Rewire: Servants and Stewards

Sermon by David Strain on April 30, 2017

1 Corinthians 4:1-5


Would you now please take your copies of God’s Word and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians chapter 4; page 953 in the church Bibles. 1 Corinthians chapter 4. We’ll be reading the first five verses together. Before we do that, once you have your Bibles open, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together? Let’s pray!


O Lord, we confess how badly we need to hear You speak and how prone we are as You address us to hear only what we want to hear or to distort those truths that Your Word brings to us or to drown out Your voice by listening to other voices that compete for our attention. And so now as we gather here in Your presence, we ask You please to pour out the Holy Spirit so that Your Word might be clearly heard and shed light into our darkness and give life to our hearts by leading us back to the Lord Jesus. For we ask this in His name, amen.


1 Corinthians chapter 4 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”


Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.


I wonder if you remember these moments on Monday, August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina began to batter the coastline down on the Gulf of Mexico. On that day, brigadier general, Matthew Broderick was on duty at the Homeland Security Operations Center which is responsible for assessing really any threat of any kind to national security, whether it’s terrorism or natural disaster, and then relaying it to the White House at the end of the day. And as reports of flooding in New Orleans began to arrive at his office throughout the day, Broderick and his team, as you might expect, were monitoring the situation closely. But reports were contradictory. So later in the day, one FEMA report stated that 75% of the city was then under water. But at ten-thirty that night, as they turned on the TV, one broadcast showed people having a hurricane party in the French Quarter. Reports were contradictory. And at that point, Broderick made a fateful decision. He went home. He looked at all the contradictory reports and concluded that he had nothing definite to relay to the White House and they sure seemed like they were having a good time on the news after all, and so he went home. His judgment was badly flawed with, as we all know now, disastrous consequences.


The capacity to make judgments is fundamental to our lives. It’s vital, really, isn’t it? We can’t survive without the ability to assess and deduce and make careful determinations and judgments a thousand times every day on things big and small. But as brigadier general, Matthew Broderick’s story reminds us, sometimes our capacity for sound judgment can be severely compromised with catastrophic consequences. The apostle Paul and Apollos and Cephas have been the butt of misjudgments at the hands of the Corinthians. And Paul is writing in our passage not only to put the record straight in his own case but to help the Corinthians find a better way.


Let’s look at the passage together – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5. I want us to notice three things here. First of all, in verses 1 and 2, in face of their misjudgments, Paul teaches the Corinthians how the church ought to view Gospel ministers; verses 1 and 2. Then in verses 3 and 4, he teaches us how Gospel ministers, and actually how every Christian, ought to view themselves. And then finally in verse 5, he wants us to understand that the only opinion that really matters is how God views us all; how God views us all.


How the Church Should View Gospel Ministers


Look at verses 1 and 2 with me first. Here’s how the church should view Gospel ministers. Verse 1, “This is how one ought to regard us,” Paul says. “As servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Many of the Corinthians did not think very highly of the apostle Paul at all, did they? In fact, in 2 Corinthians chapter 10 and verse 10, we have a sample of the kind of things they had been saying about Paul. Paul has heard them say it and he reports it in 2 Corinthians 10:10. This is the sort of thing they were saying: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account.” In other words, “He talks a good game in his letters, but when he shows up himself, finally, he is so unimpressive. What a lightweight! Who would ever listen to the apostle Paul?” It’s a sample of their judgmentalism and their dismissiveness toward Paul.


And just as an aside, before we notice how Paul corrects their thinking, don’t you find it helpful to see even a New Testament church like this one in a bit of a mess? I find it immensely helpful because there may be some of us here this morning taking great offense at the failure of the church to live up to its message. You might really be struggling with the hypocrisy and the insincerity and the judgmentalism that you’ve witnessed in the church. And you’re quite right to be dismayed by it. The apostle Paul was dismayed by it when he met with it at Corinth. But when the Bible shows us the flaws of the church, as it does here in 1 Corinthians very clearly, it aims not only to correct those flaws but also to teach us to exercise patience with the church as we see those flaws. It aims to remind us that the struggles of the church today are the same as the struggles of the church back then.


The Church is Full of Sinners and Hypocrites

And so we really shouldn’t be so terribly surprised that the church is full of hypocrites, should we? Like me, maybe like you – frauds, compromised people. After all, isn’t the church the best place for us, for hypocrites and frauds and failures? Where else should they be? Isn’t the church the best place for people just like us? So by all means, I think Paul would say to us, “By all means, let’s critique the church for her failure to be all that she ought to be, but let’s not be surprised when the same old struggles that plagued the church in Paul’s day continue to plague the church in our own as well.” Instead, let’s learn to practice patience with one another, recognizing that while we may take great offense at the flaws we see so clearly in others, we may not see the mirror image of those same flaws quite so clearly in ourselves. And so we are to practice patience. The church always struggles because the church is full of sinners and hypocrites and failures like me and like you. It was in Paul’s day; it is in ours also.


