Archive for July, 2016

… God Gave the Growth

I Corinthians 3:1-17 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills



… God Gave the Growth



My church.

All of us in this sanctuary have probably used that phrase more times than we can count: My church had a guest speaker this morning. I sing in the choir at my church. My church is having its annual picnic in September.

Now consider a second set of sentences: My son just got a promotion at work. My daughter just got her master’s degree.

One more set. My car handles beautifully. My car needs new tires. I’m fine, but my car was totaled.

What each of those sentences had in common was the little word “my.”

For you fans of English grammar, “my” belongs to a group of words called possessive pronouns. A pronoun replaces a noun in a sentence. For example, instead of saying, “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “She is sitting in the third pew on the left,” Possessive pronouns are a subtype that indicate ownership. Instead of saying “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “Jane is sitting in her pew.”

Listen carefully for the possessive pronoun in these three phrases: My car; my son; my church. Did you hear slightly different overtones in each use of the word “my?” Keep those distinctions in mind. We’ll come back to them in few minutes.

Before we do, I’d like for us to pick up where we left off last Sunday, in the middle of I Corinthians 3:6, a verse that begins with Paul saying, “I planted, Apollos watered …”, last week’s sermon title, and ends with this week’s sermon title “God gave the growth.”



Servants and Growth

I asked Gabrielle to leave a couple copies of last week’s sermon in the narthex, so if you’d missed it, you can pick one up on your way out. But if you were here and could use a quick review, you’ll remember that we talked about the church in ancient Corinth. It had been founded by Paul on his second missionary journey. After Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, Apollos preached there. And Paul received reports that the Corinthian congregation was dividing into factions, each favoring a former leader.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians he writes,


It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 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.” (I Cor. 1:11-12)



God’s servants

Paul comes back to this concern in Chapter 3 of this letter, our New Testament lesson both last week and again today, where he asks, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He answers, “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (v. 5)

We talked about how servants (the Greek word diakonos, which comes into English as “deacon”) were individuals whose job was to assist someone else, usually by performing tasks of an unskilled nature. The word conveyed a low social status. Yet the Corinthian Christians were arguing about their loyalty to a favorite servant. Paul explains the problem with their perspective by reminding them:


I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.


We’ll come back to the images of the church as God’s field and God’s building. But first, listen again to how Paul describes both himself and Apollos. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.” “He who plants and he who waters are one.” Why, Paul asks in obvious frustration, are you arguing over people who, in God’s eyes, are merely obedient servants doing simple tasks. Why, he asks incredulously, are you trying to distinguish between those God sees as one. What, he wonders almost aloud, is keeping the Corinthian Christians from seeing that it’s God alone who gives the growth to his church.


God gives the growth

Let’s think about those issues in agricultural terms.

If you’ve ever farmed, had a garden, or even grown a flower in a pot, you know something about planting and watering. If you leave the seeds in the packet instead of putting them in the soil, they won’t grow. If you put them in soil and they never get any water, once again, they won’t grow.

But let’s assume you plant the seeds and water them, that you cultivate the soil and protect the young plants from weeds and pests. Are you thereby the one who makes them grow? If you think you are, please catch me at coffee hour and explain to me how you make that happen. I’d love to know.

You plant. You water. But what happens next is out of your hands. What happens next is that God gives the growth.



  1. God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple (vv. 9, 16-17 )

To help us focus on the fact that God gives the growth, not just to plants but also to Christian congregations, Paul uses three images to illustrate the nature and the function of the church. He talks about the church – specifically the one in Corinth but by extension the church in Elmer – as God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple. We’ll spend a little time looking at each image to see what God would have us learn about our situation from this portion of his Word.



