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Bible Commentaries

Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 4

Verse 1

THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY

‘Stewards of the mysteries of God.’

1 Corinthians 4:1

In the early part of this chapter we have a description of the Christian ministry and its responsibility, and an assertion that its responsibility is not to man, but to God.

I. God’s stewards, not man’s.—The ‘mysteries’ we clergy are stewards of are God’s mysteries, not man’s. They are entrusted to us by God, not by man. Therefore it is God, not man, that we are responsible to. ‘He that judgeth me,’ says St. Paul, ‘is the Lord.’ St. Paul even says that though he knows nothing against himself, yet even that does not prove him to be faithful. When Christ in the wilderness caused the Apostles to feed the five thousand He Himself provided the food by miracle. The store which the Apostles had was altogether insufficient. So it is with the Church and with her clergy. They are appointed by the Holy Ghost to feed the Church of God. But they have nothing of their own which will suffice. Therefore God Himself provides them with what is necessary. They are stewards of God’s mysteries, i.e. God’s mysteries are the food which He supplies to His ministers that they may have wherewithal to feed His flock.

II. But how is this office of stewards to be exercised by the clergy?—How are the clergy to ‘feed the Church of God’? What are these mysteries which they are to dispense in their character of stewards?

( a) We clergy are responsible to God for teaching you the truths of the Gospel. Whether men will hear or whether they will forbear; whether the truths are pleasant or whether they are unpopular, it must be all one to us—we are bound to preach them all the same. If we do not, God will judge us.

( b) Then come the various ordinances of public worship. In coming to church you come into God’s house, not into man’s. You come into God’s house that your souls may be with Him, and Him only.

( c) Then comes the chiefest ‘mystery’ of all—the Divinest ‘food’ of all, by which the Church of God is fed and the spiritual life of souls maintained—the Body and Blood of Christ—which is our spiritual food and sustenance in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.

III. How ought Christian people to regard the Christian ministry? It seems to me they ought to be very thankful to God and Christ Who have thus provided that men are not left to themselves in things of so much consequence to them. How could men be sure that their clergy were teaching them God’s truths and delivering to them God’s mysteries if, after all, their clergy were only their ministers, and not God’s? Where a preacher is responsible to his flock he must do what pleases his flock.

Illustration

‘The steward is a man into whose hands property is placed. It is his duty to take care of it just as though it were his own, to see that the lands are honestly farmed, and the buildings fairly treated by the tenants, to be the medium between those tenants and the landlord, to receive the rents of the estate and to pay over to the landlord every penny that remains after all legal liabilities have been discharged. If he fails in any of these duties, he proves himself an incompetent or a faithless steward. When he fulfils them diligently, earnestly, thoroughly, and in the spirit of justice, he secures the confidence and esteem of his employer and of the tenants with whom he has to deal. But though he occupies, as a rule, a higher position than the tenant, he equally occupies a position inferior to that of the man he serves. A steward, however cultivated he may be, whatever may be his social position, is, as far as his official duties are concerned, only a servant after all.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

CLERGY AND PEOPLE

Teaching is an essential part, but is after all only a part of the work of the clergy. What would be thought of the servant or the steward who, when left in charge of the mansion, never looked to locks, or bolts, or bars, allowed it to be broken into and its valuables stolen without lifting a hand in its defence? Well, we need not say what the world would think, because we all know.

I. The clergy as stewards are placed in charge of the property which the piety of individuals has given to God’s Church through the centuries.—Against the House of God enemies have come up, and because the stewards have acted as true stewards should act, raised the ‘hue and cry’ and assembled their fellow-servants in defence of God’s heritage, they have been reproved. Could the clergy, as honest men, have done otherwise? Of course, no human power can destroy God’s Church. If every penny of her property was stolen from her and every parish church in the kingdom sold for building material, and priests were hung here and there from the steeples—as they were in the days of Edward VI—those who remained would gather their flocks in the barn or by the hedge-side and the Faith would prevail. But for all that we should be faithless stewards if we did not manfully defend that which is rightly God’s, Church Defence is one department of the work which His stewards have to fulfil.

II. But what of the ‘mysteries of God’ which these stewards have to defend and dispense?—How awfully solemn is the mission entrusted to these same unworthy, feeble servants.

( a) The steward of the mysteries of God stands at the font and takes the unconscious child into his arms, and baptizes it in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and at once the life which was far off is brought nigh, and in the act the Lord Jesus Christ has taken it and placed it within the city gates: it has become a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. What that child’s future may be no human being can foretell. But in this life it can never forfeit all its privileges, can from the depths of sin call God its Father, and the Lord Christ its Brother; if it will, may turn, and repent and live. How great, how solemn, how comforting a mystery is this! and what honour and responsibility does God confer upon the man chosen to be its steward!