Servants to All

Well in Corinth in particular, they have been judging Paul really very harshly and unjustly. And so he corrects their thinking rather carefully. Look at what he says in verses 1 and 2. We ought to regard him and the other leaders over whom the Corinthians have been squabbling, we ought to regard them as first, “servants of Christ,” and then, “stewards of the mysteries of God. Think about that word, “servants,” first. It’s actually an unusual word; not the normal word for, “servant.” It is the word in Greek, “ypiretis.” It originally meant, “an under-rower;” a galley slave on the lowest deck of an ancient ship. Chained to their oars, they have to pull their oars to the beat of the overseer’s drum. Now by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, a “ypiretis” really was any kind of servant in general but it still conveys this sense of menial, lowly, humble service. That’s what a minister is, Paul says – a galley slave, pulling his oar to the beat of the Master’s drum. The servant of all.


Stewards of the Mysteries of God

And then Paul says he’s also a steward. It’s another word-picture, this time of a domestic slave who has been entrusted with the management of the resources of an ancient Greco-Roman household or estate. They were to dispense those resources wisely and carefully. Ministers, Paul says, are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Now when Paul talks about, and the New Testament talks about, “mystery,” it doesn’t mean something a bit like an Agatha Christie novel, you know, where you have to play detective and try to puzzle it out. That’s not what a mystery is in the New Testament. It doesn’t mean a secret that is hidden from our view, but rather it is a reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that once was obscured but has now been revealed to the apostles and written down for us in holy Scripture. The apostle Paul himself has talked about it back in chapter 2 at verse 7. “We impart,” he says, “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” Then he says in verse 10, “These things he has revealed to us by his Spirit.” That’s what mystery means! It has to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


And so when Paul calls ministers, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” he’s giving us a job description. He is saying it is the minister’s fundamental task, like a steward in an ancient household, to dispense the mysteries of God. That is, to preach the Gospel, to feed the members of the household, to supply them with the resources of the Word of God for their nourishment and their provision. There may be a thousand other tasks demanding a minster’s attention, but if they are allowed to distract from this if they undermine his ability to do this, he is not fulfilling his calling to steward the mysteries of God as he ought. He is to open the Bible, to explain the Scriptures, to preach Christ from the Word of God. So he is an under-rower, a galley slave, pulling his oar to the beat of King Jesus, his Master’s drum. And he is a steward, caring for the household of faith, wisely dispensing the Gospel of grace to God’s people.


Alistair Begg, I think it was, I think sums up the big idea here really rather well when he said that “Gospel ministers are servants of the church but the church is not their Master.” Gospel ministers are servants of the church, but the church is not their Master. We work for Jesus pulling oar at His command, serving the church with His Word, according to His design. We serve the church, but it’s Jesus Christ, not the church, who is our Master. To be sure, verse 2, stewards, ministers like stewards, are required to be faithful, trustworthy, diligent in their task. But that’s the measure of a steward’s quality. Is he faithful? Is he trustworthy? It has nothing to do with the dynamic force of his personality or the rhetorical polish of his oratory. Is he faithful? That is the key question.


Now you can imagine the challenge of this teaching for the Corinthians who rated ministers based on the flamboyance and the artistry of their public speech. They wanted rock stars and celebrities, not galley slaves and household stewards. But the ministers that God will bless, Paul is teaching us, the ministers that the church needs, are faithful stewards dispensing the mysteries of God, the Word of Christ, the Gospel of grace, diligently for the daily nourishment of the people of God. Here’s how the church should view ministers. We are galley slaves, household stewards. We serve the church at the decree and command of Jesus Christ who is our Master.


