Good evening. Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 3. 1st Corinthians chapter 3. We’re continuing our study of what we know as Paul’s first letter to the church of God in Corinth.
The occasion for Paul’s letter was that the church God in this sophisticated Greek city was in trouble. The church was divided, full of contention and enmity. And as we discussed last time, these divisions were the result of the Corinthians believers acting immaturely. They were acting like spiritual infants, babies in the faith. That’s what Paul says of them in the first part of chapter three.
And what evidence does he give for that analysis? He says that there was strife and jealousy among them. The fruit of their behavior was contentious, embittered, envy and hostility. And each of those fruits grew from the root of their common immaturity. They were fussing and fighting over several different issues, but particularly over their ministry leaders.
Thus, in the text we will look at tonight, Paul seeks to correct the Corinthian church’s view of their leaders. They were guilty of wrongly esteeming their leaders, of not properly evaluating who and what ministry leaders are, and thus Paul sought to correct that with a proper estimation of the value and role of human leaders.
Let’s look at our text and hear what the Holy Spirit wanted the church in Corinth to hear, and what the Holy Spirit wants us all to hear together tonight. The words we have here are inspired by the Holy Spirit of God himself, and carry with them the same authority as if Jesus himself was standing here speaking the words to us. So let us all pay attention to God’s word.
We’ll focus on 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, but I will start reading in verse 1 for context.
“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.”
Tonight I have two main points for us to see: first, the Paul’s description of human leaders, and then second, Paul’s description of God. Paul’s description of human leaders, and then Paul’s description of God.
Let’s begin by looking at verse 5 and seeing how Paul describes human leaders: “5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed.” Servants through whom you believed, Paul says.
We see Paul first reminding the Corinthians of the role of their human leaders: they were servants. Ministers your translation might say. The word here is the same word we translate for deacon. It means a hired worker, or even a table servant.
The main point from Paul is this: they are not the master. They’re not the boss or the big guy. They are subordinate. Ministry leaders of any kind are simply lowly waiters. They are not the main event. They’re not to be worshipped, not to be glorified, not to be deified, because they are at best, a servant of someone and something greater.
They are simply “servants through whom you have believed,” Paul says. They are the messenger, and not the sender; they are the vessel, and not the lifegiving substance; they are the ambassadors, and not the king. That’s their role. Subsidiary. Subordinate. And servile.
And this role as secondary is further confirmed by Paul noting the power of human leaders. The power of human leaders. Paul notes in verse 5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” As the Lord assigned to each. You didn’t ultimately believe the gospel because of the ability of your leader. It wasn’t the power of the preacher, the winsomeness of your Sunday school teacher, it wasn’t the faithfulness of your favorite pastor that made you believe in the wisdom of God.
In and of themselves no human leader has any power to save. Preachers can’t make the Holy Spirit come down and affect heart change. Teachers can’t open blind eyes and replace hearts of stone. Ministers are impotent to affect any of these necessary spiritual changes. There is no magical power that is conferred when ministers get ordained. We’re merely servants.
Paul again confirms this in verse 6: “6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”. God gave the growth. God and God alone did it.
Think with me for a minute: If anybody other than God would be able bring the growth himself, you’d think it would have been the apostle Paul. He was given all sorts of miraculous gifts: he survived a venomous snake bite on the isle of Malta in Acts 28; he even raised Eutychus from the dead in Acts 20. It would seem that Paul would have been able to give the growth. But he couldn’t. He was innately just like every other minister: impotent, unable to do anything of lasting value apart from God’s divine action.
Which is where Paul comes up with his ranking system in verse 7. Look at verse 7 and we see how Paul views the rank of human leaders: “7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything. They’re nothing. Apart from Divine action, any minister of the gospel, any preacher, any teacher, any disciple is nothing. Compared to God’s role, we fade into the background. We’re of last rank.
Yes, we work, we strive, we pray, we labor, we teach, we plow, we plant, we water, but it is only God who can give the growth. God is the head, we are the tail. God is the master, we are the servants. He is of first rank, and we fall in line far, far behind.
That’s how Paul thinks about the ministry of any human leaders:
their role is that of a servant,
their innate power is nothing,
and their rank compared to God is last.
