Like Jesus, Paul used many illustrations to explain the inner workings of God's Kingdom and the spiritual world. In I Corinthians 3, he begins by comparing working in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (which is the church) to working on a farm. I think the reason he does this is to help us understand in a practical way what our ministries in the church actually mean in relation to the "big picture."
- It's easy to become frustrated and discouraged if we don't see how/what we are doing in a specific area fits into the whole.
- This is why smart companies give employees orientation training in the goals and overall operation of their business, so that the individual can see the place and importance that his/her contribution makes to the final product.
Paul is doing this in I Corinthians 3 by explaining the overall cycle that must take place in the normal development of a church. In doing so, he was hoping to dispel feelings of pride or despair felt by various individuals because they happened to be at some high or low point in the normal cycle of church growth.
He chooses the "farming" illustration to explain this because his readers would easily understand this imagery, since farming was the oldest of cycles known to man. With the "farm" model, he explains the natural evolution of growth in the church and how each believer is an important part for that growth to happen.
1And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not mere men?
5What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.
- I Corinthians 3:1-9
He begins by rebuking his readers for their immature attitude. He compares them to spiritual babies who are not ready to begin eating a regular diet of spiritual food. The reason for this rebuke is that they are jealous of one another and are dividing into groups. Paul says that in doing this they are worse than "spiritual babes," they are "mere men" or unspiritual men, men without God's Spirit. The reason for their jealously and division was that they were aligning themselves with different church leaders and claiming their work and their success as their own.
In response to their partisanship, Paul explains the true role of these people as equal servants in a cycle of growth begun and maintained by God. In explaining the tasks of he and Apollos (a great orator and preacher of the time), Paul establishes a model for all future workers to refer to when comparing what they are doing to the overall work and growth of the church.
In verse 5, he says that all workers, regardless of their task or where they are in the cycle, are all equal because all are working toward the same end — producing faith in Jesus Christ in the hearts of others. And, no worker can boast since the opportunity to serve, the tools to serve with (and later on he will say, even the results), all of these are provided by God. No servant therefore can boast because all begin with nothing and are completely supplied for the task by God. By implication, Paul is telling his readers that if he and Apollos cannot boast, then neither can their so-called followers boast.
In verse 6, he applies the cycle found in farming and gardening to the cycle of growth we experience in God's Kingdom here on earth — the church. He mentions 3 phases in that cycle, and the fact that each one represents a place and type of work we find ourselves in as Christians serving in the church of our Lord.
There is no crop without first the seeds being sown into the earth. In the church, sowing of seed or planting is essentially spreading the gospel to all nations. Jesus alluded to this in the parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4:1-14). As a matter of fact, he even says in verse 14, "The sower sows the word" by way of explaining the parable to His disciples. The Lord also made this to be His basic command as the first task of the Apostles after his resurrection. — Mark 16:15 says "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." You begin or restart with seeding, and there are many ways to do this "seeding".
- Missionaries who go into foreign countries.
- Advertising, Radio, T.V., the Internet and VBS.
- Visitation Programs.
- Personal studies
Every effort to bring the gospel to those who haven't heard it before is part of the planting effort.
Planting is hard work; it's an uphill type of work. You need great faith, must be able to work with little encouragement, and must be ready not to receive much credit for what you've done. It's usually a lonely kind of work because you labor with hope and a vision that only a few people can see.
Abraham, Noah, and the Apostle Paul were seed planters and set the example for modern-day seed sowers in every congregation. People who had a vision back in the 40's and 50's to plant churches in our present location. People we don't even know who are gone now. Of course, the reward for visionaries is a faith that is rock solid as a result of the vision they have received in serving the Kingdom.
In the end, the planters, the sowers, the visionaries feel close to God and are continually and easily filled with awe and praise as we see in Paul's writings where he spontaneously breaks out in praise and joy — even in the most difficult of circumstances. This is the true spirit of planters and seed sowers.
Paul claims that Apollos was a waterer, a nourisher, a builder-upper. This is usually the longest stage in both the cycle of farming and church growth. The seed is planted with hard work to break up the soil and remove the debris. Then the farmer waits patiently for the rain to nourish the seed and the earth. For the church, this watering stage involves:
- Organizing, ministering to others, persevering in a task.
- Teaching the Bible year in and year out.
- Building buildings, training teachers, helping ministers to mature.
- Strengthening families, developing leaders, as well as establishing good community relationships.
Planting is hard; watering is tedious. It's slow, grinding, sometimes repetitive and monotonous. It's discouraging at times because it is often a case of one step forward and two steps back. There are many late nights, large responsibilities, sacrifices, and not much gratitude from your students at the time. People like Solomon who consolidated his father David's gains and later spent decades building an elaborate temple. This sometimes shames us because we want construction in a month or a year!
