Therefore, the Lord helping me, I wish to set before you two main matters: first, the work done by men: “I have planted, Apollos watered”; second, the increase given by God: “God gave the increase”; and third, we shall conclude by drawing a few lessons from these two matters.
1. The work done by men. The work done by Paul and Apollos was that of planting and watering the Word of God, the good seed of the Kingdom. This is simply the preaching and teaching of the Word. You will remember that Paul exhorted Timothy, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2). Paul himself, with Apollos, engaged in that work with all diligence.
The planting of the good seed is the laying down of the truths of the Word of God, setting the doctrines of the Bible before sinners. It includes not only expounding the Word but also applying it to the cases of those to whom it is being preached so that they may benefit spiritually.
The watering of the seed sown is, we believe, the nurturing of it so that there will be, in due time, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. The watering, therefore, is something other than laying down the seed; it is the further expounding and applying of the Word, especially with regard to the spiritual needs of the Lord’s people, so that they will grow in grace and advance in holiness.
Some commentators say that the particular instance of planting referred to in our text was Paul’s initial preaching of the fundamentals of the faith for the conversion of sinners in Corinth, and that the watering done by Apollos, when he remained in Corinth after Paul’s departure, was his preaching for the edification of the believers in the Church there. In any case, both the planting and watering are the preaching of the Word.
We are to note carefully that the planting and watering of the seed – the preaching of the Word – is God’s appointed means of bringing sinners into a state of salvation. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” said Paul, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). It is “especially the preaching of the Word”, says the Shorter Catechism, which is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners”.
Also, it is mainly the preaching of the Word by which the Lord’s people are sanctified – by which they grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The prayer of Christ was: “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth” (John 17:7). Again, as the Catechism says about the sanctifying of believers, it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that is “an effectual means of . . . building them up in holiness and comfort”.
It follows that by the preaching of the Word the Church of Christ is both established and built up. By the preaching of the Word, the Christian Church was established in Corinth, and by the preaching of the Word it was built up. Therefore, we must ever comply with that all-important command of the Saviour, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). No other method but this planting and watering may be used to accomplish God’s great purpose of bringing the elect into a state of salvation, to the advancement of His cause. It is not by the modern ecumenical movement that the Church will be built, as so many fondly imagine. Neither will innovative preaching or new kinds of so-called worship, such as drama and dance, accomplish this. Only by preaching “the word of the truth of the gospel” are sinners saved and sanctified. “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor 1:21).
We see also that this great work is done by men – mere men. God does not send His angels to do this work. They are described as God’s ministers that do His pleasure (Ps 103:21) but they are not sent to preach the Word. Instead, God sends men, mere human beings, “earthen vessels” (as Paul described himself and his fellow labourers). Of course, it goes without saying that, while we mean “men” as human beings, women are debarred from this work of watering and planting. The authoritative word of Scripture is this: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim 2:12).
Scripture also clearly teaches us that no man can engage in this great work of planting and watering unless he is appointed by God. Paul and Apollos were not self-appointed; the Lord called them to the work. “Christ sent me,” said Paul, ” . . . to preach the gospel.” The disciples too were sent forth by the Master. So true ministers of the gospel are ambassadors of Christ. “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). God appointed them, gave them His commission, and sent them out with His message. “No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God” (Heb 5:4). Yes, these words do apply to Aaron and the high-priesthood of the Old Testament era, but the principle behind them applies also to the ministry of the gospel. If Jesus Christ Himself is the great Shepherd by the appointment of God the Father, surely the under-shepherds are divinely called also.
We see from the context that those who planted and watered are described as ministers. Paul says, as we read in verse 5, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers?” The term minister means a servant or attendant. Every true preacher of the Word is a servant. He is a servant of God, who has sent him, as Paul acknowledged when he said, “Whose I am, and whom I serve”. Ministers are also servants to the Church. Paul, for example, served the Church in Thessalonica. He worked among them as a nurse, concerned about their welfare and devoted to their care. “But we were gentle among you,” he said, “even as a nurse cheriseth her children” (1 Thess 2:7). Every true servant of the Lord, realising that he is a servant to the Church itself, knows that he is not to lord it over the flock. Yes, he must lead the flock, but not lord it over the flock. He must, in fact, minister to the flock. “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers?”
