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Stewards of the Divine Mysteries
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (vv. 1-5)
These words follow very naturally on what we have been looking at in the third chapter. The apostle has been seeking to put the servants of Christ in their right place before the minds of the saints in Corinth. There had been a tendency to factionalism and sectionalism, they were exalting certain leaders, and rallying round them, instead of recognizing that these leaders, evangelists, pastors, teachers, were simply God-given servants for the blessing of the whole church. These servants of Christ are God’s gift to the church for the blessing of the whole, whether Paul, the teacher, or Apollos, the eloquent preacher, or Cephas, the stirring exhorter. God has given all to His people for their blessing.
Now he turns to consider the responsibility of the servants of Christ and says, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” We are inclined to go to one extreme or the other, either to laud and praise and overestimate the ability and character of God’s servants, or else on the other hand to set them at naught and disdain the instruction and help God intended them to give. He would have us take the middle course, not to foolishly flatter His servants but to recognize that we have a great responsibility toward them as they seek to fulfill their responsibility toward us. They watch for our souls as those who must give account, and we are not to be angry or indignant if they have serious things to say to us at times concerning worldliness, carelessness, and carnality. We are rather to judge ourselves in the light of the Word of God, that they bring to us, for they are ministers of Christ. He does not use the ordinary word for “servant” which we find so frequently in his epistles, that is, “bond-servant,” but here it is a word that has the thought of an official minister. They have been specially appointed to this particular service as ministers of Christ.
Notice, Paul links up with himself not only Cephas who was an apostle, but Apollos who was not. Apollos, that eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, who first went forth preaching the baptism of John, who was not above being instructed by a godly woman and her husband, Priscilla and Aquila, and went forth to preach the gospel with greater liberty and power when he learned it more fully. He says, “Do not put us on pedestals, do not form parties around us, but, ‘Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ.’ We are sent with a commission from the Most High, sent to sound forth His Word, and we are responsible to do it faithfully. We are ‘stewards of the mysteries of God.’” A steward is one to whom certain things are committed which he is to use for the benefit of others. God has committed His truth to us. Writing to Timothy, Paul says, “That good [deposit] which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us” (2 Timothy 1:14). And he was responsible to proclaim it faithfully.
We then are stewards of the divine mysteries. We have seen that the New Testament mysteries are not abstruse truths difficult to apprehend, but sacred secrets that had not been known in previous ages. In Deuteronomy 29:29 we hear Moses speaking to the people of Israel on the plains of Moab, just before they went over the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. He says: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God.” But when our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, He uttered “things that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world,” and before He left His apostles He said: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come” (John 16:12-13). And so the present truth revealed by the Holy Spirit in our dispensation constitutes the mysteries, the sacred secrets, that the servants of God are now to make known. What are some of them?
We have the mystery of the gospel. And what is that? It is that grand, wondrous truth that the mind of man would never have ferreted out if God had not revealed it, that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is that Christ upon the cross died to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself; that having been delivered for our offences, He has been raised again for our justification; and now in resurrection life He sends the message out into all the world that he that “believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is God’s great secret. Man never would have thought of it. I know that the gospel is from God for I am somewhat familiar with almost all the different religious systems that are prevalent in the world, and apart from that which is revealed in this Book not one of them ever intimates that God Himself should provide a righteousness for sinful man. They all demand a righteousness from man, but they simply point out different ways by which men are supposed to work out for themselves a righteousness that will make them fit for God. In the gospel alone we have the mystery explained how righteousness is provided for men who never could obtain it themselves. Our Lord Jesus Christ is made unto us wisdom, even righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and we are stewards of this great mystery.
