(this lesson was taught over two weeks)
What does it take to be successful in the world of team sports? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not tattoos, jail time, and steroids. It is teamwork! The greatest athletes in the world are only considered successful in the ultimate sense when they win the big one—the championship. However, the only way to accomplish this in team sports is to be a team player and to play on a team that is committed to teamwork.
Right now we are in the midst of the NFL season with many weeks to decide who will continue on in the playoffs. I can assure you the team that plays together will stay together and win the Super Bowl.
Similarly, in the church of Jesus Christ the team that serves together stays together and wins together. However, the team that becomes consumed with individual accolades will falter and be forgotten. In 1 Cor 3:1-9, Paul is going to coach us to play up to our spiritual potential. He does this by laying out two coaching tips. First, Paul says…
- Recognize your faulty perspective (3:1-4). Paul writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it”(3:1-2a). The word translated “and I” (kago) ties back to 2:1-5, where Paul writes about his experience in Corinth. During his 18-month ministry in Corinth, Paul preached Christ and many Corinthians believed the message of the cross. Paul writes that when he was in Corinth, he spoke to them as “infants” because they were new believers. They were brand new to the faith! So he gave them milk to drink because they were spiritual babies. This is not meant to be a derogatory remark. Every Christian begins as a spiritual infant. There is nothing wrong with this.
When was the last time you looked through family photo albums and watched family home videos? It’s astonishing to look back on the lives of our children. It’s fun to see them when they were babies and toddlers and couldn’t walk or talk. Back then we didn’t expect much of them—they were babies. There’s nothing wrong with being a baby, but to remain a baby all your life is not healthy. Something is terribly wrong! This was the case in Corinth. Paul is writing them approximately five years after he first began his ministry there. By this time the Corinthians should have become spiritual children, teenagers, or even adults. Instead, they are still babies.
But does Paul have in mind the image of children who need to grow, or that of infantile adults who need to adjust their attitude?” Many Bible students assume that by calling them “infants” Paul intends to emphasize their need to grow. Yet, Paul’s contrast is not between infancy and maturity but between infancy and spirituality. It is more likely that Paul is rebuking his readers, not because they are babes still and had not progressed further, but because they were in fact being childish—a condition contrary to being spiritual. The problem is not that they have failed to progress but that they have failed to comprehend, in particular, the message of the cross (cf. 1:18-25).
This view is confirmed in 3:2b-4, as Paul moves from the past to the present: “Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” Paul is shocked that the Corinthians are still on a diet of milk. There has been ample time for spiritual attitudes and actions to develop. By now these Christians should be spiritual, but they are still fleshly infants. Paul expected them to be able to receive “solid food,” yet they are still on Gerber. However, the “solid food” is not advanced and complicated doctrine; it is godliness of living. The term refers to spiritual, not necessarily theological maturity. The “solid food” that Paul refers to is not deeper doctrinal truths but rather the word of the cross.
This is important to understand because many people think they are mature since they know the Bible and are deep thinkers. Nothing could be further from the truth! God is more interested in our attitudes and actions. While knowledge is certainly valuable, obedience is far more important. To what extent are you presently obeying what you know about God’s Word? To the degree that you are obedient to what you know, you are a spiritual Christian. Do your attitudes and actions presently reflect Christ? We must recognize that our attitudes and actions are a greater indication of spirituality than our ability to memorize Scripture, study the Bible, and talk theology.
In this context, behaving in the “flesh” means “living in rivalry and disunity within the church.” Much to Paul’s chagrin, the Corinthians were behaving like unbelievers (cf. Rom 8:5-9) in their speech and attitudes. They have the Spirit, but at this junction they are neither thinking nor acting as if they do. Their overall position might be spiritual but their practice of quarrelling and their admiration of pagan intellectualism is unspiritual.
In 3:3, Paul brings up two sins that can destroy the church: “jealousy and strife.” The interesting thing about these sins is that they are not considered serious sins in the church. Yet, Paul saw the spiritual danger that could tear the church apart. These sins are made manifest in 3:4, through party divisions. The apostle Paul had been the evangelist who founded the church, and there were those who were loyal to him, who trusted and respected him, who liked his style. Apollos came after him, and there were people who gathered around him because they preferred his teaching. As a result, jealousy and strife broke out. Paul says this is naive, dangerous, and contrary to everything God wants for us. It is sinful for church members to compare pastors, or for believers to follow human leaders as disciples of men, and not disciples of Jesus Christ. The “personality cults” in the church today are in direct disobedience to the Word of God. Only Jesus Christ should have the place of preeminence (Col 1:18).
It is interesting that in 3:3 Paul returns to the problem that he began to address in 1:10-17. It would seem that Paul does this to create suspense. If the Corinthians are wise and spiritual they will see the relevance of the intervening discussion about “the word of the cross” (1:18-2:16). Again, Paul is not chastising the Corinthians because they were babes in the faith and had not progressed like they should. Throughout this book he is going to delve into deep doctrine (e.g., ethical conduct, marriage and celibacy, freedom in relation to food offered to idols, the Lord’s Supper, the use of spiritual gifts in the church, and the resurrection). This book is full of theological meat. Rather, Paul rebukes the Corinthians because their attitudes were childish—completely incompatible with the fact that they were people who had the Spirit of God. They are bickering over who the best preacher is.
