The Family, the Field, and the Foundation
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:1–23
1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
10 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. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- 13 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. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Not everyone grows up in church. In fact, you may be one of those who are here this morning feeling a bit uncomfortable and maybe even at somewhat of a disadvantage because church gatherings of this sort are relatively new, and perhaps even strange to you. Maybe you have difficulty navigating your way around the Bible and perhaps you don’t know very much about what it means to be a Christian. If that happens to be the case, then take heart because you have probably more in common with the original audience being addressed in this passage than you might imagine.
When the Apostle Paul entered the city of Corinth, the audience he faced was largely unfamiliar with the name of Jesus Christ or the message of the Gospel. But in the sovereign providence of God, we read in Acts 18:8 that when Paul began preaching “many of the Corinthians...believed (his message) and were baptized.” As he carried on a ministry in that unlikely place for a year-and-a-half, a church was planted and the Word began to spread. In time, Paul would be called to minister elsewhere, but even after leaving Corinth, those new Christians were never far from his heart. Although he handed off the leadership of that infant church to others, he regularly corresponded with them and addressed many of the issues that threatened their spiritual survival and well-being.
As we move into chapter 3 of the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul is still calling for unity among the people of God. It is a plea that began in chapter 1. He contended that these young believers must stop dividing themselves over trivial matters, such as which of God’s messengers they preferred to follow. The most important thing was the message of the cross, not the one who preached it. Although the minister was to be regarded respectfully, it was the substance and not the form of his presentation that was to be evaluated.
The Greek mind, you will recall, was enamored by those who spoke with homiletical skill and polished rhetoric, so assessing speakers in the way Paul prescribed required a new paradigm of thought. So, here in 1 Corinthians 3, he employs three metaphors intended to get them to begin thinking rightly about the role that God’s messengers have been called to fulfill among His people. How should the church consider those who minister the Word?
In the first place, in verses 1 through 4, a minister is said to be likened to...
A parent caring for a family (3:1-4)
The family-metaphor arises from his addressing the Corinthian believers as “brothers.” It is a title that he employs more than two dozen times when referring to fellow-believers throughout this epistle. The term signifies relationship that goes beyond mere acquaintance. It has a familial aspect attached to it. Within the context of the family of God, it speaks of that affiliation that links every Christian with every other believer.
You may recall at the end of chapter 2, Paul differentiated between “the natural person” (“ψυχικοs”) and “the spiritual person” (“πνευματικοs”)...or, if you will, those who bore no evidence of spiritual life and lived only for this present life and those who possessed true spiritual character and lived life within the context of eternity. Specifically, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who don’t know the Lord and those who do.
But even among Christians, Paul suggests there are levels of spiritual maturity. Every believer is exhorted to “grow” in 2 Peter 3:18, and Hebrews 6:1 reminds us that it is God’s goal for every believer to press on “to maturity.” That is the target at which every Christian minister aims for among the people whom he serves. The reality is that all believers are somewhere in the maturation process...some progressing faster and others at a slower pace. In this opening paragraph, Paul is urging these Corinthian believers to “press on toward the goal” that God has set for them (cf. Philippians 3:14). Maturity is the goal.
One is able to detect a note of frustration in Paul’s words when he writes, “I...could not address you as spiritual (or spiritually mature) people, but as people of flesh, as infants in Christ.” In some ways these people were still embracing the characteristics of their old lifestyles before coming to Christ. They were behaving as “baby Christians”—not just “children,” mind you, but “infants” (“νηπιοs”) who were in constant need of being “fed from a bottle” when they should have been feasting on “solid food.” How Paul longed to serve them a sumptuous spiritual meal, but they simply “were not ready” to receive it.
The reference to “milk” suggests that they had been “born” into the family of God and had experienced justification by grace. But their inability to “eat meat” exposed the fact that they had not progressed very far in their sanctification. They delighted in the blessings and “perks” of salvation, but were ill-prepared to handle the hardships and responsibilities of the maturing Christian life. It would seem that they were all for “health, wealth, and prosperity,” but they were not yet bearing their crosses as marks of genuine discipleship.
During the evangelistic crusades of D.L. Moody, many people heard the Gospel and were brought to Christ. But Moody was often concerned with those who made professions but never advanced very far in their Christian lives. At one point, he was heard to say, “Converts should be weighed as well as counted.” While pastors tend to boast about the breadth of their ministries, the Lord is more concerned with its depth. Immature Christians bring little glory to God. The ministry of the Word must go deep before it can go far.
