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“The Discernment of a Disciple Maker”

1 Corinthians 3:1-15
Bob DeGray
June 20, 2004

Key Sentence

Disciple makers play a vital role as God helps Christians grow.


I. Babies that grow get the right food. (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
II. Plants that grow get the right care. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
III. Buildings that grow use the right materials. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)


        I’m fascinated by the history of scurvy, because it took so long to implement the cure. The Greek Hippocrates, in the 5th century BC, described scurvy: bleeding gums, loose teeth, hemorrhaging and death. During the age of exploration long sea voyages lacking in fresh food caused an increase in the disease. There is a legend that on one of Christopher Columbus's voyages some Portuguese sailors had scurvy and wanted to be dropped off on an island to die, rather then dying on board and being fed to the fish. While the men were on the island they ate some of the island's fresh fruits and plants and to their amazement began to recover. When Columbus's ships passed by several months later, the pilot was surprised to see the men waving from land, alive and healthy. The island was named Curacao, meaning cure.

        As early as 1593, during a South Pacific voyage, Sir Richard Hawkins recommended the following for scurvy: "That which I have seen most fruitful for this sickness, is sour oranges and lemons." In 1601 Captain James Lancaster unintentionally performed a controlled study of lemon juice as a preventive. His fleet of four ships departed an April 21, 1601, and scurvy began to appear in three of the ships by August 1. By the time of arrival, September 9, the three ships were so devastated that the men of Lancaster's ship had to assist the fleet into the harbor. Lancaster's men remained in better health than the men on the other ships because he brought lemon juice, which he gave to each one as long as it would last, three spoonfuls every morning.

        John Woodall, a ship’s surgeon published “The Surgeon's Mate” in 1636. He wrote that scurvy could be prevented by the use of fresh vegetables and the use of lemons and oranges. "The juice of lemons is a precious medicine and well tried; being sound and good. Let it have the chief place for it will deserve it. The use whereof is: It is to be taken each morning two or three teaspoonfuls.”

        But despite this evidence it was 159 more years before lemon juice began to be required by the British Navy in 1795. It’s estimated that nearly 800,000 lives were needlessly lost through this simple lack of vitamin C. As late as 1740 one British fleet, circling the globe lost two thirds of it’s sailors to scurvy. In 1742, Vitus Bering, the great Russian explorer lost his ship and he himself succumbed to scurvy. Admiral Cook’s famous voyages in the 1760's lost few to scurvy more by luck than by design: he depended on sauerkraut and dried soup to ward off the disease, but did use lemon juice and oranges for those who contracted it. So here’s a disease whose prevention and cure are well known: the addition of one simple key element to the diet would have prevented these thousands of deaths. But the doctors and politicians of the day didn’t recognize or implement that right ingredient.

        It’s the same with discipleship, which is our topic for this week: if disciple makers don’t provide key ingredients of the Christian life at the right times, you end up with scurvy Christians, not spiritual ones. Paul communicates this in 1st Corinthians 3 through three metaphors: babies without the right food don’t grow; plants without the right care don’t grow; buildings without the right materials aren’t sturdy. He teaches that disciple makers play a vital role as God helps Christians grow.

I. Babies that grow get the right food. (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

        Paul’s first metaphor is popular in the New Testament, the contrast of infants and adults. 1 Corinthians 3:1-5 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

        Discipleship might be defined as the art of bringing believers from spiritual infancy to spiritual adulthood. In the natural world one is always born as an infant, and the same is true of being born again. Believers start as infants. But these believers in Corinth have remained spiritually immature. Paul reminds them that though he had spent a lot of time with them on previous journeys, he never saw them reach the level of maturity that would allow him to preach solid food, the challenging things of the faith. Because they were like infants, he had to talk to them not like people who were spiritually minded but like people who were worldly minded.

