All posts by Nigel Fortescue

Study 5 – 1 Corinthians 3:1-22

Building Believers

Discussion Question

If you could build anything in your backyard, what would you build and why?

The connection here is to the building of the church by Paul.


In Chapter 3 Paul returns to his concerns in 1:10-17 about quarrels and divisions. He seeks to provide a solid theological understanding of WHO they are and WHOSE they are so they might put off their worldly and immature ways of thinking and grow up in Christ. He will implore them not to abandon or ignore the human leaders they have followed but to recognise that human leaders build on God’s work, according to God’s plans towards God’s goals.  The key urging from this chapter is really in 3.21 – no more boasting about human leaders! God is central to your life, death and every breath.

Talk of the temple in 3:16-17 requires some careful consideration. The temple/ tabernacle was the place where God dwelt in the midst of Israel and at which God related to his people (remember our study in Leviticus!). It was a mobile tent until the days of Solomon when he built a glorious and enormous temple in which God’s people could worship God. But as Israel forgot God the temple was overrun by injustice and idolatry. After the glory days of Solomon, evil godless kings closed the doors, destroyed the altars and killed the priests; eventually it was destroyed. In the later OT (cf Haggai) people long for a new temple to be built of greater glory than the first. As the NT opens, Jesus says he is that temple (John 2:13-25). Jesus is the place where God reveals himself, through whom God relates with his people and in whom his people worship. Now Paul takes this a step further and says “you yourselves are God’s temple”. In light of the background, that is a pretty incredible thought.

Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-22

3 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

5 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. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their 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 person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours,

What did you see?


  • God’s servants do God’s work among God’s people (3.1-9)
  • The builders and their building (3.10-15)
  • The temple and a warning (3.16-17)
  • Lift your eyes to God (3.18-23)

God’s Servants do God’s Work among God’s People (3.1-9)

“Brothers and Sisters…” Paul is addressing the Corinthian Christians but he is getting them to recall his former ministry among them when he addressed them. There is a softness to his rebuke – you’re brothers and sisters but you’re being idiotic!  

“…people who live by the Spirit…” This is a great little description of Christian people (who have the Spirit of God in them (2:12) and who keep in step with the spirit (Eph 5:16)) connects into the end of chapter 2 where Paul contrasted Spirit-filled judgements and worldly judgements. The end of chapter 2 prepared us for Paul’s stinging rebuke here in 3:1-4)

“I gave you milk, not solid food”  Sometimes people have tried to be definitive about what milk content is vs solid (meaty) content. Is it plain gospel vs difficult doctrinal issues (like election or the Trinity?). In my experience this has happened so people can make a judgement about the content of this or that sermon, or church or the ability of a preacher. “He preaches milk!” This thinking is just the Corinthian error in another form. I don’t think it is helpful (or the point of this passage) for us to try and work out what teaching is milk and what is meat.  Rather, the issue is, are we still worldly like the Corinthians or walking in the Spirit?

“…mere humans…” Get your group to recall the discussion you had on 2:13, 15-6.

“…servants through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task…” Here is the introduction of Paul’s argument. Humans are but tools in the hands of God, servants assigned a task by the master, the Lord. They don’t decide on their work, the Lord gives them a ministry to do (2 Corinthians 5:16-20). There is no indication of anything mystical or miraculous here, just that they are preachers of God’s gospel. Therefore they should not be exalted but the Lord should be. The servant word here is the word used of deacons in 1 Tim 3:8 and not the “slave” word.

“…God has been making it grow…only God who makes things grow.” Always pause and look carefully when you see repeated ideas close together. Often this will be the key point of teaching the author wants you to grasp. In this case, the power in ministry is not in the preacher or personality or persuasive power of the person but in God who makes things grow. God makes Christians. God grows Christians. God saves Christian. He just uses people to do the preaching and teaching work.  Our attention should not be fastened on people but on the Lord they serve.

“…each be rewarded according to their own labour…” There are several passages in the NT that indicate a specific reward for those who labour for Christ. But the reward is never clearly stated; of course this has not stopped people from guessing! Some say a better place in heaven, some say a better experience of heaven, some say something else. I say, wait until you get there and see. Note though that the issue is not fruitfulness or success but reward is for labour. This makes sense as it is God who makes things grow and human ministry is done in God’s strength for God’s purposes according to God’s plans for God’s glory.

