… God Gave the Growth

I Corinthians 3:1-17 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills



… God Gave the Growth



My church.

All of us in this sanctuary have probably used that phrase more times than we can count: My church had a guest speaker this morning. I sing in the choir at my church. My church is having its annual picnic in September.

Now consider a second set of sentences: My son just got a promotion at work. My daughter just got her master’s degree.

One more set. My car handles beautifully. My car needs new tires. I’m fine, but my car was totaled.

What each of those sentences had in common was the little word “my.”

For you fans of English grammar, “my” belongs to a group of words called possessive pronouns. A pronoun replaces a noun in a sentence. For example, instead of saying, “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “She is sitting in the third pew on the left,” Possessive pronouns are a subtype that indicate ownership. Instead of saying “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “Jane is sitting in her pew.”

Listen carefully for the possessive pronoun in these three phrases: My car; my son; my church. Did you hear slightly different overtones in each use of the word “my?” Keep those distinctions in mind. We’ll come back to them in few minutes.

Before we do, I’d like for us to pick up where we left off last Sunday, in the middle of I Corinthians 3:6, a verse that begins with Paul saying, “I planted, Apollos watered …”, last week’s sermon title, and ends with this week’s sermon title “God gave the growth.”



Servants and Growth

I asked Gabrielle to leave a couple copies of last week’s sermon in the narthex, so if you’d missed it, you can pick one up on your way out. But if you were here and could use a quick review, you’ll remember that we talked about the church in ancient Corinth. It had been founded by Paul on his second missionary journey. After Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, Apollos preached there. And Paul received reports that the Corinthian congregation was dividing into factions, each favoring a former leader.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians he writes,


It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (I Cor. 1:11-12)



God’s servants

Paul comes back to this concern in Chapter 3 of this letter, our New Testament lesson both last week and again today, where he asks, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He answers, “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (v. 5)

We talked about how servants (the Greek word diakonos, which comes into English as “deacon”) were individuals whose job was to assist someone else, usually by performing tasks of an unskilled nature. The word conveyed a low social status. Yet the Corinthian Christians were arguing about their loyalty to a favorite servant. Paul explains the problem with their perspective by reminding them:


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.


We’ll come back to the images of the church as God’s field and God’s building. But first, listen again to how Paul describes both himself and Apollos. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.” “He who plants and he who waters are one.” Why, Paul asks in obvious frustration, are you arguing over people who, in God’s eyes, are merely obedient servants doing simple tasks. Why, he asks incredulously, are you trying to distinguish between those God sees as one. What, he wonders almost aloud, is keeping the Corinthian Christians from seeing that it’s God alone who gives the growth to his church.


God gives the growth

Let’s think about those issues in agricultural terms.

If you’ve ever farmed, had a garden, or even grown a flower in a pot, you know something about planting and watering. If you leave the seeds in the packet instead of putting them in the soil, they won’t grow. If you put them in soil and they never get any water, once again, they won’t grow.

But let’s assume you plant the seeds and water them, that you cultivate the soil and protect the young plants from weeds and pests. Are you thereby the one who makes them grow? If you think you are, please catch me at coffee hour and explain to me how you make that happen. I’d love to know.

You plant. You water. But what happens next is out of your hands. What happens next is that God gives the growth.



  1. God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple (vv. 9, 16-17 )

To help us focus on the fact that God gives the growth, not just to plants but also to Christian congregations, Paul uses three images to illustrate the nature and the function of the church. He talks about the church – specifically the one in Corinth but by extension the church in Elmer – as God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple. We’ll spend a little time looking at each image to see what God would have us learn about our situation from this portion of his Word.



The Church as God’s field

First, toward the end of v. 9, Paul calls the church God’s field. The Greek word translated “field” is used only here in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament, this word indicates cultivated land in contrast with an untended pasture. It refers to tilled fields or carefully maintained orchards rather than isolated, unmanaged tracts of land.[1]

For Paul to call the Corinthians “God’s field” is for him to say that their church didn’t simply spring up by accident out in the middle of nowhere. Rather, before the church ever held its first service, God had a plan for its growth. Before the missions committee ever held its first meeting, God knew what he intended the field to produce. He even knew which servants he’d assign to help bring his plans to fruition.

As we saw last week, even before Paul described the church in Corinth God’s field, he’d pretty well explained the metaphor. Paul’s job was to plant. Once the seed had taken root, Apollos’ job was to give it water. As Paul pointedly observes, such tasks are assigned to unskilled laborers, to servants. God, the owner of both the field and the harvest, was the one who ultimately mattered, not those who planted or watered.


