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Paul's Conception of the Ministry
1 Corinthians 4:0
The Apostle is not referring to some particular man when he uses the apparently specific term "a man"; he means, let every one, any one, all persons, take this view of the Christian ministry. It is not a view to be taken by one or two, or a specific few; it is the view that is complete and final: nothing can be added to it, no modification of it can lawfully take place. The ministry of Christ is a stewardship, "as of the ministers of Christ"; not preachers only, or pastors, but servants, slaves. The word "minister" has a deeper meaning in the word which Paul used than is usually attached to it in its English form. A minister, as Paul used that term, was not a dainty person appointed to do dainty work at certain specific times; he was the daily slave, the continual and long attendant of Jesus Christ, watching him with eager expectation, receiving his message from his Master's lips alone, and never trifling with a single word which his Master spoke. "And steward." In a Greek household the steward was generally a slave, yet he was trusted; by his very servitude he was supposed to be doubly bound to his master. He was not only treasurer or secretary, or person entrusted with some specific responsibility; all that kind of service might, to a certain degree, be hired or bought: but the man himself belonged to the household, was part and parcel of the very estate and inheritance; he was not a hireling introduced into the house, he was one born within its limits or incorporated within its whole representation of unity and utility. "The mysteries of God:" not the trifles of God, not the little transient, frivolous incidents or accidents of human history, but a treasurer or student of things mysterious, secret, hidden, wonderful; mysteries rooted in eternity, secret things springing from the very core of God himself; therefore not to be explained, but to be set forth, proclaimed, now uttered strongly, and now tenderly; now with an instument of thunder, and now with the voice of whispering and tears. But the mysteries were God's, not man's. Man has his little mysteries; man is an inventive creature. We are not called upon as ministers to add to the mysteries of God; they are sufficient in themselves, in number, in quality, in majesty: it behoves us rather to speak of them reverently, and never to speak our own words in relating the mysteries of God. Blessed is that minister, preacher, teacher, who can be content with Bible words when he comes into the deep things of God. No words of ours can so touch the glory of Divine mysteries as they are touched by Biblical treatment. That is one of the proofs of the inspiration of the Bible. Try to alter the language; set yourselves to the emendation of the Lord's Prayer; turn into modern eloquence the twenty-third psalm: every touch would be defilement So when we come to deal with the Cross of Christ let us have no theorising and invention and philosophising and controversial display, but let us quote the Saviour himself, and quote the chiefest of his Apostles; yea, let us hold our tongues as a religious duty until we can charge and inflame our lips with the sacred eloquence of the Bible itself. The flower was not made to be plucked; to pluck a flower, as we have often reminded ourselves, is to kill it: to paraphrase the Bible is to pluck its flowers. Let the words of the Bible stand in their integrity and simplicity, and when they blind us with their glory, or appal us with a weird ghostly dignity, our business must be to close our eyes, and to fall down in an attitude of adoration, and say, God is in this place, and we knew it not. Thus the Apostle occupies a position of great dignity. There was nothing officially dainty about his voice or position or function: but the ministry itself is an ineffable dignity; to be the slave of Christ is to occupy a higher status than to be enthroned with Cæsar.
"Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." The word "found" is peculiar. A steward is not simply to be faithful, but he is, according to the term which Paul used, to be discovered to be faithful. A man's faithfulness is to be the result of a discovery on the part of the searcher, the judge, or the critic. The master watches the steward, hardly knowing perhaps what his peculiar temperament or constitution may be; but the master keeps close watch, his scrutiny is unremitting, point is related to point, and one day's work is compared with another, and the whole diary of the man's action is regarded in its unity; and the result is that the man has been discovered to be faithful, found to be faithful, as the result of a prolonged, critical, unsparing scrutiny: then the printed testimonial may be burned, the testimony of friends is no longer required; the man has proved himself to be faithful. In order to such proof there must be time. Men are faithful now in points; some persons are really pious in certain aspects and on certain days. But aspects are not, persons; mere points are not the character of a man. The servant, steward, slave, must be tested, year in and year out, and he must be discovered to be faithful; and the man who holds the balance must say to the approved steward, thou art weighed, and thou art found faithful. We do not know who is faithful until certain trials have taken place; we do not know who is good until the persons examined have been vexed, threatened, deprived of dignity, until they have been affronted, insulted, dishonoured; then we shall know their quality. You do not know people when you are allowing them to have all their own way; then you think them sunny, genial, fraternal, good-natured, wonderfully well-conditioned: that is not judgment. You cannot tell what a man is until you have asked him for something, thwarted him in something, opposed him, come into mortal conflict with him; then you will know whether he is the soft, amiable, genial creature that you supposed him to be. The Apostle stood this test. He was despised, the coat was torn from his shoulders, he had no certain dwelling-place, he was subjected to every indignity; yet he was discovered to be faithful, his ministry being founded upon character, not upon gift or genius.
Now Paul proceeds to lay down a doctrine which saved him a world of trouble:
"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." ( 1Co 4:3-4 )
That is the sanctuary in which the Apostle rested. What does human judgment amount to? It is often a mere prejudice, or it simply registers a passing emotion; there is really no substance in it, no abiding value or quality; the man who is judging may die before he has pronounced his judgment; the man who is criticising may be discovered in the very midst of his most elaborate criticism to be a felon. What does human judgment amount to? It will be all forgotten tomorrow, and the judges will be dead, and their judgment passed into oblivion.
"Yea," Paul continues, "I judge not mine own self." A man cannot really penetrate into his own inmost quality. "For I know nothing by myself:" not exactly against myself; the literal meaning rather is, for I know nothing concerning myself; I cannot see myself through and through; I am such a mixture of motive, I am so self-conflicting, I am a thousand men: so I will not judge myself. "Yet am I not hereby justified:" because I do not judge, therefore I must not be considered to be above judgment; I simply mean that he that judgeth me and every other man is the Lord. There is one tribunal, one day of judgment, one arbitrament, and by that all must stand for ever. Then, when the Divine judgment takes place, men will be seen as they are.
"Therefore judge nothing before the time:" especially judge nothing unkindly: there may be an explanation not yet revealed; the Lord may come and put all things that have occurred in life into a totally different light: in our judgment we are short of insight, of mental range and capacity; we are short also of information of the truest and deepest kind; we only know accidents, incidents, things that externally happen; motive, spring, impulse, we cannot understand: judge not, that ye be not judged: remit all difficulties in life to the Divine judgment; then it may be found that all things had been seen upside down; we may discover that all our judgments are simply so many calculated and dignified mistakes. Blessed be God for the judgment Divine it is complete, impartial, unalterable. In the light of that judgment many a man whom we have thought to be difficult, impracticable, unmanageable, may be shown to have really been the victim or slave of some constitutional peculiarity which we could not understand; men who have been regarded as selfish, illiberal, wanting in magnanimity, may be discovered to have been operating from a motive that lay beyond our judicial knowledge: on the other hand, many a man may be found to have been only eloquent in the tongue, while his heart was dumb; many a man may be found to have given with the hand only, whilst his heart was a wrinkled, grudging miser. "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." It is clear to me, though many do not join in this judgment of the word, and many learned and most able men wholly differ from it, that Paul and the other Apostles expected that the Lord might come back again at any moment. There are various ways of reading the apostolic exclamation regarding the second coming, the Lord's advent, but