Summary: What is the mission of God's people
It’s All About God’s Glory
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.”
To say that Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was difficult would be an understatement. The church which Paul had founded there was full of strife as the believers there tried to come to grips with the gospel. What was their new center of life mean? What was the relation of their past understanding of world view to the new?
The Greco-Roman world from which most of the believers had come was based upon the Greek philosophers. The task of much of the philosophy was to explain the meaning of life. They struggled with the idea of unity and diversity and how something could be both at the same time. Various solutions had been put forth, but each system was refuted by the next. What was left was skepticism about whether meaning could be found at all. This is similar to what we see in postmodernism today.
The preaching of Christ presented a seismic shift in worldview to the Corinthians. The splits in the church were not so an expression of diversity as it was coming to grips with the new unity. Our thinking is shaped by comparison and contrast with other ways of thinking. So it was natural for the new believers to begin their journey by comparing and contrasting the old way of thinking with the gospel. They understood that there was a new means of unity being proclaimed which was somehow centered around the message of Jesus. The question was which of the teachers they had heard had the correct understanding of this unity. Some thought Paul, others Apollos, others Peter, and yet others Christ Himself. And this struggle continues to this day. Which denomination or theological position best represents our Christian unity?
If Paul answered as many would in this world, he would have said that his view was the correct understanding of the Christian life. He took that approach in dealing with the Judaizers in Galatia. The reason for this was that their gospel was not a gospel at all. There was no unity between their gospel and the one Paul preached.
However, in Corinth, Paul takes a different approach. He includes both Apollos and Cephas as being legitimate proclaimers of the gospel alongside himself. After all, in the Book of Acts, Paul had sent Apollos there to deal with Jewish opposition to the gospel and to strengthen the believers. Peter, although Paul had to deal severely with Cephas at Antioch for hypocrisy nevertheless acknowledged that Peter preached the truth of the Gospel.
When we look at what Scripture records of Peter, Paul, and Apollos, we can see that they had different personalities. Peter seemed to be good hearted but impulsive. Apollos was a great orator and teacher. Paul was a very determined believer and very antithetical in thought, a contrast of black and white. Much has been said about their diversity as well as those who try to separate the teaching of Jesus from all of them as do people today who try to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. This apparent diversity leads to the fracturing of the church and skepticism of her message.
Paul deals directly with this issue by affirming the unity of the gospel. The gospel if bigger than the personality of Paul or Apollos. This is shown in the verse we are discussing today. The first part says “I planted” (Paul), the second “Apollos watered,” and the third “God gave the increase.” The first two are separated from the third by the Greek conjunction (alla) which is usually translated “but” in English. As is often the case, it is the small words that are more important than the big ones to correctly define. In Greek discourse, this word we translate with “but” has a rich meaning. Of course, it has the English understanding of a contrast. But it also has the idea of replacing what was said earlier with what follows.
The question now arises as to what “God gave the increase” replaces. On the surface one could say that it makes what Paul and Apollos do unimportant and that it is what God alone does is important. If one were to take this to somewhat of an extreme, it would mean that we should sit and do nothing and wait for God to do it. This seems to have been the view of some of the Moravians in England had which John Wesley strongly opposed.
It would seem to me that a better understanding of this replacement is not to deny the importance of Paul, Apollos, or any believer, but rather one of replacing the emphasis of glorying in human teachers to glorifying God. Paul and Apollos as well as others are means by which God is glorified. If we look at the birth of a child, we do not deny the agency of a man and woman (Jesus excepted). But God is the true giver of all life and deserves the glory. For since we are dealing with birth and bringing up children spiritually speaking at Corinth, this illustration seems appropriate here.