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The character of the apostles of Christ
Christian pastors are to be God’s faithful servants
1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 1-5
So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
So Christian pastors are really servants of the congregation. Paul has said to the Corinthian congregation, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas.” Can the congregation then order its pastors to do what the congregation pleases, as a master orders his servants around? There were people in Corinth who wanted to do just that.
Paul corrects that notion in this chapter as he makes clear to the Corinthians that pastors are also servants of God; they are not only serving the congregation. They have a dual responsibility. Christian ministers are obedient servants of Christ, and they are trustworthy stewards (trustees) of the saving truths God has revealed in Scripture. God commits to them the management of his message to mankind. “Preach my word faithfully,” God directs his servants.
Faithfulness is the number one qualification for the Christian minister. The Corinthians wanted their pastors to be strong leaders, men who asserted themselves, who were influences in the community. The Corinthians wanted pastors who were “movers and shakers.” Faithfulness did not have a high priority on their list of qualifications for preachers.
But faithfulness is God’s top priority. Dependability, consistency, integrity—that’s what God wants above all. It is willing, obedient, diligent service that he requires. Faithfulness counts for more than talents, or personality, or efficiency, or leadership, or even success. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (KJV) is the highest grade God gives.
Because ministers owe faithfulness to their Lord, only the Lord can really judge their service. Only God can see the faithfulness within, and only he can rightly judge the faithfulness in words and deeds that even members of Christian congregations cannot rightly judge in their pastors. That is why Paul does not put much emphasis on the way his congregation rates his service. Paul does not despise public opinion, but he does question the competency of the Corinthian “court” to “pass on his credentials with Christ as his lord.” (Note 3: From Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, New York, New York, Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1931, page 103.) Where evident unfaithfulness in their pastors is concerned, however, a Christian congregation has the right and duty to judge its pastors. And a Christian congregation can also appreciate faithfulness in its pastors. But it cannot judge faithfulness as God alone can.
Faithful servant of the Lord that he is, Paul does not even trust his own opinion of himself. “Indeed, I do not even judge myself.” That is, he does not judge himself when the final verdict must be pronounced on his faithful service. As Christians we must all examine our hearts and lives by God’s Word. Even to say, “We daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment,” requires self-examination. But we leave it to God to determine how faithful we have been.
Not even conscience renders a sure verdict. Paul can say, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” This does not mean that Paul never sinned. What it does mean is that Paul has not been delinquent in his ministry. He has performed the duties of his calling as well as he could though not sinlessly. No minister of the Word can claim that he is sinless. God alone, not conscience, speaks the final word on the faithfulness of his ministers.
A word about conscience. As God gave it and as it is guided by God’s Word, our conscience is a valuable monitor of our conduct. But too many people justify wrongdoing by appealing to their conscience. Any conscience that permits or urges people to break the laws of God is not a conscience that God has given or that he directs. It is man’s sinful desire and will, not his God-approved conscience, that is speaking.
The motives for our words and actions cannot be judged by others; only God can see them. Yet it is our motives, our desires, that are all-important in determining what we think and say and do. “The great master force in any life is desire [motive], not intellect, not volition, not emotion, but desire. What do we want? What are we after? What is the inner council of the heart?” (Note 4: From G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1946, pp. 72-23.) Only God knows. Only God can judge. Only God can truly reward with due praise.
Christian pastors are to be poor in spirit
1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 6-7
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
What applies to ministers in general, Paul now applies to himself and Apollos, using himself and his coworker as examples of unassuming leaders who did not seek prestige. We remember how the Corinthians attached themselves to certain ministers: “I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos”; “I follow Cephas.” As a result, the congregation was in danger of breaking up into cliques.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that they should follow Scripture and should not take pride in being followers of a certain minister and look down on those who follow other ministers. In their boasting about the leader they had chosen, they considered themselves better judges of their teachers than others were. In their fancied prestige, they were “puffed up” against their fellow church members.
Paul proceeds to puncture their inflated sense of their own importance. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
These are pointed questions for all of us. Why should we be so proud of who and what we are? How did we acquire our intellect, our talents, our physical endowment? Do we deserve credit for having chosen our race, our country, our religion? What did we do to become Christians while others remain in blind and damning unbelief? “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Why should we be proud of who and what we are?
1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 8-13
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
These smug, self-satisfied Corinthians imagined they had everything. They were kings looking down on the commoners about them. Paul even uses irony to penetrate their self-esteem: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!”
There is more irony. “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.” Here were these self-sufficient Corinthians, these privileged people who felt they lacked nothing. They were “sitting on the top of the world.” They were living, as someone has said, “in a private millennium of their own.” But the apostles, the highest servants in God’s church, were being treated like the riffraff at the very end of a Roman victory parade, insulted and jeered at by the crowd, doomed to die for the entertainment of the crowd. These poor wretches were a “big show” (An American Translation) to all mankind. Even the angels had to witness this sad spectacle.
