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Paul is not saying that we should refrain from expressing appreciation and rendering respect and honor to those who minister the Word of God and perform the servant work of evangelists and teachers and under shepherds.  But God needs to get all of the credit since the work is ultimately His.  He deserves the loyalty and dependence – which would be idolatrous if placed on any Christian minister.  He warns against ascribing ultimate credit or building loyalty at the level of the individual Christian minister.

You would think that it would be impossible for believers to lose focus and put Christian workers up on a pedestal.  But that is exactly what had been happening in Corinth.  The problem had not been the fault of any lobbying for popularity on the part of the ministers, but the people themselves were looking at the messenger rather than the Lord Jesus who was being faithfully proclaimed.

Richard Hays: His main line of argument in chapter 3 no longer focuses on the cross. Instead, he relentlessly emphasizes that the church belongs to God: God brought it into being, and God will judge it. The human instruments that God has used to raise up the church are merely servants of God’s larger purpose. Therefore it is foolish for the Corinthians to choose sides and pit one leader against another. Indeed, it is worse than foolish: it is destructive and dangerous. Those who build with arrogance and false wisdom are compromising the integrity and holiness of God’s plan for bringing the gospel to the world. Thus, they are courting God’s wrath and judgment.

This section is structured around three metaphors for the church:

  • the church as God’s field (vv. 5–9),
  • the church as God’s building (vv. 10–15),
  • and the church as God’s temple (vv. 16–17).

Paul moves fluidly from one metaphor to the next to make related but different points about the identity of the Corinthian church and its leaders. The final part of the chapter (vv. 18–23) first recapitulates the earlier teaching about wisdom, folly, and boasting and then concludes with a powerful affirmation that not only the church and its leaders but everything else in creation finally belongs to God.

Craig Blomberg: Verses 5–9a clarify another problem with the Corinthians’ divisiveness. Not only is their behavior diametrically opposed to a focus on Christ crucified (the point of 1:18 – 2:5), but it also ignores the fact that all Christian leaders are merely “servants” (v. 5) with relatively equal and insignificant roles to play compared to the role God plays in causing his church to grow.

Dan Nighswander: The agricultural image of planting and watering (3:6-9) makes several points. The least of these is that Paul’s work takes priority, since planting comes before watering. The assertion that those who work in God’s field will each be rewarded according to their own labor may be intended to imply that Paul deserves a higher wage. At the least, it challenges anyone who might have dismissed his leadership by claiming their own unique and essential role in establishing the assembly.

Stronger than a claim of priority is the claim that Paul and Apollos were equally servants whose work was essential to the establishment of the congregation; without the planting of the seed, there would have been nothing to water; without watering the seed, it would not have germinated and grown. The two leaders—and by extension all other leaders as well — work together for a common purpose. They are all God’s servants, working together, and Paul will not allow quarrelsome members to drive a wedge between them.

The most important point that Paul wants to make — far more important than rehabilitating his own reputation as a leader or correcting the invented competition between himself and Apollos — is that neither he nor Apollos nor both of them together could cause growth to happen. That power belongs to God alone. The workers who plant and water are nothing, he writes; the only one who matters is God. This means that God is the initiator of the faith community and the source of its power. It further means that Paul and Apollos and the others are servants of God. God not only generates the growth but also owns the field and directs the workers. Paul will shortly make explicit the point that is implicit here: that the master of the servants is the only one with authority to judge, pay, or commend the servants (4:1-5; see also 3:13-15).

Gordon Fee: This paragraph picks up directly from the rhetorical questions that concluded the presenting paragraph (vv. 1–4). Besides evidencing a misapprehension of the gospel itself, the Corinthians’ slogans bespeak a totally inadequate perception of the church and its ministry. They are boasting in their individual teachers as though they could “belong” to them in some way. With the present analogies, Paul sets out to disabuse them of this misperception regarding “leaders” in the community of faith.

