Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2023

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Commentary

In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul returns to a subject that he has already addressed earlier in his letter: the profound need for Christian unity. After all, in 1 Corinthians 1:10 he begs his readers to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

However, that’s part of the passage that the RCL appoints as its Epistolary Lesson for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. So preachers who follow the RCL’s Epistolary Lessons’ schedule for preaching may have recently preached on Paul’s call for Christian unity.

Preachers who are searching for a different emphasis in 1 Corinthians 3 might follow the Spirit’s promptings to its agricultural imagery. Of course, for at least some preachers, proclaiming that imagery may seem challenging. It’s not just that not all of us have green thumbs. It’s also that spring planting seems so far away in some parts of the northern hemisphere that it’s hard to even imagine it right now.

Preachers who are parents or know people who are parents may, in fact, be more familiar with this Lesson’s childcare imagery – and so might choose to focus on it. In verse 1 Paul speaks of Corinth’s Christians as “infants in Christ.” While they may not be chronologically young, they are young in their Christian faith.

Because they still have much spiritual growing to do, Paul tells them that he gave them “milk, not solid food” because they “were not yet ready for” solid food (2). He taught Corinth’s Christians in faith maturity-appropriate ways because they weren’t yet ready for “meatier” teaching. Those who choose to focus on this image will be greatly blessed by consulting my colleague Scott Hoezee’s insightful treatment of it in 2017.

Paul goes on to develop 1 Corinthians 3’s agricultural imagery in verses 5-9. He does so to help address the fissures that have developed in the Corinthian church along the lines of members’ loyalties. While some of its members claim to “follow Paul (Ego men eimi Paulou)”, others claim to follow Apollos (4). Earlier in his letter the apostle also said that still others claim to follow Cephas, while others claim to follow Christ (1:12).

So in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul tries to clarify the roles of Apollos and him. They are not, he insists here, leaders whom others should follow. Paul and Apollos aren’t people to whom others should belong (a literal interpretation of ego men eimi Paulou). In verse 5 the apostle insists that they are, instead, “servants” (diakanoi). Paul doesn’t identify whom Apollos and he serve. However, verse 5’s context leaves room to view them as be both God and the Corinthians’ servants.

Paul’s agricultural imagery describes the form those servants’ work takes. “I planted the seed (ephyteusa),” he says in verse 6, and “Apollos watered (epotisen).” So the apostle pictures the two men whom people “followed” as farm co-workers. While they work, in a real sense, side by side, Apollos and he each has his own distinct job description.

Farming is, of course, immensely important work. Without it not just North Americans but also people across the world would go even hungrier than they do now. Were there no farm workers, many people would starve to death. But even such valuable and highly skilled farmers can’t make anything grow. They can plant seeds, fertilize their soil and in some cases irrigate their crops. However, seeds also need warmth, sunshine and other factors to combine in order to grow.

In a similar way, says Paul, he could plant the seeds of the gospel and Apollos could water those seeds. But only God could turn those seeds into the fruit that is a faithful reception of God’s grace. While the apostles had their own particular tasks in God’s “fields,” the task of growing faith in those fields belongs to God alone.

Paul, in fact, makes what seems like a self-denigrating claim about that in verse 7: “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything (estin ti).” This is, of course, hyperbole. After all, neither farmers nor apostles are “nobodies.” They are image-bearers of God whom God deeply loves and cares for.

But Paul seems to be using hyperbole in verse 7 to make a theological point: just as farmers’ role in growing seeds is limited, so people and the roles they play in others’ salvation are limited compared to the role that God graciously plays in it. The only One who is really “something” in the production of a faithful reception of the gospel is the living God. God is the One “who makes things grow (o auxanon).”

The biblical scholar Sammy Alfaro sees verse 8 as Paul’s call to the Church to rethink the nature of Christian ministry. The apostle, after all, writes there, “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose (hin eisin).”

Alfaro senses that the Corinthians argued about which church leader is a better or more eloquent leader. Paul invites them to think, instead, of church ministry as a collaborative effort among all Christians whom God calls to be God’s servants. “Laboring in the church is a group effort,” Alfaro writes, “and, in the end, God gets all the credit.”

The apostle goes on to add that the One who alone produces growth is also the one who gives “rewards” (misthon) to God’s servant who are like farmers in God’s kingdom (8). This is not, of course, an easy concept to grasp for Jesus’ friends who believe that everything we have is a gracious gift from God. But perhaps Paul is at least suggesting that God will reward “farmers” who sow and water the seeds that are the gospel with a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives.

Verse 9 serves as a kind of climax of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s agricultural imagery. There, after all, Paul refers Apollos and himself as “God’s fellow workers” (Theou … synergoi) and Corinth’s Christians as “God’s field” (Theou georgion).

An exploration of the apostle’s portrayal of Christians as “God’s field” might be a good place for 1 Corinthians 3’s preachers to end their message on it. It reminds us, after all, that the body of Christ is a place where God is continuing to work to raise up godly people. If Jesus’ friends are individually and collectively God’s “field,” than we can be patient with our fellow Christians. Fields are, after all, places where the work of sowing, watering and harvesting goes on year after year.

As the New Testament scholar Richard Carlson points out, even Paul’s grammar underlines the ongoing nature of God’s work in God’s field. The apostle uses the simple past tense to describe Apollos and his work. That means that their ministry was limited not just in space, but also duration. But Paul uses an ongoing past tense to describe God’s work. That suggests that while church leaders work only for a time, God’s work goes on.

Thanks be to God!


In his outstanding book, The Four Pages of the Sermon, Paul Scott Wilson offers wise counsel on some of what it means for preachers to “plant” and “water:” “Sermons need to major in God and in grace. Social justice liberals and evangelicals alike tend to give us shoulds, musts, and have-tos.

“We don’t get enough Easter, Pentecost, Ascension. We get Emerson under other names. We get self-reliance preached to us, and it can’t save us. Preachers avoid grace because it ‘lets people off the hook.’ But God does it. Why must we be such unmerciful servants?

“We need faith, hope, and love in sermons, not just conviction of sin and dereliction of duty. Yes, the addict must stop taking drugs, the tax cheat must straighten up, and the whore get chaste, but where’s the good news that the power of sin died on the cross? Good news is like a good sacrament. It will liberate. Again, I say unto you, it will liberate.

“Let the sermon show God’s work in the world, too. Give God a little credit for a Peace Accord, not just discredit for hurricanes. Let a congregation leave church on Sunday with more faith, hope, and love than when they came in. So frame up themes in sermons not as ‘Jesus wants us to repent’ but as ‘Jesus brings us to repentance.’

“Preach some gospel. Not just ‘God feels your pain,’ but what God does to address your pain. The Bible is the church’s book, and we may choose to preach gospel out of it. That’s where our focus should be because that’s where the Bible’s focus is.”


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