The immaturity of the disciples at Corinth was anchored, to a large degree, by their infatuation with worldly wisdom (the words “wisdom” and “wise” appear 28 times in the first four chapters). Despite the eighteen months Paul had spent there and the letter he had written to them (5:9), they were stubbornly clinging to their cultural value of looking to themselves rather than above for answers.
Their immaturity manifested itself in numerous ways—taking each other to court (chapter 6), their failure to practice church discipline (5), their competition in regard to their spiritual gifts (12-14), etc. As critical as these issues were, Paul doesn’t begin his letter by addressing any of them. Instead, he targets the fragmentation that was taking place due to them making celebrities out of those who shared the message of Christ (1:11-12). He was deeply disturbed by this because it brought disunity to the body of Christ (v. 10) and showed their failure to understand the implications of Jesus’ death as well as their own baptism (v. 13).
Paul initially addresses the celebrity status foisted upon them in 3:5ff where he identifies himself and Apollos as “Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each His task.” He speaks of them as workers in God’s field with one planting, the other watering but God giving the growth (v. 6). Paul then moves from this agricultural picture to one of construction where he is the builder and Jesus is the foundation (3:10). There can be many builders but only one foundation (v. 11).
He reasserts this identity in 4:1: “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” He then encourages them to apply what he has said about himself and Apollos to themselves (v. 6). If they think of themselves as servants, they will not be puffed up because servants have no basis for boasting– all they have has been given to them (v. 7).
In identifying himself and Apollos as servants and encouraging the Corinthians to do the same, Paul is practicing what he preaches by building on the foundation of Jesus. Christ was a servant. If anyone builds on the foundation of the One who was a servant, then he will be a servant as well. If he is not, the question should be asked if he is really building on Jesus or something else.
Paul knew what kind of foundation he had laid in Corinth and I think he had a good idea of the follow-up of people like Apollos. Yet for all of the healthy instruction the Corinthians had received, many of them were still locked into an immature a war of wills over who was the superior spokesman for Christ, which of them had the greater spiritual gift, or the rights they had that needed to be defended and exercised. They were acting like spoiled children rather than following the model of servanthood embodied in Jesus and practiced by Paul, Apollos and others.
It wasn’t a pretty picture then and twenty centuries have done nothing to improve it. May our hearts be transformed so that we don’t just do the deeds of a servant—we become one.