Apollos and Paul are “only servants,” he asserts (v. 5), and by implication, therefore, not “masters” to whom they may belong. But he does not pursue that implication as such; rather, he takes up the imagery of “servant” and places it in the familiar setting of the farm, where God is at once both responsible for growth (vv. 6–7) and the owner of the field (v. 9). The point of the analogy is finally pressed in these last two clauses. Both workers and farm belong to God, who is therefore the one to whom all are accountable. But in making that point, Paul also stresses both the unity and diversity of the laborers. Their aim is one, the harvest; but they have differing tasks (v. 8). With this part of the analogy Paul thus also affirms the ministry of Apollos and absolves him of any personal role in the quarrels.

Adewuya: No Christian worker is ever to be idolized. Indeed, those who are idolized can become instruments for fragmenting the work of God. Believers are to realize that Christian workers are simply God’s servants — agents through whom people believe in Christ. The word diakonoi, from which we get “deacon,” has also been translated “minister.” It is properly used for attendants and waiters, those who serve others. God has not called Paul and Apollos to be masters of the Corinthian Christians. They were to serve them and meet their needs. Here again, we see the self-effacing attitude of Paul. He was the one who sowed the seed of the gospel in the region. However, he neither overestimates his own labors, nor detracts anything from the real excellence of Apollos as a workman. Instead, Paul ascribes to God the full glory, as the giver of all good. As in the natural so in the spiritual world, he says. It is by the special blessing of God that the grain sown in the ground brings forth thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. It is neither the sower nor the waterer that produces this strange and inexplicable multiplication; it is God alone. God alone should have all the glory. The seed is his, the ground is his, the laborers are his, and all the produce comes from himself. Ministers are instruments in God’s hand. They depend on God’s blessing, to make their work fruitful. Without this they are nothing; their part is so small that they hardly deserve to be mentioned.

Paul goes on to make a twofold emphasis. On the one hand, Paul and Apollos, though exercising different roles, are both engaged in the one mission — both have to be commissioned to propagate the gospel. They were both meant to labor to promote the glory of God in the salvation of the souls of the Corinthians. The question, then, is this: “Why should the Corinthians be divided with respect to Paul and Apollos, while these apostles are intimately united in spirit and purpose?” Although their functions are different, nevertheless, they are united. On the other hand, each one is to be rewarded according to his labor. Each one is responsible to God. There is, therefore, no need for competition. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jesus’ parable of the ten slaves and ten pounds (cf. Luke 19:11–26). In that parable, Jesus shows that God has called each of us. He has gifted us and equipped us for the work of ministry. And he has work for us to do. This is true for every believer in his church. None is excluded from having a place of service in his kingdom. We all have kingdom work! And whosoever is faithful to the work he or she is called to do will be accordingly rewarded. It is instructive to note that both in the parable of Jesus and Paul’s discussion here, reward is not according to the measure of success. Rather, it is according to the labor of each, that is, according to faithfulness.

Andrew Noselli: Church teachers are merely God’s servants.  The Lord assigns specific tasks to them.  In this case God used Paul and Apollos to explain the gospel to the Corinthians.  The metaphor of growing crops in a field illustrates how foolish it is for the Corinthians to rank God’s servants according to what job God has given them or to give allegiance to one over against others.  The servant who plants the seed and the servant who waters it are not that important.  They are just farmhands.  Only God actually causes the seed to grow. Servants work as a team with the same goal.  They are not competing against each other.  They are coworkers belonging to God.  In the final sentence, Paul changes the metaphor from farming (church = field) to construction (church = building) in order to transition to verses 10-17.


We need these same reminders today.


What then is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Servants through whom you

believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.”

Don’t forget the crucial distinction between

  • the Many Ministers and
  • the One Lord over all.

