Back in 2007, a guy called Joshua Bell (who's regularly rated as being in the top three violin players in the world) rocked up at a Metro station in Washington DC. He stuck on a baseball cap, picked up his $3.5 million violin and began to busk. He played for 45 minutes and out of the 1000 people who passed, how many do you think stopped to listen? You guessed it – virtually no one! Seven people stopped, including a three-year-old boy (hats off to him!) and Joshua made a total of $52. Usually he can charge thousands to play in the best concert halls around the world! Obviously, it makes you question how well people in Washington are able to evaluate and judge real music skill - or how much they're just following the crowd. You see, 7 years later, Joshua went back to busk in the same place, but it was announced in the press, and 1000s of people turned up!
As soon as something seems impressive and successful, we all want to associate with it don't we? Sponsors want to be associated with the best football teams! We can probably all name the sponsors for Liverpool and Real Madrid. But what about Sunderland? Do they even have a sponsor?! Sorry couldn't resist it… And everyone wanted to be associated with the impressive, glamorous, royal wedding. But if something doesn't look much then we so easily ignore it or don't rate it.
And the Corinthians back then were doing exactly the same thing. They were buying into worldly standards of judging success. Back in chapter 3 (which we looked at a couple of weeks ago) Paul tells the Corinthians that they are "infants in Christ" – they need to grow up spiritually! You see, they were associating themselves with different leaders – some said 'I follow Apollos', others 'I follow Cephas' or 'I follow Paul'. There was one-upmanship – trying to point to how impressive their leader was compared to others. And so there was also jealousy and squabbling. And they were associating themselves with whatever looked the most flashy, or successful and impressive.
How easily we can do that too. We align ourselves with what looks impressive and successful in life. And we even do that with church. Last weekend we had our invitation service and BBQ – and it felt like a real success didn't it? The church was full, there was a great atmosphere, guests seem to really enjoy it. And it's easy to feel like, yeah I want to be a part of this. But what if we didn't have such a nice, new, impressive building? What if we were having to meet in a run-down social club? And there's only a handful of us – with no-one very impressive by worldly standards. That's the standard experience of many Christians. Would you still want to associate with it? Would you even think it was worth coming along? And would you think of it as a success or a failure?
You see, the question our passage poses us today is this – how do you define, or evaluate, success? Well let's have a look at what Paul says in chapter 4. It would be a real help if you could have that open in front of you.
1. Leaders are Simply Servants of Christ – So Don't Boast in Your Leaders! (v.1-7)
The first thing Paul addresses is how they should think of Christian leaders. Take a look at verses 1-2:
"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."
Paul says, leaders aren't to be flashy gurus sharing their amazing wisdom with the world – they're to see themselves as humble servants. And they should want others to see them as servants too. Back then, as now, servants would be entrusted with special tasks or work. A good servant might be trusted to organize the household finances of their master. And with that special task, they were trusted, and also duty-bound, to do it. And the special task for servants of Christ, the heart of their work, is to steward the mysteries of God. If you're wondering why Paul says 'mysteries', back in chapter 2, verse 7 he tells us that the gospel is a mystery. Not because it's mysterious, but because in some ways it was kept secret and hidden, but now it's been revealed in Jesus.
So our leaders are to steward the gospel. How do we recognise true Christian leadership? It's not what's flashy and successful and impressive. It's:
- Being a faithful servant of Christ
- Stewarding the gospel – preserving that treasure and passing it on
In one sense those things are true of all Christians, but here Paul's specifically talking about leaders. So Paul's saying, what God asks of all believers, he particularly asks of leaders – they're to model these things and focus on them. Christian leaders aren't in some special class, with their own special privileges and rules just for themselves. No, their aim is to model and focus on what is required of all believers. They're just servants of God.
You might possibly have heard of Mark Ruston – he was a vicar in Cambridge for over 30 years. And at his retirement do, person after person got up to thank him for his faithful ministry and his great skills and godly example. And when he finally had a chance to speak, he said… "If a neighbour lends you a donkey to do a job for you, you may give it some straw for its pains, and I thank you for the straw you have given me" – and he pointed to the new TV that they'd given him as a present – "but above all, you don't need to thank the donkey, you thank the master who has loaned him to you." And he then led them in a hymn of praise and prayer of thanksgiving.
That's the attitude that Paul wanted the Corinthians to adopt. He wanted them to recognise that they are servants of God and to stay focused on who they serve, which is exactly why he goes on to talk about making judgements in verses 3-5. Look with me at verses 2-3. Paul says:
"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."