“…co-workers…” The translation of this verse in the NIV hides a profound reality that God is mentioned three times emphatically. It might read “God’s co-workers are we, God’s field, God’s building you are.” Humans are put at the end of the sentence to emphasise strongly that human instruments do not matter but God is all in all. The field/ building language prepares us for what comes next.

The Builders and their Building (3.10-15)

“builder…building…builds…”  The big question in this section is what is being built and thus what is this building. Some think it refers to a body of doctrine or understanding (linked to the milk/meat point); others think it is the church itself. Likely, neither are out of view for the church is built through right teaching both numerically and in maturity. That building takes place by the proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God which Paul and others are doing. All this is founded on Jesus Christ who was first preached by Paul – thus he is the one who laid a foundation!

“gold, sliver, stones, wood, hay, straw…” Again, people like to try to identify all the different component parts here and define what is a good building material and what is bad. I think this misses the point. Paul is listing a variety of building materials (in two groups – flammable and inflammable) in order to point out that quality of building will be shown up on the Day. Leaders with Jesus as the foundation can still do a bad job.

“Day…” The day of judgement when Christ returns. When he comes the true character of the building work will be revealed and the efforts of the builder revealed for what they are. Again quality not quantity is what counts. Faithfulness to the foundations is key.

“Reward… burned… saved… flames.” All those being addressed here are Christian and will be saved. But the reality is that some builders do dodgy work. Some will receive a reward (see previous discussion) and some will not. The quality of ministry is what is key. People should not engage as a co-worker of God without ensuring they build carefully, wisely and in accordance with God’s plans. (It is possible that Paul is laying the ground work for future rebuke of leaders who will not deal with sin in the community [cf. 1 Corinthians 5]) Note that there is no inkling here that purgatory is being referred to. Purgatory is a late invention of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Temple and a Warning (3.16-17)

“Temple… Spirit…”  See the Background for an initial discussion of temple. If Paul had teachers and preachers in view, he now ensures the whole church is engaged in this discussion and that they see themselves as being at least somewhat responsible for the sort of teaching (building etc) going on among them. They can’t just blame others for their errors but they need to ensure that they as God’s temple are being built well. (Again, this may prepare for the future rebuke in chapter 5).

…God will destroy that person.” Here Paul’s attention is also turned to unbelievers who may come into the church and seek to do it damage. Some teachers are false teachers who do not know the Gospel or the God who owns the Gospel or the God who works in the midst of his people.

“You together are that temple”  No Christian is an island and no Christian can claim to be the place where God dwells but it is the church that Paul is referring to. The church is the dwelling place of God by his Spirit in his Word. This elevates the importance of the building, the importance of protecting the building, the importance of building well and the importance of carefully receiving good building as the church.  It is God’s work but we are all held responsible for our own actions.

Lift your eyes to God (3.18-23)

“Do not deceive yourselves.”  Paul now clearly is addressing the church and calling on them to see clearly who they are and whose they are and who it is who is working in their midst. They ought not think they are wise for the decisions they have made about how to do church but their wisdom comes only through Christ as they are built on the foundation that is Christ.

“He catches the wise…. The Lord knows that the thoughts…”  It is worth looking up Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11 to see the broader context of these verses. They underline the reality that no human leader has ever been wiser or better than God. Humanity is characterised by foolishness. God is characterised by wisdom.

“No more boasting…”  This is Paul at both his elegant and furious best. Simple language making a profound point.

“All things are yours…”  This seems like a strange way to conclude this section. You might expect Paul to say “Glory only in God!” But he actually does something more profound – he points out how the Corinthians are ripping themselves off by lining up behind only one teacher when in fact all things (not just all teachers) but everything is theirs in Christ! This may hark back to 1:7. Either way, far from making themselves wiser by choosing one teacher they are impoverishing themselves.  For when you are in Christ you have conquered all that assails you and possess all that is needed for wisdom and life.

