The second lesson for this past Sunday was I Corinthians 4:1-13. It’s so full of godly wisdom and encouragement that I wanted to share a few of my thoughts with you, in case you might benefit by a second look at this marvelous passage. (The words of the passage are in italics; my own comments are in regular type.)
1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Paul sets forth the proper view of the apostles: they were the servants of Christ (a theme Paul touches on many times, and develops especially fully in the letter known as 2 Corinthians) and they were entrusted with the secret things of God. Here we might think immediately of the sacraments, which are not secret things per se, but rather things whose working is hidden to human sight and beyond the grasp of logic or reason. Here we might also recall Paul’s words in Ephesians 3, that he was given insight into the mystery of Christ, that the Gentiles are incorporated into the Christian church, the full number of God’s people, through faith in Christ. Today pastors are commonly viewed as those entrusted with the secret things of God, both by members of their flocks and by themselves, many times. They are given the charge to administer God’s grace in its various forms and to give to each one what he needs (reproof, correction, encouragement, consolation, etc.)
2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. Paul states an axiom that even the world recognizes. It’s doubly true in the church — before God, each of us is responsible for what we have been given. All God asks of us is that we are faithful. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Faithfulness does not necessarily translate to overflowing coffers, balanced budgets, big buildings built, crowds of new converts, or making people happy — but it does mean carrying out one’s life and calling as those who will be judged in the sight of God, keeping God constantly in view in everything you do. Squaring your life and confession with God’s Word, trusting in Jesus’ promises and living by His Word. The results that this brings can vary wildly — sometimes outward success, more often opposition or animosity or indifference or bewilderment — but the child of God leaves all results to Him. We are not responsible for what happens after we confess His Word; He simply asks us not to swerve to the left or to the right. Keep your eyes on the prize.
3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. The first half of this verse might not be so surprising; I’d say the second half is. Lots of people say they don’t care what others think of them, and lots show it by their actions, but most of those people still reflect on their own behavior (at least from time to time) and make conscious decisions about whether their words and actions were right or not. Paul says he didn’t do that. He didn’t ask himself if he’d been faithful or not; he didn’t lie awake at night wondering if he’d done enough. That wasn’t on his radar and he did not concern himself with it. We know this wasn’t from lack of effort or concern — in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul lists a sampling of the hardships and dangers he endured, and it’s a doozy: floggings, shipwreck, hunger, cold, etc. Yet Paul did not subject himself to the nagging little voice inside him that each of us has, that questions our best efforts and sniffs in contempt at our tears, our long days, the yoke of hard service to our neighbor. At least he didn’t do it very often or very extensively. Paul strikes us as a man with an exceptionally clear conscience here. We see why in a coming verses.
4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. A clear conscience does not mean innocence, not by a long shot. It can be the result of an attitude that eats and wipes its mouth and says, “I’ve done nothing wrong,” as the adulteress is described in Prov 30:20. Many a hardened sinner has slept soundly at night, simply because they saw nothing wrong with the wickedness that occupied their days. It was natural and made sense to them, thus they did all that their hands found to do — everything they could get away with. Or a clear conscience can simply be the sign of a bad memory. It’s hard to feel guilty over what you’ve forgotten.
Paul can’t think of anything that should be held against him (that he hasn’t confessed and found forgiveness for in the Word of his Lord and in His Supper, at any rate), but Paul is a clear-eyed and realistic enough Christian to understand that he recalls his words and actions imperfectly, and that what he thinks doesn’t matter anyway. He has a higher Judge that he would answer to, and His ruling is the only one that matters. It takes considerable faith to throw yourself as completely on God’s mercy as Paul does here. He simply trusts that the Lord will have mercy on him, despite the failure of his best intentions and the frequent weakness of his flesh. A remarkable attitude of the heart that we’d all do well to imitate.
5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. Sound advice. The end of the matter is seldom what it seems at the beginning or even in the middle. Who knows what God will bring about before the Last Day? Surely not I. We are not to write another person off or give up on something the Lord has given us to do while we are still here, for the final result that God seeks to bring about through us may well be hidden from us. However shrouded in obscurity God’s ultimate aims may seem to us, they are clear as noonday to Him — and that’s what matters. That’s what we should content ourselves with when the way forward seems dim or dark, when there is no light before or behind us. “Though I dwell in darkness, the LORD is light to me.” (Micah 7:8)
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. Jesus tells us several times that there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known (e.g. Luke 12.2). This can either encourage us or terrify us, depending on the angle from which we approach it. It’s encouraging to know that the sacrifices we make for Christ in response to His love and our faith in Him, which we’ve held on to through all the storms of life, will be seen and will receive a gracious reward from God. At the same time, our flesh quails at the thought that our secret sins, the thoughts we’ve entertained in the privacy of our own minds, the words we never spoke but wanted to, the immoderate or cowardly or angry thoughts we’ve had, will all be uncovered for all to see.
Do not worry, dear Christian. Christ has sacrificed Himself to shield you from the wrath of God, and His holy blood covers all your hidden sins as well as the ones everybody else knows about. He will not leave you unguarded on the Last Day. You are safe in His wounds, the wounds He bore for you.
Shortly after His birth Simeon blessed the parents of Our Lord in the temple and prophesied that this Child was destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that would be spoken against. The whole course of Jesus’ life on earth while in the days of His flesh shows how true that was. Jesus uncovered the motives of men’s hearts many times. He called the Pharisees out regularly, sometimes responding out loud to what they had only said in their hearts. With divine insight and authority Christ ministered to those around Him. He cured unbelief and doubt with His holy Word and preached God’s law and His gospel to all who would listen (and not a few who wouldn’t.)
