NOTE: The following article serves as the basis of a message on 1st Corinthians 3:18-23 that I delivered to the people of Shepherd’s Fellowship Baptist Church. I hope it blesses you as you read it, for it provides the biblical solution to the common problem of clustering ourselves around men and worldly philosophies rather than Christ.
In 1st Corinthians 3:18-23, Paul summarizes the argument he was making from 1:18-3:4 by giving us a preliminary conclusion regarding the root of this church’s problem: strife. He begins by first warning them against being deceived by the world’s wisdom; thus reminding them of the argument he made in 1:18-2:16a regarding their supposed wisdom that is in reality nothing more than utter foolishness to God (3:18-20). Second, Paul turns their boasting and factiousness on its head telling them that it is not the Corinthians that belong to Paul, Apollos, or Peter, but that these great leaders (and everything else) are good gifts that come from God for the entire church to enjoy. Paul wants them to understand that their spiritual leaders and all other things are given for the benefit of the Corinthians because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. And so for Paul, the solution to the problem is found in correct thinking; thinking that starts with the conviction that God has spoken in Scripture and that the Bible is the final authority in all matters. To gain, maintain, and promote unity in the church of Christ, we must know how to think, Whom we must stay focused on, what we must love, and to Whom we belong.
The Folly of Worldly Wisdom: How We Must Think – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20
Verse 18 – “Let no man deceive himself.” This is exactly what they had done through pursuing worldly wisdom, and should they continue on that course, it will lead to their destruction because God destroys those who destroy His Bride, the Church (vv. 16-17). Nevertheless, he beckons them back to God’s folly: “If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age” – These people thought they possessed the best of both worlds, the wisdom of the world found in Greek philosophy and the wisdom of God as expressed in the Gospel of Christ. And so, they thought they had created a most cherished and prized philosophy. They thought themselves as wise, having gathered all knowledge (8:2), and as being very spiritual (14:37) and so they reveal their problem: worldly spiritual pride. But Paul debunks all those notions when he forcefully says that a truly wise man “must become foolish, so that he may become wise.” He shows them that God turns the things of the world on its head: wisdom is foolishness; foolishness is wisdom; weakness is power; leaders are servants; God’s people are nobodies yet they possess “all things” (v. 22). And so, to be truly wise in God’s sight God’s people must ditch all attempts at finding security in this present evil age and instead must trust in God’s folly as displayed in the cross of Christ alone. How strange the wisdom of God is when compared to the wisdom of the world!
Verse 19 – And why must a truly wise man become foolish so that he may become wise? Because, or “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.” The world’s manmade philosophies; all of which seek to find utopia and bliss apart from God are simply declared stupid in verse 19 by divine decree. And what evidence do we have that God considers the wisdom of the world absolute folly? Well “for it is written,” is a signal telling us again what His thoughts are about the futility of the wise by quoting a verse from Job 5:13 ‘He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS’”. The imagery here is that of the Divine Hunter catching His prey by using the prey’s own craftiness or cunning against it. The irony is that the worldly wise think they are craftily avoiding the God with whom they have to do; but God will use that very craftiness against them to capture them for the kill.
Verse 20 emphasizes the complete uselessness and futility of the worldly wise – “and again, ‘THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.’” God not only will capture them by their own cunningness (v. 19) but also knows their mental machinations; that they will come to naught. After all, Paul’s point in writing this to the Corinthians is to show them that should they not take God’s view of these things; then they will show that they are fools waiting to be eventually captured and killed (2 Peter 2:12).
The Folly of Following Men: Whom and What We Must Fix Our Eyes Upon – 1 Corinthians 3:21-22
Verse 21a – “So then let no one boast in men. . .” – The “So then” indicates that after all that has been said about the power of God’s wisdom as displayed in the cross, about how servant leadership should display the power of the cross, and about God’s contempt for worldly wisdom, let no one go on and boast in men by saying “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” or “I am of Cephas”. To base our confidence in the creature rather than the Creator eventually leads to futility, idolatry, and eternal ruin.
