Seeing God’s Building Project Ties God’s People Together (1 Cor. 3:9-11)
Today is my installation as the first pastor of the Providence Canadian Reformed Church. Dr. Arjan DeVisser will be leading the service this morning. I’ve been looking forward to this for a few months and now it’s finally here. I was thinking back to my previous charges and my installations there, and my inaugural sermons. Rev. R. Aasman led my ordination service in Smithers in 2000 and my inaugural sermon was on Acts 17:10-12. Unfortunately, I don’t have that sermon anymore. When I came to Langley in 2005, my co-pastor installed me and my inaugural sermon was on 1 Cor. 3:9-11. Since it’s a great text, I thought of using it here too. But instead I went with John 17:3. Nevertheless, I thought that I would share my sermon on 1 Cor. 3:9-11 today on Yinkahdinay.
Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
The body. The bride. A kingdom of priests. A holy nation. A family. The Bible uses many different images to describe the people of God. In the verses right before our text, Paul works with the image of the church as a field, a field fit for agriculture. God appointed certain men to be the workers in this Corinthian field. Paul was the one who came first and planted the seed. Later on, Apollos came and he was the one appointed to water the field. But Paul wants to make one point very clear and it’s this: God was the one who gave the growth. God is front and center, Paul and Apollos are in the distant background.
Paul had to put it this way because of what was going on in the Corinthian church. There were divisions. This happened because the Corinthian believers held on to certain aspects of their pagan culture. As someone else once said, the problem wasn’t that the church was in Corinth, the problem was that there was too much Corinth in the church. The Corinthian believers were living like the unbelievers around them; a favourite pastime for many Corinthians was rattling on about their preferred public speakers and philosophers. The Christians took this into the church and they took sides and argued over who was the better speaker, Paul or Apollos.
This was not a game – it was dividing the church. It was destroying God’s people. So, Paul wants the Corinthian believers to see the big picture. He wants them to take a step back and see what’s really going on. One of the ways he does that is with the image of the field. In verse 9 of our text, he draws on that image one last time as well. But then he moves on to another image: God’s people as God’s building project. And the whole point of giving them this image is to tie the believers together into closer unity. In the sermon this morning, we’ll concentrate on this image of God’s people as a building. As we begin this journey of having two pastors in our congregation, we’ll see that this text also has something to say to our situation. So, I preach to you God’s Word with this theme:
Seeing God’s building project ties God’s people together.
We will consider:
- The workers.
- The building plan.
- The foundation.
1. The workers.
In many of our churches, the reality is that pastors come and pastors go. It does not happen often that a pastor spends his entire ministry in one place. And it happened already in the time of our text. Paul came to Corinth and he spent 18 months there doing mission work and discipling the new believers. After Paul left, Apollos came. Acts 18 tells us that he was remarkably effective in consolidating the work that Paul had done.
Paul didn’t look at this as being any skin off his own back. He appears to have been thankful for the way in which God used Apollos in Corinth. Paul didn’t look at Apollos as being the competition. And that’s why our text starts off by saying “For we are God’s fellow workers…” From what Paul has just been saying, we can conclude that the “we” here is a reference to Paul and Apollos. Though they were given different jobs to do, the two of them were working together for the same cause.
If we were to translate the first part of verse 9 literally, it would sound like this: “God’s we are co-workers…” Notice that in the original, God gets put right at the front as the first word of the sentence. In the English, we find the word in the fourth place of the sentence. I want to draw your attention to that because it’s important. It shows us that Paul is still putting God up front. Paul and Apollos are working together and both of them are under God. Both Paul and Apollos are coworkers who belong to God. God is the one in charge.
Paul made this plenty clear in verse 5 when he wrote that Paul and Apollos were “only servants.” The word there in verse 5 in Greek is diakonos, the same word that the English ‘deacon’ comes from. This word diakonos can mean basically the same thing as “restaurant waiter.” In other words, Paul and Apollos were simply the people who served the food. God was the head chef in the kitchen, even the manager of the whole restaurant. Paul and Apollos were merely servants, waiters, gofers for God.
Now as we move into verse 10, the Holy Spirit shifts our attention to the image of the building. It says in verse 10, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder…” Within this image of God’s people as a building, Paul is giving us his job description. It’s worth noting that he begins by speaking about the grace of God. In 1 Timothy 1:14, Paul says this about himself, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He had formerly been a blasphemer and persecutor. Paul deserved eternal death, but God laid his hand on him. God sent his life in a different direction. Like all of us, Paul got what he didn’t deserve: he was shown grace and mercy and so could become a servant of God.