“Want proof of your immaturity?” Paul appears to ask his detractors in Corinth. He provides it in verse 3: “For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” Their ongoing preferences for personalities like Paul and Apollos had resulted in divisions among them, and this had actually hindered their potential for growth. There was only One worthy of their allegiance and being followed, and that was Christ Jesus.
At times these Corinthian church members have been referred to as “carnal Christians,” but that sounds like a contradiction in terms. Unless it is pressed into these verses, I can find no the category of “carnal Christian” anywhere in the New Testament. The entirety of Scripture expects that those who are truly the Lord’s will grow in faith. The issue here is that these believers were not moving forward in their Christian walk. They were saved, but their spiritual growth was stunted and their progress was stagnant.
Every parent desires for his children to become strong and healthy adults who will grow up to live productive lives. As their “spiritual parent,” the apostle’s goal for these Corinthian believers was that they “grow up” and move on to maturity in Christ. That should be the goal of every pastor who has been called to oversee the ministry of a local church. Immature believers simply do not bring God the glory He deserves.
As we move into verse 5, we note that Paul switches metaphors. Instead of likening the minister to a parent caring for a family, he now presents the picture of...
A servant working in a field (3:5-9)
With the issue of their partisan spirit again having surfaced in verse 4, Paul very pointedly asks, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” One might have expected him to have asked “who” not “what” these men were. But to have addressed the question in that way would have only added fuel to the fire of their division over “personalities.”
Instead, Paul is concerned with the role that these men filled. The ministers, after all, were but tools in the hand of God. As this paragraph unfolds, notice the emphasis upon God and not the ministers: verse 6, “God gave the growth;” verse 7, “God...gives the growth;” and verse 9, “God’s fellow workers,” “God’s field,” and “God’s building.”
The messengers themselves are described as “servants.” A “servant” is one who labors under a master. In explaining their role in agricultural terms, Paul states three things about them. In the first place, he explains that there is a diversity of ministry. “I planted,” Paul writes, and “Apollos watered.” The Lord knows the needs of every local church, and not all of His ministers have been called to serve in the same manner. Nor should they be expected to. It is unfair, therefore, to compare one of God’s ministers with another on the basis of worldly criteria.
Some years ago I was asked to serve as the interim pastor at a church in the southern part of Alexandria. The man I was replacing had been brought to that church in order to bring peace out of a chaotic situation which had existed for several years among the members there. Over the course of a few years, he did just that. But then the Lord moved to another field of service. When I was interviewed for the interim position, I was told by the pulpit committee that the church now wanted someone who could teach them the Word, to take them more deeply into the Scriptures than the previous pastor had done. After I had been there for a few months the church was ready to call a full-time pastor. The man they called was especially gifted in outreach and evangelism.
All three of us were different in personality, style, and focus of ministry. And that takes us to Paul’s second point regarding serving in God’s field—there is also a unity of purpose. One may “plant” and another may “water,” but it is “only God who gives the growth.” That the apostle would say this twice—in verses 6 and 7—reminds us that, though the laborers are called to work the field, it is God alone who causes the ground to yield its produce.
When verse 8 adds that “He who plants and he who waters are one,” the truth is reinforced that the ministry of God is a “team project.” Paul describes the ministers of God as moving toward a common goal, which is “growth” or, as some versions have it, “increase” (KJV). The goal is not “results,” per se, but instead it is serving faithfully (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2). The result is that “each (laborer) will receive his wages according to his labor.”
But there is one more aspect to working in God’s field that the apostle must not be overlooked. There is also to be a humility of spirit. Go back to verse 7 and notice again these words, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” There are times when a new pastor arrives on the scene and the church experiences rapid growth. It would be easy for that pastor—and even for his people—to assume that it was the new pastor who brought it about. But as Paul reminds us in verse 9, ministers are “God’s fellow workers,” and the ministry is “God’s field, God’s building.”
The Corinthians—like the members of every local church from that day until now—are God’s possession, and His alone. He is the One who is responsible for the depth and breadth of its growth. Ministers come and go, but the church remains the possession of God.
There is yet another metaphor that Paul employs in this section. Not only is a minister likened to a parent caring for a family, and a servant working in a field, but he is further compared to...
An architect building on a foundation (3:10-23)
Verses 10 through 23 make up the largest portion of this chapter. In this section Paul likens the ministry of God’s messenger among God’s people to that of a major building project. Some commentators believe that Paul is actually comparing the building of a Christian ministry to the elaborate construction of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6(:1-38). The reference there to the enduring materials that went into that building parallels the spiritual quality with which the minister of the Lord is called upon to build (cf. verse 12). The fact that God’s people are said to be “God’s temple” in verse 17 lends credence to this comparison.
As the one who was most humanly-responsible for planting the church in Corinth, Paul describes himself as a “skilled master builder” who had been given “the grace of God” equal to the task. The term “master builder” is the word (“αρχιτεκτων”) from which we get our word for “architect.” It is a rare term, used only here in the New Testament. Here it speaks of Paul’s assignment to “lay the foundation” of the church in that city. And as we are told, that “foundation” is to be none other than Jesus Christ. Then and now the minister’s first and primary task is to “preach Christ” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23 and 2:1) because He alone is the right foundation upon which the church is to be built.
Both historically and contemporarily, churches have earned great reputations in the minds of the world, but unless these churches are built upon biblical truth that places Christ at the very center, they—like the ancient Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-9)—are destined for failure in directing others to the pathway of God’s eternal truth. Sadly, how many are those who are gathered in such places this morning.
That being said, God’s ministers are charged with building properly upon that one “foundation.” What determines “biblical success” are the materials with which the builders builds. Five times in verses 12 through 18, Paul emphasizes this distinction with the introductory phrase, “If anyone.” How a minister is building is not always immediately apparent. The rare and precious character of “gold, silver, (and) precious stones” comes from the facts that they must be searched for (cf. Proverbs 2:4-5). “Wood, hay, (and) straw,” on the other hand, are much more common to find, but they are grossly inferior to be used as building materials. In short the Lord’s minister must build with the right material. What’s more, it is not up to him to decide what that material is. He has been charged to faithfully preach the Scriptures and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 13 through 15 inform us that a “Day” is coming when the manner with which each of us have built upon the “foundation” will be tested “by fire” with regard to its enduring value. The “foundation” of Christ will remain—suggesting the certainty of salvation—but the product of that life which has been built with inferior materials will be consumed...burned up, destroyed. The renowned Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, has commented on these verses in this way:
It is the tragedy of a fruitless life, of a minister who built so poorly on the true foundation that his work went up in smoke. His sermons were empty froth or windy words without edifying or building power. They left no mark in the lives of the hearers. It is the picture of a wasted life. The one who enters heaven by grace, as we all do who are saved, yet who brings no sheaves with him. There is no garnered grain the result of his labours in the harvest field. There are no souls in heaven as the result of his toil for Christ, no enrichment of character, no growth in grace.
King Solomon reminded us when he wrote in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That “Day” is rapidly drawing near for us all. The lives that we are now living will soon be evaluated, and lest we forget, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
Far too many churches avoid theology and doctrine like the plague. Often it is because pastors and church leaders cater to what people want to hear rather than giving them what they need to hear. Entertainment and amusement, in many cases, have taken the place of biblical exposition. Paul charged young Timothy to be sure to “preach the word,” because “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
In verses 16 and 17 of our passage, Paul applies this accountability to the church at-large. Ten times in 1 Corinthians, he will begin arguing an indisputable fact with the statement, “Do you not know.” Here, when he says “you,” he is widening the lens to include every member of the Corinthian church as well as its leaders. Employing the second person plural pronoun, he tells them, “You are God’s temple and...God’s Spirit dwells in you.”
There are two words in the New Testament that are translated “temple.” The one that Paul employs in this context (“ναοs”) is the one used to refer to “the inner sanctuary” where God Himself is said to dwell. In other words, it points to the very presence of God, and suggests that the church collectively—and every believer in particular—has become “the abode of Deity” or “the dwelling place of God.” To tamper with something so sacred as God’s “temple” is to incur the wrath of God Himself, and that is why Paul adds, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” To put it another way, those responsible for dismantling the church may expect retribution in kind.
In addition to there being the right foundation and the right building materials, God’s ministers must build with the right plan. Their construction must be according to God’s design, because if it is not then its “cracks” and its “leaks” will soon be exposed. The writer of Proverbs tells us that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25). We need to hear and to heed those words again and again. The New Testament—namely the epistles written by the apostle—remain God’s “blueprint” for building His church. Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, famously said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”
Hearkening back to the instruction he began in chapter 1, Paul again reminds his readers that the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God do not always intersect. Therefore, verse 18 begins with a strong imperative: “Let no one deceive himself,” or better translated, “Stop deceiving yourselves!”
The admonition found in verses 18 through 20 is familiar, but like the Corinthians we also must pay attention, lest we too deceive ourselves: “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written (and here Paul references Job 5:13), “He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, (and now he cites Psalm 94:11) ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’” Throughout the first three chapters of this epistle, Paul has insisted that even though the plan of God appears “foolish” to the world, in reality it demonstrates the “wisdom” of God. As if the cross of Jesus didn’t appear folly enough, consider why God would choose hell-deserving sinners like you and me to be the ones to proclaim that life-saving message to others.
Local churches that honor Christ are not built on the backs of the pastor’s personality, slick music ministries, or special audio and video effects. The Lord has but one plan, and it is spelled out in the pages of Scripture. If we divert from that plan, then in time what we are building will crumble and fall.
Having reinforced that central truth once again, Paul brings this part of his discussion to a conclusion in verses 21 through 23. Just as he admonishes his readers to not “deceive” themselves, here he further urges them not to “boast in men.” He has already addressed their tendency to elevate any of God’s messengers over another. But in doing so, he is not advocating a complete absence of scrutiny. Human wisdom—even when spoken by a man of God must be carefully measured by the revealed truth of God. Therefore, the minister must be one who builds with the right motive. Motives are not always apparent. We can’t read the mind or the heart of another, but as Paul has already alluded, “the Day...will test what sort of work each one has done.”
Consider Paul himself. He was not out to make a name for himself. You recall that when he had earlier preached the Gospel in Berea, he praised the believers there, referring to them as “noble-minded” because they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if (the things that he taught them) were so” (Acts 17:11). He knew that his call was from God and he never forgot that. And as he ministered the Gospel to others he wouldn’t let them forget it either. His only boast was in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 6:14). In the final analysis, it is the Gospel that spells the end to all human pride.
In his Mars Hill sermon just before visiting Corinth for the first time, Paul declared to the Athenians, that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” That “man” is none other than Jesus Christ, whom He raised from the dead. Consequently, He “now commands all people everywhere to repent” (cf. Acts 17:30-31). How about you? Have you turned from your sins and embraced the One who laid down His life for you when He died on a cross as payment for your sins? Are you prepared to face that “Day” that we are all hastening toward at break-neck speed? This is the only secure “foundation” upon which any of us are able to build.
In describing the Christian community—specifically the local church—Paul employs the metaphors of the family, the field, and the foundation. Drawing from those contexts, the Christian minister is thus referred to as a parent, a servant, and an architect. And his goal, as alluded to in the closing verses of this passage is “that God may be all in all,” a phrase we will encounter later in this epistle (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28)
As a parent who cares for the family of God, the goal of the minister is the spiritual maturity of the people the Lord has placed in His care. Here at THBC, the primary role of your elders is to study the Word of God and to teach and preach it with all diligence and perseverance. At times that takes the form of encouragement and instruction, while at other times correction and rebuke are the order of the day. But the message must always be derived from Scripture and not from our personal opinions. Furthermore, it is the task of the elders to pray for the members of this church that their progress in the Lord be consistent and prolonged, and that sin not be permitted to gain a foothold in their lives. Parents seek only what is most healthy for the members of their family, and that is what Christ’s ministers seek for those whom the Lord has placed in their care.
As a servant working in God’s field, the minister’s goal is a bountiful harvest brought about through sowing, watering, and cultivating for the pleasure of the One he serves. At times the minister is not certain which aspect of his task needs the most attention, which is why he must remain faithful in the performance of his divinely-called duties...no matter how long the job may take or how unfruitful the results of his labor may appear to be. Like the “patient farmer” of James 5:7, he must keep preaching the Word and lovingly care for the field in which the Lord has placed him, resting in the promise that God’s great day of harvest will at come.
And finally, as an architect building upon a foundation, the minister is take great care to assure that he is constantly building upon the right foundation with the right materials, and following the right plan with the right motive. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to the One who has assigned him this role. He must never forget that Jesus Christ and His Gospel remain the foundation upon which he is always building. He will strive for quality in the work he has been called to fulfill. That is because what he builds is being erected as a testimony to his Lord.
The New Testament writers employ the metaphorical-imagery of the “temple” in a number of ways. Jesus had referred to His physical body as a temple (cf. John 2:19-22). In another letter Paul applied the same imagery to Christ’s spiritual body, the universal church (cf. Ephesians 2:21). Paul also called the body of each individual Christian a “temple” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19). But here in this passage, it is the local church that he describes as a “building of God,” a “temple” in which His Spirit dwells.
I encourage us all to keep these three images before us as we approach the Lord’s Table this morning. Collectively, we are members of the family of God by faith in Jesus Christ. This local community is the field in which we serve as we faithfully till the ground, sow the seed, and water the soil. And we must never forget the foundation upon which we are being built—Jesus Himself—apart from whom all of our labors are in vain.