Sermon: “Our Vision for Fruitfulness” (1 Corinthians 3:1–9)

by Mar 10, 2019Sermons0 comments

This is the first sermon in the four-part series of Harvest’s vision for the Building on a Firm Foundation Campaign. In this sermon, Pastor Gerber talks about the contrast between false, fleshly church growth, and true, spiritual church growth that God gives.

We must labor for the growth that God alone gives, but we cannot engineer it.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, ESV

We are going to be this morning, as Paul talks about church growth. Now depending on who you are, church growth may be a really exciting topic for you. Or perhaps the topic of church growth is something that makes you really uncomfortable, perhaps for good reasons. When people talk about church growth, often they talk about purely numeric growth; more members in our churches, more money in our budgets.

When the scriptures talk about growth the idea is not so much about breath, as about spiritual depth. The issue that Paul is addressing here, right out of the gate, is that the Corinthians have not grown in the spiritual depth. They are still as infants in Christ. The gospel is supposed to be something that permeates more and more into every facet of our lives and yet the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified remains only a surface level thing for the Corinthians.

Yet as we talked about real spiritual growth, that has to be the first thing. If we don’t have that we don’t have anything. The scriptures are also very clear that we must pray for numeric growth. For more people to come to see Jesus Christ and him as Lord and Savior.

The problem is that many of the church growth conversations only talk about external numbers, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You just have to read the book of Acts, the story of the original expansion of the church, and you see an overwhelming emphasis on numbers. I did a quick study and I found as many passages as I could about people in numbers and multitudes coming to know Jesus. I found about 20 places in the book of Acts where this is true.

I will give you five just to give you a flavor of what this sounds like.

“41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:41, ESV

“41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:41, ESV

“47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47, ESV

“4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” Acts 4:4, ESV

“14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,” Acts 5:14, ESV

“7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:17, ESV

The principal of this is that God intends for his church to grow, it’s not something we are putting on God. This is God’s state intention. It’s something that he will accomplish, and he does accomplish.

Maybe you’re sitting here today and thinking how do we talk about this stuff? Maybe you’re eager and saying, what are we waiting for? Perhaps the idea of church growth scares you or it sounds presumptuous. Or maybe you are worried that if Harvest were to grow it would mess up some of the good things that happen here. Or maybe you’re thinking, I see this issue of growth, I see that God gives the growth, I see people coming to Christ in the book of Acts, but I don’t look what that would sound and feel like in our midst.

The real question that all of us have to ask is, what does God tell us? What does God speak to us about this subject church growth? Our big idea today is this, We must labor for the growth that God alone gives, but we cannot engineer.

We see this in three points.

  1. We Cannot Engineer Church Growth
  2. God Alone Gives Church Growth
  3. We Must Labor for Church Growth

We Cannot Engineer Church Growth

We have been in 1 Corinthians for the last eight weeks and so far, what we have seen is Paul describing a disease in the body. In 1 Corinthians twelve, we will see Paul describe the church as a body. It is made up of many differently equipped members. One is an eye; one is a foot. All of us are different and yet we are involved as one in the Bible of Christ.

The problem is that there is a disease in the body. If you remember all the way back to 1:10-16, Paul began to identify the symptoms of this disease. Just as if you went to the doctor, the doctor would ask you a lot of probing questions to diagnosticate what is going on in your body.

So, Paul says I have heard this report, there are divisions in your midst. You are splitting up into factions. Some of you having been aligning around me, Paul says, I was not crucified for you, you were not baptized into my name. Others were following after Apollo or Peter. Others have pridefully boasted that I follow Christ, which is the right idea and wrong motivation. Then in seventeen, Paul begin to diagnose the underlying issues. He begins to explore what is actually wrong, you’re feeling these symptoms but there’s something deeper going on. So, in verse seventeen he begins to talk about wisdom.

In the second half of chapter one and throughout chapter two, Paul has been contrasting human wisdom and the loftiness of speech with which human wisdom is proclaimed in the world. He contrasts that against God’s wisdom. In the eyes of the world God’s wisdom doesn’t look very pretty. It’s a dying, bleeding, naked man on a cross. Jesus Christ and him crucified, the world looks upon that as weakness. Yet Paul says to those that are being saved, to those in whom the Spirit of God is at work, that’s not that’s not foolishness, but that’s the power of God and the wisdom of God. Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The problem is Paul says you’ve been relying too much on what looks glitzy and glamorous and exciting and powerful, according to human eyes and human years and human understanding. And the Spirit of God has not yet penetrated deeply enough into your hearts for you to see the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on human flesh. Who entered this world, who suffered and obeyed and bled out on the cross for us and for our salvation? Who is resurrected and who is seated at the right hand of the Father and glory? Who will come for us in glory one day? You’re not looking at him, you’re distracted by all the things in your world.

