One of the most powerful films that I’ve seen in recent years is a film about a stuttering prince who became a reluctant king because his older brother abdicated the throne.

Have you seen The King’s Speech? For me perhaps the most poignant element in the story is not Prince Albert’s struggle to speak, but Prince Edward’s decision to abdicate. Apparently, when he was a young boy, Prince Edward’s father, King George V, used to say to him every day, “Never forget who you are.” He was saying, in other words, “If you’re to fulfil your calling, you need to remember who you are. You need to understand your fundamental identity.”

The same is true of us of course. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he asks them no less than ten times, “Don’t you know?” or “Don’t you remember (who you are)?” He attributes their failures to their forgetfulness. Many of our struggles as Christians and as churches today can be traced to a kind of theological amnesia—the failure to remember who we are and what it means to be the church.

There are few better descriptions of the church anywhere than Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 3: 1-17. Here he outlines his vision of church. And he uses three different images or metaphors to describe the church. Each of them he’s borrowed from the Old Testament. And each of them has significant implications for our life and mission today as God’s people here in Aotearoa.

You are God’s field (vv. 5-9)

First of all, Paul likens the church to a field. In v. 6 he says to the believers in Corinth, “I planted the seed (I proclaimed the gospel to you first), Apollos watered it (Apollos was Paul’s successor as pastor to the Corinthian believers), but God has been making it grow.”

If a field in the fertile Pukekohe plain is to produce a harvest, someone’s got to sow the seed and someone’s got to water the seed. But only God can make the seed grow. It’s the same with the church. “So,” Paul says in v.7, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” The Corinthian church needed to remember that.

We have a daughter who used to come home from school with painful stories about how her friends have formed into warring factions around a few popular and charismatic classmates. The Corinthians, like immature school children, had divided into these kinds of factions around a few of their gifted leaders. Some looked to Paul with his extraordinary intellectual vision, others clung to Apollos and his marvellous eloquence. But Paul says, you’re putting too much emphasis on us leaders. “What are we” (v. 5)? We’re nothing. We’re just “servants,” through whom God has been at work in your lives. God—and only God—can produce the miracle of faith and transformation. We need to remember that.

A few years back Rakesh Khurana wrote a book called Searching for a Corporate Saviour.[1] Its subtitle read, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs. Khurana traced how large companies, when they are struggling, usually respond by forcing out the incumbent CEO (who is blamed for the company’s problems) and searching for a new charismatic CEO with entrepreneurial vision, someone who can turn the business around—a “corporate saviour.” Churches do the same thing. We place hopes and expectations on our pastors that they simply cannot fulfil. Only God can make things grow. We need to remember that.

Ministry is not primarily something we do. It’s something that God does through us. It’s his ministry, not ours. He’s at work all the time, and our job is to simply be faithful to the tasks which he has “assigned” to us (v. 5). Paul says (in v. 8) that we will be rewarded according to our labour, not according to our results—because it’s God who makes things grow. I love this statement from Timothy Geoffrion:

A prime reason we get stuck spiritually is that we mistakenly think our spiritual growth depends primarily on us. . . . Taking responsibility for our spiritual growth does not mean trying harder on our own. It means giving our conscious attention to what God is doing and wants to do in our life, and then responding accordingly. . . .

God is not waiting with folded arms for us to initiate contact with him through more frequent times of prayer. God has already initiated communication with us and is simply waiting for our reply. . . . When we read the Bible or enjoy a delightful conversation with a friend, and when our thoughts turn to God in praise, remorse, a desire to know more, or intercession for someone, we are responding to God’s Spirit gently, or not so gently, calling to us to turn our hearts and minds heavenward.[2]

The church, Paul says, is God’s field. He is the one who brings the growth, in his time and in his way. We need to remember that. Rest in his power and wisdom and faithfulness.

You are God’s building (vv. 10-15)

In v. 10 Paul moves from a horticultural metaphor to an architectural one. He likens the church not to a field, but to a building and says, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

A while back I was reading a report from the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission. It concluded—surprise, surprise—that some of the buildings that collapsed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake would have survived if they had had better foundations—solid foundations. Paul says that the church’s one solid foundation is Jesus Christ. We’re to build our lives and our community on the crucified and risen Christ, and nothing else.

It is so easy, however, to end up working off other plans and building on the shifting sands of our culture. I got a glimpse of this at our church some time back. In the kid’s church programme the children are invited to bring some money each week as a tithe or offering. To encourage them they get a lolly. But some time ago the kid’s church leaders decided to stop this practice. They didn’t want the children thinking that the reason for giving was to get. But the next Sunday one little boy turned up with his coins, plopped them in the bucket, and reached for his lolly. A teacher intercepted him, and said, “No, we’re not getting lollies any more. We give because we want to give, not just so that we can get something.” The boy wouldn’t hear of it. So the teacher had to pick him up and carry him out of the class. As he made his ignominious exit, the little fellow screamed out at the top of his voice, “This church is a rip off! I want my money back!”

We live in a consumer society. It affects us all, both children and adults. It is all too easy to treat people as consumers, marketing the gospel as if it were a product that will satisfy our appetite for a sweet life. A few years ago, I came across a really challenging little book called Renovation of the Church. It’s written by two pastors who led a church that was devoted to reaching the wider community with the gospel. They decided to shape the church around that goal. Everything was designed to attract newcomers and meet their ‘felt needs’ – the programmes, the worship, the sermons. The idea was that if they could just get people in the doors, they could then tell them the gospel. The church grew rapidly. On one level it was ‘successful’. But after a few years the pastors started to feel anxious. They said, “we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ.”[3] The church was being built up, but not in line with its foundation. Our job, whether we’re a leader in the church or not, is simply to pattern our lives—collectively and personally—on Jesus, our foundation, the one who laid down his life for us. As we do that, as we bear witness to the crucified Christ, he will build his church. 

Paul says in v. 12 onwards that one day the quality of our building work will be inspected, not by the city council, but by the Lord. If it passes the test, we will receive an eternal reward. I don’t know about you, but I need to remember that, because my natural impulse is to try to please or impress the people around me. You’ve probably heard the advice: “Before you criticise someone, you should first walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticise them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” Some people don’t bother to walk a mile in your shoes first. They criticise thoughtlessly, painfully, recreationally. Especially in the church. The temptation is to try to please them or placate them. But if we remember that what the Lord will one day say about us is more important than what those people say, it will free us to build a life and ministry that is faithful to Jesus, the only true foundation.

You are God’s temple (vv. 16-17)

So the church is like a field in which God makes things grow. It’s like a building in which Jesus is the foundation. Thirdly, and finally, Paul says the church is like a temple. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor 3:16).

The word that Paul uses here for “temple” means inner sanctuary. In the Old Testament the inner sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem—“the holy of holies”—was the place where God was said to dwell in a special way. His glory, the visible symbol of his presence, was located there. But God promised through the prophets that one day he would establish a new temple, a much more glorious temple where God by his Spirit would dwell. And Paul says to the Corinthian believers here in v. 17—he says to this small, struggling, immature, divided church—“you together are that temple.” “God’s Spirit dwells in your midst.”

In other words, you reflect the glory and character and presence of God by the quality of your life together. It’s by living as a tightly-knit, loving community that you show the world what God is like. It’s true. Throughout history it’s often been the beauty of the church’s inner life that has drawn people to Christ. The early church became known for the food programmes and orphanages and hospitals that it set up to care for the poor and the sick in their community.

Some time back our family visited a church in the Hawkes Bay. A small struggling church of 20 or 30 people. The children’s programme was run by an elderly lady in her seventies. After the service I went up to her and said, “Thanks for doing that. I love your commitment.” She replied, “There’s always been a wonderful sense here of commitment and community.” Then she went on to say, “My daughter visited this church once. She wasn’t a follower of Jesus. But after the meeting she said to me, ‘Mum, you’ve got something with those people that I don’t have. And I want it.’” She returned to church for the evening service, and gave her life to Jesus that night. It’s by living as a loving, committed, contrast community that we show the world what God is like.

Of course, the opposite is also true. When we don’t live as an authentic community, when we don’t express the love we profess, when we’re divided by the kind of “jealousy and quarrelling” that Paul mentions in v. 3, God’s glory is obscured. Mission is not just something we do, it is something we are—together. As the temple of God, “sacred” or “holy,” we are to embody the glory of God in the quality of our life together. It’s one of the best missional or evangelistic strategies anyone could conceive.

Well, there you have it. Three pictures of the church. Three pictures that describe this church. Remember who—or whose—you are. You are God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple. Have you noticed the common theme across each of these images? They all stress the role of God and minimise the role of human leaders. God the Father is the one who grows the church. God the Son is the one who supports and shapes the church. God the Spirit is the one who indwells the church. So, as you think about your church community and the year ahead, look to him, rest in him, and he will work in you and through you to the praise of his glorious grace.

 

[1] Rakesh Khurana, Searching for a Corporate Saviour: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[2] Timothy C. Geoffrion, The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), 44.

[3] Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).

 

Written by John Tucker