For a while now, Paul has been writing about preachers and preaching. True preachers will not rely on excellence of speech and all the eloquence and clever techniques which the sophists used in those days to impress the people. And true preachers will not come as philosophers, relying on human wisdom and the latest ideas to impress the people. No, true preachers will not rely on eloquence or wisdom or any such thing, because they rely entirely on the Holy Spirit to work through the preaching of the message of Christ crucified to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ and to build up believers in the faith. While some will say the message of the cross is weakness, and while others will say the message of the cross is foolishness, Paul knows that the Holy Spirit is able to take this message — which seems weak and foolish to some — and use it in a powerful way to bring life and salvation, because whenever the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed by preachers sent from God, the power of the cross to save is unleashed in the world.
And, of course, the reason Paul has been writing about preachers and preaching is because the church in Corinth had become divided; and it had become divided because the people misunderstood the role of the preacher. They were boasting about this preacher and that preacher. ‘I follow Paul’, some of them were saying. ‘I follow Apollos’, others were saying. ‘I follow Cephas’, still others were saying. They were boasting about this preacher and that preacher; and they were quarrelling with one another. And these different factions or cliques had been formed, with one group exalting itself over the other groups. And so, Paul wrote to explain to them that the preacher is really nothing at all, because whatever success a preacher has in his ministry is due, not to the preacher’s brilliance and his power to persuade, but to the power of the Holy Spirit to enable sinners to understand and to believe what can only be spiritually discerned. So, no more boasting about men, because he who boasts should boast in the Lord who died to pay for our sins, and who was raised to give us life, and who sends his Spirit to enable sinners to believe.
Verses 1 to 4
And in verses 1 to 4 of chapter 3 Paul once again addresses the divisions in the church. And he does so by way of a rebuke. Back in verse 10 of chapter 1, he addressed the divisions in the church by way of an appeal. He said:
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another….
That was an appeal. Now, in chapter 3, he rebukes them. He said:
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly — mere infants in Christ.
They thought they were so spiritual; they thought they were mature believers; they thought they had made great progress in their sanctification. And yet, as far as Paul was concerned, they were not spiritual, but worldly. And they were not mature, but only infants in Christ.
Now, that was fine when Paul first went to Corinth and when he first met them and preached the gospel to them. At that time, when they first heard the gospel message and were converted to faith in Christ, they were only beginning the Christian life. And whenever someone is converted to faith in Christ, they still have much to learn about the faith, don’t they? And they need someone to teach them the faith in a very simple way, which is easy for them to understand. So, just as parents will feed their newborn baby with milk, because they cannot digest solid food, so new believers need to be taught the gospel in a very simple way, because it’s all new to them.
And, of course, new believers still have much to learn about obedience, don’t they? They need someone to teach them God’s commandments and to show them how they should live their lives. They need someone to help them to see what things in their life need to change.
And learning the faith and learning about obedience takes time, doesn’t it? Just as it takes time for a newborn to grow and to develop into an adult, so it takes time for a newborn believer to grow and to develop in their understanding of the faith and in their obedience to the Lord.
But it seemed to Paul that the believers in Corinth had not developed as they should have developed; and, though they were believers who were filled with the Spirit of God, they were still behaving in a ‘fleshy’ way. Now, if you’re looking at an NIV Bible, you won’t see the word ‘fleshy’. The NIV translates the word ‘fleshy’ as ‘worldly’, but the translators should have used the word ‘fleshy’, because very often in his New Testament letters, Paul draws a distinction between the Spirit and the flesh. And when he draws a distinction between them, he’s referring to two realms, or to two kingdoms.
When we’re born, we belong to the realm or the kingdom of the flesh. This is the realm of the human only. And because of Adam’s sin in the beginning, it’s characterised by sin, so that it’s natural for those who belong in the realm of the flesh to sin against God. That’s the realm of the flesh and it leads eventually to condemnation.
But then, when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and unites us to Christ through faith, we’re brought out of the realm of the flesh and we’re brought into the realm of the Spirit. And the realm of the Spirit is characterised by righteousness. And so it’s natural for those who belong to the realm of the Spirit, to do what’s right in the sight of God. That’s the realm of the Spirit and it leads eventually to everlasting life in the presence of God, because those who belong in the realm of the Spirit have been united to Christ through faith and the guilt of their sins has been washed away by the blood of Christ.
