RPM, Volume 12, Number 29, July 18 to July 24 2010

1 Corinthians 3:5-9

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning in our study of what we know as Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at verse 5 and continuing on through to verse 9. In case you have not been with us before, let me just say that it is our normal and deliberate practice here to work our way right through books of the Bible, which is not the typical practice in churches today.

And, in light of that fact, you may wonder why we do this and why we are so committed to continually, although not exclusively, doing this. Peter Adam, an evangelical Anglican and the principal of Ridley College, gives three very good reasons for us to consider:

1) First, preaching systematically through books of the Bible helps us to let God set the agenda for our lives. The great danger of constantly engaging in topical preaching is that it assumes and implies that we already know what is important! It is all too easy to simply gravitate to the topics that one feels most comfortable with and, at the same time, shy away from those things that are more difficult.

2) Second, preaching systematically through books of the Bible treats the Bible as God treated it - i.e., it respects the form in which the Bible was given to us. God chose to have the Bible written in whole books, each one through the services of a human author. What God DIDN'T do was simply compile a rather loose collection of useful but disconnected sayings, which, unfortunately, is all too often exactly how the Bible is treated in most topical preaching.

3) Third, preaching systematically through books of the Bible gives us ample time to make clear what is the context of the book from which we are preaching. As you have heard me say many times already, the most important principle in interpreting ANY Bible passage is CONTEXT. Therefore, if the Bible passage that is taught this week is following on from what was taught last week, then the congregation will have a better and better grasp of the background behind the book and will, therefore, be in a better and better position to read that book of the Bible properly. If, on the other hand, a preacher changes the context every week, and includes three or four different passages in each sermon, then it will be very hard for the congregation to read any passage in its true context. This is not a model of Bible reading that we should encourage.

So, for those and other reasons we are committed to working our way through books of the Bible or what is also called "expository preaching". To be sure, we do not always follow this practice, as there IS a legitimate although limited place for topical preaching. And, the fact is that some parts of the Bible, because of their nature, do not require an exhaustive or systematic reading - e.g., the Psalms or Proverbs. Nevertheless, the normal and consistent practice that, in my view, is the most helpful for God's people is one that teaches them to read the Bible in the manner in which God gave it to us.

Therefore, having said all of that, before we read the passage itself, let me remind you, again, of the context of this letter that, I hope, is becoming more and more familiar to you. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is responding to problems he has heard about and also to questions they are asking him. We have been in that part of the letter that is dealing with the problems he has heard about, beginning with the problem of divisiveness, which we have been dealing with, in various ways, since verse 10 of chapter l.

Now, Paul's method of dealing with their divisiveness has been to address their manner of thinking, which he sees as the cause of their division. So far he has been dealing with their thinking in the area of WISDOM and, in the verses before us this morning, he shifts the discussion to how they are thinking about their LEADERS and about CHRISTIAN MINISTRY in general. With that as a brief introduction, let's pray, and then we'll hear the passage...

(Read 1 Corinthians 3:5-9)

Right from the very beginning of this passage, Paul does a curious thing. Instead of asking, as you and I might have done, "WHO is Apollos and WHO is Paul" he asks "WHAT then is Apollos? WHAT is Paul?" And you see, right away, as Paul is setting about trying to give them a proper perspective on the leaders that God has placed amongst them - right away Paul asks WHAT he and Apollos are because he wants the Corinthians to understand that God's servants are not dignitaries but functionaries, as one commentator has put it. He wants them to see to see their leaders less in terms of their personality and their status and giftedness and more in terms of their function - what role they are performing in God's grand scheme.

So, in that light, how does Paul describe himself and Apollos? What IS their function? The simple answer is: servants. Paul and Apollos are servants. The Greek word there is the very same Greek word that is typically and most often used as a description of ALL of God's people as they perform their various works of service for the sake of the Gospel. Servants - not Lords or Bosses or CEO's - but servants. In response to the various parties and factions in the Corinthian Church which were elevating certain persons to positions of pre-eminence - in response to that Paul describes himself and Apollos - and by implication any other human leader - as mere servants and therefore as not worthy of the kind of undue adulation and praise they had been receiving from various subsets of the Corinthian congregation.

