“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Cor 3:20)
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. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor 4:3-4)
So far in our study of 1 Corinthians – the Church in Sin City – we have seen that Paul’s main concern in writing the epistle was to deal with dissension and divisions in the church. After appealing for unity and stating the facts that demonstrated their divisions, Paul, over the next 3 ½ chapters, supplies three reasons for the factions in the church. The first reason, explained in 1:18-3:4 is a misunderstanding of the nature of the saving power of the Gospel. In this text, we learn that the the power to save lives, lies in the Gospel message, not the messenger; we also learn that while the message of the cross is foolishness to the perishing, to the Christian, it is God’s wisdom. Then in 1 Corinthians 3:5-4:5, the second reason Paul gives for the factions, is their misunderstanding of the Christian ministry.
Often in the Scripture we find themes that are taught, are later repeated, recapitulated, or summarized. Our text next week – 1 Corinthians 3:18-4:5 – is a double recapitulation, in that these verses rehearse and conclude two themes which were raised previously in the epistle. First, 1 Corinthians 3:18-23 is the climactic recapitulation of 1:18-2:16, which revisits the theme of how wisdom and foolishness contribute to factions and boasting in the celebrity of certain religious leaders. Second, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 concerns how to regard God’s ministers and revisits the argument of 3:5-17 that they are God’s fellow-workers, working together in His field, to build His temple.
The text can be divided into two headings based on the lead verses of both sections. Chapter 3 verse 18 begins with the words, “Let no one deceive himself.” As such, it teaches us how to regard ourselves when it comes to what we are relying upon for wisdom. If you are seeking wisdom in any other way than the message of the cross, you will find those things to be futile (3:20) and end up dividing you from other brethren. Instead of the message we tend to rely on the person who delivers a message. We assume certain things when we hear certain names – and often assess their message without even hearing it – “Oh _______ taught that, it must be true;” or “Oh _______ taught that, it must not be true.” Hence it is possible, on the one hand, to cheat oneself out of the full range of ministerial resources and support which God has provided, or on the other hand, accept falsehood merely because we respect its source. The reality is that personalities divide God’s church, even to this day. All one need do is say a name of a famous minister – and people take sides. Case in point … “Billy Graham,” where do you stand? Where you stand will determine how you view anything and everything Billy Graham has ever said. In order to demolish this kind of party spirit in the Corinthian church, Paul states that all things are theirs – all ministers belong to the church, and that they, all together, belong to Christ – just as Christ belongs to God (3:21-23). The model for the church’s unity is found in the Trinity! This is a great encouragement to us as we seek unity in our church.
Chapter 4, verse 1 begins with, “This is how one should regard us,” and thus provides instruction as to how we are to regard others – particularly leaders – in the church. Pastors and leaders in the church are to be regarded as servants of Christ and stewards of the mystery of God. Pastors and teachers are not to propagate their own fancy, but are merely stewards of God’s property – this foolish message of a crucified Messiah. They are not called to be original, but faithful to preach God’s Gospel. So again it is not the messenger, but the message that we are to judge. In vss. 3-5 of chapter 4, Paul is not defending himself as much as he is setting himself as an example to imitate (see 4:16). This is not an attack on the human accountability of a minister, but is a statement that says the minister cannot please God if he lives to please men. It does not matter what other men say about a Christian leader – human verdicts hold no sway with God. Even his own conscience is not his ultimate judge, but God is the minister’s judge, as to whether he pleases Him by preaching His message faithfully and accurately. This is incredibly liberating to the minister, as it releases him from the pressure of man – the minister’s aim is to please God, and as long as he preaches His message, he will be approved in the day of judgment, even if one’s own conscience condemns him. It is not the human response to the message, but the accuracy of the message, that is tested. Read Ezekiel 3:17-21 and compare Ezekiel’s stewardship with that of Paul. In light of these verses in Ezekiel, why is it that you think Paul believed himself to be free of conscience? Read Acts 20:18-27. What does this tell us about Paul’s approach to ministry? How is this related to our text in 1 Corinthians?
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