How should this type of division be handled? Paul explains in Titus 3:9-11: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” When Paul says we are to “reject” such a person, he means we are to break fellowship with such a person (cf. Matt 18:15-17). Paul takes seriously divisions that can creep up in the life of the church.
Consequently, in this section Paul rebukes the Corinthians for behaving in an unspiritual fashion. Apparently, he is concerned that some of us are still in the nursery when we should be in the infantry. This doesn’t happen by mere Bible knowledge. There must be a change in our attitudes and actions. Sadly, many of us think that we will grow spiritually as we age. Maturity requires time but has nothing to do with age. Maturity and spirituality are reflected in how we come together as a church family.
[After some constructive criticism, Paul turns next to a positive explanation of how his readers should view himself and his fellow workers.]
- Remember your role in God’s work(3:5-9). Since the Corinthians were guilty of preacher worship, Paul must cut himself and Apollos down to size. In 3:5a Paul writes, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.” Paul opens this section with two rhetorical questions that begin with the word “what.” By asking “what” rather than “who,” Paul focuses on the place or position to which the Corinthians’ leaders have been elevated, rather than upon the personalities of each. If the Corinthians had been answering these questions they would have responded: “My leader is my everything! My leader is my teacher, my counselor, my guide, my confidence, my pride.” Paul brings the Corinthians back down to earth. Speaking of himself and Apollos, the two greatest leaders the Corinthians have known, he says, in effect, “We are not heroes, to be adored; we are not gods, to be worshipped; we are not masters, to be blindly followed. We are simply servants of God, who by God’s grace and appointment were allowed to be instrumental in you trusting in Christ.”
Paul says he and Apollos are simply “servants.” In time, believers would attach the term “servant” (diakonos) to a church office (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12), but it began as a stock term for common laborers, like table waiters (John 2:5) and palace attendants (Matt 22:13). Thus, Paul is not claiming elevated status but is embracing lowly servility. He is saying, “Look, I’m just a waiter who busses tables. Nobody builds a movement around a food service worker! Apollos and I were just waiters God used as servants to bring food to you. So don’t try to honor us; it’s totally misplaced. Give your praise to the One who prepared the food, who understood what your spiritual needs were, and then delivered it through us. The Lord is the One who gave the opportunity for us and for you. God sovereignly placed you where He knew you needed to be to hear the gospel, and He put us there with you. Therefore, why prefer one waiter over another? This is foolish.”
This should serve as a humbling reminder to us: We are servants, waiters who wait upon God and His people. What a great reminder that we should treat waiters and busboys with respect and honor, because that is what we all are in the spiritual realm.
Paul continues his clarification in 3:6-7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” The point indicated above in 3:5 is illustrated in 3:6. Paul “planted” as he introduced the Corinthians to faith in Christ and taught basic discipleship truths to those who believed (4:15; Acts 18:1, 17). Apollos “watered” as he followed up Paul in Corinth, and fortified, fed, and nurtured the work that Paul had begun (Acts 18:24-19:1).
There is an operative word in these verses. It is the word “one.” This word helps explain God’s mathematics. One plus one equals one. Ten plus ten equals one. One hundred plus one hundred equals one. Regardless of how many people are serving, God is the One that makes things grow. Paul states this twice in 3:6-7. He wants us to understand that “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1). We should dream and plan for ministry. We should want and expect our church and our ministries to grow. Nevertheless, growth is God’s business, not ours. God is the One who causes the growth! Therefore, we must pray and trust Him for it. Are you praying for the growth and health of your church? If not, please begin doing so today.
By using the illustration of a garden, Paul helps us to understand that he and Apollos are not gardeners, they are garden tools. They are shovels and rakes. Now no one fawns over a garden tool, right? Most people don’t walk into a beautiful garden and say, “Look at that shovel!” “Look at that rake!” Instead, they focus on the garden and the gardener. Likewise, since we are mere garden tools we ought to direct people to the Gardener. He is the One whom has done all the work! The mark of a successful servant is: Does he or she point others to the Gardener (see John 3:30)?
Paul continues his illustration in 3:8 with these words: “Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” Again, Paul emphasizes that all servants are one. There are no celebrities. One garden tool is not better than the other. Yet, Paul does state that “each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” In the end, servants are to do all that they do for Jesus Christ, for one day He will evaluate their lives. On that day, He will reward us according to our own labor. It should also be noted that Paul used the singular of the word “labor” or “work.” The point is: We are not rewarded for our success; we are rewarded for our faithfulness. Is your life characterized by labor and faithfulness? If so, you will receive a reward.
Paul closes this passage in 3:9 with these words: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Paul first reaffirms that he and Apollos are both “fellow workers” of God. They do not work with Him” (see 2 Cor 6:1), but for Him. Hence, God wants us to glorify Him in and through our ministries.
Paul then switches his imagery from that of agriculture to that of architecture when he calls the Corinthians “God’s field” and then “God’s building.” God is the focus of this passage. His name shows up six times in the last five verses. He is the only One worthy of glory.
Back at the turn of the century, there was a plague of locusts in the plains of the United States. In a matter of a few days, that swarm of locusts swept over the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. In less than a week, they did over five hundred million dollars’ worth of damage (in the currency of that time). Locusts don’t have a king to get them organized. They don’t have a draft board to call them into ranks. By instinct the locust knows it has to be in community with other locusts. When that occurs, they are able to topple kingdoms. The wisdom of the locust is the wisdom that tells us we must have community.