The Church as God’s field

First, toward the end of v. 9, Paul calls the church God’s field. The Greek word translated “field” is used only here in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament, this word indicates cultivated land in contrast with an untended pasture. It refers to tilled fields or carefully maintained orchards rather than isolated, unmanaged tracts of land.[1]

For Paul to call the Corinthians “God’s field” is for him to say that their church didn’t simply spring up by accident out in the middle of nowhere. Rather, before the church ever held its first service, God had a plan for its growth. Before the missions committee ever held its first meeting, God knew what he intended the field to produce. He even knew which servants he’d assign to help bring his plans to fruition.

As we saw last week, even before Paul described the church in Corinth God’s field, he’d pretty well explained the metaphor. Paul’s job was to plant. Once the seed had taken root, Apollos’ job was to give it water. As Paul pointedly observes, such tasks are assigned to unskilled laborers, to servants. God, the owner of both the field and the harvest, was the one who ultimately mattered, not those who planted or watered.


The Church as God’s building

Paul then shifts the metaphor, if only slightly, from agriculture to architecture as he continues with his second image of the church: “You are … God’s building.” As one commentator puts it:

“The analogy of Christian leaders working on a major building project is especially appropriate to Paul’s argument. Unlike the field, where one worker could conceivably do all the work from planting to harvest, great buildings in the ancient world … took many years to build, even decades. Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Paul [we’ll come back to the Jerusalem temple in a few moments] was the work of tens of thousands of workers and took over seventy years to build. The same goes for the great cathedrals of Europe built in the Middle Ages.”

Actually, some medieval cathedrals took much more than decades to build. Construction of the great gothic cathedral in Chartres, southwest of Paris, France, spanned four centuries. The cathedral, shown on your bulletin insert, is more than 400 feet long. Its western façade, what we’d call the front, is more than 50 yards wide. The difference between the two steeples is obvious. Both were started about the same time. But the south tower, which is 344 feet tall, was finished some 300 years before the north spire which is more than 30 feet taller.

Building this church was a community effort. Stonecutters, masons, carpenters, glassmakers, metalworkers; all donated their time, talent, and treasure. The town went through alternating periods of prosperity and poverty, and at least one devastating fire. With a project of this scale, “Workers could move on, retire, or die before the building was completed. As Carson observes, with such edifices, ‘it is the project as a whole that is important, and, implicitly, it is foolish to focus all praise on just one of the builders who has contributed.’”[2]

That final phrase sounds a lot like Paul. Once you realize that the building belongs to God, it’s just plain foolish to declare your allegiance to a single member of the construction crew, whether his name is Apollos, Cephas, or Paul.

As with the image of the Corinthian church as God’s field, so when describing the church as God’s building, Paul distinguishes between his work and Apollos’. Paul planted the field, Apollos watered it. Paul laid the foundation, Apollos built on it. Paul isn’t jealous that someone else watered his seeds or built on his foundation. He knows both tasks are essential. He joyfully fulfilled the one assigned to him. Then he trusted God to keep the project going.

Pull out your bulletin inserts one last time, look at the cathedral, then look around this sanctuary. Groundbreaking for this building took place on May 22, 1923. The first Sunday service was held on April 13, 1924, a little less than one year later. Imagine what would have happened on this plot of land if, after the foundation had been laid, another construction crew had come in, thought they had a better idea, and tried to build the Chartres cathedral.

Think about it. Elmer wouldn’t even have its one stoplight. You couldn’t get to the hospital from the highway. God knew his plans for this church before any of us showed up on the scene. He’s been using folks like you and me to carry out those plans ever since. And if those to whom God has assigned these tasks keep building on this foundation, God will continue to give the growth.


The Church as God’s temple

The last image of the church Paul uses in this passage is found in vv. 16-17, where he describes the church in Corinth, and again by extension the church in Elmer, as “God’s temple.”

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16-17).

These verses deserve more attention than I can give them this morning, but I do want to offer three brief observations.

The first is that in these verses, the word you is always plural. You, plural, are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you, plural. Later in I Corinthians (6:19), Paul calls each individual Christian a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here, however, his emphasis is on the congregation as a whole. You, plural, the church in Corinth, the church in Elmer, you are God’s temple.

