SERVANTS OF JESUS 1 Corinthians 2–4
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned each his task” (1 Cor. 3:5).Only servants” is good for leaders to remember. And followers too.
In Corinth, Paul depended on God’s Spirit (2:1–5), who makes the wisdom of God’s message plain to believers (vv. 6–16). Divisions showed the Corinthians were still spiritual infants (3:1–4): the mature would realize leaders were merely servants of God and of the church (vv. 5–17). “Boasting about men” is worldly foolishness (vv. 18–23). So honor all God’s servants—including Paul!—(4:1–13) and respond to instruction (vv. 14–21).
Understanding the Text
“I came to you in weakness and fear” 1 Cor. 2:1–5. My son Tim gave his first “devotional” the other night. He doesn’t enjoy speaking, and was a little more than nervous. I suspect most of us feel “weakness and fear” when opportunities to minister come. But did you realize this puts us right there beside the Apostle Paul? What’s most important, of course, is to remember that our impact doesn’t rest on our brilliant or persuasive presentation, but on the Spirit’s power. We may have Paul’s fears. But we also have the Spirit who made his ministry so effective. “God’s secret wisdom” 1 Cor. 2:6–10. The “wisdom of this age” relies on human senses to gather information, and the “rulers of this age” rely on the human intellect to put the gathered data together. “Rulers” was used by Paul of both religious and secular leaders, none of whom understood what they were doing when they crucified Jesus. The human senses (the eye and ear of v. 9) and intellect (the mind of v. 9) simply cannot grasp what God is doing in the world. Paul offered proof. If human beings had the barest notion of what God was about, they would never have crucified Jesus. So don’t be overwhelmed by the eloquent or the intellectual of this world. And don’t let them make you feel impotent. You know the “secret wisdom” of God. “Expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” 1 Cor. 2:13–14. Translators have struggled with the meaning of the Greek word synkrinontes, translated “expressing” in the NIV. It’s better to take it as “bringing together.” The Holy Spirit, who inspired the words of Scripture, lives in us, and enables us to accept and apply spiritual truth. He “brings together” the words and their meaning in ways that those without the Spirit simply cannot grasp. For they do not “accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (v. 14). I remember going once to a general assembly meeting of the United Nations in New York. Each seat had its earphones, with several channels. A speaker could use his own language, and if I turned to the English language channel, I could hear a running translation. This is what Paul was saying here. Scripture speaks a language that is foreign to humankind. Only a person with the Spirit, God’s translator, can understand what is really being said. When you read Scripture, be sure to ask God’s Spirit to “bring together” its meaning for your life. “The spiritual man makes judgments” 1 Cor. 2:15–16. The word for “makes judgment” is anakrino. It is used 10 times in 1 Corinthians, and means to examine, scrutinize, to investigate. The Scripture gives us an objective standard by which to evaluate “all things.” But even more, the Holy Spirit confirms, and communicates to us the very “mind of Christ.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Paul was concerned here with doctrinal systems or theological speculation. This verse does not guarantee that spiritual people will dot every theological “i” and cross every doctrinal “t” the same way. What Paul meant is that as you live your life all you need is Scripture and the Spirit to make wise and godly choices. In the Spirit you have access to the very “mind of Christ,” and can know God’s will! Don’t waver back and forth with every breeze of well-intended advice. Listen. But rely on the Spirit to show you what the Lord wants you to do. “Mere infants in Christ” 1 Cor. 3:1–9. Even a child knows what infants are like. They’re those tiny people who cry and scream, who kick their arms and legs without going anywhere, and who mess their diapers. No, it’s not hard to tell a baby when you see—or hear—one. It’s the same spiritually. There’s one unmistakable sign of spiritual babyhood: worldliness. Thinking, and behaving, just like the people of this world who lack the Spirit (v. 3). Here adulation of leaders, and the “jealousy and quarreling among you,” are characteristic of the way “mere men” think and act. How utterly foolish to exalt those who are “only servants,” when God is the source of all spiritual