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Laborers Together with God

1 Corinthians 3:7-9

7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.

8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.

9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.


A few years ago a sportswriter was interviewing Nathaniel Avery, the caddy for Arnold Palmer in several Masters golf tournaments. Avery made the rather surprising statement that he and Arnold Palmer were partners in those tournaments. He said, “I pick out the club to be used for most of the strokes, and Mr. Palmer makes the shots.” 

Now most anyone would agree that the partnership between Avery and Palmer was a rather unequal partnership. Arnold Palmer would be difficult to replace, while another caddy would be easy to find. But at the same time it is a valid partnership. Each partner did his best at the job he had. 

It is in this sense that the Bible declares that we are “laborers together with God.” What a marvelous concept! It is an honor, a privilege, and a wonder that God in his great program of world redemption would take us in on a partnership basis. That he would allow us to be participants, to be vitally involved with him in doing his great work. It is an unequal partnership to be sure. God could do without you or me, but we cannot do without him. Yet what a glorious thing it is that we have the privilege of working in partnership with him and doing his work on earth. What an incentive to be faithful to even the smallest task that we are called upon to do for him. Laborers together with God. What an honor and an opportunity to serve with the Almighty. 

This statement, “We are laborers together with God,” was written in the context of division in a church fellowship. The church at Corinth had divided into several factions behind different preachers. Some were followers of Paul, some of Apollos, some of Peter, and some disclaimed allegiance to all human personalities. They were followers of Christ only. It was in an effort to stop this division that Paul declared, “We are laborers together with God.”

In the immediate context the apostle Paul pointed back to the early days of his ministry among these Corinthian Christians. In those days he could not teach them as spiritual men, but as fleshly, worldly ones. This was understandable. They were fresh out of paganism and had not grown in their faith. They were still spiritual babes in Christ and were not yet ready to receive the deeper truths.

Sadly enough, these believers still were not ready for teachings suited to mature Christians. They had remained fleshly minded and unspiritual. They were actually dominated by carnal thoughts and actions. The evidence? It was the fact that they were making comparisons among God’s messengers. They were honoring and glorifying men rather than God. The result was division, strife, and envy.

This is extremely significant because it means you can tell what a man’s relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow men. If a man is at variance with his fellow men, if he is a quarrelsome, competitive, argumentative, trouble-making person, he may be a diligent church attendee, he may even be a church office bearer, but he is not a man of God. If a man is distant from his fellow men, it is good proof that he is distant from God. If he is divided from his fellow men, he is divided from God; if he loves God, he will also love his fellow men. 

The apostle Paul then employs an agricultural symbol to stress the relationships between Christian ministers and to explain the Christian ministry. He calls the church the vineyard or the field of God. This is a common Biblical analogy. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of Israel as the vineyard of God. Paul then declares that both he and Apollos are simply laborers in that vineyard. 

It is in this context that Paul asks, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?” Then he answers his own question. They are nothing more than servants by whom the Corinthians had come to believe in Christ. They were not Gods. They were not saviors. They were but ministers, servants of God through whom the Corinthians had been led to believe. They were but human servants who had labored as God had given them the ability. 

Paul then declares, “I have planted, Apollos had watered; but God gave the increase.” Planting is important work, but the life principle is not in the man who plants. It is in the seed he plants. It is tremendously important to put the seed into the soil, but the man cannot communicate life to it, and never does. All he does is put it in the soil. 

Watering too is important. Water is necessary for growth and development. But the life principle that expresses itself in the harvest is not in the man who waters the seed either. The life principle is in God. He alone gives the increase. 

So Paul declares emphatically, “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). The man who plants and the man who waters is nothing. Paul declares, “We are nobodies. We are of no consequence. Comparatively, we are nothing.” 

The man who plants and the man who waters “are one.” That is, they are equal. They are on the same level. And each will be rewarded according to the work he does. 

Then comes the significant statement, “For we are laborers together with God.” The word God is very emphatic. In fact it is repeated three times in this one verse of scripture. The emphasis is ever and always upon God. He is the source of life. He is the one who deserves the credit. 