Now that Paul has given his diagnosis of the underlying issues of this disease, in chapter three he begins to apply the remedy to this disease. So, in verse one he says,

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, ESV

Those last words are important because they tell us about what Paul thinks about the Corinthians. The Corinthians are actually in Christ. They have actually come to a real saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. They are in Christ and in fact we went through several verses in the book of Acts earlier in the sermon and I kept back one that was fairly important to our passage. It’s about the numbers of Corinthians believing in Acts 18:8

8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. Acts 18:8, ESV

It was true faith, it is true belief, they believed through the plain, fearful preaching of Jesus Christ and him crucified. They came to faith and were baptized. Paul is not saying that you’re not Christians at all, but he’s saying that he couldn’t address them as spiritual people. That is, as people who are characterized by a sensitivity to a following after and obedience to the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Holy Spirit is active to some degree, but they are largely ignoring his influence in their lives.

Instead these are fleshy people he says. People of the flesh, as infants in Christ. Flesh is the opposite of the spirit. The flesh is given to the desires and pursuits of this world, and this world’s wisdom. As opposed to the things of the Spirit of God, which are given to Jesus Christ and him crucified. The wisdom of God and the power of God. So, Paul says rather than listening to the Spirit and following Christ, you were fleshy, when I was among, you were like infants in Christ.

We have a newborn in our house right now and this newborn is pretty small, so we feed him all the time. You know it happens every time we go to the doctor? We rejoice when he gains weight. How many of you all rejoice when you gain weight, right? But you do that for infants, you want them to become fleshy. Infants are supposed to be fleshy; they are supposed to be fat babies because really there’s nothing for them to do except to eat and sleep and eat and sleep. Some of them, if you’ve ever held them, are really rotund babies. That’s a good thing.

As it happens, in human development, eventually these children grow up. What’s normal and natural early on, they grow-up and eventually they can crawl and eventually they can walk, then they run. Suddenly an unlimited wellspring of energy is opened up and they run around constantly without ever stopping until they crash at the end of the night or in a fit during the day.

This is the way that normal early childhood development works. What Paul says is when you were these infants in Christ I knew where you were, I got it, I fed you with milk. He says I knew what you needed and that I had to deal gently and ease you along into knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified. I couldn’t give you solid food, just as you couldn’t give that to an infant.

But he says at the end of verse two, here’s your problem, here’s where the disease is. Even now, you are not yet ready for solid food. Even now, I’ve given you Christ, I haven’t held back any doctrines or hidden the fullness of the doctrines. But I had to give you kind of a surface level milk. I’m not able to go deep with you into the deep things of God, the solid food of Jesus Christ and him crucified because he says, in verse three, you are still of the flesh.

Now Paul uses a slightly different word here, and again little bit later in verse there, than he said in verse one. That’s when he uses the word “sarkinoi”. Here he uses the word “sarkikoi”. You don’t have to memorize those, but I tell you that just to tell you how to similar they are, it’s one letter different.

Earlier it was fleshy. You were like a fat chubby baby. There’s this baby fat that eventually will be worked out of you just through normal Christian developments. But here it’s says it’s not cute anymore. Right now, you are characterized by deeds of the flesh. When you’re just an infant, I understood that you were still going to commit sins in a lot of different ways, but right now you are given to those things, you are characterized by the flesh.

So, what does he say that looks like? Well he says, for a while there is jealous and strife among you are you not of the flesh, are you not fleshly, are you not sarkikoi, and behaving only in a human way? For when one says I follow Paul and another I follow Apollos, that’s what he mentioned earlier, are you not being merely human? Paul says here’s the disease, you all are seeking a kind of growth. We know they’re seeking a kind of growth in all of this because that’s the next thing that Paul is going to address. He’s going to say here’s a positive vision for growth in verse nine, because I have to counter this negative, this wicked vision of growth that you have.

You’re still characterized by this fleshiness that manifests itself in strife, envy, and division in your mist. You are rallying behind a leader and holding the leader up as the main thing rather than Jesus Christ.

Now I mentioned earlier that the point of this is that we can’t engineer church growth. So, let me tell you what I mean when I talk about growth engineering. That means pursuing growth by multiplying like-minded factory produced cookie cutter cloned Christians, after the pattern of a leader. After the pattern of the distinctiveness of a leader, a specific person. Paul is horrified that they would try to model and emulate and follow after him rather than Jesus Christ.