Second, why does Paul call the church God’s temple? Remember, Paul had studied the Jewish Scripture and theology with Gamaliel in Jerusalem, the location of the Jewish temple. The idea of the temple as God’s dwelling place, along with warnings aimed at those who would profane or destroy it, are found throughout the Old Testament. So is the idea that God indwells not just a building but his people as a whole (cf. Exod. 25:8; 29:45; Lev. 26:11–12; Ezek. 11:16; 37:26–28; Ps. 114:2). To destroy God’s temple is to damage the spiritual well being of God’s people. God won’t sit silently by and let that happen.

The third point I’d like to highlight is that God’s temple is holy. To be holy is to be set apart by God for service to God. This church is holy, not because of anything anyone here has ever done, but because of what God has called and gifted its ministers and members to do. In the very act of calling us to be his servants, God makes us holy. We may serve by planting seeds or watering them, by laying foundations or building upon those that have been laid. But we do whatever task God has assigned us, and because God has made us holy, what we do brings him glory.





III. Shifts Beneath the Surface

Three images of the church: a field, a building, a temple. What’s the word Paul puts in front of each? He uses a possessive noun: God’s. The church is God’s field. The church is God’s building. The church is God’s temple.

The fact that the church belongs to God probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone here. You knew this church was God’s long before this sermon started. You’ve known it from the time you first learned about the nature and the function of the church.

But to take a closer look at the phrase I used at the outset of this sermon, if you and I already know the church belongs to God, why do we so often say “my church?” Are we missing something?

Not necessarily. I think when we say “my church,” it’s usually a shorthand way of saying, “the church in which I have my membership,” or “the church I normally attend.” Rather than me constantly repeating, “The church of which I became a communicant member on Sunday June 30, 1968,” I simply say, “my church.” I don’t see a necessary problem with the shorter phrase.

I do, however, see a potential problem. The potential problem is that the range of meanings we give to words tends to shift over time and with context, rather like the way the earth can shift beneath its surface, sometimes with similar results.

Do you remember the earthquake that hit Virginia in 2011? Mom and Dad said they felt it up here. When it happened, Tim and I were in my office at Liberty University, about 100 miles from the epicenter. A lot of construction was taking place on campus at that time, so as we felt the vibration and heard the incredibly deep rumble, my first thought was that a big truck was going past. My second thought was that a really big truck was going past. Tim later said he thought it was a very large plane landing at the rather small airport near campus. We went outside to see what on earth was happening.

What had happened, we soon learned, hadn’t taken place either on the road or in the sky, but well beneath the surface of the earth more an hour and a half away. There wasn’t any significant damage in Lynchburg, but you may remember that the quake caused cracks in the Washington Monument, which had to be closed for repairs for the next couple years.

Things that shift unseen beneath the surface can cause great consternation up above. Included among things that can shift unseen are the meanings of our words.

I can’t imagine anyone in this sanctuary this morning intentionally saying “my church” in the same sense as you would say “my child” or “my car.” To say “my church” with the conscious intent of conveying, “the local congregation that I conceived and to which I gave birth” wouldn’t make much sense. To say “my church” intending to indicate “the church to which the Bank of Elmer has finally has given me clear title” would be absurd.

What I can understand is how, over time, our perception of the possessive pronoun “my” as we use it in the phrase “my church” could begin to drift – slowly, silently, somewhere beneath the surface of conscious thought. I can imagine how a legitimate sense of concern for and delight in this church and its ministries could begin to blend into a problematic sense of personal possession. I can envision tension building unobserved beneath the surface of this congregation’s worship and witness as individuals say and hear the words “my church” with slightly different shades of meanings.

