Studies in I Corinthians
Lesson 11: “A Message for Ministers”
I Corinthians 3:8-12
The members of the first century church in the city of Corinth had a problem that is repeated sometimes in our society today: the problem of exalting men. And in the process of that exaltation they were creating divisions within their group. People were taking sides about who was the better teacher, and those kinds of things. And this is one of the several problems about which the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians. It is the first problem he addresses. And he says three things about the problem here in chapter 3: First, in verses 1 through 8 he talks about their “misconception of the ministry.”
We saw in those verses that there is a sense in which every believer is a minister. And then in verses 9 through 17 he gives “a message to ministers.” So this “message to ministers” is not just to the “professional” clergy, but to all of us as believers.
Since there is a misconception of the ministry that is easy to develop, there is a very important “message to ministers” that needs to go along with that. And that is what we want to talk about in this study. And then the third part of the chapter has to do with “a motivation for ministry” which we will talk about in our next study.
But for now we want to talk about “the message for ministers” that we find in verses 9 through 17. And the first thing to notice about the message for ministers has to do with “their position” in verse 9.
For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.
Now remember that in the previous verses Paul had said that it is wrong to exalt ministers – especially one over another. And that it is a misconception of the ministry to think that men are important in God’s work. Because in verse 7 he said
Neither is he that plants anything, neither he that waters, but God gives the increase.
Now because of those kinds of statements we might get the idea, “well if men are not important in God’s work, then what part do we play? And why is it important that we even pay attention to what we’re doing, if its only a matter of being available for God’s use? And that’s the idea that he has in mind as we come to these verses. Going back to verse 9, notice first of all, the phrase “laborers together with God . . .” (Now isn’t that a wonderful thought?) It’s a wonderful thing to know that if we are a planter, or a waterer, of a weed puller or whatever else it is that God has given us to do, we’re not out there trying to do it in our own strength. In fact, the misconception that Paul dealt with in our last study was that if you’re out there trying to do it in your own strength then it is a total waste of time. But by contrast, if we’re being faithful to God in what He’s given us to do, then we can be considered laborers together with Him!
But there’s something else to notice about verse 9: Notice the phrase “You are God’s husbandry, you are God’s building
Not only are we laborers together with God, but at the same time we are the product of God’s labor. God not only allows us the privilege of working with Him, but He also is the one who has made us usable to begin with! “Here is what I like to call “the principle of overflow.” This is the idea that as we take in the Word of God for our personal use, out of that overflows the ministry that He may give us for other people. The best example of this is the Old Testament priest, Ezra, who was involved in the highly successful rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. The secret to Ezra’s ministry is found in Ezra 7:10
Ezra had set his heart (“made up his mind”) to seek the law of God and to do it and to teach statutes and judgements
In other words, Ezra had made up his mind to learn the Word of God, not just so that he could be a great teacher, but so that he could be obedient to it. And as a result of his obedience to the Word of God he became one of the most effective Bible teachers in history. And that’s the way God wants to operate in your life and mine. So the message to ministers as to their position is that we are not to be some exalted highly regarded individual; but that we are simply laborers together with God.
Now in verse 10 there is another part of the message. Here we find the message to ministers as to their pursuit
According to the grace of God which was given to me as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds upon it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.
God had given Paul the ability to found the church, and the gifts necessary to get things started.
But he knew that somebody else would come along who had other abilities and gifts and develop the church further. And so our “pursuit” as ministers is to do whatever God has given us to do.
Just because Paul had foundation laying abilities didn’t mean that everybody who came after him had to do things the same way he had done them. this is going to be much more fully developed over in chapter 12 with the explanation of spiritual gifts and the illustration of the parts of the body working together. Don’t try to be somebody else! Your pursuit as a minister should be to be the best minister you can be in the place that God has put you.
Then in verses 11 and 12 he talks to ministers as to their purpose.
For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Remember that this is addressed to all of as ministers. And what is that purpose? Actually it is two-fold: First, to build on the right foundation: Jesus Christ. And not only that, but to build only on that foundation! It is very easy, if we’re not careful, to make some other aspect of the Christian life foundational. And there are a lot of very important doctrines that really need emphasis in our world today. But the foundational doctrine is “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” There are a lot of different kinds of ministries – helps, showing mercy, giving, administration, etc. but no matter what your ministry is, be sure that sooner or later it comes back to the presentation of Jesus Christ. If you are doing good works just for the sake of good works, there are a lot of unsaved people who can do those things, so how are you any different?
Now we said that there were two purposes for ministers. The first is to build on the right foundation, but the second is to build with the right materials – look at verse 12:
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw –
Following Paul’s metaphor of building, he says that there are two kinds of building materials we can use on this foundation of Jesus Christ. First there is “gold, silver, and precious stones.” These materials represent true doctrine and practice. The are the very kind of thing we’ve just been talking about – doing things in the name of Jesus Christ. And this imagery would have been familiar to Paul’s readers – idol temples were often decorated with these kinds of ornaments. In fact, down in verse 16 he is going to carry the metaphor further in saying that we are the temple of God! God hasn’t adorned His physical temple in that way, but He wants to adorn our lives in that way.
But there is another kind of building material in verse 12 too: “wood, hay, and stubble.” And these represent the opposite of the gold, silver and precious stones – things that are not done in the name of Christ. And also in the sense of the metaphor, these were the materials of which homes for mere mortals were made.
As we conclude this study, let me ask you: as a minister of Jesus Christ, what are you building on the foundation of Jesus Christ? – Is it a beautiful ornament or a shabby little hovel? When you see someone who has a need, do you respond in a manner that is worthy of Christ?
The purpose of these studies is to move you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know him, it is my prayer that they will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If I can be of help to you in understanding any of this information I can be reached at