Jesus still exposes the motives of people’s hearts even today. He still does it the same way — through His holy Word. “The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb 4.13) That’s why many people stay away from the Word. They don’t want to be exposed. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21) To those who are following a path that leads downward into the darkness, Jesus and Paul have the same warning: Turn around and head back before it’s too late. Better to be rebuked and humbled now, while you still have time to receive forgiveness and find life, rather than on the Last Day, where no more repentance will be possible.
This exposing of the motives of men’s hearts can be either for good or for ill. The Christian rejoices because he has nothing to fear in this regard. He trusts that Christ has purified his heart through faith, and thus the fruit that he bears is good fruit, because he is a good tree now. For those with dissembling or duplicitous motives, they have good reason to fear being exposed. Apply the divine rule and guide of God’s Law to your own heart, and reflect on the course of your actions. Repent while you have time.
6 Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. The Corinthians had a major problem of lining up behind human teachers and ignoring the unity that Christ had given them in His blood. Paul rebuked them for this in chapter 1. I don’t think Paul was quoting Scripture when he says, “Don’t go beyond what is written,” but he just as well could have been. It’s sound advice. We are not to look for further revelations or for God to speak to us or interact with us in any other way than through His Word. Period. He very well could, but that does not mean that He will, and nothing other than Scripture has God’s frequently repeated promise to convey to us the thoughts of His heart. We have no sure ground for knowing God if we wander from His Word.
7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? Paul’s tone begins to change here. He’s transitioning to taking the Corinthians to task. Sometimes a father will have to correct his children, and pastors sometimes have to do the same with their flocks. Paul’s logic is, as always, sound: if you have something, that means somebody gave it to you. In this case, if you have faith and the Holy Spirit, that means that God gave it to you. You didn’t make yourself a Christian, because that’s impossible. Paul is starting to cut the ground out from under the Corinthians’ presumption here. He’s reining in their pride by speaking sharply. They didn’t make themselves Christians, and they were starting to act like they’d forgotten that. Sometimes we do the same, and we require the same reminder to be applied to us.
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! Paul really gets going with the sarcasm here. If you read much in commentaries, you may have noticed that commentators have a tendency to see irony everywhere they look (not just in Paul or in this passage, but everywhere.) That’s more a reflection of the sensibilities of our postmodern, suspicious, ironic, detached age, but we’ll let that pass without further comment for now. Suffice to say that that ironic, “whatever works for you — don’t judge me” attitude is in the air we breathe in today’s society. We’re swimming in it. This is one of the comparatively few instances where Paul genuinely lets rip with some irony. The habit of the Scriptures is to be straight-ahead and forceful in speaking, but every once in a while they speak with irony or sarcasm, as people do, and this is one of those times.
9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. These are stirring words. Their imagery is strong: that of Roman prisoners of war, disheveled, nearly naked, dirty, manacled, trooping along behind the victor’s chariot as he basks in the thunderous acclamations of the crowd on the way to their dusty death in the arena. Rome was not kind to her prisoners of war. They were used, and used up, as slave labor, or they were the raw material for the bloodthirsty machine that was the Roman love of spectacles. This, says Paul, is exactly what the apostles are like: despised, poor, ragged, and not long for this world. A grim picture.
Paul remembers what the Corinthians have momentarily forgotten: the Christian life is not grand or glorious or fun. It’s hard and offers pitifully little for those interested in worldly gain or an easy ride. Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, not climb into your la-z-boy. We are oppressed and hunted down many times in this world, if not by the people around us, then by the devil and his evil schemes, but we’re not looking for our payout in this world. It comes in the next. We are looking forward to better things, so what does it matter if we are despised, slighted, or conspired against in this world? Our God will right the wrongs and will bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom.
10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! Paul continues his irony. It almost seems like he’s trying to make the Corinthians uncomfortable in the way they boasted and vaunted themselves over each other. They should have felt that way. Their boasting was evidence of their weakness and immaturity. Paul probably didn’t mind being a fool for Christ most of the time, but when those who were supposed to be his obedient children in the gospel started getting out of hand in his absence, he understandably might have gotten a little frustrated.
11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. Paul alludes to some of the hardships he willingly suffered as a minister of the gospel and missionary to the Gentiles. None of them are things that we would probably choose for ourselves, but Paul accepted them as part of the bargain of preaching Christ. Perhaps homelessness was the worst one of the list. Paul traveled constantly and could never have much in the way of a place to call home. Thus his Christian friends and coworkers became even dearer to him as a result.
His description of the apostles’ behavior recalls the Beatitudes. The meek inherit the earth because God sees how the wicked want to avenge themselves on them and God rights the wrong. To be meek is to be mild and peaceable and never to seek revenge for oneself or hit back at those who attack you. Paul’s behavior may have been incomprehensible to many of his opponents, and not a few of the less mature Christians in his congregations. This is the Christian way, the Christ-like way: to endure everything the adversary dishes out, never to seek revenge, and to maintain a clear conscience and a clear witness to all those around. Such forbearance and longsuffering only grows out of a heart of faith that trusts in God to provide and protect.
Paul concludes by calling the apostles the scum of the earth — a sweeping statement indeed. Yet those few men handpicked by Our Lord were given the honor of spreading the message of salvation to the farthest corners of the earth, and those who continue in the apostles’ doctrine today are heir to their struggles, their hardships, and the crown of glory that all who confess Christ have in common. God grant it for each of us, amen.