Wherever tension builds, whether along the earth’s tectonic plates or in a local congregation, eventually that tension releases. When tension has built beneath the earth’s surface, the resulting release is called an earthquake. Small quakes can crack buildings. Large ones open gashes in the earth itself. And despite our awareness of the damage they can do, no one has yet devised a foolproof way of predicting or preventing an earthquake.



In a somewhat similar way, tension can build below the surface of a church. Pastors come and go. Long time members move away or die. New members join. New leadership arises. These things and many more are natural and normal in the life of the church. They’re also stressful. Each type of shift I just described can create at least some tension. Even if that tension is mild and hidden far beneath the surface, it will, eventually, find a release.

Earthquakes can’t be predicted or prevented. But there is one thing everyone here today can do to foresee and to avoid a jarring release of tension in this church. There’s one way ever member and friend of this congregation – this field, this building, this temple – can help it keep growing through this time of transition. Are you ready? Here it is:

Think about the words you use.

Think about the words you use. Carefully consider the meanings of words like: church, pastor, Jesus. Be alert to the fact that there may be some in this congregation who hear those words a little differently than you may mean them. And forgive me for being so blunt, but please be very, very aware of the fact that there are those in positions of Presbyterian leadership who differ dramatically from this congregation’s consensus when it comes to the meanings of words like: church, pastor, and Jesus.

When you discuss the ministries of former pastors – Mouris Yousef, Joe Hourani, Norman Kellow, Arthur Behrends – my prayer is that you’ll see them all as servants, as those who planted and watered, those who laid and built on a foundation, as the Lord assigned to each.

When you ponder the present and future ministries of this congregation in this community and beyond, my prayer is that when anyone says “our church,” everyone will think about the words “God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple.”

And it’s my prayer that as you continue to cultivate this field, as you continue to build on the foundation that’s been laid, as you continue to worship and serve in this temple, you will continue to find comfort and courage in the words “God gave the growth.”


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 17.

[2] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), p. 151.

I Planted, Apollos Watered …

I Corinthians 3:1-17 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

June 19, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills



I Planted, Apollos Watered …


I’d like to start this sermon by testing your name recognition skills. Please give me the benefit of the doubt as I assure you there is a point to this exercise. Are you ready? Here we go.

Please raise your hand if you either were a member of, or if you attended, this church while Mouris Yousef was the pastor. Bruce McClendon. Tim Hines. Jeff Allen. Wayne Holcomb. Donald Bitzer. Joe Hourani.

[Hands down] Now we’re going to push it back a bit. How many of you either were members or attended here while Norman Kellow was the interim pastor? I became a communicant member of this church during his pastorate. How many were here when George Patterson served as pastor? Alan Whitelock? Fred Horbach? Arthur Berhends?

Rev. Berhends baptized me, so that’s as far back as I’ll go with former pastors.


But we’re not done going back in time. Now, however, instead of looking back a mere six decades, we’re going back almost 2,000 years to a look at a congregation that was struggling with issues of pastoral leadership. Actually, the church was struggling with lots of issues, but leadership is the one I’ll focus on this morning and again next Sunday.

This church, located in the city of Corinth, was deeply divided. Barely two decades after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, only two or three years after the apostle Paul had founded the church on the second of his three missionary journeys, the Corinthian congregation was at risk of being torn apart from within. Responding to reports he’d received about divisions in the church, Paul wrote the letter we now know as I Corinthians.


I Planted

We’ll come back to the situation at Corinth in a few moments, but first, I’d like to say just a bit about the church’s founding pastor, the apostle Paul.


Paul’s Background

Paul, whose given name was Saul, was born in Tarsus, capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, in what’s now southeastern Turkey. Tarsus was an ancient Syrian city and had been an important outpost of both Greek culture and Greek military strength since the time of Alexander the Great. Strabo, a philosopher, geographer, and older contemporary of Paul, “ranked Tarsus even above Athens and Alexandria as a center of intellectual life”[1] at the turn of the first Christian century.