Should servants get the glory?  Obviously not. What happens when spiritual leaders get too big for their britches??  Study 1 Samuel. What happens when the flock gives too much attention to a particular Christian preacher?  The strength and depth of faith and dependence on the one Good Shepherd is undermined.  Churches which focus the public ministry of the church in just the giftedness of one individual are especially susceptible to putting that person up on a pedestal.  But even in the context where multiple ministers exist there can be a fleshly tendency to align oneself with the individual personality rather than with the corporate body of Christ.

Paul Gardner: In this next section Paul takes himself and Apollos by way of example. He will show that there is no rivalry between them as leaders, for they are God’s fellow workers. He starts with two rhetorical questions that set up the next few verses. The first point Paul makes is that he and Apollos are “servants” (διάκονοι). Secondly, he says each was given (assigned) his work by the Lord. The use of “to each one” (ἑκάστῳ) prepares the way for a number of points that Paul will wish to make through this letter, of which he and Apollos serve as examples.

  • First, they have different callings and assignments of gifts, as he will show in the verses that follow (cf. 9:15–17).
  • Secondly, each of them has been “given” what they have by God. Later, he will show that this is in fact true of all Christians. In 12:4–11 Paul will insist for everyone that there are varieties of gifts and yet to each one a service has been given. He will also insist that such assignments are all given by God and through his Spirit.
  • Then, in 12:29 he will also make it clear that not all have the same roles within the church but that God has appointed all of them.

A.  Reexamine Your Perspective Towards Your Christian Ministers

  1. How do you view the erudite preacher Apollos?
  2. How do you view the gifted Apostle Paul?

R.C.H. Lenski: The Corinthians are making party heads of these men and each party glorifies its man to the detriment of Christ and the gospel.

B.  Recognize Their Role as God’s Servants in Guiding Us to Faith

John Piper: That means, the power that brought you to faith did not and does not reside in them. It flows through them. We may certainly be thankful for the copper pipes in our house, but what gives us life and refreshment is the water that comes out of the spigot. The waiter may be courteous and winsome, or crabby and inattentive, but if the food gives life and joy, that ultimately, is what counts.

Paul and Apollos are not saviors. They are not the gospel. They are not the Holy Spirit. They are not the source of power. They are not God. They are table-waiters. And the faith that happens when the food of God’s word is served, happens through them, like a canal, not from them like a spring. So don’t think of them as originators. They don’t originate. They deliver. They serve.

C.  Refocus on the Primacy of the Lord who Gives Opportunities to Minister and Blesses the Results of Such Ministry

God gives the giftedness and grace and opportunity and fruitfulness to each  minister as He intends.  Ministry is a distinct privilege and comes by way of divine appointment so that no man can boast.


I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”

Don’t forget the crucial distinction between

  • the secondary role of the exercise of a variety of spiritual gifts
  • and the primary role of God who alone can initiate and develop spiritual life and growth

Are planting and watering necessary?  Yes . . . but not anything apart from the behind-the-scenes work of God.

A.  Secondary Role of the Exercise of a Variety of Spiritual Gifts

  1. Role of Evangelists / Church Planters
  2. Role of Teachers / Preachers / Under shepherds / Disciplers

B.  Primary Role of God

Robert Hughes: “God was causing” (3:6) showed the leaders’ dependency upon and limitation to Christ’s gift. They were not self-sufficient workers for God. To sum up: Who were these great Christian leaders? Compared to God, nothing. In the church, any success was a gift (“the Lord gave,” 3:5) from God alone. Paul then used an illustration from agriculture (3:6), and verse 7 provided the moral. The figures of 3:6 derived from the “gave … to each” concept (3:5). Think about the reality behind the figures, and relate it to the concern regarding ministry. Paul said to boast only in the Lord (1:31) and throughout stressed that God was the source of their gifts. He now added the most powerful truth, that God caused the growth (3:7). All watering and planting would be futile if there were no growth.


So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,

but God who causes the growth.”