The issue is that Jesus Christ has all the gifts and he appoints different gifts and different responsibilities to different servants. You find that this sometimes happens when you have a charismatic, exciting leader to follow. One who perhaps can communicate a vision very clearly, that people will line up in droves. Oh, you can engineer that kind of growth.

When this leader communicates an exciting a compelling vision for the future. Everyone wants to be like that leader and follow after that leader and the leader communicates this is what you have to be to be like me. It might not be stated that way, but that’s eventually what happens. You get a whole bunch of people who are cloned after this person and eventually becoming like this person is so important that people with different gifts and different perspectives and the diversity within the church gets pushed to the sidelines. So, you have only one kind of thing happening everything else gets pushed away.

Do you know what it is called in the body when a specific set of cells reproduce rapidly with unchecked growth? All of the same kind of cells one after another? It’s called cancer. If you search what is cancer the National Cancer Institute describes it as this, “Normally human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When the cells become old or become damaged, they die, and the new cells take their place. When cancer develops, this orderly process breaks down. As cells become more and more abnormal, older damaged cells survive when they should die, and new cells form when they are not needed. These extra cells can divide without stopping and may form growths called tumors.”

This fleshly growth that they are pursuing is cancer. Paul is saying, this isn’t good. You are bringing a lot of people to your cause; you are reproducing rapidly. Maybe a lot of people are coming to this vision that you think this leader has held out, but in fact that will kill you. Eventually you will have to divide the body by amputating it, is maybe the thought here. The cancer is killing you; you are behaving in a fleshly way.

What does this mean for us as a church? It doesn’t mean that we have no distinctives. In face it recognizes that each church will have distinctives, but it also recognizes the limitation on those distinctives. We have a lot of distinctives, we have a specific role to play. We have been called to serve at a specific location at 39th and Cuming St. With all of the people who are scattered right around us. We have specific people to reach that God has put us in proximity to. People that God wants to reach through you and your relationships. We have a specific set of gifts sitting in this room right now of people with passions and desires.

We must be faithful to the convictions that God has given to us. We have a lot of convictions. Harvest is a confessional Presbyterian church. You may know that means that we have certain thoughts about church government and how salvation plays itself out. Not that we are saved apart from Jesus Christ and him crucified, that’s a first-tier creedal belief. That’s the most important thing. But we have other ways of explaining how that process works its way out. We have a particular way of reading the Bible and on and on and on.

We also recognize that these are the main thing. We cannot insist that people must look exactly like that and think exactly like that and act exactly according to those convictions. But in fact, there are other churches right around us that fellowship with us in these first-tier creedal convictions about Christ and him crucified. Yet they may disagree with a lot on those second-tier confessional convictions. That’s okay. We put the main thing as the main thing, Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Then we come alongside other churches, and there are a lot of other good churches in town that disagree with us in a lot of ways. Emmaus Bible Church, Coram Deo Church, CityLight Church, Bridge Church, these churches disagree with us on a lot of things, yet they are our partners. Their growth is our growth. Their joys are our joys. Their sorrows are our sorrows because we are distinctive as a member of the body of Christ. If we are a foot, we have to be the best foot that we can be. But we cannot insist that the whole body be a foot or whatever body part you want to put in place there.

Even within our own congregation, thinking rightly about church growth, not cancerous fleshly church growth but true God given organic growth, means that there are a lot of people in this congregation who don’t agree with us on every one of our confessional beliefs. That’s okay.

In fact, there’s this third tier of convictional things that are entirely left to Christian liberty. Look around the room. You have different opinions then many other people on a variety of issues. Want me to list these things? How about politics and who to vote for? You have different opinions on parenting styles or schooling for children; homeschool, private Christian school, public schools. We have people here who do all three of those.

How about the moderate uses of alcohol and tobacco? The scriptures tell us some things about these things, but then the scriptures leave these specific practices within the framework of what the Bible teaches about these things to individual Christian liberty.

We would teach you what the Bible says and then leave it to your conscious. We can’t form cookie cutter Christians, because in the end that’s just to create fleshly cancerous growth. We can’t engineer it. If we all look the same, think the same, act the same; we may rapidly multiply as we draft to ourselves like-minded people, but in so doing we will kill the body of Christ.

Here’s one practical way, to practice what this means to live as a member of a church in which there are many stories, in which we are united as one body in Christ. I said this a few weeks ago and got a lot of positive feedback. The best way to do this is on Sunday mornings. Come early and stay late. Each week there are people here early to talk together. These are not necessarily the people you are meeting with during the week. They are not in your disciple groups, not necessarily people you would pick up the phone and call. I can guarantee you sent no text messages to these people this week.

