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God’s Fellow Workers
1 Corinthians 3:1-23
Key Verse: 1 Corinthians 3:10
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.”
So far Paul noted two groups of people in the world, the worldly people and Christians, and differentiated them from each other. He wrote the Corinthian Church explaining to them the difference. Worldly people consider the message of the cross foolishness, while Christians know it to be the power of God. Paul now differentiates two other groups of people, but this time from within the Christian family. He differentiates the worldly Christians from the spiritual Christians. Each of these groups of Christians could be told apart as manifested through their lives and their service to Christ. Paul mainly addresses the worldly Christians in his letter. The passage here offers a unique view of worldly Christianity. Who then are the worldly Christians?
Read verses 1-4. “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” The worldly Christian is the Christian who hasn’t or doesn’t grow spiritually. Because of this, he lacks the spiritual discernment needed in order to live a life that pleases and glorifies God. He does not lack spiritual discernment because the Holy Spirit is not dwelling in him, but because he is not growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus. Simply, he is not growing at all.
Spiritual discernment is one of the most important elements of spiritual life if we are to be effective in serving the Lord and his Gospel. But so many in the Christian family walk about without a shred of spiritual discernment— with no spiritual understanding! They do not know what to do. They do not know where to go. They even depend on worldly people’s advice in determining what to do about life issues. It is a troubling how worldly Christians are often willing to hand over the reigns of their lives to worldly people who are ignorant of God! And they do so because they lack spiritual discernment— because they are spiritual infants who know practically nothing of the spiritual life. Strangely they will not ask guidance of an older or more mature Christian, mainly because, as infants, they favor to hear what they want to hear, rather than what they do not want to hear. The issue of discernment is indeed serious. Because by it, a Christ can avoid the devil’s traps. By it a Christian can grow into an effective the servant of Christ.
Paul told the Corinthian church that they are not growing. And he said that they are not growing based on the relationship they have with the word of God. He tells them that they are as of now not able to eat anything solid, but that they are stuck on a milk diet in the word of God. He says in verse 2. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” Imagine how difficult it must have been for Paul to talk to them about spiritual things— as he had been able to do with the Christians at Ephesus! But he found himself unable to do so here and only able to talk on a child’s level. Unfortunately, many Christians in the world today are on that level, unable to comprehend the spiritual things of God, remaining as infants, mere babes needing milk day after day. Not growing!
Who is the worldly Christian? A worldly Christian is always divided between what he wants to do and what he knows God wants him to do, but unable to. He favors worldly relationships over spiritual relationships because he enjoys the company of the world above that of his Christian brothers. He always justifies himself that worldly friends need his influence in the hopes that they would know Christ through him. But his friends do not recognize in him Christ at all. They rather recognize gutlessness, a hypocrite who is trying to enjoy a double life. And in him they also despise all Christians whom they believe are like him. Lot was a man like this. When he left Abraham for the better life at Sodom, Lot did not think that they was leaving his faith in God. He was only leaving the life of faith because he thought that the life of faith and the commitment that Abraham showed were not meant for everyone. Lot figured that he would be better off influencing the people of Sodom to God. The people of Sodom accepted him because in him they saw a worldly man who was godly on the outside, but on the inside he was just like them enjoying the world in his own way. Finally at a crucial moment in life, his worldly friends as well as his would be sons in law, mocked him and cast him aside. If it were not for the grace of God, Lot would have perished with them.
The worldly Christians or the carnal Christians or the Christians of the “flesh” love the flesh over and above the spirit. The worldly Christian is fond of things such as “freedom” and often rejecting such things as “commitment” because it is strictly a spiritual term and is too stifling for him. He is therefore free, and not committed to any things, neither church nor believers. He also is fond of the word “Love” in all its forms, imagining that “love” in all its forms, even that kind of love that defiles both spirit and flesh, is a good kind of “love” for all love comes from God. The worldly Christian also pursues many so called spiritual projects, to ease his conscience. He is fond of creating his own spiritual projects to cover the prodding of the Holy Spirit in his heart towards deeper things of sacrifice and servantship and such. Yet, he never finishes any project he begins because even such projects would require commitment and prayer, and the labor in the word of God.