- Barnabas, the early mentor of Paul and later Mark, were waterers.
- The Apostle John, who did not have to move around much for his ministry, remained a long time in teaching and building the church in Ephesus and Asia Minor is another example of one who worked at his task as a waterer for decades.
We have these kinds of servants today, for example:
- Elders who serve with their wives and keep a steady hand for years.
- Deacons who work hard with little recognition.
- Teachers and ministers who are there day in and day out — to the point that we take them for granted; they are always there when we need them.
- Those brothers and sisters who are responsible for a thousand acts of kindness — visiting the sick, preparing food, serving in childcare; they are the quiet waters that continually nourish this church.
I have not mentioned all who deserve to be mentioned, only a few to help you understand the kind of person and the kind of work "watering" is. The reward for waterers is that their work etches into their character over time and you begin to see the true workings of hope, strength, and the most precious of virtues — Godly humility in them. Waterers feel close to God's people and know His ways intimately. This gives them great confidence for the future and a hope that cannot be shaken. You are judged and compared to others who come before you and, as leaders, have to cope with new problems that have not been faced before.
People like Joshua who took over from Moses and settled a land already subdued by others was one who worked a harvest period. And Peter, along with the other Apostles, enjoyed a great harvest from Jesus' ministry but had the task of leading the early church through the first difficult years of its existence. Today your present elders, deacons, and ministers are very much into this phase as they strive to find the direction and new goals to reach based on the achievements of past generations. Of course there is a reward for harvesters too.
- Their task is a joyful one.
- They have many resources to work with.
- They have the blessing of seeing God's power at work.
- Harvesters get an early taste of heaven and experience the pleasure of having a thankful heart.
The third phase in the cycle is harvesting. Jesus promised that those who are faithful to sow seed and work the soil will have a harvest of some kind — sometimes 30, 60, 100. The work of harvesting includes:
- Baptizing souls who are coming to Christ (especially in developing nations).
- Managing the growth caused by years of work by others (i.e. operating Christian schools, writing books, organizing great demonstrations of praise and worship).
- Planning for the next plateau of growth in large congregations.
- Funding other good works to glorify God and edify the church.
Harvesting has its own unique set of challenges. However, you are the steward of the hard work of others, and receive little credit for what you accomplish.
Now that we've had a "birds-eye" view of this model of growth, let's draw a few practical lessons for our own situation here today as we follow in Jesus' footsteps in doing the work of the kingdom as planters, waterers, and harvesters.
Lesson #1 — Church Work/Growth is Cyclical
No one person or one congregation is exclusively in one place. We go from one stage to another in our personal ministries as well as the development of a congregation. Knowing this helps us not become too proud or too discouraged or get into a rut. Because it is a cycle, we should always be prepared for change and learn to be flexible in order to accommodate the various phases in the life of a congregation.
Lesson #2 — Know Where You Are in the Cycle
A church with empty pews shouldn't waste its time on a building program. A church with crowded classrooms needs both a building program and a teacher training program. Wise leaders learn to discern where the congregation is in its cycle and plan for the next phase. This breeds confidence in the leadership and clear direction for the congregation.
Lesson #3 — Jesus is the Lord of Every Harvest
Paul says it this way:
7So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.
- I Corinthians 3:7-9
He reminds us that no matter where we are in the cycle, and what task has been assigned to us, the Lord is the one who will cause the seed to grow - verse 7. Then Paul reassures them that each point in the cycle and each task performed is the same in God's eyes. Seed planters have no greater glory than waterers or harvesters — they are all equal tasks in God's eyes. He will reward based on how you worked, not what you worked at (i.e. if you served well keeping the nursery, you will be rewarded; if you neglected your responsibility as an elder you will receive your due).
Finally, in verse 9, Paul explains that while you are busy working at your ministry, whatever that is and at whatever point in the cycle, God is busy working on you. Your theatre of operation is this world and the task is to fill it with the knowledge of Christ. His theatre of operations is your heart and His task is to fill it with the love of Christ through the Holy Spirit. You see, as you work for Him in this world, He is at work to prepare you for the world to come — this is also part of the cycle.
Where are you at in the cycle of your life? In the endless cycle of sin and shame and failure?
Why not break out of this rut and come to Christ today so that He might set you free from guilt and fear and begin the cycle of love and joy and anticipation of heaven rather than the dread of condemnation? If you want to be free, come to Jesus now by repenting of your sins, confessing your faith in Him, and being buried in the water of baptism to wash away the old cycle of sin and death and begin the new cycle of peace and joy.