God, Us, and Evangelism

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

The Incorruptible Seed

Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth. For,
“All flesh is as grass, And all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: But the word of the Lord abideth for ever.”
And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you (1 Peter 1:23-25).

God has always found the imagery of plant life fruitful for comparison with spiritual things. Many of Jesus’ parables feature agricultural images. Since most people are at least somewhat familiar with plants, the value of this imagery is quite understandable.

When Isaiah wanted to encourage the Jewish exiles of the sixth century he turned to the frailty of grass and flowering plants (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8). They grow for a season and look beautiful and impressive for that season– but it does not take long for them to die when exposed to hot winds or freezing cold.

Isaiah compares people and their ideology to those plants. Sure, for the time being, the Babylonians who had conquered the Jews seemed impressive. Babylon was a large city with a great empire. The people boasted of their gods. The Jews were an oddity, believing firmly in their one God even though He had not saved them from Babylon’s hand. It would be very easy for the Jews to “fall in line” and believe just as the rest of the people believed.

But Isaiah knew that the day of the Babylonians would be short. The time of all flesh is short– humans live for a short period of time, in the grand scheme of things, and pass away. Another generation then arises, and it too shall soon pass. The ideologies of men tend to live a bit longer than an individual generation, but they also pass. The one constant, Isaiah notes, is the word of the LORD.

Peter writes to encourage his fellow Christians six hundred years after the height of Babylonian power. Rome is the new Babylon. Their empire was even more impressive than the Babylonian empire. Their military might was unequaled. The Emperor was hailed as a god, and even if the traditional gods of the Greeks and Romans were doubted, pretty much everyone else fell down before the Power of Rome. The Christians were very much the odd ones since they claimed that it was really Jesus who was Lord, not Caesar, even though Jesus was crucified in the days of Tiberius. As before, it would be very easy to “fall in line” and accede to Roman power.

Yet Peter wants to remind the Christians of the same lesson that Isaiah did: the word of the LORD, now enshrined in the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, endures forever.

We now live almost two thousand years after Peter wrote those words. Even in the days of Peter, Babylon was a ruin. Its glories would only be re-discovered in the nineteenth century by archaeologists looking to better understand the “word of the LORD” found in the Old Testament of those very Jews whom the Babylonians mocked. Within three hundred years of Peter’s letter, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Emperors who used to claim divinity for themselves now called Jesus of Nazareth Lord, at least in name. Today the Roman Empire is as distant of a memory as the Babylonian Empire, and their ideologies have been relegated to the interest of historians. And yet the word of the LORD, the Gospel of the Kingdom, is still preached throughout the world.

As assuredly as Babylon and the Babylonians rose and fell, and Rome and the Romans rose and fell, so too will America and Americans. The ideologies of modern society will have their day in the sun and then they too will pass away!

We would do well to heed the warning of Isaiah, Peter, and also John (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). It is very easy to trust in what contemporary society calls “common sense” and “the way things are,” just as it was easy to trust in those things 2600 and 2000 years ago. But, as John says, the world and its lusts are passing away. Only the word of the LORD will remain.

If we believe in Jesus Christ and seek to imitate Him and keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-6), we will demonstrate that we have been born again of that incorruptible or imperishable seed. Our minds, hearts, and actions will be conformed to how God would have us think, feel, and act, as was manifest in His Son (John 1:18, Romans 8:29). That way of living will not change with the winds of culture. If it is truly based in the imperishable seed, it will always endure.

But we must watch out for the corruptible or perishable seed of the world. It is easy for the “weeds” to take root and dominate in life (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). It is easy to allow worldly mindsets, attitudes, and actions to take over, either boldly in denying that which is divine, or more subtly by attempting to appear pious and holy. But its end will not be the fruit of the Spirit or anything conforming to Christ, but instead will at some point show its true worldliness (cf. 1 John 4:5-6). It will have to be cast away, either by this generation or a future one, for it cannot last!

Jesus says that we will be known by our fruits (Matthew 7:16-20). You do not get the imperishable plant from the perishable seed, nor do you get the perishable plant from the imperishable seed. If we think, feel, and act according to the ways of the world, we will pass away along with the world. But if we think, feel, and act according to the enduring, living, and abiding word of God, manifesting the Gospel of Christ in word and deed, we will obtain eternity (John 3:16). Let us cling to the incorruptible seed and reflect Christ to the perishing world!

Ethan R. Longhenry