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Laborers Together

Updated on June 4, 2019

Struggling Twins

Journey with me back in time to the biblical days of Isaac, the second son of Abraham. (We're reading the Bible at Genesis 25:19-34.) As we recall from a prior post, Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac. And so she was found, Rebecca, among Abraham's relatives, Bethuel and Laban. Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca.

Rebecca, unable to have children, Isaac "pleads with the LORD" (Genesis 25:21) on her behalf. The LORD understands and answers Isaac's prayer; Rebecca conceives. In labor she gives birth to twin boys—Esau and Jacob—Jacob the younger. They struggled in the womb, however, and as the LORD knows they would become two rivaling nations (see Genesis 25:23).

Growing up, Esau becomes a skillful hunter; Jacob is a quiet man, and he prefers to stay at home. One day Esau returns home, famished, after a long day of hunting. He sees his younger brother brewing some stew and asks for some.

Ah, Jacob seizes his opportunity. "Trade me your rights as the firstborn son for some stew," Jacob says (Genesis 25:31).

After a bit of a confrontation, Esau gives in, famished with hunger, and "sells his rights as the firstborn son to his younger brother Jacob" for some stew (Genesis 25:33).

Here we've witnessed a first scheme of Jacob in deceiving his brother Esau. We'll catch a second further forward in considering a later chapter in Genesis. As well, forwarding, we'll see Jacob finding peace with God and with his brother Esau. And he realizes he's the inheritor of the blessing of his grandfather Abraham (see Genesis 12:2-3). Hence, our labor today, together with our fellow Christ-followers, to all the nations: passing on to all generations the blessing of Abraham (see Acts 1:8).

Quarreling Church

Fast-forwarding now to the first century A.D. (we are reading the Bible at 1 Corinthians 3:1-9) we meet Paul (formerly Saul). At first meeting, we see him as a persecutor of Christians, "uttering threats with every breath, eager to kill the Lord's followers (see Acts 7:58; 8:1-2; 9:1-2).

Then, on the Damascus road, bringing both men and women, arrested and chained, back to Jerusalem a bright light from heaven shining around him suddenly blinds him. He hears a voice, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?"

Saul asks, "Who are you, Lord?"

The voice responds, "I am Jesus you are persecuting." And then Jesus instructs Saul what to do (see Acts 9:3-9).

Saul's life (now Paul) transformed, and he becomes a Christ-follower himself. Paul's call is realized "to carry [the] name [of Jesus] before the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel" (see Acts 9:15-16). In so going Paul does not go alone; he goes with various companions throughout his travels—Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, to name a few (see Acts 4:36, 12:12, 15:22, 16:1). Paul gives his life to sharing the blessing of Abraham—the Good News—throughout Asia Minor and into Europe, establishing churches for the assembly of Christ-followers where they too can realize their call to labor together in Christ's cause.

To the church in Corinth, Paul writes, expressing his concern for their apparent infancy in the faith, "There are not to be any arguing (quarreling) and jealousy among you (see 1 Corinthians 3:3). Paul's letter continues, "When one of you says ‘I am a follower of Paul,' and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,' aren't you acting like people of the world, ‘still controlled by your sinful nature?'" (See 1 Corinthians 3:3-4).

"One plants one waters," Paul confirms, "but it is God who gives the increase" (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-6). "We are laborers together [in the faith—passing on the blessing of Abraham—to the peoples of the world]" (see 1 Corinthians 3:9).

No Greater Legacy

Forwarding again further through time we come to the 19th Century, to 1840, and St. Clairsville, Ohio, Ohio, U.S.A. Four-year-old James Mills Thoburn welcomes his baby sister, Isabella, to the family. James was born in 1836.

Growing up James graduates from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1857. A year later he joins the Methodist Episcopal Church. The next year he sails to North India. He works in village evangelism and church planting. He labors for a time with William Butler; Butler is the first American Methodist missionary to India. For 13 years, since 1874, James Thoburn served as pastor of the church founded by William Taylor in Calcutta.

Isabella Thoburn, a teacher, persuaded by her brother, joins James and his wife in India in 1870. She's the first missionary appointee of the Women's Foreign Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to India. Joining her as a medical missionary is Clara A. Swain, M.D.

Isabella establishes a girl’s college in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. At first, there were just six girls enrolled in the school but soon grows to 20, despite "bitter prejudice on the part of the Hindus against the education of women," Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Come the year 1857 Isabella Thoburn College opens; it is the first women's college in Asia.

Isabella served many years at home and abroad. Ill health taking its toll, in 1901 she dies of cholera, her body interred in Lucknow. In failing health, too, James returns to Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1908; there he resides until his death in 1922.

Ruth A. Tucker writes, "[the brother and sister James and Isabella Thoburn leave] a legacy of training Indian nationals for the gospel ministry." What more significant legacy to leave than laboring together in Christ's cause passing on the blessing of Abraham?

Jesus answered them, "Don't be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you," John 6:27, NLT

Information on James and Isabella Thoburn gathered from Boston University, School of Theology, History of Missiology, Wikipedia, and Ruth A. Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.

© 2017 Charles O Newcombe


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