Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
What’s the deal with all the Bible Translations out there? Why so many? Which one is correct? Does it matter?
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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?