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Be Wise About… The Local Church

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Be Wise About… The Local Church

1 Corinthians 3:1-23 (NKJV)

1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.
2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;
3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
4 For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal?
5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?
6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.
8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building.
10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.
11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
13 each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is.
14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their own craftiness";
20 and again, "The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile."
21 Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours:
22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come--all are yours.
23 And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.

British Bible teacher Dr. G. Campbell Morgan had four sons; all became ministers. Someone asked one of the grandsons if he also would become a minister, and he replied, "No, I plan to work for a living."

What is a pastor supposed to do? What really is "the work of the ministry"? If we don't know, we will never know how to evaluate the minister's work. Perhaps no issue creates more problems in the local church than this one: how do we know when the pastor and church leaders are really doing their job? Paul painted three pictures of the church in this chapter and, using these pictures, pointed out what the ministry is supposed to accomplish.
The church is a family and the goal is maturity (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
The church is a field and the goal is quantify (1 Corinthians 3:5-9a)
The church is a temple and the goal is quality (1 Corinthians 3:9b-23)

The Family—Maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-4)

Paul already explained that there are two kinds of people in the world—natural (unsaved) and spiritual (saved).

But now he explained that there are two kinds of saved people: mature and immature (carnal).

A Christian matures by allowing the Spirit to teach him and direct him by feeding on the Word. The immature Christian lives for the things of the flesh (carnal means "flesh") and has little interest in the things of the Spirit. Of course, some believers are immature because they have been saved only a short time, but that is not what Paul is discussing here.

Paul was the "spiritual father" who brought this family into being (1 Corinthians 4:5). During the eighteen months he ministered in Corinth, Paul had tried to feed his spiritual children and, help them mature in the faith. Just as in a human family, everybody helps the new baby grow and mature, so in the family of God we must encourage spiritual maturity.

What are the marks of maturity?
For one thing, you can tell the mature person by his diet. As I write this chapter, we are watching our grandson and our granddaughter grow up. Becky is still being nursed by her mother, but Jonathan now sits at the table and uses his little cup and (with varying degrees of success) his tableware. As children grow, they learn to eat different food. They graduate (to use Paul's words) from milk to meat.

What is the difference?
The usual answer is that "milk" represents the easy things in the Word, while "meat" represents the hard doctrines. But I disagree with that traditional explanation, and my proof is...
Hebrews 5:10-14 (NKJV)
10 called by God as High Priest "according to the order of Melchizedek,"
11 of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.
14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

That passage seems to teach that "milk" represents what Jesus Christ did on earth, while "meat" concerns what He is doing now in heaven. The writer of Hebrews wanted to teach his readers about the present heavenly priesthood of Jesus Christ, but his readers were so immature, he could not do it. Note:
Hebrews 6:1-4 (NKJV)
1 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
3 And this we will do if God permits.
4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,

The Word of God is our spiritual food: milk (1 Peter 2:2). bread (Matthew 4:4), meat (Hebrews 5:11-14), and even honey (Psalm 119:103). Just as the physical man needs a balanced diet if his body is to be healthy, so the inner man needs a balanced diet of spiritual food. The baby begins with milk, but as he grows and his teeth develop, he needs solid food.

It is not difficult to determine a believer's spiritual maturity, or immaturity, if you discover what kind of "diet" he enjoys. The immature believer knows little about the present ministry of Christ in heaven. He knows the facts about our Lord's life and ministry on earth, but not the truths about His present ministry in heaven. He lives on "Bible stories" and not Bible doctrines.
He has no understanding of 1 Corinthians 2:6-7 (NKJV)
6 However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.
7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory,

In my itinerant ministry, I have preached in hundreds of churches and conferences; and I have always been grateful for congregations that wanted to be enlightened and edified, not entertained. It is important that we preach the Gospel to the lost; but it is also important that we interpret the Gospel to the saved. The entire New Testament is an interpretation and application of the Gospel. Paul did not write Romans, for example, to tell the Romans how to be saved—for they were already saints. He wrote to explain to them what was really involved in their salvation. It was an explanation of the "deep things of God" and how they applied to daily life.

