Having introduced the analogy of the church as God’s building in 1 Corinthians 3:9, Paul explores this concept further in verses 10–17 as he continues to correct the factionalism in the church at Corinth. Overall, we will see, his point is that we must take great care in how we build and lead the church lest we destroy the church and lose our reward.
The Apostle begins this exploration by incorporating the building analogy into a brief recounting of the history of the Corinthian church. Paul notes that he, the “master builder,” laid the foundation at Corinth and that others followed him in building on it (v. 10). In the ancient world, the “master builder” was a particularly gifted builder or architect who coordinated a construction team when carrying out a specific project. This describes Paul well, for as the Apostle who planted the Corinthian church (Acts 18:1–17), he oversaw the work and was instrumental in establishing the foundation for Christianity in that city. Others who followed him would be important in the labor, but their efforts were not foundational. They would construct the edifice, not what would support the edifice. Because of that, they would have to be careful in how they built the edifice (1 Cor. 3:10), or the church. Just as a building that is not properly anchored to a foundation will not stand, a church not built on the proper foundation cannot endure.
What is the foundation of the church? Unsurprisingly, Paul tells us that it is Jesus Christ (v. 11). Elsewhere, he says that the foundation of the church consists of the Apostles and prophets, with Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19–20), but today’s passage does not contradict that. Paul is not denying that other point; he is merely highlighting that apart from Christ, there can be no foundation for the church. Furthermore, Apostles and prophets serve as the foundation of the church only insofar as they represent Christ and convey His revelation to us. They are the foundation of the church not because of any inherent personal qualities but because they are authorized spokesmen for Jesus.
No one may—indeed, no one can—lay a foundation for the church other than Christ. Thus, as John Calvin comments, professing Christians “must not venture to lay another foundation, and they must not raise a superstructure that will not be answerable to the foundation.”