There are a lot of illustrations that God uses to describe His people. Jesus and Paul, likely because they lived in an agricultural culture, often used natural illustrations. In John 15, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, God is the gardener who prunes and strengthens the branches, or burns the fruitless ones. In the parable of the four soils, Jesus compared our hearts to hard or soft soil that God was sprinkling the seeds of His Word on (Matthew 13). In Matthew 13 the gospel and believers are likened to yeast that works itself through a whole batch of dough – becoming an unseen force that changes the composition of the whole loaf. In Matthew 5 Jesus calls His followers salt and light – forces of good, preservers of life, enhancing the flavour of the world, spreading the truth for all to see. Jesus calls us a city on a hill, a net full of fish, a field of wheat mixed with weeds, a group of children, a flock of sheep, innocent doves and crafty serpents.
When Paul is teaching about how Christians can be very different but still work together, he tells us we are like different parts of a human body, and Jesus is the head (1 Cor 12). When talking about new believers he calls us babies who need milk. When we are more mature and able to wrestle with more difficult spiritual things, we are like adults chewing a tough piece of meat. When talking about the spiritual war going on around us, we are soldiers, strapping on the armor of God and preparing for battle (Eph 6). When the church is praying or singing, we are like priests who burn incense that rises to the heavens (Rev 5:8, 8:-4).
Each of these illustrations (and there are many more) are meant to help us understand the many different sides of what it means to follow God and live in this world.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked what it’s like to be a Christian or what it’s like to follow God, but it’s not an easy answer. “Well,”, you say, “sometimes I feel like a baby who has no idea what they are doing, but just trusting their father to take care of me. Other times I feel like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, being used to do amazing things I could never do on my own. Other times I feel like being a piece of clay spinning in the hands of a potter, where He’s gently but firmly moulding me into something new. Other times being a Christian feels like I’m a battle-hardened warrior, hurting, bleeding, covered in cuts and bruises, but standing once again to take on the enemy because I love my King and my Kingdom. Being a Christian also feels like being part of a huge family of people that you love but have never met – while at the same time, once God gets a hold of your heart, it’s like the whole world has flipped upside down and you now live in a foreign land full of strange customs that you waver between finding tantalizing, disgusting and incomprehensible. Sometimes I’m on the mountain shouting praise, other times I’m resting by still waters, and then there are times when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then I would imagine that you’ve felt at least some of that, and you can appreciate why the Bible is so full of varied illustrations describing a believer’s experience.
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and let’s read two more illustrations that Paul gives to explain how to live the Christian life. We’ll start at verse 1 again so we can get the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
That’s where we left off last week. Let’s keep reading:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
The Format of Paul’s Letter
First, and as always, we need to remember the context. The Corinthian church had some maturity issues and God told Paul to write a letter to them explaining some things to them. Paul had planted the church during his second missionary journey, had been their pastor for a year and half but had gone on to plant other churches. He wrote this letter from Ephesus during his third missionary journey, after getting reports from a bunch of people that things in Corinth weren’t going very well. In fact, the whole letter is written in response to those reports, and to answer the questions that a delegation from Corinth had brought to him.
Chapters 1-4 address the first, and most pressing problem, that being the divisions that had cropped up in the church. You see that in 1:11 where Paul says, “it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.” So Paul takes the first part to address that problem. Then in chapter 5 the next section starts with addressing another report Paul has received: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” and Paul takes two chapters to deal with that issue.
Then, starting in chapter 7 we see a list of “now concernings” where Paul addresses the questions the delegation brought him. In 7:1 we read, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:” and Paul answers their questions about marriage. In 7:25, he says, “Now concerning the betrothed…” and answers questions about unmarried people. In 8:1 he says, “Now concerning food offered to idols…”, in 12:1 we read “Now concerning spiritual gifts…”, in 16:1 we read, “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” and in 16:12 we read, “Now concerning our brother Apollos…”
Paul is writing a letter to a group of Christians that shows concern for their spiritual health, condemnation of their reputation for sin, and then gives counsel about how they need to alter their understanding and their behaviour to become more in line with what God wants them to do. And this ties right into Paul’s illustrations in chapter 3.
