God and Associates
Epistle Reading: I Corinthians 3: 1-17
“You’re immature. Why don’t you grow up?” Those are words we don’t want to hear at any age – whether a teenager who thinks she is all grown up, or a newly married young man who wants to like he’s still single, or an old person who is doing childish things.
That is what Paul says to the Corinthians. They are Christians – his brothers and infants in Christ. But much of their thinking and behavior was what you would expect from a non-believer. You expect new converts to struggle with the old patterns of thought and behavior that are characteristic of the flesh, but not in those whom the Spirit has lived for a good while. You expect a baby to be a baby, but there’s something seriously wrong when an older person is infantile.
The problem in Corinth was not that they had not yet discovered the Spirit-filled life. The problem was that they made too much of the Spirit and too little of the cross. The problem was not that they did not have the knowledge that more mature Christians have. The problem was that they thought they had superior knowledge when they did not understand what it meant to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.
It’s a serious to charge an individual Christian, to say nothing of a whole congregation, with being of the flesh and babes in Christ. But Paul has the evidence. “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For where one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” It’s as simple as asking, Does the Holy Spirit produce jealousy and strife? Do mature Christians make ministers the cause of disunity?” To ask is to answer the question.
Paul does more than make a charge and prove his case. He shows them a better way, by giving them three pictures of the church, each showing something about God his associates, his ministers.
I. The Church Is God’s Field
The first picture of the church is of a field. You cannot get a crop unless somebody does some work. Planting and watering, for instance. Whether you are cotton planter or a backyard tomato grower, you have got to plant and take care of something if you want a harvest. I do not know of anyone who has ever harvested in the fall, who, in the spring, just looked out at his field and trusted the Lord. Harvests require working in the field.
On the other hand, I do not know of a single farm hand or gardener who has ever produced by planting and tending to his crop a single boll of cotton or single tomato. God does not give harvests unless somebody plants and tends to the field. But no one who has put seed in the ground or watered it has ever made a seed germinate, grow, and produce its fruit.
The church is God’s field, Paul says. The Corinthian church is the crop, as disappointing a crop as it might be. Who has done the work? Paul and Apollos. One has planted, the other has watered. But God alone gave the increase.
The essential thing for the Corinthians to grasp is that it makes no sense for the Corinthians to divide up based on their loyalty to various ministers, because “they are nothing.” Paul goes out of his way to emphasize how little ministers are by not even referring to them at persons. He does not ask, “Who?” but “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Neither of them has ever produced a single convert or a single disciple. They have not given faith to anyone. They have not sanctified anyone. They have not preserved anyone.” All this is God’s work and God’s work alone. No minister can take credit or deserves credit for any grace in anyone’s life.
That God gives growth is one of the most basic truths about the church, but it seems to be one of the hardest learned. How often have churches thought that if they only could have this preacher or that preacher they would thrive? At one time I think that some Presbyterians in Mississippi seemed to think that revival would break out if they could only get a certain Baptist preacher down here often enough! How many church empires are built on the name of a preacher who gets credit and takes credit for the success? I can’t think of anything more important for either of these two ordinands to understand than that they are nothing and God is everything, when it comes to the growth of the church – whether we are talking about numbers or grace.
Now all this may so far confirm what not a few Christians, not just Brethren and Quakers think, which is that the church could probably just as well without preachers. After all we all have Bibles, we all have the Holy Spirit, and we call can interpret the Scriptures, can’t we? And, after all, our most important dealings with God don’t have anything to do with ministers, do they? Not so fast there. Paul says, “We ministers are not much, but we are servant through whom you believed. We didn’t convert you, but we preached and God used that preaching to convert you.” As Paul says in Romans, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. But how shall they hear without a preacher?” Faith – hearing the Word – preachers. That’s the way God has chosen to work. God could have decided to feed us without farmers, but he didn’t. He could have decided to do his works of grace without preachers, but he didn’t. You might just as well expect to eat without farmers, as to expect to become a Christian, live as a Christian, or die as a Christian without ministers.
