How do you judge what is good Christian ministry? For example, if your children come back from the Explore weekend saying the games were amazing, the waterfight was epic, and Gawny got 'gunged' – does that make it good Christian ministry? Or think of the Gospel Choir service next Sunday. If you invite someone and they say they'll come, what are you hoping for from me as the speaker? We naturally want people to enjoy it, and come back. So you might want me to be light-touch, to be funny, and not to say anything anyone could be put off by. But those standards you're setting are already making it harder for me to communicate the gospel.
So how do you judge what is good Christian ministry? That's what the first part of 1 Corinthians is all about, which we're looking at in this series. So would you open the Bible to 1 Corinthians 1.11-12, and let me remind you of the first big problem Paul deals with in this letter. He says:
"…it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul", or "I follow Apollos" [and so on]…"
So, Paul had come to Corinth and planted this church. He'd then moved on and left the follow-up to Apollos (he did the equivalent of the Discipleship Explored course). And some of the Corinthian Christians preferred Apollos's ministry to Paul's. So, "I follow Apollos" meant, 'I prefer Apollos and his ministry-style – give me Apollos any day.' And they were judging Paul's ministry as inferior. And the big mistake they were making was judging Christian ministry by non-Christian standards.
So in those days, the big media thing wasn't TV. It was public speaking – where the big name speakers would compete in debates. Their aim was to be the most popular, to get the most applause, to be thought the best. And that was judged by two main standards. No.1 was personality – did they come over as impressive? No.2 was presentation – were they good with words and clever at arguing, so that even if the facts weren't on their side they could win the day? (Some of the best of them were also politicians and lawyers!) And content came a poor third, because the rule on content was, 'Give them what they want to hear, what they'll agree with' (because otherwise, how will you be popular, get applause, and be thought the best?)
Now Paul and Apollos would have been horrified by Christian ministry being judged by those non-Christian standards. But that's what the Corinthians were doing. And in their opinion, Apollos came off better than Paul. The equivalent today would be judging Christian ministry by the standards of TV (which is becoming more of an issue with the 'internet-isation' of ministry, including our own). So, for example, by TV standards, I'm expected to be a slick presenter, like one of the beautiful people on Breakfast TV – always making eye contact and never needing notes. When of course they've spent half an hour in make-up, and have autocue.
So how do you judge what is good Christian ministry? Let's pick up Paul's answer again at chapter 2, verse 1. And here's the first thing this part of God's Word tells us:
1. Good Christian Ministry Passes On the Gospel Faithfully and Leaves Results to God (v.1-5)
Look at 1 Corinthians 2.1-2:
"And I, when I came to you, brothers [and sisters], did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God [in other words the gospel] with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
So 'lofty speech' and 'wisdom' means 'high-sounding talk and clever arguing' – like the big name public speakers used. And the Corinthians had begun to think Christian ministry should be like that. And Paul says, 'No!' Because whereas for the big name public speakers content came a poor third, for Paul, the no.1 aim of Christian ministry is content. It's passing on the gospel faithfully. And in verse 1 he calls it the "testimony [in other words, witness] of [or about] God." So God has sent his Son Jesus into this world to make himself known, and to die on the cross to put us right with him. That was witnessed by the apostles. We have their witness written down in the New Testament and the no.1 aim of Christian ministry is to pass it on faithfully. That is why Paul says in verse 2, 'Before coming to evangelise you'…
"…I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
In other words, 'I decided to keep the central things of the gospel central.' (NB: he's not talking here about everything he would teach a church over the course of time; he's talking about his initial evangelism – presenting Jesus to those who don't yet know him.) And that's why Christianity Explored, the course we use to help people look into the gospel, is so good. Because it simply goes through Mark's Gospel. The first half of Mark is about how Jesus is the Christ – in other words, the King God has sent to bring our lives back under his rule. And the second half of Mark is about him crucified – in other words, about how he had to die on the cross for our forgiveness, and then rise again, so that we could come back into relationship with him. And Paul says the no.1 aim of Christian ministry is simply to pass that gospel on faithfully. So now read on, verse 3:
"And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling"
Some people say he was afraid of them and what reception he'd get. But in the Bible, 'fear and trembling' is always a response to God. So I think he's talking about the responsibility we should all feel towards God to pass the gospel on faithfully. And he's saying, 'I was afraid I might change the gospel to try to please you, rather than please God by saying it how it is.' Then on to verses 4-5:
"and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom [or you can translate that, 'enticing words' – the kind of thing the big name speakers were so good at, playing on people to 'get results'], but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom [or clever argument] of men but in the power of God."
