On these Sunday mornings at Jesmond Parish Church we are going through Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In AD 50 Paul had come to Corinth and stayed for 18 months preaching and teaching, as he helped build and grow the Church in that city. Corinth was something of a commercial capital, the headquarters of the Roman province that covered the whole of Greece south of Macedonia, and also, sadly, the sex capital of the ancient Mediterranean world. Leaving Corinth, Paul then soon settled down in Ephesus.
However, while teaching and preaching in Ephesus, he got reports that all was not well with the Church in Corinth for a range of reasons. One report said that the Church was splitting up into cliques. And these factions were named not only after their two main Christian leaders – Paul and Apollos, but also Peter (the Apostle) and one named after Christ himself. Following these reports Paul wrote to the Corinthians several letters, one of them being 1 Corinthians where the first four chapters deal with these cliques or factions.
So all that is the context for 1 Corinthians 4 that we are studying this morning under the title A Servant of Christ. And my headings as we study it are, first, The Criteria for Being a True Church Leader; secondly, The Contrast Between the False and the True; and, thirdly, The Care Paul Has for All.
1. The Criteria for Being a True Church Leader
We know there were four different groups claiming four different leaders in the Church at Corinth but only one bore Paul's name. Therefore, three out of four people in the Church of Corinth could have been opposed in some measure to Paul's leadership and ministry for one reason or another. But on what basis? Well, some probably didn't like his style of preaching - he wasn't polished enough. Some probably didn't like some of the things he taught. Some probably thought he had a bad image. A report from the 2nd century says, he was…
"…small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well built, with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed [but] full of grace."
But what does Paul say should be the test for judging a church leader like himself? Three things at least. First, look at verse 1:
"This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ [literally 'working under Christ']."
So the Corinthians' first concern should be whether Paul, or any minister, is seeking humbly to serve and obey Christ. Or is he working for his own benefit, like the hired hand in the parable of the Good Shepherd in John's Gospel? The hired hand, we are told there, runs away when the pressure is on and the sheep are under attack. John 10.13 says:
"He flees [a wolf attack] because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep."
So the true servant of Christ will bravely defend Christ's people when attacked. Secondly, the Corinthians' concern should be whether Paul and Apollos were "stewards of the mysteries of God" (v.1) and whether they were "trustworthy" in that stewardship. Verse 2:
"Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy."
A steward in the ancient world was to look after his master's property. In this case it is God's property in the form of God's revelation or God's Word. A 'mystery' in the Bible is a technical word for a 'revealed secret'. In God's case his 'mysteries' are his salvation plans through the ages, but finally revealed in Jesus Christ. These culminated, of course, in the Cross of Christ, his Resurrection, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and bringing in the Gentiles (or non Jews) to be the people of God. And those realities, now revealed, we have recorded and explained for us in the Bible.
And, of course, the Apostles, like Paul, were the original stewards of those 'mysteries' and that record. But Christian clergy today, are also stewards of them in a secondary sense. That is why, in Anglican churches, when you are ordained as a presbyter, you are immediately given a Bible after the words of ordination. So particularly those of us who are ordained (but any Christian seeking to be faithful to God's word), need to be "trustworthy" in their teaching of the Bible. We must add nothing to it (as in New Testament times the Pharisees were doing with the Old Testament) or subtract anything from it (as the Sadducees were doing). So a true servant of Christ in leadership has to be a trustworthy steward of God's Word.
Thirdly, such a servant should be able to face opposition and criticism, however seemingly unfair, unkind or untrue. For all Church leaders will face that from time to time. Think of Moses in the wilderness when several times his leadership was attacked, on one occasion even by both Miriam his sister and Aaron his brother (Numbers 12). The Apostle Paul was certainly being attacked by factions in the church in Corinth. But how did Paul react to such criticism? Well, look at verses 3-5:
"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 judgement 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."
Paul reacted to unfair criticism in two ways. First, he kept things in perspective. He was able to treat it as a "very small thing" (v.3). It is not that Paul denied the problem of factionalism. He had given dire warnings in chapter 3 of people themselves being destroyed, if what they were doing was destroying the Church. However, Paul realized that in Corinth (as in the modern world because of electronic media), people would have been making false judgments having been fed facts somehow that were half-true or completely false. For Paul knew (as we will see in verse 5) that in life there is so much "hidden in darkness" and especially "the purposes of the heart" – people's real motivations. So confident judgments cannot be made based on half-truths from biased reports without knowing all the hidden facts. I heard of someone last week who had a host of sudden, really serious, domestic problems. It meant they couldn't go to work. Many people wouldn't have known about these problems. But that is where and when unfair and unkind judgments are made.
It wasn't that Paul didn't listen to the criticism. He did. And he knew there are times when church leaders are guilty of serious offences and need to be removed. But he genuinely believed this criticism didn't apply to him. In verse 4 he says he was not "aware of anything against [himself]." But that didn't excuse him. He knew he, too, had hidden motives. But, secondly, when criticised, he could do this: he could rest assured because he was accountable to the Lord Jesus, whose servant he was, and not to his misguided critics in Corinth. And as Don Carson (the New Testament scholar and theologian) says:
"He [Paul] knew that God judges less sternly than the self-appointed judges in the Church!"
For God does forgive through Christ (as we remember at this service of Holy Communion). So look again at verses 4-5:
"…but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgement 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."