There is another way to determine maturity:
The mature Christian practices love and seeks to get along with others. Children like to disagree and fuss. And children like to identify with heroes, whether sports heroes or Hollywood heroes. The "babes" in Corinth were fighting over which preacher was the greatest—Paul, Apollos, or Peter. It sounded like children on the playground: "My father can fight better than your father! My father makes more money than your father!"

When immature Christians, without spiritual discernment, get into places of leadership in the church, the results will be disastrous. More than one brokenhearted pastor has phoned me, or written me, asking what to do with church officers who talk big but live small. (In all fairness, I should say that sometimes it is the officers who write asking what to do with an immature pastor!)

The work of the pastor is to help the church grow spiritually and mature in the Lord.
This is done by the steady, balanced ministry of the Word.
Ephesians 4:1-16
explains how this is done: It is necessary for each member of the body to make his own contribution. God gives spiritual gifts to His people, and then He gives these gifted people to the various churches to build up the saints. As the believers grow, they build the church (the ekklesia)

Paul will have more to say about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 but this should be said now:
A mature Christian uses his gifts as tools to build with, while an immature believer uses gifts as toys to play with or trophies to boast about. Many of the members of the Corinthian church enjoyed "showing off' their gifts, but they were not interested in serving one another and edifying the church.

What is the ministry all about?
It involves loving, feeding, and disciplining God's family so that His children mature in the faith and become more like Jesus Christ.

The Field—Quantity (1 Corinthians 3:5-9a)

Paul was fond of agricultural images and often used them in his letters. "Ye are God's husbandry" simply means, "You are God's cultivated field, God's garden."

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus compared the human heart to soil and the Word of God to seed (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Paul took this individual image and made it collective:
the local church is a field that ought to bear fruit.
The task of the ministry is the sowing of the seed, the cultivating of the soil, the watering of the plants, and the harvesting of the fruit.

How did this image of the church as a "field" apply to the special problems of the Corinthians?
To begin with, the emphasis must be on God and not on the laborers. Paul and Apollos were only servants who did their assigned tasks. It was God who gave life to their efforts. Even the faith of the believers was a gift from God (1 Corinthians 3:5). It is wrong to center attention on the servants.
Look instead to the Lord of the harvest, the source of all blessing.

Note the emphasis in this paragraph on increase or growth.
Why compare preachers or statistics?
God is the source of the growth; no man can take the credit.
Furthermore, no one man can do all the necessary work. Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but only God could make it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Three main lessons appear from this image.

First, diversity of ministry.
One laborer plows the soil, another sows the seed, a third waters the seed. As time passes, the plants grow, the fruit appears, and other laborers enjoy reaping the harvest. This emphasis on diversity will also show up when Paul compares the church to a body with many different parts.

Second, unity of purpose.
No matter what work a person is doing for the Lord, he is still a part of the harvest. "Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one" (1 Corinthians 3:8). Paul, Apollos, and Peter were not competing with each other. Rather, each was doing his assigned task under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Even though there is diversity of ministry, there is unity of purpose; and there ought to be unity of spirit.

Third, humility of spirit.
It is not the human laborers that produce the harvest, but the Lord of the harvest. "God gave the increase…. God that giveth the increase" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
Granted, God has ordained that human beings should be His ministers on earth; but their efforts apart from God's blessing would be failures. The Corinthians were proud of their church, and various groups in the assembly were proud of their leaders. But this attitude of being "puffed up" was dividing the church because God was not receiving the glory.

Jesus expressed the same idea as recorded in John 4:34-38.
The sower and the reaper not only work together, but one day they shall rejoice together and receive their own rewards.
There can be no such thing as isolated ministry, because each worker enters into the labors of others. I have had the privilege of leading people to Christ who were total strangers to me, but others had sown the seed and watered it with their love and prayers.

"And every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Corinthians 3:8).
What men may think of our ministry is not important; what God may think is of supreme importance.
Our reward must not be the praise of men, but the "Well done!" of the Lord of the harvest.