Each servant has a God-given task to fulfill that involves meaningful and necessary labor. But ultimately it is God who gives the increase. 

With this background in mind, let me make three statements concerning our working relationship with God. 

1. God needs us.

It is a simple fact that the best crops do not grow spontaneously. While God could make vineyards and gardens to grow without human help, he has not chosen to do so. That is not God’s way. He gave Adam and Eve a beautiful garden in which to live but commanded them to “till and keep it.” He saved Noah by the Ark, but Noah had to build it. He gave Israel the Promised Land, but they had to fight for every inch of it. That is always the way of God. 

A critic once told Antonio Stradivarius, the famous Italian violinmaker, that if God really wanted violins he would have made them himself. Antonio replied, “No, not even God could make my violins without Stradivarius.” 

Stradivarius was wrong in his reply for God can do whatever he will—with or without Stradivarius. Nevertheless God has willed to work through men and he did not choose to make violins without a Stradivarius. 

George Elliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, wrote a poem in the Victorian era about Antonio Stradivarius in which she represented the famous Italian violinmaker as saying:

If my hand slacked

I should rob God—since his is fullest good—

Leaving a blank instead of violins.

I say, not God himself can make man’s best

Without best men to help him.


’Tis God gives skill,

But not without men’s hands: he could not make

Antonio Stradivari’s violins

Without Antonio.

It is a solemn thought. We are laborers together with God. But, you say, can’t God do it all himself? No, God needs men to carry out his purposes. True, on the cross, Jesus spoke the triumphant word, “It is finished!” He meant by that that he had done all that the world needed to have done in order that it should be a redeemed world. But for the distribution and application of that finished work, God depends on men. He has redeemed the world by himself. But the spreading of the message of salvation is left in the hands of men who are to become laborers together with God. Jesus died upon the cross and thus could say, “It is finished.” But because it is finished, our work begins. 

My knowledge of the faith in Jesus Christ as own personal Savior imposes upon me the obligation, in so far as my opportunities and capacities extend, to cooperate with him in spreading his great name. 

2. We need one another.

One of the great curses of Christianity is our division. We desperately need one another. Have you ever observed wild geese flying in formation, yet constantly honking at one another? Scientists of aerodynamics have wondered, as we have, why that occurs. Through observations in a wind tunnel they discovered that each goose, when flapping its wings, creates an uplift for the one that follows. This gives the flock 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. When one bird falls back, perhaps saying, “Nobody will miss me in the crowd,” he immediately feels the heavier load of flying alone and speeds up to get back into the exact position of wind formation where he is born on the uplift of his predecessors. If that one continues to lag, he is encouraged by the others to return to formation. That is why geese honk at one another. 

Working together, cooperating with one another, is equivalent to flying in formation. We too have learned that cooperating together is more pleasant and more profitable than independent isolation. 

3. We all need God.

Ultimately we all depend upon him. He gives the increase. Our dependence upon God was emphasized by the psalmist when he wrote, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2). 

James emphasized our dependence upon God when he said, “Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain” (James 4:13). Yet you do not know what your life will be tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” 

Out of dark tragedy, a friend recently told me that those verses have a new meaning to him. His son was on a hunting trip with two other friends along the Texas/Mexican border last year. The boys decided to take a swim in the Rio Grande River and two of them were swept away by the currents and drowned. The body of my friend’s son was not found until several months later. 

My friend told me that he and his wife had only one son by design. They had determined that early in life. His plan was for his son to take over the business and run it at age 30. He said to me, “I am a great planner who thinks of everything.” But, he said, “It never entered my mind that my boy would die. From the beginning I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life.” 

It is true. God needs us, we need one another, and most of all, we all need God. A retiring missionary testified that for the first third of his missionary life he prayed, “God, help me to do my work.” The second third of his career found him praying, “God, help me to do your work.” During the last third of his ministry, he prayed, “God, do your work through me.” 

We need to pray as the missionary learned to pray and God will use us for his glory. He has given us the matchless privilege and the glorious opportunity of being laborers together with him. 

