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In 1 Cor. 3:1-3 Paul tells the church that their desire to divide into factions proves that they are still fleshly, for they are still identified with the old man of the soul, not the new man of the spirit.
He continues in 1 Cor. 3:4, 5, saying,
4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? 5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.
When Paul asks “are you not mere men?” he is telling them that their identity is from Adam, rather than from “the last Adam.” It is the soul that seeks to follow men rather than God. It is not the spirit but the soul that lacks the ability to hear God’s voice. We are all fellow servants working in God’s vineyard. To elevate man in the place of Christ is a carnal exercise.
Paul continues in 1 Cor. 3:6, 7,
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 [i.e., relevant], but God who causes the growth.
In farming, one does not credit the hired servants with the growth of the crop. It is the owner who gets the credit. God is the Owner and Husbandman (Farmer) of the field (James 5:7). Further, none of the servants can cause a plant to grow. Their work is secondary and subordinate to the nature and quality of the seed, which God has created. If there were no life in the seed, then he who plants and he who waters would be wasting their time and energy.
It is not that the servants are unimportant or irrelevant in an absolute sense. They are certainly important and will be rewarded accordingly, as Paul will soon tell us. But Paul was speaking of their relative importance, as well as their dependence upon the work of God in causing growth. Ministers can present the gospel and teach the word, but only the Holy Spirit can cause spiritual growth. When men think that we should hear the voice of men, rather than the voice of God speaking through them, they promote soulish carnality and reinforce the dominance of the soul over the spirit.
It is often difficult to discern the difference between following men and following Christ in men, especially when so many do not even know the difference between soul and spirit, or between the old man and the new. Many denominations do not teach these things to their followers, or, if they do, their teaching is quite superficial. Often their goal is to promote soulish religion and maintain a state of dependence upon the denomination and its hierarchy.
But when the Corinthian church fell into this soulish trap, Paul blistered their backsides.
Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:8, 9,
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 [georgion, “farm”], God’s building.
Paul was thus declaring his unity with Apollos, and, by extension, with Peter (Cephas), who also had his share of followers (1 Cor. 1:12). We are all “one,” Paul says, and “fellow workers” on God’s farm. Each will be given wages (rewards) according to the quality and spiritual value of his labor.
In verse 9 Paul expands the farm-worker metaphor to construction work in “God’s building.” In other words, Paul leaves the farm and paints a picture of construction workers erecting a temple. 1 Cor. 3:10, 11 says,
10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder, I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Earlier, Paul planted the field, but now he pictures himself as “a wise master builder” who lays the foundation of Jesus Christ. Earlier, Apollos watered the seed, but now he is pictured as one who builds upon that foundation. Paul was the first to begin the work in Corinth, and Apollos came later to assist in teaching the word.
The important issue that carries through here is that the foundation is Jesus Christ. In the flow of Paul’s narrative, he is telling the church that Christ is the focus of attention. The entire structure must be built upon Jesus Christ, not upon Peter, Paul, or Apollos. If the church builds upon any man, it has uprooted the foundation of Jesus Christ.
On March 29, 1998 a powerful tornado destroyed the Church of St. Peter, located in St. Peter, Minnesota. We saw this as an occasion of revelation, so later a group of us drove there to inspect the damage and to see what God would say about it. We discovered that the Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter had been reduced to rubble, and that its very foundations were removed.
Nearby was a Lutheran Church on the corner of 5th and Grace. Its foundations were intact, but the roof had been torn off and needed to be replaced.
The word of the Lord came to us, saying the Catholic Church of St. Peter needed a new foundation, for it was built upon Peter, not upon Jesus Christ. The Lutheran Church had been founded on Jesus Christ, but needed a new covering—new leadership that truly acknowledged Jesus Christ.
We understood from these examples that God was soon going to deal with the denominational churches, but that He would deal with them differently. It is somewhat ironic that Peter himself testified that “judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17, KJV). Paul says that “the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor. 3:13). There is a fire coming upon each church and each denomination, and it will destroy whatever is not of God so that the believers may be delivered from their own soulish dependencies.