Being born and raised in Tarsus meant Paul was fluent in Greek, still the dominant language of the Roman empire. It also meant he had training in Stoic philosophy, the dominant intellectual tradition of the era. So, when Paul preached in and wrote letters to places like Corinth, he spoke and wrote in Greek, the language that was native to him and his hearers alike. When he needed to explain Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices to his Greco-Roman audience, he could draw on the concepts of Stoic philosophy.

Not only was Paul born in the capital city of a Roman province, he was also born into a Jewish family. He, like father before him, was a Pharisee. Paul learned about his faith not only from his family, but also from his studies at the school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel was the most renowned rabbi of his day. He was a grandson and disciple of Hillel, one of the most revered rabbis in Jewish history.

Even though his formal studies likely ended while Paul was relatively young, I’ve heard it said that in today’s terms, we might describe him as having earned both a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy and a Ph.D. in Jewish theology. Not a bad resume for an up and coming religious leader from a politically important hometown.

The theological tradition of Hillel, in which Paul was trained, not only welcomed but actively sought converts to Judaism (Matt. 23:15). While Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, was known to be sympathetic toward those who disagreed with him, Paul felt it was his duty to defend the Jewish faith against any novel teaching. And in the years that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, the  teaching that Jesus not only had been raised from the dead but was indeed the promised Messiah, was seen by many Jews not simply as a new teaching, but as a dangerous heresy, one that must be ruthlessly eliminated.

Paul in particular reacted with furious zeal against this new movement, which was known among Jews as The Way. In Acts 22, Paul declares:


3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem], educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. (Acts 22:2-5)


In Acts 26, Paul adds:


I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. 12 in this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. (Acts 26:10-12)


As you no doubt recall, it was while Paul was on the road to Damascus that he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, an encounter that converted him from being an ardent opponent of the young Christian faith to being one of its most effective missionaries. As I noted a moment ago, on one of his missionary journeys, he established a church in Corinth.


Paul’s work at Corinth: Planting

In Paul’s time, the crossroads city of Corinth was a vital, vibrant commercial center. Historically Greek in orientation and outlook, it was in Paul’s day a Roman colony. It’s strategic location drew merchants and craftsmen from throughout the Roman Empire.

Many who came to Corinth brought their religions with them. The result was a level of religious diversity that far exceeded what most of us can even imagine. As one author colorfully observes, “St. Paul knew more about the theory and practice of a religiously and ideologically plural world than do all the seminary and religion faculties of California.”[2]

Accompanying this aggressive religious pluralism was a distorted sense of personal morality. In fact, the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazo, literally, “to act like a Corinthian,” which meant, “to engage in sexual immorality.”[3] Corinth, quite aptly, has been described as “at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.”[4]

Not surprisingly, after Paul left Corinth to continue his ministry in other places, many different problems plagued the immature congregation. Percolating through them all were divisions between church members, a sense of factionalism, an unhealthy devotion to charismatic personalities. The result is deftly sketched by Anthony Thiselton, who writes:

“To the degree to which Corinthian Christians imbibed secular Corinthian culture with an emphasis on peer groups and local value systems, the church had indeed become embroiled in … a postmodern pragmatism of the market.”[5]

One effect of this cliquish emphasis, this marketplace mentality, was that the Christians in Corinth were dividing themselves into warring factions, each aligned with a favorite former pastor. This is the situation Paul addresses at the outset of I Corinthians. In Chapter 1 he writes:


10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 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.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Cor. 1:10-13)


In Paul’s original Greek, the grammatical form of those closing questions indicates that the expected answer is No. No, Christ is not divided. No, Paul wasn’t crucified for the Corinthians. No, no one in the church was baptized in the name of Paul. And yet, the Corinthians were behaving as if such things were true. So Paul spends the first quarter of this letter addressing this specific issue. His exhortations include our Scripture lesson for this morning where we read:


For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants [διάκονοι] through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but … (I Cor. 3:3-6)


If you studied your bulletin carefully before the service began, you may have noticed that this morning’s sermon title ends with an ellipsis. “I planted, Apollos watered …” . I’m going to take advantage of those three dots to take a quick look at Apollos and his ministry in Corinth before finishing Paul’s sentence.


