NextSunday Worship

February 16, 2020

“Mixed Metaphors”

Dr. Lawrence Webb 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Year A - Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany

The verses of the old gospel song, “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” compare human existence with a lifelong train trip. But then, the chorus seems to switch to riding on a boat in anticipation of reaching heaven’s blissful shore and singing with the angels. This is an example of combining two comparisons that don’t quite go together. They call this mixing metaphors.

Here’s another one: “Sir, I smell a rat that’s darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”

“There is no man so low that he has in him no spark of manhood, which, if watered by the milk of human kindness, will not burst into flames.”

“I knew enough to realize the alligators were in the swamp and that it was time to circle the wagons.”

Paul sometimes uses unusual word combinations and implications. In our focal passage from chapter three of First Corinthians, he uses three metaphors that — out of context — don’t seem to have much in common: servants, a field, and a building. But in the context of the passage, we recognize he uses these three different pictures to describe the church.

Each metaphor stands alone and needs some clarification in relation to God’s people. One sentence with the three comparisons reads as follows: “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (v.9).


On Paul’s missionary travels, he came to Corinth and began preaching.  He and his partners were not as concerned with statistical reports as we are today. So we have only the general statement in Acts (18:8) that “many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized” during the year and a half he spent there (Acts 18:11).

Any pastor worthy of the name will be concerned about the congregation’s continued spiritual growth and outreach after he or she moves on. But as the founding pastor, Paul must have felt this even more acutely when he moved on to Ephesus.

Ministers today are encouraged — and in some denominations even required — to end their relationships with previous congregations when they leave. But as Paul moved from one city to another, he saw no backlog of preachers looking for jobs. So, he made a point of keeping in touch with the churches he and his partners started. But after Paul left Corinth, at least two other preachers —Apollos and Peter — had a witness there.

Because Paul’s team had led those original members to faith in Jesus, some of them felt a continuing loyalty to him and did not readily identify with these other men. Others did develop positive relations with these later ministers — to the point that factions arose among these various groups.  Paul learned about this and tried to deal with this and other issues in his correspondence.

He deals, not at all subtly, with the divided loyalties. He tells them (3:1-4) they are like infants in spiritual matters. He had to feed them “milk” because they weren’t ready for “solid food.” Then, he says, bluntly, “Even now you are still not ready,” and he applies that specifically to jealousy and quarrels over pastors: “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?”

Before moving on to discuss other problems some of the Corinthians had written to him about, Paul tries to wrap up this discussion by telling them not to boast about human leaders, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or the present or the future.” All of it, including these preachers, belongs to the Corinthians because “you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” In other words, stop quarreling over who belongs to which preacher. You all can claim all three of us (3:21-23).

He basically moves away from that theme after chapter 3, but not before he gets a bit sarcastic. He says they seem to think they are rich. With no help from their ministers, they think they have become kings. He wishes they really were kings, so the preachers could be kings along with them. Instead, their spiritual leaders have become spectacles to the world.

Then Paul offers three contrasts between what the ministers go through and what these church members think of themselves (4:10):

  • We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ.
  • We are weak, but you are strong.
  • You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.

Next he sets up another threesome, detailing the actual plight he and his co-workers face:

  • To the present hour they are hungry and thirsty,
  • They are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless.
  • They grow weary from the work of their own hands.

In a final triad, he lists what he and his laborers together go through and how they respond:

  • When reviled, they bless.
  • When persecuted, they endure.
  • When slandered, they speak kindly.

So, Paul concludes, they have become like rubbish and dregs to the very day he writes.

He offers these pictures of what he and the other spiritual leaders willingly endure for the sake of the Corinthians, in contrast with their complaints, which he feels should be solved easily by comparison.

He offers reassurance that he doesn’t intend to shame them. Still he wants them to remember he is their spiritual father.


Through letters and visits from church members, Paul has been made aware of a double handful of problems they face back in Corinth. So through most of the rest of the sixteen chapters, he deals with those issues.


It disturbs Paul to learn that members of the Corinthian church are taking each other to court, rather than settling their difference among themselves, getting other church members to intercede. He says, “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

Then it gets worse. He says they do wrong against other people and defraud other people — “and believers at that.”


