A People that Please God: “An Uncommon Pattern” – 1 Corinthians 3

I saw “The Passion of the Christ” several years ago when it first came out.  Like many people that I saw, both believers and non-believers, I cried when I saw the way men handled the body of my Savior! How brutal they were! How could they be so harsh with this One that was here FOR them? I believe it was a valid question… and it is one that I continue to ask myself as I see the way people in the world, and even BELIEVERS handle the “other body” (as it is designated in Scripture) of Christ – the church. I have watched people hop around from place to place, with little regard for how that affects the body. I have noted the number that criticize freely every aspect of what a church does – especially when they aren’t involved in the working of it. This message is given by a Pastor, but it is not self-serving. I enjoy enormous affirmation, and have suffered precious little criticism in my career. In fact, on balance, I believe I am privileged to serve with great people, and be in service to loving people. On the whole, my observation has been about how quickly we are willing to criticize the church that we don’t go to. Having said that, I have concluded that Paul’s words to the Corinthians should give us pause when we become flippant about God’s church.

Key Principle: People criticize, mock and play with the Church of Jesus Christ because they do not truly comprehend how God feels about their casual attitude toward His church.

This is the third installment of our walk into 1 Corinthians. In chapter one, we saw four reasons that church bodies divide that were NOT good reasons:

  • They had confused the STANDARD of truth – the Eternal Word of God properly and carefully interpreted.
  • They confused the CENTRAL TRUTH of the church – the work and Word of Jesus our Lord.
  • They confused the importance of the WORKER with the importance of the transforming work of God’s Spirit.
  • They confused POPULAR thinking for RIGHT thinking. There are many ways to get people to respond emotionally that are not spiritually sound approaches.

Last time, we saw that Paul went further to develop the healing balm for their divisions. He said: There is nothing like the church of Jesus Christ. The rules of how to do what we do are set in fences that are unique to this work. He highlighted four problems that people run into when they try to DO church the way they DO other organizations in the world:

  • FLASHY METHOD PROBLEM: First, the basis of the conversion of lost people and foundation of that ministry was NOT simply or even primarily based on TECHNIQUE. (2:1). The message should drive method in the church – not the other way around.
  • POWERFUL PERSONALITY PROBLEM: Second, Paul purposed to put his PERSONALITY in the background, and tried with all that he was to put the person and work of Jesus out in front. The stronger the personality, the more tempted we become as leaders to drive what is happening around us. (1 Corinthians 2:2-5). It is perfectly acceptable to build celebrities in the world and let them mark brands with their identity – but not in the church. We are a BODY.
  • LAZY HEARER PROBLEM: Third, Paul knew it would always be TEMPTING to put every truth in the simplest terms for the least mature believers – trying to require very little of the hearers of the Word. The message of real surrender to Jesus and committed study of God’s Word would not be as easily accepted (2:6-13).
  • LOST HEARER PROBLEM: Fourth, Paul knew that many would clamor to have the teaching of God’s Word to ever adjust to the language and desires of a lost world. We must recognize that ministry is not about the world most people desire to live in or become successful in. People hunger for success in THIS world, happiness in THIS world, fulfillment in the things of THIS world – but we preach a Crucified Savior, and selfless Christian and a servant’s heart. Those are not the STUFF of popular worldly thinkers. (2:14-16).

Now on to chapter three, where Paul turns back to the Corinthian division issue with a new approach: People criticize, mock and play with the Church of Jesus Christ because they do not truly comprehend how God feels about their casual attitude.

To really grasp the TRUTH of God’s church, you need different EARS:

1 Corinthians 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. God’s truth is spiritually discerned, and the Spirit’s work is based on surrender. Un-surrendered Christians are selfish and flesh oriented Christians. They trade the ability to really grasp the things of the Spirit for their hunger in this physical world.

To really grasp the TRUTH of God’s church, you need different APPETITES:

3:2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly…. The problem with continually disobedient believers isn’t that God’s Word hasn’t been taught to them – but that they have refused to grow out of stubbornness and they cannot endure the tough truth of surrender. Where does it often first show? In strife and division: 3b “…For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?

One obvious manifestation of selfishness and willful rebellion toward God is the inability to get along with one another. Unity comes from surrender, and rebellion leads to division. When we truly all kneel before the Cross, we find a friend kneeling beside. When we look at what Jesus did for OUR SIN, we don’t puff ourselves up – because we see the light of God’s goodness in stark contrast to our own former darkness.

As the Apostle James said, battles between us come from battles within us. Hurt people hurt people. Refusing to be healed by God will eventually spill over into wounds we will give another – it is inevitable. Either I can take my wounds to the Cross and have them healed there – or I will wound others with my stubborn and failed self-reliance. This church was divided, because people in this church refused to grow up in Christ and yield to Him. Many a church conflict can be summarized in that same way.

To really grasp the TRUTH of God’s church, you need a different VIEW OF LEADERS:

3:5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul had a proper and healthy self-image. He knew he was one that Jesus gave His precious blood to save – so he did not feel worthless. At the same time, he did not inflate himself with visions that his gifts made him more valuable than others with other gifts. He saw himself as we should see ourselves – those who serve Jesus by serving one another. He saw himself as one who labored alongside others who had differing roles – but the same goal – to be used by God to honor Him through the growth of His kingdom.

When he said that “neither the planter nor the water bearer were anything” –  he meant those words in the context of relative value… we aren’t ANYTHING APART FROM THE PURPOSE FOR WHICH WERE CREATED. Our work means something, but only because it reflects our Savior Who means EVERYTHING. God may use us, but could just as easily use another. We are not indispensable, irreplaceable or the key to the future of the Kingdom – Jesus is. Following a man is fine if he is following Christ. If not, he is leading you away from God’s direction – because Christ is always on the right path.

Paul finished the argument with a simple acknowledgement that both the planter and the water bearer are on the SAME TEAM and therefore must not be the reason we separate. People who serve Jesus well aren’t pulling people to THEM – but they are pulling people to JESUS. At the same time, they are excited when a person is following Jesus well even if they are being led by another godly person. Competition in churches is often an ego battle of immature people masquerading as godly leaders. We must be MORE and MORE careful to uphold our brothers in Christ – to speak well or simply refuse to speak at all. My brothers in ministry deserve my love, encouragement and help – with as little criticism as I can possibly offer. The exception to that is when someone wants to deliberately corrupt the truth of the Gospel – but that, in my experience, is quite rare. It happens, but not nearly as much as gossip and criticism about other men of the Word occurs – sadly.

I love that Paul saw the people of the church at Corinth to be a field of labor and a building that was under construction. He KNEW that working with people was neither easy nor short term. Agriculture is about endurance, construction about planning – both are essential in a longer view of ministry. We need to be careful to always build sustainably. If we start something, we need to look at how it can continue – or we should question why we spend our energies in that way. Short term thinking isn’t the right approach to real ministry with people.

To really grasp the TRUTH of God’s church, you must remember HER JUDGE:

3:10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.

In a moment of self-reflection, Paul recognized that God’s grace was the operative power behind his accomplishments in ministry. Who among us can say differently? He recognized that he was in need of a constant flow of grace from the time of his salvation through the whole process of honoring God in ministry. He also openly acknowledged the difference between a good plan for establishing a ministry, and a BAD plan. He said he was a WISE master builder when he placed the foundation stones. Others built upon his work, but Paul outlined the whole building with a foundation of Jesus Christ.

When Paul said there was “no other foundation” he was indicating that there was no other PROPER foundation. Men build ministry on many things that are not Christ. Some build them on EGO (believing that only their denomination or group can bring the truth), others on FAME (using methods that draw crowds by their stunning approach, but are not directed by the Spirit of God). These may result in churches, but at their core they are not about serving Jesus Christ. The day will come when that will be clear – either at the judgment seat of Christ, or even before that time.