Apollos watered

Apollos’ background

The first mention of Apollos comes in Acts 18, where Luke writes:


24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent [δυνατός] in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)


Obviously well educated, Apollos handled the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians now call the Old Testament, with forcefulness and clarity. Luke’s word “competent” in his description of Apollos as “competent in the Scriptures” means particularly capable, expert, exceptionally able.[6] However, as skilled as he was with what he knew, Apollos didn’t yet understand the full message and meaning of the Gospel. So, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and taught him. Apollos submitted to their instruction, and as a result, became even more effective in his ministry.


Apollos’ work at Corinth

Luke goes on to say that Apollos’ work in Corinth had two main components. First, he taught the Scriptures to Christians who “believed through grace” (18:27). Second, he used his expert knowledge of those Scriptures to show the Jews that Jesus really was the promised Messiah (18:28).

Apparently, Apollos was a powerful speaker, especially when compared with Paul and Peter. Unfortunately, his charisma had unintended consequences. Some in Corinth quite publicly preferred him over either Paul or Peter. In response, others in the church began say, “I am of Paul,” meaning something like, “Well, you may like that Apollos fellow who was here recently, but I joined the church while Paul was our pastor. He was an apostle, you know, and he’s still the one I look to for leadership.” In a similar vein, others would say, “I am of Cephas, [better known to us as Peter] the one Jesus said was the rock on which he’d build his church.”

The really, really spiritual members of the Corinthian congregation wouldn’t even bother to disguise their contempt for those they deemed inferior. They piously declared, “I am of Christ.” As I noted earlier, the Corinthian church had a lot of problems. Leadership issues were one. Those who viewed themselves as more spiritual than the rest were another. I’m inclined to think those two issues were related.

Obviously, creating factions in the church was never Apollos’ intention. Paul never criticized Apollos for this. Indeed, Paul welcomed his ministry, calling him a “fellow worker” (v. 9). The divisive spirit that developed in Corinth was as appalling to Apollos as it was to the apostle. And as a result, Apollos was reluctant to return to Corinth, even when that was Paul’s preference (I Cor. 16:12).

In v. 5 of this morning’s Scripture lesson, Paul gets to the heart of the issue when he asks the contentious Corinthians, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He answers his own question: “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each,”




The Greek word here is one you already know: diakonos, which is transliterated into English as “deacon.” In ancient Greece, diakonos referred to individuals who had a higher status than slaves, yet were of no particular importance. In contrast to the title “apostle,” which Paul used to describe himself in the first verse of I Corinthians, diakonos doesn’t carry any claim of authority.

Rather, this word described those whose job was to assist another, usually by performing tasks of an unskilled nature. In secular Greek literature of the era, diakonos was often used of those who waited tables. Especially to Gentile ears, this word conveyed a low social status.

And as one commentary notes, “it gets worse, for in v. 6 Paul and Apollos are compared to humble farm workers, the sort of the manual laborers the elite in Corinth despised. Once again, Paul is ridiculing misplaced Corinthian loyalties (cf. 1:12d–13); who in their right mind would “boast” (3:21) about their adoring attachment to a servant? In so doing Paul deliberately undermines the cultural values that lie at the root of stunted Corinthian spiritual growth.”[7]

To borrow language from Paul’s later letter to the Romans, Paul is trying to renew the Corinthians’ minds. In saying things like “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos,” the Corinthian Christians were demonstrating a careless conformity to culture. They were imitating pagan patterns of relationships between followers and leaders. In no uncertain terms, Paul tells the Corinthians that by glamorizing (or by demeaning) their former ministers, they were, in the words of Romans 12:2, conforming themselves to this world.

