RPM, Volume 12, Number 40, October 3 to October 9, 2010

1 Corinthians 4:6-13

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are returning this morning to our series in 1 Corinthians, picking up at chapter 4 and verse 6 and working through to verse 13 so, if you have a Bible, let me invite you to turn to that passage.

Now, as not all of you were with us at the beginning of this series, let me just take a moment on the front end to bring you up to speed with the story - so far. In this letter, Paul has been doing two main things. Firstly, he has been responding to some problems that are troubling the Corinthian church (chapters 1-6) and, secondly, he is responding to some questions that they have asked him (chapters 7-16). In responding to the problems in the church he has first tackled the problem of division, i.e., the way that they were forming cliques and factions which were, for the most part, gathered around various leaders, or at least the names of various leaders.

In dealing with this subject we have seen that one of the factors behind their forming these personality cults was the way that they were thinking about at least two things in particular - firstly the way they understood wisdom (what it is, how one gets it) and secondly, the way they thought about leaders and ministry. We've already looked at the first part (wisdom) in the sermons prior to this one, and now we have moved on and are still listening to what Paul has to say about the second part on leaders and ministry.

As we have already seen, part of the problem in Corinth was not only the fact that they had this very unhelpful and unbiblical approach to a number of different leaders - which, of course, WAS a problem - but alongside that it would seem that there were a significant number of people in Corinth who were now either opposed to Paul, who had founded their church, or, at the very least, were increasingly unimpressed with him and his former ministry among them.

So, as part of his attempting to correct their faulty thinking about both their current leaders and about himself as their former leader, Paul, at the beginning of chapter 4, reiterates and expands upon what he has already said to them about seeing their leaders as servants and stewards. In addition, Paul shows them how and why their negative evaluations of him were both baseless and completely inappropriate. Which leads to the verses before us this morning.

In these verses, Paul is holding himself and Apollos up as examples of faithfulness, as ones who have been the good servants and stewards which he spoke about in 4:1 and who have been careful to take what has been given to them and have not ventured beyond that. Paul does this precisely because he knows that many of their local leaders have NOT been faithful with the truth that had been entrusted to them and, as a result, the Corinthians are now suffering the consequences of that lack of restraint, in various ways. That's what we'll be looking at this morning, but before we go on to listen to the text, let's pray together...

As we have already seen, Paul starts off chapter 4 by instructing the Corinthians on how they should view and regard those whom God has set apart as leaders amongst them. Two key words that Paul uses, from verse 1, are servant and steward. Now, if you remember from the last study on Corinthians, we saw that the word for "servant" here is almost synonymous with the word "steward" and so serves really to underline the fact that stewardship is really the main idea here.

Further, you may remember me saying that it is crucial for us to understand just what this concept of stewardship is all about because if we fail to understand the leader's role - from God's perspective - then we will replace God's perspective with a worldly one. And if we take a worldly view of leadership in the church, then we will begin to apply worldly criteria in evaluating which will drastically affect how we think about it, what our expectations are, etc. Two such worldly examples that I used previously were that of the leader as CEO or the leader as CRUISE DIRECTOR. Both of these models are false ones and yet are commonly found in God's church today.

So, over against those sorts of views is Paul's view, summarized with the little word "steward" or "stewardship". The obvious question, then, is: "What is stewardship all about?" To help you think about that, let me use a very helpful example provided by Dick Lucas (paraphrasing here):

Suppose, for example, you hire en employee in your home whose job it is to prepare breakfast every morning. And your instructions to your servant are that every morning you want bacon and eggs for breakfast and that is all you ever want, nothing more, nothing less. Well, the next morning you arrive in the kitchen to discover a great big plate of bacon and no eggs and so you instruct the employee once more on what you want. The morning after that you wake up to discover bacon, eggs, and hash browns. Again, you take the worker aside and explain to him where he is getting it wrong. The third morning your employee completely loses his mind and serves you fish. Again, you take him aside, explain to him which end is up, and he finally gets it right. The faithful steward is the one who does what he has been asked to do, who neither goes beyond what his master has said nor does he fall short of what he has said or vary it in any way. That's what faithful stewardship is all about.
Paul is saying here in Corinthians that the idea of a steward is to be one of the controlling images for how we are to think about and view leadership and ministry in the church. It's all about being faithful with what has been entrusted to you and to the tasks set before you and, most importantly of all, faithful to the one who has called you and set you apart - the Lord Himself Now, having all of that in mind, we can turn now to the text before us, starting at verse 6 of chapter 4, and, hopefully, have a better idea of what Paul is talking about in these verses.