The Church as God’s building

Paul then shifts the metaphor, if only slightly, from agriculture to architecture as he continues with his second image of the church: “You are … God’s building.” As one commentator puts it:

“The analogy of Christian leaders working on a major building project is especially appropriate to Paul’s argument. Unlike the field, where one worker could conceivably do all the work from planting to harvest, great buildings in the ancient world … took many years to build, even decades. Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Paul [we’ll come back to the Jerusalem temple in a few moments] was the work of tens of thousands of workers and took over seventy years to build. The same goes for the great cathedrals of Europe built in the Middle Ages.”

Actually, some medieval cathedrals took much more than decades to build. Construction of the great gothic cathedral in Chartres, southwest of Paris, France, spanned four centuries. The cathedral, shown on your bulletin insert, is more than 400 feet long. Its western façade, what we’d call the front, is more than 50 yards wide. The difference between the two steeples is obvious. Both were started about the same time. But the south tower, which is 344 feet tall, was finished some 300 years before the north spire which is more than 30 feet taller.

Building this church was a community effort. Stonecutters, masons, carpenters, glassmakers, metalworkers; all donated their time, talent, and treasure. The town went through alternating periods of prosperity and poverty, and at least one devastating fire. With a project of this scale, “Workers could move on, retire, or die before the building was completed. As Carson observes, with such edifices, ‘it is the project as a whole that is important, and, implicitly, it is foolish to focus all praise on just one of the builders who has contributed.’”[2]

That final phrase sounds a lot like Paul. Once you realize that the building belongs to God, it’s just plain foolish to declare your allegiance to a single member of the construction crew, whether his name is Apollos, Cephas, or Paul.

As with the image of the Corinthian church as God’s field, so when describing the church as God’s building, Paul distinguishes between his work and Apollos’. Paul planted the field, Apollos watered it. Paul laid the foundation, Apollos built on it. Paul isn’t jealous that someone else watered his seeds or built on his foundation. He knows both tasks are essential. He joyfully fulfilled the one assigned to him. Then he trusted God to keep the project going.

Pull out your bulletin inserts one last time, look at the cathedral, then look around this sanctuary. Groundbreaking for this building took place on May 22, 1923. The first Sunday service was held on April 13, 1924, a little less than one year later. Imagine what would have happened on this plot of land if, after the foundation had been laid, another construction crew had come in, thought they had a better idea, and tried to build the Chartres cathedral.

Think about it. Elmer wouldn’t even have its one stoplight. You couldn’t get to the hospital from the highway. God knew his plans for this church before any of us showed up on the scene. He’s been using folks like you and me to carry out those plans ever since. And if those to whom God has assigned these tasks keep building on this foundation, God will continue to give the growth.


The Church as God’s temple

The last image of the church Paul uses in this passage is found in vv. 16-17, where he describes the church in Corinth, and again by extension the church in Elmer, as “God’s 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. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16-17).

These verses deserve more attention than I can give them this morning, but I do want to offer three brief observations.

The first is that in these verses, the word you is always plural. You, plural, are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you, plural. Later in I Corinthians (6:19), Paul calls each individual Christian a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here, however, his emphasis is on the congregation as a whole. You, plural, the church in Corinth, the church in Elmer, you are God’s temple.

Second, why does Paul call the church God’s temple? Remember, Paul had studied the Jewish Scripture and theology with Gamaliel in Jerusalem, the location of the Jewish temple. The idea of the temple as God’s dwelling place, along with warnings aimed at those who would profane or destroy it, are found throughout the Old Testament. So is the idea that God indwells not just a building but his people as a whole (cf. Exod. 25:8; 29:45; Lev. 26:11–12; Ezek. 11:16; 37:26–28; Ps. 114:2). To destroy God’s temple is to damage the spiritual well being of God’s people. God won’t sit silently by and let that happen.

The third point I’d like to highlight is that God’s temple is holy. To be holy is to be set apart by God for service to God. This church is holy, not because of anything anyone here has ever done, but because of what God has called and gifted its ministers and members to do. In the very act of calling us to be his servants, God makes us holy. We may serve by planting seeds or watering them, by laying foundations or building upon those that have been laid. But we do whatever task God has assigned us, and because God has made us holy, what we do brings him glory.





III. Shifts Beneath the Surface

Three images of the church: a field, a building, a temple. What’s the word Paul puts in front of each? He uses a possessive noun: God’s. The church is God’s field. The church is God’s building. The church is God’s temple.