Then we notice the mystery of godliness or piety, the great mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus, God and Man here on earth in one Person. That is beyond human intelligence. We read, “No man knoweth the Son but the Father.” It is utterly impossible for men to understand the union of deity and humanity, and yet this mystery is plain to him that believeth. We simply accept the revelation that God has given and all questioning is at an end. People talk about “the problem of Christ.” Christ is not a problem, He is the key to every problem. Everything else is made plain when we know Christ in whom dwelleth “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Paul opens up the great mystery of Christ and the church, set forth in two characters under the figure of a body and its head and that of a bride and a bridegroom. The Lord Jesus Christ glorified is the Head of the body, and every believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit is a member of that body and becomes thus the fullness of Him that fills all in all. In the other beautiful picture we are told that He who made them in the beginning made them male and female, and we read, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Paul says in speaking about the marriage relationship, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).
Linked with this we have the mystery of the rapture; and that of the olive tree, Israel’s present rejection and future regeneration. These various mysteries are the revelation to us of things kept secret from the foundation of the world. How few who take the place of being ministers of Christ ever unfold these mysteries, and yet this is the responsibility put upon Christ’s servants.
“It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” The business of a steward is not to electrify people by his eloquent sermons, not to dazzle them by his wonderful ability, not to please them by flowers of rhetoric, not to so speak that he will simply be to them as a “lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument” (Ezekiel 33:32), as was said of Ezekiel, but the business of a servant of Christ is to open up the truth of God, to unfold, to expound, to make known these mysteries in order that the people of God may appreciate the heritage that He has given them in the Word. In fulfilling this ministry, the servant of Christ may be open to criticism, but that is a small thing. The apostle says, “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self.” In other words, as long as I am faithful in opening up the Word of God I am not concerned whether my sermons particularly appeal to you or not; as long as I know that I am pleasing Him that sent me I am not greatly concerned if I displease you. These Corinthians appreciated eloquence, oratory, and other special gifts, and they said of the apostle Paul, “Why, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” But he could say, “Well, that doesn’t trouble me at all. Did I give you God’s truth? That is what I am concerned about. Your appraisal does not concern me in the least.” “It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment,” or, as the margin puts it, “man’s day.” That is the entire period of time lasting from the rejection of Christ until He comes back again, while God is letting men try out one scheme after another to see what they can make of a world out of which they have cast the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Yea, I judge not mine own self.” I do not attempt to appraise my own service, I have no right to say, “Well, I think I did pretty well today; that was an excellent address.” That may be simply the pride of the natural heart. On the other hand I am not to go into a funk and throw myself down under a juniper tree, and say, “It was all a failure; I certainly did make a mess of things.” No servant of God is capable of appraising his own service. That which he might think to be excellent may be so much wasted time. That which he thinks wasted time may have just the message for the moment.
Then we read, “I know nothing by myself.” It is really, “I know nothing against myself.” I am not conscious of anything in my ministry of a harmful character. “Yet am I not hereby justified,” for I may be blundering even when I do not realize it. “But he that [appraiseth] me is the Lord.” He appraiseth everything rightly in accordance with His own holy Word.
He then warns the saints against attempting to get upon the judgment seat. It is not our place. “Therefore judge nothing before the time.” What time? The time when the Lord shall come. We have seen that when He returns He is going to carefully examine all the service of His people. He will separate the precious from the vile, He will distinguish between the gold, silver, and precious stones, and the wood, hay, and stubble. He will pronounce correct judgment upon the labors of His ministers. You and I cannot do that now, and it is better for us just to wait.
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” You see, that is what you and I cannot do; we can hear what comes from the lips or note the actions, but we do not know the hidden springs behind all this. But when the Lord Jesus examines all our labor, He will bring everything to light, all the hidden things of darkness. Yes, if there was envy and jealousy and pride and carnality, He will drag it all out into the light, and many a sermon that sounded very beautiful, that was almost perfect as a piece of oratory, will be shown to be utterly spoiled in that day by the pride that was behind it. He will bring out all these “hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” He will show where there was earnest preaching to glorify Him, even though the speech was faltering and the expressions used were not all they should have been. He looks upon the heart, not merely the outward appearance.
Then observe, he says: “Then shall every man,” and he is speaking of believers, “have praise of God.” But some people say, “Oh, dear, I can do so little and do not seem to have any gifts. I am afraid there won’t be anything the Lord can reward me for in that day.” If you are in Christ, the Holy Spirit of God is dwelling in you, and in that coming day it will be made manifest that every Christian has accomplished something for God for which he can be rewarded.