Verse 21b-22 gives the reason for not boasting in men, “For all things belong to you” with the “all things” being the “all things” mentioned in verse 22, “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 . . .”. Again, Paul turns the Corinthians’ thinking on its head. They said “I am of Paul” but God said “Paul is yours”. They said “I am of the world” but God said, “the world is yours”. And so, instead of them belonging to these great spiritual leaders; Paul is telling them that God has given these great teachers to them as a gift; and not only these teachers, but “the world or life or death or things present or things to come.” Not only are godly leaders ours, but everything else is ours as well. In Christ, all the five great terrifying and enslaving problems of human existence: the world, life, death, the present, and the future; all of them are turned on their heads, redeemed or awaiting complete redemption, and are thusly given to us as part of our spiritual redemption. All of these things are for our sake and ultimately for God’s glory (2 Cor. 4:15). O’ what amazing grace! Even though the world is still in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19), it will someday and forever completely belong to us and not to Satan. Even death, that great enemy of mankind has been overcome. Christ conquered death, and through Him we too have conquered it (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-57). This explains why Paul could say with such great joy, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21). Whether he remained on earth for a while longer or went to be with the Lord, he had a win-win situation. For Christians, death can only make things better. To stay here and labor for Jesus may be “more necessary,” but “to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better” (Phil. 1:23-24). For God’s people, this present life is good, but death; that which ushers us into eternal life; that is far better, and since all things belong to us through faith in Christ and we belong to no one except God; then we can truly say that we are children of liberty, bound by no one, enslaved only to God Himself with our gaze transfixed upon Him only, and how glorious it is!
The Folly of Misunderstood Ownership – To Whom We Must Belong – 1 Corinthians 3:23
Verse 23 – “and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” – Since we belong to Jesus as His slaves, the “all things” that are ours don’t come to us willy-nilly. Nor do they come to us through our own power as if we had the power to become self-sufficient and independent from God. This type of selfish behavior only comes from those who think they know God but don’t. They are self-deceived, and as a result, they experience the illusion of misunderstood ownership. In other words, they belong to the devil, they do his desires, and are even held captive by him to do his will (John 8:44; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). The problem is that they don’t know who they are really spiritually owned by, and as a result, they comfort themselves with their false identity (“I’ve been baptized and I go to church three times weekly”) or their false works (“I help the poor by fixing meals for the old fogies down at the soup kitchen and I’ve never hurt anybody too badly”). Heed this warning: No autonomous, self-centered person will ever enter the Kingdom of God because idolatry is the most heinous sin in the eyes of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). And idolatry is the foundation for autonomy. However, those who truly belong to Christ indeed have “all things”; because it is only by virtue of being “in Him” by faith alone that we too become joint-heirs of Christ (Romans 8:17). This kind of gift can never come to the boastful, the proud, and the person that is haughty in spirit. Since “you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God”, then we know that we have “all things” through Him alone, apart from our works, lest any many should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is only through Christ that we have true spiritual unity and the solution for healing division in the church. When we take our eyes off Him division begins and when we put our eyes back on Him division ends.
Conclusion: The Take Home Message
True believers all belong to the same Lord. Because of this we should work hard to be together in mind, purpose, and action with each other. Anything that undermines our oneness with each other also undermines our oneness in Christ (cf. Phil. 2:1-4). We are so quick to ditch the Scriptures and look to the world’s methods for maintaining the unity of the Spirit; and when we do so we cannot for the life of us figure out why we still cannot avoid division in the church. Avoiding church division is all about understanding that we belong to Christ and that Christ belongs to God and because we belong to Him, we have no cause for boasting in “belonging” to any person, especially a spiritual leader. It’s because we all belong to Him that we all belong to each other and we are part of the “all things” given by Him to minister to each other. If we are tied together in such an eternal oneness with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and thus with each other in them, how can people who are supposed to be unified be so divided? Well, the answer lies in the fact that we fail to understand the reality of our spiritual unity in the Triune God, the very One who owns us. And that failure to understand as we ought always comes as the direct result of our own personal sin. Nevertheless, with God as our slavemaster, with Christ’s cross are our great banner display for God’s wisdom, and with the Holy Spirit as our teacher, we trust God to honor the clear, consistent teaching of His word and grant spiritual unity where true unity must exist; only in the Bride, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.