Sunday Service – Calvary Chapel – Leesville, SC May 17, 2020
Introduction – Background
Paul the Apostle wrote this letter sometime about 55 AD from Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to the church he had established a few years before in Corinth, Greece during his second missionary journey. The city of Corinth is a seaport town located on the narrow isthmus connecting mainland Greece with the Peloponnese peninsula in the southern Greek province of Achaia. In the 19th century, a canal was dug across the isthmus to carry shipping between the Aegean sea and the western Mediterranean Sea. But in ancient times, the ships were unloaded, and the goods carried across the isthmus to ships on the other side. Like modern harbor towns, ancient Corinth was renowned as a city of promiscuity, corruption, and unholiness. Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to address rumors that had reached him in Ephesus regarding some troublesome issues that had arisen in the Church at Corinth – e.g. contentions, debauchery, and sexual sin – and to answer some questions that had been asked of him through emissaries from the Corinthians.
Recall that Paul began the letter with the traditional greetings of grace and peace, then continued by offering praise and thanksgiving for the Corinthian fellowship before getting into the business at hand. In chapters 1 and 2 he tackled the issue of contentions within the body. Then he concluded chapter 2 by making the distinction between earthly wisdom which is discerned through the human thought process and godly wisdom which can only be discerned by reliance on God’s Holy Spirit indwelling Christian believers, reminding those in Corinth that the wisdom of God, and the Gospel of Jesus is foolishness to the natural man who does not have the benefit of God’s Spirit to guide and teach him.
Paul continues now in that same vein…
1And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?1 Corinthians 3:1-4 – NKJV
In order for us to fully grasp Paul’s next words, we have to review a little of the history of the church at Corinth found in Acts 18-19. The real beauty of this history becomes apparent when we recall Jesus’ prayer in the upper room on the night He was betrayed.
I do not pray for these alone [the disciples present at the last supper], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;John 17:20 – NKJV
Paul (then Saul of Tarsus) was not present at that gathering in the upper room, nor did he ever see the LORD Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh, but encountered the risen LORD a few years later on the Damascus road. Paul started preaching the Gospel in Damascus, spent some time in Arabia, and then returned to Damascus. He did not even meet the disciples in Jerusalem for about 10 years after he was saved. Then after meeting for a few weeks with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, Paul returned to his home town – Tarsus in modern day Turkey. Then, around 48 AD Barnabas sought Paul out in Tarsus, and the two of them traveled throughout southern Asia Minor for about a year establishing churches before returning to Jerusalem (Acts 11-14). Barnabas was among those for whom Jesus had prayed in the upper room who came to believe the Gospel through the preaching of the original disciples. After returning to Jerusalem for the council of disciples in 49 AD, Paul and Barnabas once more went out into Asia Minor along with Silas and Judas with the intent of strengthening and reassuring the churches they previously established there. On that journey, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (northern Greece) who said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” So Paul immediately sailed to Macedonia, where he, Luke, and Timothy established churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Acts 15 – 17).
Recall that when he came to Athens Paul attempted to persuade the learned people there of the Gospel Truth with sophisticated arguments he believed suited to their mindset of pursuing earthly wisdom, but not many believed (Acts 17:22-34). Therefore when Paul left Athens and arrived at Corinth, he determined not to try to persuade the Corinthians with sophisticated arguments, but to simply preach Jesus – His crucifixion, and resurrection.
1And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.1 Corinthians 2:1-5 – NKJV
Paul remained in Corinth for eighteen months, preaching in the synagogue and working as a tent maker along with new believers Aquila and Priscilla who had recently come from Rome. When Paul returned to Ephesus, they accompanied him – two more believers who had come to faith through the words of the apostles. When Paul continued on to Jerusalem, Aquila and Priscilla remained behind in Ephesus, where they eventually met a Jewish believer from Alexandria in Egypt named Apollos.
