1 Corinthians, Part 2, Chapter 3, verses 1-23

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The function of the Christian ministry

An immature view of the ministry

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, 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?


Paul has established what true wisdom is. Now he points out why he did not offer much of this wisdom to the Corinthians. He is also answering the objection of the Corinthians that his preaching was too simple.

He could not address them as spiritual but as “worldly—mere infants in Christ.” These Corinthians, so fascinated by man’s wisdom, so bent on acquiring it, so vain about the worldly wisdom they possessed, were insisting that Paul also give them God’s deepest wisdom when he preached to them.

But how much of God’s wisdom can you feed an infant? The Corinthians were only babes in Christ, too immature spiritually to absorb much heavenly wisdom. They were too worldly; their flesh was too weak to understand more than the basics of Christianity.

Accordingly, Paul writes, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” No mother gives her infant solid food when he can’t chew it or digest it. Paul could give the Corinthians only the simplest of spiritual food—spiritual milk.

That’s why he spoke simply to them. They were not capable of understanding more than the elementary facts about God and his way of salvation. They were still beginners in Sunday school, but they thought that they belonged in adult Bible class.

The Corinthians are not ready for spiritual wisdom. Paul also points to their divisions, not merely to their spiritual immaturity, as evidence that they are still not ready for higher gospel wisdom. They are acting like squabbling children, each of whom wants to be first. They behave like men of the world who are governed by their weak, sinful flesh.

When we read this harsh condemnation of the Corinthians, we may wonder whether they are still Christians. Are they still spiritual? Yes, Paul says they are. They are still “brothers” in the faith (verse 1), but they are weak Christians.

Ministers are fellow workers with God

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, verses 5-9

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.


Now Paul makes clear to the Corinthians how their cliquishness has distorted their view of the Christian ministry. They don’t know what the Christian ministry is all about. They have placed Paul and Apollos on pedestals, like idols. Rather, Paul declares, he and Apollos were servants, lowly day laborers whom God sent to them to bring them the gospel and to help them come to faith. Paul stresses the lowly character of the service rendered by himself and Apollos. Accordingly, he objects to the tendency to make too much of preachers.

The special tasks of the ministers of Christ could vary. “I planted the seed,” Paul writes, “Apollos watered it.” Paul first broadcast the seed of the gospel in Corinth. He was the founder of the congregation. Apollos followed Paul and continued the ministry of the gospel there. He “watered” the seed that Paul had planted, but it was God who made their service fruitful. Without divine blessing the work of Paul and Apollos would have been in vain. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Give the glory to God, not to the ministers. Don’t make too much of ministers.

Paul makes another point to discourage divisions in the congregation: Paul and Apollos are united in their ministry. God works through both: both are engaged in the same gospel ministry, both have the salvation of souls as their goal, and both are dependent upon God for success. Why make more of one than of the other? Why build factions around them?

Paul recognizes one difference between pastors. “Each will be rewarded according to his own labor.” The Greek word here is kopos, meaning “toil” or “hard work.” God rewards his ministers according to their toil, the “sweat” they have put into their ministries. He does not reward them on the basis of their gifts and talents, nor even on the basis of their success, but on the effort they have put forth in his service.

Why are wages God’s concern? Because ministers are God’s workmen, they can expect to be paid. Christian ministers are “God’s fellow workers.” They belong to him, work for him, and are rewarded by him. They may perform different services, but the important thing is that they are partners working together for God. This is another reason why there shouldn’t be any factions in the congregation. Let God make the distinction in their pay; the congregation should make no undue distinctions between the service of one minister and the service of another minister.

Paul concludes verse 9 by noting a distinction between ministers of the gospel and those they serve: “We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” The Corinthians and their pastors are not God’s in the same sense, though both belong to God. The Christian ministry has a special relationship to God. It bears a special accountability to him and receives special rewards from him. That is also why God spelled out the qualifications for the ministry in Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus.

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, 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 has pointed out that ministers perform different services, but they are still one in their ministry. Paul now explains further how important it is to be one in their service. They must be one in their faithfulness to the gospel.

Paul was the founder of the congregation. God chose this man to lay the foundation for the church in Corinth. God also made him an expert builder of mission congregations. Paul knew his business as a missionary. He built every one of his congregations on a good foundation, on Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The pastors who followed Paul in the ministry in Corinth built on the foundation Paul had laid. If the congregation was to remain a true Christian congregation, those pastors had to build carefully on that foundation. Like the founder, they too must preach Christ crucified as the only way of salvation. Others were building on the foundation Paul had laid, “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” (verses 10,11). “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord” (Hymn 538 in Christian Worship [CW]).

In Corinth there certainly was a danger that ministers would be tempted to build human wisdom on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of their listeners would have liked nothing better. The ministers in Corinth would be tempted to do what so many pastors in erring church bodies are doing today, offering the wisdom of men to their people in addition to or even in place of the wisdom of God.

Paul employs a memorable illustration. Faithful pastors build with precious materials; pastors who do not hold to the truth build with perishable materials. “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.”

What do the “gold, silver, costly stones” signify? The best interpretation is that they describe doctrines and practices that are in harmony with the foundation, which is the person of Jesus Christ and his saving work of redemption. Whoever teaches God’s Word and conducts his ministry in keeping with the truth that Jesus Christ is our Savior is building with gold, silver, and costly stones. He is being true to the foundation.

On the other hand, the man who preaches the truth in “a one-sided, warped, watered-down way” is building with “wood, hay or straw.” (Note 1: From Fred Fischer, Commentary on 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Waco, Texas: Word Book Publishers, 1975, page 51.) Paul does not refer to heresies that are so serious that they deny that Jesus Christ is God’s Son or that his death atoned for the sins of the world. Such teaching would not be on the foundation of Jesus Christ and him crucified. Rather, the “wood, hay or straw” doctrines are such that either add to or subtract from the truth of Christ.

