God’s Laborers

Class Discussion:

  1. Review the assignment on the concept of “boasting.”
  2. Is all boasting bad? Is it always good?
  3. Who should boast? Who should not boast?
  4. In what should someone boast? In what should a person not boast?
  5. Summarize when a person should boast and when he should not.

A Lack of Maturity (I Corinthians 3:1-4)

It appears that some in Corinth were trying to undermine the member’s confidence in Paul. We already know there are divisions over who people claimed to follow and Paul has hinted that some were disparaging the teaching he had done while in Corinth. Paul came with a plain message (I Corinthians 1:22-23) delivered in a plain fashion (I Corinthians 2:1-2). Now Paul explains why.

The simple matter was that the Corinthians were not mature enough to handle deeper truths. Paul had already pointed out that it takes a spiritual-minded man to understand spiritual truth (I Corinthians 2:15), but a worldly-minded person doesn't grasp things from the spirit (I Corinthians 2:14). The fact of the matter was that the Corinthians were too worldly in their view when Paul was there. They were too worldly because they were still new to Christianity. Thus, Paul kept his lessons simple, calling them “milk,” because they were not mature enough to handle “solid food” (I Peter 2:1-3; Hebrews 5:12-14).

The real shame was that they still were not ready for the deeper material because they were still worldly-minded. After all, their jealousy, strife, and divisions among themselves prove their worldly-mindedness (Galatians 5:19-21). From Paul’s viewpoint, they are behaving no differently than other people in the world.

Different Preachers, But Fellow Laborers (I Corinthians 3:5-9)

The importance of Apollos or Paul in the Corinthian’s lives was that these were men who had initially taught them the gospel. The reason Apollos converted one member and Paul another was more a matter of when the opportunity arose than anything else. They are merely the messengers whom the Lord used to deliver his message.

Using the imagery of a farm, Paul said he planted the seed. That is, he did the original work in the Corinth of teaching the Gospel. Apollos came after and watered the fields which Paul had prepared. But in both cases neither the one who plants or the one who waters actually produces the results, that is done by God alone, just as what happens on a farm (I Corinthians 15:10; II Corinthians 3:5). The work of the farmer is small compared to the work of God.

Both the planter and the one who waters, both Paul and Apollos, are united in purpose. They are in fellowship with one another. Both are necessary for the work. Neither planting nor watering exclusively will produce good yields. It takes the efforts of both. Yet, while working together, each receives his reward from God based on his own work and not the work of others (Psalm 62:12; Romans 2:6; Revelation 22:12). Paul and Apollos are fellow laborers belonging to God and the Corinthians are the field in which they are working or the building which they are putting together.

Literary Styles: Metaphor

A metaphor is the connecting of seemingly unrelated ideas to form an illustration. The two ideas are shown to be equal in some fashion and their characteristics compared to give a deeper understanding. This chapter of I Corinthians is rich in metaphors: infant children, farming, building, and fire are some of the more obvious ones.

By using a vivid image, difficult concepts are framed in familiar terms to make them more easily understood. Metaphors also aid in memory by allowing the image of one thing to trigger the remembrance of another.

Metaphors compare characteristics. They are not meant to state that every characteristic of one is found in the other. For example in: “Thomas was a wall, bouncing every tennis ball back to the net;” we are not saying that Thomas was unresponsive or wide or hard. There is a characteristic in a wall that Thomas shared at that moment – no balls got by him. To take a metaphor and make additional connections that the author didn’t is to stretch the metaphor beyond the author’s intention and can lead to false conclusions. As another example, when Paul called the Corinthians “babes in Christ,” he wasn’t saying they were cute or that they cried all the time. There is only one comparison that he wanted to emphasize: infants need a simple, easy to digest diet until they mature.

The Master Builder (I Corinthians 3:10-15)

Paul moves from the image of farmers working a field to craftsmen constructing a building. Paul was given, as a gift from God, the duty to lay a foundation. By this Paul is referring to his call to be an apostle (Ephesians 2:20). Others come after him to build upon that foundation. Paul preferred this type of work of going where others had not gone to get the cause of Christ started (Romans 15:20). But Paul warns that just because a proper foundation was laid, those who come later must still be careful how they build upon that foundation (II Corinthians 11:4; I Timothy 4:16). The foundation is critical, but it is not the whole of a building.