Don’t forget that all of the glory and credit and loyalty and dependence belongs

  • not to the many secondary ministers
  • but to the One Sovereign Lord

A.  Christian Ministers are Nothing in Themselves

B.  God is Everything – When It Comes to Producing Spiritual Fruit

Paul Gardner: Paul thus offers a wonderful and humbling reminder to all that God’s work continues with or without us. Yet his words also offer great encouragement that, in his grace, God does use his people to further his work. On the one hand, ministries in God’s church are not what make it all “happen”; on the other hand, God has given each person the enormous privilege of taking part in the work of the master farmer.

Mark Taylor: God’s work is always behind the scenes, and even when human work is finished, God’s work continues. Paul is not claiming that human endeavors are of no consequence whatsoever. God himself has assigned certain tasks to those who work in the field, and as Paul will warn in 3:10–15, using the metaphor of a building, each minister must construct the building with proper materials. Verses 16–17 explicitly warn the church leaders (and others) of the dire consequences of inflicting damage on God’s temple.

Gordon Fee: Paul and Apollos do have essential tasks to perform, for which they will receive their own rewards. But they have no independent importance; from the perspective of ultimate responsibility for the Corinthians’ existence as the people of God, Paul and Apollos count for nothing. Without God’s prior activity bringing them to faith and causing them to grow, there is no church at all. Hence the point is clear: Stop quarreling over those whose tasks are nothing in comparison with the activity of God.  Focus on God alone, for God alone saves and sanctifies — it is only God who makes things grow!


Now he who plants and he who waters are one;

but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.”

Don’t forget that all Christian ministers

  • labor on the same team
  • but their individual reward will be dispensed equitably by God rather than by man

Not a time for competition, envy, strife, etc.  But still each minister must be careful and diligent how he labors … as developed in the next section (vv. 10-15).

A.  One Team . . . Many Gifts / Functions

  • – teamwork is the emphasis for now – one Master; one goal
  • – variety of different gifts are still essential

Daniel Akin: God makes the assignments and “gives the growth” (v. 7). However, how we serve matters. What we do and why we do it matter. Our service to Christ is essential and meaningful, even to the “intentions of the hearts” (4:5). God’s servants are teammates, working with one another. We are not in competition with one another. I like the way Vaughn and Lea put it: “Paul notes the essential unity between planter and waterer (v. 8). They are one in the aim, result, and motivating power of their work. They are allies and not rivals” (1 Corinthians, 41).

B.  Individual Rewards – Dispensed Equitably by God after the Job Is Finished

  • – ministers are not looking to the people for accolades and rewards;
  • – not serving as man-pleasers


For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

Don’t forget that God owns it all –

  • whether the agents of Christian ministry
  • or the product of that ministry

The local church is God’s church – He owns it all.

A.  God Owns the Agents of Christian Ministry

B.  God Owns the Product of that Ministry2 Analogies

  1. From Agriculture – The Farmer cultivates the crop – “God’s field

Emphasis on life and growth

  1. From Construction – The Builder constructs the building – “God’s building

Emphasis on effort and cohesiveness

Charles Hodge: Union and fidelity in labour are required of those engaged in tilling the same farm, or in the erection of the same building; and they are no less required in those engaged in cultivating the vineyard of the Lord, or in erecting his temple.  The apostle drops the former, and carries out the latter figure. [into the next paragraph]

Richard Hays: Paul is saying to his readers, then and now, “No, don’t you understand that the whole field belongs to God and that we are called to work together to bring in the eschatological harvest? Individual leaders are insignificant; they are just field hands.”

Paul Gardner: The “you are” (ἐστε) is again emphatic and contrasts with “we are” in v. 9a. Paul’s point is that the very ones who are so proud and so judgmental of each other and their leaders are fields and buildings that need much work. It is the “building” (οἰκοδομή) metaphor that will now come to the fore and continue to be touched on throughout the epistle. Paul will talk of each person needing to “build up” (οἰκοδομέω) the others in the fellowship, and this will be a theme he introduces in the next few verses. This brings Paul’s example from and comparison with his own and Apollos’s ministries to a close. He will move next to examine the nature of this “building” ministry.