Paul says, "Now, brothers, I have applied THESE THINGS to myself and Apollos for your benefit..." When Paul says he has applied "these things" what he means is that everything that he has been talking about with regard to leaders and ministry and stewardship - he is applying all those things to himself and Apollos. He is holding himself and Apollos up as EXAMPLES of stewardship - as men who have guarded what has been given them and who have faithfully transmitted that to others.

....I have applied all 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'.
Paul and Apollos have been prime examples of people who have carried out their ministry under restraint. They are men who have recognized that they are not free agents, that there are borders and boundaries and constraints upon them if they are to be faithful in their role as stewards of God's truth. Not only is Paul holding himself and Apollos up as an example of this, he is urging the Corinthians to learn from this example and to do the same thing, specifically, as it relates to how they are viewing and thinking about their own leaders - especially PAUL. Because this is precisely where they were getting it wrong, isn't it? The Corinthians were applying other, non-biblical, worldly criteria - i.e., they were going beyond what was written - and the result was that they held in high esteem that which was not all that important - for example, flowery, eloquent speech which Apollos apparently did quite well but which Paul was not nearly as gifted at doing.

The Corinthians' use of this sort of criteria to evaluate Paul over against Apollos was clearly un-biblical. Remember Moses, who led God's people in the Old Testament? Here was someone who was obviously, clearly set apart as a leader among God's people. But do you remember what one of his glaring weaknesses was? His speaking ability. Listen to Exodus 4:10,

Moses said to the Lord, `O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.' The Lord said to him, `Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say....'
Now that's just one example. I'm sure there are others. But it helps you to see what Paul is getting at doesn't it? Here were people, in Corinth, who were ready to reject his legitimate leadership and authority over them, largely because he was not a flowery, eloquent speaker - even though he was a solid, faithful one. And yet, if they had only looked back to the Scriptures, they might have seen the example of someone like Moses whom God had clearly set apart and obviously used - in spite of his own perceived inability to be an impressive speaker.

So, Paul is pleading with the Corinthians not to continue in this pattern but to imitate he and Apollos in being people under restraint, people who took their cue from Scripture and are faithful to be guided by that - not going beyond it, and not falling beneath it. If they would do that, then they might not be caught up in this silly dividing and forming of personality cults.

Now, thankfully, I don't think that this is something that is an immediate issue for us at South Baton Rouge, but it is something that we will need to keep an eye on, and especially so as God raises up more and different leaders within our congregation. Lord willing, we will be setting apart some elders this year - and these men will have different strengths and gift-mixes - and the opportunity to imitate the unhelpful pattern of forming and encouraging personality cults - as the Corinthians did - that opportunity will present itself.

Additionally, if and when we get to the place where we begin to bring on other staff persons, when that happens we will have to come back to these Scriptures to make sure that we don't forget the important lessons to be found here because, in all likelihood, when we DO get to that stage of bringing on other staff we will be looking for persons who are strong where I am weak. Which creates a lot of options, let me tell you.

For example, I would love to bring on board a colleague in ministry who has real strengths in the area of leading in some aspects of our worship together. Why? Because, frankly, it's not a strength of mine. And I don't say that to get sympathy, nor am I apologizing for how I lead the parts that I DO lead in worship. It's just that God hasn't put me together that way and so while I love the Lord, and I love to worship the Lord with His people, the reality is I have had the privilege of being in service which were under the leadership of others who WERE very gifted in that way, and it has been a great blessing - to me and to my congregation.

So, while we are waiting for that day when God brings such a person or persons into our midst, I am happy to coordinate our worship because I love you guys. And I think that, on the whole, our worship here has been good, sometimes very good. But at the same time, I'm eagerly awaiting the day when it will be even better, by God's grace. And it's going to happen. But when it does, what we have to do is make sure that we respond to the differences in gifts and strengths in a godly fashion, taking Paul and Apollos as our example and not go beyond what is written.