( b) And shall we not say that the second mystery is still more solemn, more comforting, more awe-inspiring? I need not here repeat our Lord’s teaching, or the true story of the institution of that Blessed Sacrament. You know it well. To the faithful He gives Himself, and we draw near, meekly kneeling, and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for us, and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for us, and we know and believe that both are given to us for the preservation of our bodies and souls unto everlasting life.

III. How shall you receive these stewards? What can you do to help them?

( a) They are human and will often make mistakes. You must bear with them, remembering that they are of flesh and blood like yourselves. You must listen earnestly and with attention to what they say, remembering that—if they are true men—they are giving you not something of their own devising, but that which God has given to them for you. You must pray over their teaching, and, if you are not satisfied about it, go humbly and trustingly to God’s Word for light (according to the wholesome rule of our Church in her Sixth Article). If you are true and loyal Churchmen you will do more than that: you will honour them for their message, remembering Whose ambassadors they are.

( b) You will never fail to pray for them. You see their prominent, often elevated position; at times you delight in their eloquence, you admire their piety. Sometimes you see their failures, their mistakes, their foolishness, their vanity. Sometimes, but thank God very rarely, you see a terrible fall. But you do not see the inward struggles, the temptations, the doubts, the fears that assail them; the troubles that pour in at times like a flood, the hopes dying down, the prospects blasted, the bitter assaults of the devil. Oh, pray for them. Cry unto God for your clergy that they may have grace to live the lives they preach, to minister with clean hands and a pure heart with deepening faith and reverence, to teach the whole truth pure and undefiled, to persevere through all discouragement to the last. If the people do not pray for their clergy God’s Church will never prosper. A praying people will mean a living, growing, ingathering Church, and a holy, self-denying, faithful ministry.

—Rev. Samuel Pascoe.

Verse 2

THE WHOLE DUTY OF A STEWARD

‘It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.’

1 Corinthians 4:2

So St. Paul, in the year of our Lord 59. Does the twentieth century agree? Not altogether. The world cares very little about faithfulness; it worships success. Nelson’s signal was, ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’ The dictum of the present day is, ‘Nothing succeeds like success.’ Only succeed, and it matters little what steps you take; no one will ask if you have been fair, and generous, and honest. You have succeeded, and success will hide any multitude of sins. But fail, and you must retire into the background altogether. Your high aim, your pure motives, your noble exertions, your magnificent perseverance, are all forgotten. You have failed, and the stern law of the survival of the fittest demands that you should be buried in oblivion. For it is required by Mammon that a man be found successful. Thus principles are sacrificed to policy, and any means are justified if only the desired success is obtained. No sense of stewardship or responsibility to a Higher Power remains.

Faithfulness to his master, then, is the whole duty of a steward.

I. Faithfulness will show itself in careful guardianship of the goods received.—The goods are put absolutely into your hands, but they belong to the Master; you are not the proprietor, but the trustee; and the greater the portion given you the greater your responsibility. Be faithful to your portion. Do not complain if it be small. Do not be puffed up if it is greater than that of some. Who, indeed, can measure the greatness of the trust? For, ‘We are put in trust with the Gospel’; ‘We are stewards of the mysteries of God.’ Be faithful to your charge. Learn for yourselves the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ. Go forward as the four lepers of Samaria and make full discovery of the victory that our God has won and of the spoils that he has gained. Go forward from tent to tent, searching into every promise of the sacred Book; and then hold not your peace, but spread the good tidings far and wide. Unbelief is active in trying to destroy God’s truth. Superstition and priestcraft are veiling its beauty and simplicity. Be a good steward; be faithful to the Gospel entrusted to you.

II. Then remember the household around you.—‘No man liveth unto himself.’ A sense of debtorship to souls accompanies the faithful servant of God. As followers of Him Who came to seek and to save that which was lost, we cannot be unmindful of the needs of a dying world.

III. The service of God is so much nobler than the seeking success.—Most men look upon the world as indebted to them. They are discontented and vexed because the world has not done enough for them; they have not been as highly valued or as fully rewarded as, in their own opinion, they deserve. But the servant of God looks to God for his reward, and is a debtor to the whole world.

—Rev. F. S. Webster.