To build the foundation of the rest of the letter, Paul wants to make sure that they understand two very important things: First, they need to understand the truth of the gospel, which they had forgotten. So he reminds them in 1:30 that “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” isn’t found anywhere else other than in Jesus Christ. He reminds them that the human wisdom they’ve been listening to is foolish, and that all that they require to be right with God has been done through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They don’t need any more special knowledge, or crazy experiences, or demonstrations of power, or anything else. Their salvation is by their faith in Jesus Christ. Period. In other words, God has done all the work.
Which is why what Chloe’s people says they are doing bugs him so much. The church wasn’t full of the love of God, but instead was full of strife and jealousy, splitting into factions, and putting their favourite preacher up as their de facto leader. A servant of God doesn’t want any of that. It breaks God’s heart and a Christian’s heart to see people divided. But to hear that they are using your name as a point of division would be even more painful.
Little side-bar here. God hates it when his people are divided. Literally hates it. Listen to these words from Proverbs 6:16-19,
“There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
In light of that, what do you think he felt about this discord ridden, strife-filled church, full of people who were abusing one another? He hated it. And so did Paul. God really hates it when His people can’t get along because it is then that they are most unlike Him and are actually playing into the hands of the Enemy.
And so Paul, to remind them that dividing into factions over their favourite preacher was sinful and ridiculous and then says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
His point is that humans, even amazing ones like Paul or Apollos, are a just tiny, miniscule, little parts of accomplishing God’s will for the world. What is Paul? A servant, a worker; that’s it.
Paul’s first, brief, illustration is that the church is like a field and Paul and Apollos are just field hands. God tells them where to go, gives them the tools to dig, gives them the seed, and then causes the rain to fall, the sun to shine, and the seed to grow. It is ridiculous to try to elevate any preacher or teacher, no matter how gifted, to any kind of level, because their contribution to the church is negligible compared to the work of God. Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Paul and Apollos were all merely farm hands.
Each of these men were sinners who God chose to use for a time, not because of their ability, but despite their disabilities. More often than not, their great abilities actually became a problem for them!
- Billy Graham was born in the Southern US, a hard-core American, who was reluctant to get saved and wasn’t much for public speaking, but God called him anyway.
- Charles Spurgeon was a British man who was a gifted speaker, but was often in physical agony and suffered crippling depression, sometimes barely able to stand in the pulpit because of the weight on his heart and the pain in his body, but God used him anyway.
- John Calvin was from France, and by all accounts I’ve read, was a super-intellectual hermit who loved books way more than people (and was kind of a jerk), but opened his heart to God and God used him anyway. More than once people had to convince, cajole and even threaten Calvin just to get him to leave his books and obey God’s call to preach.
- Martin Luther was a foul mouthed, blue-collar, superstitious, German, with no understanding of the Gospel, who only decided to become a monk because he was almost hit by lightning, but one day God opened his eyes to see salvation is by grace through faith alone, and though he struggled with his many personality weaknesses for his whole life, God used him anyway.
- The Apostle Paul was a Christian killer before he met Jesus.
All these men, regardless of how different they and their contexts were, had two things in common: 1. God called them to work His fields and 2. They knew that it was God who gives the growth.
Paul is adamant (and if you read any of the biographies of these great, Christian men, so are they) that they are responsible for very little of the success of their ministries. In fact, it usually came by total surprise – and sometimes, despite their terrible failures. And because of this, they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that whatever good they had done in their lives was solely attributed to the work of God.
Sure, they sowed some seed by preaching the gospel, and watered by teaching the people the Bible – they are “God’s fellow workers” in that way – but it is God who really did all the work, not them. And what’s amazing is that God is still going to give them the “wages according to their labour”. Even though they have no power over the growth, maturity or harvest, if they have done the work faithfully, they will receive their reward. That’s an amazing grace.
No Magic Formula
Here’s the thing: There is no magic formula you can use to cause someone to get saved, grow in maturity, or grow a church.
There’s no magic words you can say to a non-Christian or backslidden child, spouse, parent, or friend that will suddenly make them want to put down their sin and turn to Jesus. I know this is a struggle for some of you. You have a friend, family member, or work mate that you feel drawn to share your faith with, that you want to see in the kingdom, that you know needs God’s grace – but they won’t receive it.
