Dear Radio Friends,
This first letter of Paul to the Corinthian church reveals that this church had a severe flaw. The congregation had divided itself into several parties on a number of issues. Each party claimed to have as their spiritual leader and authority one of the apostles or ministers that had served them. One party claimed to have the apostle Paul on their side in what they maintained. Another claimed Apollos as their spiritual leader. A third party claimed Cephas, that is, Peter. A fourth claimed Christ as the leader of their teachings. This had caused much strife and unrest in the church. A terrible thing that is, too: to pit one church leader or minister against another in the church of Christ as if there are differing doctrines being taught and promoted by various leaders of the church.
For this reason, Paul in this letter to the Corinthian church admonishes her with the words of I Corinthians 3:3-5: “For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” In this admonition Paul leaves Peter out of the argument because Peter had never even been to Corinth. But he points out that Apollos and he, that is, Paul, were not to be placed in competition with each other—a thing the congregation was doing. Each of them was but a minister sent to perform the work Christ had purposed for them to do. This is the subject we take up in our broadcast today. We are going to study verses 6-9 of I Corinthians 3. Let’s read them together.
I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry.
The instruction is simple. Paul was called by Christ to plant. He was the first man who preached the gospel in Corinth. Christ used him therefore to establish His church in this city. But Paul could not stay. He had to go elsewhere to plant seed. After Paul left, the great preacher Apollos came and labored. He watered what Christ had planted through Paul. Yet, in all this it was Christ who established and caused His church to grow in this place.
Through this Word of God we are presented with a beautiful picture of the work Christ has performed throughout the ages in various denominations and church institutes established in various lands. Each church or congregation, as in Corinth, God plants, or begins, using a particular preacher of the gospel. But that man is used by God only to begin His work. God then replaces him by a man with different gifts and talents. God then uses that man to bring a congregation to another level of maturity. Some plant, some water, others cultivate, still others further nurture the plants of Christ’s church, ever causing the church to grow up into Christ in all things.
I. God’s Laborers
The members of the Corinthian congregation were very carnal in their conception of the church. This is why they were enmeshed in party strife. They were not looking at their church and congregation through spiritual eyes. This is an easy thing to do when we begin searching for and comparing the various ministers the Lord gives to denominations of churches. But those men whom we call to minister to our needs as the preacher of the gospel must be viewed through highly spiritual eyes. When this is done, then we will begin to understand why Paul uses the figure of a field to describe the church of Jesus Christ. He does that in the passage before us.
In verse 9 Paul refers to the church as God’s husbandry. Notice: “For we are laborers together with God; ye are God’s husbandry.” God’s Word teaches us here that the church must be viewed not simply as an empty, barren grassland. But it must be seen as a tilled field, a field which is prepared, worked, and harvested. Perhaps many of us who have tuned in today are farmers. It may not be hard to understand, then, how much a farmer cherishes and therefore nurtures his field. It is his field, after all! He owns it. He breaks up the hardened ground, preparing it, fertilizing it, making it rich and good. He lifts the soil of that field to his nose, smelling it with joy, reveling in its richness and worth. He carefully sows the seed, he nurtures the plants as they grow, and he takes special pride in the fruit it brings forth in the harvest. All the while, that farmer thinks about that field and watches it day and night.
That is the figure we have before us as we with spiritual eyes view the church of Jesus Christ. The church of Christ in this world is God’s husbandry. Each congregation established under Christ as its head is a local manifestation of that church of Christ. When a church is organized and established upon the principles of God’s Word, it is God’s husbandry, His field. God loves that church. He cherishes it as a farmer does his field. It is God’s field, after all. God owns it. The church is made up of members who are bought with a price. They are bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Every seed that God plants in that field of His church is equally cherished by Him. He is careful to fertilize and nurture that field so that each seed will grow and flourish. God gives each of us the name and the place we have in His vineyard, and He sees to it that our spiritual life is nourished by His Word and Spirit in order that we may grow up into Him. God also sees to it that we all bring forth fruit in our lives, all unto the praise and glory of His name. All unto the gathering of the harvest of His church at the end of time.