God gave him a place in the building project of his church. In the specific context of Corinth, this meant that Paul was appointed as the expert builder. Literally it says that Paul was a “wise building site manager.” In all this, Paul again wants to direct our attention to God first of all. God was the architect who had come up with all the plans for the building. God was the one who hired the workers, including the site manager, the contractors, and even the sub-contractors. And Paul was hired on as the building site manager for Corinth. He was the wise building site manager. Just like you sometimes find in the Old Testament, “wise” here means the same thing as skilled or expert. By God’s unmerited favour, Paul was a master builder who knew what he was doing. Through God’s gifts, Paul was spiritually qualified for the work at hand.
The instructions Paul had been given for God’s building project in Corinth were simple: lay the foundation. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth doing just that. When he first arrived in Corinth there was nothing other than perhaps two Jewish synagogues with a few devout Jews – they believed in the Old Testament promises, but had not yet heard or believed in Jesus Christ. When Paul left Corinth after his first stay there, the foundation for God’s building project had been laid. In a few moments, we’ll hear more about what that foundation was.
For now, let’s notice that Paul was not the only worker in this building project. Verse 9 is clearly a reference to Apollos working with Paul. But in verses 10 and 11 Paul speaks of others. He says, “someone else is building on it” in verse 10. This is in the present tense and at that particular moment, Apollos was not in Corinth. Verse 10 goes on to say that “each one should be careful how he builds.” Again, the present tense is used. And then verse 11 also speaks vaguely, not specifying any particular person.
All this taken together indicates that Paul also views the people of God as workers in this building project. The site manager has his role, but others are there working too! And what is their job? They have to build on that foundation that has already been put in place by the site manager, the wise expert builder. That building can only take place when the work crew is unified in their manner of working and their goals.
As we take this truth into our own lives today, we think first of all the role of the pastors here in Langley. They have to build on the foundation that has been laid. But they cannot do this in their own strength, they must rely on the grace of God. We need God’s free gifts, things that we cannot earn for ourselves. We are just weak, sinful men. The only way we can say that we are God’s fellow workers is through God’s gracious gifts which he lavishes on us. We say this of the ministers, but it also holds true for the elders who have been called to shepherd the flock of God. All of us rely on God’s grace to be able to work on this building together.
But it also goes for us as a congregation. Just like with the believers in Corinth, we all have our tasks in this building project. And it starts with seeing the grace of God in our lives. God has given each one of us gifts by the power of the Spirit. Brothers and sisters, what are your gifts? How are you going to use them in this building project? We are God’s building project, but we are also God’s workers, each with our own place in the project whether we’re young or old, single or married. We are working on this building together. Unity will be the result when all the workers strive to build together with the same manner of working and the same goals. We will be more closely tied together when we see ourselves as God’s building project and God’s workers, building on the one foundation.
God’s workers need building plans for the building project. We’ll now look at that in our second point:
2. The building plans.
There is only one real command in our text and it comes in verse 10, “But each one should be careful how he builds.” The “should be careful” maybe doesn’t really sound like a command in English, but it is. We could also say, “let each one watch how he builds.” Then we could ask the question, “why”? What’s at stake here?
The answer is that we have to build according to the plans. We have to find out the style and purpose of the building that’s going up and work in a way that fits. As far as God’s building project with the church goes, it so happens that he has shown to us very clearly the style and purpose of the building. We can find that in verses 16 and 17 of 1 Corinthians 3, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” The interesting thing with these verses is that Paul does not use the second person singular “you.” Instead, he uses the plural, we would say, “You people or you folks.” We often think of ourselves individually as temples of the Holy Spirit. But we are also, as a group of believers, a temple of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Paul says in verse 16, “Don’t you people know that you people are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you people?” This fact also has a bearing on our use of the expression “going to God’s house,” to describe going to church, but I’ll let you think that one out for yourself.
The point is that God’s building project is a temple. God’s building project is a people being built for worship. The style of the building is to be worshipful, so that the people can and do worship their God in Spirit and in truth. This worship is not only what we do on Sunday mornings and afternoons, but it involves a whole life of service to God. It’s meant to tie all God’s people together in perfect unity so that God’s glory is amplified in the world through them. That’s what the building plans are working towards.
Now what happens when we don’t build according to the plans? Think about what happens in the construction world when the plans are ignored. You might end up with with a building without a toilet. But the results could be far worse. You’d likely end up with a building that is unstable and potentially dangerous. If you don’t follow the plans and do whatever strikes your fancy, you might end up with a building that could collapse and kill the occupants. As far as the church goes, if you don’t follow God’s building plans, you could end up with a church that looks like a social club. But the results could be far worse. You could end up with a place of judgment and destruction. If you don’t follow God’s plans for this building project, you might end up with a building that brings eternal death to the third and fourth generation. And the ultimate tragedy is that such a building will not be a temple for God’s glory, but a neon sign inviting everyone to disgrace and blaspheme the holy God and his Son.
