Dr. Cornelis P. Venema
President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary
In the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul vigorously chastises the Corinthian church for its “fleshy” assessment of those who ministered the gospel to them. Though he begins the letter on a high note, thanking God for graciously “enriching” the Corinthians “in all speech and all knowledge” (1:5), he soon descends to describe them as “people of the flesh” due to the jealousy and divisions that obtained among them (3:1-5).
What was the occasion for Paul’s displeasure with the Corinthians?
We are told in the first chapter that there was an unseemly “cult of personality” that had taken root in the church. Paul had received a report from Chloe’s people that they were quarreling about their ministers. As he puts it, “each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1:12). Apparently, in conformity to the standards of the surrounding culture, the Corinthians were taking the measure of their ministers, prizing some for their lofty speech and wisdom while decrying others (including Paul!) for their weakness and inadequacy. Among the Corinthians, there was an unholy tendency to boast about the excellencies of their preferred ministers while simultaneously “roasting” those whose deficiencies, by comparison, were easy to catalog. Spiritual elitism and self-aggrandizement were corrupting the ministry of the gospel in their midst.
The apostle Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ boasting is palpable. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is horrified by it. Such boasting dishonors Christ. For this reason, Paul sarcastically asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). And he proceeds to remind the Corinthians of the nature of the gospel itself. The word of the cross that ministers preach is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (2:23). Therefore, how dare they boast in the power and wisdom of those who minister this gospel? To do so is utterly incongruent with the word that they minister. Indeed, the worldly wisdom and power of their favorite ministers stand in shocking contradiction to preaching a Savior who was crucified in weakness and shame to save His people from their sins.
In the course of his reply to the Corinthians misplaced boasting in their preferred gospel ministers, Paul offers a remarkably different portrait of gospel ministers than the one that captivated the Corinthians: “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 gives the growth” (3:5-7).
There are several features of this portrait that require notice.
First, when he uses the impersonal pronoun “what,” rather than “who,” Paul underscores how mindless it was for the Corinthians to celebrate their favored ministers. Paul’s language expresses disdain, even disrespect, for their unseemly attachment to one minister above another. You might paraphrase his language this way: “What on earth are you thinking? Why would you ascribe such importance to us, when we are merely servants through whom you believed?” Ministers are merely instruments through whom God works. They are not those “in whom” the Corinthians believed. Nor are they persons “from whom” the Corinthians were brought to faith.
Second, the term Paul uses for ministers was originally used for those who wait upon tables, providing those whom they serve with food that they neither produced nor prepared. By using this term, Paul underscores the lowly position of those who minister the gospel in relation to the one on whose behalf they serve. The field in which they labor is “God’s field.” They are merely “field hands” who plant and water the seed or gospel word that is entrusted to them by the owner of the field.
And third, the primary emphasis of the apostle Paul rests upon God who alone is the “Lord of the harvest” (cf. Matt. 9:38). Though Paul planted and Apollos watered, only God gave the growth! Just as God alone calls ministers to be His servants, so God alone graciously and powerfully grants them fruitfulness. Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters amounts to anything. They have no power to ensure a rich harvest. Ministers may be those “through whom” faith is given, but they are not God “from whom” such faith stems. So, if the Corinthians wish to boast, let their boast be in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ alone.
The church of Jesus Christ also needs to remember this in our day, as the “cult of personality” is very much alive in our culture. The ministry of the gospel is indispensable, to be sure. God has appointed ministers of the Word as His servants “through whom” we come to believe. But our expectation for a plentiful harvest rests upon God’s power and wisdom, not theirs. That’s good news for ministers and congregational members alike.
This article was previously published in the June 2021 issue of The Messenger.