So, given Paul’s understanding, how then do we think about ourselves, and about how we evaluate our human leaders?
Usually, we tend to fall into one of two ditches with regard to our human leaders, and this is true for church leadership and for those in authority over us outside of the church. We either over-esteem them, or we under-esteem them. We deify or we despise. We either canonize or criticize. Both options are a violation of God’s law. And both produce division and strife, especially in the church, just like the Corinthians were experiencing. Let’s look briefly at each of them.
To over-esteem our human leaders is to give them credit that belongs to God. It is to rob God of the honor that is due to Him, and give it to a man. That’s violating the first and greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We give our hearts to a man rather than fully to God.
We can see this in ourselves sometimes when we treat our favorite teacher as if HE is actually able to give the growth. We dote on his every word. We treat our favorite preacher as if HIS word actually feeds us more than God’s word itself, and when that happens, we have more eager anticipation to hear from the man than we have to hear from God himself.
Or sometimes this over-estimation of our leaders looks like this: we fail to apply to them the same standard of faithfulness that applies to everyone else. The world does this all the time in politics. We blast the other party’s guy for some failing, but then sit silently when our guy commits the same sin. That kind of behavior happens in the church too. We can minimize and overlook the sins of our guy, simply because we think he’s the best.
We can sinfully invest our devotion and affection into a human personality, rather than investing our whole person into God and God alone. That’s what the Corinthians were doing, and that’s what we can do as well if we’re not careful. That’s one side of the problem.
But the other ditch, the other trap we can fall into is failing to rightly honor those that God has placed in authority over us. Rather than over-esteeming our human leaders like the first ditch, we can instead run off the other side of the road and under-esteem our leaders.
This is violating the 5th commandment of God’s law. We fail to honor those leaders who God has placed in authority over us: our parents, our teachers, our boss, our civil leaders, or our pastors. And when we fail to honor these human leaders, we are failing to honor God by honoring those that HE in his perfect wisdom has placed over us.
So practically, what does this look like? Not honoring our leaders can take several different forms. Sometimes it is nitpicking, or being overly critical. Treating them as if they can never get anything right.
Sometimes a failure to honor rightly is simply failing to encourage and pray for our leaders. How many of us pray for our civil leaders outside of the corporate prayer meeting on Sunday nights? Probably not very many. Or, how often do we intentionally encourage our parents, encourage our pastors, or encourage our teachers?
The Westminster Assembly went even further with the 5th commandment. They included as a duty implied by the 5thcommandment the obligation to protect the reputation of our superiors. That’s right. The obligation to speak well of and appropriately defend their reputation of those in authority over us is comprehended within the duty to honor our father and mother. Isn’t that a foreign concept for the world today? That’s in Question 127 of the Westminster larger catechism.
I wonder how often you not only speak well of your civil authorities, but you actually defend their reputation? How often do you speak well of your teacher, of your parents, of your pastors and deacons, when they are not around? If one of your co-workers is speaking ill of your boss, or if one of your siblings is bad-mouthing your parents, are you quick to appropriately defend them and their reputation?
That’s tough. If you’re like me, I find it takes no effort at all to slip into critical speech and negativity about those above me. It actually feels quite natural to nitpick and criticize and point out flaws. My mind seems wired to sniff out what appears to be hypocrisy and to thrust it into the light for examination and ridicule. I find it much harder to encourage and speak well of somebody, especially if I don’t agree with their decisions.
But that’s what we’re called to do: to honor our leaders, even if I might not agree with their every decision. If you’ll admit me a little artistic license, I’d like to adapt some of Jesus’s logic from the sermon on the mount and apply it here. We’re called to honor our leaders in every lawful way, even if we don’t love every decision they make.
For if you only choose to honor those that you agree with, aren’t you behaving like the gentiles? Even the tax collectors honor those that THEY deem worthy of honor. And if you submit only to those that YOU deem worthy of submission, aren’t you behaving like the pagans do? Even they will submit to those that they deem worthy of such. You must be perfect in honoring, even as Christ was perfect.
That’s what we’re called to do: rightly esteem and honor our leaders, especially in the church. Not worship them. Not deify them. But to honor them.