3:14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

The real test of ministry is not its temporal popularity, but its spiritual endurance at the scrutiny of the Master.

If Jesus doesn’t deem it correct and healthy – than it simply isn’t. Heaven isn’t a place where a vote will be cast by the members of a theological academy or angelic choir. We serve a committee of ONE – a Master Who will inspect all of the work that we have done. There is NO OTHER treasure higher than HIS SATISFACTION. At the same time, His satisfaction is often paired by the satisfaction of other godly men and women. People who have a healthy walk with God can “sniff out” teaching and leadership that is healthy – because we have the selfsame Spirit within.

Someday Jesus will take all of my labor and place it between us. He and I will look at the number of hours I have labored to know and teach His Word. We will look at the way I communicated that Word to people. He will examine the time I have spent caring for people – and He will give the TRUE and PERFECT evaluation of me. If I have done well in His estimation – the trial of my work before His fiery eyes of scrutiny will survive. If I have not done well – that work will evaporate – with no opportunity to relive my life on earth.

When I stand before Jesus – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years will evaporate into the smoke as the fire of His eyes burn through my life’s work. What is left after all the selfish, ego-driven, stubborn, hard-hearted, gossip-laden, flesh colored work is gone – is what Jesus can BEGIN to celebrate. Mature believers keep that day in their minds eye – and never lose sight of it. Brethren, some of us seem to be content wasting our only opportunity to please Him!

What does it mean for a believer to “SUFFER LOSS”? In the text it is clear that there is no issue of salvation or eternal destiny at stake in the argument – this is a judgment in the life of a believer. Everyone is judged TWICE by God – once for sin, and once for performance of work. The sin judgment determines one’s destiny. The performance judgment, measured strictly against what God has made us capable to complete – is about REWARD. Heaven is the HOME of the believer – but some level of REWARD before the Savior is a conditional blessing to those who live their lives for His glory. For each of us, Jesus will scrutinize our work, and we will see the real truth of our lives – what we were really about. Jesus told his parents when they sought Him in the Temple as a youth, “Did you not know that I would be about My Father’s business?” Perhaps they should have known – but I am not always sure that I could claim that same obvious exclamation. Beloved, I fear that many of us spend much of our lives on ourselves, and not on His honor and glory – can that be? May we see it now and avoid the sadness of loss later…

To really grasp the TRUTH of God’s church, you need to recognize GOD’S COMMITMENT TO HER:

3:16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

God doesn’t use the term TEMPLE to mean church very often, but here is an exception. It is clear in the passage that God wanted men to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is not just another organization to be criticized, gossiped about, and slammed at will. This organism is a living body created by a Victorious Savior. It has His fingerprints, His DNA and was founded on His blood. It not only COST Him plenty to create, it was created with a God ordained DEFENSE system. Criticize it lightly, and God will censure your life’s work easily. Be careful, when you speak of the church… you speak of GOD’S CHURCH.

  • Did not God’s church reach into the sin sick lives of men and women of the Roman Empire at the expense of being thrown to lions, being crucified or beheaded? It was NOT to win a theological argument – for the early Christians were really trying to offer hope to hopeless people.
  • Did not God’s church reach the poor in many nations long before ever being considered by the rich among them? It was not to become WEALTHY  – for even today there are many who handle the broken in skid row and hungry in India’s streets for no other reason than to show their love for and obedience to their Savior.
  • Did not God’s church begin some of the great universities of our world? It was not to become ERUDITE – for though they shudder at the idea, the great schools of Princeton and Yale were begun to train men to share Jesus and His Word with accuracy and scholarship.
  • Did not God’s church open hospitals in many cities of our world? It was not to gain control of health care legislation – but because they saw the sick as needy and the needy as open to Christ.
  • Did not God’s church feed the poor in many places, offer addiction counseling and group meetings, help single parents with support, care for elderly and widows? Yes, sure it has… and it is just beginning its work. There is much MORE to do. We have not been perfect, but we have not been FILLED WITH EMPTY WORDS EITHER – there is a track record and a history.