Finally the worldly Christian wants to attend religious institutions because there he thinks there he can learn the spirituality he lacks, where he does not have to expend his heart not cultivate his spirit through the hardship of Christian life and living. In the end, if the religious institution accepts him because he is an excellent speaker and charmer of souls, God help the church that will eventually hire him because although he learned all the Greek and the Hebrew terms he needed to learn, and can analyze a spiritually difficult passage in the Bible, he did not gain the spirituality he was pursuing because spirituality comes from God to those of whom Jesus said: “the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Still Paul continued explaining to the Corinthian Christians their worldliness, expressing his broken heart. He gives them another clue as to why they were worldly. What then is the mark of a worldly Christian? Read verse 3.
The mark of a worldly Christian is jealousy and quarreling. When these things are going on, we know that there is worldliness involved. How terrible are these things, and how not only dangerous they are to the soul of the Christian, but also to the very heart of the church, because worldliness of this sort, the jealousy and quarreling, infect everyone and keeps the soul and the church locked in immaturity, and in division to the grief of our God.
Of all the carnal, “worldly” things which Paul could have used to evidence their worldliness, he spoke of jealousy and quarreling. Jealousy is not only the mark of worldliness in a Christian, it is a disease of the soul. To fully understand the extent of the illness of the soul— manifest through jealousy— we need to look at a healthy soul, a spiritual soul. Paul was healthy spiritually, a mature man of God. When he thought of all that he had lost in his service to the Lord Jesus, he never once regretted the losses. In his letter to the Philippians, he considered them gain. He confessed that in all his life and circumstances, he was content, content, content in all that he had, in plenty and in want. But they were jealous! Paul did not identify what they were jealous of, but we can surmise. It did not seem to matter. Jealousy itself is a disease rooted in the desires of the heart. When the desire of the heart is pure and healthy, there is no reason for jealousies. The spiritual man desires God and the things of God over and above all other desires.
The heart’s desire determines everything about a man and the direction they take in life. the worldly Christian carries the desires of his old sinful self into the new life given to him at the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. He drinks mild which sustains him, but which has no nourishment in it to change his desire nor to strengthen his will such that his will grows in proportion with the will of God for him. And when the desire of the heart is not tamed in the Gospel, by the Gospel, by the unrestricted work of the Holy Spirit, and by the struggle of self denial, which is crucial to the growing Christian, his desires degenerate to something ugly, human, earthly, worldly and even sub-worldly. Eventually the desires of his heart border on the animal level.
The worldly Christian is not growing, Paul says. His heart’s desire is corrupted, his nourishment is minimal. He is stuck in infancy needing continuous care. And while he is being cared for as an infant, he is causing damage at the same time to himself and the church by his condition. And jealousy does not simply subside, nor is it content to keep itself hidden. Jealousy, is like a raging fire which starts small but sooner or later, consumes the heart. it is jealousy of others’ growth. It is jealousy of others’ relationship with each other and with God. It is jealousy of others being loved while the self is being spurned. It is jealousy wanting what it cannot have, or wanting what another one has— whether riches or fame or position and such.
And it gives in to quarreling because jealousy cannot remain silent. It is not satisfied. So it turns to satisfy itself with quarrels which later develops into controversies which in turn breeds division in the church. You are worldly— Paul tells them— “aren’t you worldly if you are acting like mere men, like worldly people, are you not worldly!”
