Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2016
Lesson 10: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 (ESV)
Whose Opinion Matters?
Some want to know how well they’re doing as husbands, wives or parents. Or they might want to know how they’re doing in their occupations or in school. People generally want to know if they’re respected and appreciated by others. But to answer those questions there has to be some kind of standard by which we can judge things like that.
Some of those questions can be answered objectively, and a good evaluation can help us improve. But often it’s the opinions or attitudes of those around us that we try to read. We might compare ourselves with the other husbands, wives, and parents we see or read about to see if we are getting better results than they are. In our jobs, some measure their success by how much money they earn, their promotions, or how nice an office or work place they have. Again there are objective and subjective issues there.
In school, students get report cards or scores on standardized tests. And in personal relationships we try to evaluate how faithful our friends are to us, or how many friends we seem to have compared to the friends others seem to have. People often brag about how many have “friended them” on FaceBook or follow their Tweets.
The problem is we can’t rely upon the subjective comparisons. We don’t know if what we see is genuine and honest, or if it’s just imagined or pretended. Maybe we’re just looking at too small a sample, or even a bad sample.
Seeing how things appear to be doesn’t help much for political campaigns. No one can know what everybody’s thinking, or what they think is best for them. So politicians often look at poll results to see what people want, rather than talk about their base principles.
When a company wants to market things to millions of consumers who haven’t seen their product yet they use focus groups and national studies to try to project a product’s success,
A couple decades ago a group of scholars at Fuller Theological Seminary tried to quantify what was the best kind of church to have. They looked for objective measurements to put into mathematical formulas. They measured how many people attended certain kinds of worship, and how focus groups and polls felt about certain doctrines, worship music, and ministries. The results still drive what’s known as the Church Growth Movement today.
The danger is that some come to value the judgments of people over those of God. They adjust what they are doing to get better numbers to put on reports and charts. The family, our schools, our businesses, and our churches become products of marketing techniques and popular opinions rather than conforming to the standards God our Creator gave us to live by.
This was the major issue Paul was dealing with in his First Letter to the Corinthians. The Apostle Paul was very concerned about the spiritual immaturity that was harming the church. Some were using their skills and oratorical powers to divide the congregation into parties. They followed current fads, and taught human ideas contrary to the word of God.
They were building a structure of followers who didn’t trust in the firm foundation Paul had laid for them in the gospel of Christ. They were using the names of Paul, Apollos, and Peter, even Jesus himself to bolster and promote their personal goals and preferred teachings.
This letter to the church was an appeal to the believers to avoid being led astray by these kinds of leaders and influences. They needed to show that their faith in Christ was legitimate and not just a superficial delusion.
Redeemed hearts should be growing into mature believers, grounded in God’s truth and hope. He reminded them that God himself dwells in them specially. They need nothing more spiritually than what God provides in the gospel, and that God would protect them as his beloved children, and would harshly judge those who show their lack of true redemption.
of those who rightly lead God’s people.
1, This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
2, Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
Rather than being regarded as impressive men with fresh ideas and deep insights, Paul wanted to be known as a humble but faithful servant. That’s quite a contrast with the way the world looks at things. The world wants celebrities, leaders who are larger than life.
Sadly, the members of the church at Corinth were being taken in by that attitude. They wanted men who could lead with stirring words and intriguing arguments. They wanted progressive ideas that seemed to fit in with their pagan culture, but at the same time they wanted to be able to call themselves Christians. That’s not unlike many churches today.
So they followed leaders who fit in with that very dangerous and wrong standard. The church in Corinth was being mislead. They did not pay much attention to the old ways of the ancient Scriptures God had given his people.
Instead, they came to believe that believers could still indulge their own pleasures. Of course that never really works. Those who put their own things first can never get enough. And what they get never really satisfies for long. God’s blessings can not be just taken.
The best thing we can do is to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. We are here to glorify God. The result is that we will enjoy him forever. These together form man’s chief end, his reason for existing.
But Paul was not just glorifying humility, as if any kind of humility would do. Humbly serving is only good when it’s serving the purpose for which we were made. Paul and those like him were servants of Christ, the promised Messiah. They were conveyors of the word of God, not of their own insights and innovations.
Paul saw himself as a manager, a steward, of the mysteries of God. Mysteries are eternal truths known only to God. They remain unknown until he by grace makes them known to God’s people. It was the Apostle’s privilege and duty to deliver these great treasures to the church. He did not try to promote passing fads and imagined wisdom for the sake of popularity.
The steward’s great duty is to be worthy of his master’s trust. That’s the meaning of the word “trustworthy” in this version, often translated as “faithful”. A good servant does the work his master expects of him and assigns to him. Good stewards are faithful and careful in expounding God’s word to the people. That’s what they should be honored for, not for their charisma, or the size of their budgets, congregations, or ministries.