So, there’s the realm of the flesh; and there’s the realm of the Spirit. By faith, we belong in the realm of the Spirit. And when we belong in the realm of the Spirit, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to do what’s right and to live a life which is pleasing to the Lord. We’ve been raised up with Christ to live a new heavenly and Spirit-filled life.
However, when Paul thought about the jealousies and the rivalries and all the quarrelling in the church of Corinth, it seemed to him that though they belonged by faith in the realm of the Spirit, they were living as if they still belonged in the realm of the flesh. Though they were believers, they were living as unbelievers; and they were treating one another in a way which was no different from the way their unbelieving neighbours lived. And so, he rebukes them in verse 3:
since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not being fleshy and acting like mere sinful men instead of acting like men and women who have been filled with the Holy Spirit?
By dividing themselves into different parties, with one group following Paul and another following Apollos, and with each group exalting themselves over the others, they were behaving like sinful men, instead of like those who have been raised with Christ to live a new heavenly and Spirit-filled life.
And this is a perennial problem in the church, isn’t it? Instead of being humble towards one another, we exalt ourselves over one another. Instead of loving and serving one another, we fight and hurt one another. Instead of doing what we can to preserve the unity of the church, we divide the church by the things we say and do. Instead of behaving like those who have been raised with Christ to live a new heavenly and Spirit-filled life, we live like our unbelieving neighbours. And so, though we may think we’re spiritual and mature, the truth is we’re not spiritual, but fleshy; and we’re not mature, but only spiritual infants, if we live like this.
And the only solution is to repent and to believe: to turn from yours sins in repentance and to believe once again the good news of the gospel that the Lord is willing to pardon your sin and rebellion for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And whoever repents and believes will discover once again the greatness of God’s grace and mercy, because he will do what he has promised, and though you may have sinned against him a million times, and though you may have spoiled the unity of his church by the things you have done and said, he will freely pardon you for the sake of Christ our Saviour.
Verses 5 to 9
Repentance and faith. That’s the only solution to this perennial problem in the church. But Paul goes on in this passage to address the problem of divisions in the church by saying more about preachers and preaching. And in verses 5 to 9 he compares preachers to farm labourers. And in verses 10 to 15 he compares preachers to builders.
And so, first of all, he compares preachers to farm labourers, who are hired at the beginning of the day and sent out into the field to do exactly what the landlord says; and then afterwards, after the work is complete, he’s given his wages and sent off with hardly a word of thanks. That’s how you’re to regard us, says Paul. I’m like the worker who is sent out into the fields to sow the seed. Apollos is like the worker who is hired later to water the seed. We’re just the hired-hands, the labourers, sowing the seed of God’s word and watering the seed by our preaching. But the one who really matters is God, because he’s the one who has the power and the authority to make the seed grow. So, look at verse 6, because it’s as if Paul is saying: ‘I planted the seed. Apollos watered it. Big deal! Big deal! God is the one who made it grow!’
Then look at verse 7:
neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.
Paul is saying to his readers: ‘You’re boasting about preachers! You’re tearing the church apart because of preachers! But preachers are nothing! They’re nothing at all, because God is the one who makes the church grow.’
Now, isn’t that what Paul was saying in chapters 1 and 2 as well? Paul went to Corinth and preached the message of Christ crucified. He didn’t rely on excellence of speech or excellence of wisdom. He didn’t rely on the clever techniques of the sophists and he didn’t rely on human wisdom to impress the people. He preached the gospel simply, setting forth the truth of God’s word plainly. And whatever success he had was due to the power of God the Holy Spirit, because he was the one who enabled the people of Corinth to accept it and to believe it. The preacher is nothing. What matters is the gospel message which is preached and the power of the Holy Spirit to use that message to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ.
And then, of course, the rivalry in Corinth over which preacher is best was tearing the church apart. But look — Paul says in verse 8 — though different servants have different roles and responsibilities, they have the same purpose. One servant is sent by the landowner to sow; another servant is sent by the landowner to water; another servant is given another job to do. They’re given different roles and responsibilities and work to do. But they’re aiming at the same thing, aren’t they? They’re all hired so that the crop will grow and can be harvested in due course. In the same way, the Lord sends one preacher to do one thing; and he sends another preacher to do something else. So, Paul was sent by the Lord to plant the church in Corinth. Then, after he left, Apollos came to water the church which Paul had planted. They’ve been given different roles by the Lord. But they’re aiming at the same thing: to see God’s church grow. And since that’s the case, why do you tear the church apart over preachers who are working together for the same result?
