Accurately Assessing Apostleship
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 4:1–4:21
When theologians speak of “the apostolic age,” they are generally referring to that period of time that began during the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ and ended with the death of the last apostle, John, near the end of the 1st-century.
According to the criteria set forth in Scripture, there have been no “apostles” since that time. While it is true that the word “apostle” refers to “one sent on a mission,” the Bible uses that title in a very specific way. “Apostleship” was not a position that one might make application for. There were at least two requirements for one to be qualified as an apostle. And while some suggest other reasons for adding to that list, on these two every conservative, evangelical scholar agrees. In the first place, an apostle had to be an eyewitness to the risen Jesus (cf. Acts 1:21-22, 1 Corinthians 9:1), and secondly, he had to have been commissioned as an apostle directly by Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Galatians 1:1).
Repeatedly, Paul claimed for himself apostolic authority and throughout his ministry he demonstrated it through his dramatic conversion (cf. Acts 9:1-19), to his ability to perform extraordinary miracles (cf. Acts 19:11), to his powerful proclamation of the Gospel (cf. Acts 9:20, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). In fact, Paul was probably the last of the apostles to have been appointed and is arguably the one most responsible for the spread of the Gospel “to the end of the earth” (cf. Acts 1:8).
Notwithstanding, Paul was not always well-liked or well-respected, even among those who had come to Christ under his ministry. There are hints in his writing that his unpopularity sprang from the fact that neither his oratorical ability nor his physical appearance were all that impressive (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:10). That seems to have been the majority opinion of the Christians in Corinth. It also helps to explain why he repeatedly found it necessary to defend his apostleship in the epistles he wrote to that local church.
In drawing to a conclusion the first major section of the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul depicts the role of an apostle in three ways, which we will consider individually this morning. Even though “the apostolic age” has passed and the need for apostles has ceased, what we read in this chapter serves as an appropriate gauge for every pastor, every church leader and, by extension, every church member. That is because every Christian has been called and “sent by God,” not in exactly the same manner as an apostle, but nevertheless called and sent on a specific mission. And while Paul’s words directly address the ministry of God’s appointed messenger, there is application here for us all.
Throughout the first four chapters of this epistle, Paul has been pressing the point that the wisdom of God does not always coincide with the wisdom of man. In fact, in many—if not most—cases, God’s plans often look foolish in the eyes of the world. That is certainly true when it comes to assessing those whom God calls.
In verses 1 through 7, we are first told that God’s appointed messenger is...
A faithful steward entrusted with a Christ-centered message (verses 1-7)
Follow along as I read the first five verses of chapter 4:
1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
How should the messengers of Christ be regarded? Paul gives two answers: “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word “servant” (“‘υπηρετηs”) implies a position of subordination, “one who serves at the bidding of another.” That was his relationship with Jesus. “Steward” (“οικονομοs”) refers to “one who has been entrusted to administer and safeguard to possessions of another.” That was his relationship to the Gospel, which Paul refers to here as “the mysteries of God.” Those “mysteries” are what are alluded to in chapter 2, verse 7, where he stated, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” Now here in verse 2, we are told that God had charged him to be careful in handling that message and in making it known to the people to whom he had been sent. That alone would be the basis by which his ministry would be assessed.
Therefore, as Paul admits in verses 3 through 5, human judgment meant very little to him. All of us want to be well-thought-of by others, and ministers are certainly no exception. There is a terrible temptation at times to “back off” from preaching “hard” passages of Scripture, knowing that someone in the congregation may take offense. I should forewarn you that you and I will be encountering some of those difficult texts as we make our way through this letter. After all, it was written to a church full of redeemed sinners in the process of being sanctified. In other words, people a lot like us.
When he speaks of being “judged” by others, the thought is that of “being cross examined” (“ανακρινω”). It was a term used within the context of judicial hearings. Paul is here likening his being evaluated by those who were questioning his apostolic authority as an “interrogation.”
In his own defense, he asserts that his conscience is clear before others. He is not claiming for himself “sinless perfection,” as if that were possible, but rather declaring, “It is the Lord who judges me.” The lesson, of course is that it is rash and reckless for anyone to “pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” There is coming a “Day” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13) when a final judgment will be pronounced by the One who alone is capable of making it (cf. John 5:22-29). Jesus Himself will write the conclusion of God’s grand narrative and every motive of man will be shown for what it was.