The fact that the church belongs to God probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone here. You knew this church was God’s long before this sermon started. You’ve known it from the time you first learned about the nature and the function of the church.

But to take a closer look at the phrase I used at the outset of this sermon, if you and I already know the church belongs to God, why do we so often say “my church?” Are we missing something?

Not necessarily. I think when we say “my church,” it’s usually a shorthand way of saying, “the church in which I have my membership,” or “the church I normally attend.” Rather than me constantly repeating, “The church of which I became a communicant member on Sunday June 30, 1968,” I simply say, “my church.” I don’t see a necessary problem with the shorter phrase.

I do, however, see a potential problem. The potential problem is that the range of meanings we give to words tends to shift over time and with context, rather like the way the earth can shift beneath its surface, sometimes with similar results.

Do you remember the earthquake that hit Virginia in 2011? Mom and Dad said they felt it up here. When it happened, Tim and I were in my office at Liberty University, about 100 miles from the epicenter. A lot of construction was taking place on campus at that time, so as we felt the vibration and heard the incredibly deep rumble, my first thought was that a big truck was going past. My second thought was that a really big truck was going past. Tim later said he thought it was a very large plane landing at the rather small airport near campus. We went outside to see what on earth was happening.

What had happened, we soon learned, hadn’t taken place either on the road or in the sky, but well beneath the surface of the earth more an hour and a half away. There wasn’t any significant damage in Lynchburg, but you may remember that the quake caused cracks in the Washington Monument, which had to be closed for repairs for the next couple years.

Things that shift unseen beneath the surface can cause great consternation up above. Included among things that can shift unseen are the meanings of our words.

I can’t imagine anyone in this sanctuary this morning intentionally saying “my church” in the same sense as you would say “my child” or “my car.” To say “my church” with the conscious intent of conveying, “the local congregation that I conceived and to which I gave birth” wouldn’t make much sense. To say “my church” intending to indicate “the church to which the Bank of Elmer has finally has given me clear title” would be absurd.

What I can understand is how, over time, our perception of the possessive pronoun “my” as we use it in the phrase “my church” could begin to drift – slowly, silently, somewhere beneath the surface of conscious thought. I can imagine how a legitimate sense of concern for and delight in this church and its ministries could begin to blend into a problematic sense of personal possession. I can envision tension building unobserved beneath the surface of this congregation’s worship and witness as individuals say and hear the words “my church” with slightly different shades of meanings.

Wherever tension builds, whether along the earth’s tectonic plates or in a local congregation, eventually that tension releases. When tension has built beneath the earth’s surface, the resulting release is called an earthquake. Small quakes can crack buildings. Large ones open gashes in the earth itself. And despite our awareness of the damage they can do, no one has yet devised a foolproof way of predicting or preventing an earthquake.



In a somewhat similar way, tension can build below the surface of a church. Pastors come and go. Long time members move away or die. New members join. New leadership arises. These things and many more are natural and normal in the life of the church. They’re also stressful. Each type of shift I just described can create at least some tension. Even if that tension is mild and hidden far beneath the surface, it will, eventually, find a release.

Earthquakes can’t be predicted or prevented. But there is one thing everyone here today can do to foresee and to avoid a jarring release of tension in this church. There’s one way ever member and friend of this congregation – this field, this building, this temple – can help it keep growing through this time of transition. Are you ready? Here it is:

Think about the words you use.

Think about the words you use. Carefully consider the meanings of words like: church, pastor, Jesus. Be alert to the fact that there may be some in this congregation who hear those words a little differently than you may mean them. And forgive me for being so blunt, but please be very, very aware of the fact that there are those in positions of Presbyterian leadership who differ dramatically from this congregation’s consensus when it comes to the meanings of words like: church, pastor, and Jesus.

When you discuss the ministries of former pastors – Mouris Yousef, Joe Hourani, Norman Kellow, Arthur Behrends – my prayer is that you’ll see them all as servants, as those who planted and watered, those who laid and built on a foundation, as the Lord assigned to each.

When you ponder the present and future ministries of this congregation in this community and beyond, my prayer is that when anyone says “our church,” everyone will think about the words “God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple.”

And it’s my prayer that as you continue to cultivate this field, as you continue to build on the foundation that’s been laid, as you continue to worship and serve in this temple, you will continue to find comfort and courage in the words “God gave the growth.”


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 17.

[2] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), p. 151.

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