growth, no matter who ministers (v. 6). And then, to quarrel over which leader is better. Watch out for spiritual babies. As they kick and yell, they all too often bruise folks who come too near. And some spiritual babies never grow up. “His work will be shown for what it is” 1 Cor. 3:10–15. True servants of God aren’t motivated by adulation or a large following. They honestly want to build Christ’s church. And they build on the one true foundation, Jesus Christ. They keep the focus of their followers on Jesus, not on themselves. Not even on their vision of a Christian Disneyland, or of the largest church building in the U.S., or of the biggest radio or TV following. Paul knew that his accomplishments would be evaluated one day on just this basis. Was he working to promote Jesus or himself? When Judgment Day comes, the “quality of each man’s work” will be revealed (v. 13). Knowing this, what do we care how other people evaluate our service for Jesus? What do we care even for “success,” or the praise of others? The only true success is in serving Jesus and His people well. The only reward we seek is Christ’s, when our service for Him is judged at the last day (v. 13). “You yourselves are God’s temple” 1 Cor. 3:16–17. The Corinthians thought of leaders as the really important folks in the church, and argued, with a tad too much enthusiasm, over which leader was best. That was foolish because, as Paul had said, leaders are only servants of Christ. God is the source of all spiritual growth and accomplishment, whichever leader He may work through. So focus on God, not your leader. There’s another reason the Corinthians were foolish. Paul said, “You yourselves are God’s temple and . . . God’s Spirit dwells in you” (v. 16). Who is really important? The temple of God? Or the servant who mops, polishes, and works to beautify it? Next time you’re tempted to glorify some human leader, picture him with a rag and polish. And picture yourself as a beautiful golden panel that leader has been assigned to polish. Honor him or her for the work. But remember that his job is to bring out the beauty in you, to the glory of God. “So then, no more boasting about men!” 1 Cor. 3:18–23 What’s left to boast about if we can’t tell others how interesting our preacher is? Or how beautifully our choir sings. How aesthetically the building is designed. How worshipful the atmosphere when the organ begins to play. How active our young people’s group. How dedicated to service the women’s club. Paul had a suggestion. Remember that “all things are yours” in Jesus Christ. Because you are His, and He is yours, glory in this world, life, death, the present, the future—are all within your grasp. So if you feel like boasting, boast about Jesus. Boast about your pastor, someone might come to hear him, and be impressed. Boast about your church building, someone might come to see, and compliment you. Boast about Jesus, and someone might realize his need, and be saved. “I do not even judge myself” 1 Cor. 4:1–5. Paul honestly didn’t care if the Corinthians “cross-examined” him. The image is of a preliminary hearing, held before a legal case goes to court. What human beings say is irrelevant. God was the sole Judge of Paul’s motives and ministry. To drive his point home, Paul said he did not even “cross-examine” himself. He didn’t agonize over his motives, or pry into every dark recess of his mind to find out if his service was totally pure. Paul wasn’t competent even to judge his own motives. How could he be critical of others? Paul had drawn two conclusions from the fact that Jesus will one day judge His own servants. Each promotes our mental and spiritual health. We don’t judge others, and thus are freed from a critical spirit. We don’t judge ourselves, and thus are freed from constant, agonizing self-doubt. Accept Paul’s conclusions, and get rid of both these weights. They simply drag you down. Then get on with serving Jesus and others with enthusiasm and joy. “What do you have that you did not receive?” 