Rather than conforming themselves to the surrounding society, Paul, along with Apollos and Peter, wanted the believers in Corinth to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. He wanted the Corinthians to see all their church leaders – past, present, and future – as Jesus saw them: as servants, assisting God by working in God’s field.



“I planted, Apollos watered, but …”

Does anyone remember Paul’s next four words? I’ll give you a hint: They’re next Sunday’s sermon title. Not enough of a hint?

“I planted, Apollos watered, but … God gave the growth.”

God gave the growth.

Next Sunday, I want to develop that thought by exploring three images Paul uses in this passage. He describes the local congregation as God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple. We can learn a great deal from each description.

But I’d like to end today with some personal reflections on three of the servants the Lord assigned to this field, this building, this temple over the past 60 years.

I’d like to preface those remarks by reminding you that it’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the work of former pastors, to rejoice in the ministries they had in our lives. When I told my pastor in Virginia what I’d be preaching on this Sunday, he said, “Be sure to remind the congregation that the fact they’re grieving the loss of their pastor means they had a good relationship with him.”

Wise words from one with nearly 40 years’ experience in pastoral ministry.

I’m grateful I was baptized by Rev. Behrends, even though I have no memory of the man. After seven years of serving as pastor of this church, he left before my first birthday. Even though I don’t remember him, I’m glad he was here to welcome me into the body of Christ. And I’m grateful to those of you still here who promised to see that I was raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

I do remember Dr. Kellow. I’m glad he was the one who led my communicants’ class. On the day I and several others became full members of this church, June 30, 1968, he gave each of us a copy of his book Daily Will I Praise Thee, 366 devotions based on the Psalms. I don’t know what he wrote in anyone else’s book, but here’s what he wrote in mine:

“To Bob: You will always remember the day you publicly confessed Christ as your Savior! If and when God calls you, may you be used with real power. A start would be reading your Bible daily and one of these devotions. Remember II Timothy 2:15!”

Do you think those words had any impact on a kid still two months shy of his 12th  birthday? Do you think you’re still feeling the impact of those words here today?

In the process of pursuing ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my first step was to be taken under care by this church’s session. In the meeting where they voted to do so, I was asked if I had a favorite Bible verse. Want to guess what verse I quoted?

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (II. Tim. 2:15)

Joe Hourani was the pastor who helped shepherd me through the steps that would lead to ordination. As some of you are all too well aware, Presbyterian process may at times charitably be described as Byzantine. Joe knew the process; he knew the presbytery. I’m glad he was my pastor through that labyrinth.


What then is Arthur Behrends? What is Norman Kellow? What is Joe Hourani? Servants. One of those servants baptized me. One guided me into full membership. One walked with me to ordination, “as the Lord assigned to each.”

In the weeks and months and years ahead, my hope is that everyone in this sanctuary will see every former pastor, and every present member of this church, as servants doing the work the Lord assigned to each. My desire is that God’s Holy Spirit would lead each of us into a fuller understanding of Paul’s words, “I planted, Apollos watered … ”. My prayer is that as this process unfolds, our hearts and minds will be increasingly receptive to the words “but God gave the growth.”



[1] Howard Clark Kee and Franklin W. Young, Understanding the New Testament, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957), p. 208.

[2] Robert W. Jenson, “The God Wars,” Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 25.

[3] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 2.

[4] Fee, Corinthians, p. 3.

[5] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Raids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 33.

[6] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 675.

[7] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 143–145.

God Is Able to Keep You!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Pentecost Sunday ~ May 15, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor


God Is Able to Keep You!

Psalm 121; Jude 24-25


A little boy walked down the street, clutching his dad’s finger.  Along the way, the boy slipped, lost his grip, and fell.  His dad picked him up and they continued along.  It wasn’t long before it happened again.  His dad picked him up again, but the next time, the boy said to his dad, “Daddy, instead of me holding your hand, you should hold my hand.”  The father took the son by the hand.  The little boy did not fall again.  In a greater, deeper, and higher way, God is ABLE to keep us when we cannot keep ourselves.


