Nothing More Than Servants

I heard recently about a high school election where a teenage boy was trying to get his friends to vote for a particular girl.  He said, “She’ll make a great leader.  She’s got all it takes: looks, brains, popularity and a great smile.”

            To which one of his friends responded, “She’s got all it takes to be a celebrity, but I’m not so sure she’s a leader.”

            More and more, we seem to forget that celebrities – and by celebrities, I don’t necessarily mean famous people like actors and actresses, I just mean people whom we celebrate, people whom we admire, people who are popular – being a celebrity is not the same thing as being a good leader.

            At the church of Corinth, they had a problem with celebrities.  The members of that congregation were dividing their loyalties between different celebrities, different preachers that they admired.  “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Peter, I follow Christ”. 

            And each group claimed to be better than all the other groups because their division was motivated by spiritual pride.  Their attitude was, “My group is better than your group and our way is better than your way and our theology is better than your theology.”

            So, as we’ve seen in the first couple of chapters of I Corinthians, Paul has been addressing this issue, reminding the Corinthians why spiritual pride is inconsistent with a theology of grace and the message of the cross.

            As chapter 3 begins, Paul is still rebuking them.  I’ll read the entire chapter and then we’ll go back and look at it piece by piece.

            “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?  For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?

            “What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field, God’s building.

            “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.  Let each one take care how he builds upon it.  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 

            “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw —  each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

            “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

            “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.  For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’  

            “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (I Corinthians 3:1-23)

            Last week, we looked two Greek words that Paul used in chapter 2 – he said there’s a big difference between people who are pneumatikos – spiritual — people who are guided and directed by the Spirit of God, and people who are psuchikos – natural — people whose thoughts and interests and goals don’t go beyond this physical and material life.

            Here in chapter 3, Paul uses two more Greek words that I want us to take a look at.  In verse 1, Paul says “I…could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh.”   The Greek word he uses there for “people of the flesh” is sarkinos.  It’s a word that comes from the Greek word sarx, which means “flesh”.

            Now, if a Greek adjective ends in -inos, that signifies that this is “made of something”.  So, Paul is saying here that the Corinthians were “made of flesh”.  That’s not a rebuke, it’s just a fact.  Because they were humans, they were made of flesh.  They were sarkinos.  All of you are sarkinos.  I’m sarkinos.

            But then, in verse 3, Paul uses a different word.  He says, “For you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (I Corinthians 3:3)Twice in this passage, Paul says that the Corinthians were not only sarkinos, they were also sarkikos.  If a Greek adjective ends in -ikos, that signifies that something is “characterized by”. 

            So when Paul says that the Corinthians were sarkikos, he’s saying they were “characterized by the flesh”, They were “carnal” (KJV), “worldly” (NIV), “controlled by your sinful nature” (NLT).  All of those are ways that different translations have translated this word.

            Because, you see, to Paul, the flesh is much more than just a physical thing.  To Paul, the flesh means that human nature inside of us that wants to live apart from God, that part of man where sin takes hold.  So, the problem that Paul has with the Corinthians is not that they are “made of flesh” – because all of us are made of flesh – but that they had allowed this fleshly nature to dominate their outlook and their actions.

            And the way that Paul knew that was because of all the fussing and fighting and arguing that was going on in that church.  “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?  For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (I Corinthians 3:3-4).

            I tend to agree with William Barclay, who commented on this passage by saying, “You can tell what a man’s relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow men.”  If someone is at odds with his brothers and sisters in Christ, if he is quarrelsome, competitive, argumentative, trouble-making, he may be a faithful church attender, he may even be a church leader, but he is not a man or woman of God.  Paul says when you act that way, you are “being merely human”.

            The members of this church in Corinth were Christians, but they were immature, carnal, worldly.  And Paul tells them that they were being childish. 

            He says, “When I first came to Corinth and I shared the gospel with you, you were infants in Christ and that was normal, that was OK.  But now, here we are 3-5 years later and you’re still acting like a bunch of children and that’s not normal, it’s not OK.”  You need to be growing up in Christ.  You need to be looking at things from a spiritual point of view.  You need to start acting like mature adults.

            But whenever there is immaturity, whenever we look at things from a worldly point of view, it will result in jealousy and strife. It creates a competition; it creates a comparison; it creates a level of arrogance. “Our group is better than your group; our way is better than your way.”  And this competition and comparison leads to strife in the church, and it looks more like children fighting on a playground than it does mature adults.

            Beginning in verse 5, Paul is going to tell us that elevating one person in the church above another is just plain wrong.