not one of them seems to me so straight, simple, and complete in its proof, as the reading that implies that the Apostle Paul expected the Lord Jesus Christ back again upon the earth any day, any night, any hour. This would seem to account for his urgency in many instances; he would seem to say, Brethren, there is no time for this: the Lord is coming; I hear him;. he may be here at the crowing of the cock, at the dawn, in early morning, by midday; he may choose the time of the shining of the evening star: there is no time for controversy, eating and drinking, debating, clamour, strife, only time for prayer, and song, and exultant expectation. There is no reason why this should not be the law of the Church now. Nothing would require to be altered that is vital; the only change that would take place would be purely local, personal, visual. As a matter of fact, the Lord is coming every moment: the Judge is at the door. We may have been mistaken in our literal interpretations, but the sublime, all-vitalising fact is there; that life is a continual revelation of the Lord, and that man is nearer eternity than he is near time. Eternity is nearer than tomorrow. We do not realise this; we are the victims of the letter; we imprison ourselves within what we call facts, as if there could be any fact in more than a symbolical sense or a transient aspect: every fact being an index-finger pointing to the truth, which is always larger than fact. Fact has no atmosphere, no perspective, and until it is atmosphered and set in perspective it cannot play its light part as one of the monitors of human life. Set it down then as a fact that the Lord is coming, coming to-day, always coming. He comes where he is expected; he never disappoints the expectation of the heart. It we want to see the Lord we may see him; he answers not our speculation but our prayer. "Then shall every man have praise of God," as he deserves it; the great man shall be great, and the little man shall be little, and every man shall have his due reward. That will be sufficient. Every man will acknowledge the justice of the award; there will be, as there can be, no appeal. There is a voice within which attests the decrees of justice. It may suit a man for temporary purposes to deny, or complain, or repudiate certain awards and decrees, but within his living soul he knows what is just, unless indeed he has grieved the Spirit, or quenched the Spirit, or in some way committed suicide, slaughtering his very soul, and being nothing more than a dead man in God's account. There will be many differences in the final allotment: blessed be God for that glorious fact. We shall not all be in one place even in heaven. It would be no heaven to some of us if we were within a thousand miles of certain other people, whom we could name, unless a great change takes place in us or in them. "In my Father's house are many mansions:" some will be very high up, and others will be very low down; yet they may all be in God's ample heaven. When George Whitfield was asked, "Do you expect to see John Wesley in heaven?" He answered, "No, I do not expect to see him there." "Why not?" "Because John Wesley will be so near the throne, and I shall be so far from it, that I can have no hope of seeing John Wesley in heaven." A noble charity; a noble wisdom. We do not take that view of these illustrious men, but that one of them should have taken it of himself shows a conception of possibility, that indicates a large love and a truly modest self-estimate. It is curious that the Apostle Paul was urging the Corinthians not to think too highly of the ministers. If he had been living now, he need not have written that part of the letter. The Apostle was most anxious that he and Apollos should not be thought too highly of: what a marvellous condition of society! what an impossibility! There is not a man living now who does not feel the temptation occasionally, though he may not yield to it, to think that every minister is only part of a man. That, however, is not true. There are some ministers who, if they had been sent to school soon enough, and taught to read and write and do the first four rules of arithmetic, might by some certain business faculty have been living in a villa!
The Apostle becomes himself again in the laying down of great broad laws and considerations:
"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?" ( 1Co 4:7 ).
The Apostle can be satirical, ironical, as in the eighth verse, "Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us," you have been living a dramatic life; you have built your canvas theatre, and played your little tricks before high heaven. Then for how long could Paul be angry or even satirical? he falls out of his piercing sarcasm into his melting, pleading pathos: "and I would to God ye did reign" in reality as you have been reigning seemingly "that we also might reign with you." How rapidly this man's tone changes! Now he is in full banter, now his lips are wreathed with scorn, and his voice is a tempest of indignation; and in a moment, as if self-smitten, he falls downs, cries, almost begs pardon, and says to the people whom he has wounded with his tremendous sword I would to God ye were in reality what you are in seeming: I would to God that we were all kings together: brethren, think on these things.
Then he sets forth the aspect in which apostolic life appeared to him:
"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" ( 1Co 4:9 ).
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/