I’m so thankful to God that my salvation is not dependent upon my own ability to rightly esteem my human leaders. My salvation, the gospel says, is that Christ has perfectly esteemed his human leaders and his heavenly father, and he has done so in my place.
He perfectly kept the first and greatest commandment and loved his heavenly father with all is heart, soul, mind and strength. He never once placed a man above God in the scales of his heart. He never once failed to do all things for the glory of his father in heaven.
Not only that. He perfectly fulfilled the 5th commandment as well. For example, the gospels recount that He honored and cared for his parents, even taking pains to ensure that his mother was cared for while he was hanging bloodied and dying on the cross. He likewise submitted to human rulers, even those that acted in less than honorable ways, and he did so for the joy set before him, scripture says.
And he did all this will also being willing to die in my place. My sin, my inability to rightly esteem my human leaders, my failing to rightly love God and choosing serve men instead, my unwillingness to keep the 5th commandment had earned me the just wage of eternal death. Each of us has done this; we had earned a first-class ticket to hell.
But Christ died in our place. Christ took our punishment. As the song says, “Christ bore the wrath reserved for me, and now all I know is Grace.”
Do you know that grace? Have you experienced the truly liberating grace of Jesus Christ? His grace can be yours this very night. You must only come to him and believe, believe he is the son of God, believe that he came to save sinners, believe that his death was sufficient to atone for your sins, believe that he died and was raised from the dead, and by believing you will have life. You too can have forgiveness, you too can be cleansed.
And if you have been forgiven of your dishonorable behavior, then be on guard against the same temptations to wrongly esteem your leaders, and watch out for the ditches on both sides of the road.
Don’t put your hope in men. Don’t set your affections on what any human leader can achieve.
But also, don’t fail to rightly honor the people that God has put over you. They are in their positions of authority over you according to God’s sovereign good will, and he would have you to honor them, even if you might not agree, even if you think you know better, even if you’re smarter or know how to do their job better. You’re still called to honor and to submit to them in all lawful ways, because rightly esteeming our human leaders, brings honor and glory to our ultimate leader: our heavenly father.
And that leads us to our second main point for tonight: Paul’s description of God. Paul’s description of God.
Remember, Paul is arguing against divisions in the church, divisions that surround varying allegiances to human leaders: “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ,” they were saying. And one of the prescriptions Paul uses to treat this problem is to remind people of how we should view our human leaders, and how we should view God.
Paul’s description of God in this section loosely parallels his description of man in several key ways. For example, as we mentioned above, human leaders, like Apollos and Paul, were described of filling the role of servants. They were ministers, deacons, table servants or waiters.
But contrast that with the role described of God: the role of Lord. God’s role is that of Lord, he says. For example, in verse 5 Paul says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Lord assigned belief to each, Paul says. He is the one who assigns life to any who have it. He is the one who sovereignly bestows spiritual sight to the blind. He is the one who opens the ears of the deaf, and makes the lame to walk.
If the human leaders are given the role of servant, we must remember then that God is the master. If Apollos was the table waiter, God is at the head of the table. If Paul was a lowly subject, God is the royal king.
And this contrast of roles is fitting, given their different abilities. Remember what we said about the innate power of these servants: they had none. They were unable to fulfill their task, unable to complete their mission, in their own strength.
However, that’s contrasted with Paul’s description of God’s power. Look at verses 6 and 7: “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.”
God gives the growth. God makes the seed sprout. God makes the flower bud. God makes the fruit to ripen. None of this is within the power of the minister. No slave is able to make the harvest come to fruition. Only the Lord can do that.
To use the analogy that Paul uses in the next verse, a farmer can only do so much. He can plow, he can plant and sow, he can water, he can tend, he can weed. But at the end of the day, the farmer lays his head on his pillow and must trust that God will give the growth. The farmer can no more make the seed sprout and grow, as you and I can make it rain or make the sun to shine. We can’t do it. We don’t have the ability.
But God does. God is sovereign over the growth. God is sovereign over every stage of development.
- God elected his people before the foundation of the world, Paul says in Ephesians 1.
- God effectually calls us and unites us to Christ by faith.
- God grants us the ability to see, and to know, and to love his truth and to believe in Christ as his Son.