Look at verses 4-9. “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe— as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” These verses were written to help these infant and worldly Christians put things in spiritual perspective. For the most part, Paul’s words seem harsh. To accuse a Christian of being a worldly Christian was like accusing a man or woman of adultery. Even worldly Christians resent being labeled as “worldly” or “physical”. Pastors have been known to be removed for less accusation than that! Paul’s concern in addressing their serious problems was similar to that of our Lord’s when he taught his disciples a timeless truth regarding the “one purpose” (the same purpose reflected or manifest in different ways) Jesus had said to them: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit— fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)
They had become an unproductive church both as individual Christian as well as a community of believers. They were not growing! Therefore, they were not bearing fruit. So Paul exposed the problem. They were still infants. They were worldly. So he told them in verse 4, “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” They were divided on issues of leadership. Some claimed to be followers of Apollos. Others claimed to be followers of Paul. If they were living today, they would be divided reverence and veneration for movie-star-like preachers, or by mega church dynamic-performers-like preachers, or even by denominations.
Generally there is no problem in following certain leaders who like Paul or Apollos they uphold the truth of God and the sound doctrine of faith. Leaders who do are indeed worthy of being leaders and certainly worthy of being followed by those who would learn their ways. It was actually Paul who later on in this letter said to these same people: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1) But it was not the example of Paul nor of Christ that these Corinthian Christians were now following here. They were following the man Apollos, and the man Paul, mostly based on their popularity and their ability for impressive public speaking. The standards by which these Corinthians were measuring these leaders were all based on worldly standards and not spiritual standards. So Paul deemed them worldly. A man of God should not be measured based on his education or background, or achievements or popularity but on their walk with Christ and his or her adherence to the teachings of the Christ.
Look at verse 5. “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. Paul’s rebuke is aimed at helping these baby Christians to consider the foolishness of their quarrels and division. Who is Paul? A no-body. Who is Apollos? Again a no-body. They are just servants assigned by the Lord to bring them the message of life. We cannot but admire the extent of Paul’s maturity as a true servant of God. When John the Baptist was pressed to say something about himself to the world, he refused to talk about himself and diverted all the attention to the Only One worthy of it— Jesus Christ. It was his heart’s desire to grow less while Jesus grew more and more. In history there are many whose love of self and desire to puff up themselves has often their church down causing division within the church. In diverting the attention to Jesus and away from himself, John the Baptist diverted a major division in a young Gospel ministry. But his heart was right. He knew his identity and he knew his mission. He was a man sent by God not to bring glory to himself but to prepare the way for the Messiah.
It takes tremendous maturity on a Christian’s part to deny the self glory in order to honor and glorify the Lord. Like Paul we must know who we are! Outside of Christ we are indeed nothing— a nobody. And like Paul, we must know what our mission is! Outside of Christ, our mission is no better than a worldly man whose main mission in life is self-preservation and survival— much as Cain lived, a cursed life. (Genesis 4:12)
To serve Christ was Paul’s great honor. He had no need to usurp anyone else’s glory— especially not the glory of another man Apollos— let alone to steal the glory from Christ his Savior. So he said in verse 6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” Here, Paul seems to be saying: “where then does that put me, the seemingly great man of God that some of you may think me to be, or the near deity that some of you have made me out to be?” And he answers that in verse 7. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Paul does not mean that neither the man who plants nor the man who waters are insignificant and their work unimportant. But the truth remains that their work amounts to nothing if the work is done independently and apart from the purpose to which they labor— if what is planted does not grow. Ultimately, the whole purpose of their labor is for the sake of the seed, which only God is able to make grow!
In verses 8-10 Paul’s words accentuates the foolishness of the division caused by these worldly Christians quarreling and being jealous over their leaders. “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.”
