Where does one begin, to bring harmony and peace to a church filled with division and strife? Men of influence, respected as teachers, were at odds with each other on several important issues. Many of these issues were of a practical nature, yet serious enough to affect the life and spiritual well-being of this congregation. The church was divided into parties, each having its own leaders and each claiming to itself—as we have noticed—a prominent preacher or apostle as their authority. Bitterness and resentment had built up between brothers and sisters in the Lord, making church a very undesirable place to be. Rather than looking forward to gathering in God’s house with fellow saints, God’s people dreaded being there. People were looking at one another with suspicion and pride. After church, they divided into their little groups, having little to do with others. Where does one begin to bring harmony and healing to a church so divided and at odds with each other?
Paul starts from the top down. He addresses first of all their horrible misconception of the spiritual leaders God used to establish and build this church. He addresses this in the first few chapters of Corinthians. Using himself and Apollos as examples, since both of them had been preachers who served this church, he explains how God built this congregation. The church did not belong to Paul who planted it. Neither did it belong to Apollos who watered it. The church is God’s vineyard or husbandry. It belongs to God.
Now, it may seem as if Paul continues to address this issue in the chapter before us, and perhaps in a certain sense he does. But remember, he is attempting to fix the problems in this congregation. And, as I said, he is doing this from the top down. The members of the church must learn to respect the offices Christ ordained in the church. The men of influence in the congregation were not merely ignoring the rule of the elders and ministers, they were badmouthing them. These members felt it to be their right to ignore the rule of God’s Word to render their officebearers double honor. That this was a rule that was in place is evident from Old Testament Scripture already. When Miriam rebelled against the rule of Moses, God’s ordained servant, she was struck with leprosy. When little children mocked Elisha, calling him bald head, two she bears came from the forest and killed them. So the examples can go on.
God is sorely displeased with members of the church who treat officebearers in the church as incompetent and having no authority. God is angry with those who lift themselves up in pride, publicly slandering and criticizing preachers of the gospel who have faithfully served in office. God will judge those who trample over the rule of elders who have prayerfully and quietly served the church in their work. We sorely need instruction in this area today too: proper honor and respect must be held for those whom God has placed in authority over us in the church. This rule must be followed if peace is to prevail in the church.
For that reason, God’s Word gives us the instruction in I Corinthians 4:1, 2. We study these verses in today’s broadcast. We read, “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.” In these few words Paul describes how we are to view the ministers of the gospel. He also gives warning to these ministers that they must be faithful. Let us examine these verses a little more closely.
I. Their Identity
“Let a man so account of us,” Paul writes. Of whom? Of those who have been called and ordained into the office of pastor and teacher in the church. Paul makes reference to himself, the other apostles, and to every man who is properly called and sent by the church of Jesus Christ to administer the Word of God in the church. Paul here refers to those whom Christ has appointed through His church to preach the gospel. The assessment of every man, woman, and child in the church, of those ordained by the church into the office of preacher is that they are ministers and stewards of Christ. These are a pastor and teacher’s credentials. The members of the church must acknowledge and account of us, Paul writes, as ministers and stewards of Christ—nothing less. Such men come with this accreditation from Christ, who is the head of the church. In this connection Paul uses two terms to describe the particular office of pastor and teacher in the church. He is both a minister of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. One of these terms describes the lowliness of his office; the other the loftiness of his work and calling. Both terms serve to point out the official function he serves in the church as representative of Christ Himself. That, of course, stands on the foreground. We consider these two designations.
First of all, those lawfully called and sent by the church are “ministers of Christ.” The term “minister” originally referred to a galley slave—a man who sat below the deck of a ship and drew an oar to propel the ship through the water. This task was ascribed to the most menial of slaves or prisoners. As time went on, however, the term was used more generally to refer to a servant who was a personal attendant of a man of rank. It is probably this latter meaning of the term that Paul refers to in the Word of God before us. Those whom Christ through His church has called and ordained into the ministry of the Word are servants who, because of their calling, have become the personal attendants of Christ.
