4. ‘Through the gospel I became father to you.’
The word ‘father’ is another word associated with apostolic ministry. Paul says the Corinthian church may have had many teachers but not many fathers. Paul says, ‘I became your father through the gospel.’ He developed relationships with churches.
The Philippians plainly felt they were in partnership with Paul. They sent finance to him. He brought them to birth, and he continued having a link with them. Paul developed this kind of relationship, even with some churches, like the Colossians, which he had never actually visited. Epaphras, who worked with Paul, had planted the Colossian church but it was evidently in ‘Paul’s sphere’.
While Paul was based in Ephesus, ‘All Asia’ heard the word (Acts 19:10) and some churches were planted which Paul didn’t actually visit because those working with him did the work. He was stabilising, bringing apostolic teaching, daily pumping out revelation at the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9), and his partners were going out starting churches within his apostolic sphere. So a sphere for Paul was an ongoing relationship with a number of churches, what the theologians call ‘the Pauline churches’.
So that’s a Bible concept. Paul was an apostle and churches that he related to were in fellowship with him in his ministry.
It is important we see that he said, ‘I have the care of all these churches.’ He often wrote that he was praying for them. So it’s an ongoing, affectionate link, not a ‘headquarters’ mentality. It’s not impersonal or static; it’s something very dynamic and life-imparting.
In 2 Corinthians 10:13, Paul argues about his sphere and says, ‘We will not boast beyond our measure but within the measure of the sphere which God appointed to us as a measure to reach even as far as you.’ Paul says that God has given him a sphere which did have some geographical aspect to it. ’You are within my God-given sphere. I have measured as far as you. I am not over-extending,’ he says (2 Cor. 10:14).
5. Your faith and my sphere’s growth
In verse 15 he adds, ‘Not boasting beyond our measure, that is another man’s labours, but with the hope that as your faith grows we shall be within our sphere enlarged even more by you.’ Let’s examine this. The NIV says ‘our area of activity among you will expand’. But the NASB says ‘our sphere will be expanded by you’, not just ‘in you’. There’s an expanding ministry that is coming about by virtue of his relationship with the church there. It’s not just a ministry that’s growing within Corinth. It’s because of his relationship with Corinth that his ministry is both going to and then expanding beyond Corinth. As a local church they are dynamically involved with apostolic outreach. The way they either press on or don’t will affect the reach of his apostolic ministry.
It is very important that we understand this. We gave an apostolic sphere a name, Newfrontiers. But I really want to underline that what is important is apostolic sphere, not a name. It’s possible to say ‘we are part of Newfrontiers’, but preferably, ‘We are part of an apostolic sphere.’
Paul wants a healthy scene behind him so he can reach forward. He doesn’t want the Corinthian church in problems because that will pull him back! ‘As you grow, as your faith grows, I can press on. But I am having to deal with your problems, your carnality, your arguments with one another, your mis-use of spiritual gifts, your worldly wisdom! I am having to sort you out!’ He wanted to move on but he couldn’t. He was not called to be a pastor, he was called to be an apostle and he wanted them caught up with him in his mission. A local church is not functioning properly if it is not caught up with apostolic development.
Their love and loyalty, and their establishment in the faith, not only gave joy to him as their spiritual father but also liberated him in his apostolic capacity for carrying the gospel to others. They needed to capture his vision for themselves and to be involved in carrying it out.
We need to get right back into the New Testament and see what happened. Jesus called apostles. They began to gather communities. They built them up in health and sufficiency in Christ, and then moved on. They were looking for these churches to help push the news to the next neighbourhood. It isn’t that the church becomes a fossilised institution while some people ‘get a burden’ to go and join a mission society. The church should be integrated with the apostolic gift in order to reach the world. The church is built on that passion. Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples of every nation. That’s the manifesto. That’s the foundation we are building on. So we make disciples, we gather a community of those who say ‘Jesus, you are Lord’. Great, they are healthy and growing. On we go again.
J B Philips translates it quite simply, ‘Your growing faith will mean the expansion of our sphere of action.’ Apostolic global impact and healthy local church are integrated. They are not two different things. A healthy church can help apostolic thrust. A church that is not healthy is not helping the world get evangelised. We are in this together.
[To be continued]