What then is Apollos? and what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed; and each as the Lord gave to him. I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: but each shall receive his own reward according to his own labor (1 Corinthians 3:5-8).
It was evident that there were many problems within the church in Corinth. Rivalries, immorality, and strife seemed to prevail there.
Paul understood the nature of the challenges. The difficulties were not just the “surface issues,” but the attitudes underneath. One such attitude was the carnality, or worldliness, in the thinking of the Corinthians. They were focusing on the earthly and, in so doing, missing the spiritual reality!
Some of the Corinthians had taken their eyes away from God in Christ and focused them on the men around them– Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (or Peter). They ended up creating different factions in the church, each faction highlighting their “champion” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:4).
Paul will hear none of this. In the Kingdom, Paul and Apollos and Peter, as Paul, Apollos, and Peter, do not really matter. What really matters is God in Christ and the work that God is doing. Paul, Apollos, Peter, and others are simply servants!
This lesson is as important for us today as it was for the Corinthians in the first century. It is easy to start thinking about the church and evangelism in worldly, carnal terms, and focus on personalities and results. People will line up behind their favorite preacher and/or elder. Many will place emphasis on conversions. These are very easy and natural tendencies!
But such is the way the world works, and we are supposed to turn from that (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16). Jesus Christ is Lord, not us, and He is in control. It was not given to Paul or Apollos to provide the increase– if they were not able to provide the increase, how well shall we fare?
Paul uses the image of agriculture, just as Jesus did in Mark 4:26-29. In agriculture, farmers must plant the seeds and provide the best possible environment– nutrients in the soil and water. Then the natural process can take over, for good or ill: either the conditions will go well and the crops will grow, or there will be poor conditions and the crops will fail.
So it is in spiritual matters. As those entrusted with the Gospel of life (1 Corinthians 4:1-2), we must promote the message. That means that we must go out and preach the message to all men (Matthew 13:1-8, Mark 16:15, Matthew 28:18-20). After we have “planted” the “seed,” we can strive to “water” the seed by encouraging people in the message of righteousness and truth (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2).
Yet it is not within our power to convert anyone. That power has been vested in God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12). We are to reflect that Word in our lives and point people toward it (Matthew 5:13-16). The power of conversion rests in God’s message of salvation and the willingness of the soul to repent– not in anything regarding the preacher or fellow-servant of God.
This way of thinking is not natural for us, but it is a necessity if we will engage in the work of proclaiming the Gospel as we ought. In fact, when properly understood, this perspective is liberating. We should not focus on conversion but on proclamation– we need to get the message out and to encourage people to consider it, and leave the rest up to God. If no conversions are taking place, we would do well to consider our prayer life, our example, and the effectiveness of our presentation. But we must not conclude that our work is a complete and utter failure if no one converts, because conversion itself is out of our hands. We have done what we should have done, and it was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The farmer who plants his crops and does his best to fertilize and water the soil has done what he can, and if his crops fail, he cannot be held responsible. But it is the farmer who is too afraid to plant a crop or has given up planting crops who is responsible and culpable for failure. So it is with us. If we proclaim the message of God and reflect it in our lives, we have done what we should, and if no one turns to God, we are not responsible. But if we are too afraid to proclaim the message, or have given up proclaiming the message, then we do bear some responsibility (cf. Romans 1:16)!
We have our hands full with the proclamation and encouragement of the Gospel message. Let us trust in God that if we plant and water, He will provide the increase. Let us keep our focus on the spiritual reality and not get caught up in worldly perspectives on the promotion of the Gospel!
Ethan R. Longhenry