Moreover, God calls and assigns ministers to their places in his field. Some are responsible for plantations. Others are assigned to work in small garden plots. But God calls and assigns them each. And they all are involved in the same work of producing a harvest for God – a harvest of people who come to Christ, stay with Christ, and end up with Christ.
And God plans to pay them. Of course, he wants you to pay them now, but he will pay them when the harvest is fully gathered. He will determine how diligently, faithfully, and usefully they are worked in his field. We can be sure he will judge the true value of their work and that he will reward them fairly. Whether, their pay in terms of heavenly rewards is great or small, all should know that God thinks enough of his ministers to pay for their work in his church.
Ministers aren’t much, but they are something. Don’t make too much of them. They are nothing but farmhands. And don’t make too little. They are necessary farmhands.
II. The Church Is God’s Building
The second picture Paul gives is the church as God’s building. Most buildings under construction belong to someone. The person who owns hires an architect or general contractor who in turn hires the sub-contractors so that the building becomes what the owner intends it to be. You cannot get a building up without contractors and sub-contractors, but the building belongs to the owner. It is the owner who must be pleased, and it is the owner who will pay the wages to those who labor on the building. So it is with the church – a building God is putting up by employing contractors and sub-contractors.
God is the owner who decides to have the building constructed. Paul is the primary contractor, and those who follow him are the sub-contractors. It is God who will determine the pay of each workman.
This church is a building that has only one possible foundation. When I was in my middle year of seminary, the Kennington Chapel that now dominates the campus of Reformed Seminary, was constructed. There were many decisions that had to be made regarding that building – whether it would have a high or low pulpit, whether the organ would be placed in the front or in the balcony, where Mrs. Kennington’s portrait would be placed, etc. But no decision was more important than the decision about the foundation. As it turned out, the soil tests showed that it was not possible simply to pour a slab and build the chapel on it. The earth beneath was too unstable. So holes had to be drilled into the ground, and those holes had to be filled with concrete which would be the pilings that supported the slab on which the chapel would be built. Nothing was more important than the foundation, and the stability of the building now more than 35 years later shows the wisdom of those who planned the foundation.
The foundation of the church is and never can be any other than Jesus Christ – who he is and what he had done for our salvation. Only when the church confesses that Christ is the eternal Son who in time became man without ceasing to be God, so that he was God and Man, one Person can the church exist. Only then the church confesses that by his righteous life, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and glorious reign Christ has accomplished salvation for a multitude no man can number, is the church built on the only foundation that will support it. The need at Corinth and the constant need of the church is not something more than Christ, but more of Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians Christ is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1: 30). Christ is everything.
Christ is the foundation that Paul had laid. Anyone who came after Paul, whether Apollos or someone else, had to build on that foundation or build a building that could not stand. The foundation determines the kind of building that can be built. To build inconsistent with the foundation dishonors the intent of the owner. By God’s grace and for his glory you have built this beautiful sanctuary, but unless its walls conform to its foundation it will not last. And, unless the church rests on Christ, its foundation, the church will displease the owner and sooner or later collapse. Recently I heard of an Episcopal priest who said she was both Christian and Muslim. Though that church can tolerate homosexuality among its priests, apparently it is not yet ready to accept as one of its clergy someone who thinks that one can be at the same time both Christian and Muslim. I saw a television program one evening that discussed the views of a Dutch Catholic priest who said that, in the interests of understanding Christians should begin to call God Allah since God does not care what we call him. But God does care what we call him. Unless we call the Father the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and unless we confess that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, we are not building a building that will be approved by God, the owner who will make the final inspection and decide whether to accept the building. There are not a few churches that are found under the evangelical umbrella and whose ministries can be experienced on television which preach so little of the Christ of the Bible that one can only conclude that they are built on some other foundation and so are not churches at all.
Not only does the foundation matter. So, too, do the materials with which the structure is constructed. Some will build with valuable and indestructible materials – gold, silver, precious stones. Others will build with cheap and destructible materials – wood, hay, and stubble. You can put up a building in a hurry if you are willing to use cheap materials. But, another Katrina, or even a lesser storm and the building will collapse. It takes the investment of time and money to put up a building that lasts.
