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Seeds, Cells and Spiritual Growth




(Today, we are sharing Part 6 in a series we are doing on Spiritual Formation in the Bible and its importance for believers today.)


Ecology of Spiritual Formation from Jesus and Paul

Continuing with the idea of the worldwide union of Jesus' followers as an ecosystem, we want to look at both Jesus’s and Paul’s use of ecology in illuminating our understanding of the kingdom of God. As stated above, Jesus used nature, farming, seeds, land, and other aspects of ecology in many of his parables. With Paul, we will return to his description of the ecclesia as a human body, “the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). This concept has been underappreciated in theology because of Paul’s limited use of the phrase; it appears in only two of Paul’s undisputed Paul letters.[1] However, the Lowes tell us that “James D. G. Dunn argues that the Pauline image of the church as the body of Christ ‘is the dominant theological image in Pauline ecclesiology.’”[2] The phrase is rich in communicating how believers are not isolated but connected to and dependent on one another, just like the parts of a physical body.


The Parables

Jesus’s consistent use of horticulture parables shows us how the kingdom of God operates, revealing the similarities between our world and the unseen realm. Lowe, in speaking of A. M. Hunter’s Interpreting the Parable shares, “This relationship between what is valid in one sphere, that is a natural realm, is valid also in the other, that is the spiritual realm.”[3]. C. H. Dowd says that Jesus is not merely making an analogy but rather, “the Kingdom of God is intrinsically like the process of nature and of the daily life of men.”[4] In other words, the eternal realm can be understood through what we see in the finite realm, such as wind, earth, sea, people, wildlife, farming, etc.


This series is on formation, not ecology; thus, this section will analyze how spiritual growth is addressed through what is perceived in nature. Lowe expounds on the Greek word for “growth,” auxanō. This word is used for all types of growth, whether “in nature (Mk 4:8), human beings (Lk 1:80; 2:40), the kingdom (Mt 13:31–32; Mk 4:8; Lk 13:19), the church (Eph 2:21; 4:15; Col 2:19), or the Christian (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18).”[5] How does a plant grow? It needs water, sunlight, and time. A baby grows by drinking milk, then meat, and over time, he or she will develop into an adolescent and then an adult. “God did not establish two separate laws of growth—one governing flowers and trees and another governing the kingdom and the church,”[6] but teaches about how the kingdom grows through the laws of nature. With that in mind, let’s view how Jesus used seed growth to teach kingdom principles.




The Parable of the Sower

In the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3–9), we learn about spiritual growth, or the lack thereof, depending on where the seed is planted. Peter Rhea Jones eloquently describes the parable: A sower with cheerful abandon handcast the seed over several kinds of soil with various results.”[7] The first three descriptions are unsuccessful. Birds eat the seed that falls in the path. The seed sown on rocky ground cannot develop the deep roots necessary for maturity. And the seed that is scattered among the thorns is choked. (Matt 13:4–7). Most local churches would be able to recognize people who seemingly came to faith but ultimately fell away through these descriptions.

 

But the fourth seed category “describes an intimate relationship between seed and soil.”[8] These are those who come to Jesus and grow as faithful disciples. They receive the word of God as milk and meat and grow in the good soil of the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that “this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (Matt 13:23). “The other soil environments did not allow the seed to sink into the soil, germinate, and grow.”[9] Jesus uses something everyone understands to illuminate something they assumed was beyond their comprehension.


The Parable of the Growing Seed

We find in Mark, but not the other Synoptics, an “economically told”[10] parable, “often called ‘the seed growing secretly’ or ‘the self-growing seed.’”[11] A farmer sows seed (Mark 4:26). He goes about life, sleeping and rising, while the seed grows. We must assume that he also “carries out his daily farming duties,”[12] watering the soil, etc. Jesus was not a literalist; he leaves room for common sense, which will help us in the next stage of the parable. “The seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:27). The Lowes believe his hearers, those regularly engaged in rural activities, would express shock at the farmer’s ignorance regarding ecology.[13] However, Jesus probably doesn’t intend for his hearers to assume the farmer is ignorant of how agriculture works but that he cannot see the process; it takes place underground or in secret.


