Remember the Church (preaching resource for 2/12/23)

This post exegetes 1Cor. 3:1-9, the Epistle reading for 2/12/23. This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").

"The Communion of Saints" in the baptistry at Padua
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


Already in 1 Corinthians, Paul has urged the Corinthian Christians to remember the Gospel. Now he makes a similar plea: remember the church! Unfortunately, many in Corinth were treating the church as though it were a mere human institution. This mistaken view was leading to the formation of competing factions. So Paul exhorts them to return to the truth, which he now illustrates with three pictures of the church as God created it to be: a family that produces maturity, a field that bears fruit, and a temple that displays God’s glory. In this sermon we'll look at the first two of these illustrations. As we do, may God help us to see, love and serve the church as God created it to be.

A family that produces maturity (3:1–4)

1 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly -- mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4 For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

In chapter 2 Paul identified two kinds of humans in the world: natural (non-believers) and spiritual (believers).  Now he speaks of two kinds of believers: spiritual (mature Christians led by the Spirit) and worldly (immature Christians who are “mere infants in Christ” and “worldly” in their outlook). The mature Christians in Corinth were God-centered; they viewed the church as God’s family—and worked to enhance and preserve family unity.  But the immature Christians in Corinth were self-centered—jealous and quarrelsome. Rather than exhibiting the mind of Christ, they exhibited worldly (carnal) values (“acting like mere men”) and thus weakening the unity of the church.

A commitment to unity above personal preference is an identifying mark of mature believers and a healthy church. Sadly, little maturity and health were to be found in the church in Corinth. Members there were politicizing church relationships—choosing up sides, preferring one minister above another, and in other ways fomenting division. Rather than behaving like a family, it was every man (and woman) for him/her self. 

And so Paul exhorts them all: Remember the church—it’s like a family!

 A field that bears fruit (3:5–9a)

5 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. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field…

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus compares the human heart to soil and the Word of God to seed (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23). Paul makes this individual image collective (“you” in verse 9 is plural): the church (collectively) is a fruit-bearing field. The task of church workers (“God’s fellow workers”) is to sow the seed, cultivate the soil, water the newly sprouted plants, and harvest the crop. But Paul’s main point is that the harvest is the Lord’s and thus the emphasis is on him, not on the field laborers. Thus Paul and Apollos (who followed Paul into Corinth) are to be viewed as mere laborers performing assigned tasks. God himself gave the life. Even the faith exhibited by their converts was from God (1 Cor. 3:5). It is thus wrong, worldly and divisive to focus on the laborers and distinctions about their ability, social standing, etc. God is the source of growth; no man can take the credit. Furthermore, no man can do all the necessary work. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

We derive at least three vital lessons from this picture of the church as a fruit-bearing field: 

There is diversity of ministry

One laborer plows, another sows, a third waters. As time passes, the plants grow, the fruit appears, and other laborers reap. This emphasis on diversity rails against any sort of cult of personality. Paul will have more to say late about this diversity when he compares the church to a body with many different and essential parts.

There is unity of purpose 

No matter what work a person is doing for the Lord, they are still a part of the Lord’s harvest. “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose” (v. 8). Paul and Apollos were not in competition. Rather, each was doing his assigned task under the lordship of Christ. Even though there is diversity of ministry, there is unity of purpose that flows from unity in the Spirit.

There is humility of spirit 

It is not the laborers that produce the harvest, but the Lord. “God made it grow” (v. 6); “only God…makes things grow” (v. 7). Granted, God has ordained that human beings be his laborers; but their efforts apart from God’s blessing would be futile. The Corinthians were proud of their church, and various groups in the assembly were proud of their leaders. But this “puffed up” attitude was dividing the church because God was not receiving the glory.   

And so Paul exhorts them: Remember the church—it’s like a field!

Conclusion (3:21b-23)

21b …All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

We now skip to the end of chapter 3 where Paul concludes this section of his letter by reminding the Corinthian christians that as believers they possess “all things” in Christ. In particular, they possess one another. Therefore, no one member of the church can say, “I belong to Paul!” or “I like Peter!” because each belongs to all others equally. Perhaps they (and we like them) cannot help but have personal preferences related to personalities, teaching styles, etc. But none of us must allow such personal preferences to divide us!

“All are yours”—the world, life, death, things present, things to come! Indeed, how rich we all are in Jesus (who is rich in God)!  If all these things belong to all believers, why should there be competition and rivalry? “Get your eyes off of men!” says Paul and “keep your eyes on Christ, and join in with him as he, by the Spirit, builds the church!”

The truth that “you are of Christ” balances things. We each have “all things” in Jesus, but we must not become careless or use our freedom in Christ unwisely. “All things are yours”—that is Christian liberty. “And you are of Christ”—that is Christian responsibility. We need both if we are to participate with Jesus in building a fellowship of believers that will not turn to ashes when the Spirit’s refining fire falls.

Finally, let us all keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus. And let us pray for one another—including the leaders in the church. They must feed the family and bring the children to maturity. They must sow the seed in the field and pray for an increase. No wonder Paul cried, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16). But he also gave the answer: “Our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).  

Remember the church!