The first three chapters contained Paul’s arguments against divisions in the young Greek church. But Paul now is transitioning to defending his own work among them.
The Corinthians were maligning Paul as weak, as unimpressive, as nothing special, and therefore they wanted to move past him. They were, perhaps, grateful for his initial work among them, but now they have outgrown him, and moved onto more “Mature” wisdom and more “refined” tastes.
But Paul again brings them in this passage back to the fundamental truths of the faith. Truths related to who we are, to who God is, and to what God has done.
This is significant because when we get any one of those things wrong, we have all sorts of problems, as we will see. We will fear man, rather than God. We will be prideful and arrogant. We will be anxious and worried. We will be timid and unstable. And we can be depressed and discouraged.
But Paul also reminds us of the solution to these temptations, and that is Christ. Christ is the great liberator, the great rescuer, who releases his people from slavery to sin and fear of condemnation, and grants them not only pardon, but also eternal rewards, which is a comfort to our souls.
Let’s read about this God and this comfort in chapter 4, verses 1-5 together:
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.
In our text this morning, I would like for us to notice three things about Paul, which can be remembered under these categories: his role, his judge, and his comfort. Paul’s role, Paul’s judge, and Paul’s comfort.
Let’s look at the first two verses and notice Paul’s role, specifically noting HOW he viewed his own role.
Paul says in verse one, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ,” or as older translations put it, “minsters of Christ.” Significantly, Paul does not use the normal words that you might expect here. He does not say we serve as ordinary bondservants or slaves of Christ, doulos in Greek. Nor does he use the standard word for that we all know for servant, diakonos, where we get the word deacon.
In fact, he uses the word ὑπηρέτaς, which is derived from a term describing an under-rower, that is, a servant that would be down in the boat, below deck and out of sight, slaving away to move the vessel. Even more than a slave who is not only deep in the bowels of the ship and far from the Corinthian conception of leadership glory, this is a person who is working away without even being able to see the direction and progress of his labor. He can’t tell where the boat is going, or how far they have been, or how far they have to go. His job is to just to faithfully obey, to quietly row, to do so without any jockeying for a better position, and to trust the leadership of the Captain of the vessel.
Far from the grand visions of top down leadership, with it’s glorious rhetoric being showered with the praise of men, Paul instead views his role, and the role of all leaders, as a role of humble servanthood, much of which is out of the sight of the people we serve.
But he doesn’t only describe his role as an under-rower. He also uses language of a steward. Again verse 1: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A steward is someone who is tasked with guarding and protecting something that belongs to another. The steward does not possess the rights of ownership, he merely safeguards whatever has been entrusted to him until the owner requests the item back.
That’s how Paul views himself. As a steward.
Significantly for us, we should note that a steward does not possess. He is not the owner. He doesn’t have full rights over it. He merely guards something precious and valuable, and stands in place of the master, looking out for his best interests.
Of what has Paul been made a steward? The Mysteries of God himself. Mystery doesn’t here mean something vague, and undiscernible, or magical. When Paul speaks of a mystery he means something that was previously hidden or unclear that has now been revealed. He’s talking about the Gospel, specifically the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ on behalf of the church.
Paul is, and all ministry leaders are, stewards of a message, a particular message, and are thus called to steward that message with faithfulness. In one sense, all Christians are called to speak the gospel with faithfulness and clarity, but pastors in particular must be faithful stewards of this mystery. We must be found faithful. It is not our message; we don’t own it. It’s not ours to tamper with or adjust. We’re stewards, not the master. We can’t shy away from preaching the hard texts or doctrines; it’s not our message to adjust.
All Christians, and Ministry leaders in particular, are called to be servants like Paul, quietly rowing away in our areas of service, and also to be faithful stewards, to be caretakers, to be ambassadors and heralds, carefully delivering the message of God’s truth that has been entrusted to us.
That’s Paul’s role. And that’s our role. We don’t all serve in the same capacity. We’re not apostles like Paul. Not all of us are Pastors or deacons. But we’re each called to act as humble servants and faithful stewards of the responsibilities and authority that has been granted us in this life.
But, if we take a moment to reflect, we’re not usually so noble in our view of our roles, are we? We tend to either exaggerate and over-estimate our role, or to demean our role. To flatter ourselves as indispensable, or to debase ourselves as meaningless. Have you ever noticed that?
