I Planted, Apollos Watered, But God Gave the Growth
My aim in this message is to bring God’s word to bear on this amazing and wonderful and historic moment in the life of our church. The moment I have in mind is the overlapping transition phase in the process between my ministry as Pastor for Preaching and Vision for the last 32 years and the ministry of the next pastor in this role. The precise moment we are talking about is between the unanimous action of the Council of Elders last Tuesday to recommend Jason Meyer to the church as Associate Pastor for Preaching and Vision, and your vote to approve that recommendation (or not) on May 20 — about seven weeks from now.
That is the amazing, unprecedented moment we find ourselves in. I will say more about the details, and introduce Jason and his family to you at the end of this message.
A Preemptive Application
This message is an exposition and application to our situation of 1 Corinthians 3:5–9. I choose this text because it is designed by God to teach a church how to think and feel about a situation in the church where two leaders have become a flashpoint of pride and division. That was the case at Corinth, but to my knowledge it is not the case at Bethlehem in relation to Jason and me.
And therefore my message is preemptive. I am not aiming to remove a problem; I am aiming to prevent one. If the truths of this text take hold of us as a church, what a wonderful, peaceful, humble, God-exalting season this will be. That’s my aim.
The two leaders who have become the flashpoint of pride and division are Paul and Apollos. Look at 1 Corinthians 1:11–12:
It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
The church is lining up behind favorite teachers and boasting in them in such away that quarrels and divisions are happening. The entire first four chapters of this letter deal with this problem.
Why Paul and Apollos?
You may ask, “Why did you say Paul and Apollos were the flashpoint when 1 Corinthians 1:12 also mentions Cephas and Christ?” The answer is that, even though Cephas is definitely part of the controversy, Paul and Apollos get way more attention.
Look at 1 Corinthians 3:4: “When one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” Just those two. And then, in our text, Paul focuses all attention on himself and Apollos as the flashpoint of the problem.
Verses 5–6: “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.” Cephas drops out of the picture. Then in 1 Corinthians 4:6, when Paul is summing up the three chapters, he says, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.”
An Occasion for Pride and Division
So there’s the issue and the goal: Paul and Apollos have become the flashpoint for the people being “puffed up in favor of one against another.” Two leaders becoming the occasion for pride and division. That’s what Paul addresses in our text in 1 Corinthians 1 Corinthians 3:5–9. What can we learn about God and about human leadership, that will result in humility and boasting in the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:31) and not in man (1:29)?
“Leaders are more honorable as they decrease and God increases.”
Let’s begin at the beginning of the paragraph in 1 Corinthians 3:5 and walk straight through these five verses commenting on each of the statements as they come.
Verse 5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed. . . .” In other words, readjust the way you think about your favorite teacher. What are they? Servants. The word is table-waiters. In the analogy they’re not honored guests. They’re not at the head of the table, they’re not the owner of the house. They’re not the makers of the food. They are the table-waiters. “Hello, my name is John, I’ll be serving you tonight. Would you like to start with something to drink?” So adjust your thinking, and be careful not put Paul and Apollos (or John and Jason) in the wrong place.
Again verse 5: they are “servants through whom you believed.” Through whom. That means, the power that brought you to faith did not and does not reside in them. It flows through them. We may certainly be thankful for the copper pipes in our house, but what gives us life and refreshment is the water that comes out of the spigot. The waiter may be courteous and winsome, or crabby and inattentive, but if the food gives life and joy, that ultimately, is what counts.
Paul and Apollos are not saviors. They are not the gospel. They are not the Holy Spirit. They are not the source of power. The are not God. They are table-waiters. And the faith that happens when the food of God’s word is served, happens through them, like a canal, not from them like a spring. So don’t think of them as originators. They don’t originate. They deliver. They serve.