Another morals issue: the rampant promiscuity in Corinth and other cities, especially in major seaports. Prostitution was legal, with regulated prices as a significant factor in the economy. Temples to various Greek and Roman gods reportedly employed males as well as females for sexual rituals in their worship. The Corinthian temple to the goddess Aphrodite was said to have great numbers in its employ.

Corinth had such a notorious reputation as the leader in this blatant immorality that a verb, “corinthianize”, was coined to mean drunken debauchery and moral depravity. This term was coined around 400 B.C. by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, but it was no joking matter. It was for real in many towns and cities in ancient Greece.

Paul cites an example of so-called sexual freedom that is going on between two church members. He says they don’t even find things like this out in the pagan world among those who claim no morals: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife” (5:1).  He continues, “And you are arrogant.”

Instead of condemning this open sinning, their fellow church members brag about the man and his stepmother’s actions.  Paul compares this situation to the way a little yeast works its way through a whole loaf of bread: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. “

He then reminds the Corinthian congregation of some specific directions on this same subject he wrote to them in an earlier letter:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

So, Paul expresses this wide range of prayer concerns he shares with the other preachers-pastors who labor together for Christ.

GOD’S FIELD (3:5-9)

Hear again verse 9, the key verse of First Corinthians 3 — “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We began with the analogy of Paul and his fellow pastors as laborers together for Christ. Now we look at the first of two areas of work in which they labor.  The church at Corinth is a field and he and Apollos are field hands who have shared their labors for Christ, each with his own specific assigned responsibility for working toward the harvest. Each man becomes important to the work of the church as he follows through with his assignment.

Paul asks of himself and of Apollos: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?”

He answers his own question this way: “Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Christian Church has continued through nearly twenty centuries because generations of laborers in God’s field have proved to be servants through whom you and I came to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Many congregations today have multiple full-time paid ministers, each with a distinct and distinctive areas of ministry: lead pastor, primary preacher, administrator, ministers to age levels from children through youth and adults; specialized musical assignments, even athletics. Whatever their specialized work, they all must be part of the witness as “servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.”

Consider David, who played basketball in high school and continued his athletic interest through college, little by little with a growing involvement in church. Soon he found ways to use sports as a tool for bringing youth into church teams, then into Bible study and worship. Many of his “recruits” were from underprivileged homes and from minority races with no church background. In time, it seemed natural for church leaders to ask David to consider becoming a full-time worker on the church staff. Still later, they ordained him as a minister of sports.

In sharp contrast with these multi-staff churches, many small churches have only one paid minister. Some of these men and women serve full-time at one location. As more and more small churches close their doors, many others are bi-vocational, requiring an additional source of income beyond what the congregation can provide.  United Methodists are well-known for assigning a pastor to what they call a “charge,” with one pastor looking after two or three tiny congregations.

Paul himself was bi-vocational, often following the trade of a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3). When he came to Corinth from Athens, he found a Jewish Christian couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who had the same occupation. They were refugees from Italy, forced to flee when Emperor Claudius forced all Jews out of that country.

In Paul’s time or in our own, whether multi-staff or one man or woman riding herd over several congregations, all ministers’ priority is to become “servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.”

As Paul analyzed the Corinth situation involving divided loyalties among different preachers, he saw his primary assignment as the one who planted the seed in anticipation of future harvest as more people would be reached for Christ. Then Apollos came along to water the tender plants as they began to grow. But neither should take credit for the results of their shared labor. Paul is quick to say “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.”

GOD’S BUILDING (3:10-15)

Along with the picture of the Corinthian church as a harvest field, Paul also says they are a building. And, as the founding pastor, he identifies himself as the “master builder” from the Greek word “arkitekton” — “architect.” So, as the architect, he says, “I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” As with the farming analogy, where he planted and Apollos watered, he draws a similar picture; “I laid a foundation, and someone else [namely, Apollos] is building on it.” Once again, they are laborers together for Christ, in the field and with the building.

