To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Servants and stewards of God's mysteries

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Preached Sunday morning, August 6, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ

Last week, in chapter 3, we saw how the Corinthian Christians were troubled with strife and jealousy. Paul called them “fleshly” (3:3). He wanted them to grow up into the mind of Christ, but they were still babies (3:1-2). That’s what any Christians are when we think of a congregation as “our” church and so divide up and contend for control. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the church, the people, the assembly of believers, is the temple of God (3:17), and that God alone causes the church to grow, to be built up (3:6). That temple is built strong when we keep our focus on God. It’s built up when we become fools to our own wisdom (3:18) and proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2). Church leaders—evangelists and teachers—who would build on that foundation of Jesus Christ may use various materials: wood, straw, jewels or precious metals (3:11-12). Paul mentions those materials as metaphors for the quality of teaching and edification that leaders bring to the church.

Here in chapter 4 Paul continues his discussion of those who evangelize and teach the saints. What he reveals is not only a lesson for church leadership in every congregation, but an important encouragement for every Christian. Let’s remember what we’ve just learned in chapter 3: that as Christians, everything is ours in Christ (3:21-22). Yet if our minds are fleshly, then our thinking is futile (3:20). It’s ironic, really. A fleshly mind can look highly spiritual, but only when we cast worldly thinking aside do we really begin to have the mind of Christ. So let’s begin our study of 1 Cor. 4 with Paul’s example for preachers and teachers. Specifically Paul is speaking here about himself, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos, but the truths he reveals are valid not only for Christian leaders, but for all Christians.

Paul begins by telling how the Corinthians ought to view him, Peter, and Apollos. Now, in terms of Christian leadership, that’s pretty strong company. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, Peter had been one of his closest friends, and in the early days of the church, Peter often acted as spokesman for all the apostles. Paul, although he had not been a disciple before the Resurrection, had been a Pharisee, a diligent student of the Scriptures. What’s more, Paul had received a special vision and commission from the Lord, and he was the chief apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; 1 Tim 2:7). Apollos, although not one of the inspired apostles, was a Jew from Alexandria, a world-famous center of learning and scholarship. He was a fervent leader, eloquent speaker, and competent in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24-25). These three men were the best the church had to offer. And how should the church think of them? As servants and stewards of the mysteries of God (4:1-2).

Servants and stewards—let’s think about that for a minute, because the words Paul uses here are full of meaning. That first word, translated servant or minister, means a helper, a subordinate to a more important person. A word that captures the shades of meaning here might be underling. The next word, steward, means someone who takes care of something that belongs to someone else. The word literally means household manager. In our day, we might say butler. Ministers and stewards—underlings and butlers—do you see how those descriptions take the emphasis off of where the Corinthians had been putting it? The Corinthians had been formed rival groups in the name of each one of these teachers (without the consent or approval of those teachers). Each group no doubt considered themselves to share in the prestige of whichever leader they chose. So Paul has already told them that he and Apollos are nothing (3:7), and here he chooses words to describe their ministry that takes the emphasis off them and places it squarely on the One they’re working for.

That’s a lesson every servant ought to remember. There is no greater privilege than proclaiming the Word of God. That applies to the man who speak to millions through television, to the one who speaks to dozens from the pulpit, or the man or woman studying with a single friend in the home. All who preach and teach the Word of God are to a greater or lesser degree servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And if we dare to take on that responsibility, it’s vital we remember whom we’re serving. It’s all too easy to consider evangelism “our” work, to fall into the dangerous trap of pride: “Look how many people I’ve led to Christ! Look how many I’ve baptized!” No matter how hard we work in the name of God, let’s never forget who does the real work. We present the Word, but God does the work in hearts. Our mission is to be worthy of the trust God has put in us as his underlings.