 These words were first spoken in the context of strife and discord in the Christian fellowship. The church at Corinth had had some of the most outstanding preachers in Christendom as its leaders. Paul, the militant missionary, had founded the church. The eloquent Apollos had followed him. Peter, the charismatic apostle, had labored with them for a time. But the believers at Corinth were so spiritually immature that they were dividing up into camps behind their favorite preacher. A partisan spirit had developed in the church. Some said, “We are followers of Paul.” Others said, “We are in Apollos’ camp.” Still others said they were followers of Peter. And some of the most super-spiritual disclaimed allegiance to any human leader. They said, “We are followers of Christ.” 

Paul was combating this party spirit when he declared, “We are all laborers together with Christ.” He began by pointing back to the first days of his ministry among them. In those days he had not been able to preach the deep spiritual truths to them because their spiritual immaturity would not allow them to receive it. 

Paul, Apollos, and Peter were but human beings using the abilities God had given them. Laborers—they were just servants. Together not just with God but with one another. People were trying to drive a wedge between these ministers. Paul wrote to say, “We are not divided. We are laborers together.” People would like to divide us also. But as the third stanza of the great Christian hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” goes: 

Like a mighty army

moves the church of God;

Brothers, we are treading

where the saints have trod;

We are not divided;

all one body we,

One in hope and doctrine,

one in charity. 


Onward, Christian soldiers, 

marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus

going on before!

We are to labor diligently, cooperatively, confidently. We are to labor humbly, harmoniously, hopefully, happily. Heartily. God doesn’t count the results—just the efforts. The fields are ripe unto harvest but the laborers are few. The time has come to beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. The time has come to get off of the battlefield and into the harvest field. We are all needed, the little and the big, the black and the white, the rich and the poor. The trained and the untrained. 

The need is great. The harvest is great but we can’t gather it in our own strength. We are to sow broadly, and work boldly. In order to work together, we must have honesty and integrity. We must get past indifference. We must work hard. 

All man’s labor would be in vain if God did not cause the seed to grow. We are co-laborers with God and with one another. We actually belong to God and are subject to him and we do our work together. Neither Apollos nor Paul had any distinction apart from their devotion to the same master. They were both the servants who fulfilled the task assigned to them in proclaiming the Gospel. 

Paul employs an agriculture figure to illustrate the relationship of the apostles to God. Later he uses an architectural figure to illustrate our relationship to God. 

Paul is aware that Israel is called a vineyard in the Old Testament (Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 36:9). Each servant has a God-given task to fulfill. It involves meaningful and necessary labor. One plants the seed and one waters the land. But growth is a gift. Those who labor, having done their work, can only wait for growth. They cannot produce it. They can only await it. So it is with spiritual growth. God produces the results. Spiritual life is a gift of God, not of the labor of man. All who serve in the field are on an equal basis in the sight of God because all are doing God’s work. God pays off according to their labor. He overlooks no one who labors for him. We are not competitors, we are allies. Paul planted (Acts 18:1-18) and Apollos watered (Acts 18:24-19:1). The noblest thing that can be said of the apostles is that they were fellow workers of God. 

In gardening, one may plant a seed and another may water it, but neither can claim to have made it grow. That power belongs to God alone. Men can do many things, but they cannot create life. A man who plants and the man who waters are on one level—neither can claim precedent over the other. We have always to remember that while God uses human instruments to bring his message, he alone awakens hearts to new life. 

Religion is a plant that will die unless it is watered. God rewards according to the work done, not according to the harvest. When we see the deep meaning of this verse it excludes pride, glory, independence, judgment. Laziness and division. The agricultural symbol stresses the subordinate character of what Paul and Apollos had done. The emphasis of all of this is God’s power and work. God is ever the source. Christian leaders had performed their function but it was God who kept on giving the increase. Paul asked, “Who is Paul and who is Apollos?” Then he answers his own question. He and Apollos are nothing. Their labor would have gone for naught had God not climaxed their efforts.

Each servant has a God-given task to fulfill. It involves meaningful and necessary labor. One plants and another waters, but God does the rest. 

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