1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23


The word sofos  "wisdom" occurs twenty times in the New Testament, only four times outside the Pauline corpus, and eleven times in 1 Corinthians alone: 1:19,20,25,26,27; 3:10, 18 (twice), 19, 20; 6:5; in Romans four times, in Ephesians only once. The word  sofia occurs about fifty times in the New Testament, twenty-six in Paul alone, seventeen in 1 Corinthians alone, only once in our text: 3:19. The word "wisdom" could be the title of 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.

Verses 1-9 ought be read before studying verse 10. The congregation was afflicted with the sins of jealousy, strife, and factionalism. Allegiance to people was obliterating the Gospel for them. Instead of being wise, they were becoming worldly fools.

We note several things about the opening phrase. Here "grace" does not denote saving grace, but the gracious favor of God which made Paul a qualified preacher; note that it is strengthened by the addition of "given to me," which emphasizes the fact that it did not originate with Paul.

Morris: Grace includes the thought of God's enabling power. Paul will say nothing which will obscure the primacy of God and the insignificance of God's ministers.

Bengel calls "grace" as "anticipatory precaution to avoid the appearance of arrogance in calling himself wise." 

Kretzmann: The grace of God is the real motive force in the work of the Church at all times.

"As an expert builder" is a simile. But how much is figurative? Bengel remarks about sofos, "expert": "The knowledge of Jesus Christ makes me so." That requires translating it as "wise" as do AV and NKJV, not "skilled" or "expert" as the others.

The point is that Paul did the beginning work in Corinth according to the wisdom given to him in the Gospel. Kretzmann speaks of Paul's natural endowments and then says:

That was the reason why the grace of the Lord had selected him to found so many of the first congregations, as that of Corinth.
Lenski: Somebody had to begin the work; it was Paul who did it, although God could just as well have sent someone else. Likewise, somebody had to go on with the work; it was, as we know, especially Apollos who did this, although again God could have found somebody else . . . . Paul disclaims any special credit for starting the work at Corinth . . . . He sees only God's grace. That is what he wants the Corinthians to see likewise.

The verse ends by brining out the thought of individual responsibility, be that an apostle, a preacher, a teacher, or a layman. Is Paul speaking of doctrine or practice? Both. You can't have one without the other.

1 Corinthians 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The "for" is explanatory. This verse makes the previous verse very clear. What is mentioned in verse 10 cannot be done properly unless verse 11 is taken very seriously. Verse 11 is speaking about the person, word, and work of Jesus Christ. That is the foundation. It is already "laid." It cannot be augmented, supplanted, or replaced. Compare Ephesians 2:20. Verse 10 speaks about the foundation and further building done by Christians. In other words, "foundation" is not used in the same sense in verses 10 and 11.

Luther: I have experienced and noted in all histories of all Christendom that all those that correctly had and held the chief article of Jesus Christ, remained well and secure in the true Christian faith. And though they may have erred and sinned otherwise, yet they were finally preserved. For he who herein stands correct and firm that Jesus Christ is true God and man, who died for us and rose again, for him all the other articles will fall in line and stand firmly by his side, so altogether sure it is what St. Paul says, Christ is the chief good, basis, foundation, and all in one.

Lenski carefully distinguishes the two "foundations" in verses 10 and 11 and then says:

Christ's entire person and all his work is the foundation that lies fixed and solid for ever. . . . His name includes all the teachings of Scripture, whether you and I deem them vital or not. . . . All other alleged foundations are subjective i.e. imaginary; they are like the sand referred to in Christ's conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount.

The NIV translation is interesting here.

The following verses are omitted:

1 Corinthians 3:12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,
1 Corinthians 3:13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.
1 Corinthians 3:14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.
1 Corinthians 3:15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:16 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?

The intervening verses ought be read. In verse 12 "foundation" obviously refers back to verse 10 because of the repetition of the verb "builds." Verse 12 speaks both of acceptable and unacceptable building. Verse 13 tells us that the work of building will be revealed on judgment day and tested. Verse 14 speaks of work that was done correctly. Verse 15 speaks of a person whose work, because it was inferior, will be rejected, but who will himself escape disaster like a person fleeing from a burning house. Verses 12-15 are meant for all of us to examine ourselves very carefully. What we believe and do is very important.