And then look at the end of verse 8. In Bible times, at the end of the day, the labourers in the field would line up in order to receive their pay from the landowner who had hired them. One person was hired to plant the seed; and he’d receive his wage for doing that. Another was hired to water the seed; and he’d receive his wage for doing that. Another was hired to dig a ditch; and he’d get his wage for that. So it is with preachers, says Paul. One was given one task to do; and he will receive his reward for doing that work. Another preacher was given another task to do; and he’ll receive his reward for doing that work. Another will receive his reward for doing whatever task was assigned to him. Each preacher is like a labourer, who is paid whenever the work is done.
Now, is Paul referring to the stipend which a minister receives from the congregation? Is he thinking about the money the congregation pays its pastor? Is that what’s he’s referring to in these verses? Well no. He’s not referring to the minister’s stipend. Remember Paul is using an illustration: he’s picturing the church as a field; and the labourers in the field stand for the preachers sent by God to preach his word to his people in the church. And the landowner in this illustration — and therefore the one who pays the labourers for their labour — stands for God. So, he’s not referring to the minister’s stipend or salary; he’s referring to the reward which God will give to his faithful preachers. But note this carefully: the preachers are paid, they’re rewarded, for their labour, and not for their success or for their effectiveness. The preacher can’t be rewarded for his success, because any success in his ministry is due to God, and not to the preacher. The preacher is simply the labourer, sent out to do his work as faithfully and diligently and carefully as possible, doing what God has called him to do, preaching the message which God has given him to preach. And if he does the work assigned to him, then one day the Lord will reward him for his labour.
Do you see what Paul is saying here? He’s saying once again: ‘Don’t boast about the preacher. He’s just the labourer. Don’t boast about him. Instead boast in God.’ So, have you come to faith through a preacher’s ministry? Have you been helped through a preacher’s ministry? Has your faith been strengthened through a preacher’s ministry? Well, to God be the glory, because God is the one who makes the preacher’s labour effective. He’s the one who works through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified; and he’s the one who creates and strengthens faith in those who hear the gospel. So, boast about the Lord, because our salvation is his work.
Verses 10 to 15
So, that’s in verses 5 to 9. But then in verse 9 Paul moves away from picturing the church as a field and he now pictures the church as a building under construction. So look at verse 9 with me. Paul says:
For we [that is, the various preachers] are God’s fellow-workers; you [that is, the members of the church] are God’s field, God’s building.’
And in the verses which follow Paul develops this picture of the church as a building under construction. Before, when he was thinking of the church as a field, he pictured preachers in the role of the labourer; but now, when he thinks of the church as a building under construction, he sees preachers as the builders.
And what he says in verse 10 is that he himself was the one who laid the foundation. And he can say that, because he was the one who established the church in Corinth. So, in Acts 18 we read how Paul left Athens and travelled to Corinth; and after arriving there, he went to the synagogue every Sabbath Day to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Later, he moved next door to another building and continued to preach the gospel. And through his ministry — by which he made known to them the good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified — men and women were converted to Christ and a church was formed. And so, in that way, Paul laid the foundation and a church was built on the message of Jesus Christ. And then, after Paul moved on elsewhere, other preachers took over the work that he had begun. And that’s Paul’s point in verse 10:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.
Now there are several things to notice about what Paul says here about the church as a building under construction. First of all, Paul once again makes clear that any success he enjoyed in his ministry was due to the Lord and not to himself or to his own brilliance and power to persuade. Where does he say that? Well, right at the beginning of verse 10 where he attributes his ability to lay the foundation of the church to the grace of God. He’s telling his readers that he was able to establish the church only as a result of God’s grace and mercy. And so, do you see? He’s doing everything he possibly can to draw attention away from himself. Isn’t that the very opposite of what we do sometimes? How often do we tell stories to one another and we’re the star of the story. We want people to hear about what we did and what we said and what a difference we made. But what does Paul do? He turns the attention away from himself and onto the Lord and his kindness to us.
