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Doug Van Meter - 19 March 2023

Caution: Men at Work (1 Corinthians 3:5–15)

In vv. 1–4, Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for behaving like as “mere humans” rather than those with the Spirit of God. In vv. 5–15, he reminds them that, even though they have the Spirit of God and are therefore more than “mere humans,” those who serve them nevertheless remain human.! That is, though they may be among the best of men, they are only men at best. The church must therefore focus on the Lord rather than on men who work for the Lord.

Scripture References: 1 Corinthians 3:5-15

From Series: "1 Corinthians Exposition"

An exposition of 1 Corinthians by Doug Van Meter.

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Previously, we learned from the opening verses of this chapter that the church members at Corinth was largely immature, behaving as if they did not have the Spirit of God but rather as if they were merely human—like the natural man that Paul spoke of in 2:14–16. The evidence of their immaturity was that they were fracturing the fellowship over favoured leaders in the church. Though each of these preached the same message, nevertheless the congregation was emphasising aspects of the messengers (rhetorical giftedness, intellectual acumen, leadership ability, etc.) rather than adorning and being adorned by the gospel. We learned that they needed to grow up in their affection for, appreciation of, and application of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul now expands on this theme from v. 5 through the end of chapter 4. And as he does so, he emphasises, in a different way, that he, Apollos, and Cephas—and every other minister in their church—were merely men. Not merely men in the sense of being without the Spirit, but rather merely men in that they were not God. Though called by the Spirit of God to oversee the church of God (Acts 20:28), they were not the Spirit of God. To use the old adage, Paul wanted them to see that, though their leaders may be among the best of men (which church leaders should be [1 Timothy 3:1–7]), they were nevertheless only men at best. The church at Corinth needed to be cautious how they viewed Christian leadership. Their leaders were responsible to labour, to do the work of preaching, teaching, and leading. And as they did so, the congregation needed the warning: Caution: Men at Work.

In this text, Paul says a lot about building up the local church, about the construction of God’s temple. In doing so, he provides an always needed warning to both congregations and church leaders. Paul instructs that church leaders are men at work. That is, church leaders are called to a particular work, and these church leaders are merely men. They are not the focus of the work, and not the point of the work: They are not the heroes.

Our day is no different. Pastors quickly become the celebrities in their churches and church circles. Certain corners of today’s evangelicalism are characterised by over-the-top adulation rather than proper appreciation. Christian leaders become untouchable and their sin thereby excused. Christian scholars are seen as theauthority in every area. This text serves as a necessary manual on how congregations should view their leaders and what they should expect from them. Of course, it also serves as a metric by which church leaders should measure themselves and their ministry. That metric is the cross of Jesus Christ. This section (3:1–4:21) is all about the cross and Christian ministry. As we appropriately appreciate the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be cautious about how we view those who minister to us. We will be cautious to note that men are at work, but more importantly, that God is at work through these men. We will attempt to understand this passage under four broad headings.

  1. Christian Ministers are Servants, They are Not the Sovereign (vv. 5–7)
  2. Christian Ministers are Responsible, and They are Accountable (vv. 8–9)
  3. Christian Ministers are Capable, and They are Careful (vv. 10–11)
  4. Christian Ministers Make Choices, and They Will be Tested (vv. 12–15)

Christian Ministers are Servants, They are Not the Sovereign

Christian ministers can be—and should be—helpful, but they are not the hero. Christian leaders are not God. Paul highlights this in vv. 5–7: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

One of the greatest reformations in my ministerial lifetime has been a healthy return to expository preaching and an emphasis on biblical theology. These emphases have been a great boon to a right understanding of the metanarrative of Scripture. This has helped Christians to grow in their confidence in Scripture, equipping them to grow in Christ. I believe that this will have effects for generations and therefore I anticipate greater days for the church in the future.

One of the blessings from this reformation has been to refocus the church’s attention on the real hero of the biblical story. For instance, rather than the story of David and Goliath being about David the great warrior, biblical theology leads us to the Greater David who saves the likes of a mere man, David. This is essential if we will truly grasp and be changed by the storyline of the Bible.

