I Corinthians 3:5-23
In today’s passage from I Corinthians Paul essentially summarizes and brings to a conclusion the portion of the letter we have been studying for the past few weeks. In these passages Paul has been addressing the subject which is most troubling to him out of a number of troubling things he has heard about the church in Corinth and will address in this letter. This particular concern is stated clearly when he writes, “It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you.” In fact, he goes on to say that he understands they have been splitting into factions who identify themselves with different leaders. Some claim to be followers of a preacher named Apollos, others of the apostle Peter, others of Paul, and others of Jesus. Paul is appalled by this and asks them, “Has Christ been divided? Was someone besides Jesus crucified for you?”
It is pretty easy to imagine how this situation could have developed in Corinth. Paul had stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, which was a long time for him to stay anywhere but not a long time in terms of getting something established. Then he moved on to other towns and cities and pretty much left the Corinthians to their own devices. His absence left a leadership void, and competition developed over who would fill that role.
When that happens, the candidates for leader feel like they need to offer something new and better than what the others have, and something that will appeal to and be persuasive of the audience. And people respond to different styles of leaders. Some will simply flock with the crowd to a leader who is charismatic and sweeps people off their feet. Some want to know what it is in for them. Some are looking for a coherent argument that makes sense and helps things fit together for them. Some like to be doing things and will prefer an approach that offers a series of steps to take along the way to mastering the material. We can observe all of these things constantly by looking at not only churches and various religions, but politics, clubs, social organizations, and workplaces.
Paul writes that for this very reason he made the decision not to approach the Corinthians with eloquent preaching and lofty philosophy and wisdom. The Greek cities were used to that mode, of philosophers competing for their attention with wisdom teachings and philosophical understandings of life, attempting to win disciples who would join their schools: the Sophists or the Stoics or the Epicureans, to name a few.
Paul did not want to be the one in the Corinthian spotlight. He wanted the spotlight to shine only on Jesus Christ, and on him crucified. He knew very well that the idea of following someone who had died a shameful and humiliating death on a cross, which was reserved by the Romans for the worst criminals who they wanted to make examples out of, was a hard sell with people. It was a scandal for Jews, who looked for a powerful, conquering Messiah. It was foolishness for Greeks, who were persuaded by ideas and systems of thought. But rather than putting the cross on a shelf somewhere and not talking about it, Paul made it the centerpiece of his theology. God has once again acted in a surprising, totally unexpected way. The cross represents the wisdom and the power of God. Paul wrote, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Paul wants the Corinthians to realize they have gotten distracted and return to embrace the central message of Christ crucified.
In today’s passage Paul uses three metaphors to talk about the church and its leaders. As we examine this passage it is essential to realize that when Paul addresses the Corinthians as “you” it is, in the Greek, plural. If southerners had been in charge of this translation of the Bible we would have rightly rendered it as ya’ll. The urgent task for Paul is to get the Corinthian Christians to understand themselves as a community, as a body, not as individuals who align themselves however they want to. The three metaphors Paul uses are field, building, and temple. Ya’ll are God’s field. Ya’ll are God’s building. Ya’ll are God’s temple.
The church is God’s field, and Paul wants to talk about the role of leaders in God’s field. He writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Paul came along first and sowed seeds of faith in Corinth. Apollos came along later and watered. Both roles are essential and should be seen as complementary rather than being in competition. Both work under the authority of God, who alone brings the growth.
Richard Hays rightly points out that this is an easy teaching to embrace as an idea but much harder to live out when involved with actual people – when pastors or lay leaders get involved in turf wars or when different program areas in a church compete for pre-eminence or downplay the importance of others. Hays writes, “We all want to be sure that no one else interferes with our little patch of the field, that things are done just precisely our way. And so the field becomes endlessly subdivided into unproductive subsistence plots.” (Interpretation, I Corinthians, p. 53) As an example Hays points to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, perhaps the most important of all churches. It is divided up into different sections controlled by four Christian groups which cannot work together on anything. They don’t even trust each other with the key to the church. For centuries a Muslim family has kept the key and comes to unlock the church in the morning and lock it at night. This kind of territorial, exclusivistic behavior is far more easily seen in Christianity than the spirit of accepting one another as different but equal laborers serving under the one God.
Paul’s next metaphor is that the church is God’s building. He says that according to the grace given to him by God he laid a foundation in Corinth, and now someone else is building on it. When you think about building an actual building, it does serve as a good metaphor. It starts with someone digging out and laying a foundation. If this is not done right, everything about the house will be wrong. Other workers will then come who are skilled in carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, painting, roofing, and so forth. They will all use their skills to build upon the foundation, and the quality of the building depends on their attention to detail, using the proper materials, and simply doing the job right.
Paul says the foundation he laid for the church in Corinth is Jesus Christ. The building has to be anchored on him. And he warns that each builder who comes along must choose with care how to build upon it. They can choose to use durable materials like gold, silver, and precious stones, or they can cut corners with wood, straw, or hay. Their work will be tested with fire. If it holds up, there will be a reward; if it burns up the builder will suffer loss. The builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
It is the task of every person to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. In the Middle East you see a lot of homes with rebar extending upwards from the top floor. That serves as the foundation for the next generations to build their homes on. That’s how it has to be with church, too.
We should choose carefully how we will build on the church foundation. We are not to build in such a way that primarily brings attention to us. We are not to build in such a way that we harm the building or compromise its integrity. Such shoddy workmanship includes things like sowing discord, spreading malicious gossip, failing to include room for all ages, all colors, all types of people.
What are the nails, the materials, the structural supports needed as we build the church on the foundation of Jesus Christ? Humility is one – being like John the Baptist and pointing people toward Jesus rather than toward ourselves. Counting the needs and interests of others more highly than our own. Remembering that we are all sinners, and that only by the grace of God are we forgiven sinners.
Other important building materials are encouragement, compassion, bearing one another’s burdens. Prayer is a big one. Generosity. Gratitude. Forgiveness. Welcome and acceptance for strangers. When you think about it these are all excellent tools for building a marriage as well, or a home. Build carefully. Choose your materials wisely. Don’t get careless or cut corners or take things for granted. Give it your best effort every day.
Paul’s third metaphor is that the church is God’s temple. It is not just any building, it is God’s temple. He writes strong words about this: “Do you not know that ya’ll are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and ya’ll are that temple.” It is not because of the goodness of the community that it is God’s temple or that it is holy. It is all God’s doing, God’s pleasure.
Paul concludes this section writing, “So I don’t want to hear any more boasting about human leaders. Look! All things are yours – all the leaders are yours, the world is yours, life and death are yours, the present and the future are yours. And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” That is a pretty good reminder of where we fit in God’s call and purpose.
Human leaders, whether in church, government, the workplace, or anyplace else, will always disappoint you if you put your ultimate trust in them. Jesus Christ will never, ever disappoint you if you put your ultimate trust in him. So choose wisely, build carefully, and remember that we are all just servants and co-workers under the sovereignty of God. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 23, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church