At one time in your life, just like mine, you have been impressed by someone who in the end turned out to be toxic; who, for all his or her charisma and supposed knowledge and wisdom, bamboozled you. And now, now you have matured, now you have perspective on the person and that season of your life, you cringe and wonder how you could have been so blind.
Understand that shame and embarrassment, and you have got a grip on this third chapter of 1 Corinthians. This is where the Corinthians are headed. Paul is preparing them for a great sobering and weening them from the breasts of celebrity spiritualists. In these verses, Paul is bringing his discussion of wisdom and folly, and spiritual maturity and immaturity, right down to where the Corinthians themselves are. They have been using the drug of sophistry (of rhetorical flash and pizzazz; of high-mindedness and elitism peddled by smooth-talking sectarians) and by it supposing themselves more “spiritual” than others. But Paul says it has proved they are only even more worldly and infantile. As he will make plain in chapter 13, their juvenile squabbling showed a lack of love, which was a sure sign of immaturity: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things” (13:11). The Corinthians were making mud pies, playing with imaginary friends, and blindly following know-it-alls who were leading them into theological and moral pitfalls.
They were eager for the kind of teaching the sophists were giving, imagining themselves as super-believers. But they were deceived. The more they take the drug, the more immature they show themselves to be. The proof of it all is their in-fighting about different Christian teachers.
At first, and as their spiritual father, Paul fed these babes in the milk of Christ. He did not push the infant believers beyond their capacity, but gave them soft, easy teaching which suited their state: Kindergarten Christianity. There was nothing blameworthy in their being, “not yet ready for it.” But some four or five years had lapsed since Paul first planted the church in Corinth. By now they should have developed the capacity for rich fare — solid theological food. So, there is a strong reproof in his words: “But you are still not ready” (v.2).
The preacher now has rhetorical tools at his disposal. Questions can be asked of your auditors: Have you been a Christian longer than five years, too? How long have I numbered myself among the baptized? Am I given to a life of the Word in Bible study and devotion to the sacramental life of the Church? Do I read theology? How have these things influenced my service to Christ’s Kingdom and people?
The mature believer is, Paul says, “characterized by spirit—the divine spirit—the Holy Spirit.” That is what characterizes the Christian: Holy Spirit kind of thinking and living. This same Holy Spirit leads us into the deep things of the mind of Christ. The worldly Christian is the person who lives by the same morality, agenda, ideology, cares and concerns as the unbelieving and godless world in all its supposed wisdom. The basic difference Paul describes is between people in whom God’s Spirit has come to dwell, opening them up to new depths and dimensions of truth and experience, and people who are living as though the world and human life were rumbling along in the same old tired way. And in case the Corinthians were to put up a defense and say, “Oh, that is not what we are thinking or doing,” Paul presses home his point by reminding them of what he had heard from Chloe’s people: one person saying, “I belong to Paul,” another saying “I belong to Apollos” (v.4). Such self-assertion over-against one another was a sure sign the Corinthians were conducting themselves like people devoid of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, antithetical to the, “mind of Christ.” They are still infantile. How could they even comprehend the mind of Christ, the deeper things of God; His will and ways in the world? The Corinthians are not ready for it and they should be.
After upbraiding the Corinthians for their carnal ways, Paul redirects their thinking by addressing them as Christians who still do, by God’s grace, possess the Holy Spirit and the manifold gifts graciously given them by God. The way he does it is by explaining who and what they are in three analogies: God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple.
The Corinthians were making far too much of their teachers. Their fawning, immature attachment to one or the other cried out for some reality therapy from the Apostle. Paul’s abrupt questions are designed to draw their attention away from the person to his office. Therefore, he asked not “who?” but “what?”: “What, after all, is Apollos? What is Paul” (3:5)? Sure, there is a sense in which Paul did indeed found churches, but the foundation he put down was Jesus Himself, the Messiah of God. This, he says in v.11, is the only “foundation” there ever can be. Anything else simply is not the Church but some warped social club with religious trappings.
Here is the point: Apollos and Paul are simply servants of Christ and His people (3:22). Holy Ministry is modeled on that of Jesus, who came not to lord it over others but to wait on them, not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:41-45). The Lord empowers all legitimate ministry. The Lord’s power yields all. Paul carefully chooses his words in 3:5: “Through whom you came to faith,” not, “in whom you believed.” In other words, the missionaries and priests were merely instruments through whom God called the Corinthians to faith. They were not to become objects of faith. The real work is done by God.
The attention of the Corinthians should have been fastened on God, who alone effects all spiritual work and growth.
Paul now describes his and Apollos’ different roles using an analogy from agriculture. Paul had planted the seed of the Word during his eighteen months in the city, when he became the young church’s first spiritual father. Then Apollos “watered” the sprouts Paul had sown. However, as everyone knows from agriculture, no gardener or farmer actually causes plants to grow; all he does is provide the conditions under which growth can take place by the blessing, power and design of God. Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God is the real farmer, the One who gives dynamic growth. Hence verse 7: “Neither the planter is anything nor the waterer, but only God, who does the growing.”
It is the triune God who is actually working in a continuous fashion through His Word and Sacraments. God desires for us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is time to move on from the basics, says the Apostle. It is time to sink your teeth into some theological meat and understand He is working in those baptized into Christ. Our Heavenly Farmer, as it were, requires fruit for your own good and for the good of the farm.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 3:1-9.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 3:1-9.