However, like the Corinthians, over the past couple of decades, many who have sat at the feet of gifted ministers have replaced the Ultimate Hero with those who have faithfully pointed to the Hero. This has not usually been the fault of these esteemed leaders; nevertheless, those they have trained, many whom daily listen to their preaching and teaching, have missed the point and have adopted the wrong hero. Such individuals suffer from a Corinthian calamity: Rather than merely appreciating these servants, they have confused them with the Saviour. This is Paul’s point here. Paul reminds the church that these esteemed ministers are servants, they are not the Sovereign. They are helpful, they are not the hero.

To those who were saying, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” (v. 4), Paul responds in vv. 5–7: “What then Apollos? What is Paul?” Note that he does not say “who” but rather, impersonally, “what.” In comparison to the one who gets the credit for the fruit of their ministry, Paul sees himself as nothing but a mere “what”—certainly not the marvellous “who.” Paul is cautioning, “Brothers and sisters, understand that we are merely men at work. We are merely ‘servants through whom you believed.’”

A “servant” (which translates the word from which we get deacon) waits on others, delivering what someone else has prepared. Servants serve; they are not the focal point. And as much as we may appreciate the service of a waiter, it is the chef that keeps bringing us back.

Like a “servant,” who waits tables, ministers are relevant, but they are not indispensable. While Paul does not desire the Corinthian church to deprecate those who are ministering to them, at the same time he does not want them to be confused about who, in the end receives, the glory for their conversion and for the existence of the church. Paul makes this clear in what follows.

As a “servant” (of the Lord), Paul acknowledges that he was assigned, given the opportunity, to proclaim the gospel in Corinth. Through his ministry (and that of Apollos), people “believed” on Christ. But it is clear from the wording that the sovereign Lord is the one who caused this. Note what he says in vv. 6–7.

Paul, seeing himself as a servant, applies this specifically to a servant in a cultivated field. The servant not only does not own the field, and neither can he take credit for the crop that grows. Yes, Paul planted the seed of the gospel when he preached in Corinth, and Apollos faithfully watered the seed in his follow-up ministry, but God“gave the growth.” This could not be any clearer! God supplied the seed, cultivated the soil, supplied the water of the word Apollos poured out, and brought forth the flower/fruit of their faith. Therefore, while being grateful for God’s servants, be careful not to exalt them above him. As Schreiner comments, The ‘task’ given to Paul and Apollos stemmed from the Lord himself; hence it is the Lord’s work, not the work of ministers, that should be featured.

These verses serve both as a warning and an encouragement. While warning us against the danger of crediting ministers of the gospel with building the church, at the same time the thoughtful reader is encouraged that our sovereign God is doing just that. He causes the growth of the gospel seed; he causes the growth of the church. And he continues to cause it to grow. (The Greek tenses could be translated, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God is giving the growth.)

We should pause to consider that all the effort in the world is no guarantee of a crop for the farmer and, equally, all the efforts of the minister of the gospel are futile unless the Lord gives spiritual life. Therefore, just as the Corinthians were foolish to credit human preachers with the giving of spiritual life, so are we.

Again, while appreciating those whom the Lord uses to bring to us the gospel message—the message of the cross—at the same time we must realise that the real work is done by the Lord. Be grateful for God’s servants, but be mindful and worshipful of God.

This passage emphasises God. It was God who was giving the growth (vv. 6–7). Paul and Apollos were God’s fellow workers (i.e. fellow workers with each other, each of whom belonged to God). The church is both God’sfield and God’s building (v. 9). We must not miss this. As necessary as it is for a church to have servants who proclaim the gospel, the sufficiency only comes from God. As Rosner/Ciampa note, The ‘increase’ is not their responsibility, nor is it within their power: God has been making it grow.” In God’s kingdom economy, ministers are necessary, but they are not sufficient (see 2 Corinthians 3:5). Christian, keep your eyes on the true Hero of the story. As Jesus made clear, he will build his church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

However, as Paul next addresses, this does not give license to the Christian minister to play fast and loose with his God-given ministry of shepherding the flock. He has been assigned a gospel responsibility by God and God will hold him accountable. Though the gospel minister may only be a man, by definition a human being is accountable to God.

Christian Ministers are Responsible, and They are Accountable

With reference to his earlier recognition of himself as a planter and Apollos as the waterer of the planted gospel seed, Paul here says that they “are one”: “Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are God’s coworkers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (vv. 8–9) What does he mean that they “are one”?

Paul and Apollos (and any other combination of planter and waterer) are one in equality before the Lord and one in purpose. Each is of equal importance to the Lord and therefore each is of equal importance to the mission. But though each is of equal importance, and though they are united in the mission, God will evaluate them for their individual effort in their assigned roles. (Paul will develop this concept of rewards in the verses that follow.)