If churches are organized in line with examples in the New Testament, we can benefit from an arrangement that discourages some of the kinds of problems facing the Corinthians. For example, in Churches of Christ, we don’t call our preachers Father, Reverend, or Pastor. Jesus specifically cautioned us not to call earthly men father (Mt. 23:9), and no one in the Bible is called Reverend except God (Ps. 111:9). Pastor is the role of elders or overseers. A preacher may also be an elder, and preachers typically fill the teaching role of elders. But churches in the New Testament were never led by a single elder but by groups of elders. The books of Acts, 1 Timothy and Titus give us the best pictures of this arrangement. Even when a congregation is being led by a single evangelist, it must be working toward having elders (Titus 1:5). Of course, simply having the right organizational structure won’t save Christians from proud or arrogant hearts. Notice that Paul doesn’t take issue with the Corinthian’s leadership structure. He takes issue with their attitudes.

The Corinthians, it seems, had been taking issue with Paul. And see how Paul responded? He’s just told them that he puts a small value on himself, and now he does the same to their judgment against him: “But with me it’s a very small thing that I should be judged by you or any human court” (4:3). Notice that he didn’t say he ignores them. There are two mistakes Christians can make when dealing with our critics. The first is to ignore them completely (they might be right, after all). The second is to get too wrapped up in what they say [1]. Paul sets a good example for any Christian, especially those who teach and lead a congregation. If we don’t listen at all to our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we’re arrogant. We are part of one body, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the congregation in ways he’s not in us individually. If we don’t pay any attention to criticisms from our fellow Christians, then trouble will follow. But if we pay too much attention, it will tear us apart. In my office I have a framed quotation from Dr. Bill Cosby. It says, “I don’t know the secret of success, but the secret of failure is trying to please everybody.” I keep that as a reminder, because when we serve others it’s easy to begin craving their approval. That’s natural, but it’s not Christian. As Paul said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” You can’t please everybody (sometimes, it seems, you can’t please anybody). So live to please God.

I read an example recently of an old preacher who helped a younger preacher learn this lesson. The elders had called the young man in and told him that he needed to understand a few things. This was their church, not his: “We were here before you came, and we are going to be here when you leave; therefore, we expect you to do what we want you to do and not what you think you ought to do.” The younger man asked what he should do, and here’s what the older preacher said:
"Well, I would call together the elders of the church and I would say to them, 'Brothers, I think you are suffering from two very serious theological errors: "'One, you think this is your church, but this is not your church. This is the Lord's church. All churches belong only to him; they do not belong to the people; they are not a democracy owned by the congregation. Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," {cf, Matt 16:18}. So all of us are under the authority of the Lord of this church, and it is his job to tell us what he wants the church to be, and not our job to tell him what we think it ought to be.'"

"'The second error is that you think you hired me to work in this church, but you have not. I did not come on that basis. I have joined you to share the ministry with you. I appreciate the fact that you have set me aside, and given me support from the congregation so that I do not have to spend time earning a living, but can devote my full time to the ministry of teaching and preaching. If you will not accept those terms then I will have to look elsewhere. I cannot work on any other terms because that is what the New Testament says.' [2]
Any preacher or teacher must bring the Word of God to both the saints and the lost. A man who would preach must not shrink from bringing the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). That’s why I preach texts more than topics. Preaching through books of the Bible gives the preacher less opportunity to keep preaching his pet topics again and again. By preaching through books, over time, the church hears teachings from the whole Bible. And if any preacher is doing his job faithfully, bringing the whole counsel of God, he’ll step on everyone’s toes at one time or another. Often what we least want to hear is what we most need.

None of this is to say preachers or teachers should be above criticism. “Don’t judge” is one of the most abused ideas in churches today. There is a time to criticize, a time to judge. It’s not that the Corinthians should never judge. It’s just that they weren’t any good at it! They were still spiritual babies, and they didn’t have the mind for it. As we’ll see in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, some thing Christians must judge: sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:3), right and wrong (1 Cor. 6), truth (Acts 17:10-11; Gal. 2:4, 2 Tim. 2:15ff). But we mustn’t have an arrogant attitude about it. The Corinthians were in essence placing themselves above Paul. It’s their arrogance that Paul is speaking against, and he reminds them that he—and all of us—are ultimately subject to God alone, the only one who can see our hearts and will one day reveal their innermost secrets.