How Gospel Ministers And Every Christian Ought to View Themselves


But then secondly, Paul tells us how Gospel ministers, and by extension how every Christian, ought to view ourselves. How the church should view Gospel ministers, but now how Gospel ministers should view themselves. Look with me at verses 3 and 4. Verses 3 and 4. There are actually three courtrooms in these five verses. I want us to think about the first two of them and we’ll come to the third in a few moments. The first two are here in verses 3 and 4. The first courtroom that Paul mentions, do you see it in the text, is the courtroom of public opinion. “But with me,” verse 3, “But with me, it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.” Paul has been tried in the court of public opinion at Corinth. Each week he was at Corinth, in household after household around the church, you could be sure of the main dish being served for Sunday lunch. You know what that dish is, don’t you? It was apparently a delicacy at Corinth. What did they have for Sunday lunch after church every week that Paul was with them? They served up a steaming pile of roast preacher, didn’t they? I wonder if it’s a delicacy you’ve enjoyed yourself. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know! Well, they would take his ministry apart with critical, bitter, judgmentalism – the court of public opinion.


The Court of Private Conscience

And then there’s another courtroom. Do you see it in the text? Paul mentions it. Not just the court of public opinion but verses 3 and 4, the court of private conscience. “I do not even judge myself,” he says, “for I am not aware of anything against myself but I am not thereby acquitted.” In the courtroom of his own conscience, while he’s unaware of anything specific that could condemn him, he knows that his own private verdict, his own estimation of himself is hardly any more reliable than the biased judgments of the Corinthians. And I want us to notice carefully how Paul deals with the verdicts of both courts. On the one hand, he says, “It’s a very small thing to be judged by you in the courtroom of public opinion. And on the other hand,” he says, “I don’t even trust my own judgments about myself in the courtroom of private conscience.” Clearly, he doesn’t put much store at all in the verdicts of either court, does he?


Freedom From the Fear of the Judgment of Others

And so here’s my question! As I take all of that in, as I see how Paul handles himself in light of the verdict of public opinion and even the verdict of his own conscience, here’s my question! Here’s what I really want to know! I want to know, “How do you do that, Paul? How do you do that?” Wouldn’t you like to be free from the fear of other people’s prejudices? Unconcerned about their judgments concerning you? Or how about freedom from the tyranny of self-reproach or the blindness of arrogant over-confidence? Both of which Paul seems to avoid in our passage marvelously. How does he do it? “I don’t care if you judge me, and I don’t even trust my own judgments about me.” Here’s how ministers ought to view themselves – neither driven by the fear of men nor enslaved by the demands of ego. And here’s a model I rather suspect of how we all would love to view ourselves – unconcerned about what people say about us and not for a moment believing our own publicity either.


Now let’s be honest – isn’t that hard to achieve? Don’t we often find ourselves cowering in fear of other people’s judgments or deeply wounded when we hear them? Moved and swayed by what we worry others will say of us? Or living under the tyranny of our own internal neurosis? Isn’t that hard to do, what Paul seems to do so easily here in these verses? I like to tell seminarians that ministers need to develop thick skin and tender hearts. Thick skin and tender hearts. But too often, we have thin skin and hard hearts. So thin-skinned ministers, every barb, every snide remark penetrates and wounds. But if our hearts are hard, we don’t learn lessons, we’re not teachable, and the wounds that we receive hardly bear fruit in effective ministry. What we need are thick skin and tender hearts. Paul seems to model that here, doesn’t he? He has thick skin. “It is a small thing that I should be judged by you.” He has a tender heart. “I don’t even judge myself. I don’t trust my own verdict. I don’t listen to my ego. I’m teachable.” There’s humility. But cultivating thick skin and a tender heart is not so easy. So how does Paul do it? How could we do it?


How God Views Us All

That brings me to the last point! Would you look with me at verse 5? He’s told us how the church ought to view Gospel ministers, he’s told us how ministers and every Christian for that matter ought to view themselves; now he tells us that what really matters most of us is how God views us all. Here’s the third courtroom in our passage. This is actually the only one that really counts. Do you see it in verse 5? “Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then, each one will receive his commendation from God.” Do not pronounce judgment before the time, Paul says. He’s echoing the very familiar words of Jesus, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Favorite words in the current cultural climate in which we live. Often, they’re taken to mean that we ought not to make moral judgments; moral judgments, we are told, are off limits. “Don’t judge. To call something right and something else wrong is judgmental and unloving,” we are told.


That’s clearly not what Paul has in mind here because, if you’ll look at the next chapter, we see him making very strong moral judgments indeed, urging the church to practice church discipline in the case of sexual immorality. And in fact, in verse 3 of chapter 5, listen to Paul’s language. He says, “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” So Paul isn’t saying here when he tells the Corinthians not to pass judgment before the time, he isn’t saying don’t make moral judgments; neither is he saying don’t make theological judgments. In chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians when he’s talking about the ministry of the prophets at the church in Corinth, he says that two or three at most should speak and the rest should “weigh what is said.” The word translated, “weigh,” there is really the word, “to judge.” Judge what is being said. You are to exercise theological discernment to weigh and to judge the truthfulness of what is being taught from the Scriptures. So Paul isn’t saying don’t make moral judgments about what is right and wrong; neither is he saying don’t make doctrinal judgments about what is true and false. The Bible actually commands us to do both. And no small part of Christian maturity lies in our ability to do that with humility and skill according to the standard of God’s Word.