At the close of a meeting a brother said to me, “Didn’t you go a little strong there?” I said, “No, I do not think I did.” “Well,” he said, “think of the dying thief, that man was saved just as he hung by the side of Christ; what opportunity did he have to do anything for which to get a reward?” “Why, my dear brother,” I said, “think of the dying thief again. There he hung nailed to a cross, he could not move a hand nor a foot, but he recognized in the Man on the central cross the coming King of the ages and said, ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,’ and he turned to his fellow and rebuked him and bore witness to the perfection of Christ and said, ‘We suffer justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done nothing amiss’ (Luke 23:41). At the judgment seat of Christ I think I see that redeemed man coming before his Lord, and he says to himself as he comes, ‘I was saved only a few minutes before my Savior died, and I have had no opportunity to serve Him, to witness for Him, I cannot expect any reward.’ And then I think I hear my Lord say, ‘Every one present who was converted through some sermon you heard about the dying thief, come here,’ and I imagine I see them coming until there are thousands and thousands of them, and I see my blessed Lord turn to that man and say, ‘I want to give you this crown of rejoicing for all these souls that you have helped to win to a knowledge of My salvation.’” Do you not see it? “Then shall every man have praise of God.”
True Apostolic Succession
1 Corinthians 4:6-16
And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you. For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; and labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. (vv. 6-16)
Here we have the true apostolic succession. A great deal is said in certain circles about a ministry that can date back to the days of the apostles, the first followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby one clergyman after another, all down through the centuries, has received ordination first from the apostles and then their successors without a break to the present time. As though that in itself would confer any particular grace upon them! Undoubtedly Charles H. Spurgeon was right when he said, “When men count on receiving the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and because of any fancied apostolic succession, you can depend upon it, it is just a case of empty hands laid on empty heads.” Even if we could show an uninterrupted line from apostolic days in the present time there would be no merit in anything like that. But in these eleven verses we have emphasized for us true apostolic succession.
In the earlier part of the epistle the apostle warned against making overmuch of the servants of God. He told how in Corinth they were already divided into sections in the local church, some saying, “I am of Apollos,” some, “I am of Paul,” some, “I am of Cephas,” and some even making Christ’s name the head of a party, and boasting to be of Christ to the exclusion of others. “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes.” That is, it may not actually have been his name or the name of Apollos or that of Cephas that was used in this sectarian way, but he put himself and Apollos, his fellow laborer, who was thoroughly of one mind with him, to the front and used their names as illustrations in order that he might reprove this tendency to sectarianism among the people of God. “That ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written.” You will notice that the words, “of men,” are italicized in the King James Version, which, I am sure you already know, means that there is nothing in the original that answers to those particular words. They were put there because the translators thought they were needed to help make clear the sense of the Greek text. It has been translated like this: “That you might learn in us nothing above that which is written.” That is, you are not to put men in such a place of authority that you rally to them and to their instruction, and are carried away with admiration for their abilities and forget that they as well as yourselves have to be tested by that which is written. The great question is, “What is written?” and the Bible is open to you just as it is to the learned doctors and great commentators, and you need not, in this respect, that any man teach you, for the Holy Spirit will teach you concerning all things as you ponder over the Word of God. The reason why so many are constantly referring to the thoughts of others, men like themselves, is because there is so little real familiarity with the Book. “That you might learn,” says the apostle, “in us nothing above that which is written.” God has given His written Word, and outside of that the thoughts of even the best, the greatest teachers will be mere speculation.
God has not given teachers to the church in order that they may supplant the Bible and save His people the trouble of studying the Word for themselves, but that they may spur the people of God on to more intensive searching of the Scriptures. If men get occupied with teachers, they get puffed up one against another.