These are people who are different from you and this time of the week is your opportunity to meet with people who are different and to encourage one another in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To fellowship together about our first-tier creedal beliefs and to encourage each other and to practice what it means to show grace to the manifold diversity in the body of Christ.

If we are going to grow, it has to be true growth. That means respecting and loving and recognizing that kind of diversity is a gift, not a curse. We are united on the core things and diverse on all of the other ways and that’s a good thing.

We can’t engineer church growth. We want to talk about that, it can’t be about a plan or system to churn out like a factory cookie cutter Christians. That’s a cancer. The only true cause of growth then, if we want to think about how this is supposed to work, is when it comes from God.

God Alone Gives Church Growth

Paul contrasts this engineering of identical like-minded Christians from 3:1-4 in the next section in 3:5-9, where he uses an agricultural image. He talks about planting and watering, but he insists that at every stage, even though he and Apollos have been working together on this gardening project, nevertheless none of it is effective unless God gives the growth.

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, ESV

The work is of the assignment of the Lord. There’s a lot of work in planting and watering. You can ask the farmers in our midst, there’s a lot of work to this. John Calvin says in his commentary that God could have created a world where food just springs up without the help of human beings from the ground.

First of all, he did, it was the time before the fall. Food just burst onto the trees, then we sinned and screwed that up so that’s why we have to cultivate with the sweat of our brown. But even in the garden, Adam was put there to cultivate the garden. Even there was work. God wants to work through humans. At the end of the day, as much labor as the farmers in our midst put into their own fields, as we put in to seeing people come to faith, faith doesn’t usually just spring forth out of nowhere. It’s through a lot of work, but God is the one who gives the growth.

God’s fellow workers, workers belonging to God. You also, the church, you belong to God too. You are God’s field and God’s building.

The whole point of this, if you didn’t catch it is that God alone gives the growth. Look, what he is talking about is the growth of the church. It’s what we read about in the book of Acts. Of all of these people, multitudes of people coming to love the Lord Jesus Christ. From people having the chains of their slavery to sin broken, freed from their captivity to love and serve and obey Jesus Christ for their salvation.

That vision is not possible in the least, and it’s certainly not possible globally, except by the power of God. If God is the one who does it, then we have to be people of prayer. We have to be people who are praying for God to do what is impossible for us to accomplish. This is why we have been asking for 100% participation of prayer in our campaign. In the campaign we have financial goals, but it’s not just about buildings. It’s about seeing people come to know Jesus Christ. Their eternal destinies set through knowing Jesus Christ. This is a critical, important work. Yet we must be given to ask God to do what we cannot do for ourselves.

There are a couple of opportunities to pray.

  1. There’s a prayer calendar that will give you specific things to pray for in the coming weeks. To ask that God would lead us.
  2. If you have never been to our prayer meetings. Find time to come to one on the third Sunday of the month. This is a time for us to pray together for what God will do in and through Harvest. This is a special season that won’t last forever, and we want to be in prayer during this time as we consider together our future as a church.

God alone gives true church growth. But let me ask you another question. If that’s the case, why should we do anything? God’s the one who’s going to do it, so we just have to sit back a be passive. God’s going to save him, so I guess I don’t have to be involved. That’s not at all what Paul is saying.

An important part of God’s vision for his church is to use people. Not as the ones to give the growth, only God gives the growth, but to be instruments through whom God gives the growth. To labor in the fields in a way that God uses and sends his Holy Spirit alongside of, to give actual real true spiritual growth. Not cancerous fleshly growth. This is why we invest our time, our talents and our treasures because God promises to use it.

Let’s look at these same verses another time and bring out a different part of it.

We Must Labor for Church Growth

Each worker is assigned a particular role but notice that God uses the work of these servants through whom to bring out faith. God uses their work. God doesn’t work apart from Paul and Apollos. He could have, but it’s God’s desire to bring about faith through people. What about verse six? Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Again, ask a farmer. The work they are doing throughout the year isn’t just busy work, work that doesn’t translate into a crop. At the end of the day, the farmers can’t give the growth, but the farmers are doing different things by which God causes food to grow up from the ground. We are all thankful for that.

In the same way in the church, we aren’t just doing busy work. We are doing the kind of work that God uses to cause faith to spring up from the people whom he calls by the Spirit.

What about verse seven? This doesn’t mean that we aren’t anything. It means that God, even though we are nothing, choses to use us. So, Paul gives three promises to laborers, those who are laboring in seeing the Gospel of Jesus go forward.

