1 Corinthians 3:5-11
From a human point of view, it often seems to us that great churches come from great leaders. You get a Charles Spurgeon, a John MacArthur, a David Jeremiah, or whoever—you are going to have a big, growing church.
I don’t want to discount the need for good leaders in the church, but sometimes we place our faith in those leaders and not in the one that is truly growing the church. The Corinthian church had that problem and it was tearing them apart.
Some had declared Paul to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (which is strange because sliced bread wouldn’t be invented for another 1900 years), while others held up the eloquent speaker, Apollos, as the leader that every Christian should follow.
Paul would write to set things straight. He said:
5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? 6 I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. 8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. 9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry,
ye are God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. 11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:5–11)
Before we go further, I want you to notice the solid emphasis here on God. Every verse except for verse eight specifically mentions God’s work in growing and building the church.
Verse 5—Some were led to the Lord by Paul and some by Apollos, but who really was behind their salvation? “even as the Lord gave to every man?”
Verse 6-7—Paul and Apollos were laborers in the field, but who caused the growth? “God gave the increase.”
Verse 9—Who were they laborers with? God. Who were the Corinthians? “God’s husbandry [field]” and “God’s building.”
Verse 10—How was Paul able to lay the foundation of the church? “According to the grace of God” that was given to him.
Verse 11—Who is the foundation of the church? Jesus Christ!
Yes, there are things that we can do to help—Paul calls it planting, watering, even building—but the primary emphasis that we’re to have is that God is the one that grows a church. People, leaders, come and go (just look around), but God is forever the same and always involved.
Perhaps one of our problems in this issue is that we are a bit too quick to claim a local church as our own. We like to say, “my church” when referring to a church.
We can be a bit too demanding that our preferences be followed in the worship service, or other aspects of the church—saying, “I’ve been here longer than any of you!”
If we’ve gotten that way, we need reminded that, first…
I) THE CHURCH IS GOD’S FIELD
1 Corinthians 3:5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers [servants] by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?
1 Corinthians 3:6 I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
1 Corinthians 3:7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.
1 Corinthians 3:8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.
1 Corinthians 3:9a For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry [field],
In verse 9, we see that Paul calls the Corinthians, “God’s husbandry.” “Husbandry” refers to farming, Paul was saying that a local church is God’s field. Here we learn two lessons about God’s field, the church.
1) God’s Servants Plant And Water
“Paul” was first established the local church at Corinth. His ministry there is described in Acts 18. He spent eighteen months evangelizing, teaching, and discipling new believers.
“Apollos” came to Corinth after Paul left (see Acts 19:1), was a bold and eloquent speaker who apparently gathered (whether he intended to or not) a devoted following at Corinth.
That, naturally, caused those who had been converted under Paul’s ministry at Corinth to become jealous—how dare anyone say that Apollos was better than Paul!
Well, it’s Paul himself who asks, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed”?
The Greek word for “ministers” is διάκονος; from the same word that is sometimes translated “deacon” or “deaconess.” It really just means “servant,” like how it’s translated in Mark 9:35—
35 And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)
Who is Paul? Who is Apollos? Nothing but servants of God.
Paul goes on and described what he did at Corinth as, “I have planted” and what Apollos did as “watered.” Planting, of course, comes before watering, which is what happened in Corinth. Paul was first, but Apollos carried on and advanced what he begun.
By the way, I don’t think there’s much more to say about those things than that—Paul doesn’t intend to give us some sort of church growth method. All he was saying that, because he was first, he planted and because Apollos was second, he watered.
So, to the Corinthians who were busy saying that Paul was the best or that Apollos was a greater speaker, Paul said: “we’re just servants farming in a field.”
As servants, Paul said that he and Apollos were “one” (verse 8). He means that they had one purpose—to glorify Christ by serving him in the field. One farmer readies the field for seeder, another runs the air drill, but both have one purpose: the harvest in the fall.
Paul and Apollos understood their purpose and position: they were planters and waterers, nothing more.
They understood that all they were doing was explaining and offering God’s salvation in Jesus Christ to anyone who would believe.
They understood that it wasn’t them that were “growing” the church, only that they were being used by God and that…
2) God Gives The Increase
Paul says that the Corinthians “ are God’s husbandry [field].” Now, how are a group of Christians like a field, in particular, God’s field?
A farmer can plant seeds and fertilize and even irrigate, it’s still up to God to make a field grow. God can send the perfect amount of rain and sunlight or he can send a hail storm that wipes the whole field out. The point is, God’s ultimately responsible for the growth of the field.
The Corinthian church (and any local church) is the same way—ultimately, it’s God who is responsible for it’s growth.
Any farmer knows the human activities of planting and watering are only a fraction of what it takes to grow a field. It might take a day or two to plant a field, but it takes nearly three months for the field to grow. Paul planted, Apollos watered, “but God gave the increase.”
In other words, while there are human elements, church growth is ultimately in the hands of God.
One clear reference to this combination of human effort and God giving the increase is the account of Lydia—
14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. 15 And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us. (Acts 16:14–15)
Paul was preaching and teaching, but it was the fact that God had opened her heart that caused her to listen to what he was saying. God reached inside and cracked open the seed so that the sprout could come out.
