1 Corinthians 3:5-9
November 12, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:45 in the audio file.
Or, The Lord of the Harvest and His Laborers
It’s been said that the graveyards are full of people the world could not do without. That tongue-in-cheek comment is intended to point out that no man is indispensable, but just the opposite. Every man is replaceable; no one on earth is necessary in an ultimate sense.
Perhaps in no occupation is this more true than in preaching and pastoring. You might not know it from how so many of us pastor-types promote ourselves and pimp our ministries and prepare our legacies. Sometimes it is not the preacher’s fault but the fault of his followers. They not only listen to but lean too heavily on a man. But too high a view of those in ministry fails to acknowledge how ministry works.
This does not demand that we have too low a view of preachers either. No man is indispensable but God has made many men instrumental in our faith. While God could have done it other ways He chose men to teach (or translate and transport) God’s Word to us. The Holy Spirit used and uses these men to grow us up for fruitfulness. So in terms of God’s story, He has caused certain effects through men and, in that way, we are to thank God for their work.
1 Corinthians 3:5-9 is about the proper perspective on those who preach the word of the cross. The Corinthians had the wrong perspective and had divided over which preacher was best. From 1 Corinthians 1:18-3:4 Paul demonstrated that such quarrels missed the point. The message ins’t something that can be marketed. The Holy Spirit must overcome the natural man’s revulsion to a crucified Christ. As is true of the message so it is true of the messenger, which now becomes Paul’s focus through 4:7 if not 4:21.
Those elders who “labor in preaching and teaching” (as Timothy called them, 1 Timothy 5:17), who labor for the Lord of the harvest (Matthew 9:37-38), must be seen in their proper place. This paragraph profiles six principles of gospel labor that should give perspective both to preachers and those who listen to them.
Where there is jealousy and strife and sectarian quarrels there is too much fleshliness. It’s the human way to divide over which human, including which preacher, is more important. “When one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (verse 4) And isn’t this a misunderstanding upstream?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed as the Lord assigned to each.
Shouldn’t the question be “Who is Apollos?” and “Who is Paul?” Apollos and Paul are persons after all. Yet the interrogative pronoun in Greek is not Who? (masculine) but What? (neuter). Some later copies of the text changed it to the masculine form in order to tone down the grammatical discord. But this is Paul’s point: the person himself should be considered as a tool.
Apollos and Paul, and all laborers like them, are servants (διάκονοι). They are agents of another, those who answer to someone else, they do what someone else wants. Servants are not greater than their masters. The Corinthians were seeking to increase their own status by attaching themselves to certain men, and Paul explains that they were going the wrong way, at least in the eyes of the world.
The Lord is great, though the worldly-wise refuse to acknowledge His glory. The Lord assigned to each servant his labor, and that labor was effective. They were servants through whom you believed. The servants were God appointed means to bring about the faith of the believers, so Paul quotes Isaiah to the Romans that the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful (Isaiah 52:7 in Romans 10:15). We are thankful for those who spoke to us the word of life (see Hebrews 13:7), but we remember that they only did what the Lord assigned.
Apollos and Paul represent types of instruments that God uses and each had a different role in the labor. Paul likens their work to farming and, even though most of us are not farmers, the illustration is common enough to connect.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
Paul was the plowboy, the first in Corinth and he sowed the seed of the gospel. Apollos came to Corinth later and was the water boy, he supplied the water of the word for sake of the plants’ growth. But Paul was in Corinth for 18 months. He certainly did more than evangelize. And Apollos didn’t only talk with believers. Yet they each had different opportunities at different times in the process.
That said, God gave the growth. It is the theological and historical fact. Rhetoric never made a seed grow. No man makes a seed grow. There does need to be a seed and the seed does need to be buried under the soil. God provided the gospel and God sends sowers. Even still, He must cause the growth.
[M]inisters, like agricultural laborers, perform tasks which remain conditions for growth (not sources of growth). (Thiselton)
Only He brings life from death. Men are instruments, but God is the cause.
What was implied in verse 6 is applied in verse 7.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth.
The planter and the waterer are not merely Paul and Apollos; those two weren’t unique laborers. Paul and Apollos are the examples at hand, but anyone planting and anyone watering are not anything. The contrast is not completed with but only God who gives growth. A couple things about this. First, the word “only” in the ESV isn’t in the Greek text. The contrast is, if the planter and waterer aren’t anything then God is everything. Without Him the other work is nothing but useless.
In context we already see that God uses instruments. He delights in it actually. But for all the potential a knife has sitting on the table, it cuts no meat without a hand to move it. Instruments, in and of themselves, are limited.