Illustration

‘ “Will the church be in debt?” asked a bystander of a clergyman who was looking on at a nearly finished church of great size and beautiful architecture. “Yes, most heavily,” was the answer. “Is it not a pity, then, to build until they have money to pay for it?” “Oh!” said the clergyman, “I was not thinking of the bricks and mortar—they are paid for all right—I was thinking of the debt that we shall owe to the whole community around—the heavy responsibility of showing to them in our daily lives the love and power of God. We shall be terribly in debt that way.’

Verse 5

THE LORD’S COMING

‘Until the Lord come.’

1 Corinthians 4:5

What—we may well ask—are likely to be the practical effects, what are the actual gains which a continual recollection of our Lord’s coming is calculated to produce in the conduct of our lives?

Out of many such beneficial effects I can only attempt to indicate two.

I. We may be certain that the thought of the Coming is meant to act as an incentive.—And I think it is not hard to see how it may become an incentive of a very intelligible and most practical kind. We all of us, I imagine, know the value of setting our minds upon an intermediate goal—upon a something, that is, which has to be reached on the way to the end which we are hoping we may eventually attain. It is not the end, but it is an end. It is one of the many evidences of the Divine care that this method of the intermediate goal has been adopted in the course of man’s spiritual progress. Landmarks have been placed, points to be aimed at, from which, when they have been reached, a fresh start might be made. One of the ablest of Continental theologians has said that the world’s history has been divided into stages answering to the announcements—He is coming, He has come, He is coming again! During long centuries men were required to look no farther than the first coming of Christ; the best hopes of the truest souls were fixed upon that. If only from afar they might see that day, it was enough; they rejoiced and were glad. At last He came, and this goal had been attained. For a while there was a pause, that faithful seekers who had waited and toiled might be allowed to realise the fulfilment of their desire. And then the goal was moved, and set farther on. The Second Coming is for us now what the First had been. It is not the end. It will but introduce a fresh stage—a more marvellous stage of which we can form only the most indistinct ideas. ‘Then cometh the end.’ Happily we need not greatly concern ourselves with all that is to happen in that further future. It is enough that we live and work for the nearer goal. When we reach it we shall find ourselves on a high-standing ground. Then the view will open, and we shall see much more that is beyond. That will be the great examination, when we and our work are to be judged. And then our new tasks will be given as we are fitted for them. ‘Yet a little while, and He that will come shall come.’ ‘Surely, I am coming fast!’ Another turn of the road may take us to the top; the surprise visit of the Great Examiner may be nearer than we think. When we feel tired and care-laden, when the way is steep and the lesson harder than usual, what a difference it might make to remind ourselves that it will not go on so for ever. After all, it is only ‘until the Lord come.’ How much simpler and stronger life would be, how much freer from the sense of bondage to circumstances, how much holier and brighter, if we took that for our watchword for every year and all the year!

II. The thought of our Lord’s coming will not only rouse and strengthen us to do things; it will also keep us from doing things, unnecessary things, and from one thing more especially. Possibly few of us would guess what that one thing is. Let us listen to the Apostle as he describes it. Having spoken of the duty of faithfulness in the discharge of appointed duty, St. Paul goes on to say: ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you … and then shall every man have praise of God.’ You see what he means. The thought of the Lord’s coming is to serve not only as an incentive to action, it is to be also a restraint upon criticism. That is certainly a matter about which we have most of us great need to think seriously. It is extraordinary how much time and energy even good people spend in criticising one another, in speculating as to their respective merits and attainments, in trying to determine how this one and that one stands in God’s sight. The tendency is evidently a strong one in our human nature. And regenerate human nature is not free from it. These Christians at Corinth, to whom St. Paul was writing, had been employing a great deal of time and thought in discriminating and adjudicating between the supposed claims and merits of those who had been given them as their teachers. The result was not merely time wasted, but temper lost and unity shattered, the Church enfeebled and its influence almost destroyed. If St. Paul could read the correspondence columns of our newspapers, and could listen to the conversation that passes when religious people meet to-day, would he think that we needed his warning and his remedy less than did those whom he was addressing in his Epistle? And what was His remedy? Simply this—leave it! It is really no business of yours. You had better have done with everything of the kind. We believe that One is coming to be our Judge. Leave it till then, ‘until the Lord come.’

—Rev. Dr. A. W. Robinson.

Illustration

‘We know how it is with schoolboys or undergraduates. Speak to them of ultimate success to be achieved in life and they will listen respectfully, but your words are too vague, and they have little effect. But say, “Work as hard as you can for this examination or that prize,” and the case is changed at once. That is a thing upon which it is possible to fix the mind and concentrate effort. So, again, we know how the traveller on the road, or up the mountain, cheers himself along by dividing his labour. He knows that he has a good deal of ground to cover, but he says to himself: “At all events I can get to such and such a point; it will be time enough, when I get there, to think about what is beyond.” So he sets himself to reach that midway point, and bends all his strength to arrive at it. He might have despaired if it had not been that he had that mark within measurable distance to aim at.’

