed. God will test everything in the light of His own truth.
It is a great comfort, when you cannot do all you would like to do, to know that if your work is of the right character, you will be rewarded just the same. This lovely thought reminds me of the story of the dear woman who anointed the feet of the Lord. When others objected, Jesus said, “She hath done what she could” (Mark 14:8). Is that what the Lord will be able to say of you in that day? “He hath done what he could”? “She hath done what she could”?
And then I do like the word that the Lord spoke to David when he wanted to build a temple to the Lord, but God would not allow him to do so. The Lord said, “Thou didst well that it was in thine heart” (1 Kings 8:18).
Possibly there is a sister in Christ who wanted to be a foreign missionary, but because of poor health was not able to go. Perhaps she was a semi-invalid at home for years and was only able to write kind and helpful letters to those in distress or give of her slender means to others so that they could take the gospel to the ends of the world. She might say, “I feel as though my life has amounted to so little; I wanted to be a missionary, and instead of that I have lived this humdrum existence.” I would tell her, “Do not be discouraged; if what you did was done for Christ, He will say, ‘She hath done what she could; thou didst well that it was in thine heart.’“
Perhaps there is a brother in Christ who as a young man thought, How I would like to go into the ministry; how I would love to devote my life to proclaiming the gospel! But that would have required years of preparation and study, and during those years when he would like to have been going to school, he had an aged mother depending on him, or he had to be the wage earner of the family because his father was sick. And so he toiled on to help those dear ones, and now he says, “Well, I have missed it; my life has not been the kind I wanted it to be; I wanted to be a minister of the gospel and here I have had to live in this matter-of-fact kind of way, handling butter and eggs, working in an office.” My response would be, “My dear brother, the Lord has taken note of all that self-denying care you have given your father or mother, and He is not going to lose sight of any of it. In that coming day He will say, ‘Thou didst well that it was in thine heart,’ and He will give you the same kind of reward you would have earned if you could have gone out and preached the gospel.”
It is the heart God looks at—“of what sort it is.” God grant that our work may be of the right sort.
Paul said, “If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.” This reward is in addition to salvation. We are saved by grace, but the reward is for faithful service. Of course the reward too is of grace, for we cannot earn anything but by divine power. The Lord enables us and then rewards us. So after we are saved, there is superabounding grace.
On the other hand, Paul said that “if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss.” What does that mean? It means that in that day I will come before the Lord and He will review my life from the day His grace saved me. As my life passes like a panorama before me, He will give a reward for everything that was the outworking of His Holy Spirit, for everything that was in accordance with His Word. He will gather that which was for His glory together and say, “I am going to reward you for that.” But He will bring everything to light that was of self, that was contrary to the Spirit of Christ, and say, “All that is just so much lost time. If you had devoted all that time to My glory, I could have rewarded you, but I cannot reward you for that which did not please Me. But I am going to burn it up, and you will never hear of it again for all eternity.” There will be nothing left but that which brought glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Suppose that in that day it is revealed that someone has done nothing to glorify Him; he has trusted Him as his Savior but his life has amounted to nothing. Paul said that such a person “shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Let’s say that you have a beautiful home. You have spent a long time in building it, but one night it catches fire and you wake up to find flames roaring through the halls. You leap out of the window and are saved, but the house is burned up. That is an illustration of what will happen to many a believer whose life has amounted to nothing. If his life and testimony have been wasted, there will be no reward, but the believer himself will be saved, “yet so as by fire.”
Look at Lot. He spent years in Sodom building up a great reputation and even became a judge, but he had no business being there. We read, “That righteous man…in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds” (2 Peter 2:8). Abraham’s soul was not daily thus distressed. Why? Because he was not there at all; he was separated from the lawlessness. Finally God destroyed Sodom with fire and saved Lot—“so as by fire.” Everything he had lived for was burned up. Believer, what a solemn thing it would be if that should be true of you or of me when the blessed Lord takes account of our service!
The apostle presented an extreme case in 1 Corinthians 3:15, but in 4:5 he showed that actually no believer will lose everything. There Paul said, “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.” God will find something in every believer’s life that He can reward—some little act of unselfishness, some feeble testimony for Himself. Everything that was of the Spirit will be rewarded in that day. But Paul used strong language in 3:15 to help us distinguish between salvation, which is of grace alone, and reward which is related to service.
So Paul spoke of various members of the church of God: those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones; and others who build with wood, hay, and stubble. Then in 3:16-17 he spoke of a third group: those who “defile the temple of God.” Paul was now referring to those who are the enemies of God’s truth, who attempt to destroy His church, who seek to ruin the work of the Lord—men from the outside who creep in. I tremble when I think of what will happen to men who profess to be servants of Christ and ministers of God, but despise His Book and deny every fundamental truth of Holy Scripture. For filthy lucre’s sake they get into pulpits of orthodox churches and instead of building with gold, silver, and precious stones, they build with wood, hay, and stubble, thus destroying as much as they can of the temple of God. God said in effect, “I will destroy them; they will have to account to Me by-and-by.”
I dwell on 3:16-17 because some have misunderstood the passage and have thought of the temple as the temple of the human body. They have thought the verses might mean that if someone fell into some kind of habit that defiled the body, God would destroy him. If you allow yourself to indulge in any habit that injures your body, you will have to answer for that, but in these verses the apostle was talking about the temple that is the church of the living God.
Paul went on to write about “the wisdom of this world.” Note that he was not writing about the knowledge of this world. Knowledge is perfectly right and proper—gain all you can. But the wisdom—the philosophy, the reasoning—of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, “for it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” Men may think they are very wise, but God is ahead of them. Because He has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (1:20), how absurd it is for Christians to glory in the wisdom of man.
“Let no man glory in men,” Paul wrote, “for all things are yours.” Christians have been given title to a fortune. We are rich beyond our wildest dreams. “All things” includes “Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas [the ministers of Christ], or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come.” Is the world mine? Yes, because “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof (Psalm 24:1). This is my Father’s world and I can say, “Thank God, it all belongs to me, and I am going to reign over it some day.” Is life mine? Yes, life is mine; in life I can glorify God. Is death mine? Yes, death is the servant that will usher me into the presence of the Lord. Are “things present” mine? Yes, they are all mine—the trials, the difficulties, and the perplexities as well as the happy things. Are “things to come” mine? Yes, and what riches are soon to be revealed! “All are yours; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.” What a wonderful culmination to this chapter that emphasizes our responsibility!