This opening of Lydia’s heart is a concrete example of what Jesus said:
44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:44)
So when we preach the message of the Gospel, we need to be praying that God opens hearts to listen. It depends mostly on God, not on the preacher.
We may not have the best voice, or the best organization, but God can use that if he so chooses. What a great freedom—we are only responsible to preach the Gospel, but God is responsible for drawing them to himself!
To further get his point across that no human should get the credit for church growth, Paul switches metaphors and says that…
II) THE CHURCH IS GOD’S BUILDING
1) We Build
1 Corinthians 3:9b ye are God’s building.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, Christians often fall into the trap of associating the church with the building that the church meets in. In the old days, Christians called the church building a “meeting house” or “meeting place.”
They did so to remind themselves that the church was not a physical building. It might be good for us to adopt something like that today, to remind ourselves that the church is not the building.
Notice that Paul says “ye” (a plural form of “you”) “are God’s building.” The people are God’s building (see Ephesians 2:20-22; 1Peter 2:5). But what is meant by comparing the local church to a “building”?
One answer is that, like a field must be planted, a building must be built. There has to be human involvement, as Paul describes next…
1 Corinthians 3:10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.
1 Corinthians 3:11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
When Paul says that he was a “masterbuilder” (ἀρχιτέκτων), he was referring to the fact that he came to Corinth and laid down the “foundation” for the local church there.
This foundation is Jesus Christ and his gospel as Paul describes later:
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)
Being a “wise masterbuilder,” Paul’s strategy when coming to a new city was to first go to the Jews. He would go to the local synagogue and preach there. Eventually, the Jews who did not believe would run him off, but some would believe and he would have help in evangelizing the Gentiles (see Acts 17:1-4; 18:4-7).
Eventually, he would leave to go found a new local church in another city, but he would leave people to continue building on the foundation that he had laid. In Ephesus, for example, Paul left Timothy and in Corinth, Paul left Apollos. They continued on building after he left.
The fact that Paul had a strategy means that, while we must remember that God is in control of the growth, there are human things that we can do and should do.
Here’s a few ideas that each of us can do in building the church—little strategies of how we all can be involved.
i) Have something to share with people.
Maybe it’s a tract, or a book, or something else.
ii) Take interest in other people.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to expect people to be interested in you. You wait for the new neighbor to greet you. You wait for friends to visit you. Well, stop it. Take an interest in other people, not just to say hi, but to listen to their stories. Really, listening to someone else talk shouldn’t be that hard, should it?
iii) Invite people to church.
And when they come, be their host. Introduce them to other people. Help them to be comfortable with the fellowship.
iv) Know that God uses many witnesses.
You may not know who you influence for Christ, but don’t be discouraged. Knowing that God gives the increase reminds us that we simply share and leave the results to God. John Piper writes,
Speak your word. The smallest word about Christ is not wasted.
A young woman told the story as she was joining our church of how Christ saved her. She said that she knew a good bit about Christianity because of her parents but had thrown it all away as a teenager and was on her own.
One day she and her friends were walking down the beach as several handsome guys approached. Her thought was to impress them and be thought attractive and cool. As the guys passed, one of them called out, “Praise Jesus!”
Now probably later that night those guys said to themselves, “That was a lame witness. Why didn’t we stop and talk?” Little did they know that this simple word, “Praise Jesus,” pierced her heart and sent her later to her knees and to the Savior. There are no wasted testimonies.
Prayer is absolutely a strategy that every Christian, no matter how young or how old, can use.
Pray not just for the hearts of others to be opened like Lydia’s was, but for you and other Christians to be bold witnesses. I say this because, when I go looking for evangelism prayers in the Bible, they’re usually for the evangelists, and not the ones being evangelized.
3 Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: (Colossians 4:3)
These are just a few strategies we can employ to build the church. But, before we go too far and believing that the “end justifies the means,” adopt any strategy willy-nilly, let’s remember what the foundation is that we’re building on…
2) Christ Is The Foundation
We know how critical a foundation is to a building or any structure. Jesus famously contrasted the man who built his house on the sand with him who had built his house on the rock, a metaphor that has been used and understood by millions of people since then (Matthew 7:24-27).
Paul did not design the foundation for the church, he only laid it. The design of the church’s foundation was too critical to be left in human hands. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ:
1 Corinthians 3:11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
People have tried to change the foundation of the church. Some have emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus, making a salvation of good works. Others have over-emphasized the love and tolerance of Jesus, giving us a salvation of…well, really of nothing—God loves you and you are saved, period. But these human methods are building on the sand.
The only foundation for the church that will last, that will bring people to salvation is the foundation of Jesus Christ, properly laid from the Bible, and not a human twist on him.
So, the church is God’s field and it’s also God’s building. What is the common word there? It’s God. The church is to be God-centered.
A church that is God-centered has no divisions. It’s when we head off from our centering on God, on Jesus Christ, that fragmentation begins to occur.
Are you willing to be God’s servant in his field today? Are you willing to not seek glory and honor for yourself, but work hard and long in God’s field planting and watering?
 John Piper, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2009), 183–184.