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.

Comments are closed.

Recent Comments
    Events at the Church