It sometimes appears that the favorite verse that unbelievers like to toss in the direction of Christians is “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But neither in that Matthew 7(:1) passage nor here in the verses before us are we being taught that every kind of judgment is wrong. Christians are certainly to be wise and discerning. To not be so would be to forfeit the ability to make correct—and, yes, God-honoring—choices. Paul’s warning is about drawing premature conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence.
He presses this a bit further in verses 6 and 7, where we read:
6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
Here Paul explains to his readers that the figures of speech that he has been applying to himself and other ministers of the Gospel have been for their “benefit”...namely that they “may learn...not to go beyond what is written.” Whenever a New Testament writer uses the phrase, “it is written,” he is generally referring to the Scriptures.
Most sports speak of the game being played “within the lines.” Any action that takes place outside those fixed lines is considered “out of bounds.” Similarly the Christian life is lived within a “fixed parameter.” What would it mean to “go beyond” the witness of Scripture? Given the context of these first four chapters—in which Paul cites a number of biblical references—it probably refers to the boasting in human wisdom that so characterized the Corinthian church. It was a condition that was leading to their being “puffed up in favor of one against another.” Paul will use that same expression twice more in this chapter, in verses 18 and 19), where it is translated “arrogant.” As one commentator so concisely put it, “go(ing) beyond what is written” is to suppose oneself being “smarter than God.”
The Christian minister, therefore, must be a faithful steward who brings a Christ-centered message. And the people in his care should not be willing to settle for anything less.
Paul closes this first section of the chapter by asking three very direct interrogative questions of his own. For the purpose of clarity, let me read verse 7 from the Holman Study Bible: “For who makes you so superior? What do you have that you didn’t receive? If, in fact, you did receive it, why do you boast as if you hadn’t received it?” All three questions “passes the ball” into their end of the court.
Verse 7 meant a great deal to John Knox as he neared the end of his life. Knox had been the voice of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and as he assessed his ministry, he reported being tempted by Satan to take credit for the work he had been able to accomplish. Instead, Knox reportedly told his servant, “I repulsed him with this sentence: ‘What do (I) have that (I) did not receive?” Each of us needs to remain mindful of that as well.
In addition to being a faithful steward who has been charged with a Christ-centered message, he is also...
A humble spectacle living a Christ-centered life (verses 8-13)
We resume our reading at verse 8:
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
When Paul called himself and the other apostles “a spectacle,” he was using an image familiar to people living throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman government provided a form of entertainment for the citizens through brutal “spectacles” that often involved prisoners of the state fighting with wild beasts within an amphitheatre filled with thousands of spectators. In truth, it was a means of carrying out the death sentence to those guilty of capital offenses. The poorest and weakest of these prisoners were saved for the final event...which is what Paul is referring to when he uses the phrase, “the last of all.” No one gave these prisoners any chance of surviving. Paul likens it to the position in which God had placed the apostles...at the end of the procession, if you will, condemned to die for the sake of the Gospel in the arena of life. It was the ultimate humiliation of the dishonored.
As we study this paragraph, we note that it is loaded with biting sarcasm and irony. Paul draws three contrasts that appear to address the three questions he posed in verse 7. The repeated use of the adverb “already” (“ηδη”) suggests that these Corinthian Christians may have been living with an overrealized eschatology. In other words, they were behaving as if the age to come had “already” been consummated and as if they were “already” ruling and reigning in the Kingdom. Paul applies the brakes and says, “Not so fast!”
It is quite likely that the Corinthian problem was every bit as much a matter of ethics as eschatology. Their spiritual immaturity, which Paul decried in the opening verses of chapter 3 lends support to this view. The irony of it all was that in their infancy they believed that they had advanced to a level of spiritual maturity beyond Paul.
In responding to that not-so-veiled charge of the Corinthians, Paul offers a fourfold contrast between their perspective and the one held by the apostles.
The first distinction is found in verses 8 and 9. Whereas the members of the Corinthian church saw themselves reigning as kings, the apostles had been assigned the role as prisoners. Employing sanctified sarcasm, Paul retorts, “Would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you.” Seeing themselves as kings was a demonstration of their being “puffed up” with pride. The time had not yet come for “each one (to)...receive his commendation from God.” Before there could be a crown, there must first be a cross.