Alexandria was a great center of worldly learning. In ancient times, a huge library was kept at Alexandria that contained tens of thousands of scrolls. Although the library had fallen into disuse and been partially destroyed by Apollos’ time, Alexandria remained a great center of earthly wisdom. In this environment, Apollos had become well versed in the Hebrew scriptures, and was also a powerful speaker. Apollos had come to an intellectual belief in the Gospel through studying the preaching of John the Baptist and his water baptism of repentance. But Apollos had never received the baptism of God’s Holy Spirit. After Aquila and Priscilla heard Apollos preaching in Ephesus, they took him aside and shared the Gospel of the baptism of the Holy Spirit with him. By the power of God’s Spirit, Apollos became a great Gospel preacher. The church in Ephesus then sent him to the Greek province of Achaia – the location of Athens and Corinth – now equipped not only with the worldly wisdom acquired through the human thought process, but filled with the wisdom of God given through the power of His Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24-28).
So with that background, we return to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church.
5Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.1 Corinthians 3:5-9 – NKJV
The Greek word in verse 5 translated in the NKJV as “ministers” is διάκονος diakonos. Other English translations render it as “servants,” and one I saw as “ministering servants.” Paul uses διάκονος diakonos in his first letter to Timothy in reference to the appointment of deacons within the church. The word is used to refer to those who wait upon others doing menial tasks, but it also bears a broader meaning. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines the word as “one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master” and “the servant of a king.” This word truly describes the rightful role of a pastor. Those who minister in the Name of Jesus must remain humble – above all in spirit, but also in circumstance. Later in this letter (1 Corinthians 9:14), we will see that Paul writes that those who preach the Gospel should be able to make their living from it. But there’s a big difference between making a living from the Gospel, and making a killing from it. I fear for prosperity gospel rip-off artists like Peter Popoff who prey off the fear and greed of believers. Paul goes on in verse 5 to say that he and Apollos were ministers “through whom you believed.” In this, once more we see that the believers at Corinth were among those for whom Jesus prayed in the upper room “who will believe in Me through their [the apostles’] word.”
In verses 6-9 we find a great encouragement for the evangelist. Just before He ascended to His Father, Jesus gave His disciples (and by extension those for whom He had prayed in the upper room who would follow after them by believing the Gospel through their words) to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). Often though, we take on the additional burden of responsibility for bringing people to a saving faith in Jesus’ Gospel. We become discouraged if our Gospel witness fails in bringing someone to Christ – something our witness is powerless to do in the first place.
When we lived in California, every Tuesday evening a dear sister and I set up a little stand in the parking lot of a local convenience store, and offered prayer for anyone who asked us. One evening a young lady came seeking prayer. She said she was a believer, but she had drifted away from her relationship with the LORD, and become involved with heroin and other drugs. When we prayed with her and witnessed the Gospel to her, we encouraged her to come to our church’s recovery ministry that following Thursday evening. She welcomed our prayer, expressed the desire to return into fellowship with the LORD, and said she would be there on Thursday evening. As we packed up our prayer stand at the end of the night, we were hopeful that through our ministry this sweet girl had been led back onto the narrow path that leads to life eternal in Christ. The following morning her body was found hanging from a bridge near the local park where she had been staying. What was lacking in our ministry to her? What did we say or do or not say or not do that failed to prevent her from throwing her life away so tragically after we had held such high hopes for her restoration?
Paul gives us the answer here in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9. It is not the job of the evangelist to reach the lost. We are to proclaim the Truth of Jesus’ Gospel plainly along with our own testimony of how His Gospel has impacted our own lives and given us the living Hope of eternal life with Him. But in the end, our witness and testimony can’t actually bring the unbeliever to salvation in Christ. It is God Himself who must do that by the power of His Spirit. As Paul writes here, “neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.“
The main point that Paul is making here, though, is for the true believers, not for the lost. Practically everyone who has been a Christian for a while will agree that if we place our hopes and trust in our pastor, we will almost certainly be let down sooner or later. Even the most faithful and righteous pastor remains a wretched sinner whose righteousness is as filthy rags before the LORD. As with all believers, God’s Spirit is working within the hearts of Christian pastors to perfect them into the very image of Jesus. But that vital work of God’s Spirit remains incomplete in all living believers, including pastors. In our society, we have become obsessed with celebrity – in politics, in entertainment, and tragically in Christendom. We elevate religious celebrities like the pope, or Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham to a higher regard than other Christian ministers although they are no different in the depths of their hearts than any other human being – born with a sinful nature as all people are, and struggling with sin as all people must. Paul warns us here in this passage to guard against regarding Christian leaders more highly than we ought.