God Assigns the Response
Verse 5 again: Paul and Apollos are “servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned or gave to each.” In other words, even if you detect a difference in who responds in faith when Paul or Apollos speaks, remember: The Lord assigns those differences. The Lord gives faith to whom he will when Paul or Apollos speaks. If you think that the differences in responsiveness to the one or the other is ultimately owing to them, you do not yet understand how faith arises.
Yes, you came to faith through Paul or through Apollos. But God gave that faith. God assigned that response. Don’t think Paul or Apollos was the decisive cause of your faith. They weren’t. The diversity of responses are decisively God’s doing.
Verse 6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” This makes the same point with different words. God is decisive, not man. He is going to say this again even more emphatically. But here notice that he does acknowledge the reality and the significance of planting and watering. And keep in mind verse 5: What comes through planting and watering is faith. “Servants through whom you believed.” The effect of planting is faith. The effect of watering is faith. But the decisive cause of faith — the life and growth of the plants — is not planting and watering. But God.
The emphasis falls on God not man. It’s texts like these and hundreds of others that make us want to be a God-centered church. We want to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. Things like planting and watering. Things like how you think about pastoral leaders. How you think about the fruit of their lives. God is supreme in the ministry of the church. God is supreme in the planting and watering. God is supreme in causing faith and giving the growth.
They Are Nothing
Verse 7: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” This is amazing. Paul and Apollos are not anything. They are nothing. It’s amazing because Paul mentions Epaphroditus in Philippians 1:29 and says, “Honor such men.” And he tells the Thessalonians “Esteem [your leaders] very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:13).
“God is decisive, not man.”
So the nothingness of Paul and Apollos, or John and Jason, is not a nothingness that makes them less honorable. In fact, they are the more honorable as they decrease and God increases. Honor in the church is bestowed in direct proportion to a person’s God-exaltation and self-humbling. What Paul means is not that he and Apollos have no honorable role to play, but that compared to God’s role in the church, it is as nothing. God is shining so brightly, you can’t see the candle of our significance.
A Means of Oneness
Verse 8: “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” “He who plants and he who waters are one.” One in purpose — to build people’s faith and to make much of God. One in dependence — on the one spring of life flowing through both. One in love — for the people of Corinth. One in message — to preach Christ crucified. So they are one, don’t make them a means of division. Make them a means of oneness.
God Knows, We Don’t
And then Paul says at the end of verse 8: “and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” You are noticing differences between Paul and Apollos. You see differences in the way they work. And you think you can put an appropriate value on each of these differences. And then you speak about these differences and you boast in them.
Listen, Paul says, each will stand before his own master for his rewards and that’s not you. God knows their work. And God will reward it perfectly in accord with what he knows, not with what you say. In fact, he knows things you don’t about their work and their motives. Look at verse 13: “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire.” You think you know their work. You don’t. God knows it. The Day — the Day of Judgment — will disclose it. Till they pray for them, because they will give an account for your souls and for their labor and their motives that you cannot see. God will give them their wages — their rewards — not you. Be careful how you boast and how you criticize.
Finally, verse 9: “For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” “We are God’s fellow workers.” What does that mean? The original wording and the context suggest it means Apollos and I are fellow workers with each other who belong to God. Not that we are fellow workers with God as a third worker. This is another statement of God’s supremacy — his authority, his rule. These fellow workers belong to God.
And what about you? The church? “You are God’s field, God’s building.” You too belong to God. You don’t belong to Paul. You don’t belong to Apollos. Bethlehem does not belong to John Piper and will not belong to Jason Meyer. She belongs to God. You are God’s field. You are God’s building. God is giving the growth in his own field. God is building the church as his own temple. You do not belong to your leaders. And you do not belong to yourselves. You belong to God because you belong to Christ.
And what is the breathtaking implication of belonging to God? Let’s conclude our exposition by looking at the answer in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23:
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Therefore, Bethlehem, let him who boasts boast in the Lord, not in men. Not in John. Not in Jason.