First, the common purpose of all God’s servants. Paul’s words in verse 5 help us better understand this. “As the Lord has assigned to each his task.” To Paul God had assigned the task of planting. He came in to a Gentile province, preached the Gospel in the simplicity of the Lord Jesus himself and planted the seeds of faith in Christ, and of hope in the kingdom. When Apollos visited the church, he served them “as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” And Apollos’ task was a work of watering what Paul had planted. He expounded on the word of God. He helped them understand their own faith and spoke of the secrets of the kingdom of God to them as Jesus had done for his disciples. Both Paul and Apollos was each assigned by God a special task. Together, however they shared a common purpose— a common goal— to make an environment for the seed to grow. They were co-working in Christ. The church could not function without them. This is God’s wisdom that God has given each of us work to do. Together, we can accomplish it. If we had to work apart from each other, the environment would not support the ultimate goal or purpose of what God wanted to do.
Second, God makes it grow. Twice, Paul emphasized neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything if it were not for God. He alone can make what is planted grow. He is the giver of life. He is the one who is able to make the Christian infant grow. So, regardless of whether there are those who plant or those who water within the church, unless God extends his hand and works in the hearts of his people, all the planting and watering are in vain. Paul rebuked them that in their jealousy and quarrels, they had damaged the environment in which God would work. So they were not growing.
Third, We are God’s fellow workers. So then how could they grow? Paul explains this best in verse 10. We are God’s fellow workers. They needed to realize that God is not divided. His servants who have God’s interests on their hearts, are not divided. They need to recognize that they are all together, as one body— God’s building. There is something glorious about the concept of unity. Jesus emphasized it. The apostles emphasized it. Paul here emphasized it. We are all different. We have different ideas, different personalities, different likes and dislikes, uniquely different. But when it comes to doing the work of God— building of the building— we must be one. Paul did not see himself as an independent worker in the church at Corinth. Although he established the church, he never saw himself as the originator. He recognized that this was God’s church that God was building and that he was only a fellow worker with God. We too must acknowledge that if we are to grow.
Sometimes because of differences people have, the church gets divided. At times the division is between 2 or 3 distinct groups holding different ideas about everything from church function to methodology to what Bible version to use. And at times the division is severe such that each person is a group unto himself or herself. Then they find themselves not growing! We need to grow. It is God’s will that we grow and mature and become a people of a healthy and influential church. It is God’s will that there is no division among us. It is the will of God that love overcomes all differences among us. it is the will of God that we work together for a common goal and purpose for Jesus’ sake. It is the will of God that we recognize that are each assigned our own godly task— that each task is important and crucial in the building of the church. It is the will of God that we work with God together as his fellow workers.
Paul talks about the church being a building— more precisely, God’s building— a structure that needs to be built. In the following verses, Paul talks in depth about the building— what it is founded on. What makes it weak. What makes it strong. Read verses 10-15. “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
Paul’s story here in these verses is truly remarkable. It talks about building on a foundation that has been already laid some 2000 years ago. That foundation is Jesus Christ. Jesus gave his very life to rescue sinners form the pit of hell. He paid the price for our sins with his own blood. He also rose form the dead and sealed for us the gift of salvation for all time. This means that he made it possible for even the worst of sinners to receive pardon for sin and to be welcomed into God’s presence in paradise. The salvation of our souls which Jesus gave us is the most precious thing a human being can ever hope for in his life. The world bubbles over with the most insignificant and useless things a soul can ever get entangled in— fame and fortune— material possessions. And all the while ignoring the most precious gift that no one can afford not to have— the salvation of their souls. God promised it. Jesus secured it. The Holy Spirit assures it in our hearts every moment.
When a man is burdened by his sin, confesses them to God, repents of his wayward life and accepts the gift of God’s forgiveness and rebirth by faith in Jesus, that man laid that eternal foundation for his soul. That man is secure in eternal life and his foundation cannot be removed from under him, because it is a foundation stronger than the foundations of the heavens and the earth. Now that man has choices to make. Paul called them worldly Christian infants, milk drinkers. They were not growing They were not building. Their building, though built on the True foundation, cannot rise up to shape nor form, and so remains as it is, barely useful to the Master Builder who purposed it to grow, and to rise into a glorious building that can bring joy to God. The church at Corinth was wracked with internal problems that kept the members infants in a church that could not rise from the ground up.