1 Cor. 4:6–7 Don’t you love the arrogance of the “self-made man”? “I did it all myself,” he says. “I worked three jobs for two years. Then I saw an opportunity, took the risk, and now I’m a multimillionaire.” Of course, God gave him the health he needed to work three jobs. And the sharp mind, able to see the opportunity. And God saw that he was born in a country where a person could take risks, and succeed. But, other than the fact that every ability the self-made man used was a gift from God, he did it “all himself.” Paul wasn’t trying here to steal credit from those who use their God-given abilities. He was just reminding arrogant Christians that it’s God who “makes you different from anyone else.” Anything we have we received as His gift. In that case, “Why do you boast as though you did not” receive it? Pride is one of the most unspiritual attitudes of all. It reveals a total failure to credit God as the source of all our accomplishments. “Already you have become rich!” 1 Cor. 4:8–21 Quarreling over leaders in Corinth was an expression of pride. The parties didn’t really care whether Apollos or Cephas or Paul were superior leaders. They wanted to feel superior, so they claimed to follow the more polished and powerful preacher! Paul contrasted his own way of life with theirs in verses 8–13. The Corinthian Christians (in their own eyes) were rich, self-satisfied, wise, strong, honored. Paul was viewed by the whole world as a poor fool, poverty-stricken, weak, dishonored. Paul didn’t drive his point home. But he might have. Even the unspiritual Corinthians had to realize that in service to Christ, Paul towered above them all. They even owed their faith to the apostle, who “became your father through the Gospel.” As a first-century father had the right to set the pattern for his sons’ way of life, Paul urged his spiritual children to discard their pride, grow out of spiritual infancy, and “imitate me” (v. 16). We all imitate others. Let’s be wise in the choice of those we choose as our examples.
Popgun for Christmas?(1 Cor. 4)
I wanted a BB gun so badly. I was only six or seven. When Grandpa Zeluff grinned, and showed me the gun-shaped package under the Christmas tree, I was so excited I could hardly wait. Everyone seemed to smile at me as the presents were passed out, one by one, till only that gun-shaped present remained. Then I had it in my hands! I tore off the paper—and almost burst into tears. It was a popgun. A toy for a toddler. It didn’t shoot BBs. It fired a cork, all of two to three feet. I choked out a “thank-you” to Grandpa Zeluff, and went outside. And then I did cry. I suspect that many Christians have looked under the Christmas tree and seen a Christ-shaped package. They’ve opened it with great excitement, but somehow the power they expected to find just hasn’t been there. In their life, Jesus has seemed about as effective as that popgun of mine, able only to poof out a cork or two. Why? Why should our faith fizzle, and become a popgun experience? In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul gave a number of reasons. First, we get sidetracked (vv. 1–7). We either criticize or rely on ourselves and our leaders, forgetting that the source of all success and the focus of our faith is God. Try relying on mere men for a while—on any mere man—and your faith will never generate more than popgun power. Second, we get comfortable (vv. 8–17). We assume that Christianity is a matter of soft pews, dressing up on Sundays, and maintaining the respect of outsiders. We forget that the Apostles, who displayed dynamic spiritual power, saw Christianity as a calling to selfless service. Paul suffered to serve others. Concentrate on comfort rather than service, and you have all the popgun power of a popgun religion. Finally, we get arrogant. We know the right words, and we treat Christianity as if it were just a matter of words rather than a matter of living as citizens of a heavenly kingdom. When faith is a matter of talk rather than a daily walk with Jesus, the power simply is not there. I wept when I got my popgun that Christmas. What a disappointment. But how much more terrible to become a Christian expecting to experience God’s power, and then to settle for a popgun religion. You don’t need to. Keep your focus on Jesus. Concentrate on service. And walk daily with the Lord.
Find out for yourself that the kingdom of God is a matter of power.
“Shortly before Christmas, John Sung [later the great evangelist of China] accompanied some fellow students to a special evangelistic campaign at the First Baptist Church. He expected to hear Dr. Haldeman, an eloquent and learned preacher, but instead, the speaker was a 15-year-old girl! She spoke simply and yet powerfully. The proud, skeptical heart of the Ph.D. scientist was moved to the depths. He determined to discover for himself the secret of such spiritual power. He began reading Christian biographies ‘to investigate the secret of the effective ministry of great Christians of the past’ and ‘soon discovered that in each case it was the power of the Holy Spirit that made the difference.’ Turning down opportunities to teach science in America and China, he decided rather to give his life to preaching the Gospel.”—John T. Seamands