The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus drew a contrast consistent with Paul’s comments here. He pointed out that the religion of the Jews directed them to declare and make known God’s truths, the mysteries embodied in his revelation. On the other hand he pointed out that the pagan religions concealed their alleged mysteries. They only told them to those initiated into their own ranks. They were secret cults.
This was the duty entrusted to those God called to the ministry of the word. 1 Peter 4:10 calls them “… good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
we answer to God for our service.
3, 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.
4, For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. …
The ministers of Christ answer to God alone for the work they do. Their duty is to make a clear, full, and accurate declaration of the whole body of God’s truth. They were charged with feeding the flock of God for the health of their souls. They do not answer to the opinions of any man: not of the congregation, not of any human judge, not even Paul’s opinion of himself.
They are judged by God alone. They are to be God pleasers, not men pleasers.
This isn’t to say that Paul refused constructive criticism or human help, nor that he despises the rightful civil or church courts. That was not the issue here.
But he could honestly say that he was not aware of anything against himself. He did not mean he could not improve, or that he never made any misjudgments. He means that he was not aware of any unfaithfulness in his ministry. He had a good conscience in the work God called him to do.
But even this confidence was nothing to boast in. He did not rest in his accomplishments. He knew that his success is a blessing of the Lord by grace. And he knew that this innocence did not acquit him before God.
4, … It is the Lord who judges me.
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.
Only the Lord can judge the soundness of the work done in his churches. The opinions of others are not reliable indicators. Human judgment is always finite. It’s limited by our inability to have all the facts, and to evaluate them without mistakes. It’s limited because of the influence of the unregenerate in our world around us. Many of them even claim to be God’s people, yet they can’t see things as they really are because they are in reality spiritually dead. It’s limited because no one can know the specific details of how the plan of God will unfold. It’s limited because no one is able to see the hearts of others. We can’t know their true motives. Those who mislead may also be misleading themselves.
But there is another problem too – God alone has the right to say what’s right and wrong. When men push the Bible aside, or twist what it says to fit their own preferences, they try to do on their own what only God has the right to do: God alone gives us that true standard for judgment, and shows us how to use that standard.
The standard we look to determines the test we use to show us how well we’re doing. I remember a new teacher in the school where I was teaching. She used the wrong answer key for grading a set of standardized tests for her students. Everyone in her class failed the test! Of course this got the principle’s attention right away. When someone checked her work they realized her mistake. When the right answer key was used, there were very different and more believable results.
When we let the standards of men determine what we should do or believe we end up adjusting our answers to fit with the wrong answer key. Wrong things can look good, and good things can look bad as long as the wrong answer key is the standard.
But the feeling of success is only an illusion. God gave us the correct standards in his word. If we have adjusted to fit in with what the world expects and measures as success, we are really failing the test, even though others might congratulate us on our accomplishments. God’s answer key is the only one that counts in the end.
God will wait until his own planned time to execute his judgments. The temporary appearance of success in these disrupters will end. Those who find comfort in numbers will discover that these masses of followers will answer for their actions.
In our limited understanding, what seems to be working well may not seem the same to God who alone knows the hearts of each person. He will expose the hidden and inner motives of everyone. Those who neglect God’s ways to get recognition, money, or power will be dealt with harshly. Meanwhile, those who blindly follow them, will suffer with a lack of spiritual peace and other blessings from God.
It’s tragic when Christians listen to these opinions and adjust what they say or do because of them. This was Paul’s warning, and the Holy Spirit preserved that warning in Scripture for our benefit today.
The only really valuable commendation is what comes from God, not what comes from other people. Those who work for the congratulations and envy of others show a tragic and deep immaturity. It’s God’s approval for doing his work for his glory and for the benefit of his people that shows that someone is mature spiritually, and not a spiritual babe looking for self glory.
The faithful who are worthy of our attention and respect will one day hear God say, “well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)
Until that time we are called to be faithful and careful here on earth serving God as our master, each of us in his own way, not for the approval of others, or to gather a following, but so that in the end, we accomplish the mission for which we were created and redeemed.
James 5:7-8 gives us this advice, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
For the sake of our children, our families, our church, and community make sure you are not taken in by impressive words or appealing opinions. Test everything by the only standard that really counts: Make sure those you learn from draw from the Scriptures, not from their own opinions.
And when you are in a position of leadership in your home, at work, in the community, or church, as husbands, mothers, older brothers or sisters, as friends, managers, teachers — whatever — do not give in to the influences of the world’s values: a love of being praised, of dominating with your own opinions, your own ways and ideas. Be a faithful servant of God to promote his ways, his glory, and to encourage his people to grow in the graces of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Corinth was a troubled church because she was led by very skilled and attractive preachers. They had a high view of themselves, and made sure everyone else esteemed them highly too. But they were destroying rather than building up the church of God.
Don’t lose sight of the mission. Stand firmly on the word of God and be faithful to the covenant he lovingly sealed on the Cross.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)