Do you see the difference there? The big name public speaker plays on you with clever arguments, and maybe emotional manipulation, to 'get results' – to get you applauding, to get you thinking they're best. But the good Christian minister or personal evangelist does nothing of the sort. We pass on the gospel knowing that we can't get results. Because we can't convince people they're sinners in need of forgiveness. We can't open their eyes to see who Jesus really is, and what he's done for them on the cross. And we can't make them trust him and want him as their Saviour and King. So like verses 4 and 5 say, we leave it to God, by the work of his Spirit, to 'demonstrate' those things to people in their hearts. So as someone has put it, 'Faithfulness is our department; results is God's department.' And so we don't try to manipulate people or pressurise people, to 'get results'.
Let me use the Explore weekend away again as an example. Andy Gawn would blush if he was here, but in his absence let me say he's one of the most gifted children's evangelists and pastors in the country. And he has the ability to harness all the excitement of a weekend or Holiday Club full of kids. But he doesn't let that slide over into becoming manipulation. He strenuously avoids manipulation (and sets that tone in our children's and youth work). And when he does encourage response to Jesus, it's done very gently and carefully – and leaving space for young people to say, 'I'm still thinking about it.' And that's a model for what all gospel ministry should be like. Because good Christian ministry passes on the gospel faithfully and leaves results to God. That's the first thing.
Now I said the Corinthians' big mistake was judging Christian ministry by non-Christian standards. So they judged the ministers on personality and presentation. But in their culture, you also judged a message by its results. Did it go down well? Did it get a big following? And on that score, they were becoming unsettled about the gospel. Because with many people it didn't go down well. And it didn't have a big following where they were. So the next thing Paul says is this:
2. The Gospel is God's Saving Wisdom – Even if the World Doesn't See it that Way (v.6-9)
Just glance back to chapter 1, verse 18, where Paul says:
"For the word of the cross [the gospel] is folly to those who are perishing [in other words, to those who at present don't believe it]"
So, to the non-Christian world, the gospel looks foolish. And Paul knew the Corinthians were sensitive about that. Like us, they were unsettled when other people mocked and knocked their faith. So if they'd been able to read Richard Dawkins saying that Christian belief is 'infantile' and 'intellectually immature', it would have left them thinking, 'Maybe we're wrong. Maybe we need to grow up and grow out of this belief.' So look on to chapter 2, verse 6:
"Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away"
So Paul is saying there, 'Christian belief is not 'infantile'.' He's saying, 'Actually Christians are 'the mature' ones, who've faced up to the realities of God and sin and judgment and forgiveness through the cross and so on.' So he says, 'Don't fall for the world's mockery into thinking the gospel is immature and foolish.' Verse 6 again:
"Yet among the mature [in other words, Christian believers] we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away"
So 'this age' is really 'the spirit of the age'. And in our culture, that's the belief that I should be free to be myself and do what I want. So the spirit of the age (in our neck of the woods, anyway) makes the gospel seem implausible. Because it's calling on people to surrender doing what they want – to doing what Jesus wants.
And verse 6 says 'the rulers of this age' also make the gospel seem implausible. And, partly, that means political rulers. Take, for example, the President of China. He stands for communism – which says there is no God. And his government has just banned all online sales of the Bible. So for 1.4 billion people, he makes the gospel look implausible.
But Paul was also thinking of the opinion-leaders who 'rule' 'this age' – like the celebrities people follow: how many of them are Christian (or dare to say so publicly in the current thought-climate)? Or like the media – the BBC, the papers and so on: how many of them are sympathetic towards Christianity or represent it fairly? All of that means the gospel really doesn't look very plausible to Joe Public in our culture. So read on, verse 7:
"But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory."
There's too much detail to unpack there. But the gist is that Paul is reassuring us that the gospel really is God's saving wisdom, and that Jesus' mission has always been the most important thing in God's plan for this universe. And that plan was 'secret and hidden' in God's mind and 'decreed before the ages' – in other words, before he ever created this whole show. And it's now swung into action in history, in Jesus. So why do people react to the most important thing in the universe as if it's nothing at all? Well, read on, verses 8-9:
"None of the rulers of this age understood this [in other words, understood Jesus], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him""
There's not time for the detail of that, either. But the gist, again, is that the rulers of the day simply could not and would not see who Jesus was. Why not? Well, why did the Jewish rulers want Jesus crucified? Ultimately, because they wanted to stay in power. And Jesus was a threat to that because people were beginning to follow him instead of them. And how about Pontius Pilate? Why did he let Jesus be crucified? Well, ultimately, because he also wanted to stay in power. And Jesus was a threat to that, because the Jewish leaders wanted him crucified, and if Pilate didn't oblige, they could kick up a stink and destabilise things so that Caesar decided to sack him.
And the Jewish leaders and Pilate are just typical of all people. Because as the Bible sees it, by nature we all want to stay in power in our own lives. And Jesus is a threat to that, when along he comes claiming to be our rightful King, and telling us that our lives are not our own. And so, by nature, when we have the gospel presented to us, we won't see who he is. We exercise a kind of wilful blindness.