In the light of Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church against divisiveness we might tend to swing too far the other way, prizing unity of the body above all else. But there are also valid reasons for division within the Church. Paul writes of this later on in this letter (1 Corinthians 5), chastising the Corinthians for allowing sexual sin in their midst. Jesus gives specific procedures for dealing with sin that comes to light within the church – Matthew 18:15-20. But what should happen when the pastor of a local congregation falls into some sin? Jesus’ guidance on church discipline applies to the leaders of the congregation as well as the other members. A trickier question is what we should do when there is no specific sin, but a pastor or portion of a congregation departs significantly from Christian orthodoxy.
In 2002, the London Daily Telegraph reported that about half of Church of England clergy do not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and that about one in three doubt or disbelieve Jesus’ resurrection! – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1403106/One-third-of-clergy-do-not-believe-in-the-Resurrection.html. True believers who find themselves members of a church body being led by such pastors much certainly leave their congregations as soon as possible, and out of love for the unbelieving pastors and for the brothers and sisters left behind must surely let it be known without any doubt why they are leaving.
In some cases, entire denominations become divided over theological questions, and in rare cases these divisions are valid and biblically-sound despite their painfulness. We have recently seen just such a division in the United Methodist denomination over the questions of homosexual clergy, and homosexual marriage ceremonies being conducted within United Methodist congregations. To their credit, the faction of the denomination which objected to such practices on biblical grounds, tried to resolve the issues within the church discipline framework laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 without success. In the end, the denomination’s governance body decided that the only option was to split the church. Painful as this must be for all concerned, it was the proper thing to do.
WARNING – Such biblically-valid instances of right and proper division within the church are very rare indeed. All Christians must prayerfully ensure that their reasons for taking such a course are biblically-valid, and above all are undertaken in genuine Christian love for everyone involved. We must continually guard against divisiveness for personal reasons or insignificant theological differences. When in doubt, we must always err on the side of unity. Our very own Calvary Chapel “non-denomination” has seen just such an upheaval over the last several years since the death of its founder – Chuck Smith. We must each thoroughly and prayerfully examine our own hearts and motivations before we form an opinion on this sad state of affairs. We would do well to keep our eyes and ears open and our mouths shut as this tragic situation plays out.
By contrast, if we place our trust in Jesus alone – and Him crucified, risen, ascended, and soon to come. We will never be let down. Christ alone is the trustworthy foundation for our faith.
10According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 3:10-11 – NKJV
When Peter and John were on trial before the Jewish council of elders – the Sanhedrin – for healing a lame man in the Name of Jesus contrary to the council’s directive, Peter proclaimed Jesus as the foundation of our salvation by quoting from Psalm 118 just as Jesus had also done in His parable of the wicked vine dressers (Matthew 21:33-46).
8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: 9If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, 10let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. 11This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ [Psalm 118:22] 12Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”Acts 4:8-12 – NKJV
But a wise master builder doesn’t lay a foundation, and then abandon a building project. With the firm foundation solidly in place, the remainder of the building must then be erected upon it. Christian believers are God’s building as Paul pointed out in verse 9. Our spiritual building founded on the rock of salvation in Christ Jesus’ must be fully established through Christian discipleship. Although the foundation of our salvation was firmly established once for all by Jesus’ sacrifice of His own life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin, our edification into God’s building through discipleship is an ongoing process which will continue until we are finally perfected into the image of Jesus at our death, or Jesus Himself returns to claim us as His perfectly spotless bride. Our salvation unto eternal life by the forgiveness of our sins through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross is assured, and nothing can disrupt it. Our faith in Jesus is the rock upon which Jesus builds His church as He said to His disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:18). But our assured salvation upon this rock is of no use to anyone but ourselves unless we build upon it throughout our new lives in Christ by the power of God’s Spirit dwelling within our regenerated hearts.
12Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 14If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:12-15 – NKJV
So what are the gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw that Paul writes of here?
The gold, silver, and precious stones are the natural outgrowths of devotion in God’s Spirit to our new lives in Christ – an intimate relationship with God’s Spirit in continual prayer; devotion to learning about our God through the diligent study of His Word; unselfish, sacrificial Christian service and giving to both the lost and to our brothers and sisters in the LORD; enthusiastic evangelism through the sharing of our personal testimonies; true repentance and struggle against sin; heartfelt joy in our salvation.
The wood, hay and straw are the natural outgrowths of our flesh which struggles against God’s Spirit within us – legalism; mechanically partaking in the LORD’s sacraments (water baptism and the LORD’s table); part-time, non-sacrificial participation in group ministry; dutiful monetary giving of the “required” amounts; rueful obedience to God’ commandments against our “favorite” sins.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not preaching at anyone. I make this harsh admonishment against myself more than anyone else. I certainly sow as much and more wood, hay, and straw into God’s Kingdom as I do gold, silver, and precious stones, even knowing that in so doing I deprive myself at least partially of the heavenly reward I might have had. Nevertheless, I am most humbly grateful that my eternal salvation is never at risk, being founded on what Jesus has done – the victory He has already won in my behalf – not founded on anything I might do or not do.
16Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – NKJV
Paul will have much more to say about our bodies being the temple of God’s Spirit when he tackles the subject of sexual sin that pervaded the church at Corinth. I think we would do better to defer much talk about the subject until we get to that part of the letter. But just as a foretaste, let me share something one of my pastors said from his pulpit years ago – If you’re seriously considering indulging in some sin (maybe even one of the besetting sins in which you partook before you came to the LORD) ask yourself whether you would do it if Jesus were in the room with you. Then remind yourself that He is indeed there with you, and that your sin sickens and grieves Him.
18Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; [Job 5:13] 20and again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” [Psalm 94:11]1 Corinthians 3:18-20 – NKJV
Recall from chapter 1 what Paul said about the message of the Gospel being foolishness to those who try to understand it in terms of worldly wisdom rather than relying on God’s Spirit to reveal its Truth to them.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18 – NKJV
Here in 1 Corinthians 3:18-20, Paul expresses the issue of earthly versus heavenly wisdom from a different angle – God’s point of view (if indeed God who is omniscient and omnipresent could truly be said to even have such a thing). Just as the Gospel is foolishness to those who try to perceive it with only human wisdom, the so-called wisdom of mankind is foolishness to God who knows – and actually created – the whole Truth. Paul states this idea even more strongly in his letter to the Roman church.
20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.Romans 1:20-23 – NKJV
Jesus famously said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) The same can be said of those who are so intelligent and well educated that they are blinded by their own earthly knowledge to the “foolish” Truth of the Gospel of Jesus. Many of those whom I personally love and have loved the most in this life fall into this trap. None of them to my knowledge actually worships carved idols, but just as surely they do worship at the altar of human knowledge and achievement rather than worshiping or even acknowledging the existence of the One true and living God who created all things – those known by mankind and those unknown – and the “foolishness” of His Gospel.
21Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come–all are yours. 23And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.1 Corinthians 3:21-23 – NKJV
As he concludes this chapter, Paul is also slowly bringing the introductory portion of this letter to a close. Reading these last few verses, one almost gets the sense that Paul is reticent to muck into the main purpose for which he is writing to his beloved children. In a sense, what Paul is saying is, “I love you, but…” What Paul wrote in the next few chapters is tough love in the very truest sense, so before launching into that chastisement, Paul offers them here another little tidbit of encouragement. The phrasing Paul uses here is reminiscent of one of the most edifying and encouraging passages in all God’s Word, which Paul wrote to the Roman church suffering under tremendous persecution that modern Christians in the western world can scarcely imagine.
37Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:37-39 – NKJV