Now to verse 16.

Morris: 'Know ye not' is a mild rebuke. It introduces a question on a matter which ought to be common knowledge.

Note that it is a question which requires the answer "yes." 

Our versions unanimously render "temple." Rienecker defines it thus: "The dwelling place of a deity, the inward shrine or sanctuary." Morris: "The word points us to the very presence of God." And "the Spirit of God" is surely the Holy Spirit. Thus it is clearly implies that the Holy Spirit is God.

Morris: 'The Spirit of God' is not a common expression. It emphasizes the connection of the Spirit with the Father, and underlines the deity of the Spirit. The Spirit is God as He dwells in the Church.
Bengel: The Holy Spirit's honor is the same as God's, see 6:19.
Lenski: This is the specific gracious presence, always mediated by Word and Sacrament, for which the Scriptures employ the most beautiful imagery, all summarized by the Church in the unio mystica. 

"Lives in you" clearly means that the Holy Spirit lives in all believers alike and note that Paul requires no special signs or gifts for such habitation. The claims of the charismatics are foolishness, not God's wisdom.

1 Corinthians 3:17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

This verse is a complex-compound sentence, more specifically two complex sentences separated by a semi-colon. The second complex sentence explains the first. The "for" is explanatory. It gives the reason. AV and NKJV translate the verbs in the first sentence: "defiles-destroy." All others have: "destroy-destroy." It must be admitted that the two verbs do not have exactly the same meaning. The first indicates contamination in such a way as to drive the Holy Spirit out but the second denotes eternal destruction. The use of the same verb twice indicates that punishment will be in keeping with the offence.

Morris: To engage in divisions is to 'destroy' the divine society, and consequently the invite God to 'destroy' the sinner.
Bengel: . . . destroy by schisms according to the wisdom of the world. God shall destroy by most righteous return in kind.
Kretzmann: If the agitators and false teachers in Corinth, if the errorists of all times, will persist in defiling the holy place of the pure temple of God in the individual Christians as well as in the Church as such, by a perversion of doctrine, by inciting wrangling and strife, then the wrath of God will strike them at last.

It is truly a very dangerous thing to drive the Holy Spirit out of another's heart and thus let the wisdom of the world back in. Why is that so? Because God's dwelling place is "holy." This means that it is separated from the world and devoted entirely to God.

Now come the last three words: "who are you." Note the emphatic position of the emphatic pronoun. Great stress is laid on "you" here.

Bengel: You are holy and therefore inviolable, like the temple.
Kretzmann: And the added clause 'which ye are' reminds the Corinthians of the obligation which is imposed upon them by their sanctity; it urges them to be on a sharp lookout against the defilers of their temple, and not to permit the desecration to take place.

All translations, except NASB, take it as does NKJV: "Which temple you are." NASB has "for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are." 

Lenski: We cannot translate in the same fashion as our versions do. . . . We must render: 'since of such kind are you.'

Evidently he means: "You are God's holy temple." That is likely correct. "Holy" is a predicate adjective.  "You" refers to "for the temple of God is holy." Verse 17 is frightening Law. Not only does this verse tells us what Christians are, but also warns of God's punishment if defilement takes place in ourselves or others because of sin.

1 Corinthians 3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a  "fool"  so that he may become wise.

Self-delusion is a terrible thing and is wide-spread in the world. The conditional sentence calls for serious soul searching on the part of the individual.

Some of the newer translations seem to bring out the true meaning. TEV: "Thinks that he is a wise man by this world's standards." NIV: "Thinks he is wise of the standards of this age." NEV: "Who fancies himself wise -- wise, I mean, by the standards of this passing age." 

Morris: It is not how a man appears to others that is in question, but what he appears to be to himself. There is an obvious reference to those who thought themselves wise in attaching themselves to this or that teacher. . . .The believer is both in the Church and in the world. But his relationships to the two are different. 'World' is 'age' with a hint at changing fashions.
Kretzmann: (Quoting  Expositor's ) Those who follow human wisdom exalt human masters at the expense of God's glory, and there are teachers who lend themselves to this error and thus build unworthily on the Christian foundation -- some who are even destroying, under a show of building the temple of God.