“…you are of Christ, and Christ is of God!”  The story does not end with the great possessions we have by faith in Christ but with the reality that we belong to Christ! Wow! You are not your own master stumbling in weakness, you belong to the Lord of the universe and have his strength and power and wisdom as yours. And as one who is in Christ, you are connected ultimately with God. Perhaps this is the great final rebuke or the great final encouragement – either way – STOP lining up behind human leaders and line up with the one who owns you! God in Christ!


What did we learn?

You have been saved by Christ. You belong to Christ. Human leaders lead for Christ and lead you toward Christ. Stop focussing on human leaders and start being who you are – God’s building and temple – and live in all he has given you which is much more than any human can give you!

Now what?

Topic A: Are you Spiritual or Worldly? You could have a discussion about this or spend some time sharing with each other about whether you are growing as a Christian and pursuing godliness or not and if not, why not. What is holding you back? How might you change where you are? What needs to happen that you might say you are ready for the meat and living by the Spirit?

Topic B: What is the danger of treating preachers as celebrities and do you do that? How do we see this danger in our context in Sydney, in Campbelltown, in our church? How do we protect against it? How can we encourage our ministers not to take on celebrity status and enable them to keep viewing themselves as Paul views himself?  

Topic C: Living with the reality that all things are yours. Are you short-changing yourself and not living life fully focussed on Christ? The world and life and death are all yours in Christ. Are you living like that is the case? Are you seeking satisfaction in other things in the world? Are you treating Jesus as someone to be tacked onto your life or as the one who is the centre of your life and who is your life?

Ezekiel 38-39 – Evil in the Hands of the Living God

Ezekiel 38-39 are two of the more difficult chapters in Ezekiel. They have been used and misused since they were inked or otherwise ignored. The problem is, that when we come to chapters like these we want to be able to identify who Gog is, where Magog is, when the events described here happened and what the overall result was. Sadly no one has been able clearly to identify historical events connected with the descriptions in these chapters. That doesn’t mean they are pretend or wrong, just that perhaps they are not historical in the literal linear sense. Our bigger problem as we come to these chapters is that our groups may feel fatigued by Ezekiel 1-37 and they may want to rush in for quick easy answers. The answers are there but they may not be quick to find.

Can I encourage you to remember two things as you seek answers from these chapters:

  1. The OT is about Jesus (John 5:39-40; Luke 24:44-48). Ask yourself, how do these chapters testify to Jesus.
  2. Bible reading does take effort and the effort you put into these chapters as a group will reap rewards.


1. SharingQuestion

Thinking specifically about today or tomorrow, what would make it a bad day? LINK: Despite the restoration and joy pictured in Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel 38-39 say that a bad day is coming for Israel, a day on which Gog from Magog will come and attack them. Despite the promise of Ezekiel 37:27-28, everything is not yet perfect.

2. READ both chapters

It will be best for you to print out both chapters and have them for people to write on with pens and highlighters. As you hand them out, have people take notice of:

  • The story itself
  • Repeated ideas
  • Allusions to other Old Testament passages
  • What God does
  • What Israel does
  • When these events will happen
  • The reason these events take place

Some help for you along the way…

• The story itself

God is going to raise up Gog (38:4, 39:2), a mighty ruler with vast armies at his disposal (38:15-16), to come out against his people in battle (38:8) together with other rulers and nations (38:6). This will all happen in future years, at a future time, in days ahead but it will be in God’s timing (38:7, 16), according to Gog’s plans (38:10) when God’s people are at peace and not expecting any evil (38:16). 

When Gog and the forces come upon the land, God will thoroughly defeat them (38:18-22). Their carcasses will be eaten by animals (39:4, 17-20), their weapons taken by Israel for firewood (39:9) and their bones buried in the Valley of Hamon Gog (39:11). Israel will send people around to collect the leftover bones and bury those too so the land will be clean (39:14-16).

• Repeated ideas

God in charge, Nations against God’s people, large armies and more

• Allusions to other Old Testament passages

38:4, 15 – Horses and vast armies – Exodus 14
38:9 – nations going up to Israel – Isaiah 2:2-4 (note the reversal of expectation)
38:15 – a mighty army – Ezekiel 37:10 – could be a connection with the valley in which the bones Gog and the hordes are placed too.
38:20 – Description of creation – Genesis 1:27-30
38:22 – Plagues – Exodus 7-11
39:17-20 – the feeding of the people to the birds – 1 Samuel 17:45-47 (David and Goliath)

What do these and other passages add to our understanding of what is going on here?