Verse 5

THE LORD’S COMING

‘Until the Lord come.’

1 Corinthians 4:5

What—we may well ask—are likely to be the practical effects, what are the actual gains which a continual recollection of our Lord’s coming is calculated to produce in the conduct of our lives?

Out of many such beneficial effects I can only attempt to indicate two.

I. We may be certain that the thought of the Coming is meant to act as an incentive.—And I think it is not hard to see how it may become an incentive of a very intelligible and most practical kind. We all of us, I imagine, know the value of setting our minds upon an intermediate goal—upon a something, that is, which has to be reached on the way to the end which we are hoping we may eventually attain. It is not the end, but it is an end. It is one of the many evidences of the Divine care that this method of the intermediate goal has been adopted in the course of man’s spiritual progress. Landmarks have been placed, points to be aimed at, from which, when they have been reached, a fresh start might be made. One of the ablest of Continental theologians has said that the world’s history has been divided into stages answering to the announcements—He is coming, He has come, He is coming again! During long centuries men were required to look no farther than the first coming of Christ; the best hopes of the truest souls were fixed upon that. If only from afar they might see that day, it was enough; they rejoiced and were glad. At last He came, and this goal had been attained. For a while there was a pause, that faithful seekers who had waited and toiled might be allowed to realise the fulfilment of their desire. And then the goal was moved, and set farther on. The Second Coming is for us now what the First had been. It is not the end. It will but introduce a fresh stage—a more marvellous stage of which we can form only the most indistinct ideas. ‘Then cometh the end.’ Happily we need not greatly concern ourselves with all that is to happen in that further future. It is enough that we live and work for the nearer goal. When we reach it we shall find ourselves on a high-standing ground. Then the view will open, and we shall see much more that is beyond. That will be the great examination, when we and our work are to be judged. And then our new tasks will be given as we are fitted for them. ‘Yet a little while, and He that will come shall come.’ ‘Surely, I am coming fast!’ Another turn of the road may take us to the top; the surprise visit of the Great Examiner may be nearer than we think. When we feel tired and care-laden, when the way is steep and the lesson harder than usual, what a difference it might make to remind ourselves that it will not go on so for ever. After all, it is only ‘until the Lord come.’ How much simpler and stronger life would be, how much freer from the sense of bondage to circumstances, how much holier and brighter, if we took that for our watchword for every year and all the year!

II. The thought of our Lord’s coming will not only rouse and strengthen us to do things; it will also keep us from doing things, unnecessary things, and from one thing more especially. Possibly few of us would guess what that one thing is. Let us listen to the Apostle as he describes it. Having spoken of the duty of faithfulness in the discharge of appointed duty, St. Paul goes on to say: ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you … and then shall every man have praise of God.’ You see what he means. The thought of the Lord’s coming is to serve not only as an incentive to action, it is to be also a restraint upon criticism. That is certainly a matter about which we have most of us great need to think seriously. It is extraordinary how much time and energy even good people spend in criticising one another, in speculating as to their respective merits and attainments, in trying to determine how this one and that one stands in God’s sight. The tendency is evidently a strong one in our human nature. And regenerate human nature is not free from it. These Christians at Corinth, to whom St. Paul was writing, had been employing a great deal of time and thought in discriminating and adjudicating between the supposed claims and merits of those who had been given them as their teachers. The result was not merely time wasted, but temper lost and unity shattered, the Church enfeebled and its influence almost destroyed. If St. Paul could read the correspondence columns of our newspapers, and could listen to the conversation that passes when religious people meet to-day, would he think that we needed his warning and his remedy less than did those whom he was addressing in his Epistle? And what was His remedy? Simply this—leave it! It is really no business of yours. You had better have done with everything of the kind. We believe that One is coming to be our Judge. Leave it till then, ‘until the Lord come.’

—Rev. Dr. A. W. Robinson.

Illustration

‘We know how it is with schoolboys or undergraduates. Speak to them of ultimate success to be achieved in life and they will listen respectfully, but your words are too vague, and they have little effect. But say, “Work as hard as you can for this examination or that prize,” and the case is changed at once. That is a thing upon which it is possible to fix the mind and concentrate effort. So, again, we know how the traveller on the road, or up the mountain, cheers himself along by dividing his labour. He knows that he has a good deal of ground to cover, but he says to himself: “At all events I can get to such and such a point; it will be time enough, when I get there, to think about what is beyond.” So he sets himself to reach that midway point, and bends all his strength to arrive at it. He might have despaired if it had not been that he had that mark within measurable distance to aim at.’

