A Messaage to Ministers
Tim Temple

Introduction

All of us are ministers, so this is a message from the Word of God to all of us who want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember the Corinthians had a problem that is very often repeated in our society today, which was the problem of exalting men. Probably no era in history has had more of an opportunity for that kind of exaltation of men than we who live in the electronic age. With the television media and the other kinds of media that we have, there is a great deal of exaltation of men, which has taken a turn for the worse in the last several years. Nonetheless, this is a time when people tend to think about individual ministers, individual preachers, as representative of all that should be represented by the name of Jesus Christ.

The Corinthians had a tremendous problem along that line, and in the process of that exaltation, just as so often happens today, they were creating divisions within their group. There were some who were actually arguing over who the best leader was and who should be the most exalted leader. This is one of the several problems that Paul is writing to the Corinthians about. Interestingly enough, it is the first problem that he addresses in a long list of problems that he writes about. It is the one to which he gives the most attention. We would assume from that that it is the most important for us to understand. It is foundational to the other problems about the local church that Paul is going to address in this letter.

As we come to chapter 3, Paul says three things to the Corinthians and to us about this problem. First of all, in verse 1-8, he talks about their misconception of the ministry. We talked about those verses in our last lesson. Then in verses 9-17, which we want to think about today, he talks about a message to ministers. We saw, as we looked at those first eight verses last week, that every believer is a minister, that all of us have a ministry for the Lord Jesus Christ, that in fact there should not be a distinction between the clergy and the laity, that every believer ought to be in full-time service for the Lord Jesus Christ. So this message to ministers is not just to the professional clergy, but to all of us as believers.

Laborers Together With God

Since there is a misconception of the ministry that is very easy for us to have, then it is very important to see the message to ministers that we find in these verses. That is what we want to talk about today. Then the third part of the chapter has to do with motivation for the ministry, and we will talk about that, verses 18-23, in our next lesson.

The first thing to notice about this message to ministers has to do with their position. Look at I Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 9:

I Corinthians 3

9For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building.

Now remember that in the previous verses, Paul has said that it is wrong to exalt ministers and that it is a misconception of the ministry to think that men are important in God's work, because in verse 7 he said:

I Corinthians 3

7So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.

We talked about the fact that no matter how hard you and I may work, and no matter how involved we may be in the Lord's work in whatever area He has given us in which to work, those of us who participate in the ministry, all of our efforts amount to nothing if we are not looking to God to give the increase. We get out and do the physical aspect of the work, but unless we are dependent upon God for the increase, none of it really amounts to anything; so from that standpoint, men are just not important in God's work.

We might get the idea, “Well, if men are not important in God's work, then what part do we play? Are we just kind of spiritual robots? Do we just kind of get out there and God sort of moves us around? Why is it important that we even pay attention to what we are doing if it is just a matter of being available for God's use?” That is the idea that Paul has in mind as we come to these verses–the answer to those questions.

Going back to verse 9, notice the first thing about this verse, the phrase, “laborers together with God”. We are laborers together with God. You know, that is a wonderful thought. You and I, as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, are working together with God. It is a wonderful thing to know that if you are a planter or a waterer–terminology that Paul used back in verses 7 and 8–whatever it is that God has given us to do, we are not out there trying to do it in our own strength. We don't just have to get out and find some way to kind of scratch away at the ministry and hope that it all turns out all right. In fact, the misconception that Paul dealt with last week was that if you are out there trying to do it in your own strength, then it is a total waste of time.

By contrast, if we are being faithful to God in whatever He has given us to do, whether it is in the office or in the shop or on the campus or on the military base, then we are not just laborers for God; but we can have the confidence that we are laborers with God, that we are actually working with God through His power.

The Principle of Overflow

There is something else to notice about verse 9. The metaphor changes just a little in the middle of the verse. Notice the phrase, “ye are God's husbandry; ye are God's building”. Not only are we laborers with God, we are partners with God in the ministry; but not only that–we are the product of God's labor. We need to think very carefully about this for a moment. What Paul is telling us is that God not only allows us the privilege of working with Him, He is also the One who makes us usable in that work in the first place. We work with Him while He works in us; so we are laborers with God, but we are also the product of God's work within us. This is what I like to call the “principle of overflow”, a principle that we find in various places in the Scripture. God brings it up to remind us of it at various times as we work our way through the Scriptures. The “principle of overflow” is a term that I have coined; it is not in the Scripture. You might think of some other phrase that you think would be more descriptive. This is just something that speaks to me.