Then he warns, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it” because the only valid foundation is the one Paul laid: “that foundation is Jesus Christ.” He goes on to mention six different possible building materials that might be used on that foundation: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw.

Gold and silver have been found in remains of ancient sacred structures:

  • capstones on Egyptian pyramids (“Pyramidion, Wikipedia)
  • walls and floors overlaid with gold in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20, 21, 30)
  • gold on a sun disc to reflect the sun in an Incan temple from around A. D. 1200

(The Guardian, “Coricancha, the Incas’ temple of the sun: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 3,” March 25, 2015,

We may think of precious stones mentioned here as jewels. In reality, this refers to huge stones used in structures, including marbles — precious because of the time and effort involved in quarrying and transporting them to the construction site Countless structures are made of wood, of course. Straw or hay adds stability to clay bricks.

But Paul offers this study in contrasts, from gold, the most valuable to hay and straw we consider of little value. Each builder’s work will be tested “as through fire” when he gives an account of himself at the last day, “for the Day will disclose it.” But he reassures this is not to determine the final destiny of each builder: “If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Although the Apostle focuses on his own work and that of Apollos and Peter among the Corinthians, we must think carefully and honestly as individual Christians regarding how our work for Christ will endure “as through fire.” Spiritual leaders must be faithful in seeking to guide and nurture those in their care.


Paul completes his building analogy by revealing the building he has in mind is the temple of God, but in this case the building is the people who make up the church.

Professor Brian Peterson has said, “The people and things of the world (including the leaders the Corinthians are fighting over, and the brothers and sisters they are fighting with) are not there to advance our individual agendas, and they are not there to be exploited and used. They are there as recipients of God’s redeeming love. That love is the shape of the temple we are called to be, fitted to the foundation of Jesus himself“ (Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” Working Preacher, February 23, 2014,


A husband and wife stopped in on a worship service on what they came to realize was the last Sunday the current pastor would be there.  It was a United Methodist congregation on the last Sunday in June, typically moving day for the denomination’s pastors. From start to finish, these casual guests sensed a warmth between pastor and people that reflected what Paul must have felt for the Corinthians and deeply desired they would feel in return.

Ushers greeted them warmly and then led to them to seats where the members around them welcomed them with equal hospitality. The couple felt energy in congregational singing and an easy-going order in the structure of the service.

The pastor followed the Methodist pattern of baptizing a baby as the parents held the child. The pastor then took the baby in his arms and walked all about the sanctuary, calling on the people to take their responsibility as a congregation for seeing to the education and training of their newest member.

He based this farewell sermon on Moses’ farewell words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 33, beginning with a tender, loving name for Israel — Jeshurun.

“There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, majestic through the skies. He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old . . . So Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine, where the heavens drop down dew.  Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!”

As the sermon proceeded, the visiting couple heard sighs and sniffles, some from bowed heads. Women opened their pocketbooks for tissues. After the benediction, the members who had greeted them so warmly were too overcome with emotion to bid them farewell. They were lost in silent farewell to the man they had known and loved who was leaving after that day,


About the writer:

Dr. Lawrence Webb is a native of Sweetwater, Texas. With degrees from Hardin-Simmons University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of South Carolina, he has served as pastor, writer-editor, and professor at Anderson University.

His books include The Art of Advent; Reflections for Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas; Christmas Memories from Seven to Seventy; Once for a Shining Hour; Revelation, a Book of Hope; Hardin-Simmons, Hail to Thee; Songs That Sing to Me; Life Lessons from Stories, Songs, Poems, and Plays.   He and his wife Pansy live in Anderson, South Carolina.


Scripture and Music:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8 1

Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37



Abundant Life

All Are Welcome

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus

Christians, Lift Up Your Hearts

Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

Take My Life, and Let It Be

Tell Me the Story of Jesus

The Church’s one foundation


Anthems and Solos:

Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart

As We Gather at Your Table

O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee

Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song

In Christ There Is No East or West

Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service

We All Are One in Mission

Christ for the World We Sing

Forward Through the Ages

Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive (Matt)

Breathe on Me, Breath of God (Matt)

Blest Be the Tie That Binds (Matt)