Well, while Paul has already made his point in verse 6, he doesn't stop there. He goes on, in verse 7, to strengthen his point by getting them to simply stop and think for a moment about what they are saying and implying when they hold up one leader over against another and when they hold one leader's "gift-mix", if you will, in higher esteem than another leader's.

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's Paul saying? He's saying that whenever the Corinthians are puffed up and proud - either about themselves and their abilities - or else about the varying gifts and abilities of other leaders - whenever THOSE sorts of things are going on in a congregation it is sure evidence that those involved have forgotten some very fundamental truths about gifts and giftedNESS and how all these things have come from God.

In other words, because our varying gifts are not the product of personal cleverness or ability that has been developed independent of God they, THEREFORE, offer no grounds for boasting or bragging or pride. What they do offer is grounds for GRATITUDE being expressed toward the Giver of the gifts and perhaps mutual appreciation of our varying and complementary giftedness. All of that is quite legitimate. But boasting and pride have no place in that sort of understanding, or at least they shouldn't.

Now, while Paul's words in verse 7 do have some relevance for the point at hand - about pride over different leaders and their gifts - it will have an even greater relevance later on in the letter as Paul revisits these same ideas in chapters 12-14, in greater detail. So, we'll be coming back to these again but for now please notice the principle that for the Corinthians to continue doing what they were doing is a lot like praising the paintbrush that Rembrandt used rather than Rembrandt himself What the Corinthians are doing is just plain stupid. And that's Paul's point.

I remember going to a preaching conference in Sydney, in 1992, and the main speaker at the conference was Dick Lucas - an Anglican minister from London. And when the time came for Mr Lucas to preach, the conference host stood up and said, very plainly, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have with us tonight the Rev Dick Lucas, from St Helen's, Bishopsgate, London, and he will be bringing us the Bible readings from 2 Timothy. Let's pray for Dick before he comes...." And, as I was still fairly new to Australia at that point, I remember thinking how spare and un-flattering Mr Lucas' introduction was and how very different it was from what I typically had heard at US conferences.

Well, fast forward to the year 2002. I'm in Dallas, Texas at another preaching conference where the speaker is - again, Dick Lucas. But this time, Mr Lucas was being introduced by an American and it was quite an interesting cultural moment for me. Because as the host began he started talking about Mr Lucas' ministry and all the great things that he had been a part of, and the commentaries he had written and he just went on and on and on. And I watched as Mr Lucas became more and more uncomfortable, more and more embarrassed until at one point he actually interrupted the host and said, "Come on now, brother" - in a vain attempt to get this man - who no doubt meant well, to just introduce him and get it over with. And as I sat in that room, watching this all played out before me, I knew exactly what Mr Lucas was thinking. He was thinking, "You're praising the paintbrush, brother..."

"What do you have that you did not receive?" Indeed.
Well, Paul has already urged them to imitate the pattern set forth by he and Apollos in not going beyond what is written. He has appealed to their reason - to consider what all their boasting and favoritism implies about their understanding of gifts and giftedness and where that all comes from. And then, as if that were not enough, he furthers his point by highlighting the vast difference in perspective that exists between the Corinthian believers and the Apostles themselves.

In other words, what he is doing at this point is bringing out the stark contrast, to show them where all their faulty thinking and unhelpful leadership has finally led them.

So, with great irony - and even sarcasm - Paul movingly describes the strikingly different ways in which the Corinthians have begun to depart from the Apostles themselves in their thinking and practices....

...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!..
Here, in summary fashion, we see a glimpse of where the Corinthians' faulty thinking about wisdom and leaders had led them - it had led them to the place where they actually believed that they were living in the age of glory. To the place where they felt that from here on out it was only going to get brighter and better and that their future was going to be one of triumph and glory and moving from one blessing to the next. Their spiritual "ship" had come in.

Now the fifty-cent theological description of this sort of thinking is called over-realized eschatology - "eschatology" meaning: things having to do with the end-times. The Corinthians - under the mis-guided teaching of some of their leaders which they had begun to follow in place of Paul - under that leadership they had come to the place where they had taken that which will certainly be true ONE day and assumed and acted as if that day had already come. Thus, they "over-realized" the end of all things. Or, as one commentator puts it, their clocks were all wrong. The Corinthian clock is all wrong. The had moved it ahead, and it wasn't time for it.