In verse 7 we learn that for Christians to attach themselves to certain gifts, to the neglect of others who may also have a special ministry from God, is to become very one-sided and to be only partially developed. Take for instance a Christian who says, “I am not interested in teaching, I like the preaching of the gospel. I like to go to an evangelistic meeting, but I am not interested in teaching.” You will find that person is very easily carried away by all kinds of winds of doctrine. As long as there is plenty of emotional appeal, a great deal to enthuse and excite, they are there, but when there is something that necessitates thought and meditation, they are not interested. Such Christians lose a great deal. On the other hand, you will find other Christians who speak sneeringly and slightingly of evangelistic efforts, of gospel preaching, and say, “I like to go to a meeting where some able teacher unfolds the Word of God, for that builds me up in Christ, but I am not interested when it is only the gospel.” Only the gospel? The gospel is the most precious thing that I know anything about. It is the glad, glorious message of God’s love to a needy world, a very rare jewel in these days. Somebody said to me recently, “How is it that one can wander about from church to church, and go Sunday after Sunday, and month after month, and never hear the gospel? It was such a refreshment to come in today and listen to the gospel.” Oh, yes, some people who talk about, “only the gospel,” had better try tramping about a bit to find out what is being preached. After you have sampled a lot of the rubbish that is going out in place of the gospel, perhaps you will have a higher opinion of gospel preaching. Another says, “Well, there is So-and-So, I like to hear him; he is an exhorter, and he always stirs me up, but I am not interested in dry teaching.” Dry teaching! Teaching, of course, may be very dry if the power of the Holy Spirit is not manifested. But mere exhortation, if not backed up by the Book, will not accomplish very much. Yet exhortation is a gift given by the risen Christ to the church.
“Who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” There is no reason for any servant of Christ to exalt himself over another. If one has a gift that God has given, he is to use that for the glory of God and not to attract attention to himself.
Then Paul turns to consider another phase of things. When people are not profiting by the ministry that God has given them, you can be sure that it is because of a low spiritual condition. We read in verse 8: “Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.” What does he mean? Why, these Corinthians were settling down to enjoy the benefits of the gospel without the self-denial that should go with it, and they were making themselves comfortable in the world. They received the good things that God’s servants brought to them, they congratulated themselves upon the fact that they were saved and going to heaven, and then settled down to enjoy the world, and Paul exclaimed, “You are reigning like kings now, before the time.” “Already,” he says, “ye are full, already ye are rich, already ye reign as kings.” We shall reign by-and-by, but the reigning time has not yet come. This is the suffering time. This is the time when we are to show our loyalty to Christ by our identification with Him in His rejection.
“I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death.” In other words, we are like men who are already under sentence of death and going out to die. On another occasion he said, “We have the sentence of death in ourselves” (2 Corinthians 1:9). And so he went on in his devoted service. “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle.” The word translated “spectacle” is theatron, that is where we get our English word theater. A theater is a show, something displayed upon the boards, and the apostle says, “We are made a spectacle, we are like performers on a stage, for others to look at and see in us something of the lowliness and gentleness and rejection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “We are made a spectacle unto the world,” and the word he uses for “world” is the word kosmos, the entire universe. “We are made a spectacle unto the universe, both to angels, and to men.” From heaven angels are looking down on the servants of Christ: here on earth men are looking at them. If they are proud and haughty and self-indulgent and self-seeking men, the hearts of angels are grieved and the hearts of men are filled with contempt. When they see lowly, devoted, Christlike, unworldly Christians, then angels rejoice and men recognize their reality.
I remember years ago when I was a young Salvation Army officer, our old colonel had called us in for what we called an Officers’ Council, and I shall never forget his advice to us. He said, “Comrades, remember as you go about your work, men will forgive you if you are not eloquent, they will forgive you if you lack culture, if your educational privileges have been greatly curtailed, if you sometimes murder the king’s English as you try to preach the gospel, but they will never forgive you if they find that you are not sincere.” Men look for reality, and the Lord looks for reality in His servants, and so the apostle says, “We are like actors on the stage, and two worlds are looking upon us, angels and men, and we must do our part well to the glory of God.”
Then he puts the apostles and these Corinthians in vivid contrast, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ.” Notice the double contrast. Everywhere we go men brand us as fools. Why? Because we have given up earthly privileges, we have given up the opportunity of settling down comfortably here, in order that we might devote our lives to the gospel of God. And men say, “What fools they are!”
That is the way the world looks at it. The apostle says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.” Notice the word, for, for I want you to see the contrast in the next clause: “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” we are throwing our lives away as the world looks at it; but you who are settling down making money, getting on in the world, having a comfortable time and saying, “We would not be so foolish as those others are,” “Ye are wise in Christ.” Do you notice that it does not say, “wise for Christ,” but “wise in Christ”? They are real Christians and, as real Christians, were in Christ, and they fancied they were wise because they were holding on to a place and position in this world. He cannot say, “Ye are wise for Christ.” The apostles who were accounted as fools for Christ were really wise for Him. And then he says, “We are weak, but ye are strong.” Oh, the irony of all this! You fancy you are the strong ones and we are the weak because we give our lives to propagating the gospel. “Ye are honourable, but we are despised.” Men look up to you for, “Men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself” (Psalms 49:18), but we have given up everything for Christ’s sake and of course we are despised.
In verses 11-13 he gives us an outline of what true apostolic testimony and experience really are. “Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; and labour, working with our own hands.” The apostle was not one of these men who had such regard for “the cloth” that he could not dirty his fingers to take up some temporal occupation. When there were not sufficient funds to take care of his needs, he got a job making tents. He was simply a humble servant of Christ, and was not above anything that the Lord would have him put his hand to. “And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless.” It is not, “Being reviled, we give them as good as they give us,” but, “Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” There is apostolic example. He did not look upon the service of Christ as something that introduced one into the first place in cultured society. To be a servant of Christ was to be misunderstood, rejected, it meant a path of self-denial all along the way; but now he says so tenderly, “I write not these things to shame you.” Why, then? To exercise them, to stir them up, to get them to realize how selfish their own lives were-”But as my beloved sons I warn you.” He is saying, “You are mine, I brought you to Christ, and I grieve when I see you are forfeiting future reward for present ease.” How often the servants of Christ are burdened like that and people do not understand.
You can take your choice. If you want to get a place and a position in the world and be thought well of down here, go on with the frivolity; but if you want to be thought well of up there, and want to be a Christian who will really count for God, then make a clean break with everything that would hinder fellowship with Him. You will get far more pleasure in a prayer meeting than in a frivolous social, once you get better acquainted with the Lord Jesus.
So the apostle says, as it were, “Ye are mine, my sons in the gospel, and I love you, and it is because I love you that I warn you that you will lose out by wasting your time in things that just appeal to the flesh when you might put in that time in self-denying service for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” He did not use the word which means “teacher.” They did not have many teachers; there are not a great many real teachers of the Word of God, and he is not slurring teachers as though their gift might be a very small thing, but he used the term from which we get our word, pedagogue, which means, “child-trainer.” There are ten thousand child-trainers but only one father. The child-trainer looked after the minor children, and he says, “You Corinthian babes, you have plenty of child-trainers, but only one father. I brought you to Christ, and I am your father in Christ.” How can you tell when people are still in spiritual babyhood? One thing is they cannot enjoy the deep things of God. “I have fed you with milk,” he says in another place, “and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Corinthians 3:2). I have known young Christians who, after being converted a number of years, say, “I am not interested in Bible lectures, they are too dry for me, I do not understand them. I like something simple,” and you get the impression that they would like to lie down on a couch and have a nursing-bottle and a nipple on it, in order to suck down a little weak truth. Many of you ought to be teachers yourselves by this time and you are still just babies.
Another way you can tell them is by the things with which they play. Paul says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Many have been converted long enough to put away all childish things and get down to real business for God, but they are still spiritual babies. Some have been saved so long they ought to have a whole host of spiritual children, but they have never yet led one soul to Christ!
