Introduction: The paradox of the metaphor.
In our text today Paul uses two metaphors to describe how God grows and builds a church. The first is organic metaphor and the other is a structural one. These two metaphors would seem opposed to each other, but in the kingdom of God they are not. The organic metaphor shows us how spiritual growth is a mystery, while the structural metaphor shows us how strategic it is. This is the paradox of Gospel discipleship.
In light of this I would like to add a metaphor to the discussion. The beauty of what Paul is describing is seen in the image described at the end of the Bible. When the apostle John describes heaven to us he describes it as a Garden City. It is a massive City with beautiful architecture. But it also has this massive Garden with vibrant organic life. So, as we explore this text today we explore these two metaphors and the implications they have on our lives and our church. These metaphors illustrate things to us about our spiritual growth and what we are building or what we are doing with our lives.
Theme: Consistent spiritual growth comes from continuing to build on the foundation laid in Christ.
1. The organic mystery of spiritual growth—I Cor 3.1-9.
In these first 9 verses today we see the organic mystery of spiritual growth. Paul opens this section with a problem—READ I Cor 3.1-2. Paul’s first organic metaphor deals with the growth of children. He uses an illustration about the nourishment children need to grow in order to help the Corinthians understand their spiritual growth. While it is completely normal for a child to live on milk as their only source of nourishment for a season as they grow older they need to move on toward solid food. Solid food will help them continue to grow. Paul opens this section with very affectionate language—“brothers”, “infants in Christ”, “fed you with milk”. All of this language could remind his readers of the imitate times they had with Paul.
Imagine you are in there shoes for a moment, “Oh, I love it when Paul’s calls us family. Oh, yes, I remember those basics of the faith Paul taught us. We were just mere infants back then. What great memories.” Then Paul closes verse 2 with this statement, “And even now you are not ready.” Ouch! Paul just brought the heat. Now how does Paul try to prove his point? He does so by asking a series of questions—READ I Cor 3.3b-4.
The greatest mentors I have ever had in the faith are wonderful at this. They ask a series of leading questions. They know where they want to take me and help get me there by asking heart-probing questions. I believe this is what Paul is doing here. Paul shows them their motivation and behavior, and then asks them what kind of behavior is this? Their motivation is “jealously” and it produces “strife”. The apostle James explains the same connection to us:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.—James 4.1-3
Spiritually everyone here suffers from affection disorder. Even our good affections are so distorted by sin that it is hard for us to do anything from truly pure motives. We are sick. Therefore, God can’t just give us whatever we want because we are sick spiritual children. Paul says these Christians should be further along by now in their sanctification, but they are not.
The good news is that Paul does not want them to stay there. Paul continues with his series of leading questions, but this time he also gives them some rich theological conclusions—READ I Cor 3.5-9. First, let’s look at the questions Paul raises. He says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He doesn’t say, “Who?” Paul does not what them to think about gifting or personality, but foundations. What is the ground or essence of what these men are teaching? Paul knows Apollos’ teaching is not opposed to his own, and Paul’s teaching is not opposed to Apollos’ teaching.
So Paul reminds the Corinthians that the two men have the same role and different roles. They both share the role of servants of God, but they carry out that role in different ways. Paul planted and Apollos watered. Both of these men did their roles and yet Corinthian Christians are not growing. Why is that? Paul says it is because “only God...gives the growth.” There is a mystery to growth. God in His divine sovereignty has decided when, where, and what He wants to grow. As much as we want to make it about methods and celebrity personalities it is really about what God wants.
I remember interviewing local pastors that I trusted and one, Dan Williams, said, “John, when I first came into our church there were less than 30 people attending. I just tried to faithfully preach the Bible and God grew our church.” I have been taught and study various methods of church growth, but none is greater than the promises of God. For all the engineers, type-As, and organized people in the audience this REALLY bothers them. The first three words that come into their mind is, “But what about?” Simply put healthy organisms grow, and we need to quit comparing ourselves to someone else or our church to other churches. All we can do is strive to be healthy Christians and a healthy church.
2. Healthy Christians & healthy churches are built on Christ—I Cor 3.10-23.
This leads into Paul second metaphor. Becoming a healthy Christian and building a healthy church is about one thing—CHRIST. Healthy Christians and healthy churches are built on Christ—READ I Cor 3.11, 18, 23.
In this section Paul begins to use a structural or architectural metaphor. He refers to himself as a “skilled master builder”. While Paul said in I Cor 3.7 that he was nothing this does not mean he is blind. He recognizes he has unique giftings God has given him to help build the Church. Paul used the “nothing” language to remind us that we are not meant to worship gifts, but the Giver of those gifts. Paul models the right kind of language we are to use for us in I Cor 3.10, “According to the grace of God given me.”
Paul used his God given “skill” to laid what down? He laid a solid foundation, and that foundation was Jesus Christ. He has already told us specifically what it was about Christ that he taught—READ I Cor 2.2.
No only does Paul use this truth as the foundation for the church, but he also implies that it is Christ and Him crucified that will also be our building materials. Therefore, anyone who comes into their midst and tries to lay another foundation, or tries to get to use other building materials outside of the Gospel, should rejected. Why? Well, because what they are building will be destroyed—READ I Cor 3.12-15.
I believe this is why Paul says, “Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (I Cor 3.10). While the building of the church is a community project Paul wants us all to do some personal evaluation. The verb “take care” is present active, which means Paul assumes you will be currently doing this. Therefore, as we read this warning from Paul we are meant to examine our motives for what we are currently trying to build on. If there is any other motivation than to make much of Christ then we should stop, revaluate, and may need to stop what we are doing. Healthy Christians regularly do this. If we have healthy Christians in healthy churches then the churches will regularly be doing this as well.
This is so important in the Christian life because most changes are not radical but gradual. As we gradually move away from the Gospel, then we slowly move away from the Word, and the next thing we know we are not even a church. We are no longer guarding the good deposit that was delivered to us. The way we started is the way we will continue, and the way we will make to the end. Listen to what Paul says to the Christians in Galatia:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?—Galatians 3.1-3
The One who got us started is the one who is going to complete the work. No one is powerful enough to destroy God’s work in you. But the problem is SO many Christians want live like our first parents and blame everything outside of themselves for their problems. If anyone thinks they are something, then they are nothing. It is only when we realize we are NOTHING before God that He can truly make us into something. And when God decides to do that nothing can stop Him. Why is that? Because you were bought! Christ was crucified for our sins. This is why later Paul will say since we were bought we are live like bought people. We are servants just like Paul and Apollos. We no longer live for ourselves, but God. We live to glorify God the way our Savior did. Keep these things in mind in the evaluations of your spiritual life, churches you attend, jobs you take, or any other circumstances you are going through:
You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.—I Corinthians 7.23
No matter what condition you are in God will not allow His temple to be destroyed. If you are a living temple then you will not be destroyed, but you should also not destroy others. God is not using us to tear communities apart but to bring them together. God is using us to build His Garden City. And what is the foundation of that city? What are the materials that will not be burned? It is Christ and Him crucified. He is the mystery that has been revealed to us and the world.