Now Paul says: "Let him become a fool in order that he might become wise." Note the very sharp contrast between the words "fool" and "wise." Paul, of course, is not talking about despising true learning which does not militate against the Gospel. God is not anti-intellectual. He is the author of all true knowledge and wisdom. In the "if" clause "wise" denotes the person who is man-centered, not Christ-centered, who sees no need for the righteousness of Christ and who, therefore, easily becomes factious in the church. When Paul says: "Let him become a fool" he means "let the person see the folly of his former ways. Let him see the foolishness of this age which despises the forgiveness of sins, the righteousness of Christ, repentance and the resultant new life. Let him see that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are lost, 1:18" 

And when he says: "In order that he might become wise" he means "let that person see that the Gospel is the true wisdom, the power of God unto salvation, the power of God to those who are saved, 1:18." 

Morris: If anyone is to have real spiritual insight he must become what the world calls 'a fool.'
Kretzmann: It is only by taking all human thoughts and opinions captive under the obedience of Christ that a person will be placed in the position that he may understand the wisdom of God in the Word of Salvation.
Lenski: In this statement of Paul's there is, of course, no repudiation of the genuine results of science in any department as far as these pertain to our earthly life, but there is a complete repudiation of any and of all hypotheses, theories, and speculations, scientific, philosophic, or popular, which lord it over Christ and the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 3:19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written:  "He catches the wise in their craftiness";

The "for" is explanatory. Verse 19 and 20 explain verse 18. "Of this world" is adjectival genitive, speaking of a certain kind of wisdom. The first "for" makes an explanatory statement. The second "for" clause introduces two proof passage which clearly state that this false "wisdom" does not deceive God.

Morris: This worldly wise, whom the Corinthians held in such high esteem, are totally unable to penetrate the divine mysteries. These are open to the humblest person of faith, but are forever hid from the wise of this world.

There is no greater delusion than the kind of foolishness of men which considers itself wisdom. And now two quotations, one from Job 5:12 and the other from Psalm 94:11. The first shows what God does about this foolishness and the second (verse 20) shows that God cannot be deceived.

Morris: His first citation is from Job 5:13, in a version differing from the LXX. It may be Paul's own translation from the Hebrew. . . . Paul does not minimize the capacity of the worldly wise within their own field.
Kretzmann: The wisdom of world is here pictured as a craft, a subtle trade, which is carried on to the detriment of others. but God catches those that practice such cunning in their own wiles, thus showing how foolish their professions are.
Lenski: That God catches them in the very act and exposes all their craftiness is factual evidence that his wisdom completely outranks theirs.

1 Corinthians 3:20 and again,  "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."

A second proof passage is adduced, this from Psalm 93:11.

Morris: Whether Paul has substituted 'the wise' for 'men' in this passage to bring out the best that the world can do, or whether he is quoting from a manuscript which had this reading we have no means of knowing. His point is that God knows the thoughts of every man. Nothing can be hid from Him. Moreover He knows the emptiness of such thoughts.

"Futile" means "empty, vain, useless." It expresses the aimlessness, the leading to no object or end.

Kretzmann: What is true of the vanity of human thoughts in general is true in particular of those that assume the leading position in the counsel of human philosophy.
Lenski: The ineffectiveness of these wise men is illustrated by the schemes, plots, and tricky questions of the Lord's enemies, by which they tried to entangle him. Jesus always saw completely through their cunning and with a word or two overthrew their designs.

Well put. In fact, compare Luke 20:20-26. Note how these deluded "wise" men are described: they pretended to be righteous in order to catch Him in some statement. What was the result? They failed miserably.

A man and his thoughts cannot be separated.

1 Corinthians 3:21 So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours,

Verses 21-23 form a unit. The thoughts are very similar to the twin paradoxical theses of Luther's Freedom of a Christian Man. 

  1. A Christian is a totally free agent, slave to none. (Gospel)

  2. A Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all. (Third use of the Law)

"So then" draws a conclusion to what has been said in verses 1-17. The Corinthians were boasting in people because they were divided into factions, attaching themselves to people instead of to Christ.

The second sentence in verse 21 begins with explanatory "for." On "all things" Rienecker says: "He puts no limit to their possessions in Christ." 

