Despite his urban background, the Apostle Paul occasionally turns to the world of farming and agriculture in order to illustrate his teachings. In this article we will look at some of the passages of his epistles where he does this.
In 1 Corinthians 3.6-9 he compares the assembly to a field in which God Himself has been working; and yet the wonderful thing is that He has not been working alone. In His grace He has deigned to work with and through human instruments. First, there was Paul himself. His role had been a pioneering one, moving into areas where Christ had not been named, bringing to them the wonderful message of the gospel, and experiencing the joy of seeing the new converts brought together as a local assembly of believers. Once that had been accomplished, however, he moved on, always conscious of the crying need of those in the regions beyond - they had yet to hear the news that God was offering a righteousness "unto all and upon all them that believe" (Rom 3.22), and Paul's calling was to see to it that they did hear. This of course meant that someone else had to take over where Paul had left off, and in the plan of God Apollos was the man who stepped in. His was a ministry of development and maturation, taking the tender seedlings of the assembly and watering them with sound doctrine to ensure that they grew spiritually and increased in the knowledge of God. From this passage we can learn several things.
First, we learn that the service of every believer is of value. No one believer has been given a monopoly of usefulness in divine things. Imagine what would have happened (on a human level at least!) if Paul had never come to Corinth to preach: there would have been no assembly for Apollos to bring to maturity. His great teaching gift would have been of no value, for he would have had no material upon which to work. Conversely, had Paul come and preached without being followed by Apollos, the assembly would not have grown in the way it ought to have. The work of both men, though different, was necessary. It is still the same today - the work of each believer in a local assembly is necessary.¹
Second, we learn that despite the fact that every believer has a role to play in the purposes of God, without the activity of God Himself our activities will be fruitless. There is a great danger in becoming earthbound in our thinking in this regard: it is very easy to begin to consider that our success in, say, gospel preaching depends entirely on our activity, our eloquence and our giftedness. We must always remember that if God does not act, all our arrangements will come to nothing. All Paul's planting and Apollos's watering were necessary, but the fruit was not the result solely of their faithfulness - it was the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit that produced results for eternity. This is true in almost every area of Christian life: my efforts at soul-winning, my attempts to develop Christlike character, my expenditure of time and energy in an effort to understand the Scriptures better, are all dependent on the increase that comes from God alone. May God deliver us from the spirit that marked the Israelites at Ai, when they felt that because of previous successes they were sufficient in themselves to achieve spiritual victory (Josh 7.3 etc.). It is God that gives the increase!
Third, we learn that, because of the two points noted above, the glory for any spiritual fruit we see in our assemblies must go to God. The problem at Corinth was that they looked at men and became followers of them, giving to them a credit that ought to be reserved for God alone. There is a danger even today that we become so taken up with a man's service (especially in a public role) that we fail to give the requisite place to God. While it is right that we should honour such men as being the servants of the God of heaven, let us never forget that, though gifted, they are only "…ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man" (1 Cor 3.5).
Turning our attention away from Corinth, we come to the churches of Galatia, where Paul applies the metaphor of agriculture in a different way. In Galatians 6.7 we read that "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". It is a universal law of nature that the crop that is reaped has the same nature as the seed that is sown. If a farmer sows barley he does not reap oats; if a gardener sows the seed from an apple, no amount of wishful thinking will make it produce a pear tree. The same thing holds true in the spiritual realm, but with one important difference: there are only two types of seed.² Every action, every word, every thought is a seed, either carnal or spiritual, laid down in the fertile soil of a lifetime, with the capacity to bring forth fruit. All of us are sowing day by day, and the principle of the Bible is this: "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal 6.7). Note that the apostle here is not preaching a doctrine of salvation by works - rather he is establishing the idea that whatever I do in life will have consequences, for good or ill. If I make a habit of sowing things that are spiritually valuable, that promote the growth of godliness in my life, then I will reap a life that reflects the nature of what I have sown. Similarly, if I sow a life of carnality, it will produce its own fruit after its own kind. There is a lot of truth in the old proverb: "Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny".
What are the practical implications of this? If I wish to reap a harvest of godliness there are many things that I can sow. Notice the issues that Paul raises in Galatians 6. First of all, there is the way I treat my fellow-believers: do I share their burdens (v.2), seeking to ease the load they must carry, or am I self-centred and indifferent to the struggles of others? Again, there is my opinion of myself (v.3): if I think myself to be important, I am sowing carnal weeds in the field of my spiritual life. Third, there is my attitude to men at large (vv.9-10). There is a danger that in emphasising (in our gospel preaching) the truth that salvation is not by good works, we forget the truth that salvation should produce good works - see James 2.14-25. Am I characterised by the sowing of good works, or is my life a sterile field, producing nothing that resembles the life of the One who "went about doing good" (Acts 10.38)?
Finally, let us not forget that one of the most important things that I can sow is the good seed of the Word of God (Mt 13.3; 1 Pet 1.23). Note that every gospel writer records that the last words of the Lord Jesus before going back to heaven include a command to His servants to spread the Word of God.³ When was the last time that I quoted a verse of Scripture in my conversation with my workmates or neighbours? It might fall into hard, resistant ground and be snatched away by the servants of the evil one, but that is not our concern - our duty is to broadcast the seed, and let God attend to the increasing of it.
In summary, therefore, every one of us is sowing something by the way that we live. In one sense, there can be no fruit unless God blesses our activity, so let us be sure that we give Him the glory for whatever results we see from our efforts. In another sense, however, every action I undertake, every word I speak will bear fruit - therefore it is my responsibility to see to it that the seed that I sow is of such a kind as to bring forth something of spiritual and eternal value. May God give us the grace to do so.
To be continued.
¹ Paul develops this theme more fully under the metaphor of the body, and we will leave detailed consideration of it until next month's article.
² Note that the symbol of seed can be used to mean several things (see, for example, Mt 13.38; Lk 8.11; Jn 12.24, etc), but in the context of Galatians 6 there are only two types of seed - carnal or spiritual.
³ See Mt 28.19-20; Mk 16.15; Acts 1.8; Jn 21.15,17.