Orthodox America

Scripture Commentary by Archbishop Averky

Part 12 of a continuing series on the Epistles of Saint Paul

In evidence of the same idea concerning the simplicity of the Gospel preaching, foreign to any deceptive elegance of outward construction and the external wisdom of pagan philosophers but strong solely in the Truth it contains, the holy Apostle in the second chapter recalls how he came to Corinth in humility, speaking plainly about the Crucified One, so that the faith of the Corinthians would in no wise be obligated to human wisdom but to God alone: my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (vv. 4-5). For those more advanced in the faith there is then revealed knowledge of true wisdom-the wisdom of God which surpasses all human understanding and is unattainable for the worldly wise. This-wisdom hidden in a mystery, which God ordained before the world unto our glory (v. 7)-is an image of the ordering of our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, with all its elemental principles and vast consequences in all areas of creative existence (vv. 6-8). Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him (v. 9). But for us, true Christians, God revealed this through the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit fathoms all things, even the deep things of God (v. 10). In preaching about that great mystery, the salvation of men, the Apostles had "the mind of Christ," and therefore their teaching can be fully understood only by "spiritual" people, that is, those established in the spiritual-moral life, those who are spiritually reborn and who have accepted the truth not only intellectually, with their minds, but with their hearts and will, i.e., to the fullest capacity of their strength and abilities. The "natural man", i.e., one not yet cleansed of his sinful attachments, who lives not according to the spirit but according to the lower attributes of the soul, receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spritually discerned (2:14).

The content of the third chapter suggests that in St. Paul's absence from Corinth, his opponents incited the Christians against him, trying to disparage his teachings. It appears that they made a point that the other evangelizers, as for example Apostle Peter and Apollos, explained the truths of Christ's teaching more eloquently, more profoundly. In responding to such criticism, St. Paul writes: I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal. (3:1-2). As evidence of their being "yet carnal," St Paul mentions the contentions, strife and divisions among them into "parties" of followers after a particular teacher-evangelizer. St. Paul then explains how properly to regard apostles, that they are but servants of God, ministers by whom ye believed (whose teaching led them to the faith), but the foundation of salvation lies in Christ Jesus, for other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ (vv. 1-5, 11). I planted, says Apostle Paul, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are laborers together with God: ye are God's husbandry (i.e., the field He cultivates), ye are God's building. (vv. 6-9) The value of the labor of each such builder-preacher will be determined at the Last Judgment.

The foundation is one-Jesus Christ, but on this foundation one can build out of various materials of differing value and durablity: out of gold, silver, precious stones (pure, salubrious teaching of God's Word), or of wood, hay, straw (teaching that is mixed with ideas from human wisdom or empty rhetoric). On the day of the Last Judgment the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is (vv. 12-14). If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire (v. 15), that is, as if out of a fire.

According to Blessed Augusting, St Paul is speaking here of those whom Apostle Peter calls unlearned and unstable (II Peter 3:16). This passage has been interpreted by Roman Catholic theologians to support their erroneous teaching about a cleansing fire, where sinners are cleansed by fire after they die (i.e., purgatory). The analogy the Apostle uses here, however, is that of a house fire, and this comparison can aid in the correct understanding of this passage. Bishop Theophan explains: "Fire is all around; one must run through it. What happens? One person runs through scarcely touched by the fire, others are burned in varying degrees, while some remain in the fire. This is similar to what will happen to those whose houses (actions) burn in the the trial by fire. Some will go into the flames, others will receive varying degrees of punishment, while others will find mercy. For although they are all guilty in that they did not utilize durable materials in their buildings, their guilt can be of varying degrees. One person may be guilty through no fault of his own: he labored with poor quality materials without knowing any better; or perhaps circumstances prevented him from using anything better, or there may be some other excusable reason."

Perhaps the flock itself is at fault for being rotten material. Then the pastor will escape punishment, after a strict examination of his life at God's Judgment, i.e., he will be saved as if out of a fire. Teachers and preachers must therefore be extremely careful and attentive in building the temple of Christ's Church, keeping in mind that each Christian is a temple of God, for God 's Spirit dwells in them through the Mysteries they receive: Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (v. 16). This temple can be destroyed by vain human reasonings, because the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God (v. 19). Ye are Christ's, that is, as soon as you believed in Christ and became members of His Church, you belonged to Christ Alone. Is it, therefore, reasonable that you should divide yourselves on account of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or some other teachers?