God wants to see increase in His field. He wants each local church to produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), holiness (Romans 6:22), giving (Romans 15:26), good works (Colossians 1:10), praise to the Lord (Hebrews 13:15), and souls won to Christ (Romans 1:13).
Along with spiritual growth, there should be a measure of numerical growth. Fruit has in it the seed for more fruit. If the fruit of our ministry is genuine, it will eventually produce "more fruit… much fruit" to the glory of God (John 15:1-8).

Those who serve in ministry must constantly be caring for the "soil" of the church. It requires diligence and hard work to produce a harvest. The lazy preacher or Sunday School teacher is like the slothful fanner Solomon wrote about in Proverbs 24:30-34.
Satan is busy sowing discord, lies, and sin; and we must be busy cultivating the soil and planting the good seed of the Word of God.

The Temple—Quality (1 Cor. 3:9b-23)

The usual explanation of this passage is that it describes the building of the Christian life. We all build on Christ, but some people use good materials while others use poor materials. The kind of material you use determines the kind of reward you will get.

While this may be a valid application of this passage, it is not the basic interpretation.
Paul is discussing the building of the local church, the temple of God. (In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 the individual believer is God's temple; but here it is the local assembly that is in view. In Ephesians 2:19-22, the whole church is compared to a temple of God.)
Paul points out that one day God will judge our labors as related to the local assembly. "The fire will test the quality of each man's work" (1 Corinthians 3:13).

God is concerned that we build with quality. The church does not belong to the preacher or to the congregation. It is God's church. "Ye are God's building" (1 Corinthians 3:9). If we are going to build the local church the way God wants it built, we must meet certain conditions.

First, we must build on the right foundation (vv. 10-11).
That foundation is Jesus Christ.
When Paul came to Corinth, he determined to preach only Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). He laid the only foundation that would last. In more than thirty years of ministry, I have seen "churches" try to build on a famous preacher or a special method or a doctrinal emphasis they felt was important; but these ministries simply did not last. The Corinthians were emphasizing personalities—Paul, Peter, Apollos—when they should have been glorifying Christ.

The foundation is laid by the proclaiming of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The foundation is the most important part of the building, because it determines the size, shape, and strength of the superstructure. A ministry may seem to be successful for a time, but if it is not founded on Christ, it will eventually collapse and disappear.

I am thinking now of a pastor who "discovered a great truth" in the Bible (actually, he read it in some books) and decided to build his church on the promotion of that "great truth." He split his church and took a group with him who were "devoted to the truth" he had discovered. But the new church never succeeded. Now his group is scattered and he goes from church to church, trying to get converts to his cause. He built on the wrong foundation.

Second, we must build with the right materials (vv. 12-17). Paul described two opposite kinds of materials...

- Gold, Silver, Precious stones - Permanent, Beautiful, Valuable, Hard to obtain

- Wood, Hay, Stubble - they are passing, they are temporary, ordinary, cheap, ugly and easy to obtain.

What did Paul want to symbolize by his choice of materials?
He is not talking about people, because Christians are the "living stones" that make up God's temple (1 Peter 2:5).
I personally believe Paul is referring to the doctrines of the Word of God. In each section of this chapter, the Word is symbolized in a way that fits the image of the church Paul used.

The Word is food for the family, seed for the field, and materials for the temple.

The Book of Proverbs presents the wisdom of the Word of God as treasure to be sought, protected, and invested in daily life.

Consider these passages:

Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies Proverbs 3:13-15a

My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God Proverbs 2:1-5

Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it Proverbs 8:10-11

When you remember that Paul has been writing about wisdom in these first three chapters, you can easily see the connection. The Corinthians were trying to build their church by man's wisdom, the wisdom of this world, when they should have been depending on the wisdom of God as found in the Word.

This says to me that ministers of the Word must dig deep into the Scriptures and mine out the precious gold, silver, and jewels, and then build these truths into the lives of the people. D.L Moody used to say that converts should be weighed as well as counted. God is interested in quality as well as quantity, and Paul makes it clear that it is possible to have both. The faithful minister can work in the field and see increase, and he can build with the Word of God and see beauty and lasting blessings.

