There are two related historical and cultural significant imageries Paul is using in this passage: first, the foundation imagery and then also the word naos. In any kind of building project a good foundation is of necessity. In ancient times, the massive temples and magisterial constructs had to be built on colossal foundations. If a wrong foundation would have been laid, the superstructure (e.g. temple or administrative building) would have at one point in time collapsed or been tilted. Such wrong foundations would have caused fractions and ultimate destruction of the building.
The term naos (often translated as temple) refers to the inner part of the temple construct. The actual sanctuary (sanctuary proper) was the place where the god or goddess was believed to dwell. Both of these imageries are crucial for interpretation of the passage at hand.
First of all Paul needs to address the issue of his and Apollos’s identity. Both of them have received a task and both of them are servants of God (v.5). They are God’s servants and coworkers (vv.5-9). In verse 5 then Paul raises the question of status (“what is our status?”). They are not like the homo novus (those who became rich through commerce or other means; lit. “the new human”) of society who somehow climbed up the ladder in society (we need to remember that status is the most crucial element of the Greco-Roman world) but first and foremost Paul and Apollos are diakonoi – servants!
Their effectiveness is determined by the Lord. Yes, each one has his task, Paul planted and Apollos watered, but it is God Himself who ultimately gives growth (v.6). Thus, only God is to be praised for His accomplishments. The laborers share a common purpose and are of unity (“he who plants and he who waters are one”; v. 8). Their reward will be determined “according to each one’s labor (kata ton idion kopon). This labor is not the result, labor is not production, it is about the manner in which the work is done; that’s the base on which God is going to evaluate. Here Paul does not let us know what this reward is, but stresses that character and intentions matter the most in the Christian ministry.
In verse 9 Paul switches the agricultural metaphor to that of construction work. Paul is a master builder – sophos architektōn – and knows what he is talking about (v.10). By the time Paul came to Corinth, he already had immense experience in missionary work. Paul doesn’t mind to call himself sophos because it is by God’s grace that his work flourishes and he knows what he is called to do.
In verse 11 then he talks about the foundation of the church as God’s temple – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ crucified and raised from the dead – that is the Gospel. This building imagery is taken from temple construction in Corinth (see discussion above). The foundation which has been laid cannot be wrapped in rhetorical excellence because there is no eloquent speech about a crucified Messiah – the foolishness of God.
Verses 12-13 then speak about the quality of missionaries and teachers in the church. We have to keep in mind that Paul is not concerned about the materials, but about the foundation being laid – Christ crucified. When Paul talks about the fire (v.15) he talks about the worker and not the material. The evaluation then on the Day of the Lord will be “How central was the crucified Christ?”
Here now comes the main point of 3:1-17: The church and its responsibility as God’s temple (vv.16-17). The congregation is God’s temple in which God’s Spirit dwells (v.16). Via a rhetorical question Paul draws the readers into the argument. “Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?” views the whole church corporately. In essence Paul is saying in verse 17 “If you create division, unity is dissolved and the temple destroyed” (see discussion of foundation above). The person who destroys the congregation will be destroyed by God. This then becomes the crux for the entire epistle, because there can be no impurity in God’s temple. This has ethical implications.
The apostle Paul exhorts us that we need to take care that our message is about the crucified Messiah and not some eloquent speech which is of no concern in terms of the edification of the church or the glory of God. This for sure does not mean we should not speak intelligibly but that it is the content and not the method per se which matters.
Cultural relevance is important but a crucified Messiah cannot be tamed and beautified by nice church programs. We as teachers and leaders of the church need to take care as to how we build on that foundation. There is not place for pride in this work, because God is the one who gives the growth. Human effort is valuable in God’s sight, but it is He who ultimately gets the glory!