There are plenty of mega- churches today which seem to follow the strategy of building with wood, hay, and stubble. They are sure to collapse if the economy fails, or the governmental structures become unstable, or the church experiences real persecution. They have been built with wood, hay, and stubble. Some with messages that build self-esteem, teach coping strategies, encourage optimism, and send people out feeling vaguely better about themselves and their worlds. Others with end times speculation and sensationalism. Others build political activism. Still others build with the promise of health, wealth, and success. Churches built fast with cheap materials will not last.
But churches like this one are blessed always to have had ministers who are committed to building on the church’s one foundation, Jesus Christ her Lord. They are committed to using valuable and lasting building materials - the faithful ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Such churches are sure to stand the instability or even collapse of the economy, and the governing structures of the country, or persecution. When all the other churches are losing their heads, and even blaming it on you, you will stand as a manly and mature Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is possible that the foundation and materials used by the builders will be seen in this world and this age. But, if not, the Day when Christ comes and tests everything with the fire of judgment will reveal it. There will be ministers who will be like builders whose cheap and shoddy work will catch on fire. They will be saved like a builder whose escapes from the burning building while fire consumes all his work. But, are you not thankful, that here you have ministers who are determined to build God’s church will gold, silver, and precious stones? Their work will stand the test of judgment. They will not be shamed the Great Day, as the owner of the building says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
III. The Church Is God’s Temple
The third picture of the church is a temple.
When the children of Israel left Egypt and entered the wilderness, they lived in tents. The LORD told them, “I want to have a tent, too, so I can live among you.” So he gave them instructions to build the Tabernacle. All the tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle. God lived right in the middle of his people. When they got to the Promised Land, the LORD revealed to them the one place where he would be worshiped. He waited until the people had their houses and even the king had his palace. Then he put it in David’s heart to make preparations for the temple that his son Solomon would build. On the day of dedication, there were many sacrifices and the glory of the Lord so filled the temple that the priests could not continue their ministries in the temple. The Temple is the place where God lived among his people, where God revealed his glory to his people, where he accepted sacrifices to atone for sin, and where he received the worship of his people.
Now Paul says, “Don’t you know that you are the temple of God and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Then again he says, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” This is a place in the Bible where it would be much better if the southern form of English were normative. Standard English lacks any way of indicating the plural of you. Not so in the South. No southerner ever uses y’all as a singular. You is singular; y’all is plural. And that is important here. Paul does not say, “You are the temple of God,” but “Y’all are the temple of God.” He’s not speaking of individuals but the church. And, he is not speaking in some vague way of all the Christians in the world. He is speaking about the congregations in the city of Corinth. He speaks of the local church – the local church is God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
Because God lives in the church by His Spirit, the church is holy. It belongs to God as no other organization or institution does. God’s temple is this unique visible and concrete organization on earth, where people worship him according to his directions, where he appoints a government of elders, where he wills for the means of grace to be dispensed.
Since the church belongs to God, where he lives and reveals his glory, and is worshiped on earth, God has a special care for the church. I have a special care for my wife, my sons, and their families. Don’t mess with them or you will incur my wrath. God loves his church in that way. So Paul warns that if anyone destroys God’s church, God will destroy him.
Paul is thinking about false teaching that is worse than wood, hay, and stubble. This teaching denies the essential truths about who Christ is and what he came to do. This is a strong warning to these two ordinands and all of us who are ministers. Build with inferior materials, and you’ll lose your reward. Build on some other foundation, and you will lose your soul.
But Paul is thinking also of those members of the church of Corinth who would go so far in their jealousy and strife and parties built on personalities that they would rather see the church divided and destroyed than to lose the battle of egos. That is where not only ministers, but also members, are included. Indulge in petty rivalries and God will hold you accountable. Destroy the church by rivalries, and God will destroy you.
The church is the most resilient organization on earth. That is because it is God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple. God, who will always have a church on earth, will also always give to his church faithful ministers and stewards of the mysteries of God. Tonight we honor the church; we give thanks for ministers; we give all glory to God alone for the wonder of the church and the gift of its ministers.