That is the one thing you will want to hear on judgment day - not the flattery of the crowd but the "commendation from God". But what was the cause this disunity? The one-word answer is 'pride' with the root problem being the lack of humility. Look at verses 6-7:
"I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favour of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?"
"Going beyond what is written" may have been a 1st century proverbial equivalent to our 'going beyond the pale', meaning 'acting unacceptably'. And "being puffed up" refers to feelings of pride and people thinking they know more than they really do. So these Corinthians, thinking they were wiser than they really were, naively would have believed false facts based on gossip or on what was then politically correct or on heretical teachers. They then would have made false judgments and become wrongly opposed to Paul. They were, indeed, "arrogant", as Paul later describes them. And that brings us to our second heading:
2. The Contrast Between the False and the True
Paul now clearly implies that there is a general malaise about the whole Church in Corinth. He seems no longer to be dealing just with his personal critics. For he sees a background doctrinal error in the Church. So what is the error? It is the failure to realize that heaven still awaits us. So you live as though it was already here.
Yes, God has made good all his promises for salvation. For a new creation has begun with Christ and his first coming. But heaven and the fulfilment awaits his Second Coming. However, some people (like these Corinthians) think that believers can enjoy heaven now. It doesn't need to be waited for, especially in terms of wealth and power. But Paul says, 'No!'
Yes, there is so much good about the Christian life now, but that doesn't mean the true servant of Christ will always be honoured by the non-Christian world. But some of the Corinthians may have been so honoured and wanted to be. That is because they compromised with the world and its lifestyles, as seems evident as you read on in this letter.
So Paul then describes, with great irony, the results of all this when you see the contrast between these Corinthians and what has happened to himself and the other Apostles. To make his point he uses two metaphors or pictures from the Greco-Roman world. First, he pictures a public amphitheatre like the Colosseum in Rome and, secondly, a domestic dust bin or public refuse tip. Look at verses 8-13:
"Already [notice that word: 'already' – as being in heaven] you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men [in the amphitheatre criminals or other poor people, including Christians would be paraded to fight defencelessly with gladiators or lions until they were killed.] We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things [people treat us like the content of dust bins, in fact the lowest of the low]."
So, are you wanting to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ in your life and witness to him (and certainly if you aspire to leadership)? Well, Christian leadership can be very stressful, and in some parts of the world it is like the experience of the 1st century Apostles. But with the strength of the Holy Spirit you will be equipped for such times. So pray for the Holy Spirit's power.
3. The Care Paul Has for All
In this chapter Paul has written some direct, no pussy-footing, home truths. Some Corinthians, undoubtedly, would not have liked hearing this letter read out. However, Paul really cared for them. But he knew the things he said, hard as they were, were so necessary for their spiritual health. You see, Paul saw himself in a paternal relationship to the Church in Corinth. This was because he had helped the church grow by his 18-month ministry in AD 50.
So he really loved these people, not with a sentimental love but a godly love that wanted the best for them. The Christians in Corinth were like his children. He was, therefore, spiritually like a father. And a normal father loves his son or daughter and wants the best for them. He doesn't, therefore, allow them (as children) to do just anything they want, if it is harmful. Rather he has to be firm, sometimes. And a child doesn't like that. But later in life he or she realises they needed that discipline. So, finally in this chapter, Paul writes using this metaphor of a father with his children in verses 14-20:
"I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides ['guide' is the technical word for the slave who helped with a child's education] in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power."
So Paul now reminds the Corinthians of Timothy's visit. Timothy had then tried to underline exactly what Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians. But for his very last words on this subject of the factions, Paul consciously or unconsciously reflects the teaching of Jesus himself. For Jesus had said that Christian leaders are to be servants, and not 'lording' over people and (Mark 10.44)...
"whoever would be first among you must be slave of all."
That is so significant – having to be "slave of all" not 'slave of some'. Paul clearly realised that being a slave of all meant being firm with some in the interests of all. However, were those "arrogant" people (or their ringleaders) able to be firm with some (including themselves) when needed? Or were they all talk? In the next chapter Paul explains how a case of incest needs to be disciplined. But will discipline be exercised? Here's Paul in verse 21:
"What do you wish? Shall I come to you [that is, next time] with a rod [and take firm action over you and your factions and incest and other problems I've been asked to sort out], or with love in a spirit of gentleness [understand, because you've seen the issues and come to your senses and can sort these problems out yourselves]?"
Paul then simply leaves the choice to the Corinthians. For he now starts a new subject, as you will hear next Sunday, God Willing. I, therefore, must conclude. I do so with the question, 'what are the lessons for us from this very 'in house' part of the New Testament?' May I suggest three?
One, if you are someone still asking questions about the Christian faith, don't confuse Jesus Christ with his Church. For the Church witnesses to Jesus Christ not to itself which is made up of the 'walking wounded' spiritually speaking. The Church is necessary but this side of heaven always imperfect, and sometimes very much so; therefore, always in need of reform.
Two, if you are a believer, you are to be (Ephesians 4.1-3)…
"…with all humility … eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"
…at the same time as you are (Ephesians 4.14)…
"no longer to be a child, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine."
And, three, if you are a church leader, you need to be a true servant of Jesus Christ, a trustworthy steward of the mysteries of God (which we now have in the Bible) and be able to handle opposition and unjust criticism.