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First Corinthians: Boasting About Men

January 5, 2008

1Co 3:5-7 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

The church in Corinth was a mess. At the top of the list of their problems were the factions formed behind various leaders. At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul chastised the Corinthian church for elevating their leaders. Paul called those who did so worldly (KJV “carnal”). Paul could see that they were not spiritually mature men of God, because their relationships to one another were filled with dissension and strife. As James says:

Jam 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

The divisions in Corinth were “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” When Christians are behaving in such ways toward each other, they are doing harm to the body of Christ, and impeding the mission of the church.

Paul had specifically identified factions that were following himself, Apollos, and Cephas. But in 1 Cor 4:6 he says “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit…” That suggests that there may well have been other factions following people Paul chose not to name, perhaps out of discretion and tact.

Attitudes of smug superiority permeated the different factions. Each group boasted about the superiority of their leaders’ wisdom and style. And there were differences. Paul, Apollos, and Cephas all built on the same foundation, but they apparently were building differently on top of that foundation:

1Co 3:10-15 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. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 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. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

Paul had laid the original foundation, which was the gospel of Jesus Christ (described in more detail in chapter 15). No variation in that foundation is acceptable. Anything built on a different foundation cannot be considered a church of Jesus Christ. However, Paul suggests that people might build on that foundation using materials of differing quality. Apparently the different factions in Corinth had such differences.

We can easily see examples in the modern church of differences in how people build on the foundation of Christ. Some emphasize one thing and some another. One leader might focus on grace, while another preaches fire and brimstone. There are differences in preaching styles, in musical styles, and in programs and activities. Some seek to build megachurches and some prefer to plant many small house churches. Some churches organize the membership into small groups. Some have discipleship partners. Some have Sunday evening services and some do not. Some have evangelistic bible classes in the community. There are differences in terminology and jargon. The list of differences goes on and on.

How are we to regard these differences? Paul gives a clear answer:

1Co 3:12-13 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 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.

1Co 4:5-6 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.

It really can make a difference how we build. Some of these different approaches might make a decisive difference in the outcome on Judgment Day. What is being built might survive, or it might be burned up. However, today we cannot always be sure which approaches will survive — or whether various approaches might perform equally well. So Paul clearly instructs us not to judge these things before Judgment Day. Our judgment is likely to be wrong in these areas. We should leave that to God. Instead, we should limit our “judgment” to what is written. On those subjects that are not explicitly spelled out in scripture, we should respect the liberty of others to choose differently. And we should not boast about the supposedly superior choices that we and our leaders have chosen.

The bottom line is that we are all fallible. None of us is as smart as we think we are. And none of us has made all of the best choices. As the old proverb states,

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool; avoid him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not is a wise man; teach him. (W Barclay, Daily Study Bible)

Or as the apostle Paul said it:

1Co 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.

Therefore, recognizing our own fallibility, we are to accept those who choose to build differently, as long as they build on the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for ourselves, we must build using the finest materials we can. God will sort out the differences in the end.

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