Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (10)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (10)

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Broadcast: February 8, 1998; Message Number 1458

Esteeming and Judging Ministers

In I Corinthians 4:1-5 the apostle Paul refers to ministers of the gospel as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. As we have seen in previous studies, Paul is dealing with the party-spirit that is threatening to divide the congregation. The people are arguing over the ministers who have preached among them and everyone has his favourite. Paul rebukes them for their un-spiritual attitude and reminds them that ministers are God's gift to the Church and that they should all be honoured for their work' sake.

The Lord has not given these men to us so we could judge and evaluate them according to our likes and dislikes. Actually, Paul says, ministers should not be judged at all, either by others or by themselves.

How then should we look at ministers? To help us come to a proper view of ministers and their position in the church Paul begins by explaining what a minister really is. "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God." What Paul means is this: look at us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Don't think of us as gifted speakers, engaging personalities, popular entertainers-these are all worldly criteria for evaluating performers. Instead let everyone recognize us for what we really are: servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

The Greek word for servants here means literally "under rowers." The reference is to galley slaves who sat on the lowest tier of a trireme pulling at the long oars by which these ships moved through the sea. They were the most despised of slaves. Paul uses this term to emphasize that ministers are no more than servants of their Master. We are not the captains of the ship, he means, but only the galley slaves who are under orders. The implication is, of course, that all such under-rowers have the same rank; no minister is greater than another. No one deserves more honour than another. Christ is the Pilot who directs the ship of His Church and Paul is content to labour as his Master directs.

Ministers are called to serve men in Christ's name; but they cannot serve men rightly unless they serve their Lord rightly. They cannot serve Him rightly unless they see themselves rightly: as His under-rowers, His lowly servants.

The other word Paul uses to describe ministers is steward. They are stewards of the mysteries of God. The Greek word for steward is oikonomos from which our word economy is derived. The word means literally house-manager or major domo. The steward was in charge of the entire management of the house or estate. But, however much he controlled those under him, he himself was also a slave of his master. Therefore, whatever a minister's position in the church and whatever influence he may exert there, or whatever prestige he may enjoy, he still remains the servant of Christ.

Minister's are stewards of the mysteries of God, Paul says. The word mystery here means something that was hidden in the past, but revealed in the present. The reference is to God's way or method of salvation by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. This way of salvation had been hidden from all nations except Israel ,and even they had only a vague idea of it, concealed as it was in types and shadows.

Some people characterize the Gospel as "simple" and they are both right and wrong in doing so. The message of the Gospel is simple enough for an illiterate person to understand, believe and be saved. But it is also so profound that the most brilliant theologian cannot fathom its depths. There is a divine wisdom in the Gospel that challenges the keenest intellect. Every believer should strive to learn as much as he or she can about it. Ministers are to help us in this quest. They are the appointed stewards who must dispense the riches of divine revelation to the members of God's household. In doing so he must hold nothing back. As Paul told the Ephesian elders: "I kept back nothing that was profitable for you, ... declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:20,27).

A steward's main responsibility is to be faithful in discharging his master's business. This is what Paul means when he says in verse 2, "Moreover, it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful." God does not require brilliance, cleverness or originality in His servants. He does not demand that they be popular and admired by the masses. What He is looking for most of all in His servants is that they be trustworthy. That is required, Paul says.

Servanthood and stewardship are inseparable from faithfulness. God supplies His servants with His Word, His Spirit, His gifts and His power. All that is expected of them is that they be faithful and diligent in using these resources. The work of a minister is demanding yet basically simple: he must take the Word of God and feed it to His people, dispensing the mysteries of God, proclaiming the hidden truths which He has revealed in Jesus Christ. There is no glory in this, no incentive to shine and to outdo colleagues who have been charged with the same task. Neither is there any reason for congregations to rank one above another. Provided a minister is faithful, he is on the same level with all the other under-rowers and stewards.

That was precisely what the Corinthians were doing and what so many congregations are still doing today: comparing, judging and evaluating ministers according to their own tastes and preferences.