The Epistle of Jude is one chapter, only 25 verses.  The purpose of the letter is found in verse 3: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”  The Book of Jude, therefore, is a call to live faithfully and to hold onto the truth of the gospel.


What was the threat for such faithfulness?  The threat is found in verse 4: “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.  They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”  False teachers were leading people into sin.  Professing Christians were falling away from the faith.


In verse 21 Jude says, “Keep yourself in God’s love.”  True saints persevere in faith until the end.  The key to perseverance amid deceiving errors and tempting sins is to keep yourself in the love of God, BUT what happens when you cannot keep yourself?  Verses 24-25 answer this question.  It is one of the greatest doxologies in the New Testament.


This doxology – this declaration of praise – teaches us that God is able to keep us when we cannot keep ourselves.  The doxology of Jude 24-25 is a song of victory, a high note of praise, and a great assurance for the redeemed.  How should we respond to the fact that we cannot keep ourselves?  The doxology in Jude 24-25 teaches us to trust and praise the God who is able to keep us.


The last lesson I want to leave with this church family is simple: God and God alone!  Two important things Jude tells us of what God our Savior is able to do for us.  First, God will keep us from falling all the way; Second, God will present us faultless at the end.  And as a result, we will always give Him the glory.


First: God Will Keep us from Stumbling

Jude reminds us in verses 24-25, “To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.”  Friends, we live with this awareness, this possibility of stumbling.  We know the weakness and wickedness of our own heart.  In James 3:2 we read, “We all stumble in many ways.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”


If stumbling is the sad reality, there is even a greater and more comforting reality.  God is fully committed to us.  No one will be able to keep us from stumbling but the Lord!  Our hope does not lie on the fact that we hold God’s hand, but on the truth that He holds our hand.  Whenever we lean on any thing but the power of God, we lean on a reed shaken with the wind.  Our God is able to save sinners and strengthen them.


1 Peter 1:5 echoes the same truth.  Peter states, we are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  We are “kept by the power of God,” but this is not an automatic process where we are passive.  To enjoy this benefit we must be very much active; for it says, we are “kept by the power of God through faith.”  God does the keeping and we must do the believing.  We are not the power holders.  God is.


Second: God Will Present us Faultless

“To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy …”  Not only God is able to keep us from falling, but also He is able to present us faultless.  “Without fault” means without spot or without blemish.  The word is used with reference to sacrificial animals being without defect or blemish.  It is also used to refer to complete sinlessness, as when it refers to the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 9:11; 1 Peter 1:19).  It means faultless in righteousness.


When you think about this promise, it’s amazing.  The longer I live, the more I realize that I fall short.  I am much more aware today of my own imperfection than when I was younger.  But we see this again and again in Scripture as a core celebration of the gospel’s power to save: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Ephesians 1:4).  When Christ brings us before the throne of God, He will clothe us with His own fine linen, and present us faultless.  Friends, we shall be truly the righteousness of God in Christ.


To Him Be Glory

To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.”  To God be the glory!  For the promises to keep us from stumbling and present us without fault when our mission on earth is completed, to Him be the glory.  For the time He has given me to serve this wonderful congregation, to Him be the glory.  For the faithfulness of so many people in this church family, to Him be the glory.  For the lives have been transformed and empowered by the good news of the gospel over the last few years at EPC, to Him be the glory.


Friends, as we venture this transition as a body of Christ here, let’s fully trust that God will keep us from stumbling and will bring the work He has begun in us into completion.  Today is Pentecost Sunday.  The Church all over the world celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift of God’s very presence.  God is always with us!  Let me remind you of the promises in Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip — He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you — the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm — He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  To Him be the glory!  Amen.

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