            He says, “What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field.” (I Corinthians 3:5-9)

            It may help to remember that the city of Corinth was a Greek culture, and they were used to schools of philosophy – they borrowed that from their sister city of Athens — philosophers and schools of philosophy where people divided and pledged their loyalty to their favorite philosophical teacher.  They were used to that kind of party spirit.

            But that was Corinth.  That was the world.  Paul says the church shouldn’t be like that. The proper view of leaders in the church is that we’re all servants of Christ.  That’s why Paul says, “Who is Paul?  Who is Apollos?  We’re just servants.  Nothing more.”

            He uses the imagery of a farm.  He says, “I planted the seed. Apollos came behind me and watered it, but God is the one who makes things grow.”   If you’re a farmer, when crops grow, you can take pride in what you’ve accomplished, but you can’t really boast that you made the crops grow, because God is the one who created the seed, God is the one who provides the soil, God is the one who sends the sunshine and the rain.  All of it ultimately comes from him.

            So, I love what Paul is doing here. He’s trying to pull the church away from this worldly model of comparing one teacher to another teacher, one leader to another leader, and he says, “Look, let me tell you who we really are. We’re all just slaves. We’re servants of Christ, each doing our part, each of us using the gifts that God has given us, but God is the one who’s giving the increase.  God is the one who deserves the credit and the praise.

            And here’s the point that I think Paul is making.  When you get focused on and preoccupied with God’s servants, that will have a tendency to separate you from everyone else who doesn’t share your point of view.  But when you are focused on and preoccupied with the Master, that will draw people together. The church at Corinth was focused on the servants.  Paul is trying to get them to focus on the Master.  It’s God.  It’s all about him.  We’re just serving him.  It’s his church.

            In verse 9, Paul changes the imagery from a field where a farmer is planting seed to a building that someone is building up.

            “You are…God’s building.  According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.  Let each one take care how he builds upon it.  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 3: 9-10)

            When we were building this church building, there was a lot that I learned (far more than I ever wanted to know!).  And one of the basic rules of building it that, before anything else can be done, the foundation has to be laid.  And so, there’s a group of workers who come in and they lay the foundation.  And then, there’s another group of workers who come in and they erect the building.  And then other groups come in to put up the walls and put in the electrical and the plumbing.

            Well, if the Corinthian church was a building, it’s obvious what Paul’s role was.  In fact, it was the same role that he played in almost every church he worked with.  Paul would come into a community where no one had ever preached the gospel before, it was like coming to a piece of land where he had to clear away the trees and find a good flat spot and build the foundation.  And then other preachers came along behind him and built on what he had started.  Meanwhile, Paul moved on to the next city and he laid the foundation for another church.  And he did this over and over and over.

            But, there’s another very important thing about construction.  That foundation has to be done exactly right or that building will be ruined.  The foundation has to be deep enough, it has to be level enough, it has to be just the right size and shape.  The foundation is critical.  And it’s the same way in the church.  The foundation that is laid has to be done exactly right or the building will be ruined.

            The reason Paul called himself a skilled master builder is because he laid the right foundation in Corinth.  He didn’t put the foundation on him.  He didn’t put the foundation on Peter, or on Apollos, or anybody else. The foundation was Jesus Christ alone.  

            If you try to build a church on any foundation other than Jesus Christ, it is destined for ruin. If you try to build a church on tradition, it is a weak foundation and that church will suffer.  If you try to build a church on a specific human, it is a weak foundation and that church will suffer.  The church has to be built on Jesus Christ and Christ alone.  That’s why Paul said back in chapter 2, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2).

            What Paul says here completely eliminates any possibility of a Christian celebrity culture. If there were any people who would have been Christian celebrities in the first century, it would’ve been the apostle Paul!  It would have been Apollos.  And yet, Paul is saying, “We’re nothing but servants. God is the one who gave us the opportunity to serve. God is the one who did the work; God is the one who gets the credit and, at the end of the day, we are all equally valuable in God’s eyes.”

            Now I understand that there are certain people in the church who have been called to roles that are more visible — somebody who’s an author or somebody who’s a preacher. But there is a real problem when preachers like me start to believe that we are somehow more valuable to the kingdom of God than someone who teaches children’s Bible class or someone that cleans the church building or someone that hands out food to people in need. Preachers like me can think too highly of ourselves.  So people in roles like mine need to remember that we are nothing more than servants.

            But there’s also an important lesson for those people like you who view those that are more visible, for example, your favorite preacher, or your favorite Christian author.  If you believe that it would be a greater privilege for you to meet one of those people than the person who runs our PowerPoint, then you’ve put somebody on a pedestal that doesn’t deserve to be there.