Think about it this way. Suppose I am enrolled in an aviation course to become a pilot. One day, after about 2 whole lessons, I start thumbing through the textbook and look ahead to the final lesson and I begin to daydream about what it will be like to be finished, to reach the end of my goal and finally be certified as a pilot. Suddenly, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur in my mind and I imagine myself to have already finished the training course. The moment I do that, I have an "over-realized eschatology" that says that I am now a fully-trained, certified pilot. If I actually go out and begin to act on that belief - the result will surely be tragedy - for myself and perhaps others who are foolish enough to get in a plane with me.

In a similar sort of way - while we are to look forward to our being made complete in Christ and to expect the fullness of God's blessing to come one day - if we begin to think and act and expect and even demand that that fullness becomes ours right now - when it cannot - then the results will be similarly disastrous. And we will crash and burn. In contrast to the Corinthian view, Paul begins to weave into his language here a very different sort of understanding of the Christian life...

...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 so 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....
Now, you couldn't have any more divergent views of the Christian life than that, could you? The one wants to be seen and regarded as wise and strong and influential and honored. The other is characterized as the polar opposite: weak, foolish and of no great importance. The one is a theology of glory. The other - a theology of the cross.

And friends that is precisely what was at stake in Corinth, and it is precisely what is at stake. These two VERY different views of Christian life and ministry are still at loggerheads in the church today. On the one side - those who will not accept anything but the fullness of all things now. On the other side, those that understand that the fullness cannot come and will not come until the Lord returns. The theology of glory is all around us in the church today, and on the television, on the radio, in our bookstores - healing is promised, blessing is guaranteed, victory and dominions are assured. And it is all made to sound so right and so biblical. Isn't this what God wants for His church? Shouldn't we expect this? Isn't this our birthright?

What does Paul say? "Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth...." Or, as Paul says in Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead...." Paul's was not a theology of personal glory. It was a theology of the cross. Paul knew the seductive power of a theology of glory. And he also knew the danger that awaited the Corinthians if they continued down that path.

Do you know what happens when you abandon a theology of the cross and replace it with a theology of glory? When you get your clock all wrong? What happens is that you hope and pray and believe that the fullness of God's blessing is available to you now. And then, when that doesn't happen, as it inevitably must, then you must try and find some way of manipulating God into giving you the fullness that you now are convinced you deserve and have a right to. And then, as God refuses to jump when you say jump, and as the reality of your life in a fallen world with a sinful nature begins to press in upon you, in order to maintain your illusion, THEN you have to distort your vision of yourself and, along with that, you distort your understanding of Scripture to match your experience - all in order to try and explain why the fullness hasn't come or to assuage this, growing, nagging suspicion that something is seriously wrong.

And all the while, purveyors of this nonsense make an absolute fortune from the thoroughly duped masses who pour millions of dollars into conferences, tapes, books and video series which will finally make the dream come true for them. And it is terribly sad, because they are desperately seeking to grab hold of that which the Bible simply does not assure us of anytime BEFORE the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, they shun and spurn and run away from and dismiss a theology of the cross as negative, weak, unattractive and unworthy of a true child of God.

But friends, while a theology of glory promises a lot, in the end it cannot deliver. And, ironically, the thing that seems so weak and ineffectual - identifying with Christ in his sufferings - in the end that is the only theology that will get you safely through to the other side. It is the only one which will enable you to make sense of your life and purpose in this world, right now, and for all time.

And this is not just an issue of theological semantics, it is, at the end of the day, a very practical doctrine for God's people in every age. Because a theology of glory is a false and unsubstantiated hope - and so in the end is no hope at all. As Proverbs says, "hope deferred makes the heart sick" It promises to be soul fulfilling and ends up being soul-destroying.

By contrast, the theology of the cross is grounded and real and actually relates to the world as we know it. It does not sell its birthright for the "mess of pottage" that this world can offer. Rather, because it has a bigger view, it can take the world's curses and turn it into blessing, it can endure the evil of persecution, it can repay slander with kindness. And it can do all these things and more because that is the path that the Lord himself took, and that is the legacy that belongs to his children in every age.

But to these same children who endure hardship now - for his name's sake - there is not just that legacy, but there is a further and greater legacy - as Paul so beautifully expressed in his final letter to his disciple Timothy. And I leave you with this,

...I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing...

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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