This speaks directly to spiritual formation.  When a farmer sows seed, he does it by faith. Based on experience and what he’s been taught, he believes the seed will eventually become harvestable fruit or grain. “While we might be able to observe that growth occurred, we might not be able to observe how the growth occurred.”[14] Jesus says, “The earth produces by itself.” (Mark 4:28). The farmer cannot make the seed grow, but if he does not plant it, the earth cannot do its job. If believers do not pursue God and embrace spiritual disciplines (sowing seed), spiritual auxanō will not occur.


It is essential for those who would make disciples to comprehend the ecological dynamics of spiritual formation. The Lowes drive home this point:


If we . . . are to guide, assist, and facilitate the growth of others in the kingdom and the church, then we need to know not only that growth occurs but also how it occurs so that we may instruct more clearly. The process of reproducing disciples requires that we understand how believers grow, develop, and propagate. Jesus informs us through his parables of nature about this process through an appeal to the ecological processes of growth in nature. Seeds planted in the soil, flowers grown in a field, and vines that spread in a vineyard all grow and thrive to full maturity and harvest because they develop and produce while embedded in a natural ecosystem.[15]

While Jesus frequently points to agriculture to describe the kingdom, Paul uses the ecology of the human body to help us understand how the ekklesia works.


Paul and Ecology

Paul gives us one of the richest analogies in Scripture when he compares the church to the body of Christ. We touched on this earlier, but we want to take a closer look at the ecology of the human body. “Paul does with the body concept what Jesus does with the parables of growth; both use an example from nature to illustrate a spiritual reality.”[16] Lowe points to Ephesians 4:16, where Paul gives us a vivid picture of “how the human body operates ecologically to help his followers understand how the body of Christ functions ecologically to produce mutual growth of all the interconnected members.”[17]


Paul compares the maturing, “[G]row up in every way into him” (Eph 4:15), of the ecclesia to a growing body. The body is “joined and held together by every joint . . . when each part is working properly,” and “makes the body grow” (Eph 4:16). We cannot ignore the crucial role that “each part” plays in the maturation process. Lourens Schoeman writes:


Eph. 4 emphasises the offices of the church as having the task to build the body in love. Each member of the body plays a part in bringing about the signs of the Kingdom. Equipment of the whole body becomes a fixed item on the church agenda. All members, and not only offices and structures, are focused on eliminating poverty. . . . In this combined focus the church as body is united. Unity under one Head, drenched by the same Spirit links rich and poor in a bigger Kingdom goal.[18]

This is one reason Jesus emphasized unity in his High Priestly Prayer (John 17).


Biology and the Body

While Paul was a brilliant theologian and surely knew much about science, he could not have understood what scientists know today about the human nervous system.[19] “The human body is an ecosystem,”[20] writes Daniel Schneck. The different parts of the body are far more dependent upon each other than Paul could even imagine. “Using a framework of biology helps us understand that an ecosystem approach represents a complex system of interactive, dynamic, and bidirectional influences that typically foster growth and development.”[21] The human body is continuously working to nourish itself in all aspects.[22]


When speaking of the body, the preeminence of Christ must be emphasized. Thompson brings out the idea that the body proceeds the individual part (new believer) being added (1 Cor 12:13).[23] In Paul’s analogy, Jesus is the head:


The brain is what controls all the body's functions. The spinal cord runs from the brain down through the back. It contains threadlike nerves that branch out to every organ and body part. This network of nerves relays messages back and forth from the brain to different parts of the body . . . Billions of neurons work together to create a communication network. [24]

 

From this, we learn: 1) Paul’s metaphor of the body was more accurate than he even knew. 2) Jesus is ultimately sovereign over his “body” and is in communication with every part. The concept of spiritual formation, apart from the “body of Christ,” is not found in the New Testament. Stubborn independence leads to a breakdown in community, which goes against the laws of nature.[25]