God does all of this through His Son Jesus Christ. It is through the blood of our Savior that we are purchased from the barren wasteland of the wilderness of this world. It is through the work of our Savior that we are prepared and made rich and fertile. He sends forth His Spirit into our hearts, and that Spirit applies to us the benefits of the cross and resurrection of our Savior. As a result of this work of our Savior therefore, we grow up as sturdy plants. And it is through the sanctifying work of Christ as well that we bring forth good works, fruits unto eternal life. We are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Therefore, we are God’s.
Such is the way that we as believing members of the church need to view our place in the church. This is also why it is the calling of every saint to join himself with the church in this world—not to just any church, but to a church that is faithful to its calling to feed the sheep by means of the pure preaching of the truth of God’s Word. Only when we view our place in the church where we are members in such a spiritual way will we be able to understand the place and work of our minister of the gospel in the right way too.
Concerning himself and Apollos, Paul explains to the Corinthian church in verse 9: “we are fellow laborers with God.” Actually, this phrase may leave us with the wrong impression, as if Paul and Apollos were equals with God in this field and therefore had some say and some power as to what would happen in the field of the church. This is not the idea of this verse. It would be better if we read this verse in this way: “We are laborers together of God.” We (that is, Paul and Apollos) are laborers together of God. This would mean then that Paul and Apollos were fellow laborers with each other, and that both of them labored on behalf of God. This is the way we are called upon to view the labor of the pastor or minister that God calls to labor in the church in relation to other pastors. The preacher of the gospel is a laborer of God.
We will discuss that in more detail in a moment. But we cannot help but see a beautiful truth unfolding before our eyes here. Just as the farmer sends out workers or laborers into his field to do his work for him, so also does God send men into His church to do His work. God does exactly that with each faithful church established in this world. Out of His love and concern for His field, the church, God calls through His church and sends into the church various laborers to perform His work of nurturing the faith of His people. What a good and a gracious God! What a wonderful gift God grants His church in sending forth these laborers.
But what is so striking about the Word of God before us today is that what took place in Corinth also takes place in every church God establishes throughout the New Testament era. You see, when God establishes His church, it continues in the line of the generations of believers. God may send us several pastors to labor in the church during our own generation. But God also calls and sends forth men trained for this purpose with each new generation of that church. God sends these men to labor in the church in order to fulfill the particular work God has chosen them to do. The church then continues to grow as a field that flourishes, bringing forth fruit in the lives of each new generation.
We may not overlook the truth to which Paul also refers concerning himself and Apollos in Corinth. Paul indeed was a church planter. He speaks of himself as such. He was called and sent out by his church in Antioch to preach the Word as a missionary in various places. In fulfillment of the particular purpose for which the church called him, he planted fields in various cities of the world. When the particular work to which he was called was fulfilled, he moved to another place to work. It did not take long, however, and other men were called by the church to take his place in the various churches or fields he had planted. These men, just as did Apollos in Corinth, watered the fields that Paul planted. In each case God provided laborers who replaced Paul to work in the various churches. Such is the way that God deals with His husbandry, the church.
II. God’s Increase
All of this, however, teaches us some important truths about the position of a minister of the gospel in the church.
In the first place, we who are members of the church must remember that the pastor who labors in our midst has been chosen by God to labor. He is God’s laborer. He is given and therefore holds an important and high position in the church of Jesus Christ. He has been given an office in the church that God uses to effect His will and good pleasure among His people. This does not give the pastor an excuse to remain aloof from his congregation. He may not in pride view himself as a dictator in the church and the members as but a multitude of uniformed, ignorant people. Being sent by God does not mean he is above everyone else. But it does mean that his office carries with it the authority of Christ. The members, out of respect for the office, must both receive and treat him with double honor.