The second and third contrasts are seen in verse 10. Paul joins them together and ties them into his main emphasis in these first four chapters. He writes disdainfully, “We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ.” Although these Corinthians were wise in their own eyes, they were actually thinking foolishly. Their self-assessment was based upon worldly standards, and was shown to be inadequate. In a similar vein, he inserts, “We are weak, but you are strong.” Paul will develop this more comprehensively later on, but we are reminded of his encounter with the Lord which he describes near the end of 2 Corinthians (12:9-10). During a time of great weakness, God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” To which Paul then replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And he even went on to add, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” In contrast with the Corinthians’ supposed “strength” and “wisdom,” this acknowledgement was demonstration of the spiritually-mature life.
The fourth and final contrast begins at the end of verse 10 and goes through verse 13. Whereas these “baby-believers” wanted to see themselves as already being “honored,” the example of an apostle was quite the opposite. Throughout these contrasts, Paul is emphasizing the need for identifying with Christ. In this Lenten season, when some professing Christians “deny” themselves trivial things such as that second piece of pie or an hour less time in front of the computer or television screen each week, verses 11 through 13 bring the life of Christ-honoring self-denial into sharper focus. Listen again to these words:
“To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
Those last two descriptors—“scum (‘περικαθαρμα’) of the world” and “refuse (‘περιψμα’) of all things”—are nearly synonymous in meaning. Both refer to the dirt of filth removed by scraping, scouring and thorough cleansing. The figurative use of both terms strongly emphasizes how despised and rejected were Paul and the other apostles in the eyes of the world. In pagan contexts, these words were used of condemned criminals whose bodies were offered as vicarious expiatory sacrifices to the gods. Christians—especially God’s ministers—are often considered as “expendable” by those who are without Christ.
While those descriptors are graphic and difficult to imagine in any but the most metaphorical ways, nevertheless they are the cost required by Jesus for those who commit to following Him. While the call to apostleship is distinctly limited to New Testament times, the call to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel remains...not only for pastors and church leaders, but to every one who dares to testify to the name of Jesus.
Remember the challenge of Jesus found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9:23). It was issued not only apostles but to every would-be follower: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” And a little later in that same narrative, he reminded us to be sure to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28).
God’s appointed messenger must be a faithful steward charged with a Christ-centered message and a humble spectacle living a Christ-centered life, but he must also be...
A caring father disciplining a Christ-centered family (verses 14-21)
This description reminds of something we saw in last Sunday’s message. Paul never seemed to tire of describing himself as a parent responsible for the spiritual well-being of those whom he had the privilege of leading to faith. Most of us probably react to the word “discipline” in a negative way. The Bible actually says that “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.” But it further adds that “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Therefore, speaking as a caring parent, Paul brings this chapter to a close, beginning in verse 14, with a disciplinary tone:
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
These verses actually serve as a bridge between the discussion that began in chapter 1, verse 10 and the difficult subject matter he is about to enter into in the following chapters...namely chapter 5. In this paragraph he is preparing his readers for what is about to come.
Paul has been harsh in this chapter, but his tenderness begins to break through in verse 14. In fact, these verses drip with parental compassion. Like a concerned father, he wants what is best for them. He does not want to cause them undue shame, but seeks rather to “admonish” or warn them of impending danger if the course they are following is not altered.
In these verses we learn three things about Paul in terms of his relationship with the Corinthian church. It is on the basis of them that he makes his appeal.
First of all, in verses 14 and 15, he reminded them that he was the one whom God used to plant the church in their city. In other words, he was their spiritual father, and these Corinthians were his “beloved children.” Whenever any of us have the privilege of leading someone to faith, a special relationship is created. Our task then is to help that person take his or her first “baby steps” as a Christian by encouraging them to identify with Christ through baptism and getting them involved right away in a healthy local church where God’s Word is consistently proclaimed and lived out.
It is noteworthy that Paul was not taking credit for their conversion. He readily admits that he “became (their) father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” It was by hearing and responding to God’s truth that “birthed” them into the family of God. Paul was only the “midwife,” if you will. Although others—like Apollos—would arrive in Corinth after Paul and instruct these new believers, the fact remained that he was their spiritual parent. And he took that role seriously.
Secondly, Paul further reminded them that he had set an example for them. We see this in verses 16 and 17. Children have a way of imitating their parents, whether for good or for bad. When Paul exhorts his readers to “be imitators” of him, he was not exalting himself. Later on in this same epistle he would add clarity to that statement saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). He was, no doubt, familiar with the words of Jesus that “everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
Paul was a good teacher. He knew that it required both instruction and example to bring a child to maturity. Even after his departure, he looked after their spiritual well-being by sending Timothy—his young protégé—to remind them of Paul’s consistent and faithful ministry when he was with them, as well as in every setting in which the Lord placed him. It was an example he wanted them to follow.