        The word spiritual is ‘psuchikos’, literally ‘according to the spirit’. The word worldly is ‘sarkinos’, ‘in the flesh’. Clearly ‘spiritual’ is preferable to ‘worldly’, But being ‘in the flesh’ is not necessarily a sin - Paul says in Galatians that having been crucified with Christ he now lives ‘in the flesh’ by faith. In the same way, there is no real criticism in the first part of verse 2: “I gave you milk and not solid food.” Infants behave like infants – you expect them to begin on milk. This is important as we think about discipleship. Disciple makers need to be providing disciples with food appropriate to their spiritual age. Peter says “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” New disciples need this milk - God’s word. More mature disciples need solid food, but that’s also provided by the word. Jeremiah 15:16 “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart.” Disciple makers provide the word in appropriate ways for each disciple.

        But the goal is always the same: maturity. Paul says at the end of verse 2: “Indeed, you are still not ready.” This is criticism. He expected them to start as infants but he expected them to grow. He wanted them to be mature. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 4 that this is the goal for every believer:

        “It was God who gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

        The goal of discipleship is maturity. What’s keeping the Corinthians from this maturity? Unfortunately it is their own self centered behavior. Verse 3: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?” Here Paul uses a slightly different word for worldly or fleshly: not ‘sarkinos’ but ‘sarkikos’ The new word doesn’t mean just living in the flesh, but living according to the flesh, following it’s desire. Both believers and unbelievers are made of flesh on a physical level, but on a moral and emotional and spiritual level believers have been made new, born again, and are no longer to follow the desires of their old nature. Unfortunately far too many of us, like the Corinthians, do follow those desire, and it keeps us from maturing as believers.

        Paul mentions two desires explicitly: jealousy and strife. The first word means ‘zeal’, or ‘ardor’, and is usually classified as a virtue by Greek writers. But this zeal all too easily leads to envy and bitterness, and therefore often in the New Testament it is seen as an evil. In the same way quarreling or strife is evidence that it is not the Spirit who is in control, but the old nature. In fact in Galatians 5 where Paul lists the acts of the old nature, both these sins are prominent. This is the behavior one would expect, Paul says, from mere men, those who’ve never been born again. In verse 4 Paul gives evidence to back up the accusation: “For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?” Paul began his letter to the Corinthians with an extended form of this accusation: “My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." Such factions and jealousies indicate great spiritual immaturity on the part of the Corinthians.

        It’s important to stop and ask if this divisive thinking is true of us. Is there anything over which we as church divide into camps, saying “I’m for...” and “I’m for...”. I’ll name one that can be troubling. When some say “I’m for homeschooling”, or “public schooling”, or “Christian schooling” I think we’re being as immature as the Corinthians. Paul’s is about to teach that God gives growth, not the workers who care for the plant. In the same way, it is not the method of schooling that is important, but the growth that results, and God gives that growth: He should be the only part of your child raising you make a big deal about.

II. Plants that grow get the right care. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)

        Paul’s second metaphor is about plants that require care to grow. Verses 5 to 9: 5What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. 9For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.

        Paul gets right to the heart of the matter: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Some looked to one, some to the other, but Paul is quite clear: we’re both servants, diakonoi, the word which we transliterate deacons in other places. We wait at the table to serve you. We wait on God for his instructions. He assigns us our tasks. This is the attitude of a disciple and a disciple maker. Increasing maturity brings increasing recognition that we are God’s servants doing his will for his people.

        So Paul says “I planted, Apollos watered”. Both activities are vital. Each depends on the other. It’s no good one planting seeds where the other cannot water them, and the one who waters does not achieve much if he waters everywhere except where the seeds have been sown. And both things are useless unless God gives the growth. The one who plants is completely dependant on God; so is the one who waters. The attention should be focused on God, not on the instruments that he uses. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, the growth and fruitfulness of the plant. Nonetheless each will receive his own reward from God for his work.

        So here we have discerned the essential attitude of the disciple maker: he or she does their part according to God’s will, knowing they are simply servants and it is God who is at work in the lives of those they serve. This is Paul’s point in verse 9: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” The phrase ‘God’s follow workers’ is literally those who expand energy together with God. It is God who pours his love and life and light into his people, but as those who imitate Jesus we also pour out our lives and our love, as God’s instruments. The disciple maker is a worker in a field growing up plants for a harvest. He needs to know when to plant, when to water, when to feed and when to weed, and then he needs to do it.

