1 Corinthians 3:18-23
November 26, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:25 in the audio file.
Or, Two Traps of This Age
1 Corinthians 3:18-23 may be the most important paragraph in the epistle. I don’t remember reading anyone else who would argue the same case, but to get what Paul is saying here is to get into a position to have a humble, thankful, and large life. It is daunting to try to communicate the height and depth and length and breadth of this worldview.
I’m excited that by the plan of providence we get to cover this paragraph the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It would have worked well the Sunday before too, but let’s keep the great gratitude gravy boat full and flowing.
When I decided that 1 Corinthians was going to be my next book to study and preach I decided to use passages from it for the brief devotions at the beginning of each session at our Life to Life leaders retreat back in August. I usually give the retreat a theme and try to connect the devotions to said theme, and the theme was “All Are Yours” from this paragraph. I’ve been signing off my emails to the leaders since then with “All are yours.” It is Kuyperian, it is overwhelming, it changes how one views the Church and the church, preachers, relationships, resources, salvation, the Trinity, time and eternity, heaven and earth. All is gift.
Paul is still on the subject of the Corinthians attitude toward one another, sort of like a sixth year senior: you wonder when are they going to move on. He’s been addressing the issue of their quarreling and divisiveness since early in the first chapter. Their problems were both age-old and ever-current at the same time. The Corinthians were having problems getting along because they were thinking like and acting like the world. They were not thinking like God or acting like they were saved by a crucified Christ. Their standards were human standards, their ambitions were worldly ambitions, and their horizons got no further than the flesh on their noses. This is what Paul’s been confronting.
In 1 Corinthians 3:18-23 he confronted them for deceiving themselves and limiting themselves. He described two traps of this age, traps in Corinth that are traps in every culture and traps even among Christians. He commanded them, and by application us, to stop being cheated.
There are two commands that make one point followed by an explanation that includes Scripture proof.
Let no one deceive himself. Is there ever a time that it would be good to convince oneself of anything that isn’t true? Is there ever a time to lie to yourself? Why would anyone give themselves a self-inflicted wound? Self-deceived people aren’t the ones doing any self-examination, so Paul gets their attention.
Here he puts his finger upon the true sore, as the whole mischief originated in this—that they were wise in their own conceit. (Calvin)
What is it in particular that he’s concerned about? To be convinced one is wise using the standards of this age is to be willingly deceived. To want to be identified by the world as someone who is wise, to want to be relevant, is a trap. So, If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. The contrast between what the world thinks is wisdom and what is truly wisdom is visible only to those who aren’t captivated by worldly wisdom. Consider: are you eager to have the approval of those who consider the cross foolish? Do you want to be seen as relevant, as cool, by those who think God is foolish? If so, become a fool in the world’s terms so that you may become wise in God’s terms.
The explanation comes in verse 19. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. Someone is wrong. Either God’s wisdom is folly as the world says or the world’s wisdom is folly as God says. Paul already said that the word of the cross is folly to the Very Important Persons. Now he turns it around and says that VIP actually means Very Ignorant Persons.
Paul proves it with two quotes from the Old Testament. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” We would Sword Drill to Job 5:13 for this first reference (“which appears to be the only use of Job within the NT” Thiselton). The words are from Eliphaz to Job and, while we know that Job’s counselors had problems, a lot of their problems were misapplication more than misinterpretation. What Eliphaz said here is true: crafty men, scheming and subtle and tricky men are caught in their own traps. They can’t out-sneak God.
And again, “the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” This second quote comes from Psalm 94. This is one of the psalms we sing, and I thought about asking to put it in into the set for this morning, but instead I used part of it to call us to worship (verses 12-19), and maybe you’ll think about it differently next time we sing it.
Psalm 94 is the “stupid people” song. Psalm 94 is titled “God of Vengeance, O Jehovah.” Psalm 94 is about how the wicked are fools. God “who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” (verse 9). The Judge of the earth will rise up (verse 2) and the arrogant who pour out their words and afflict God’s people God will “wipe them out for their wickedness” (verse 23). And these are the ones we’re trying to impress? These are the ones whose thoughts…are futile, empty like a balloon, with just as much spittle, that we hope give us a seat at the Table of Influence? This is a trap and it must be avoided.
Here is another command followed with an explanation regarding every Christian’s incredible endowment.
So let no one boast in men. It’s a recap and command. Verses 18-20 hit both the congregation and anyone trying to impress the congregation. Verses 21-23 are especially aimed at the congregation in how they view teachers and leaders. In verses 18-20 to be convinced one is wise using the standards of this age is to be willingly deceived. To want to be esteemed, to want to be seen as relevant is a trap. In verses 21-23 to boast in men, the ones who are considered wise using the standards of the world, is to be willingly small-minded. To follow a particular man, to identify with someone considered wise in this age, is a trap. We’re not to boast or glory in men.
Why not? We might anticipate that Paul would contrast created finitude with their infinite Creator, to show the great chasm between the foolishness of God and the wisdom of men again, to humble those who are mere reflections of the original image, to point out that every worker is just a servant and not the owner of the building (verses 10-15). Those things are true, but Paul takes a different and extraordinary approach. This is humbling in another way.
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours.