Paul's saying, 'my aim is to be faithful. But not to you guys! I don't care what you think or how you judge me – my aim is to be faithful to God. It's him that I serve.' And at the end of verse 4 – "It is the Lord who judges me". It's God's opinion that Paul cares about. You see the Corinthians were showing that they were spiritual infants because they were judging their leaders and the church by worldly standards. Maybe some of them had outwardly successful ministries, maybe their church was known far and wide as being successful and doing a great job. But Paul says, don't focus on the superficial things. However impressive things look, it's only God who can judge. Paul says 'I can't even judge myself'. But he tells us, end of verse 5, that when the Lord comes he…
"will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart."
However impressive a person, or a church looks, only Jesus' return will reveal its true quality. Only then will we know whether what they have been doing was worthwhile in the light of eternity. So don't judge before then. Now it's important to note that when Paul says 'don't judge', he doesn't mean 'don't be discerning and careful'. Because later on in the letter that's exactly what he tells the Corinthians to do. What he's saying is, 'don't make superficial judgements about how successful a leader or church is'. And definitely don't boast about it or be proud. Instead, just strive to be faithful servants of God, and stewards of the gospel. Paul goes on to explain what living as a faithful Christian servant looks like. That's my second point, and it's pretty blunt!
2. Faithful Servants Often Look Rubbish – So Don't Expect to Look Impressive! (v.8-13)
If you think back to when you became a Christian, what did you expect the Christian life to be like? I wonder if you've found that it's harder than expected. Or if you're here and you're just looking into Christian things from the outside, maybe that heading about faithful servants is different to what you thought it would be.
What Paul taught was certainly different to what the Corinthians expected. Let me explain why, and stick with me here! If we're Christians, the Bible teaches us that we are waiting for Jesus' return and God's perfect kingdom. But in one sense we are already part of God's kingdom – we experience the blessing of knowing that we are God's children and we're able to talk to him in prayer, we also have a complete certainty that we will be part of God's kingdom in the future. But we mustn't forget that in one sense we are very much still waiting for Jesus' return when God will bring us into his kingdom where there'll be no pain and suffering and we'll see him face to face.
But get this – the Corinthians thought that they were already there! Later on in chapter 15 we read that the Corinthians didn't believe that there would be a future resurrection to look forward to. They thought they had all the blessings already. They pointed to how impressive they were and how easy their lives were as signs that they were the real deal. But Paul cuts in with biting irony. Take a look at verse 8:
"Already 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!"
Paul's saying, 'wow you guys are really at the next level! You've gone up to heaven and left us behind. Beam us up!' But then he says… 'No, here's what it really means to be a faithful servant of Christ. It means becoming like the scum of the world (v.13). The rubbish.' Paul says (v.10)…
"we are fool's for Christ's sake"
If you were to judge the apostles by the world's standards, as some in Corinth were doing, then they look like fools. They're weak, they're held in disrepute in many places (Paul's been put in prison numerous times), they've been hungry and thirsty, they're poorly dressed and they have to work hard rather than relaxing. Yet whilst it's shocking, all of that is no surprise to Paul. Why? Well it's no surprise because he's a servant of…Christ Jesus. Isaiah 53.2-3 says this about Jesus:
"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him …
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain"
That's the Jesus Paul follows. Paul's willing to look a fool like his master. If we put our trust in Jesus on the cross, then we've been saved and we have a fantastic new life to look forward to in a perfect new creation. But until then, we can't leave behind the cross. As we proclaim the cross, we'll also have to share in some of the weakness, and suffering and scorn that are part of this fallen world. At this point, some of you might be thinking, well why bother?
Nine months ago my wife Sophie gave birth in the QE hospital in Gateshead at about 5.30 in the morning. We got moved through to our own room, and in the early afternoon Sophie wanted me to pop home for a few things. So I went home, and having not slept for two nights, I set my alarm for a quick 20-minute nap before heading back to the hospital. Unfortunately, and very embarrassingly, the next thing I knew was waking up in the dark, to the noise of Sophie's parents banging on the front door, wondering why their daughter didn't know where her husband was! But whilst I was useless and the body was weak, in reality I would have done absolutely anything for Sophie at that moment… If you love someone, then you'll go anywhere, you'll do anything for them.