For example, sometimes, we think that our work is the crucial cog in the system. Because of our pride, we can get a little messiah complex, and believe that we’re the ones that have to do everything. “If I don’t do it, it just won’t get done right.” And an attitude like that leads to all sorts of problems. We usually are impatient with others, and speak unkindly when they don’t do things our way.
Or maybe we view our role differently. We have such an inflated view of ourselves that we become overly sensitive. We take everything, every comment, every interaction, as a personal attack. If someone voices an opinion that is anything other than complete agreement and praise of our work, then we see them as a back-stabbing traitor, or as an obstacle who is impeding your progress. Or if somebody suggests that I do something differently, then I get offended because they questioned my intelligence. Hyper-sensitivity related to one’s performance is a sure sign of pride.
But the pendulum can swing in the other direction too. Pride can make us over-inflate our view of ourselves, but pride can also tempt us to demean ourselves and our roles. Pride and the devil can tempt us to think that because we aren’t the ones in the spotlight, our role is meaningless. Just because I’m not the one up front serving in the public capacity, just because my work is quiet and behind the scenes, just because nobody notices what I am doing, therefore my work must be worthless.
That’s what the world tells you, and that is exactly what Satan wants you to think. The world wants you to think that all forms service are slavery. The world says that if a woman isn’t serving in the same ways as a man, then she isn’t equal in value. Which is a lie from Satan. Likewise, the world wants you to think that you’re not important if you’re not on top. You’re not really meaningful unless you’re calling the shots. You don’t really matter, if you’re not in the spotlight.
But all this is rubbish. It is wrong for multiple reasons, but I’ll give you two. First, this perspective is wrong because it is the opposite of how the kingdom of God works. Christ makes clear that the logic of the kingdom is upside down from the world’s logic.
- The world says those on top are the ones that matter, but Christ says that the first will be last.
- The world says that those serving quietly and selflessly are just doormats, but Christ says that the last in this world will be first in heaven.
- Those who desire to be greatest in the kingdom must make themselves to be like children, like slaves, compared to others.
- They must be willing to become nothing for the sake of loving others in the name of Christ.
The world’s perspective of service is the opposite of the logic of God’s kingdom.
But, secondly, the worldly perspective which demeans our various roles is wrong because it forgets the who and the why of our role. The world gives value to your role based on who sees it, which is only partially right. The problem is that they give the emphasis to the wrong set of eyes. The value of our service doesn’t ultimately come from who sees our work in this world. The value of our service stems from the service being devoted to Christ.
That’s what Paul says in verse 1: “servants OF CHRIST” and “stewards of the mysteries OF GOD.” It is God who grants the ultimate meaning and value to our work. If we’re serving him, if our heart is oriented toward him, then our work is of value, whatever the work may be.
- If you’re caring for children and changing terrible diapers that nobody else will ever see, but you’re doing it for HIM, then your work is of eternal value.
- If you’re laboring for decades in prayer, with or without ever seeing any tangible fruit, then be encouraged that your father in heaven sees you and will reward you accordingly, as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount.
- If you’re slaving away at a dead-end job, with a frustrating boss, and you see little return for your labor, then be encouraged that God is honored through your faithful service, even if you see no earthly fruit.
Whatever our areas of responsibility, we must be careful for the two pitfalls of pride: over-inflating our importance, or demeaning our value. Whatever we do, we must remember that we are servants, and not the master. But lest we demean ourselves as mere slaves, we also must remember who is our master, God himself, and by remembering that we do all our work in His name, then we can be encouraged that all of our work, even the unseen and the thankless, all our work is of eternal significance, even if the world judges it to be useless.
And that leads to our second point, from verse 3-4, where we can see: Paul’s judge. Who is Paul’s judge.
Verse 3 again: “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.” Paul makes clear 3 parties who are NOT his judge. It is not the Corinthians who can act as his judge. They thought they were the wise ones and had the sophistication to look down upon Paul for his ungainly appearance and unimpressive rhetoric. But they were wrong. Their prideful condescension was exactly the evidence of their unsuitability to be Paul’s judge.
But Paul also lists human courts as unfit to be his judge. No worldly system, no worldly party, no worldly group, no matter how noble or virtuous, is ever fit to judge spiritual faithfulness. Indeed, as Paul already said in chapter 2, the natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit for they are spiritually discerned. Thus, it is inconceivable that any court could judge in matters of spiritual fidelity.