So, we need those building plans and we need to follow them. When the Corinthian believers were shown those building plans, they were reminded that they were a work in progress. This was meant to be humbling for them. And that humility would have also been a means to strengthen the unity in the church. It will do the same thing for us. After all, don’t we know that we, as a church, we are a work in progress? God’s building project here is not finished yet. We, individually and collectively, are going to be still building together. The fact that the building plans are still laid out for us is a reminder that we still need them. We need to be reminded that we are being built into a house of worship for our God. It’s a ongoing process, not an accomplished event.
And what happens when the workers do their best to work together using the same plans? What happens when the workers have the same vision for the building project? There is a unity and a oneness in purpose. They’re tied together in a spirit of cooperation. This holds true for all of us, officebearers and regular congregation members alike. Every worker, that means all of us, we need to ask ourselves: Is what I’m doing in this church encouraging and enabling others to worship the true and living God in holiness and truth? When we, by God’s grace, commit ourselves to doing that, the result will be a church that with its unity brings more glory to God. When we, out of thankfulness for what Christ has done for us, build according to the plans, God will bless that and use us to lift Him up in ever greater measures.
Now in our last point, let’s look at the foundation of this building project:
3. The foundation.
You don’t need seminary training to figure out the foundation in our text. It’s laid out very plainly in verse 11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The foundation of the building project is a person, the risen and ascended Saviour. At the base of God’s building project, you’ll find God’s Son.
Notice that Paul says that this foundation has already been laid. He says it in verse 10 and then again in verse 11. This repetition gives emphasis. The fact that the foundation has already been laid means that it cannot be changed. The building site has been selected, and the concrete has been poured. Everything is in place and no changes can be made at this point. The only thing left to do is for the builders to raise a building which fits the foundation.
In this instance, the building has to fit the foundation which is Jesus Christ. We could parse this out a little more. When Paul first came to Corinth, what did he do? 1 Corinthians 1 gives us the answer. In verse 17, Paul says that Christ sent him to preach the gospel. In verse 23, he says that he preached Christ crucified, the message of the cross. It was this preaching of Jesus Christ that led to the groundwork being established for the church at Corinth. The apostolic preaching of the good news is the foundation of the church. That’s why there is no contradiction between our text and what the Spirit says in Ephesians 2:20 about the apostles and prophets being the foundation of the church and Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. The apostles and prophets preached Jesus Christ! The preaching of Christ is the way in which Jesus Christ is the foundation.
And this preaching of Christ cannot be altered or changed in any way. It is the foundation that cannot be removed from God’s building project – if it is removed, then it is no longer God’s building project. The idea here is like those organizations or churches that have constitutions or basic statements of faith that cannot be amended without legally destroying the organization. It’s the same with the foundation of God’s building project. If you don’t build according to the foundation, if you don’t build in a way that fits with the preaching of Christ, the building will be dangerous and will eventually be destroyed. For the Corinthians, the recognition of this was meant to rally them together around the preaching of Christ.
For us, it has to be the same way. Brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ has to be the bedrock of the ministry of the gospel in this church. The preaching of Jesus Christ has to be central if we are to build together. If you were to hear a sermon that could have just as well been heard at a Jewish synagogue, then you have not heard Christ preached. The whole Scripture is about Jesus Christ and the preaching of Scripture has to reflect that. The preaching has to be Christ. When the pastors, elders, and deacons visit you in your home, the Word they bring has to be Christ. It all has to be centered and grounded on Christ.
And when it is, we have a responsibility to work with this foundation, to build on it. We hear every Sunday about the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We hear about the height and depth of our salvation. We hear about that our God is awesome. We’re blown over by his powerful love for us. What does God want to come from this? By the power of His Spirit, he wants us to work with that Word in our lives, to work together in that, encouraging and supporting one another in the faith we share, so that we are led to more worshipful lives.
You could look at it this way: the foundation laid represents our justification. The preaching of Christ announces to us that we are right with God through faith in the Lord Jesus. It is entirely of grace. What we do with that foundation, the further building, is about our sanctification. As believers, we strive to build together a building which gives more and more honour to God. This is about looking at the building plans, about continuing to examine the foundation and see how the building will best fit. In other words, we need the preaching of Christ. And just like with our justification, this too is entirely of grace. It is God’s gift to us when our hearts are set on fire for living holy and worshipful lives as a congregation. It is God’s gift when we see God’s building project and are tied together in closer bonds of unity as we strive to bring glory to him.
God’s building project is us. And this building project is going to continue in the coming years as I minister among you along with Rev. Visscher and the other officebearers. The key truth from this passage for all of us today is to build on the foundation already laid. To see God’s people grow in grace and knowledge, to see God’s people built up into a spiritual house, we need to be tied together in the one Christ and His Word. That is the only way that the church at Langley will be built into God’s temple, a building which gives glory and worship to the triune God. AMEN.