  1. The first promise is this. We labor with the knowledge that we don’t individually have to do all the work. They wanted their leader to be the be all and end all and wanted to lead up behind the leader. That was cancerous fleshly growth. Paul says that true ministry happens when lots of different people labor together. Paul and Apollos do different things. Paul plants and Apollos waters. Of course, it’s God who gives the growth.Then in verse eight, he says, “he who plants and he who waters are one.” You aren’t working on an island, you aren’t called to do that. You may not have the specific gifts in some areas that others have. Or others may want the gifts that you have. God says that he has given all these gifts so that the church can work together. God promises you’re not alone in this labor.
  2. The second thing that God promises is that we will receive a reward. Look at verse eight, “each will receive his wages according to his labor.” It was for no reason in you, for no merit on your part, God doesn’t owe you anything to bring you to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s entirely a work of God’s grace. Neither do you put God in your debt by laboring in his work. Yet, grace upon grace God promises to reward us, to pay wages. Not according to our fruitfulness, that is what we can look at and see what we have produced, but according to our faithfulness.A few weeks ago, we looked at the parable of the talents in Matthew chapter 25. We saw that God gave one man two talents and another man five talent. At the end of the day, the two-talent laborer brought forth two more talents and the five-talent laborer brought forth five more talents. God didn’t look at the two-talent man and say, you only brought two talents because God knew what he had entrusted to him. He was faithful with what God had entrusted to him, even though he didn’t fruitfully produce as much as the five-talent laborer.

    The point of this was that the five-talent laborer shouldn’t relax when he sees that he has surpassed the two-talent servant. Rather the five-talent servant should be faithful with all that God has given him. In the same way, the two-talent servant shouldn’t despair that he can’t keep up with the production of the five-talent servant. He should recognize that God calls us to be faithful. Whether in finances, our gifts, our time. It isn’t about equal giving, it’s about equal sacrifice.

  3. The third promise we have is that we labor under the promise that our labor is not in vain. Sometimes we look at that phrase and say, well God gives the growth. If he gives the growth there’s not much I can do, so I should just sit back. Understand that is not an impediment, that’s a promise. In other words, that’s supposed to inspire you to go out and do the work that God has called you to do. God promises to give the growth. He isn’t sending you to do busy work. God promises that what you are doing he will use, and he will give the growth.What God implicitly promises here, he makes absolutely clear at the end of this letter. In 1 Corinthians 15:58,

    58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58, ESV

    The only two times that Paul uses the word labor is in 3:8 and in 15:58. These are promises that we have as we seek to accomplish Harvest’s mission of making disciples who worship and serve.


What does this look like? The reason that we are in the middle of a campaign is because we are trying to see this vision lived out. We are trying to see, not cancerous fleshly church growth, but we are trying to see the true glory of God fill the whole earth through the ministry at Harvest. Right now, that means our building, which is causing barriers to ministry and mission, needs to be repaired and needs to be upgraded. That’s a real practical consideration. The ceiling is separating from the parapet walls and need to be addressed, along with other things that are causing barriers to ministry and mission.

So, right now there is three phrases of this. We are trying to build up our facilities, but ultimately that is for the second phrase. So, we can build out our outreach ministries to the people that God has put us in closest proximity to. This includes people who moved here from another country; 23% of the homes around Harvest speak a language other than English, because they are coming from another country.

This includes college students. God has put us within 2 1/2 miles to three major universities, in addition to being in pretty close proximity to many smaller colleges. God has put us in a specific place and God is beginning to raise up ministry and connections to some of these individuals. Our goal is to continue building official ministries to reach out to those people.

Ultimately our goal is that we are believing the gospel that God is building his church. That God gives the growth is a promise, not a hinderance. We want to see new churches planted. That is our prayer, are you praying this with us? Pray that God will see new churches planted around Omaha for Jesus Christ to be proclaimed so that Christ would build his church. So that sinners will be brought to salvation, the chains of sin broken and brought in freedom to Christ. To know Jesus and love him so that the whole earth will be filled with the glory of God. Ultimately God promises the gates of hell cannot stand against his purpose in building his church.

This isn’t a burden. Brothers and sisters, this is a privilege we have. God is putting us right here for such a time as this, about how we might reach people with the gospel of Jesus. Pray that God would give you direction. Partially in the money that we are trying to raise to address the building issues. Beyond that, the spiritual goals, what does God want to do in your heart to conform you to the image of Christ in generosity?

How does God want to use you? Perhaps your gifts of hospitality or your gifts of evangelism to reach people to know Jesus. Pray about that. Together all of the various gifts and people come together as one body, to grow as God gives the growth. To see Christ proclaimed here and abroad. We must labor for the growth that God alone gives.