This teaches us, first of all, something about Christ. Christ possesses the highest rank and authority in His church. He is the head and we are members of His body who obey the directives of the head. To use another figure, Christ is the king of the church. We are His citizens. Christ reigns and we are subject to His will. Through His death on the cross, Christ redeemed His people from the power and dominion of sin and Satan. At the cross Christ conquered our enemies and purchased unto Himself the church. The church is, therefore, Christ’s possession. Because this is true, Christ earned the right to rule over His church. Such authority to rule over His church was given to Christ through His resurrection and ascension. Christ now sits at God’s right hand and rules over all things on behalf of God. He is given by God to be Head over the church. This means, then, that those who have been called to do the work of the ministry are both called and appointed by Jesus Christ to be His personal attendants.
We learn therefore that, in the second place, the minister of Christ must serve his Master. He is set in place to do the will of Christ. A professor of mine in the Seminary once offered some personal advice to his students. He explained that we ought not to listen to people. Now, he did not mean that we should be hard and callous to what people said, as if what they told us was of no consequence. I have found that a minister must always lend a listening ear to his sheep. What they say is always important to his ministry. But what our professor meant was this: do not listen to people when they are quick to criticize you. If you do, this will eventually pull you under and you will not be able to continue. There will always be critics. On the other hand, there are always flatterers too—those who are always full of compliments in an attempt to be on the good side of the pastor. Do not listen to them either, we were told, because they will give you a big head and you will begin to trust in your own arm of strength rather than leaning on Jesus Christ. They will make you proud and arrogant.
You have one Lord and master you must please, he told us, and you had better make sure that you please Him. Christ is the One you must please. You are His minister. You are His slave. You are His personal attendant to do what He has called you to do in the church. What Christ demands of you goes beyond what any man requires of you. Make sure you attend to the calling Christ has placed upon you.
That was sound advice. Paul was deeply aware of this in his own ministry. He writes in verse 4 of this chapter, “he that judges me is the Lord.” When the preacher gives us hard instruction from the pulpit, it is only because this is required of him by his Lord and Master. When the Word of God is brought in all its force,then we bow before that Word. When instruction is given, or reproof, we hear it as from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself. That, then, is one term Paul uses to describe the minister of the gospel.
The second one is this: ministers are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” This title defines for us the position or rank of Christ’s personal attendants in His church: they are stewards. A steward was a well-trusted servant of a householder whom he placed above all the affairs of his house. This particular servant, though a servant, had shown himself honest and trustworthy in his labors. He had proved to his master that he genuinely loved his master and family, and was truly concerned for the welfare of his family. So trusted was the steward that the householder would often place him in charge of his finances and even his own children. Obviously, the steward held a high position in the household. He was given a place of honor and authority over the other servants. He directed everything on behalf of the master. Yet, he was always subservient to his lord. He could not act in his own interests or the interests of others. He served his lord and was answerable to him for everything he did.
Such is the minister of the gospel to the church. He holds a position of honor and authority in the church of Jesus Christ. Christ is his master. But Christ has placed him to serve as His steward over the household of God. He rules there—along with the elders, of course. He does not rule the church on his own. Neither is he above the rule of the elders in the church. But that is not the point of this designation either. A minister is placed by Christ over his household, the church. The minister therefore guides the church. He cares for the church on behalf of Christ. And he does so officially. Christ has appointed him. Not the other servants of Christ’s household. It is true that the church elects its pastor by means of a congregational meeting. But though he is elected by the church, we must understand that Christ Himself has chosen this servant to guide His church.
This is why the minister, with the elders, is counted worthy of double honor in the church. He is appointed by Christ through His church to serve in an office of the church—that of steward. Paul’s point was to the church of Corinth, and God’s point is to His church today: do not despise the man in this office. Just because he is exposed in all his labors in the church does not mean the members of the church may judge his labors, criticize his labors, or, worse, slander him in his labors. This is exactly what was happening in Corinth. The Word of God before us today was intended to put an end to this. Paul says, “You, men and women of the church, must so account of your pastor as a minister and steward of Christ.” That is the place Christ has given him in your midst. By despising his place among you, you create schism and mutiny in your church.