• What God does

He raises up Gog.
He defeats Gog.

It is fascinating isn’t it that God brings Gog against his people. No doubt there will be some consternation in your group about this. But why does it do this to us? Is God not free to do as he pleases? Has God promised you peace and calm every day of your life? Cannot God use both the righteous and the unrighteous to bring about his plans? Consider the cross!

• What Israel does

All Israel does is mop up after the battle is over.

• When these events will happen

38:8, 10, 14 – it is all very vague. It points to “later” which is odd given the language in Ezekiel has been to this point all immediate – soon, now, it is happening.There is something very different in the language here. Note too that the use of the OT allusions and the broad cosmological language of creation, plagues, feasting birds and armies like clouds points to something bigger. They are all clues for what is being described here, it is not something specific, it is something bigger and more significant. It is not about an event, it is about a reality.

• The reason these events take place


Looking in detail at these passages does unlock the question of why God does what he does. I would spend a fair bit of time looking at these passages.

3. Summarise in a sentence what the chapters are saying

I have come up with something like this:

Evil will still come upon God’s saved people but it is never out of God’s control and God’s people are never left to fend for themselves because God always wins.

One commentator helpfully says:

“The point of Ezekiel 38-39 is not that at some point in the distant future in history that these particular nations will attack Israel and that others will rally to her aid. Rather, these 7 nations from the ends of the earth, from all 4 points on the compass, represent symbolically a supreme attempt by the forces of evil to crush God’s people and destroy them. God will not let that happen. […] Therefore the message of Ezekiel 38-39 is not a coded message for those who live in the last days… It is a word of encouragement to all the saints of all times and places that no matter what the forces of evil may do, God’s purpose and victory stands secure. If God can defeat the combined forces of Gog and his allies and turn them into fodder for the birds, how much more can he take care of us!”

It is a powerful message of hope for God’s saved people.

4. How does this testify to Jesus?

I wonder if this gives us some insight into the defeat of Satan at the cross?
Colossians 2:15
Ephesians 2:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-15

God does the work of defeating even Satan and we have nothing to do with that? While evil prevails it is like a chained lion, dangerous to those who would close to it but completely safe if you stay away.

5. What does this mean for us?

(a) Although bad things happen in the world as we await our ulimate salvation, God is in control. It is critical that Christians get this right and believe it in the good times because God does not change just because your circumstances have. When bad things happen, God has not abandoned you. Pastorally, this is hard to hear when things are difficult. Gog comes intent to plunder but he can only do what God’s plans and purposes allow. This means we must reject trite summaries of the Christian life.

  • Nothing can go wrong, I trust Jesus: WRONG.
  • God loves me and has wonderful perfect plans for my life: WRONG.

God does love you and nothing eternally can go wrong, but in this world, right now, God’s plan for you might be that you undergo terrible struggles and trials so that you might display his glory through your trust in him. This is a wonderful plan of God too. God’s plan for you might be that you are put to death in a foreign land for being a Christian. This too is God’s wonderful plan for you. He is always in control.

In face of the reality painted in these chapters, can you see how foolish the following statements sound:

Meditate on the good things, at least you are alive.
Don’t worry, God will rescue you and make your life great again.

Too often we think in very earthly and temporal terms. We need to see the bigger picture of God’s victory over Gog and our real permanent home in heaven. If we actually had the mind of Christ, life in all its joys and disasters would make more sense and be easier to deal with.

May the mind of Christ my Saviour
Live in me from day to day
By his love and power controlling,
All I do and say, All I do and say.

(b) No matter what happens, God always wins and his love always prevails. This may seem trite but the reality is that no matter how big or organized or powerful the opposition is, or how paltry our faith is, ultimately the plans of God’s enemies come to nothing. Nothing can stop God from loving you and nothing will stop God from saving you and nothing can steal you out of Jesus’ hands.

Read Romans 8:31-39 and John 10:25-30 (just do Romans if you are out of time).