It is extremely awkward when adults behave in a childish way.
I’m sure you’ve all looked at someone being thoroughly selfish, unable to cope with getting their own way, and thought to yourself: “How childish!”
I’m sure you’ve all also got drawn into some petty squabble or other. Something on the same level as who’s got more than their fair share of the back seat of the car. I know I have.
From time to time, we all behave like children.
The Christians in Corinth were doing this. Paul would have loved to relate to them as mature, grown-up Christians. But he can’t. They’re still in their spiritual nappies. So he’s having to feed them what he calls milk. He can’t move on to deeper teaching; he’s stuck going over the basics of the Christian faith. They’re just so immature. Why? Because they’re quarrelling. Bickering like children.
In particular, they’re squabbling about which church leaders they identify with. That comes out in verse 4: “One says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’”.
This is our third week addressing this issue. It was such a problem in Corinth, and so important, that Paul spends the first 4 chapters of his letter dealing with it.
It easily happens today, too. How easily we attach ourselves to particular teachers and preachers in our church. Or which homegroup leader we like. Which past vicar we are particularly fond of. We find someone in the church that we respect, and we mentally join their fan club. Until the fact that we’re in their circle becomes quite important to us, and our loyalty to them trumps other loyalties within the church family.
It happens so easily. Whole churches can fragment and divide when it starts to happen.
Today’s chapter tackles this problem from another angle, looking at how childish this all is. The Corinthians Christians, frankly, need to grow up!
I wonder if the idea that we need to grow up as Christians is new to you. It may be?
Jesus described becoming a Christian as like being born again. It’s a radical new start in life, a bit like starting all over again. But that’s just the new birth. The picture here is quite clear, we’re then infants, who need to be taught the basic teachings of God’s word. And from there we grow, and move onto deeper things, and mature. But as Christians we mustn’t stand still. We all need to grow up, mature and develop.
Perhaps we should just ask in passing: Are you growing as a Christian? Or have things stagnated? We’ll find some helpful things in this chapter on how we grow.
Paul wants these Christians to stop being so childish. To stop splintering around allegiance to human leaders.
And key to that is for us to see the church in the right light. And also to see those who lead and teach us in the right light. When we see our church and its leaders in the right way, we’ll grow, and we’ll be healthy. We want squabble about our leaders.
The headline of what Paul wants comes in verse 5: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.”
They’re servants, through whom the Corinthians came to believe.
And Paul then unpacks that by developing two pictures in the verses that follow.
The Church is God’s garden; our leaders are the farm labourers
Here’s the first picture: The church is God’s garden; our leaders are the farm labourers. The church is God’s garden; our leaders are the farm labourers.
Let me re-read from verse 6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. For we are fellow workers in God’s service; you are God’s field.”
The picture’s quite clear. Let me briefly point out 3 details about the farm hands.
Number 1: The farm hands are not what counts. “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
Number 2: The farm hands are of one purpose: “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose.” They’re all working to help the farm owner grow the garden, the farm, the paddock that he wants. They’re a team.
And number 3: The farm hands will be paid according to their work. “They will each be rewarded according to their own labour.” They’re not working for themselves. They’re working for the owner, and that means their work is only as good as it fits with what the owner wanted them to be doing.
Paul’s point is pretty clear, isn’t it?
We are plants in God’s garden. It does not matter which farm hand dug the weeds out, or applied the water, in your particular corner of the vegetable patch. What matters is the kind of garden, the kind of church, that God is wanting to grow.
The farm hands don’t have their own agenda. They work as one, for God. It’s not their garden. It’s God’s.
And so for us: That’s how we must see ourselves, and see those who lead and teach us. They are farm labourers. The church is God’s garden. He’s the one that should be all-important for us.
So there’s picture number 1: The church is God’s garden; our leaders are the farm labourers.
The Church is God’s temple; our leaders are the builders
Picture number 2: The church is God’s temple; our leaders are the builders. The church is God’s temple; our leaders are the builders.
Right at the end of verse 9, the picture changes, the language changes. It changes from the garden to the building. So, verse 9 says this: “For we are fellow workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building”. Some people are country lovers; others are city folk. Whichever describes you, Paul has a picture that will appeal to you.
Again, the picture is clear. The church is a building. The foundation has already been laid. The foundation on which every Christian is built, the foundation on which every church is built, is Jesus Christ.
The question is: What goes on next?
Paul moves through various materials that might be used: gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. He moves from the valuable to the cheap. Gold, silver, costly stones – they’re immensely valuable. Wood, hay, or straw – they’re immensely cheap.
Paul travelled around the Mediterranean telling people about Jesus. People became Christians. Churches started. What goes on next? Is it more of Jesus Christ? More of the same Jesus Christ that Paul brought to them? He’s the costly stone, the gold, the silver. He’s the most precious thing you could have. Or is it something else? In the context of this letter of 1 Corinthians, have these Christians simply added some good human ideas, a bit of the world’s wisdom? That’s the wood, the hay, the straw.