Note the words that follow: “for we are God’s fellow workers” (v. 9). The Christian leader in the local church—including the evangelist and the missionary and the pastor—is accountable to God for his work. Christian leaders do not serve autonomously but rather at the Lord’s pleasure. Christian leaders in the church have a unique responsibility, unique opportunities in the Great Commission, but also a unique and sobering responsibility. Perhaps to emphasise this accountability Paul changes pronouns from “we” to “you.”

By saying to the Corinthians, “You are God’s field” and, “You are God’s building,” Paul drives home the point that they belong to God, that they are God’s possession because he alone brought them into being. That is, he is the one who caused them, as a “field” and as a “building,” to grow (v. 6). Since the church of God belongs to God, those responsible to teach and care for God’s people have a sobering accountability (more on this in chapter 4).

We can summarise: The church needs to take its ministers seriously, but not too seriously. That is, church leaders have a serious responsibility and live with sobering accountability; nevertheless, the very fact that they are accountable implies that they are not the be all and end all. That belongs to God, who causes the growth. The congregation is not to follow the field workers but rather the owner of the field.

Church leader, remember who you serve: not primarily the field or the building but rather the owner of both—the sovereign God. As leaders let this sink in, faithful service and leadership with integrity will flow.

Church leaders must keep their focus on God’s people, on God’s work, on God’s goal, not on themselves and their own promotion or the promotion of their own agenda. The same applies to the congregation.

Congregation, we must remember who we are. We belong uniquely to God. He is the one who has saved us. The triune God is the one who has cultivated us, he is the one who has built us. Remembering whose we are will guard us from obsessing over who they are; that is, our favourite leaders.

Christian Ministers are Capable, and They are Careful

Paul reminds his readers that, when he was with them he laid the proper foundation for their church: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (vv. 10–11). He did so, as we have seen, by preaching Jesus Christ crucified (2:2). Someone(s) else built upon that foundation. In saying these things Paul makes some essential points which Christian churches need to keep in mind.

First, Paul humbly acknowledges that his ministry was wise and effective among them because of the grace of God. Since he was a fellow worker with God (v. 9), he was equipped by God’s grace. God’s grace equipped him with the wisdom to lay a right foundation. God’s grace equipped him for an effective ministry. To God alone be the glory.

This was no false humility on Paul’s part. He unashamedly claims that he was a wise (“skilled”) church planter, having preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than adhering to the wisdom of the world, he embraced and preached the wisdom of God in Christ (1:30) with the result that a true community of faith was established. As Schreiner observes, If a community is not established on the basis of the gospel, the community is not a church at all. The only true basis for a church is the gospel of Christ.

Yet note that Paul is pointing away from himself to Jesus Christ. This is what Christian evangelists and pastors are called to do. They are called to be capable in preaching Jesus Christ pointing people to the Saviour, not to themselves. And they are amazed, grateful, and humbled that God would use them in this way.

Second, Paul exhorts those who build on the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ—the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ—to take great care how they build on this foundation.

It would seem that Paul has someone (or someones) on his mind as he writes this. I imagine he was thinking of those whom he left behind who were shepherding the church. He reminds them, and interestingly does so in a congregational letter, to make sure that their ministry to the church remains aligned with the gospel of Christ. After all, there is only one legitimate foundation of the local church but it would be sheer folly to plant a church on the gospel and then abandon it. As Rosner/Ciampa highlight, “Whether a worker’s task be primarily evangelistic or pastoral, both must be in keeping with the character of the foundation stone, who is Christ…. Any doctrine of the cross that treats it only as the entry point into the Christian life is seriously deficient.” In other words, the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord and everything done to build on that foundation is related to the gospel.

What Paul is getting at is that the Christian minister is responsible to keep his eyes on the foundation stone (Isaiah 28:16) of Jesus Christ. The foundation is not to be tampered with. No innovations are allowed. Those who lead God’s church are indeed to have insight—grace given wisdom from God (v. 10)—but they are not called to be innovative. They are to keep their eye on the person, the price, and the prize of Jesus Christ as they lead God’s people. This will have numerous effects including keeping them dependent upon the Lord while guarding them from sinful pride.