Paul is a wise and skillful builder. He is not elevating himself, but he is stating that he knew what he was doing. There is only one foundation that can be laid and that is Jesus Christ (Isaiah 28:16). The church belongs to Jesus alone (Matthew 16:18) and everything else derives from him. There can be no other (Galatians 1:6-10).

Recall that Paul stated in verse 9 that the Corinthians were God’s building. Paul and other preachers are using the materials available to them to build on the foundation of Christ. Some are of high and enduring quality. Others are cheap materials. Paul’s illustration is like the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). The same message goes out, but the responses are different depending on the individual.

Some commentators see the different building materials as different qualities of teaching from good to false doctrine. This cannot be because there is only one true doctrine (Ephesians 4:4-6) and in this illustration, the work may be burnt, but the builder (teacher) will be saved (I Corinthians 3:15). Salvation is not promised to false teachers (II Peter 2:1-3).

Peter also uses the illustration of Christians being stones in a building: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:4-5). Yet we know that becoming a Christian is not a guarantee of salvation. Only those who endure to the end will be saved (Hebrews 3:5-6; 4:11; Revelation 2:10). Whether a man’s work endures will not be ultimately revealed until the day of Judgment (I Corinthians 1:8; Romans 2:5, 16; II Thessalonians 1:10; II Peter 3:10).

The fire which tests each man’s work is not necessarily held off until the end of time. Each Christian faces the fires of trials during his life (Zechariah 13:9; I Peter 1:7; 4:12). We often focus on the loss of the Christian who is not able to endure the end, but here Paul mentions the impact the loss of such a Christian has on the teacher. It is a joy to see the efforts of your work last. It is a sorrow to see them come to naught. In either case, the preacher is saved, but the hardship he faces will be different (Ezekiel 3:17-21; 33:1-9).

The Temple of God (I Corinthians 3:16-17)

Each Christian is a temple of God (Exodus 33:12-17; I Corinthians 6:19; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:20-22). A place where the presence of God can be seen in us, that the Spirit of God is in us. Many imagine an almost possession by God’s Spirit, but it is nothing so elaborate. God, Jesus, the Spirit, the word of God, and love all dwell in a faithful Christian (I John 2:14, 24; 4:16). The presence of God is seen in the behavior of a Christian. Thus if a person defiles the temple of God, God will be justly angered (I Peter 1:13-19).

Class Discussion:

  1. How is the presence of the Spirit seen in the Christian?
  2. How does the Spirit influence our behavior?
  3. In this context, in what ways can a Christian defile the temple of God?
  4. What other things would defile the temple of God?

Don’t Boast in Men (I Corinthians 3:18-23)

Paul now returns to the original problem: their division stemming from people pursuing worldly wisdom. It is a trap that can snare a person without them realizing it (Colossians 2:8).

To become truly wise, a person will need to become foolish from the world’s viewpoint (I Corinthians 1:18; 2:14). Only then will he be willing to accept the teachings of God which will make him wise (James 3:13-18).

It is interesting that Paul quotes Eliphaz in Job 5:13 to prove his point. Eliphaz was one of Job’s three friends who thought they were wise enough to advise Job in his problems. As Eliphaz stated, so it happened to himself – he was trapped by his own ideas of wisdom.

Quoting from Psalms 94:11, Paul proves that the wisdom of man is useless before God. Therefore, it ought to be clear that our hope should not be set in men (Jeremiah 9:23-24). We should not take pride in men because our pride would be misplaced. Men make mistakes, they come up short.

Rather than splitting up into factions, they ought to see that they belong to the whole. They are all in Christ (Galatians 3:28-29; II Corinthians 10:7), so they all belong to each other. Paul, Apollos, Peter, and the rest are teachers whom they all can benefit from. We all belong to Christ and through him, we all belong to the Father. All that is the world God orders for the benefit of His people (Romans 8:28), so even things in this life are for Christians, including the bad things which sometimes happen (Mark 10:29-30; Psalm 37:25). Even death is a benefit to the child of God (Romans 14:8; Philippians 1:21-23). Ultimately everything belongs to God (I Corinthians 11:3; 15:28).

Concept Study: Judging

  1. Make a list of all the verses in I Corinthians where some form of the word “judge” or its synonyms are used.
    1. Jot beside each reference what you learn from the verse about judging.
    2. Organize those ideas. Which verses address the ideas of who, what, where, when, why, and how?
    3. Write a paragraph about what “judging” means, addressing who, what, where, when, why, and how.
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