It's like that story of Nelson in the sea Battle of Copenhagen. Things were going against the Brits, so the Admiral of the fleet gave the signal to retreat. And Nelson saw it, turned to his second in command and said, 'I only have one eye – and I have the right to be blind sometimes.' And he put his telescope to his blind eye and said, 'I really don't see the signal!' – and went on to win the battle.
And the not-seeing which Paul is on about here is the same kind of wilful blindness. And if we understand that, we won't be unsettled when people react negatively to the gospel. Because we won't think it shows there's something wrong with the gospel – but, instead, that there's something wrong with the person reacting negatively. And that same thing is wrong with all of us, by nature – it's called sin. And that explains what Paul says next. He didn't want Christians feeling superior because they do believe the gospel, or judgmental towards those who don't. So the third thing he says is this:
3. If We See the Cross as God's Saving Wisdom, It's All Thanks to His Spirit's Work in Us (v.10-13)
Look on to verse 10. He's just been talking about God's plan to send Jesus to die for our forgiveness and rise again. And he says, verses 10-12:
"these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit [in other words, through God's own Spirit at work in our hearts]. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? [So who knows whether you're thinking about 1 Corinthians 2 right now, or about lunch, or the football this afternoon, or that nice girl sitting over there? Only you do.] So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. [And then he says of Christian believers:] Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God."
And in context, 'the things freely given us by God' must mean Jesus given to die for us, and the forgiveness that's given to us through his death. And Paul says, 'If you understand those things this morning and you're trusting in Jesus this morning, it's all thanks to his Spirit's work within you – you'd never have understood and trusted those things, left to yourselves.' Because left to ourselves, we just want to stay in power in our own lives. And so left to ourselves, when we hear the gospel, we'll say things like, 'But I just don't see myself as a sinner – I think I'm a good person. I just don't see myself in need of a Saviour.'
Until recently, my Mum would have said that – but she's now much closer to believing. But in 37 years of being a Christian, I've often been frustrated at my non-Christian family's reaction to the gospel, and often felt judgmental – thinking, 'Why can't you see it?' And the answer is: for the same reason I couldn't see it, at one time. And I only see it now thanks to the work of God's Spirit within me, overcoming my natural resistance to him and enabling me to see things as they really are.
So there's no place for feeling superior. There's no place for judgmentalism. And there's no place for ever giving up on someone coming to faith. Because if we see the cross as God's saving wisdom, it's all thanks to his Spirit's work in us. And God can do that in anyone else at any time. The last, brief thing from this morning's passage is this:
4. Good Christian Ministry Will Get Negative Reactions – But We Shouldn't Misjudge It Because of That (v.13-16)
So remember: the Corinthians were misjudging Paul's ministry – partly because his personality and presentation didn't match up to the standards of the day. But partly because the results weren't great. The Corinthians weren't a mega-church – there might have been less than a hundred of them. And for every one who'd come to faith through Paul, there were plenty who'd reacted negatively, and done the equivalent of dropping out of Christianity Explored after week 2. And some of the Corinthians were asking, 'What does that say about his competence?'
So look down to verse 13 to end with. Paul says that once we've understood and trusted the gospel thanks to the work of God's Spirit, then verse 13:
"… we impart this [in other words, we pass it on to others] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual."
Which reminds us, again, that we're not at liberty to change the gospel – because God, by his Spirit, 'taught' the apostles the official version, which we now have in the New Testament. So, yes we're at liberty in our evangelism to translate or paraphrase the words and truths God has given us. For example, you can talk about 'sin' without using that actual word – you can talk about 'ignoring God', for example. But we're not at liberty to drop the truth of sin out of our evangelism in the hope of making it more believable – because what you're making more believable is no longer the gospel. So, verse 13, we impart it faithfully. And if people react negatively, we remind ourselves of verse 14:
"The natural person [in other words, any of us left to ourselves, without the work of God's Spirit] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."
So, as I said earlier, we won't think a negative reaction shows there's something wrong with the gospel. Then, by contrast, verse 15
"The spiritual person [which just means 'someone God's Spirit has brought to faith'] judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one."
Which is saying that, thanks to the work of God's Spirit, Christian believers 'judge all things' rightly – which in context must mean 'all important spiritual things'. So that's why they rightly judge themselves to be sinners, and rightly see that Jesus died to forgive their sins, and so on. So verse 15.
"The [Christian believer] judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one."
That absolutely isn't saying that Christians are above judgment in the sense of being above criticism or accountability or correction. Look at it in context and it's Paul's way of saying, 'Don't let the world's negative judgment on the gospel unsettle your faith. Don't let that get to you.' And coming back to where we began, he's saying overall, 'And don't use the world's standards as you try to judge what good Christian ministry is.' Because it's not primarily about personality or presentation. It's primarily about content – about being faithful to the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified.