Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).
1. What word does Paul use to define the role of the preachers and teachers of the church? See 1 Corinthians 3:5 (printed below) Note how the Lord Jesus applied this same term to Himself in Matthew 20:28 (printed below)
After all, what is Apollos? And what is Paul? We are ministers through whom you came to believe; each doing what the Lord gave him to do. (1 Corinthians 3:5)
…the Son of man did not come to receive ministry, but to minister and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28)
The Corinthians were caught up in “hero worship”—they liked to glory in men rather than glory in God; in particular, they liked to identify themselves with their favorite preacher, exalting him and criticizing all others (note 1 Corinthians 1:12). In the context of this spiritual problem that was all too prevalent in the Corinthian church, Paul asks the question, “After all, what is Apollos? And what is Paul?” (verse 5) His answer may have come as a shock to the hero-worshiping Corinthians, but he defines himself and the other preachers and leaders of the church as “ministers.” The Greek word translated “ministers” is the same word from which is derived the term “deacon;” the word was used of those who served and engaged in very menial acts of service—like Christ Himself (note John 13:5 and Matthew 20:28).
2. What work did Paul and Apollos do respectively? But who is responsible for blessing the work and causing it to bear fruit? See 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 (printed below)
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it; but God made it grow. (7) So then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is of any significance; but the one who causes the seed to grow, namely, God. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
Paul “planted the seed”—he brought the gospel to Corinth and introduced the Corinthians to the Savior. Apollos “watered it”—he nurtured the Corinthian believers in the Christian faith. “But God made it grow”—apart from the divine working of God, the ministries of Paul and Apollos would have been ineffective and fruitless. Paul wants it to be clearly understood by the church that it is not the minister who is significant; it is God alone who is significant (verse 7). It is the Lord who employs ministers in His service and who alone can make their work effective and fruitful—and He does so for His own glory (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
3. What does Paul say about the purpose of the various ministers who have labored for the Corinthian church? See 1 Corinthians 3:8-9 (printed below)
Now the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose; and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. (9) We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:8-9)
Far from there being a rivalry between ministers, there is a basic unity: “the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose” (verse 8). Regardless of their unique gifts or spheres of service, all true ministers of Christ have a fundamental unity of purpose: serving Christ by ministering His Word and His grace to His people. As Paul expresses this truth in verse 9, “we are God’s fellow workers,” laboring in God’s field and in the construction of God’s building, the church—it is all of God and through God and for God.
4. Using the imagery of a master builder, how does Paul describe his work in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 (printed below?)
By the grace of God that was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation; and someone else builds upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it; (11) for no one can lay any foundation other than the one which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)
Picking up on his illustration of the church being God’s building, Paul describes himself as “a master builder” who laid the foundation (verse 10). He is referring to his divine calling to be an apostle and in that capacity to preach the gospel as the church’s only foundation (note Matthew 16:15-18). The foundation is not only the facts of the gospel, but is also the living personal relationship with Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel In Ephesians 2:20 Paul declares that we as believers are “members of God’s household, (20) built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Note, also, 2 Timothy 1:13). Thus the church’s foundation is the truth about Christ that results in a true saving relationship with Christ.
5. Paul declares that some ministers build upon the foundation using quality building materials (“gold, silver, precious gems;”) but others use shoddy materials (“wood, hay, stubble.”) What do you think these various “building materials” represent?
A true minister of Christ should be building upon the sure foundation using only the finest quality building materials: “gold, silver, precious gems” (verse 12). That is to say, there must be sound biblical teaching unmixed with the alloys of human philosophy or human psychology; with the objective being the accomplishment of the will of God to the glory of God as opposed to any human agenda or man-centered goals. A true minister of Christ must guard against the use of shoddy building materials (“wood, hay, stubble.”) This is a reference to teaching that is less than biblical; teaching that caters to the whims of the hearers rather than challenging them to pursue the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (note 2 Timothy 4:2-5).