This word ministers also suggests the doing of work. Ministers of the gospel are to engage in labour, even hard labour. In verse 9, Paul says, “We are labourers . . . “. Of his time in Thessalonica, serving the Church like a nurse looking after her children, Paul said, “Ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God” (1 Thess 2:9). He was saying in effect: The work we are engaged in requires all our energy and effort. If a servant of men must be diligent in business, as the Bible requires, a servant of the Lord and of the Church must show exemplary diligence in the great business which has been put into his hands by the Head of the Church. Therefore this title minister is one which says to the ministers of the gospel, “Be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).
Another instructive point to glean from the context is that while, on the whole, this planting and watering is the one work of preaching and teaching the Word of God, there are certain differences between planting and watering. In other words, among those whom God has sent as ministers of the gospel there are differences in abilities and gifts. Of course, all of them must be apt to teach, this being one of the basic qualifications for spiritual planting and watering. However, some ministers are more knowledgeable than others; some are more lucid than others in their preaching; some are more fluent than others; some are more earnest than others; some are more able to speak to the cases of the Lord’s people, while others are more able in dealing with the consciences of the unconverted. However, while there are these differences, every godly minister will acknowledge, “Whatever ability I have been given by God, be it only one talent, I must make the fullest use of it. May I not be found on the great day of reckoning having buried that talent!”
The Lord’s labourers also acknowledge that, while there are these differences among them, they are all engaged in one great work. “Therefore,” they say, as it were, “let us be in harmony with regard to it. Let us seek and cherish ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ as we go out planting and watering the good seed.” They prize the fundamental unity between the servants of the Lord that verse 8 points to: “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one”. Not only are they “one in Christ Jesus”, but they are also one in having the same office, the same work, the same relationship to God, and the same relationship to the Church. Also, they are of one mind with regard to the great objectives they must always have before them – that God will be glorified, and Christ have the preeminence in all things; that sinners will be saved, believers sanctified, and the cause of Christ advanced.
Therefore they go on in the work of planting and watering the seed. Can they hope for fruit? Will there be an increase? What we are especially to note from our text is that, while the labourers must sow the seed, it is only by the power of God that there will be an increase. Except the Lord will give the increase, their labour will be in vain.
2. The increase given by God. “God gave the increase”, said Paul. Calvin comments, “The labourers must labour with all diligence and faithfulness, but as for making their labours productive, that is the work of divine grace, not a work of human industry.” This work of grace is a work of divine power. Where the grace of God is exercised in saving sinners and sanctifying the godly, the power of God must be exercised. Therefore, if the sowing of the seed is to be productive, there must be the exercise of heavenly power. Those of you who work on the land know that, however hard-working you may be at sowing time, it is all in vain if God does not give the increase. “Thou preparest them corn,” said the Psalmist, “when thou hast so provided for it” (Ps 65:9). The increase is due to divine power.
Furthermore, it is especially the power of the third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Ghost, that is exercised in giving the increase. Under Paul’s preaching “many of the Corinthians hearing believed” (Acts 18:8), but that preaching was “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). Again, in Psalm 110 we read about the Lord sending the rod of His strength out of Zion; that is, sending His Word out from the Church by His ambassadors. Then sinners are made willing. How does that happen? Apart from that exercise of the power of the Spirit of God, not one sinner will come to the blessed One who says, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). When sinners are effectually called by God’s Spirit, then there is the fulfilment of the words: “A willing people, in Thy day of power, shall come to Thee” (Ps 110:3, metrical).
Consider also what happened in Thessalonica. When the gospel came to that pagan city, sinners turned from idols “to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven”. What was the cause of that turning? O yes, the Apostle laboured night and day but there was also this altogether essential matter: the powerful work of the Spirit of God. “For our gospel came not unto you in word only,” wrote Paul, “but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess 1:5).
We see then that it is only by the work of God Himself that the Word increases in the sense of being fruitful in transforming sinners into followers of the Saviour. The Word of God was thus fruitful in Jerusalem: “The number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). How did that come about? By the extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, so that there was a great gathering unto Shiloh – a flocking of sinners to Jesus Christ.
What now of the saved sinner advancing in the life of holiness? This also takes place by the use of the Word. The Saviour, in interceding for His disciples, prayed, “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). When the Word is blessed to the people of God, it is effectual to their growth in grace. They increase in knowledge. They increase in love, as they are required to do: to “increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men” (1 Thess 3:12). And the Word is effectual in increasing their estimate of the One whose name is above every name, and also in their decreasing their estimate of themselves. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
However, you are sure of this, child of God: that there can be no such benefit from the Word of God for you apart from the secret, powerful working of the Holy Ghost causing you to will and to do of His good pleasure. It is by the indwelling and operation of the Holy Spirit that you make any progress in the narrow way that leads to eternal life, and press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is God alone who gives the increase.