Those who lead God’s church must strive and labour to keep the main thing the main thing. This means more than preaching the simple gospel. Rather, while it certainly includes preaching the simple gospel it also means that when the Lord Jesus Christ is our supreme object of adoration, affection, and loyalty, that the church will be devoted to everything that he commands us. Failure to obey him in all areas will eventually weaken the churches foundational commitment to the gospel.

God-appointed leaders must continually point the church to its foundation, Jesus Christ (who he is) and him crucified (what he has done). God-appointed leaders must continually point the congregation to the Lord Jesus Christ and away from themselves. God-appointed leaders must continually evaluate the teachings and practices of the church in the light of the foundation. Are they in alignment or do they veer from the gospel? Do they promote the gospel, or do they eclipse it?

It is important to be reminded that the gospel of Jesus Christ forms the church, conforms the church, and, when the church strays, reforms the church. Therefore leaders need to serve the church well by carefully building on the one true and firm foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But of equal importance is the congregation holding church leaders accountable to a Christ-centred, gospel-centred ministry.

Brethren, let each of us be careful to examine our church’s foundation and to make sure that whatever we build upon it is truly built upon it! This will require careful and sometimes arduous work, but it will ensure that further growth will be healthy and sound and safe.

Christian Ministers Make Choices, and They Will Be Tested

Verses 12–15 has popularly been interpreted as applying to every Christian and that each Christian will give an account before the Lord concerning how they have lived. The “carnal Christian” group refer to it as teaching that the carnal Christian will be “saved by the skin of their teeth.” Not so. Rather Paul here highlights that church leaders are constantly making choices about how they will build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, and their choices have consequences, consequences which will be judged by the Lord. If they make good choices, the church will be helped, and they will be rewarded. However, if they make bad/wrong choices then the church will be hurt/hindered and the ministers will see their labours go up in smoke, even though of course they themselves will be saved. Hear Paul’s words:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

(1 Corinthians 3:12–15)

The building (v. 9) that Paul has in mind is, of course, the local church, which Paul refers to as “God’s temple” (v. 16).

It is worth noting Paul’s change from speaking of the church as God’s field (or garden) to God’s temple. These are not unrelated in Scripture. The first field to be cultivated in Scripture was a garden, in Eden. That garden also served as the gathering place to meet with God, that is, a temple. Later, God’s people are likened to a cultivated vineyard (Isaiah 5) and this field was intimately connected to Solomon’s temple. Solomon’s temple was famed for carvings of various botanical items. The temple included furnishings such as a candelabra shaped like a tree (almond).

When Paul speaks of the various things with which a church leader might build the church, he mentions “gold,” “silver,” “precious stones,” and “wood.” Each of these were used in the building of Solomon’s temple (see 1 Chronicles 29:1–4). The point is that Paul considers the local church to be the dwelling place of God. No wonder he is passionate that it be served well. He wants those who are building on the foundation of Jesus Christ to make wise and righteous choices about how and with what they build. After all, they will be tested. What they build will be ‘put to the fire’ to test its authenticity. Again, church leaders will give an account.

This passage has wrongly been used to teach such things as purgatory and even works-based salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, Paul is teaching that, on the Day of judgement, the church’s strength and health will be put to the test, as will the ministry of those who served her. How will she (and they) fare? It all depends on the materials that were used in the construction.

The entire context points to two choices of materials: the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God. “Building materials that will be ‘burned up’ are those in keeping with human wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, which is the fullness of the message of the cross” (Rosner/Ciampa).

Those who follow the culture and seek to build a church on the fads of a fallen and fading world will find that the church will not endure, whether the test be trials faced by a congregation or the judgement of the last day, the day on which pastors and congregations will give account.

This is, or at least it should be, a sobering reflection. Church leaders will give an account for the way they ministered to their local church and specifically, the message they led with. But this should also be a sobering reflection for the congregation. The congregation needs to beware of demanding from its leaders the wisdom of the world rather than the wisdom of God.

It is a shame when churches do not endure to the end but rather fail the tests, and their candlestick is removed (Revelation 2:5). When a congregation digs in its heels and refuses to follow wise, because scriptural, leadership, the church will be in peril. How tragic.

Therefore church, let us each be committed to growing in grace and in the knowledge of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Let us adore him, not the men at work.

Pray that your leaders will be at work—you have every right to expect that—but let us keep a right perspective before us. Let us exalt our Master, not the men who labour alongside each of us. Let us love and serve our Master.