Therefore, right at the very beginning, Paul shifts the emphasis away from personality to functionality. In addition to that, Paul goes on to say some things that make it clear that God's servants are not to be regarded as independent but rather as both dependent and interdependent. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth..."

The Corinthian believers were not only guilty of pitting Paul over against others - like Apollos or Peter (as if they were competitors in some great contest) but they were also guilty of believing that the effectiveness of their various ministries was due to something special within them, some special ability or power that set them apart from the others and so made them worthy as an objection of devotion or admiration. Paul deals with both of those misconceptions here.

Paul makes it clear that he is under no illusion as to where the real source of power in his, and in every other leader's ministry, lies. And he invites the Corinthians here to join him in understanding that the source of power is not to be found in him or in Apollos or in the many great and wonderful things that they did. If there is any growth, any response, any spiritual movement that takes place - Paul says that the credit for that lies completely with God - and that credit is shared with no one else - not Paul, not Apollos, not Peter - nobody.

Now at this point you might ask, "Does that mean that their ministry was un-necessary? I mean, the passage does say that `neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything'?" That would be a fair question to ask. But you have to remember that these words were spoken to people who had swung the pendulum way too far in the other direction in terms of how they viewed their chosen leaders.

So, over against that background, Paul is quite happy to remind the Corinthians that such inflated views of people, as they currently held, are only possible when you forget the big picture of who is in charge and what is really going on and how things really work in God's universe. Once you bring God back into a picture - that He should have never been out of - then everything else pales into insignificance next to who He is and what He has done. "Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth..."

Therefore, in comparison to the work and worth of God, the efforts of Paul and Apollos are as nothing. And YET - and yet, the other side of the coin is the truth that Paul and Apollos were "servants THROUGH WHOM the Corinthians believed". Paul and Apollos were the instrumental means through which, as the Corinthians responded in obedience, God chose to work.

So, you see in these verses that Paul is trying to strike a delicate balance. David Prior puts it well,

If the major thrust of these verses is to diminish the importance of individual leaders, it is worth pointing out that Paul does not fall into the trap of dismissing the parts played by Apollos and himself as irrelevant. Indeed, he stresses that through the ministry both of himself and of Apollos the Corinthians have come to faith in God. Yes, they are insignificant compared with God himself-but they are nevertheless vital to the divine scheme of things. Each has his distinctive work to do and that work requires strenuous toil.
So, Paul shows here that God's servants are not independent but are fully dependent upon God. But they are more than dependent, they are also interdependent. Their ministries are connected and coordinated and work in complementary fashion with one another. One has a "planting" type of ministry, another a "watering" type of ministry - ministries which, no doubt, would have been the same in many respects and yet which also differed, so they were not identical, but they served a common goal - "He who plants and he who waters are one....."

Therefore, when the Corinthians unhelpfully elevated one leader above another and preferred one to the other, they showed by their actions that they did not understand the complementary nature of the different leaders' ministries and, in addition, they were actually showing contempt for God himself since, as verse 5 makes clear, the differences between the ministries of Paul and Apollos were a result of God's assignment - God's giving one person one task and another person a different one.

Now, I'm sure a lot more could be said with these verses - for instance, verse 8 says some things about rewards and wages, etc. which we won't say much about this morning as I think that we will be addressing those things more fully in the next section. However, while more could be explored, I think enough has been said about what these verses would have meant to the original audience in Paul's day in order for us to think about how they apply in our own.

First, we can see in these verses the importance of viewing our leaders, not primarily as personalities who are doing their own thing, but rather as servants who are doing as they are told. Not as your servants, mind you, but as servants of Christ, first and foremost. To be sure, a leader's service to Christ entails his service to Christ's Body - the Church, but at the end of the day the primary loyalty of your leaders is to Christ as their Master, not to their congregations as their employers. When the church sees its pastors as employees - or when the pastors see the church as its employer - nothing good can come of that.

So, again, seeing those that lead among us as Christ's servants (not ours) can go a long way toward maintaining a much more sober view of our leaders and as such can be instrumental in preventing our getting into the same sorts of troubles as the Corinthians in forming personality cults around certain individuals that then become the basis for factions in the church.

