Read: 1 Corinthians 3:5-9
Every Christian is called to service in Christ’s name David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors from First and Second Corinthians that describe ministers of Christ, and he explores them in this series. His message today: “We are God’s Co-workers”: the ultimate synergy—working as partners with God in the work of salvation.
I was visiting a church recently and was struck by the message on a large banner hung over the entrance to the sanctuary. “2005 – The Year of the Minister,” it boldly proclaimed. Now that congregation did not mean that they were going to be extra nice to their pastors this year. What they meant to say was that their emphasis for the year is to call all of their members to ministry of some kind, that is, to service in Christ’s name in the church and throughout the world. It’s the same message I’ve seen occasionally printed as a little notice on a church bulletin or a sign board. It goes like this—“Pastor: Rev. So-and-so; Ministers: All the people.”
I think that captures an important truth. While some Christians are called as pastors and teachers to the specific ministry of the Word of God, all Christians are called to some kind of ministry or service. We are all ministers or servants of Christ. In fact, that’s what the word ministry means. The terms “minister” and “ministry” come from the Latin word ministro, which means simply “to serve.” In Latin, minister is the equivalent of the Greek diakonos, both of which were originally words used to describe table waiters. So to be in Christian ministry means to be serving others in some capacity—any capacity—for the sake and in the name of Jesus Christ. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a very glamorous or important kind of service.
God’s Field; God’s Building
Of all the books in the New Testament, none speaks more often about the nature of Christian ministry than Paul’s two epistles to the church in Corinth. One reason Paul says so much about ministry—particularly his own ministry as an apostle—is because so many of the members of the church in Corinth were challenging Paul’s authority and questioning his legitimacy. It was because he had so many problems with them that he wrote so much to the Corinthians on this subject. The Corinthians like all ancient Greeks admired nothing more than an eloquent orator, and as a result they were dividing along the lines of loyalty to their favorite Christian preachers. Some were shouting for Paul (“He’s the teacher for me!”) while others preferred Apollos (“I’m an Apollonian!”)
Paul takes pain to explain in the early chapters of First Corinthians what the true relationship is between himself and Apollos and between both of them and the Lord of the church. They were not party leaders, as if the church were a political system, where partisans gather around their favorite candidate and try to steamroll the opposition. Christian ministry is not a contest where one group wins by defeating all rivals. Well, what is it then? The church, says Paul, is like a field where many different workers cooperate to raise a harvest. The church is like a building where co-laborers work together to raise the walls.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
Like all good writers, the apostle Paul often employed vivid metaphors—word pictures—to make his point. So here Paul compares the church to a farm or a construction project: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” And if we are God’s field, then our business must be to grow, not to squabble with each other. And how does spiritual growth occur? It happens through the effective preaching and teaching of the Word of God by the blessing of the Holy Spirit. “I planted the word,” says Paul, for he first brought the gospel message to Corinth. “Apollos watered it,” he adds, for Apollos came after Paul and continued to pastor the young church in Corinth. “But God gave the growth.” And the conclusion Paul draws from all this? “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” So grow up, Corinthians!
But there is another beautiful image tucked into this passage, one that not only illustrates Paul’s ministry as an apostle, but describes, I believe, every Christian as well. What are we? “We are God’s fellow workers,” says the apostle (v.9). One of the most popular buzzwords floating around business and management circles today is the word “synergy.” I typed “synergy” into an internet search engine and was sent to this definition: “a mutually advantageous conjunction of distinct elements.” (If you use buzzwords, I suppose you should expect definitions like that.) But synergy really isn’t that complicated to understand. Synergy simply means “working together.” And that’s the word Paul uses here in 1 Corinthians 3:9 to describe us as ministers of Christ: we are God’s co-workers, God’s partners, God’s synergoi.
Now maybe that doesn’t sound like much to you, but I submit to you that this is an absolutely amazing thing to say, an astonishing description for any human being—God’s co-workers. Does God actually require co-workers? Does he need a helping hand from anybody? I don’t think so. After all, he created the entire universe all by himself. I seriously doubt that he needs our assistance in running it. But then why does he take us on as his partners, his fellow workers? Decidedly as junior partners, to be sure, but real partners nonetheless. If it is not for his sake, then it has to be for our sake. Have you ever let your young child, or perhaps your grandchild, help you out with a household project? You surely didn’t do it for the sake of greater efficiency. You did it because you love the child, because you delight in her company, because you want him to learn and grow and stretch himself, because you know how much joy it will give her, how important it will make him feel, to share with you in the work.
I believe that part of God’s reason for creating us was to give us dignity and purpose by allowing us to share in his work, for example, in his government of the world. Our first parents were charged with tending the garden, and God still expects the work of earth-keeping from us. We know that he also requires us to “do justice and love mercy,” in the famous words from Micah (Micah 6:8). But most important of all God enlists us as his co-workers in the great business of salvation, the greatest work of all. Obviously, God himself is the only one ultimately who can save anybody (see Ephesians 2:8-10). Nevertheless, we have a real part to play in God’s saving work.
We have a part to play, first of all, in our own salvation. Paul urged the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). There is a divine-human synergy in our spiritual growth. We can do nothing without the help of God’s Spirit just as Christ is the vine in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit (John 15:4-5). But we’re the ones who must practice obedience, cultivate the spiritual disciplines, and strive to grow in Christ-likeness. That’s what it means to work out our own salvation.
But we also have a part to play in bringing that salvation to other people. God enlists our cooperation in the ministry of the gospel by which people everywhere are saved, and the church is built up throughout the world. Paul says a little bit later in his Corinthian correspondence that when he is urging them to accept the gospel, it is “God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and again, the apostle concludes, “Working together with [God], then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
No doubt, employing us as his partners is a very inefficient way for God to accomplish his work of salvation. After all, God could have used angels to convince everyone of the truth about Jesus. How impressive would that be! God could choose some night to rearrange the stars in the heavens so that they spelled out “Jesus is Lord!” from horizon to horizon. But he doesn’t do any of those things. He chooses instead to use us, our words, our halting, faulty, often awkward witness to the truth in order to bring salvation to the world.
And in doing that he gives our lives incredible significance. Early one morning Jesus approached a tired bunch of fishermen who had just pulled their boats up on shore and were washing their nets after a night of fruitless toil. “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch,” Jesus told Simon. Peter answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” That describes a lot more people than just these Galilean fishermen.
How many of those around you are spending their lives toiling for something—a career, a family, a home; comfort, meaning, happiness, love—and coming up empty? How many people have persuaded themselves that they’re really happy, only to awaken to the frustrating realization that they have been working away at dead-end pursuits? Jesus invites us, on a dare, to strike out into the deep of his great purpose. “And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men’” (Luke 5:10). He invites us to do the same, to find our own significance in being partners with him in the ever fruitful work of building his church.
What could be better than being God’s co-worker in that?