They are teachings, for example, that hold that Baptism does not save or that Christ does not give us his true body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. They are the doctrines of purgatory and of prayers for the dead and the notion that we must cooperate in our conversion. They include making faith a work; they include legalism, the millennium, the charismatic movement. There are also false practices, for example, in stewardship and evangelism, in church government, and in Christian education. One cannot say that such teachings and practices immediately destroy faith in Christ and his atonement, but they weaken and distort the truth of who Christ is and what he taught. They are error mingled with the truth.

For many it may not be until judgment day that the “wood, hay or straw” are exposed for what they are—trash to be burned up. On that day, when Christ returns for judgment, the work of a minister will be tested. Judgment day will be a fiery day that will test the pastor’s teaching and. work as fire tests gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, and straw. The gold, silver, and costly stones will stand the test; the wood, hay, and straw will become ashes.

Judgment day is payday for God’s fellow workers. The workmen who used gold, silver, and costly stones in building on the foundation will receive the reward that goes to good and faithful servants. God will grant special recognition to them, according to his grace. “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.”

He who has built with wood, hay, and straw will be in for a rude shock. His shoddy works will not stand the test; the fire of judgment day will consume them. He will have no fruits of faithful service to show, and there will be no rewards of faithful service for him to receive. He himself will barely be saved, like a man forced to leave everything behind as he flees from a burning building. He will be saved only because, by the grace of God, he still believes that Christ died for him.

A word about purgatory. The Catholic Church cites verses 14 and 15 in support of its doctrine of purgatory. But these verses do not apply, for several reasons. The fire, for example, is the fire of “the Day,” of judgment day. And it is the works of the minister that are being tested; it is not believers who are being purified by fire.

Christian ministers are not soul destroyers

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, verses 16-17

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

Although the difference between the faulty builders described in verses 12 to 15 and the church destroyers identified in verses 16 and 17 is not great, it appears that those preachers who actually destroy the souls of their listeners by destroying the very foundation of faith through their false teaching have a greater guilt.

One of the most serious sins an Israelite could commit in Old Testament times was to desecrate God’s holy temple. There were dire penalties, even death, for violating its holiness. A severe penalty will also be laid on those preachers who desecrate and destroy the faith of Christians, who are also temples of God, because the Spirit dwells in them.

God’s ministers do not peddle false wisdom

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, verses 18-20

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness;” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

Even though the Corinthian believers had accepted Christ, many of them were still worldly minded, as Paul stated earlier in this chapter when he said, “You are still worldly.” They were still hankering after worldly wisdom and the prestige they felt they would gain thereby. Paul warns against the kind of wisdom offered by those ministers who build with wood, hay, and straw. After having read 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 2, we know who the fool is and who the really wise man is. Paul urges the Corinthians to pursue the foolish wisdom of God rather than the foolish wisdom of the world. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

Children of the world are trapped and ensnared by their own wisdom. Their wisdom leads them to reject God and any hope of salvation. No matter how wise and clever man is, no matter how carefully he plans and schemes, he always does himself in in moral and spiritual matters, and often in material things as well. He makes the wrong judgments. Many of the problems in our country today are also the result of the failure of “wise” people as our leaders. They convince themselves and the nation that they have it all figured out and that they know what is good for all of us, but they are wrong.

Ministers are to serve the congregation, not to be served

1st Corinthians, Chapter 3, verses 21-23

So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Now Paul draws a conclusion from all that precedes, and it is a surprising one. There were factions in Corinth because the members of the congregation attached themselves to their spiritual leaders. “I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos”; “I follow Cephas.” They belonged to their leaders. According to the way they represented themselves, their minister-leaders owned them.

Paul tells them that they have things all wrong. The ministers belong to them, not the other way around. Their ministers are there to serve them. Christians are to make use of every good thing their pastors provide for them, as masters appropriate what their servants bring to them. As Paul says, “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas. . . .”

What difference does this view of the ministry make? A great difference. If you feel that only your favorite pastor can offer you anything worthwhile, you deprive yourself of many blessings that the other pastors you have had could have given you. If, on the other hand, you see each of your pastors as serviceable to you, you have many more blessings. Let them all serve you, not just one special pastor.

In the sweeping fashion in which he often presents great truths, Paul extends this relation to our whole life experience. “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours.” The world is ours with all its beauty, its resources, its wisdom, its technology, its comforts. Life is ours to employ for our earthly and our spiritual benefits. Even death serves the Christian on his way to his eternal abode. “Things present and things to come,” everything that is happening and that will happen in our lives and in the world around us is there to be used by us. All things, including our pastors and teachers, serve our eternal good.

No one has said it better than Luther did in his great treatise on The Freedom of a Christian Man: “Every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm. As a matter of fact, all things are made subject to him and are compelled to serve him in obtaining salvation.” (Note 3: From Luther’s Works, Career of the Reformer, One, Volume 31, American Edition, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1957, page 354.) What was one of Luther’s two texts? First Corinthians 3:21-23.

In the last verse of this chapter, the apostle provides the final answer to the Corinthians’ desire to follow a leader. If they want to belong to someone, they should know that they belong to Christ: “And you are of Christ.” Serve him. He is all things to you; you have all things in him.

Paul concludes, “and Christ is of God.” It is not because Christ is not God himself; rather, he is truly and fully God. “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). He is God’s, however, because as the God-man he was also God’s servant, who obeyed his heavenly Father and carried out the work of redemption. Christ was God’s agent for our salvation. We who are now in Christ are “of God” with him.

When we belong to Christ and, with him, belong to God, we will not take advantage of the pastors and teachers who serve us. We will not misuse or abuse them.