III. Buildings that grow use the right materials. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

        The disciple maker is also a builder at work on a building. Verses 10 to 15: 10By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. 14If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

        Paul begins this last metaphor by reminding us that it is not his strength that has been at work in the lives of his readers, but God’s grace working in him. Through this grace Paul was able to expertly lay a foundation of Christ in the lives of these converts. He was an expert builder, an architekton, who brings his experience and knowledge to the work. The Greek word gives our English word architect, the man who superintends the work of building, and yet depends on the skill, craftsmanship and sheer hard labor of many fellow workers. Paul has done his particular job: he has laid the foundation by clearly proclaiming Jesus Christ. His reason for doing that was to ensure that the faith of the Christians at Corinth rested securely on the power of God and on Jesus himself, the only sure foundation.

        Paul laid the foundation but someone else was building on it. In context this was clearly Apollos, though in fact several people had been involved in building the church at Corinth, and Paul cautions that each one should be careful how he builds. Some commentators limit this caution to the work of teachers, building disciples or churches. But there is a more general application. Every believer builds on the foundation of Christ in his own life, as well as in the lives of others. What exactly is being built? Some commentators, impressed by the emphasis on right teaching, think it’s sound doctrine. Others see a reference to building the church, or building up Christian character. Probably each of these things is somewhat in Paul’s mind and he has intentionally made this reference quite general.

        So the foundation is Jesus and that never changes, but the structure of the building depends on those who build into our lives and on what we build in our own lives and allow to be built. Paul lists several building materials, and ingenuity has sometimes been exercised in trying to find edifying meanings for them all. Such attempts probably are in vain, for Paul seems to cite just two classes, the valuable, typified by gold, silver and costly stones, and the worthless: hay, wood, or straw. The workmen may try to make the building as worthy of the foundation as possible, or, in a worldly fashion, they may be content to put into it that which costs them little or nothing.

        But workmen need to remember that there will come a time of testing for all we build, a ‘day’, which is not defined but is clearly the day Christ returns, a day of judgment. That day is often referred to in terms of the believer’s joy at beings united to the Lord, but it will also be a time when the work God’s people have done will be tested. Here the thought is of a searching test, like a fire sweeping through a building. It consumes what is combustible but leaves metal and stone. Thus the quality of the work will be revealed, for that day will show its true character.

        So what kinds of things are gold, silver, and precious stones, and what kind of things are wood, hay, and straw? Many answers have been given: sound doctrine vs. heresy, effective ministry vs. worldliness, but in terms of Paul’s emphasis here, it makes sense to think of these as the acts of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit.

        Galatians 5:19_23 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self_control. Against such things there is no law.” This isn’t very mysterious: maturity, growth and spirituality are heart issues. They can’t be seen directly, but the fruit is obvious: if a church or a person’s life are characterized by jealousy and arguments and factions, that life is worldly, and these sins will be consumed by the fire of the Lord’s return. If a church or person’s life are characterized by love and joy and peace and patience, these things are more valuable than gold and will remain for eternity. Remember it is God who gives the growth, not disciple makers, so it makes perfect sense that the fruit of that growth is not something of human value, but something the Spirit of God values.

        These are the things which will be revealed in the fire of the Lord’s return. They determine whether or not a believer will receive a ‘wage’, or a reward. Notice that the people being considered here are all believers, for they have built on the one foundation, Jesus Christ. Even of the one whose work is burned up it is said that he himself will be saved. So the distinction is not between the lost and the saved, but among the saved between those who built well and those who built poorly. Being saved ‘as through fire’ was a proverbial expression in Jewish circles to indicate only saved and no more, like the brand plucked from the burning in Amos or Zachariah. Someone who has lived a worldly life escapes to safety like a person dashing through flames. This should inspire us to take more thorough care how we build. When we looked at the Hebrews a year or two ago, we referred to these verses frequently to help us understand what that author wanted his believing readers to fear - not loss of salvation, but a loss of reward, a regret at the moment of death as so much of what had occupied their lives was consumed. These verses that we’ve been studying urge us to take with full seriousness both the certainty of eternal life and the scrutiny which the Lord will bring toward our discipleship.