The irony continues. “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” “Wise . . . strong . . . honored”—that’s what the Corinthians thought they were. In their opinion they were superior to their pastors. In contrast to their exalted sense of self importance, Paul and Apollos were “fools . . . weak . . . dishonored.” When nothing else appears to get through to these smug, self-satisfied people, perhaps irony can shame them.
Certainly the world treated Paul and Apollos as if they were “fools . . . weak . . . dishonored.” “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands.” We think of the catalog of Paul’s sufferings for Christ as he records them in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11, the long epistle lesson we regularly hear the second Sunday before Lent.
If the proud Corinthians had suffered such hardship and abuse for their faith, they would have been humiliated and outraged; they would have retaliated against their persecutors. Paul and Apollos did not. “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.”
Could the Corinthians give such soft answers to those who would inflict such savage and brutal treatment on them? Would we? Or would the shame of such treatment by those who hate and despise the Christ we love be too much for us to bear? Would we, like the Corinthians, find it too painful to be such “fools for Christ”? What if we had to share Paul’s experience: “Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world”? We Christians in our blessed land can only read these words today and wonder what it would be like to lose everything for Christ. May God in his providence preserve us from such trials, but if and when they do come in a world that is becoming increasingly godless and evil, we shall read Paul’s words with different eyes.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 14-17
I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Why did Paul write with such biting words? “I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children.” He writes this way because he is their spiritual father. He founded the congregation in Corinth. Through his preaching many of the Corinthians were led to their Savior. “They cannot forget the one through whom the message came and the vision came, and the light broke upon them.” (Note 5: From G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1946, pp. 77 and 78.)
Other preachers would take over Paul’s work in Corinth, but none of them could be the father of the congregation. Only Paul could be that; they could only be the “guardians” (slave-guardians and tutors who care for children) Paul refers to in verse 15.
A father has the right to speak harshly to his children when they misbehave. He has not only the right but also the duty to warn them when they are doing wrong. But even though he may scold them, he will not “shame” them before the world. One does not humiliate beloved children. These strong words of Paul were intended to correct, not to disgrace the Corinthians; he loved these children of his in Christ Jesus too much to shame them.
Children should be like their father. In Paul the Corinthians have an example of what it means to live in Christ and to follow him no matter what the cost to their pride and self-satisfaction might be. Paul is so concerned about them following his example that he is sending them Timothy, who would help them learn from Paul’s example of humility and self-sacrifice.
What a marvelous thing for any father to be able to say! What a powerful influence for good when the spiritual father in the pulpit can tell his congregation, or the spiritual father or mother in the classroom can tell his or her children, that they should follow his or her example if they want to know how to follow Christ! And what added force if they can say that their entire ministry shows that they are faithful followers of Christ!
1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, verses 18-21
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Some of the Corinthians resisted Paul at every turn. Like defiant children who challenge their father’s authority, these individuals dared Paul to return to Corinth to tell them what to do. “Paul knows better than to come back to Corinth,” they blustered.
Their spiritual father takes up the challenge of these insolent children. They can talk big, but what can they do? What spiritual results can they show? Is what they are saying leading sinners to faith and turning their lives around? Where God rules the heart and guides the tongue of the messenger of the gospel, there will be results. “My word . . . will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). God did not make that promise to those who boast of their own wisdom and strength.
The final test of wisdom is always power. Can the teachers of psychology or philosophical systems “lift the burden, break the chain, quench the passion . . . reconstruct a divine manhood”? (Note 6: From G. Campbell Morgan, An Exposition of the Whole Bible, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1959, page 472.) Only the simple, unadorned message of the cross can do that.
If the Corinthians lay aside their imagined power and prestige and humbly acknowledge the grace and power of God, there will be no further need for cutting words and painful chastisement. “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?”
Paul, the apostle-pastor, has dealt with a complicated problem. Ever since he lamented the divisions in the congregation occasioned by those who said, “I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos”; “I follow Cephas” (1st Corinthians 1:12), Paul has endeavored to set right the relation of a Christian to his pastor. He has pointed out the difference between the pastor as leader and the pastor as servant, between his office and his person, between the pastor as orator and the pastor as the voice of God, between his personal rights and his public service, between a discourse on wisdom and the message of wisdom, between personal popularity and professional respect, between Paul the man and Paul the apostle, between a congregation attached to its pastor and a congregation devoted to its Lord. As we read these first four chapters in 1st Corinthians, we need to visualize all these threads in the fabric of his service to the Corinthian congregation.