Morris: The Corinthians were impoverishing themselves. They were cutting themselves off from the treasures that were really theirs. See Romans 8:32.
Bengel: All things, not only all men. . . . Those things are yours; not you theirs, 1:12; 2 Corinthians 4:5.
Kretzmann: They have a direct claim upon the service of everything which belongs to God and Christ.
Lenski: To glory in men means to boast about them, their qualities, teachings, and wisdom, in any measure or degree apart from Christ and the wisdom of the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 3:22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours,

Now Paul gives an example of what he means by "all things" and note that he then again repeats "all are yours." Note that "whether," which introduces items, occurs eight times. But we really have only three classifications:

  1. Paul, Apollos, Cephas;

  2. The world, life, death;

  3. Things present and things to come.

Bengel: Peter and every one else in the world however excellent in intellect, gifts, or office, ecclesiastical or political, they are yours; they promote your welfare, even though they know it not.
Kretzmann: At the service of the believers, by the grace of God, stand Paul and Apollos and Cephas, all the apostles and ministers whom He has sent to proclaim the glorious truths of salvation. At their service stands the world itself, the whole world with all its forces and resources; the right use of them all is in furthering the cause of Christ. In the service of the believers stand both life and death; whether they live they live to the Lord, and whether they die, they die to the Lord, Romans 14:8. In their service stand both things present and things to come: all states, conditions, offices, trades, professions, everything should aid in the spread of the Gospel, of the Christian faith.
Luther: Everything in the wide world belongs to Christ the Ruler. What emperors, kings, princes, government, and subjects have and possess, that is all Christ's. It has all been subjected to Him. All men must be under this King and Ruler, either in grace or in disgrace. Christ has everything in His powerful hand.

"World" here means the universe, not the sinful world. "Life" comes to us by grace through faith in Christ. That death is ours is astounding.

Lenski: And with 'life' also 'death,' the release from all sin, temptation, evil, with which we wrestle now, because the 'universe' great and wonderful though it is, has been invaded by Satan. The Christian falls asleep in Jesus, and so death is ours as a blessed end.

That the greatest enemy of man has been turned into a service for him is truly astounding. The best commentary on "things present and things to come" is Romans 8:28 and 32.

1 Corinthians 3:23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Three of our translations (AAT, NEB, and JB) render "and" as "but." We quote AAT:  ". . . . everything is yours, but you belong to Christ." The other versions take verses 22 and 23 as a comparison:  "All things are yours and you are Christ's." The three versions mentioned above take these verses as a contrast. In either case the point is that I am owned only by Christ. In fact, the New Testament often calls me Christ's  "slave," for He owns me by virtue of the atonement. The point is that I should not let anyone else or anything else enslave me, for through my slavery to Christ I have freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Allegiance to men makes me a slave of men.

Morris: The self-assertiveness of the Corinthians was out of character. they acted as though they were their own masters.
Bengel: Ye are Christ's, immediately, Peter not mediating.

This, of course, is a reference to the Papacy.

Lenski: Wonderfully blessed are we with all our spiritual and all our earthly possessions, yet exceeding all these possessions is the blessing, enveloping them all, that we ourselves are Christ's possession.
Morris: 'And Christ is God's.' Paul regards the Son as fully divine. This passage does not contradict such teaching, for Paul is not speaking of Christ as He is in His essential nature, but with reference to what He has done for men. Paul does not lose sight of the deity of the Son. But he does not lose sight either of the truth that the Son became man, and took a lowly place that He might bring about man's salvation.
Lenski: In all that pertains to his redemptive office and his work Christ belongs to God, for God sent him, anointed him, glorified him, and thus Christ is God's.

Look again at Luther's twin-fold theses above. By faith in Christ the believer is totally free from all slavery, even that of death, and yet he serves all men because the Law obligates him to do so. Therefore, our text is not saying that the fourth commandment is abrogated, nor does it prohibit a person's faithfulness to fellowmen (Galatians 5:22) which is a fruit of the Spirit, nor does it prohibit a person loving his pastor dearly. It does speak against anything getting between the believer and his Savior.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1983, pp. 61-65. Used with permission.

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