God is the one who called us into fellowship with Christ (1 Cor 1:9), demonstrating His all-exceeding power by making fools out of the world through the Cross (1 Cor 1:18). Having been welcomed into the Church by the pure power of God, would we dare operate within the Church in our own power? May it never be! Our power is not our own (1 Cor 1:26-19), our spiritual understanding is not our own (1 Cor 2:16), and our ministerial success is not our own (1 Cor 3:6-7). More than that: we ourselves are not our own (1 Cor 6:19).
What is man’s importance in the Church of God? We’ve already seen that men do not bring about church growth – that God is the one who multiplies and matures His people. We’ve also seen that men do not lay the Church’s one foundation – that God is the one who established Christ as the base of all our efforts. And this week, we arrive at our final principle to guard against the sin of self-importance…
Men Have Nothing In Themselves To Boast Of (3:16-23)
Their value is in the One indwelling them.
“Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
God does not dwell with His people because they are special. God’s people are special because He dwells with them. This truth permeates the Old Testament (Ex 33:15-16, 40:34-38, Isa 60:19, Ezek 43:7-9, Hag 2:7-9, Zech 2:5, 10-11), and echoes throughout the New (Matt 1:23, Luke 2:32, John 1:14, Rev 21:3, 23, 22:5). Paul picks up on this thread to exhort believers, describing our bodies as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), and the whole Church as “a holy temple in the Lord… a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22). Since the glory of the Church is found in the One tabernacling within it, those who deconstruct and divide the Church are not committing an offense against men, but against the God who indwells them. Are we personally offended when we perceive a conflict or competition in our ministry, as if our glory was being impugned? In this passage, Paul is warning us to pursue unity for the glory of God, not for the glory of men. As he puts it to the Ephesians, “submit to one another,” not in the fear of men, but “in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21).
Their wisdom is in their becoming foolish.
“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, ‘He is the One who catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘the Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.’” (1 Corinthians 3:18-20)
The Corinthians were judging their leaders based on the elegance of their delivery and the sophistication of their reasoning. Like the Athenians, who “spent their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21), the Corinthians wanted to be wowed. Paul addressed this nearsightedness in chapters 1-2. “When I came to you, brethren… my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5). Do we respect smart-sounding arguments over simple, “foolish” faithfulness? God is infinitely wise, and He does not share His glory with any man (Isa 42:8). We are called to preach the pure gospel, “but not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1 Cor 1:17). A true minister of Christ is not ashamed to be called a fool by those who are perishing, because he knows that the gospel is the power of God to those who are being saved (Rom 1:16, 1 Cor 1:18).
Their confidence is in the One they belong to.
“So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
In this final statement, Paul employs a turn of phrase to drive his point home. Back in 1:12 – at the inception of his argument – Paul expressed the Corinthians’ problem as one of possession. Allow me to retranslate slightly for clarity: “Each one of you is saying, ‘I am Paul’s,’ I am Apollos’s,’ ‘I am Cephas’s.’” They viewed themselves as belonging to their human leaders. But here in 3:21-22 – at the culmination of his argument – Paul reverses that grammatical construction, asserting: “Everything belongs to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas… everything belongs to you.” (If you’re Greek-savvy, compare Paul’s use of possessive genitives in 1:12 and 3:21-22.) In other words, they were not possessions, but possessors. As J.K. Mozley commented, “The Corinthians were not owned, they were owners.”
But how should we understand this empowering statement in the light of the entire context? Ever since 3:5, Paul has been reprimanding the self-importance of men, working to put them back in their place. Even within this same verse, the conjunction “for” draws us back to the preceding statement: “So then let no one boast in men.” So, if Paul wants to diminish the self-importance of men in ministry, why emphasize that we are possessors of all things? The key lies in understanding why we are possessors of all things.
Paul describes believers as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). Christ Himself promises, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on His throne” (Rev 3:21). And this ascended, glorified Christ quotes Psalm 2 – a psalm that prophetically describes His Messianic rule – and He directly applies it to us, as co-heirs of His divine inheritance! “He who overcomes, and he who keeps my deeds until the end, ‘To him I will give authority over the nations; and He shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces,’ as I also have received authority from My Father” (Rev 2:26-27, Ps 2:8-9). So, why are we possessors of all things? Because Christ possesses all things as an inheritance from His Father, and we belong to Christ.
That’s exactly what Paul is saying to the Corinthians. “All things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” Abraham Kuyper famously proclaimed, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” We do not belong to our human leaders, we belong to Christ as His rightful possession. And if that alone isn’t enough to undo all division in the Body of Christ, there is this: we are all co-heirs with Christ.
How dare we “boast in men!” Twice in his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:31, 2 Cor 10:17), Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:23-24, proclaiming, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord!” The entire glory of the Church is Christ. In the timeless hymn The Sands of Time Are Sinking, Connie Denver wrote this: “The Bride eyes not her garments / But her dear Bridegroom’s face / I will not gaze at glory / But on my King of grace / Not at the crown He giveth / But on His pierced hand / The Lamb is all the glory / Of Immanuel’s land.” Oh, that we would gaze at the glory of Christ, “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18), and thus be freed from the sin of self-importance in this ministry we have received.