The idea is that as we take in the Word of God for our personal use, God uses His Word to build us up and to strengthen us and to instruct us about what He wants us to do. As we are obedient to His Word and we put it into effect in our lives, out of that overflow of our personal growth grows a ministry to other people. That is always God's standard; that is always the way God wants to work. We are laborers with Him, but only because we are the product of His work in us. I have often said that God is much more interested in what He can do in us than what He can do through us. We live in a time when, like the Corinthians, we focus on people, and we focus on activities. We tend to say, “He is really working for the Lord; look at all he has accomplished.” Sometimes it is legitimate to say that, and sometimes it is not. We are going to see as we get farther down in the chapter that the Holy Spirit, writing through Paul, warns us that we need to be very careful about assessing the ministries of others. What is most important is what God is going to do in us, and He cannot work through us unless we allow Him to work in us. It is the principle of overflow.

The Example of Ezra

The example that I like to cite because it is very clearly stated in one verse in the Old Testament is the Old Testament priest, Ezra. Ezra was a scribe, but he was also what we would call today a Bible teacher. He was used, if you remember that part of Old Testament history, in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the captivity of the Israelites. Remember they were in captivity for seventy years, and then they were allowed to go back to rebuild the temple and rebuild the walls. Ezra was the Bible teacher who encouraged the people by teaching the Word of God. In Ezra, chapter 7, verse 10, there is a verse that tells us why Ezra was so effective:

Ezra 7

10For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.

If you have listened to me very long, you have heard that verse before because it is a very basic, important verse about the ministry. Think carefully for just a minute about this. Ezra had made up his mind to seek the law of the Lord. That doesn't mean that it was lost somewhere and he wanted to find it. Rather it was that he wanted to learn what the Word of God wanted to say, to seek an understanding of the law of the Lord. But notice what comes next: “…and to do it…” Then notice third on the list, “…and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments”. Ezra was a tremendous spiritual leader, and the people under his leadership accomplished great things for God because of the principle of overflow. Ezra did not set out to be the greatest Bible teacher who ever lived; he set out to learn the Word of God and to do it. Because of his desire to know the Word of God and because of his desire to be obedient to the Word of God, then God was able to use him in the lives of other people. That is always God's principle; that is always the way God operates. That is the way God wants to operate in your life and in mine.

Seek to Know His Word and Do It

Many times people come to me and they will say, “I just want to serve the Lord; I want to do something for the Lord. I wish there was a ministry that I could have.” My advice to them, in whatever words I may use, is this: You seek to know the Word of God and be obedient to the Word of God and keep before the Lord that you want to serve Him, and everything will fall into place. You may not be in a pulpit ministry. You may be in something that the world would even consider a secular kind of job, but God will give you a ministry if you will seek to know His Word and to do it. That is the kind of people God is looking for; that is the kind of people God can use–people whose lives can overflow into the lives of others.

So the message to ministers as to our position is not that the minister is to be some highly exalted, highly regarded individual; but the position of the minister is a person who is a laborer together with God in the home, in the office, on the campus, on the military base, in the shop, in the pulpit, wherever it is you have been placed, a person who is seeking to know God's Word and to be obedient to it, and out of that to overflow into the lives of others. That is the position of ministers. That is God's design for reaching the world for Jesus Christ, not just as pastors and missionaries and radio preachers. That is what we tend to think of as “the ministry”. God's message to ministers as to our position is we are laborers together with God and at the same time, we are God's building. We are God's product wherever we may be.

Pursuit of God's Plan

In verse 10, there is another part of the message to ministers. Here we find the message to ministers as to their pursuit. What is our purpose in the ministry? What is it that we are after? What is that we are about? Notice in verse 10:

I Corinthians 3

10According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.

Notice that Paul says that he had laid the foundation. This is a reference to the fact that Paul was the founder of the Corinthian church. He was the one whom God had used to get the whole thing started. Let's get ahead of ourselves for just a moment and glance down at verse 11. Notice that Paul specifies that the foundation is Jesus Christ:

I Corinthians 3

11For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Paul is not saying, “I am the foundation.”, but rather, “I am the foundation layer.” “Jesus Christ is the foundation,” Paul said, “but I am the one who came along and laid that foundation. I am the one who preached Jesus Christ to you originally.” But now he says, in verse 10, that someone else is going to come along and build on the foundation, and that is as it should be. God had given Paul the ability to found the church and the gifts necessary to get things started and the guide these new believers, to get them ready; but someone else now would come along and that person would have other abilities and other ideas, and he would develop the church further.