And then what a wonderful climax when he says, “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.” A man must live for God in order to speak like that, and the apostle could do it. He stood there before them and said, “I want your life to count well.” They may have said, “But we do not know what to do.” “Well then, imitate me. As an apostle for the Lord Jesus Christ I have counted everything loss for Him. My one desire is to glorify Him.” In another place he says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” That is a safe thing, that is apostolic succession, and if you will follow that line, you will find apostolic blessing in your life and God will use you to win others to Christ.
Discipline In The Church Of God
1 Corinthians 4:17-Ecclesiastes :; 1 Corinthians 5:1-1 Chronicles :
For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness? It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (4:17-5:13)
We have already noticed that this first epistle to the Corinthians is the charter of the church and that it brings before us certain divinely-given rules and regulations for the ordering of the local churches of God here on earth. This portion deals with the question of the discipline of an open offender against holiness and righteousness. The church is the house of God. When I use that word, I do not mean a building. God had one house made of stone and mortar, the temple at Jerusalem. He has never owned another. His present house is made of living stones, men and women built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. This is the house of God, the assembly of God, which is the church of the living God in this present age of grace; and holiness becomes God’s house. He dwells in His church, that is, in the assembly of His saints, and therefore it must be a holy assembly. That is why again and again in the New Testament we are exhorted to absolute separation from the world and its ways.
Sometimes when those who watch for your souls seek to be very careful regarding worldliness and carnality and unholy things cropping out in the church of God, they are looked upon as censorious and harsh and possibly unkind, because they try to deal with matters of this character, and people fall back on a Scripture like this, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2). In these verses our Lord is speaking of the motives of the heart. You have no right to judge my motives; I have no right to judge your motives. If I see one put a ten-dollar bill in the offering basket and I say to myself, “Oh, yes, he is just trying to be ostentatious, he did not give that out of real love for Christ,” I am wrong, for I am judging one’s motive, and I have no right to do that. This may apply to a thousand things. But the church of God is called upon to judge concerning the unrighteous behavior of any of its members. Verse 12 of chapter 5 says, “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?” The world outside goes on its way and the church of God has no jurisdiction there.
The church of God is responsible as to the character of its fellowship, and it is responsible as to those who sit down together at the table of the Lord and are linked up in Christian service. Where there is failure, the individual who fails is responsible before God. It is a serious thing to profess to live the life that should characterize members of the church of God. Ours is a high and holy calling, and if we lower the standard, we are not only dishonoring Christ individually, but we are giving the wrong testimony to the world.
The story is told of a man who wanted to hire a coachman. He lived in a mountainous region and the road to his home ran along a precipice. A number of men applied for the position. He said to one of them, “Tell me, are you an adept at handling fractious horses?”
“Yes, I am,” he said.
“Can you drive a six-horse team?”
“How near can you drive to the edge of the cliff without going over?”
“I have a steady hand and my eye is pretty true; I can get within a foot of it and not go over.”
“You step outside,” said the man, and he called another and asked him the same questions.
He said, “I am an expert in handling horses; I can drive right along the edge and not go over.”
“Step outside,” and he called another and asked the questions.
“If you want a man to drive on the edge of the precipice,” said this man, “you do not want me. When I drive, I keep as far away from the edge as I can.”
“You are the man I want. I will take you.”
Christian, be careful of the edge of the precipice. Do not get near it, for the first thing you know you will go over, and this will mean not only the ruin of your own testimony, but the sad thing is, you are liable to drag others over with you. Keep away from the edge, and do not resent it if those who watch for your souls as those who must give account try to impress upon you the solemnity of these things.
The apostle Paul had heard serious things concerning certain internal conditions in the church at Corinth, but he had been hindered from getting to them, and certain persons in the church who were carnally minded themselves and who knew that the apostle’s coming would probably mean rebuking them for their worldly behavior were saying, “Paul is really afraid to come to Corinth, he knows he hasn’t the influence he once had.” But he says, “No, I am not afraid to come. Some of you are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.” In other words, when he should come (and he was speaking with apostolic authority), there were some things he was going to look into very carefully. He would find out whether the power of God was working in their lives or whether it was just bravado and conceit that led them to justify themselves. There is a tremendous lot of pretence among professing Christians: pretending to a piety that they do not possess, pretending to a devotedness that is not genuine. He would know not only the talk of their lips but would inquire into the behavior that characterized them. “For the kingdom of God is not in word,” is not merely lip profession, “but in power,” it is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the life.