Paul had an effective way of dealing with people who were doing this to him. To those who were critical of him, he had this to say: "But with me it is a small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self." It is not that important to me, he means, that I should be examined by you or by any human court. Paul is not overly concerned about people's opinion of him. It is something to consider, but not to lay awake over at night. It is a very small thing to me he says. Why? Because what others say is not all that important. It certainly is not decisive.

No human being or tribunal is competent to determine the legitimacy, quality or value of our work for the Lord. Of course, in case of outward or public sin, ministers and others who work in the church must be judged and dealt with in the way of censure. But except for disciplining delinquent servants, no human court is qualified to judge whether a servant of God is truly faithful to His Master or not. For who can evaluate his deepest motives and incentives? Everything may look fine on the outside while inside it is quite a different story.

No minister or spiritual worker can remain faithful to his calling if he depends on the approval or disapproval of others. Their criticisms and compliments can never be decisive and accurate for the simple reason that they are based on external factors and not on what is hidden from view.

Not only should a servant of the Lord not go by the opinions of others; he must not even rely on his own opinion of himself. I judge not my own self, Paul says. I don't even evaluate my own ministry. My motives and my reasons for doing what I do--these things I am not capable of examining.

I don't think he means by this that he will never examine himself as to his motives and performance as a minister. But he realizes that even the most thorough self-evaluation will not produce an accurate picture of himself. Paul knows that we all tend to think better of ourselves than is warranted. Even when we put ourselves down, especially in front of others, we are simply appealing for recognition and flattery. Paul, a mature, did not trust his own judgment in such things any more than he trusted the judgment of others. He realized that his own evaluation was likely to be as unreliable as that of anyone else.

What counts most for Paul, therefore, is the Lord's evaluation of him. He who judges me is the Lord, he says. Only God's examination counts, because it alone is accurate and true to fact.

How much we could all learn from the apostle! How concerned we all are about what others think of us. What will so and so say if I do this or that? We should be much more concerned about what God thinks about us. Never mind what this or that person, no matter how pious or influential, may say. He who judges me is the Lord. Period.

Therefore, the apostle adds, judge nothing before the time (vs.5). God has set aside a day when He will bring to light the things that are now hidden in the darkness and disclose the secrets of men's hearts. He alone can properly evaluate human conduct, including the labours of His servants, and He will do so on the day of judgment. We have no business passing judgment on other people. We often judge too hastily; we hear something or see something and we quickly draw our conclusions without examining all the facts. Even if we want to do that, we can't, because we don't have access to all the facts. How can we possibly know everything that goes on in the human heart, especially in the area of motives. Therefore, leave the judgment to God, Paul advises, and in the meantime, put the most favourable interpretation on the actions of the people you are dealing with. Believers are motivated by love. Love thinks no evil, believes all things and hopes all things.

For those who are the victims of slander and merciless criticism, the apostle offers this consolation: at the day of judgment shall every man have praise of God. Every man here, of course, does not mean all people regardless of their actions. The apostle is speaking of Christians, particularly ministers and others who labour in God's church and kingdom who are often mistreated and misjudged. They shall have praise, if not from men, then from the Lord. Only one thing will count in that day: motive. Not what we have done for the Lord, but why and how we have done it, will be the decisive factor.

On that day there will be many humble, unassuming saints, unknown to the world and perhaps hardly known to fellow believers, who will receive much praise from the Lord, perhaps more than many who were considered great in the kingdom, but whose work was blemished by much selfishness and vainglory. They served the Lord in their own little corner: housewives who lived for their husbands and children who were examples of godliness; fathers who taught their sons and daughters the fear of the Lord; children and young people who loved God and their parents, walked in the ways of the Lord, trusting Christ and serving Him with hearts sincere. Everyone of them will have praise of God.

They will all hear these wonderful words of Jesus: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matthew 25:21)

Additional Info

  • Audio: 122803163028
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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