Exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:16-23, For the person who wants to have it all

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

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, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Verse 16 introduces a third metaphor, the church as God’s temple. Paul has been using the metaphor of constructing a building (1 Cor. 3:9b-15), but now he increases the stakes by saying the building is God’s temple and that the Corinthian Christians — even if scattered in house churches — are that temple! The Holy Spirit among them is proof enough of that.

The “don’t you know” style of question occurs ten times in the letter and works to puncture the arrogant claim from the Corinthians that “we all possess knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:1). However, the spiritual danger was greater than they imagined. In relation to verse 17, David Garland points out: “While some builders may do a lousy job of building on the foundation and their work will be consumed, some work moves beyond mere shoddiness and becomes destructive.”[1]

The clarity of 1 Cor. 3:17 presents a serious question. Garland Fee says: “The theological question as to whether a true believer could be destroyed by God lies beyond Paul’s present concern. . . . That these people were members of the Corinthian community seems beyond reasonable doubt; that Paul is also serving up a genuine threat of eternal punishment seems also the plain sense of the text.”[2] The ESV Study Bible concludes, “The one who destroys God’s temple (in this context, the church) is not part of God’s people and so faces eternal destruction on the last day.”

The updated NIV leaves the mistaken impression that verse 18 is speaking to the whole church, but it is addressed to individuals. “Guard against self-deception, each of you” (NET) is better. About what are they deceived? They regard themselves as wise, full of knowledge and spiritual. Fee shows how Paul uses humor to skewer this pompous attitude: “The opening salvo is irony once again: ‘If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age.’ Of course they do; that is quite the point.”[3]

It is astonishing that this critique fits so well in relation to America in 2017. Many ignore Christ crucified — or even scoff — and it is fashionable to leave God out of any serious thinking about the present or the future. Roman Corinth is not so far away!

In 1 Cor. 1:18-25, Paul spoke about how an unbelieving world and its rulers considered God’s wisdom to be foolishness. But 1 Cor. 3:18-20 says that God regards human wisdom as foolishness. Humanity does not know his thoughts — except for those who accept his revelation of them — but he knows all human thoughts and knows their wisdom is foolishness.

As he so often does, Paul quotes the Old Testament to prove his point (1 Cor. 3:19-20). God had warned against human wisdom long ago, but the Corinthians are self-absorbed and faction-absorbed and they do not know that fact, or possibly chose to ignore it.

The way Paul wraps up his argument (1 Cor. 3:21-23) is remarkable but a bit difficult to grasp at first. Suppose for a moment that you — like the Corinthian believers — wanted greater influence, access to power and a way to have a life of significance. With that assumption in mind, suppose you had your choice of three jobs: (1) chief of staff for the mayor of Dallas, (2) chief of staff for the governor of Texas, or (3) chief of staff for the president of the United States. Which one would you take? The obvious right answer is the last.

When the Corinthians say, “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos,” they are choosing a factional role that is even less significant than #1 above. That is really stupid when they all have the right to say I am of Christ, a role that is infinitely greater than #3 above. Because you are of Christ, and Christ is of God (1 Cor. 3:23), it follows that all things are yours (1 Cor. 3:21b).

Here again we arrive at the importance of our identity in Christ. By being in Christ, that is through our joining in his death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-14), all things become ours. In Christ we have it all!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 120.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 148, footnote 19.

[3] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 151.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!