The apostle says, “I want to come to you, but do you want me to come with a rod”-a rod of discipline? Did they want him to come as the representative of the Lord to chastise them for their bad behavior, or to come in the spirit of meekness so that they and he might sit down together over the Word of God and enjoy the precious things of Christ? If they desired him to come in this last way, there were some things to be settled first, and he told them what they were. “In the first place, it is reported commonly”-this was not merely a matter of some individual’s gossip, it was widely known-”that you are tolerating one of the vilest forms of immorality that has ever been heard of even among the heathen Gentiles; it is known that one of your members actually has taken his father’s wife (not of course his mother, but his stepmother) as his own wife. This is an abomination in the sight of God, but you have not recognized the wickedness of it. You have rather prided yourselves on the breadth and liberality that would enable you to go on with a thing like that. You are puffed up when you ought to be brokenhearted.” “Ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.” Even if they felt that they did not know how to handle a thing like this, they could have been down before God with breaking hearts crying to Him to undertake for them, and He would have intervened and taken the wicked man from among them. But since he had received the evil report, as the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ he was going to tell them how to handle the situation, and in so doing he gave instruction concerning the handling of similar questions all down through the centuries.
“For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already.” In other words, because we are all one in the Lord I have looked into this matter already, I have discerned, I have investigated and have the facts concerning him that has done this deed. This is the verdict, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power [or authority] of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan.” What does that mean? John says, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), or, “in the wicked one.” This man was in the circle of those who are “of God.” Somebody might say, “The way to help him is to keep him in the circle, let him sit down with you at the Communion table; do not be hard on him, try to win him back, throw your arms of love about him and sympathize with him.” The unrepentant man will be more hardened in his iniquity if you do that. Put him outside in the Devil’s domain, let him know that he has forfeited all title to a place with the people of God-that he has been put back into the world where Satan rules. That is what he means when he says, “Deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” What has caused all this trouble? The activity of the flesh. Very well, put him out in that sphere where he will find out that “it is an evil and a bitter thing to forsake the Lord his God.” When he finds himself abhorred by men and women who love Christ, when he finds his sin is a stench in the nostrils of Christian people, he may break before God. If, in spite of his sin, he has really been born again, he will break. If he has been a false professor, he will plunge deeper and deeper into evil things.
“Deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” We do not like to carry out extreme commands like these, but this is the Word of God, and the greatest kindness that the people of God can do to a man who is deliberately going on in willful sin is to refuse Christian fellowship to him. As long as you treat him as a brother he will only be puffed up in his ungodly ways and it will be harder to reach him. But if you obey the Word, God will work toward his recovery and restoration.
“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” Housewives know that. What is the nature of leaven? You have a great pan of dough and insert a little leaven, and if you leave it all night, the whole thing runs over on the table by morning. Very well, you allow one wicked man to go unrebuked and undealt with after the wickedness has been fully manifested, and the thing will go on like an infection working, working, working to the ruin of others and to the harm of the entire testimony.
The church of God is largely afraid to exercise discipline today, but where this is carried out in obedience to the Word of God the church is kept in a condition where God can work. The apostle was not acting upon mere hearsay, there was definite evidence as to the guilt of this man. The church of God is not to jump to conclusions. We are not to believe every scandal that people try to circulate. We have a rule, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:15-17). If he will not hear the church, he has to be put under discipline. If one knows of definite wickedness, he should go first to the guilty person and try to set it right. If he does not succeed, he is then to take another witness, but if he will not hear them, they are to take it to the church of God and be prepared to back up everything.
“Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened.” Before God the whole body is looked upon as unleavened, for “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” We are men and women who began with the blood of the cross. Like Israel in Egypt, when sheltered by the Passover, they were to put all leaven away. Leaven is the type of wickedness.