But Paul goes even further in verse 4 and says that he does not even judge himself. His flawed perspective and limited vantagepoint is insufficient to rightly judge the value of even his own work. Only God and God alone can see the whole picture. He is the only one who can rightly and impartially judge. He alone is un-swayed by external realities and worldly pressures. He alone is perfect in discernment and good in all his dealings.
Brothers and sisters, God’s role as the only judge in our lives is a significantly encouraging and liberating reality, and one that we are so quick to forget.
Consider this: If God’s is the only opinion that has ultimate significance in my life, then I am liberated from terrible slavery to the fear of men. I don’t have to fret and worry every time that somebody doesn’t like me. They aren’t my judge. If I haven’t sinned, then I have no reason to be anxious about their opinion of me, because God is my judge and master of my conscience, not men.
Likewise, If God is my judge and not men, then I don’t have to be a nervous wreck about my reputation. A reputation is surely important. Scripture makes clear that a good name is to be prized more jewels. But if God is my judge, then the world can hate me, and yet I can still sleep at night. If I have the smile of God, then it is of no matter that I have the world’s frown. God is my judge, not the world, not any human court, and not even my own fallible conscience.
And how is it that I can joyfully say it is a good thing to call God my judge? Judge sounds like a dreadful thing, and to attribute such a role to our loving father seems almost a sacrilege, you might say. Well I tell you that viewing God as our judge is a comfort because I know what the bible says, specifically about Christ.
The bible says that we all are born with a problem. We all were born separated from God. We had a criminal record overflowing with capital offenses against a holy Judge and His holy law. But there was another born, and his record was clean. He had no offenses, and his history was spotless. Christ came and perfectly fulfilled the law of God, which otherwise had only condemned the entire race.
And then this Christ went willingly to the cross, and stood in the place of sinful humanity before the judge of all the world. And the unbelievable happened. Christ endured in the place of sinful men, bore the punishment of death that men deserved, and God judged Christ in our place. We were granted Christ’s clean criminal history, and our sentence of death was executed on him.
That’s the great exchange of gospel grace. Sinners exonerated because Christ was judged. And God’s judgement of our sin in Christ was once and for all. That’s good news. I’ve been declared “not guilty”, I’ve been declared righteous, I’ve been justified, I’ve been granted a sentence of eternal life, not in hell, but in blissful eternity with God. That’s the good news of the judgment of God.
My sins have already been judged in Christ, and my failings have already been dealt with at Calvary. Nothing is left for me to earn, and nothing is left to condemn me to hell. I’ve been set free because another was judged in my place.
If you’re trusting in Christ, then be encouraged that you’ve been judged not guilty because of the sacrifice of Christ in your place. God has removed your sentence of death, and you’ve been declared righteous and adopted, regardless of what the world tells you, regardless of even what your conscience might tell you.
If you’re in Christ, you’re free indeed, and the only true judge has declared you to be “his beloved.”
Don’t go back to the desperation of trying to please men. Don’t go back to pandering for the approval and praise of fallen creatures. Don’t submit yourself again to a yoke of slavery, to the never-ending hamster wheel of trying to please everyone else. Think long and often about what God’s judgement of you is in Christ, and be encouraged by the liberating truth of Christ being sentenced in your place.
But, if you’re not trusting in Christ today, then I will warn you that God’s role as your judge should categorically frighten you. You have no legal covering for your sin. You have no atonement to grant you a “not guilty” verdict. You will be exposed. That’s part of what Paul says in verse 5: God, “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”
God sees the inner most reaches of your heart. God knows the twisted and selfish motives, God sees the dark thoughts and the depraved impulses. God’s vision is not obscured by your polished exterior and your deflecting good works. He will not be mocked, scripture says.
And on the basis of these things I urge you to see your sin and see God as judge and run. Run away from your sin and run into the only hope of salvation you have: which is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only one who can take care of your problem, which is sin and guilt.
He can free you from enslavement to sin because he has defeated sin and death in the cross. He’s overcome the power of sin, which is death, by his own resurrection from the grave. The worse the world could throw at him could not subdue him. His power and purity have been demonstrated when he walked out of the tomb on the third day, and later ascended to the right hand of the father in heaven.
But not only can he free you from enslavement to sin, he too can free you from the guilt of sin. Guilt and fear of condemnation are what drove Adam and Eve to hide in the bushes, and fear of condemnation likewise is what paralyzes many of us today. But the good news is that Christ liberates from the guilt of sin and fear of condemnation because he bore the wrath of all His people on the cross.
