Understand that by what follows today, I’m not complaining about my life as having had it so terribly bad as a minister and pastor. Quite the opposite is the actual truth, relatively speaking. Over the four decades now of working in churches and meeting hosts of others in the same “occupation,” I’ve met few who have lived the charmed and good life of church labor that I have been blessed to enjoy.
Even so, it has not been without some incidents and criticisms, along with occasional harsh and unfair verbiage. There have been accusations at times of both doing something I should not have, or not doing something I should have. Most hurtful is the occasional “wrongful motivation accusation.” Hey, I was not headed toward ministry as a youth in high school. Probably I was moving toward a career in financial investing or something like that … if I did not make it in Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles! Along the way, through circumstances not of my planning, I ended up in a Bible college doing music education, only to be roped into a greater interest in theology – leading to seminary and an inevitable life in the local church ministry. It wasn’t my big idea! God said to get to work over there in that local church portion of the vineyard until He gave me another assignment. I’m still waiting for Him to come give me something else to do instead. Hasn’t happened yet.
Paul surely felt like this. He wasn’t on the Road to Damascus to become an apostle of Jesus Christ. Apollos likewise was headed in another direction. And remember that Peter was rather content with his fishing career. But God had other plans for all of them, and here they were (Paul and Apollos being referenced here in chapter 4), serving in the Corinthian church to a mixed bag of reviews across the spectrum. Paul is going to give the Corinthians some perspective on how they should see these varied servants and leaders …
1 Corinthians 4:1 – This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
Let me go Greek on you for a minute. It is interesting that Paul does not on this occasion use the regular word for a “servant” that is most often used (sometimes referencing the idea of a slave). Rather on this occasion, the word is one that speaks of a rower in a boat – the “under rower” to be specific – the guy who is on the very bottom.
And when Paul writes here of themselves as being “entrusted” or “given a trust,” this is a term that speaks of the steward or manager of a household. The master/owner who had many hired hands needed a foreman sort of person to oversee all that went on. This word is a combination of “oikos” (house) and “nomos” (law or rule) … so it described the ruler of the house, under the owner. The primary responsibility of the “oikonomos” was to be found faithful in his tasks.
So Paul and Apollos were guys who were merely the most basic servants on one hand, yet also those tasked with responsibilities. And Paul was not really that worried about what the Corinthians thought of him …
3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
Yes, God is the judge. So it does not really matter if you are wrongly accused in your work for Him. And likewise, it is not our role to be final judges on the ministry of others, especially since we cannot see and know everything. God is the best bookkeeper. He will remember all that has been done, and He also knows the exact nature of the underlying heart motivation.
4:6 – Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied 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.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 7 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? 8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!
Whatever we have as gifts in service have come from God. There is no place for pride in judging others, though the Corinthians were rather proud and thought they had really arrived in a high place.
Paul would wish to not have the adversities of ministry and the conflicts and difficulties that came along with it. But the role he was called to play was one that positioned him for the hardships that naturally followed …
4:9 – For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.
You would certainly not expect Paul to be so criticized and harshly treated as he was in Corinth (and many other places). Here he is – the guy who brought the life-changing gospel to the majority of these people in the first place – being written off by those people who now saw themselves as experts and authorities. Yet Paul and his teammates endured through it all, responding as Christ did to those who persecuted him.
We simply cannot expect that it is always going to go swimmingly well while serving Christ in a fallen world of sinners, not even by those redeemed who yet remain quite short of final sanctification. Opposition, even from those supposedly on the same team, is not going to be rare. But the faithful steward, the faithful “under-rower” in the boat, will continue to daily take up the cross and do the work at hand. God sorts it out in the end.