Leaven is mentioned in Galatians 5:9: “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” There he is speaking of evil and unsound teaching which permeates and leavens the assembly of God. “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us,” and if we have been redeemed by the precious blood it is incumbent upon us to recognize our responsibility to keep the feast, the feast of communion and fellowship with Him, not with old leaven, that is, the corruption of the old nature, nor with malice. Is there a child of God who is still tolerating un-judged malice in the heart? “Neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Our God looks for reality. It is not enough to say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?…and in thy name done many wonderful works?” (Matthew 7:22). The great thing is for all who have been redeemed by His precious blood to manifest subjection to the Lord in the life.
In the concluding verses the apostle stresses the treatment that should be meted out to evildoers who have gotten into the church. You cannot discipline the world. He says, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters.” If you should try to regulate all immorality in the world, you would have a tremendous job upon your hands, but here is the point: if a man who calls himself a brother is an immoral man or a covetous man-what is that? Does he couple covetousness with fornication? “The love of money is a root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and covetousness, reaching out and grasping for wealth, is just as vile a thing in God’s sight as indulgence in unholy lust in other lines.
“If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer.” What is a railer? It is a person who has a tongue loose at both ends and on a pivot in the middle, a vicious talker, an evil speaker, one who can destroy the reputation of another just as the murderer drives a dagger into the heart and destroys a life. A railer is a wicked person in the sight of God. “Oh,” somebody says, “I don’t mean any harm, but I am so careless with my tongue.” What would you think of one who goes around with a machine gun and keeps firing away on this side and that, and someone says, “What are you doing?” “Oh,” he replies, “I don’t mean any harm, but I am so careless with this machine gun.” A character assassin is as wicked in the sight of God as one who would take another’s life.
“Or a drunkard.” No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God. You young people in these vicious days in which we live, if you never want to be a drunkard, do not fall in with the current idea of thinking it is fashionable for everybody to drink a little bit. No man ever became a drunkard who was not first a moderate drinker. Somebody may say, “I do not believe in that; I can take a little and it does me no harm.” But it may do your brother harm, and Paul said, “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Here is God’s standard. “If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.”
An extortioner is one who squeezes the poor. Maybe he tries to cover up his sin in this way: he squeezes the poor and makes an extra thousand dollars, and then on Sunday comes down to the church and says, “I want to give you a hundred dollars for missions.” God says, “Keep your dirty money, you got it in the wrong way.” God wants holy money to use in holy service. An extortioner is a wicked person and God says, “With such an one no not to eat.” You are not to sit down to the table with such an one. That would cut down our dinner parties considerably, and I take it that he also includes the Lord’s table. People should be warned to stay away from the Lord’s table if living as depicted here.
“For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?” Outside in the world God judges, He will deal with them in due time, but He calls upon the church of God to maintain careful discipline over its members for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. His good name is at stake. People say, “What! Is that one of your Christians? Does that person belong to Christ and do thus and so?” That is one reason why the church of God is responsible to maintain holiness as it goes on through the world.
And now the concluding word: “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” Of course there is a great deal of other instruction in Scripture for discipline, as in the case of a brother overtaken in a fault, and the Word says, “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Every effort should first be made to restore the wanderer, but if he will not be restored, if he persists in his sin, if he goes on defying the discipline of the church of God, then the time comes when the Word has to be acted on: “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
Perhaps some of you feel like saying what one of the Hopi Indians said to me one time after I had tried to put before them the responsibility of a Christian. They had a rather peculiar name for me; it was, “The Man with the Iron Voice”; and he said, “Man with the Iron Voice, you have made the way very hard today. I thought I was saved by grace alone, but now it looks as though I have to walk to heaven on the edge of a razor.” We are saved by grace alone, but we are called to walk in holiness, and while we have no ability to do it ourselves, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in every believer and He is the power of the new life. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit, and we will be enabled thus to honor the Lord Jesus Christ by holy, unworldly, devoted, godly lives.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12