And you blame yourself. You think, “If only I had the right words… more answers… knew more about the Bible… had a better testimony… shared it differently… then they’d be saved by now. If I was part of a cooler church or acted a little cooler, or knew more cool shows, then they would listen to me. If I was way more holy and less sinful, had less temptations, fasted more, prayed more, studied more, then they would turn their life over to Jesus.”
You think that the reason that they aren’t Christian is your fault – and that’s just not true. There is no magic words or perfect system that will change someone’s heart. It is God who gives the growth, not you.
In the same way, there is no magic formula, no perfect system, no mystical biblical secret to growing a church or church minstry. It’s not about how comfortable the chairs are, whether the music is great, the sound system rocks and the visuals are stimulating. A church with a gym or classrooms or coffee shop or bookstore may get some folks through the door, but it won’t guarantee that anyone becomes a follower of Jesus.
All the things we try at this church, from the welcome bags to the website to the bbq’s and coffee time and small groups are fine, but they aren’t a guarantee our church will grow or that the people within it will become more mature believers.
I can preach all day long, the deacons can build you the nicest building in the world, the coffee can be the tastiest ever, and the band could win awards – and it won’t mean anything unless God gives the growth.
Ask any farmer how much power they have over their land. They can choose the best seed, but they can’t make it rain. They can buy fancy irrigation systems, but they can’t make the weather warm. They can build greenhouses, buy a water system, and control the climate, but they can’t make a bad seed grow a good plant.
And even if they get everything right – seed, water, soil, temperature, sunlight, protection from bugs and blight – they still can’t make the plant grow. All they can do is create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow. God still brings the growth.
God’s Fellow Workers
So, that being said, we are still “God’s fellow workers”. Just because God does the work of saving and growing people, doesn’t mean we are abdicated from our responsibilities as a worker. Every single believer here today has been given the great commission to “go… and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18), to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), to be God’s “witnesses… to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
We have been told to scatter our seed far and wide. For some that means telling people with your words because you are evangelists. For others, this means living such a life that others see it in you and want to know what you have. Listen to the words of Peter to wives with unbelieving husbands, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Peter 3:1-2) “Won without a word…”
Sometimes sowing seed means talking, other times it means influencing people by your conduct. As a church we need to do a better job of sowing seeds in both these ways – not through fancy outreach programs or rearranging the furniture, but through personal evangelism, sharing our individual stories, and being more careful with our conduct.
God doesn’t just call us to sow seeds, but also to water them. In other words, we need to be diligent to do all we can to – as I said before – create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow.
This means you are careful to make sure you, your spouse and your children, have time to read the bible, pray, and serve within their giftings. It means encouraging them to connect with God the ways in which they meet God best – not just ways that work for you.
This this means you create a home environment that has the conditions to help everyone who lives there to grow in faith, love and obedience to God. This doesn’t just mean hanging cute posters on the walls and saying grace before meals, but, that every part of your home is turned over to God. Your TV, internet, movies, games, conversations, your daily schedule and weekly calendar, everything.
Look how Deuteronomy 6:4-9 tells the people of God to remind their families about following God:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Every part of their lives was to be saturated with the presence of God.
This also means allowing your spiritual authorities to guide you (parents if you are a kid or your church elders if you are an adult), submitting to their authority as it reflects scripture. When they set a boundary, work to live within it. When they challenge you, do your best to face it.
Let me conclude with this: We can’t make anyone grow, but we can work as God’s servants to spread seed and create the conditions by which someone can grow. God allows us to work with Him on that.So evaluate your heart.
- Are you fulfilling the mission God has given you in your daily life to spread seed and water those God has given you? If not, then ask forgiveness and ask God what ways he wants you to spread seed – with words and without words.
- Also, are you feeling unnecessary guilt because the person you are talking to about the faith isn’t saved? Let God be the one who gives the growth. Release control to God and accept that all you can do is love that person like God does.
- Also, evaluate your home. Is it an environment that builds up the faith of those who live there or a field full of spiritual landmines just waiting to be stepped on?
- Do you have hidden things you hope no one finds?
- Are your conversations godly?
- Are you working hard to build proper priorities into your home?
- Do you have a high standard of godliness?
- Or, is your home a bastion of false religion?
- Do you embrace the joy of the Lord, and all the freedoms He has given you, or are you teaching those in your home how to follow rules, but not build relationships?