The Antioch Moment Revisited
Now let me return to the Antioch moment — the moment in Acts 13 in the church of Antioch when “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). It was an epoch-making moment in the history of the world mission of the church.
And now we are in such a moment as Jason Meyer has been unanimously recommended to you by the Council of Elders. And I am amazed and overjoyed at the process of this transition, and at the future before us as a church, and at the person being presented to you. So let me say a word about each of those: the process, the future, and the person.
Early on I said to the search team (of seven vocational elders and seven non-vocational elders), and I said to the whole Council of forty elders, “What we must pray that God will give us is not a passable candidate around whom we can be comfortably united, but candidate in whom we discern God’s call so clearly and so powerfully that there will be a resounding yes from the whole search team, and the whole pastoral staff, and the whole counsel of forty elders.” And to my amazement and joy, that is what God has done.
“You are God’s field. You are God’s building. God is giving the growth in his own field.”
As soon as we narrowed the process to two candidates, I dropped out of all interviews. There were key meetings when I sat at home praying. “God, have mercy on this church, and give her a shepherd after your own heart. And unite elders around that man.” When Sam emailed me after the key elder meeting, he wrote: “The 33 elders gathered tonight are unanimous and enthusiastic about moving to the next step with Jason. [One of the elders said,] ‘We cried out to God, and he has answered us.’ I’m crazy happy about this. Let’s all get on the ride and throw our hands in the air!” I knelt at our living room couch and cried with joy. And that is what I have felt ever since.
You now have seven weeks before you will vote on the first stage of Jason’s candidacy May 20. He will preach three times and there will be many opportunities for you to ask questions.
If your leaders have led well, and by God’s spirit have discerned the hand of God on our next leader, and if you are in the Spirit, you will see what we see. If we have not led well, and you are in the Spirit, you will see something different. So you can see that discerning the call of God on a man’s life hangs on our being spiritually in tune with the Spirit of God. In step with God.
If God leads you to say “Yes” in May, Jason comes alongside me as the Associate Pastor for Preaching and Vision and we share the leadership for a season. Then there will be a second vote (and we will announce the date of that vote in the next weeks) to discern if God is leading us to call Jason as Pastor for Preaching and Vision. And if he does, my plan is to shift all my vocational energies over to Bethlehem College & Seminary, a wider ministry through Desiring God, and writing.
Concerning the future of our church it seemed good to make one particular comment about how succession planning relates to long-range planning. And when I say long-range planning I mean questions like: Will we ever become three or four separate churches? Will we become three or four campuses with three or four separate preachers?
We made the decision that no major long-range changes in strategy should be made while I am Pastor of Preaching and Vision. And the reason was simple: It did not seem fitting to us that I would be the key vision-caster or trumpeter for a future that I would not be here to lead or be accountable for. Instead it seemed very fitting that the new Pastor for Preaching and Vision who should shape the future that he will be here lead. So in my view all the possibilities of effective strategy for the sake of reaching these cities and building this people are as open and as possible as the purposes of God. And I love trusting God to lead us into it without my leadership.
Which leaves me just one last thing to say about the person, Jason Meyer. And it’s this: There is no one in the world I would rather hand off this ministry to than Jason Meyer. Or to put it positively, take all the preachers that I know — all young ones rising up, and all the older ones with deep experience, all the famous internet ones and all the loyal and fruitful lesser knowns — if they all volunteered to come, I would choose Jason Meyer.
Besides the trust that I hope you put in your elders, you now have seven weeks to find out why I feel that way. My plea to you is that the next seven weeks become one of the most focused times of prayer and fasting in your life. What we want is not a savvy decision. We want a work of God to unite his church — which he purchased with his own blood — around the man whom he has appointed. Under our commitment to Christ himself, nothing more important will be decided by this church in the next, perhaps, thirty years.
I would like to now invite Jason and Cara to come with Gracie, Allie, Jonathan, and David for prayer.