What an amazing set of bookends: all (things) are yours. Because all wraps around the list, the list cannot be considered complete; the list is merely representative. Paul starts with the individual leaders that the Corinthians had identified with: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas. This was obviously the issue that fired Paul up to write the letter, and he’s carefully shown that acting superior to others based on which preacher of the gospel one identifies with is foolish. Preachers preach a message that won’t win popularity contests, and preachers themselves can’t cause any growth. Preachers are called and used by God as tools in the field and for the building, but we boast in God not in men.
Paul inverts the perspective. The church is not identified with an important person, the person is identified with the important church. Which preacher you listen to isn’t a reason to feel superior, and the more persons who listen don’t make a preacher superior. Shepherds give account for their sheep, but in this case the sheep own the shepherds. The shepherds work for the sheep.
Paul, Apollos, and Peter were genuine preachers, those who built with gold, silver, and precious metals, those who preached the word of the cross. They undoubtedly had different emphases and unique personalities and varying styles. But all of them were given to the church, no church or group within the church was given to them. And so all of them were God-given gifts.
Imagine how long the applied list is for us: Paul, Peter, Augustine, Wycliffe, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, Bucer, Baxter, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, Whitfield, Spurgeon, Kuyper, MacArthur, Sproul, Piper, Wilson, Light, Martin, Sarr. I’ve selected some of my favorites preachers; all of them have been used by God to shape my thinking as they teach insights into God’s Word. Did I leave one of your favorites off the list? They are mine too! The Bible does not tell us to erase their names, it tells us how to process their names. That they are ours does not mean we choose who to reject, it means we receive all with thanks. It is a trap of small-mindedness and short-sightedness to restrict ourselves to just one.
That should be enough to make the point, right? That deals with the quarreling over which man they thought would make them more important. But Paul isn’t finished, and the next items on his list are Weltanschauung gold.
The world belongs to us, the kosmos. This is a different sense than the dominating unbelief and idolatry of the world. This is the created universe as Genesis 1 describes. It is all ours from God. Everything in Blue Planet and Planet Earth is ours, everything in every branch of science is ours, from acarology (the study of mites) to zymurgy (the study of brewing and distilling). Cars and trucks are ours, Mac and Windows are ours, iPhones and Androids are ours, fountain pens and computer keyboards are ours, apples and oranges, psalms and (maybe some) Reformed rap, every flower on any peak and in any valley, meat and other kinds of meat, coffee and tea, red and white wine, sun, moon, and stars, the world. And will we get trapped by such a close association with one thing that we’ll break fellowship with a (inferior) brother?
Next Paul says that existence is ours, life or death. Each breath and step and meal and marriage and birth and scraped knee and nap and early morning and late night and win and loss and bill and bonus and thumb’s-width is a gift. Even death is given to us. When it is considered rightly it does not ruin us or our loved ones in Christ. Death is “the release from all sin, temptation, [and] evil with which we wrestle now” (Lenski). Even the death of unbelievers serves us as it glorifies the God of justice (see Psalm 94:23).
Then Paul says that time is ours, things present or things to come. What is happening right now and whatever will happen in the future, we do not need to fear or fret, they are all ours. MacArthur pushes these possessions into the millennial kingdom and eternity, but that misses the present part.
“It is as if this multitude of servants surrounded us and on bended knees held out their precious offerings to us. Some of these servants like pain, injury, sickness, grief, and death may at first have a strange look to us who do not know our own royalty sufficiently. It is God who commissions them all and makes each one bring us some blessing so that as kings unto God we shall lack nothing.” (Lenski, Kings and Priests)
Four of these are mentioned in Romans 8:38 as possible threats that might keep men away from God, but they are also from God for us. Isn’t it surprising that the cure for division in the church is to stop being so shortsighted and unimaginative about nature and existence? When created things use us, they become ruthless gods. When we see them as ours from God, we live large lives.
All things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. We have all things because we belong to Christ who belongs to the Father. This is not about subordination, this is about family inheritance.
Of course we have preferences and favorites, at the dinner table and in the bookstore. We have different spiritual giftings (1 Corinthians 12) and different earthly vocations. We do not all have to love all the same things at the same level. But we love what we love in thanks God and we love that others love what they do in thanks to God. This is nicely nicknamed Kuyperian Dispensationalism. It is Trinitarian. It is the theology that lifts up our heads to see all the blessings abounding around us.
There are two ways to cheat oneself out of blessing in this paragraph. First, we cheat ourselves out of blessing when we embrace empty and fruitless relevance rather than true, divine wisdom that transcends this age. Acting superior according to inferior standards and identifying ourselves as wise in this age is a trap. Second, we cheat ourselves out of blessing when we truncate and limit who we listen to or what we appreciate rather than receiving our full, divine endowment that transcends this age. Identifying ourselves with the “wise” is a trap in this age.
When our identity is wrapped up in one association or getting certain appreciation then we will be threatened (what if someone or something better comes along”) rather than thankful. But when our identity is wrapped up in Christ we know that all things are ours!
Beloved, you are Christ’s. Because of that, nothing can successfully separate you from His love. Instead, everything can be received by You as evidence of His love. All things are yours, every Monday morning and each minute, encouragements from brothers and criticisms from others, irregular income and irregular expenses, cancer and chemo and not having cancer but loving those who do, your kids and your extended family and your work and social media. All are yours, you are Christ’s.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35–39)