Our purpose as ministers, our pursuit as ministers is to do whatever God has given us to do. Just because Paul had foundation-laying abilities didn't mean that everyone that came after him had to do the same kind of work he had done. This will be much more amply developed in chapter 12 when Paul gets into the development of spiritual gifts and the fact that we all have differing gifts. If you remember, he uses the illustration of the human body and the difference between the human eye and the hand and the foot and other parts of the body. As we all know, the various parts of the body are not the same. The eye is not the ear; the ear is not the hand. But at the same time, the hand cannot say to the eye, “I have no need of thee.” We all have various roles to play; we all have various parts to play in God's work. Your ministry is not the same as mine and mine is not the same as yours, but our pursuit is to do whatever we have to do. Paul said to the Corinthians that his pursuit was to found the church, to lay the foundation of Jesus Christ, but your pursuit is to build on that foundation. So our pursuit as ministers is to do whatever God has given us to do. That is our purpose; that is our pursuit.

Let me tell you something: Don't try to be anyone other than who you are. A lot of people spend a lot of time in trying to play the role that they admire in someone else, trying to pattern themselves after someone else. Certainly we can learn from other people, and there is a certain amount of validity to following the footsteps of a leader, but don't try to be someone else because God has designed you to be what He wants you to be, and God has given you abilities and talents and spiritual gifts that will accomplish what He has for you to accomplish in the place that He has for you to accomplish those things. If you are busy trying to be someone else, then you are not going to be what God would have you be. Try to be the most sincere and effective servant of God that you can be in the place where God has put you. Take in the Word of God. Obey the Word of God. Ask God to let you spill over onto other people, and don't worry about what everyone else is doing. That is our pursuit.

Build On the Foundation

Then in verses 11 and 12, we come to a third section of the message to the ministers and that is a message concerning our purpose, similar to what he has been talking about, but with really a little different slant:

I Corinthians 3

11For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Remember that this message is addressed to all of us as ministers. We have just been saying how our gifts and abilities and personalities and talents and location vary from each other. What is the purpose of all of those ministries? Actually it is twofold. First of all, no matter what our particular ministry may be, our purpose is to build on the right foundation. What is that foundation? Jesus Christ. Not only that, but to build only on that foundation. Why am I saying that? Because it is very easy if we are not careful to make some other aspect of the Christian life foundational. Listen carefully to what I am saying. There are a lot of very important doctrines that really need to be emphasized in the world today. God may have gifted you and equipped you and put you in a place where the focus of your ministry is going to be on a particular area of ministry. Perhaps God has given you the gift of helps. If He has, you are probably interested in the needs of the poor and the needs of the disadvantaged. Those are very important needs, and God has equipped some people to address those needs, and that is why it is important that you don't try to be someone else. If God has equipped you to work with the needy and the disadvantaged, then do that. That is what we have just been talking about in the verses above this. But whatever your ministry is, don't forget that the foundation is still Jesus Christ.

Maybe your ministry is teaching the Word of God, and God has equipped you and called you to a place in the academic world. Maybe your ministry is a ministry of giving, and God has equipped you and enabled you to make money, and He has given you the ability to perceive needs and to use your business acumen to meet those needs. There are so many different kinds of areas in which God puts us to work, and those are all very valid and important areas of ministry, but don't ever forget that the foundation is Jesus Christ.

Ultimate Goal of the Ministry

What do I mean by that? Whatever your ministry is, be sure that sooner or later in one way or another it comes back to the presentation of Jesus Christ. If you are doing good works just for the sake of good works, if you are helping the poor just because the poor needs so much help, if you are involved in giving money to Christian organizations just because Christian organizations need money, if you are involved in teaching just because there is a need for good, academic standards, the unsaved can do that. You and I, who know Jesus Christ as Savior, are the only ones who can use that ministry to the poor or that ministry of giving or that academic area or whatever else it may be to bring that back to the message of the Gospel. Whatever area of ministry you may be in is a vehicle for getting Jesus Christ across. You can certainly still accomplish those other things that might be the goal, but the ultimate goal is to present Jesus Christ.