- God seals us with the Holy Spirit and guides us in holiness.
- And God will one day glorify us in heaven with him forever.
He is the sovereign one. He is the faithful one. He is the one with all the power, and because of that, he is the one who will end up with all the praise and glory. Not Apollos. Not Paul. Not Jon English. Not Shawn. God and God alone.
And that is why He has the rank that he has. Unlike our human leaders which Paul says rank as nothing compared to God. God is given the rank of pre-eminent one. He is the pre-eminent one. Rather than nothing, like the human ministers, God is everything. Rather than last, God is first. Rather than being the subordinate, God is the superior.
And we see this rank flesh itself out in the various aspects of His work.
In verse 8 we see how God unifies the mission of the various servants: “He who plants and he who waters are one. He drives the train and unites otherwise disparate workers into His divine mission.
And at the end of the verse we see how God is the one who gives the rewards: “and each will receive his wages according to his labor”. He’s the master of the farm that will reward his faithful workers appropriately at the final day.
And we note in verse 9 that God is the one who leads the team, when Paul says: “we are God’s fellow workers.” He’s at work, and we’re also called to work, all the while remembering who is the one in charge.
And the end of the verse Paul makes clear that God is the one who owns and oversees the project: “You are God’s field, God’s building.”
These themes are ones that I will continue to unpack over the next few weeks, so I won’t go into detail of each of them tonight. But I want to make explicit here that God’s rank in each of these aspects is the supreme one. He’s the pre-eminent one. That means He is the highest. He’s greatest. He’s the controlling one.
And if that is true, if God truly is pre-eminent in rank, then it ought to change how we live our lives. This truth ought to impact every area of our existence. God’s pre-eminence is an immensely practical reality. For example,
- If God is pre-eminent in our lives, then how could we not speak warmly of him to others? How could I not want to tell of him and his grace to my friends and family?
- Or, if God is pre-eminent, then I ought to esteem as highest HIS estimation of me, and not what others might think of me. Or to put it another way and use other biblical language, if I am principally concerned with a holy fear of the Lord, then I’ll not be distracted by fear of man. The higher I esteem God, the less I will care what others think about me or what they say about me, and I will risk everything for the sake of him who has given me life, and who now occupies the rank of pre-eminent in my life.
- Or, if God truly pre-eminent in my life, then that should manifest itself in how I spend the resources He’s given me. My bank account reflects what is prioritized in my heart, and so If somebody looked at my statements, would they be able to discern a difference between my priorities and the priorities of some pagan down the street?
- But it is not just our money. How about a resource even more valuable: my time? We make time for what is important in our hearts. We make time for sports. Make time to watch our favorite shows. Make time for our hobbies. How much of my calendar speaks to God being pre-eminent in my life? Or how much of my calendar speaks to ME being pre-eminent in my life?
Brothers and sisters, each of us has been given a miraculous gift. We’ve been made partakers of the divine nature, co-heirs with Christ, sons and daughters of the King of all the universe. We’re no longer slaves to sin, no longer under the power of the evil one, and so let’s not live as if we were.
And if you have not yet come to Christ, if you have not yet believed, if you have seen within your own heart the temptation to love men more than God, to love yourself more than God, or to fail to retain God as the pre-eminent one in your life, then Christ stands ready to forgive you this night.
The bible promises us that if we but confess our sins to God that he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of unrighteousness. Come to Christ, confess your sin, turn from it and to Christ, and be cleansed of your idolatry. You’ll find no better king, no kinder leader, and no more loving Lord.
And may we all be ever devoted, ever spurred on, ever faithful to put off the deeds of the flesh, and to put on righteousness. To continue to topple the idols that seem to claw their way back up into the place of pre-eminence in our hearts, and to seek to retain God as our first and greatest love.
And as we do that, as we constantly remember that God is in the role of Lord, not me, that God is the powerful one, not me, that God is of first rank, not me, as I remember those things, I’ll begin to see the fruit of peaceable-ness grow within me. The fruit of patient long-suffering. The fruit of humility. And when God’s people are marked with those kinds of fruits, then the church of God will grow in unity and love, rather than the jealousy and strife that had marked the church in Corinth.