Verse 7

EQUALITY AND INEQUALITY

‘For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive?’

1 Corinthians 4:7

The remarkable inequalities of endowment which exist amongst men come from God, and are as much part of His handiwork as anything else in the world of being, and to quarrel with them, or to make them the occasion of rivalry with and estrangement from others, is to declare war upon the wisdom and purpose of the Great Creator.

I. Human society is made up of inequalities—inequalities of means, of influence, of education, of social position and opportunity. Of these inequalities England is, perhaps, beyond any country in Europe, the great scene and example, and attention has of late been called to them with purposes which need not be now discussed, and with a zeal which has not been always careful of accuracy. But when all deductions have been made, we must confess that these inequalities are enormous; that the contrast which is presented by the East and West Ends of the metropolis is probably not to be found in any other capital in Europe; and that, considering the small area and vast population of this country, the actual distribution of land and wealth might seem to approach the proportions of a social danger, and to threaten some form of destructive change.

II. God Himself makes one man to differ from another.—He makes men differ originally in their productive power, and hence there is inevitably a corresponding difference in the amount produced. If there be any such thing as right at all, man has a right to the produce of his labour exerted on that which is his own, and as to part of his labour exerted on that which is another’s; and this produce he has a right to transmit to his children. And as the productive power of different men has always differed enormously, we have in this fact the true account of the unequal distribution of wealth and station in human society, and therefore projects for reconstructing society on the basis of an equal distribution of property of whatever kind are in conflict with the original facts of human nature, that is to say, with the will of God. No human theory or law can affect this original inequality of productive power in men, which is the main and permanent cause of differences in wealth and social position. Such is this original inequality between man and man, that if to-morrow you could cut up the land of England into strips so short and narrow that every born Englishman should have his tiny share in it, a fortnight would not pass before the reign of inequality would have begun again; nature and fact would assert themselves against theory, and property, varying in its amount with each man’s productive power, would find its way into the hands of a minority, though, no doubt, a new minority of the people. What is this, somebody perhaps whispers to himself, what is this but the old story of the Church ever upholding privilege against right, wealth against poverty, the few against the many, that which has been against that which ought to be? What is this but an endeavour to stereotype wrong by making Almighty God responsible for it, and by interposing the Divine sanctions between it and its correction? And if we of the Church point in reply to a future in which whatever here comes short of the requirements of justice will be perfectly and for ever redressed, we are fiercely warned that this faith of ours in a future stands in the way of efforts to improve man’s present lot, and that it is not well to postpone the duties of the hour on the strength of the unexplained and the problematical. No, you misunderstand us.

III. We are as far as possible from saying that inequalities which, involve moral wrong are to be acquiesced in here because they will be corrected hereafter. Differences of station, of education, of income, do not of themselves involve moral wrong; nay, there is no such advantage in wealth and power as to compensate for the moral dangers which constantly wait on them; and there is no such inevitable drawback in a poor and humble station as to forfeit the lustre which was conferred on it at Bethlehem and Nazareth. But if property be of a kind to make crime almost the instinct of self-preservation; if the lack of education means no ruling moral principles in the conscience, no elementary knowledge of God; if human beings are huddled together into dwellings which deny to purity its simplest safeguards; then most assuredly the Church of Christ would be false to her Master if she did not, at whatever risks, urge a remedy. Wherever Christianity is really believed and acted on it tends to lessen the general inequalities of life; its charities throw bridges over the abysses which separate classes; its spirit of self-sacrifice prompts the free abandonment of wealth and station for the sake of others.

Rev. Canon Liddon.

Illustration

‘Even in a university, beneath the generally uniform surface of academical life, one cannot but be conscious of some startling differences of outward condition. The man who comes up from a wealthy home, with at least £500 a year in his pocket, must know that he sits in lecture and hall near men who, dressed like himself, and sharing with him in the thoughts and feelings of scholars and gentlemen, have to think carefully over every sixpence they spend, and, perhaps, can allow themselves a solid dinner not more than three days in the week. And if one looks behind the precincts of university life, and visits some of our great northern towns or the metropolis, one sees an equality still more vast and tragical; you will see around you hundreds, nay thousands, of young men with hearts as warm, with intellects naturally as keen, or keener, than those of the university man, yet debarred by their outward circumstances from any share in these mental, and social, and moral advantages which will, as he hopes, one day enable him to hold his own in the battle of life, and to be of service to the Church or to the country.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/1-corinthians-4.html. 1876.