Second, God who gives growth is a fine translation. But the growth-giving is adjectival and emphasizes the ongoing nature of the growing. If we said that “the growth-giving God is everything” we might hit a meditation sweet spot. God gives growth. He is the grower. Growth is His idea. He has built the reality of growing into existence. He invented, created, and keeps sustaining growth patterns and processes in both the physical and spiritual realms. He is in the growing business, and there would be no growth by anything any man ever did apart from God’s work.
It is less than silly to quarrel over which man’s labor is the better “nothing.” God gives growth so only God gets all the credit. To identify more with the planter than the waterer (than the weeder than the fertilizer, et cetera) misses the necessary (if invisible) hand behind the instrument. It also misses the unity of purpose even though they may not share a unity of task.
He who plants and he who waters are one.
This “oneness” doesn’t mean that they are actually the same instrument. This doesn’t mean that they are one in the type of labor, or timing of labor, or fruit of labor. It means that they are both working toward the same end: harvest.
Paul and Apollos had a bigger goal than gathering followers for themselves. The division of labor doesn’t mean that there are different products desired at the end of the line. Each person does his part for sake of the one desired product. To love the waterer without the planter accomplishes what? To love the planter and not the waterer means you have a failure to see the whole process.
Each laborer has a shared goal but not each laborer receives the same assignment or the same assessment.
Each will receive his wages according to his labor.
Wages is translated as “reward” by every other major English translation. It means “remuneration for work done,” or “recognition for the moral quality of an action, recompense” (BAGD).
Though it isn’t stated explicitly, who is giving the wages here? God is. Paul will say more about this in a few verses, but the Lord appointed him to the work and the Lord will appraise his work. The Lord knows what He wants us to do and the Lord knows how He will work through it (see 1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Jeremiah preached for 40 years and had zero converts. He will still receive a reward because he was used by the Lord “to pluck up and to break down” nations and kingdoms (Jeremiah 1:10). The Lord assessed Jeremiah according to the purpose He gave Jeremiah. Others see many profess and progress in Christ who only worked 1/40th of the time. The key is that the Lord Himself gives the reward.
While He can give it any way He wants, usually the reward is not separate from the people. In fact, it does damage for preachers (both planters and waterers) to disconnect the idea of reward from their people.
Think about a farmer. What reward is he looking for? He doesn’t want a pat on the back from his neighbor, or a check in the mail from the government. He wants his field to produce. That is his natural wages. So the reward a preacher wants should be commendation from the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 4:5; Matthew 25:21), yes, but also growth among those he labors for.
A knife doesn’t cut a steak in order to get a better spot in the silverware drawer. A knife cuts the steak for sake of seeing the steak enjoyed. It’s true for parents; their primary reward for faithful parenting comes in their kids (and grandkids) not apart from them. In other words, I don’t want something unrelated to your growth as my reward from the Lord of the harvest.
He’s about to make a transition into another analogy, from the agricultural to the architectural, from a field to a building (verses 10-15). But he does sum up in the final verse of this paragraph.
For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
There are two possible emphases of the first phrase. Either we work with God or we work with one another for God. The first emphasizes that we partner with God as His co-workers, the second emphasizes that we belong to God. I think the context points to the fact that we are all God’s. We are fellow-workers, among whom there should be no rivalry, no competition, because all of us will answer to the Lord.
We also work in the same field, and the field is not ours. We don’t take extreme ownership, we take extreme stewardship. We have responsibilities, we will receive recompense, but the whole thing is the Lord’s to decide. He assigns, He gives growth, He assesses the work, He owns it.
This is hard labor. κόπος, the final word in verse 8, is a frequent word Paul uses to describe burdensome, difficult, “backbreaking toil” (Garland). The image of a farmer here is not driving his air-conditioned tractor or running multi-field irrigation schedules from his iPhone app. This is the kind of labor that requires long hours and requires faithful, timely, knowledgeable work. And still God must give the growth.
God’s invisible and sovereign hand is not a discouragement. When God grows, He does just not add, He multiplies. That said, 0 x infinity is still 0. There must be labor, but God uses the labor to produce fruit exponentially. This makes me want to be more humble and to work harder. It makes me want to trust Him more to give growth and give energy so that I need less breaks.
This is particularly for Paul and Apollos, for preachers and pastors, and it is supposed to be a uniting perspective for the church. The Corinthians were dividing over their favorite tool and giving too much credit to the human instrument. While God Himself calls us to give thanks for and esteem those who labor for us (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), we ultimately recognize that these laborers are servants of the Lord who sent them to us.
God gives growth, and He uses the means of laborers. God gives growth, and He tells His disciples to abide in Him. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Jesus. He has chosen you to go and bear fruit, and whoever abides in Him bears much fruit. He tells You this not only so that His glory will be shown through You, but so that His joy will be in you. Abide, grow, see great fruit.
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6–7, ESV)