Even then, the apostle longed to see them again and to visit with them soon “if the Lord will(ed).” To Paul that statement was more than a slogan...it was a mindset. As he anticipated seeing these Corinthians once again, there was yet one more thing regarding his relationship with them of which they needed to be reminded, and it was that he would not avoid disciplining his family.
Paul had been patient with their spiritual stagnation, but now he warned them that the time had come for discipline. It was time for them to “grow up.” Good parents discipline their children. At times that discipline is applied in “preventive” ways, while at other times it is “corrective” and even “punitive.” He would have preferred to come to them with meekness and deal with their sins in a gentle way, but their “puffed up” attitude made this next to impossible. We’ll see a glaring example of their “arrogant” spirit when we get into chapter 5 next Sunday.
The chief complaint Paul had with the Corinthians was that their “walk” was inconsistent with their “talk.” Consequently, they were by their overt behaviors bringing discredit to the Gospel they had received. Thus, Paul threatens to exercise his apostolic authority. The “rod” (“‘παβδοs”) that he mentions is translated elsewhere as “staff” (cf. Matthew 10:10). The image of a shepherd tending his sheep, therefore, comes to mind. The “rod” is of one correction, to be sure, but correction for the purpose of bringing wayward sheep back onto a healthy and safe path.
“Rods” of this sort were used by schoolmasters or “tutors” as part of the discipline and training received by their students. Administering discipline in a corrective way is never a pleasant task. My Dad used to say to me before applying “the board of correction to the seat of my pants,” “Son, this will hurt me as much as it hurts you.” I didn’t believe it then, but once I became a father myself, I understood what he meant. And as a pastor, I understand it even more.
Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach at Grambling University, said, “You can’t coach someone unless you love them.” The same might be said of every Christian who shares Jesus with others and who disciples a new believer in their newfound life in Christ.
It is only natural and even biblical (cf. James 3:1) that the ministers of God be held to a higher standard. That being said, however, no Christian is absolved from living the totality of life as a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Progressing along the path leading to spiritual maturity is the Lord’s goal for everyone who has called upon His name. Paul and his fellow apostles had been called by God to be his emissaries in places where the Gospel needed to be taught and modeled.
Their goal was not to gain a following for themselves, but to point others to Jesus. And while there are no “apostles” today in the truest and most biblical sense of the word, the work that began with them has fallen upon every pastor and minister of the Gospel today. That is because it is only in Jesus Christ that hope is found. And by coming to His cross, we are called to leave our old selves there and embark upon the course of a new life that follows Him exclusively. There must be a break—a definite break—with our former manner of life. To bring our old habits and our old thought patterns into the Christian life is not only to diminish its import in our lives, but to weaken its distinctiveness in the eyes of the world. These Corinthian church members had yet to learn that. And Paul was compelled by his call to not allow that to continue.
I believe that most of us here this morning want desperately to identify with Paul as we read and study this passage, even though we are probably more like the Corinthians than we care to admit. As we get ready to enter the next several chapters of this epistle, don’t be too surprised if you begin to feel as if you are reading your own story.
That’s what the Scriptures do. They expose our sin and reveal our desperate need for a Savior. They also point us to the only One who is able to meet our need, Jesus Christ. It was He who left heaven’s glory to come to this earth on a rescue mission for sinners like us. He lived the kind of life we could never live—one that was completely free of sin—and died the death we should have died. With arms extended on a cross and blood pouring from His nail-scarred hands and feet and His thorn-pierced brow, He offered forgiveness to those who would turn from their sin, trust Him, and follow Him in a life of discipleship. It is an honor that is still being made, because His blood has lost none of its power.
Once they repent and believe the Gospel, Jesus commands His followers to identify with Him through water baptism. This morning we have the privilege of witnessing the testimony of one who comes to publicly declare his allegiance to Jesus Christ. The Lord left two ordinances for His church to observe in His absence. Last week, we as believers partook of the bread and the cup in celebration of the Lord’s Supper together. This morning we joyfully concur with the one who publicly identifies with Christ through believer’s baptism.
May we observe, and may we be challenged by what we see and hear.