            Think about who your favorite preacher is, or your favorite Christian author.  If they were to walk into our church building, would you somehow consider them to be of more value in the kingdom of God than our pre-school Sunday School teacher?  If your answer is yes, then you don’t fully understand how God views things.  The truth is, your favorite preacher is nothing more than a servant of God.  All that he has accomplished is what God has done through him, and makes him no more or no less important than anyone else sitting here this morning.  

            What I’ve just described to you is not the way the world views things.  Our culture loves to put people to pedestals, to admire them and praise them, for all their accomplishments.  And it can be a very difficult thing for us to maintain a proper perspective when it goes contrary to everything that we experience in our culture. 

            So, Paul describes the church as a field, and then he describes the church as building, and then he describes the church as a very specific building – a temple.

            “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (I Corinthians 3:16-17).

            Now, the first thing that I want you to notice about this verse is that it is not talking about our human bodies individually being temples of the Holy Spirit.  Now Paul is going to do that later on in chapter 6.  He’s going to say that your body is a temple and the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But here in chapter 3, Paul is talking about the church as a whole. 

            You see, in the English language, the word “you” can refer to one person (“you need to listen to what I’m saying”), or it can refer to a whole group of people (“you need to listen to what I’m saying”).  Now, here in the South, we’ve solved that problem with the word y’all (“y’all need to listen up”). 

            In the Greek language, there are two different words for “you” – one of them is singular and the other is plural.  So the best way I know to translate verse 16 is this – “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in y’all?”

            Paul is addressing the church as a whole. He’s saying all of you together as the church, the body of Christ, that is where God lives.  You are the temple of God.  God dwells in this group of people.

            And then Paul says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” Which is a powerful warning.  If anybody messes with God’s church, God’s going to mess with him.  Because God doesn’t take lightly to people that hurt his children.  God’s like a mama bear.  You don’t want to come between him and his cubs.

            So, if you do anything to destroy God’s temple, then God will destroy you.  Because the temple of God is holy, which temple y’all are.

            Which makes me wonder, who is Paul talking about destroying the church?  It’s possible there were some people in the Corinthian church who were actually trying to divide it.  They were stirring up trouble.  And that’s why the church had all the issues that they did.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

            I think what Paul is talking about is a little more subtle.  I think he’s talking about those Christians who were taking the values of the world and were introducing them into God’s temple of grace.  As I said, the world is all about admiring people for their many accomplishments and saying that these people are worth so much more than all the rest of the common people.  But when we start thinking like that in the church and we start admiring certain Christians who have accomplished a lot and looking down on other Christians, then we end up destroying the church.

            And the only way to keep that from happening is to remember that we’re all just slaves.  We’re all servants of God.

            So, Paul closes out this section with these words: “Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God….So don’t boast about following a particular human leader.” (I Corinthians 3:18-19,21, NLT)

            There’s simply no place for a celebrity culture in the church, no room for saying that any of us is more important or more valuable than any of the rest of us.  It’s all God, from beginning to end; it’s all God and it’s all grace. One person plants; another person waters; another pulls the weeds. God gives the ability; God gives the opportunity; God gives the growth; God does the work and God gets the glory.  

            One person lays the foundation and we all use our gifts and abilities to build up the church together.  And we end up with a beautiful magnificent temple of grace that God calls his church.

            Then Paul says, “For everything belongs to you — whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, or the world, or life and death, or the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (I Corinthians 3:22-23)

            Think of it like this — in a worldly value system where people who accomplish more are worth more than anyone else, then people are always trying to find a sense of self-worth. They’re trying to find personal value; they’re trying to find some basis by which I can say, “I really am somebody, I really do matter, I really do have value.” And that creates a value system that’s full of competition and comparison that can only bring about jealousy and strife. It’s you against me and we’re constantly comparing and competing to see how we measure up.

            What Paul is saying is here, that that none of that is necessary for those of us who are Christians because we already have it all!  Anything you can name, you already have it. It’s been given to you by the grace of God. It all belongs to you!  Everything that people in our world are trying to ultimately accomplish through a performance-based system is already yours as a gift of God’s grace. You don’t have to compete for it; you don’t have to perform for it; you don’t have to be somebody for it; it’s already yours! God has already given it to you.

            And so, as a result, I don’t have to compare myself with anyone else; I don’t have to compete; I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to live with jealousy and strife, because I already have everything I need. What that does is it frees me up to be a servant. I don’t have to try to prove anything to you; I don’t have to try to impress you; I don’t have to try to impress anybody; I’ve been set free from all that.  

            And so now, I’m free to be a servant.  Whatever God asks me to do, I just want to be faithful to that.  Out of a heart that loves God and wants to be faithful to serve him, my desire is that God gets all the glory in this magnificent temple of grace.

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