That’s a lesson for all Christians: that God alone is our judge (4:4). Now let’s look at something that has the potential to change our lives dramatically. Notice what Paul says in the second part of 4:3? Paul is an inspired apostle who can say he has the mind of Christ. And he doesn’t even judge himself! That’s humility. That’s faithfulness and trust in God’s wisdom. As Paul goes on to say, Christians are to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28) and test ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5). But we are not to judge ourselves. That’s worth thinking about.

I meet so many Christians who do try to judge themselves—whether they’re really living good enough lives to be a Christian. And they’re eaten up by guilt. They may be blessed to know God’s standards of righteousness and have the courage to look at their own weaknesses. But then they jump to faulty conclusions: “I’m pathetic. I’m worthless. If I’m this bad, I can’t really be a Christian.” It’s a terrible trap, judging ourselves, because if we’re honest we’ll all find plenty to judge! When we do give in to self judgement, one of two things usually happens to us: either we go on the offensive and begin judging others as harshly as we judge ourselves, or we just sit down in quiet hopelessness.

But here’s something to remember. We’re not qualified to judge ourselves [3]. We can’t fathom the depths of our own hearts, let alone God’s. God is the only one qualified to judge us. In the right context, we can and should examine ourselves and do what we can to live like Christians. But it’s not our job to judge ourselves, especially when, through our Savior Jesus Christ, we’ve passed from judgement to life (Jn 5:24). We may feel inadequate to be a Christian. And, if God judged us simply by who we are and what we do, we would be. But when we begin thinking and feeling that way, it’s time to see with the eyes of faith. That’s when it’s time to look to the Word for our identity. And we’ve already seen in 1 Corinthians what that identity is.

Christians, those who call on the name of the Lord, have been given grace from God (1:4). Grace is a gift we don’t deserve. We receive the gift through faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. But even those actions on our part don’t cause us to deserve God’s blessings. Discipleship is not a transaction, as if we do something for God, and he blesses us as repayment. No. Grace is a gift from God, and nothing we do causes us to deserve it. So we can give up the idea right now that we ever deserve the blessings God offers.

So what are those blessings? Everything (1:5; 3:21-23). Everything. Everything is ours in Christ: forgiveness and sanctification (1:2), peace (1:3), knowledge and wisdom (1:4, 24), fellowship (1:9), power (1:18), salvation (1:18), righteousness (1:30), glory (2:7), truth (2:13), God’s own Spirit (3:16). God has enriched us in everything. And remember this: those gifts are not to individuals alone, but to the church, the body of Christ. We find those blessings in the community of saints—as messed up as we are, that’s where God blesses us with these gifts.

And there’s one more gift, perhaps the most precious of all: God is faithful toward us—this bunch of Christians here, as messed up in many ways as the Corinthians—he will “confirm us to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). Whatever we feel, whatever we see when we look down into our own hearts, is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is what God has done, and he is faithful to keep and save weak, broken vessels like us. As Paul told the Corinthians, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). If we have put on Christ we have forgiveness, new life, new standing. And God is holding onto his own, because he is faithful (1 Cor. 1:9). Who are you to judge yourself when God has forgiven your sins through Jesus Christ?

This whole idea of judgment takes wisdom to grasp; it’s not an easy topic. It’s very easy to misunderstand, especially if we don’t have the mind of Christ. Why does Paul speak against judging in chapter 4 and then tell the Corinthians to judge in the very next chapter? Why does Paul tell them to be foolish in one place and wise in another? Why does he praise weakness and then tell them to be strong? To really understand the answers to these types of questions we have to know God and his commandments. And knowing God takes time and effort and a heart open to the Word. It takes obedience to God, and it takes getting our spiritual hands and feet dirty, so to speak, in worship, fellowship, and service with the church.

We need a strong sense of God’s holiness. There is no place in his Kingdom for wickedness. God does judge—and it’s a fearsome thing to be under his judgement. Hell is real. But knowing God also means knowing his mercy. He’s infinitely more holy than any of us, yet he looks upon us with more mercy than we show ourselves. He isn’t waiting for us to mess up so he can prove he’s better than we are. God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and truth” (Ex. 34:6). And when we know him, there’s no greater joy than being his butler, his underling.

1. Lewis Smedes, "Coping With Our Critics," online sermon text.
2. Ray C. Stedman, "The True Minister," online sermon text.
3. Smedes.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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