Second, we can see in these verses the importance of viewing ministry as a coordinated effort involving different persons and different abilities in a common field and toward a common goal. Paul saw himself and Apollos, with their differing ministries, not as rivals or competitors but as "God's fellow workers". By the same token, he saw the Corinthians as "God's field, God's building". That is, not as his field, nor as Apollos' field, but as God's. And this has application both within a congregation and outside a congregation.

Within a congregation where you have two or more persons on staff, it can be a great temptation to compare and evaluate different ministers and to begin to use the language of competition - this one is "better than" that one, this one is "more compassionate than" that one, etc. and you begin to set up a kind of pecking order in your mind, putting all your energies into rating and ranking them rather than taking a step back and seeing how the strengths of each adds something to the "skill set" of that church's leadership. Again, the great temptation within churches is to see differences between our leaders as liabilities, rather than seeing them as assets.

When it comes to what's going on outside a congregation, there can sometimes be a tendency in churches to become very territorial about ministry and to have an almost knee-jerk, adversarial perspective toward every ministry not originating from one's own congregation or not absolutely identical to the one in which your own congregation is engaged. There can be a great reluctance to accept that those whose ministry is different in emphasis from our own can be regarded as legitimate.

At the same time, we can look across a "field" of ministry - like South Baton Rouge, for example - and arrogantly assume that we are the only people that God will or ought to use to "harvest" His field in this part of our city.

Now, to be sure, we are not obliged to accept every expression of Christian ministry as being legitimate. Certainly some are not. Nevertheless, I suspect that for many of us, we need to spend some time thinking through whether our own definition of who would qualify as one of "God's fellow workers" ought to be re-examined. For some of us, that definition would need to be narrowed, perhaps significantly. But for just as many it may be the case that our definition of "fellow worker" needs to be opened up a bit.

Third, as Paul articulates so well here, we too need to understand that while human engagement in Gospel ministry is important and useful and is the vehicle through which God works, nevertheless, all of our efforts are not in themselves the reason for its effectiveness. Rather, any and all effectiveness in ministry is because of the direct intervention and power of God. "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it". Keeping this perspective should help us to value and appreciate the hard work of Gospel ministry and those that engage directly in it, yet without letting our appreciation become perverted into a form of veneration or hero worship.

Fourth, these verses encourage us to be thankful for those times when God causes growth in his church but not at the expense of valuing faithfulness. I must confess that it is sometimes disconcerting to me, especially as a church planter, to see books, publications and brochures which so often seem to convey the value that what matters most to God is "success" and "rapid growth" and "big buildings" and "large budgets".

To take this even further, please note that in verse 8 it is said that the laborer will be rewarded according to his labor - i. e., not according to the yield from his labor. When the majority of our newsletters and promotional images - for Gospel ministry, mind you - but when the majority of these things show young, dashing, swash-buckling, entrepreneurial types you have to at least ask the question: Where are the images of the faithful soldiers in their sixties, seventies and even eighties, who have stayed the course, who have labored long, who have remained true, yet without great result and whose heavenly reward, no doubt, will put to shame all those whose mansions and treasures can all be found on this side of the Great Divide.

Where are the images of the faithful ones? Where are the images of the un-decorated? The foot soldier? Sometimes it is the things that we DON'T say which speak much louder than anything we DO say.

Finally, these verses say something to us about the importance of Christian leaders continually assisting their people in transferring their confidence and trust away from themselves, where it should not be, and onto Christ, where it must be. "What is Paul, What is Apollos - only servants....". The natural tendency of our idol making hearts is to reach out to the closest person around and to accrue to them an undue admiration and affection. And when we do this to leaders that God has placed amongst us for our own good - we are doubly blessed when that leader is one who will not only serve us by his leadership but who will, along with that, serve us best by gently taking our clutching hands, and fixing them firmly, continually, repeatedly upon Christ.

God's servants are dependent, interdependent, complementary, and useful channels through whose efforts God chooses to bring His people, firstly, to salvation and then, eventually, to maturity. May God help us to have a good and right perspective on these things, as we mature together as a Body of believers.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.