It is a serious thing to be a part of the building of God's temple
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 warn us that, if we destroy ("defile") God's temple by using cheap materials, God will destroy us!
This does not mean eternal condemnation, of course, because 1 Corinthian 3:15 assures us that each worker will be saved, even if he loses a reward.
I think Paul is saying that each of us builds into the church what we build into our own lives. Veteran missionary to India, Amy Carmichael, used to say, "The work will never go deeper than we have gone ourselves." So we end up tearing down our own lives if we fail to build into the church the values that will last. We may look very successful to men, but "the day shall declare it" and on that day, some ministers will go up in smoke.

It is unwise to compare and contrast ministries. Paul warned in 1 Corinthians 4:5 "Therefore, judge nothing before the time."

Young ministers often asked Dr. Campbell Morgan the secret of his pulpit success. Morgan replied, "I always say to them the same thing—work; hard work; and again, work!" Morgan was in his study at 6 o'clock each morning, digging treasures out of the Bible. You can find wood, hay, and stubble in your backyard, and it will not take too much effort to pick it up. But if you want gold, silver, and jewels, you have to dig for them. Lazy preachers and Sunday School teachers will have much to answer for at the Judgment Seat of Christ—and so will preachers and teachers who steal materials from others instead of studying and making it their own.

Third, we must build according to the right plan (vv. 18-20).
It comes as a shock to some church members that you cannot manage a local church the same way you run a business. This does not mean we should not follow good business principles, but the operation is totally different. There is a wisdom of this world that works for the world, but it will not work for the church.

The world depends on promotion, prestige, and the influence of money and important people.
The church depends on prayer, the power of the Spirit, humility, sacrifice, and service.
The church that imitates the world may seem to succeed in time, but it will turn to ashes in eternity.

The church in the Book of Acts had none of the "secrets of success" that seem to be important today.
They owned no property; they had no influence in government; they had no treasury ("Silver and gold have I none," said Peter);
their leaders were ordinary men without special education in the accepted schools;
they held no attendance contests;
they brought in no celebrities;
and yet they turned the world upside down! (The right way up)

God has a specific plan for each local church (Phil. 2:12-13).

Each pastor and church leader must seek the mind of God for His wisdom.
1 Corinthians 3:19 warns that man's wisdom will only trap him (a quotation from Job 5:13); and 1 Corinthians 3:20 warns that man's wisdom only leads to vanity and futility (a quotation from Psalm 94:11). Though the church must be identified with the needs of the world, it must not imitate the wisdom of the world.

Finally, we must build with the right motive (vv. 21-23).
That motive is the glory of God. The members of the Corinthian church were glorying in men, and this was wrong. They were comparing men (1 Corinthians 4:6) and dividing the church by such carnal deeds. Had they been seeking to glorify God alone, there would have been harmony in the assembly.

Paul closed this appeal by pointing out that each believer possesses all things in Christ.
Each one of God's servants belongs to each believer.
No member of the church should say, "I belong to Paul!" or "I like Peter!" because each servant belongs to each member equally.
Perhaps we cannot help but have our personal preferences when it comes to the way different men minister the Word. But we must not permit our personal preferences to become divisive prejudices. In fact, the preacher I may enjoy the least may be the one I need the most!

"All are yours"—the world, life, death, things present, things to come! How rich we are in Christ!
If all things belong to all believers, then why should there be competition and rivalry?
"Get your eyes off of men!" Paul admonished.
"Keep your eyes on Christ, and work with Him in building the church!"

"Ye are Christ's"—this balances things.
I have all things in Jesus Christ, but I must not become careless or use my freedom unwisely.
"All things are yours"—that is Christian liberty.
"And ye are Christ's"—that is Christian responsibility.
We need both if we are to build a church that will not turn to ashes when the fire falls.

How we need to pray for ministers of the Word!
They must feed the family and bring the children to maturity.
They must sow the seed in the field and pray for an increase.
They must mine the treasures of the Word and build these treasures into the temple.

No wonder Paul cried, "And who is sufficient for these things?"
But he also gave the answer: "Our sufficiency is of God"
(2 Corinthians 2:6; 3:5)

Bible Exposition Commentary - Be Wise (1 Corinthians) by Warren W. Wiersbe