The Corinthian church better understood the human body than most because of their specific pagan “worship of Asclepius, the god of disease and medicine . . . The emphasis and almost exclusive concern of the Asclepian cult focused on the healing of individual body parts.[26] The Lowes hypothesize that this is why Paul uses the description of the human body to emphasize how the specific members of the ecclesia work together (1 Cor 12:15–21).[27] Their particular patron god emphasized the human body, but Paul would show them how they all operate synergistically for the good of the whole.[28] To the degree that we understand the ecology of the human body, we can understand how utterly interdependent each body part is on the other. This is likely why Paul used two syn-compounds (synarmologeomai, “joined together” and symbibazō, “held together”) in Ephesians 4:16 to express the interconnectedness of the body of Christ.[29] 


In his discourse on the body, Paul begins by revealing the nine “spiritual gifts” pneumatikós (1 Cor 12:4–10)[30] that the Holy Spirit gives “as he wills” (v. 11) to different members of the ecclesia to be used in the congregational meeting. When the believers come together, different ones play different roles in edifying the body (1 Cor 14:26). When Paul mentions the equipping gifts in Ephesians 4 and what many call the motivational gifts[31] in Romans 12, he also uses the example of each member being used by God differently to complement one another as the members of a body.


Paul mentions, among other characteristics, hymns and instruction as present at the corporate gathering; thus, in our final section, we will look at the roles of preaching and worship in spiritual formation.


 

[1] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 52.

[2] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 52.

[3] Stephen Lowe, “Ecologies of Spiritual Formation — Part 2,” Liberty University, accessed February 22, 2024, 00:53, https://canvas.liberty.edu/courses/581417/pages/watch-ecologies-of-spiritual-formation-part-2?module_item_id=61391440.

[4] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London, UK: Nisbet, 1946), 20.

[5] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 41-42.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Peter Rhea Jones, “The Seed Parables of Mark, Review & Expositor,” Review & Expositor 75, no. 4 (1978): 531, https://doi.org/10.1177/003463737807500404.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Jones, “The Seed Parables of Mark, Review & Expositor,” 522.

[11] Ibid., 519.

[12] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 43.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 215.

[15] Ibid., 215-216.

[16] Ibid., 52.

[17] Lowe, “Ecologies of Spiritual Formation — Part 2,” 03:40.

[18] Lourens Schoeman, “The unified body of Christ as biblical metaphor for being Church,” Acta Theologica 32, No. 16 (Jan. 2012): 169, http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1015-87582012000300011&lng=en&tlng=af.

[19] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 53.

[20] Daniel J. Schneck, “What Is This Thing Called ‘Me’? The Stationary, Buffered, Isothermal Living Engine,” American Laboratory 38, no. 10 (2006): 4.

[21] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 121.

[22] Ibid., 53.

[23] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 77.

[25] Lowe and Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, 121.

[26] Ibid., 54-55.

[27] Ibid., 55.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Lowe, “Ecologies of Spiritual Formation — Part 2,” 03:35.

[30] The “spirtuals” pneumatikós, or “gifts” charismatōn, appear to be supernatural functions that take place when the body comes together for corporate worship through any member of the body. The Ephesians 4:11 list seems to be “grace” charis given to leaders for “equipping the saints” (Eph 4:11-12) and protecting from false doctrine (v. 14). The word “spiritual” pneumatikós is not in the Ephesians text. The focus is maturity. The Romans 12:4-8 list matches up to the Ephesians 4:11 list but adds giving and service. The word charis “gift” or “grace” is in all three texts, but only the 1 Corinthians 12 list states that these gifts are clearly otherworldly.

[31] Dorena K. DellaVecchio, “Development and Validation of an Instrument to Measure Motivational Gifts” (Phd diss., Regent University Center for Leadership Studies, 2000), 1, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, https://go.openathens.net/redirector/liberty.edu?url=https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/development-validation-instrument-measure/docview/304676846/se-2.

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Another interesting reference to nature is the need for seed to fall into the ground and die in order to bring forth new life (John 12:25). I recently discovered that seeds are actually live organisms. I believe my old life must die for the new life to flourish. The biggest part of the seed is food for the new plant. Maybe the kernel, which is alive, is like the part of us which gets "born from above". Only then can we start to grow and start killing off the "old life" (Mark 8:35-36).

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