But then the second thing to notice is that there is no sense of bitterness or rivalry in what Paul says about those preachers who came after him. He understands that a foundation is only the beginning; and once the foundation for a building is laid, you expect that walls will be erected and windows put it and a roof put on top. You expect all of this activity on a building site once the foundation is laid. And Paul expected the same to happen whenever he left the church in Corinth. He established the congregation; but he understood that others would then come to the congregation and continue the work he had begun. He didn’t resent it; he expected it. The only thing he says about such builders is that they must be careful how they build.
And that takes us to the third point Paul makes here. In those days, just like in our own, a builder might have been given a contract to build a property; and various terms and conditions were written into the contract. The contract would set down what was to be built; and what materials were to be used; and what fines would be imposed for failure to complete the work adequately; and what fee would be given for successfully completing the project. Of course, just as in our own day, some builders were dishonest and they’d cut corners and they’d use dodgy materials. But so long as they were smart enough to cover up what they had done, their employer might have been satisfied with their work and paid them their fee when the building was complete, even though they had cut corners and used inadequate materials.
And as far as everyone was concerned, the building was fine. Until — that is — there’s a fire. You see, if ever there was a fire, the fire would test the builder’s work and show whether or not the builder had done his work well. A well-built house might be able to survive the flames, but a house that was built badly wouldn’t stand a chance against the flames. And when a house burned down too easily, everyone knew that the builder had done a bad job and had cut corners and had used dodgy materials. When that happened, the builder’s reputation was ruined and no one would hire him again.
And that’s the picture that Paul has in his mind in these verses. The Corinthians were boasting about different preachers. And though Paul mentions his own name and the name of Apollos and the name of Cephas and even the name of the Lord Jesus, there were other preachers who had gone to Corinth. And they had impressed the people by the clever techniques they used. And they had impressed the people by coming to them with the latest ideas and by relying on human wisdom. And so, Paul warned his readers in Corinth not to be taken in by these other preachers who relied on clever techniques and human wisdom to impress them. They’re like builders who cut corners and who use dodgy materials to build. And if that’s what they’re relying on — if they’re relying on clever techniques and human wisdom — then whatever they build will be shown to be worthless on that Great Day when the Lord Jesus returns to earth in glory to judge the living and the dead and to bring to light the quality of each preacher’s work.
Think about it: right now there may be preachers who are like those dodgy builders; and everyone is impressed with them and by what they do and say. And everyone praises them for what appears to be an effective ministry. Everyone admires them because of the crowds of people who follow them and for the big ministries they’re established. They’re praised now, because they seem so effective. But you know what? The true quality of their work will only be revealed when the Lord comes again; and perhaps when the Lord comes again, he will reveal that all along they were relying on the wrong things to build Christ’s church; and whatever they accomplished on earth was worthless in his sight. As Paul says in verse 15, they themselves will be saved and not condemned, if they’re united through faith with the Saviour. But their work, their ministry, will be burned up and destroyed when the Lord returns if he finds that their work was worthless.
Well, when someone is looking for a new house, they’re hoping to find one that is well made, aren’t they? And since they realise that problems can exist below the surface, they have a survey done to ensure that this building was constructed using good materials and it’s built to last.
And we need to take the same care in our churches. And this is one of the reasons why Presbyterian services of worship have traditionally been very simple and plain. We sing a few simple, Bible-based songs; we pray a few simple, Bible-based prayers; we read God’s word and we preach a sermon in what is traditionally known as plain-style; and when we administer the sacraments, we do it in a simple and straightforward manner. We try to keep things simple and plain and we are very cautious about any new doctrine or new practice which is not commanded in God’s word, but is a product of human wisdom. You see, instead of relying on the wisdom of the world, we want to rely on the Holy Spirit to convince and converts sinners to a true faith in Christ and to build up believers in the faith; and instead of doubting the power of God, we want to trust in the power of God to do his work in his way at his time. And because we’re relying on God, we bow in his presence and we plead with him in prayer to bless the reading of God’s word and the preaching of the message of Christ crucified, so that sinners are drawn to Christ and made perfect in him. And in this way, he receives all the glory and the praise, because it will be plain to all that the preacher was nothing, nothing at all, and it was the Lord who did it all.