Then there is the matter of the establishing and building up of the Church of God in the world. Again we have to say, God gives the increase. It is not by the might and power of men that this spiritual edifice is founded and raised up. The efforts of the most gifted and able ministers are all to no avail if there is no exercise of power by the Holy Spirit. “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Ps 127:1). Truly, it is “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord” (Zec 4:6).
You will remember that these words in Zechariah were spoken to Zerubbabel. He was discouraged because the work of rebuilding the temple was at a standstill for 16 years. The Lord then sent His prophets Zechariah and Haggai to preach to the people to encourage them. What a great encouragement was Zechariah’s message: “This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.” The preaching of Haggai and Zechariah was indeed encouraging, and Zerubbabel and the people were up and doing; they rebuilt the temple, and thus built up the cause of God in Israel.
With regard to the cause of the Lord among ourselves as a denomination, and in this dear land of ours, there can be no betterment and no building up unless there is the exercise of divine power. Therefore we need so much that the Lord would make bare His mighty arm. “Thou hast an arm that’s full of power,” said the Psalmist to God, “Thy hand is great in might” (Ps 89:13). O friends, let us be looking to Him that He would work in this way in our day, that He would stir up His strength in order that there would be an increase: in this congregation, in our branch of the visible Church, in every part of the visible Church – in our land and to the ends of the earth. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.”
3. Some lessons from our text. One lesson which we must lay to heart is this: the utter futility of labour alone. Be that labour ever so diligent, it is in vain if the presence and power of the Holy Ghost are not felt in our midst. There must be the divine blessing if our labour is not to be in vain. True, there must be diligent labour on our part. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecc 9:10). But how much we need that the windows of heaven would be opened and a blessing poured down upon us, so that there would not be room enough to receive it. Then, and only then, will there be the fulfilment of the promise, “I will make them and the places round about My hill a blessing; and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing” (Ezek 34:26).
This also is a very important lesson underlined by our text: that we are required to pray earnestly for the increase. Plead, O plead, at the throne of grace, that the Lord would come to our aid, that He would exercise His power in mercy for us as a Church and for His cause in our land and throughout the world, in order that the reviving would come which is so greatly needed. We read in the prophecy of Ezekiel about the wonderful things that the Lord promised to do for His people Israel so that they would have much spiritual prosperity. At the same time, God said, “I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them” (Ezek 36:37). It is clear that we have the obligation laid upon us to be crying to the Lord to do these things for His Church in this dark day. O friends, must we not smite ourselves because of our deficiencies in this duty of crying to the God of heaven that He would arise and have mercy upon His Zion?
Let us not leave our text, however, without laying to heart that, while we are to be crying to the Lord for His promised aid, we are to be heartily engaged in all the duties that the Lord lays upon us. We see in the Books of Zechariah, Haggai, Nehemiah and Ezra that, while God promised to help them and to exercise His power on their behalf, so that mountains of opposition would become a plain, and His cause flourish, yet He would have them to be up and doing, rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and restoring the walls of the city. To Zerubbabel and the people, God said, “Be strong . . . and work” (Hag 2:4).
So God is calling us today to continue diligently in the great work He lays upon us, especially that of preaching the gospel and teaching the truth. Christ told His disciples to teach “them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. In these words of Christ we have the principle that nothing is to be used in the public worship of God but what He has prescribed. This duty of teaching all things that the great Head of the Church requires to be observed is something that a large part the visible Church has lost sight of in our day. May we be found diligent in the work, planting and watering while we have the opportunity, and waiting on the Lord for the increase.
One last lesson before we close: God alone is to be glorified in the resulting increase. Paul himself was very conscious of the fact that he was but a servant; therefore he says, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers?” (1 Cor 3:5), and he adds later, “Therefore let no man glory in men” (1 Cor 3:21). There is a deplorable tendency on our part to glory in ourselves and to glory in others. Glorying in gifts and putting confidence in an arm of flesh have been the downfall of many. Let no man glory in his wisdom, let no man glory in his strength, let no man glory in anything which God has given him, “but he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31). No doubt some of you remember Rev Aaron Ndebele preaching at a meeting of Synod some years ago on these words. It was made very clear to us that there is to be no glorying in man. We are to ascribe all glory to the God of all grace and to the Son of His love, whom He sent in His great name to save, and whose name is above every name. May we be found doing so!
1.This sermon was preached by the Moderator of the Northern Presbytery at the induction of the Rev G G Hutton to the pastorate of the Inverness congregation on Friday, 23 March 2001. It is published at the request of the Presbytery.