In the second place, the term laborer defines what the calling of preacher is. It must be one of labor and toil. God has set him in His field to work. And the preacher must work hard in that field. To use the words of Paul to Timothy, the minister of the gospel must “preach the Word, in season and out of season: reprove, rebuke, exhort with longsuffering and doctrine.” And that is our particular labor too: preach the gospel! To fulfill this labor in the church takes work. The preacher must show himself approved of God, as a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth. To spend an hour a week preparing a five or ten-minute dialogue is not work. A man should be ashamed of himself if that is all the time he spends on preparing and delivering a sermon. God’s command to the laborers in His husbandry is this:
give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (I Tim. 4:13-16).
God uses His Word preached to call to repentance and faith. God also uses that Word to strengthen and nourish our faith. When that Spirit works in our hearts, then that Word makes us grow in our faith and thrive as plants of God’s field. It is the labor of the preacher to water and fertilize God’s saints with that Word. When he preaches that Word, Jesus Christ speaks to us as members of His church. It is, after all, Christ that in reality makes the field of God’s church to grow.
Now, all this takes spiritual eyes to see and spiritual hearts to understand. If we can begin to understand this marvelous truth, we will also understand that it is God that makes His church to grow. Sometimes it is easy to become attached to a particular man. But Paul is teaching a blessed truth in our text, and that is this: we may not be followers of men. We must be followers of God and of Jesus Christ! Men can fail us miserably. God never does. This is why Paul writes in verse 7, “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” God knows what His field needs for it to grow and thrive. God knows what each congregation needs to flourish. He calls faithful pastors into His church because God knows what is needed where He calls them. He knows what each of us as members of His church needs. The place of our pastor in the church is not arbitrary. It is not by chance. God has sent him to labor in your midst. And God will use his labors.
But remember, ministers of the gospel in the church are nothing in themselves. All they can do is bring you the Word of God in season and out of season. But they can labor in the church from now until the coming of Christ, and in themselves they will accomplish nothing. A preacher cannot work salvation in the hearts of those who hear him. A preacher cannot cause one sinner to get on his knees in repentance to God for sin. He cannot cause your faith to grow and make you strong Christians. A preacher cannot cause you to bring forth fruits of righteousness in your lives. Only God by His grace can accomplish all this in the hearts of His people. Only God! The work that God’s laborers perform, then, is one work—God’s work!
What our text says is true, he that plants and he that waters are one. Different laborers, different talents, different styles, different methods. But it does not matter. These pastors do the one work of God. And God by them causes His field, the church, to grow and flourish. How good it is to know that we are gently held in the arms of almighty God. He loves us and cherishes us, and will see to it that His people are taken care of.
III. God’s Reward
Paul adds at the end of verse 8, “every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.” Every laborer in God’s husbandry will receive his reward according to the labors he performs in the field. Every minister of the gospel will receive from God a reward for the labors he performs—whether that is a reward of honor or dishonor. We are not going to treat this in detail today, since in our next broadcast we will spend much more time talking about that reward. But let it be said that when a pastor labors in a way that is worthy of his calling, then he receives a reward from God. It is a reward rooted in Christ, but as a result of good performance. Obviously, a laborer called to work a spiritual work is unable to perform such a work if the Spirit of the risen Lord is not working in his heart. That is why we say that the reward is rooted in Jesus Christ.
But one who is sanctified, and therefore works hard to bring God’s people the Word of truth and the gospel unto salvation, is rewarded according to his labors. That reward is the same as that spoken of by the apostle Paul concerning himself in II Timothy 4:7, 8, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” A faithful pastor who rightly divides the Word of truth will receive a crown that does not fade away in the heavens. The opposite is true too, as we will find in the next broadcast. A pastor who is lazy and who fails to labor in God’s kingdom will also receive a just reward from the God of the church. He too will be rewarded according to his own labor.
What a blessing to the church are these laborers. Instead of comparing them against each other, we as members of the church of Christ need to thank God that He raises up different laborers in the church, each with his own gifts, for our spiritual health. God bless every faithful pastor who is true to God’s Word!