II. Their Calling
This is true because the minister of the gospel is called to perform a certain task in the church. He is to be the steward of the mysteries of God. That is the labor he is called to perform in particular. This means, that the pastor and teacher is not to be respected for who he is personally. He is a sinner just like everyone else in the church. He is saved in the blood of Jesus Christ just like every member of the church of Jesus Christ. He belongs to the office of believers just like every other member. But he is to be held in honor because his work is to make known the mysteries of God to the church of Jesus Christ.
Now, we need to determine what these mysteries of God are in order to understand the position and work of a minister of the gospel. We all know what a mystery is. Most often when we think of it we think of a good mystery novel. A crime is committed but it is hidden from everyone as to who committed that crime. It is a mystery that needs solving. Sometimes the one who committed the crime remains always a mystery because the crime is not solved. Other times, by means of evidence found, the person who committed the crime is caught because the mystery is solved. Well, such are the mysteries of God. They are the hidden truths of salvation that God does not make known to the reprobate man and woman of this world. God has hidden these truths of salvation from them so that they do not understand them as plain as they might be to the believer. They always remain an unsolved mystery to the reprobate man; God hides from him the things of the kingdom of heaven. This is why the wicked man rejects the Scriptures—because they are a mystery of God not revealed to him. Why do people of this world refuse to acknowledge sin and their need for salvation? It is one of those mysteries hidden from man’s sin-darkened mind. Why do people refuse to believe on Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God made flesh? Why do people not look for the coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time? And we can go on asking this question about so many other truths of Scripture. The answer to them all is that these are unresolved mysteries to them. They make no sense to his unbelieving mind.
But for the believer, in whom God has worked by His Spirit and grace, these mysteries are solved. God has revealed them all to us. We understand them and embrace them with believing hearts. We love them. They are precious to us. The sum of them is of absolute value to the hearts and mind of a believing saint. We cannot hear enough concerning them.
This is where the task of the steward of Christ comes in. He makes known to God’s people those mysteries. They are made known by means of the preaching of the Word of God. Through the preaching and the work of the Spirit, God reveals to His people the mysteries of His kingdom. God places this work into the hands of the preachers, His ministers, to perform in the midst of His household, the church. This is the work of the minister. This is what he must devote his life and work to: making known from God’s Word the mysteries of salvation.
This is what God’s people need to hear. This is what they need to live. The Word of God must be preached for the spiritual well-being of the church of Christ. So Paul’s command to every minister and steward of Christ is this: preach the Word in season and out of season! When he does, the response of Christ’s saints, the members of the church, must be that of thankfulness—not harsh criticism, not slander, but pure and simple gratitude! To slam the preacher, to slander his good name, says Paul, is like biting the hand that feeds you! The preacher is here to feed God’s sheep. He devotes himself to that calling. Is he always perfect in doing so? No, he is a weak man and a sinner. But the faithful minister takes his calling seriously! He as a wise steward cares for the needs of Christ’s household. He feeds them with the Word of the gospel. The office of the preacher must be highly honored and the man himself in that office treated with respect.
III. Their Requirement
But, we learn in verse 2, this also requires of the minister as steward that he be found faithful. Paul does not write this, of course, as a reason for the members of the church to dishonor the minister. The members of the church may not reason to themselves, “Well, my minister is not faithful in his work, therefore I do not need to show him honor.” He is not feeding me with the pure Word, therefore I can publicly criticize him or stand in judgment over him, perhaps even slander his good name. That is not why Paul adds this verse. Paul adds this for the minister’s sake, to remind him of his calling.
A minister must show himself to be faithful to the truth of God’s Word, applying himself diligently to making known the mysteries of the kingdom. He must mine from Scripture the deep truths of God. He must in season and out of season preach God’s Word. He must not shun to declare to God’s people the mystery of godliness. He must apply himself diligently in order that he might show himself a workman who needs not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of God. Then he will be faithful to Christ, his Master and Lord. That is what counts. It is a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment. The one whose judgment must be feared is Christ. Christ’s stewards must satisfy Him! God’s people must thank God for the care He shows them through the ministers and stewards He sends into His church. In turn, God gives His ministers and stewards faithfulness in their work and calling.