Do Not Pronounce Judgments Before the Time

But Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for developing a standard of their own; not a Biblical standard, but a standard based instead on personal tastes and preferences and then acting as Judge Judy and executioner over any and all who do not measure up to those standards. “Do not pronounce judgments like that before the time,” he is saying. That is before the Lord returns. When Jesus comes back and the final courtroom is called into session, He will judge by the perfect standards of God’s Word and His judgments will overturn yours every time. In fact on that day, Paul says, you will find yourself no longer sitting at the bench as a self-appointed judge, but personally in the dock summoned to give an account. On that day, Paul says, the things hidden in the darkness will be exposed and Christ will uncover the purposes of the heart.


Now isn’t that ultimately why our judgmentalism is really very foolish in the end? Because we can’t read hearts; only Jesus can. How careful we should be about impugning the motives of others when only the searching gaze of Jesus Christ can penetrate to those depths. Jesus and no one else can and will expose the secret motives of the heart and the things hidden in the darkness. And one day He will, Paul says. Isn’t that sobering? One day He will. Paul wants the Corinthians and He wants us to be mindful of that final great day, and the last courtroom, the verdict of which is the only one that really matters. And if we were more aware and began to live as Paul seems to manage to do here, began to live in the light of eternity, how would that affect how we live day by day among the community of God’s people?


Seek to Please God Alone

And if you’ll look at the end of verse 5, you’ll see how it is that Paul was able to live free from the fear of the opinion of others in the court of public opinion and even hold his own assessment of himself so loosely. Remember, he couldn’t care less if the Corinthians demonized him or lionized him. Remember how he refused to put much store by his own estimation of himself. Well here’s how he managed to do that. He is looking for the commendation of almighty God. Almighty God – His opinion is the only one that ultimately matters. Then each one, he says, “will receive his commendation from God.” He is laboring for the, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” of his Master. He is seeking to live so as to please his God. No one else’s opinion, not even his own, carries final weight with him. His question is not, “What will others think of me?” Neither is it, “What do I think of me?” His question, rather, is, “Will my conduct today receive the, ‘well done’ of my Redeemer?”


What is the path to self-forgetfulness so that you’re enslaved neither by the opinions of others nor by the boasts of ego? It is knowing that only one opinion matters in the end. What does God say about the work of your heart and your head and your hands? What will Jesus say at His appearing over the work of His stewards who ought to have been faithful in the house of God? What will he say about the labors of His under-rowers who ought to have been pulling their oars to the beat of His drum? When the commendation of God matters supremely, it really won’t matter if men demonize or lionize you and your own verdict could not matter less.


A Word of Commendation

Now just to be clear, before we close, in the final judgment you will never hear, if you’re a Christian today, you will never hear a word of condemnation, but you will hear a word of commendation. Romans 8 verse 1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” You cannot be condemned, believer in Jesus, when that final courtroom is called into session. Isn’t that good news? Because of the righteousness of Christ, you are forgiven and cannot ever be condemned. But you can be and ought to live for the commendation of King Jesus on that day. There’s a word of commendation to be spoken over you. No word of condemnation but a word of commendation. And I rather suspect that when we all gather before the throne and hear His commendations, we will be surprised at how rarely His commendation agrees with the praises of men or the congratulations of our own consciences. Both often miss the mark entirely. That’s what Paul has been saying, isn’t it? Both often miss the mark entirely. And so having secured the assurance of “no condemnation” through faith in Jesus Christ, we are being called to pursue the word of commendation by faithful obedience to Jesus Christ, to live for the smile of Abba Father and to pursue hard after the “Well done, good and faithful servant” of our Redeemer.


May the Lord help us, may the Lord help us, resting in the assurance of no condemnation, to live joyfully of the good opinion of the living God alone and for His final commendation on that great day. And may He set us thereby altogether free from the tyranny of the opinion of men and even the tyranny of our own faulty judgments of ourselves. Let’s pray together.


Our Father, we confess to You that oftentimes the opinions of others and our own estimation of ourselves has been flawed, dangerously flawed, even leading sometimes to disastrous consequences. Would You teach us, please, to value above all other opinions Your commendation and to live for Your smile and for Your glory alone? For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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