Where we have failed, we will seek to have God renew us. Where we have resisted, we will learn to submit to the Gentle Chief Shepherd…. But know this… this is God’s church in many places, under many names – and He has promised to be her defense when she is attacked – so tread lightly. Hold back quick words about the intent of others –even if their denomination or fellowship doesn’t completely agree with yours.

We live in a polarized America – and it is affecting even the church. Never have so many believed so much the same thing and disagreed on so little – but made such a big deal about it. We cannot afford to criticize freely what God loves greatly and paid for richly.

3:18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS”; 20 and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.” 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.

Great men and women of God think differently. They are made from a different stuff and cut from a different cloth – and God loves it that way. One who comes to Christ is made alive from death. He must learn to speak of the Spirit. He must learn to share in unity. He must learn to love and laugh and joy with the body… He does not know for his past – for he was dead.

The final conclusions (found in Paul’s words in verse 21) are simple and straightforward – STOP BOASTING IN MEN. Don’t divide along party lines based on personalities. Men may be helpful and gifted, but they aren’t Divine. They may possess the Spirit – but they AREN’T the Spirit. Men are just lumps of clay empowered by a Good God. They are not to be abused, but nor are they to be revered in themselves.

His big finish is a bit strange. He repeated twice that “all things belong to you”. I suspect this refers to a specific part of what people were saying about the movements based on individuals at Corinth– specifically that those who followed a more GIFTED LEADER had some special measure of God’s sanction and God’s honor. It simply isn’t true. God’s Spirit fully indwells where He is fully invited. When we open a room to surrender, He fills it up with Himself. Like air itself, when a vacuum seal is broken – the air rushes in with a wisp of pressure. The lid “pops” and the air displaces the vacuum. The natural state in our world is full of air. The natural state of Heaven is filled with the Spirit. Believers are people in transition – opening bit by bit through surrender to our new “natural state” the fullness of God. We will not fully get there in this body – but we will not need the body when we are fully there!

People criticize, mock and play with the Church of Jesus Christ because they do not comprehend how God feels about their casual attitude.

The body Christ can make the difference…

In 1857, there was a 46 year old man named Jeremiah Lamphere who lived in New York City. Jeremiah loved the Lord tremendously, but he didn’t feel that he could do much for the Lord until he began to feel a burden for the lost and accepted an invitation from his church to be an inner city missionary. So in July of 1857 he started walking up and down the streets of New York passing out tracts and talking to people about Jesus, but he wasn’t having any success. Then God put it on his heart to try prayer. So he printed up a bunch of tracts, and he passed them out to anyone and everyone met. He invited anyone who wanted to come to the 3rd floor of the Old North Dutch Reform Church on Fulton St. in New York City from 12 to 1 on Wednesday to pray. He passed out hundreds and hundreds of fliers and put up posters everywhere he could. Wednesday came and at noon nobody showed up. So Jeremiah got on his knees and started praying. For 30 minutes he prayed by himself when finally five other people walked in. The next week 20 people came. The next week between 30 and 40 people came. They then decided to meet every day from 12:00 to 1:00 to pray for the city. Before long a few ministers started coming and they said, “We need to start this at our churches.” Within six months there were over 5000 prayer groups meeting everyday in N.Y. Soon the word spread all over the country. Prayer meetings were started in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington D.C. In fact President Franklin Pierce started going almost every day to a noonday prayer meeting. By 1859 some 15,000 cities in America were having downtown prayer meetings everyday at noon, and thousands were brought to Christ. The great thing about this revival is that there is not a famous preacher associated with it. It was all started by one man wanting to pray. – (Illustration from Sermon Central, Rich Anderson, Seeking The Face Of Jesus Christ 2/18/2011)