They cannot be condemned again for something that has been already judged at Calvary. Let me repeat that because it is important: you cannot be condemned again for sin that has been already judged at Calvary. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Romans 8 says. No More condemnation.
That’s the joy that a Christian can have, a joy that no court, no judge, no man could ever steal. Joy that is rock-solid because we know that there is NO POSSIBILITY of us ever being declared “Guilty” in the court of cosmic justice. That’s a joy that lets you sleep at night. That’s a joy that frees you from the fear of man. That’s a joy that liberates you from enslavement to man’s opinion.
And you can have that joy. Trust in Christ this day, and you can have that joy, regardless of who you are or what you have done. No one is too old to experience this joy. Nobody is too far gone. No sinner is too corrupted. Christ has borne the worst of sinful man’s guilt on the cross, and his righteousness is powerful enough to make the vilest of sinners clean.
What more could you want from a savior? What is lacking from Christ’s work as a redeemer? What reason could you have to possibly reject the offer of grace being extended to you? Trust in this Christ, believe today, and you too can embrace the joy of having the Judge of the universe declare you to be “not guilty,” as Paul’s judge had done of him.
Third and finally, we’ve seen Paul’s role and Paul’s judge. Now let’s briefly look at verse 5 and see Paul’s comfort. Paul’s comfort.
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.
Paul here urges the Corinthians not to prematurely judge him and his ministry. In their pride, the Corinthians were writing Paul off. Paul wasn’t flashy, Paul wasn’t attractive. Paul’s ministry was rather plain. He didn’t have many bells and whistles, and wasn’t going to attract the world to their church, and so they were judging him as inferior.
But Paul warns them not to judge too soon. Don’t judge a ministerial book by its cover, so to speak. The people of God can be tempted to judge their leaders as if the congregation is the one who is ultimately responsible to adjudicate matters of faithfulness. But that’s misinformed. While the scripturally-bound congregation is the highest earthly authority in the church, and the church IS called to a proper judgment of the character and work of a man, God himself is the final judge. “God will be the ultimate arbiter of ministerial success.”
God is judge, as we just discussed earlier, and this judge will expose that which is currently hidden. God will investigate and make clear that which is currently masked.
Paul then concludes this section of text with, “Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Or we could translate it that each one will receive his praise from God.
The main point Paul is making is that the Corinthian evaluation of his ministry was on the basis of a worldly standard of success. Paul, instead, is urging the Corinthians to remember that God is the final judge, and that God judges faithfulness, not fruitfulness. The world judges according to outward appearance, but God judges the heart.
And this again is a great encouragement to us, related to what I said earlier about rewards. God sees the heart of a man, and will commend us according to our faithful labor, not according to the fruitfulness.
For a minister, this is a great relief. I will be commended based upon the things that I CAN control, not the things I CAN’T. I’ll be judged according to MY faithfulness to the task of preaching the word and prayer, not according to the number of converts I made or the number of baptisms I did.
But as a Christian, this news is encouraging as well. You will be commended based upon your faithfulness in your role, not according to the fruitfulness of your ministry. Going back to the language of the preceding chapter, we are called to faithfully plant and water, but only God can give the growth. We’re called to faithfully parent, to faithfully instruct, to faithfully serve, but we trust the results of that service to God. He’s the one we trust with the results.
And we can sleep well at night trusting that God WILL reward faithfulness, even if we never see fruit in this life. God sees your prayers. God sees your sleepless nights up with the baby. God sees your striving in prayer, God sees your tearful pleading, God sees your diligent plodding in the Christian life. And he will commend you.
Not because your works are perfect. Not because you were so wonderful and great. Remember that Paul views this whole section under the banner that he is a servant of Christ. Paul’s not so wonderful that he has earned eternal rewards for his awesomeness. God’s grace has done it all.
But we can be even further encouraged that God’s grace overflows into us being drafted as servants in his kingdom, as under-rowers of Christ, who share in the joy of the labor, and who will taste in the gracious rewards and the blessed commendation of the Father. Just as Christ heard from heaven, “this is my son in whom I am well pleased,” so too will we hear the commendation of the father in heaven, who will express his good pleasure in us, for our labors of faithfulness in this life. May we all press on in the faith, encouraged that God sees our work, and that he will commend us accordingly in due time.
That was Paul’s comfort, and that can be ours as well.
 D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 98.