Now Paul explains to the Corinthian Christians that the building must go up as God expects it to. But in building on the solid foundation, there is that Christian who does not build at all. He is the immature worldly Christian who is an infant, needing milk, always milk, always worrying and criticizing and complaining, so that again and again he has to be told, be patient son. Be loving son. Think on God’s grace daughter. Don’t strike back don’t get angry don’t retaliate. Always caught in some mundane struggle such that milk is all he can handle. Other than that, a Christian has 2 other choices. He can build with gold, silver or precious stones, or he may build with wood and straw.
The first choice is that Christian who builds using gold. The most precious years of his life. he may spare no cost in fulfilling the Lord’s will in generosity and in sacrifice and in a labor of love in devotion. He works expending gold in the service of the king. He may choose to spend hours in prayer for the lost flock of God, he may choose to lose the world, if it will gain him the lord’s pleasure. This man is building with gold. He may be criticized for wasting gold on the building. But the lord never thinks that any gold spent on him is a waste. But he will not expend the gold on Holy Spirit own pleasure a. No on the things that are perishing in this world. He builds on the foundation with his own life.
The second choice is the Christian who builds using straw. He has chosen straw because it is not too costly. He has retained for himself the remainder of the funds so that he might spend it on himself. It does not take much effort to build in straw. So it suits his life well,. He is a busy man with many interests. He has to be a Christian on Sunday and another man on the days of the week. He wll need his gold for other things. So his building grows faster much faster than the one using gold. And his building looks really impressive, and everyone can see that he is building. While he is holding back on the one who did not hold back on him when he gave his life to redeem his soul. So in a way his Christian life is a mockery of Christ himself because it undermines the savior’s sacrifice and his teachings. Moreover, this man is likely to stand behind a Christian leader who is impressive and well spoken, who has a doctrine that uses words that impress the intellect of men. He is proud that he stand by that man, even if it causes division. He thinks that as long as he is building something, he doesn’t stand to lose anything.
But Paul warns that building is not enough. A man ought to be careful how he builds, because the day will come when the building will be put to the test. And what he built will be tested by fire. For the man who built with gold, the fire will not consume his work. While that other man who thought he was smart in life in building cheap and using little effort and almost no heart in building on the Foundation his Lord died to build for him, well, that man’s work will be as nothing consumed with fire. That man will not lose his salvation. But his life work as a Christian is unacceptable, swept away by the fire. What foundation are you building on? What foundation are you building with? Do you use gold, sparing nothing in raising the building, or do you build with straw, because it is cheaper, more convenient and easier to work with?
Paul loved this church. But he was concerned that they were not growing. Not growing because they were caught up with worldly issues that promote jealousy and quarreling or division, and their growth is stunted. He wanted to give them deep spiritual teachings that they could build on. But they were still at an infant stage squabbling like chicken over chicken feed. That they should build and grow, and that they should build using gold is absolute. God demands that they grow and bear fruit in their personal lives as well as in their church. Because for a Christian to build on the Foundation laid for him or her is a serious Christian mandate. More than that, for a Christian to take good care of the mandate he or she has been given is a matter of life or death. As Jesus warned that any tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire, so also Paul warned that it is critical that Christian take care of his life-building— indwelt by the Holy Spirit. (16-17) Later on in his letter Paul expounds a little more on this subject.
Look at verses 18-23. These verses tell again of the difference between what the world considers wisdom and what God considers wisdom. Paul encourages them to be fools holding on to the truth rather than be divided. Paul also teachers them a secret all over again. No man is anything without Christ. They should not boast in a man. Nor stand with a man. They should stand with Christ, with God because in truth all things belong to God. We need to digest this lesson well, it is deep and full of great truths that can be the meat we need in growing. Let us come to God in humility and unite in love and work together with God as his fellow workers in building our lives and our church on Jesus— And let us not spare even the gold in building. God bless you.