I remember the story of a business man who was very concerned for his business partner who was unsaved. The other partner had accepted Christ after he was already in the business, and he wanted his friend and partner to be saved, and he prayed for him for years. Finally, after years of praying for his partner, the partner went to an evangelistic crusade, which was being held in their city, and the Lord opened his heart, and he accepted Christ as Savior. He came back to the office the next day and began to tell everyone that he had been saved. The partner, who had been praying for him all those years, said, “Praise the Lord; I have been praying for this for years.” The new Christian's face just fell, and he asked, “You have been praying for me for years?” He became angry and he said, “You have been praying for me, but you never said anything to me. I might have found Christ years ago if you would have said something to me.” You see, that is the point. Whatever that ministry may be, and we may be sincerely doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, sooner or later it needs to come back to the message of Jesus Christ.

If you work with the poor and the disadvantaged, since I am using that as an example repeatedly today, I don't mean that you have to cram the Gospel down their throats the first time you get a chance to talk to them; but sooner or later God is going to give you the opportunity to explain that it is only because of Jesus Christ that you are able to do this kind of work. Always be looking for opportunities to present Jesus Christ in the midst of whatever that ministry is that God has given you to do. Some ministries are specifically more evangelistic than others, but all ministries are to be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. That is our purpose. Ultimately our purpose in whatever we are doing is to bring that message of Jesus Christ in the picture. It may take longer in some areas of ministry than others. It may see much smaller results in some areas of ministry than others, but always our purpose is to bring that foundational message of Jesus Christ.

Building With Proper Materials

I said that there were two purposes for ministers. The first is to build on the right foundation and to build only on that foundation. The second purpose is to build with the right materials. Look at verse 12:

I Corinthians 3

12Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;

Following his metaphor of building, Paul says that there are two kinds of building materials that we can use on this foundation of Jesus Christ. First, there is gold, silver, and precious stones. I take these to represent true doctrine and practice, the very kind of thing that we have been talking about–doing things in the name of Jesus Christ, doing things with the motivation of sooner or later being able to present Jesus Christ.

This imagery of gold, silver, and precious stones would have been very familiar to Paul's original readers, the Corinthians of the first century, because idol temples, which were all over the Roman world, were often decorated with gold and silver and jewels. They were very beautiful, ornately decorated temples. In fact, in verse 16, he is going to carry the metaphor further in saying that we are the temple of God. We, as human beings who have accepted Christ as Savior, are God's temple. God hasn't adorned His physical temple with gold and silver and precious stones, but He wants us to adorn our lives in that way. What are those gold and silver and precious stones? They are the works that are motivated by bringing others to Jesus Christ.

There is another kind of building material in verse 12 also. There is also wood, hay, and stubble. These represent the opposite of gold, silver, and precious stones. These are the things that are not done in the name of Jesus Christ. Also, in the sense of the metaphor that he is using, these were the materials with which the homes of the common people were built. The idol temples were built out of gold and silver and precious stones, but the dwellings of mere mortals were made out of wood, hay, and stubble.

Let me pause and ask you right here. What are you building in your temple? What are you building on the foundation of Jesus Christ? Is it a beautiful ornament of your life, or is it a shabby, little hovel of some kind? When you see someone who has a need, do you respond in the name of Jesus Christ, or do you respond to somehow draw attention to yourself? When you see someone who has a need, do you respond in the way that Jesus Christ would have, or do you respond just in some way that will as quickly as possible get that need out of the way. That is the difference between gold, silver, and precious stones and wood, hay, and stubble.

We will talk in our next lesson about the proving of all of this work. Think, as we conclude, about this matter of wood, hay, and stubble and gold, silver, and precious stones. You see, Paul is not talking here about building or not building. He is not talking about those who build and those who don't do anything. The whole metaphor has to do with building. He is talking about the kind of building that we are doing.

As you pursue your ministry, another part of the message to ministers is what kind of activity are you doing? Are you doing those things that spring from the intake of the Word of God and the overflow into the lives of others or are you pursuing that ministry in your own strength? Are you pursuing that ministry to draw attention to yourself or perhaps to get this thing out of the way as quickly as possible, just giving kind of a nod to God as you go through life? That is the difference between wood, hay, and stubble and gold, silver, and precious stones. So we, as God's ministers, have the wonderful privilege of working with Him and having Him work through us and to be used to build on the foundation which Jesus Christ has laid.

What a privilege that is! What a wonderful message to ministers! I hope that every one of you, as ministers, will accept the challenge of the message that we find here.


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