Paul doesn’t only move from the costly to the cheap. He also moves from the non-flammable to the flammable. Gold, silver and stone don’t burn. Wood, hay and straw do burn. Gold, silver and stone keep the little pigs safe from the big bad wolf. Wood, hay and straw would allow him to huff, and to puff, and to blow their house down.
That is because there is a day in the future when the work of each builder will be tested. The quality of the ministry of each Christian teacher and leader will be tested. That’s the day when Jesus returns to this world as judge. Verse 13: “Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”
We’re probably used to the idea that Jesus will return and deal with everything that is bad and evil. We’re probably used to the idea that Jesus will welcome those who know and love him into their new home. We may be less used to the idea that this is a day when the workmanship of every Christian teacher and leader will be tested. But that is what Paul is saying here.
Think of it like this: When Jesus returns, each and every one of us will meet him as our judge. We’ve all done things wrong, so that should be a day when each of us is consigned to hell for all eternity. But Jesus died and rose again so that we can be forgiven. The person who knows and trusts Jesus will find out on that day what a precious thing that is. All their past mistakes have been paid for in full. They don’t suffer God’s punishment. They get to enjoy his limitless goodness, for every day, from then on. Life unspoilt by anything. Life enjoying God and all he’s made.
So on that day, only one thing matters. The only thing that matters is whether we know and trust the Lord Jesus. Nothing else matters.
So this is when the workmanship of every Christian teacher and leader will be seen for what it is. If they’ve invested their life introducing people to the real Jesus, their work will withstand the test. What they’ve done will count for something on that great day. If the teacher, the leader, the church has invested in other things, it will count for nothing at all on that day. Because what they’ve done won’t help anyone at all.
Following that dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower a year ago, there’s been a lot of cladding being tested up and down the country. Samples of cladding used on other buildings have been tested to see if it’s up to standard. New cladding is being developed to withstand fire, and it has to be tested too.
There are all kinds of tests that they can do to see if the cladding is good quality, the real thing that will keep people safe if the worst happens. But at the end of the day, there is one test that has to be done that shows everything up for what it is. They have to set fire to it. Or set a fire under it to see what happens.
The day when Jesus returns is the great cladding test for every Christian ministry. It sets a fire underneath everything we work for. When set against the fire of the penetrating judgement of the risen Jesus, does that ministry stand the test. Do the fruits of it count for anything on judgement day? Has it been building with the Lord Jesus, infinitely precious, and even more so at the judgement, or has it been building with other things.
I personally find this a very sobering passage. It sets before me the possibility that I might give 40 years of my life to Christian ministry. I might do so at great cost, making sacrifices for what I do. And yet if I focus on the wrong things, on anything other than building with the precious stone of the Lord Jesus, I might reach the end of my life and ministry and see it was all for nothing. I could be standing there, still saved myself, and yet seeing an entire life’s ministry go up in smoke. It was all for nothing. What a terrible sense of waste that would be. It would be terrible. And I’d like you to hold me accountable, keep me up to the mark: Is my ministry all about building with the precious stone of the Lord Jesus.
But we can apply it to our church as well. This invites us to take a step back and look at all the things we do. And in this church, we do a lot. And we need to ask how much of what we do is really worth anything, when we look at it from an eternity point of view? How many of the good things we do are actually about bringing people into a growing relationship with the Lord Jesus? And how many serve perfectly good ends, but not that? Are we building with gold, silver and costly stone? Or are we building with wood, hay and straw?
But most of all, we must apply this to the area of divisions in the church.
Those who minister to us, who lead us, who we are tempted to rally around – they’re just builders. It doesn’t actually matter who they are. What matters is that it’s Christ they’re giving to us. Because if it’s not, we’d be basing our lives on straw if we listen to them. But if it is, they’re wanting to give us the most precious thing there is – true gold and silver, the Lord Jesus.
It’s Jesus we should be getting excited about, not them.
Two pictures, to help us see our leaders and teachers in a proper light. We’re God’s garden; they’re the farm workers. We’re God’s temple; they’re the builders.
The point is simple: If you’re a Christian, it’s because God has done something wonderful in your life.
We haven’t got time to look at verses 21 and 22, but they are some of the most fabulous verses in the whole Bible. If you know Jesus, everything belongs to you, and everything is secure. You are secure in life and in death, in the present and in the future. Jesus is king of all, and it doesn’t get better than being with him.
If you’re trusting Christ, if you have all that, then there will be various humans who have helped you along the way. But you don’t have God’s blessings because of them. You’re not where you are because of a particular preacher, or teacher, or book. It’s not because of your parents. It’s not because of Billy Graham, or whoever it is. Those people planted, they watered, they weeded, they built, but God is the one who’s done all of this. All the praise must be to our God.
So we’re not to be people who identify ourselves with our ministry heroes, with teachers and leaders, whether here in Kemsing or wider afield. Our identity is not to be wrapped up in people in the church that we like to gather round.
We started by saying that all Christians need to be growing. We’ll grow as we grow in Jesus. If instead we fixate on individual Christians, we’ll actually be stunting our own growth. Keeping ourselves in nappies, spiritually speaking.
So let’s be people who identify with the Lord Jesus, who look to God as the one who brings the growth. He’s the one who really matters.