And when you know Jesus, and his amazing character, and all he's done for you, then you'll do anything for him. When you see that we are 'in Jesus' as Paul describes it – meaning we're united with him, and we have all his blessings, like his righteousness even though we're sinful. And a relationship with the Father and eternal life. When we really take that on board, we'll want to follow in his footsteps. And it'll lead us to glory, but not without trials first. So Faithful servants often look rubbish – so don't expect to look impressive! That's the lesson the Corinthians needed to learn. And it's probably a lesson that we need to learn. Faithfulness matters more than looking successful.
When are we tempted to go after what's impressive and successful rather than be faithful servants of Jesus? Maybe we're tempted to keep swapping churches to whichever is flavour of the month. Maybe we're embarrassed when someone criticises the church's teaching and we wish that our church would just solely focus on things that look impressive to the world, rather than being faithful.
Or sometimes we're tempted to try and look impressive and successful ourselves, rather than be faithful servants. Do we care more about the approval of others and how they judge us than we care about Jesus' 'well done' on that final day? It might be something as simple as not being willing to be honest in a Bible study group or when people ask how we are. It might be that we only want to serve in certain roles in the church because we feel they highlight our gifts, rather than being willing to serve where there's a particular need. If we've let Jesus down in this way, the way we'll begin to change is by looking at the cross, repenting (saying sorry) and remembering the victory and amazing wisdom of the cross. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 7, he says:
"In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace"
When we look again at the cross and the riches of God's grace, we'll have a renewed passion to be faithful servants and to steward the gospel. If you've never really understood the cross or got to know Jesus for yourself, why not start by joining one of our Christianity Explored courses or reading a 'Why Jesus' booklet – they're great ways to find out more. That links to my third point, which is relevant whether you're just looking into things or have been a Christian for years. It's:
3. Look to Spiritual Parents who will Lead You to Christ through the Gospel – So Don't Go It Alone! (v.14-20)
The other day I came across an article entitled 'creative punishments for parents'. It had some corkers such as changing the Wi-Fi password every day and only revealing it when all the chores are done. Or if the kids do something wrong, you allow the siblings to decide the punishment! Apparently that's very effective in bringing a trouble-free house! Good parents always discipline their children don't they, because they love them. And it was the same with Paul and the Corinthians. Take a look with me at verses 14-17.
"I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides 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."
Even though Paul has been pretty direct, with his biting irony, it's clear that he wants the best for the Corinthians. They're his beloved children and he sees himself as their spiritual Father – understandably given he started the church there! And although he's shaming them on one level, his aim in writing isn't to do that, it's to correct them and encourage them in the way of the gospel. He wants them to imitate him.
At this point, you might be thinking 'woah there' – Paul's just told them not to big up their leaders – yet now he's saying 'follow me as your spiritual Father' and asking them to imitate him. But notice that he says that he became their father 'in Jesus, through the gospel'. And he's sending Timothy to remind them of his 'ways in Christ'. You see, what Paul wants them to imitate is his passion for living life in light of the cross and the way he lives with the gospel of Christ crucified as the central thing in life. He sends Timothy to remind them of the way of life that goes with knowing Jesus. Faithful Christian leaders teach the gospel, but also show how it is lived out in everyday life.
And so just like children need loving parents who are willing to discipline them, each of us needs spiritual parents who will lead us to Christ through the gospel - people who are willing to correct us and encourage us in the right direction. Who does that for you? It might be parents, small group leaders, an older Christian in the church. And if you haven't got someone doing that for you, why not ask someone? And then be willing to listen to them.
And as we look for those spiritual parents or Christian leaders, we need to make sure we're not like the Corinthians and just looking to the people who look successful and impressive and make us feel good about ourselves. We're not to look for flashiness, but faithfulness. Faithful servants of Christ and stewards of the gospel. If we have the right attitude, we'll neither undervalue the faithful plodder, nor will we put pastors on pedestals and hero-worship them. They're both simply God's servants who lead us to Christ.
So let me finish by asking you a question. If we were looking back at this church in 10 years' time, what would look like a successful 10 years? Would it be growing numbers, more ministry happening and dynamic leaders? I'm praying God will bless us with those things… But don't you think Paul would say that it would be - our leaders faithfully serving Christ and stewarding the gospel? Our Sunday school teachers faithfully teaching the kids about Jesus each week? People right across the church faithfully discipling others - being spiritual parents worthy of imitation and pointing people to Jesus. And all of us growing as Christians and being willing to listen to those who are discipling us, even when it's hard.
Isn't that something worth striving for?