        So what have we said? That disciple makers play their part as God helps Christians grow. All believers begin as infants and they need the pure spiritual milk of the word in order to thrive, and we as disciple makers need to offer that nourishment. In the same way believers are like a plant, which grows from a seed that has been planted by one person and watered by another. As disciples and disciple makers we need to be servants, and yet to be fully convinced that while we have a responsibility to others to nurture them, it is God who gives the growth. Finally, though the foundation of every Christian life is Jesus, the building built on this foundation depends on the materials that are used, and is shown principally in our character. Our goal is to allow the Holy Spirit to so work in our lives that God gives us growth in the fruit of the Spirit, leaving behind the acts of the sinful nature.

        God uses people like you and me to bring growth through his Spirit of into lives of others. I know, because I can look back on my own life and see God’s work through disciple makers, some of whom planted to seed of the gospel my life, some of whom watered and nurtured it, and some of whom encouraged me to build on it with valuable stuff. I was led to the Lord by a man named Pete Fosberg, who was the youth minister at the Presbyterian church where I grew up. He took a number of junior high school students on a retreat and by a campfire in the retreat lodge, he told us about Jesus, and what Jesus had done and how we could have a personal relationship with Jesus – and I believed.

        At that moment I became an infant in Christ and for most of my high school years, though I was growing toward maturity, the process wasn’t very fast. Paul might have written this letter to me as a senior in high school. But then I went to college and there I encountered Varoujan Mazmanian, and the young men who had been trained by him, and they took my discipleship to a whole new level, giving me a true appreciation for the Word of God and for prayer, and a real desire to see all people have the opportunity to know Jesus. This was my transition time from milk to meat, or in the image of the next metaphor, this is when I was watered, so that God could give me the growth. It was a fantastic time and I still look back on it with gratitude. After college I don’t think I built much on my Christian life for a little while. But when we moved down here in 1982 I met Paul Christiansen. Paul built into my life for years, and the material he built with was quality. No wood, no straw, no stubble for Paul. This is when my life began to have superstructure a building, and when the Spirit of God began to get hold of my life, a process that is still going on through others, some of whom are here today.

        So as a baby disciple I was fed. As a young disciple I was nurtured. As an older disciple I had someone who built into my life with valuable materials. This is what I want to pass on, this process that was so tremendously valuable to me. And so the question I need to ask you is: where are you in this process? What is being built into your life, and what are you building into the lives of others. If you’re a relatively new believer, you need to be enjoying milk, but longing for the transition to meat. When my son Michael first came to us, he was way too old to be surviving on just formula, but that’s what he was doing. He only drank and never ate, and he had never thrived, and his weight was below the charts for his age. For at least a year we encouraged him to make the transition from milk to meet, and now steak is his favorite thing, and he’s above 50th percentile of weight to his height. Maybe you are content to remain an infant in the Lord, never striving to be mature in the way you behave or handle things, but the Lord isn’t content with that, and you need to be transitioning to meat, in Bible Studies and relationships with other believers, and in your own personal relationship with God.

        If you’re a young plant that is growing, then its time to praise God for those who have been used by God to nurture you, though it is God alone who gives growth. Now it’s time for you to begin building into the lives of others, to find peers you can study with and young believers you can encourage. It’s time to plant some seeds or the Gospel, or provide some water, or feed, or weed. And for many of you the ministries of the church, from Sunday School to Awana to L.I.F.E. to adult Bible Studies are the place to make these relationships a reality.

        And if you are mature, then you have an even greater responsibility to be building into the lives of others, and a responsibility to discern the kind of building you are doing. Are the people you nurture growing in the fruit of the Sprit, or are they caught up in the acts of the sinful nature? That’s a test of your workmanship. Maybe you need to bring in others to help, or be more specific in your challenges, like Paul is here. Remember, the way you build in the lives of others is part of what will be tested in you on that day, and if we have allowed ourselves to be built well, and built into the lives of others, then the Lord’s ‘well done’ will be our reward.