The Work of the Ministers of Christ. 1 Cor. 4, 1—21.

Faithfulness required: V. 1. Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. V. 2. Moreover, it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful. V. 3. 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. V. 4. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified; but He that judgeth me is the Lord. V. 5. 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; and then shall every man have praise of God. The apostle had shown the relation of himself and the other teachers to the Church of Christ, to the temple of God, namely, that they are servants. But from that it does not follow that the Christians are the masters of their teachers. God is the Householder, the Master, and therefore all those that formed factions in the congregation at Corinth, and thus presumed to judge and censure other teachers than their own adopted chief, were usurping a function which properly belongs to Christ alone. So, in this way, he says, let a man think, account of us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. That is the right, the proper way in which every person, but especially the members of the Christian congregations, should regard the apostles and all ministers of Christ. Thus they should think of them, this reasonable estimate they should have of them at all times. Servants of Christ they are, the word originally denoting rowers in a galley, but later used for domestic servants that enjoyed the trust of their master, that were, in a manner of speaking, assistants: thus the men that work in the doctrine are the trusted servants of Christ. And they are stewards of the mysteries of God. "The steward was the master's deputy in regulating the concerns of the family, providing food for the household, seeing it served out at the proper times and seasons, and in proper quantities. He received all the cash, expended what was necessary for the support of the family, and kept exact accounts, which he was obliged at certain times to lay before the master." 27) Thus the ministers are the stewards of the mysteries of God; they are in charge of, and are responsible to God for the administration of the means of grace, through which God reveals to men and imparts to them the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus. "What, then, are these mysteries of God? Nothing but Christ Himself, that is, faith and the Gospel of Christ; for everything that is preached in the Gospel is placed at a distance from the senses and reason and hidden before all the world; nor may they be obtained except only through faith, as He Himself says, Matt. 11, 25: I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." 28) This description of the apostle fitly includes all the work of the true minister's office in every respect, beyond which no congregation should go in making demands on the pastor's ability and time. "We have, then, the apostle's statement in these words that a servant of Christ is a steward of the mysteries of God, that is, he should regard himself, and have himself regarded, as preaching and giving nothing else to the members of God's household than only Christ and concerning those that are in Christ; that is, he should preach the pure Gospel, the pure faith, that Christ alone is our Life, Way, Wisdom, Power, Praise, and Salvation, etc., and that our things are nothing but death, error, foolishness, powerlessness, shame, and damnation. Him that preaches otherwise, no man should regard as a servant of Christ and as a steward of divine treasures, but shun him as a messenger of the devil." 29)

From the statement of v. 1 Paul now makes a plain inference: Since this is the case, it remains that the quality sought for in the stewards is that faithful every one be found. That, to be sure, is a demand, but it is the only demand that can and should be made, that the minister of Christ be faithful in his stewardship. The Lord does not require, as Luther says, that he be so holy as to raise up the dead by his very shadow, or that he be as wise as all the prophets and apostles were. Neither does he ask that he be a spirited orator, a witty conversationalist, a good mixer, nor any of the many other points which nowadays are mentioned as essential qualities of a pastor. Of all these things the Lord says nothing. He wants only that His stewards administer the Word of God, preach the Gospel, bring forth the necessary spiritual food out of the rich treasury of God's mysteries, making use of the proper pastoral wisdom: that is the faithfulness which the Lord seeks in His servants. This includes that a faithful pastor should rebuke the prevalent sins in his congregation and in the world round about it, that he should call the sinners to repentance, that he should deny the hardened sinners the sweet comfort of the Gospel, that he should reject all schemes which will lead to cheap popularity, that he, above all, should not grow weary in following the lost lambs and sheep of the flock of Christ, that he should bear all the members of his congregation in his heart and make remembrance before God for them in his prayers.

And if a pastor is thus faithful, making use of the talents which the Lord has given him in his pastoral work, then he may say with the apostle: But to me it is a small matter that I am judged by you or by any human day of judgment; on the other hand, neither do I try myself, v. 3. Paul was, in a manner of speaking, on trial in Corinth; the members were passing judgment upon his talents, upon his motives, upon his administration. But it does not cause him serious concern that this is the case, that his person and work were being investigated ; he thinks lightly of any human judgment, does not even ask his own, does not even try himself. Arraigned before the bar of all these human opinions, Paul calmly states that he estimates all their findings as amounting to very little in comparison with that of his heavenly Master. For, as he goes on to say, he is conscious of no special charge against himself in his work as a minister of Christ; he has done his labor as steward with all the faithfulness of a believing heart. He knows, of course, that by this fact he is not justified before the one highest tribunal; for He that has the final sentence is the Lord, and the apostle cannot hope to stand acquitted until the Lord's examination has come to a close. Experience has taught Paul that he cannot rely upon the verdict of his conscience apart from that of Christ. He knew that in his flesh dwelt no good thing, Rom. 7, 18, that even the good which he performed could not be performed without the participation of the sinful flesh. Therefore he relies upon the grace and mercy of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He knows that the same Lord that has charge of the final examination is the Lord that justifies sinners, even with regard to their secret faults. "Since Paul accepted justification by faith in Christ, not his innocence, but his Savior's merit has become his fixed ground of assurance." 30)

And so he adds a word of gentle, but emphatic warning: So, then, do not indulge in judging before the time, do not be premature in passing sentence in my case or in that of any other minister. All judgments should rather be held in abeyance until the Lord comes. When the Lord shall appear for the great final trial, then we can and must agree with His findings. For He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will reveal the counsels of the hearts. Before the eyes of man most of the things that are found in the innermost recesses of the heart are absolutely unknown and therefore cannot be adduced in a trial. But before the all-seeing eye of God all things are open; He will disclose the secrets hidden in darkness, especially the motives that actuated men in the performance of their duties. He will make manifest the counsels of the hearts; the innermost motives and desires crystallize in the thoughts of the heart, in projects of various kinds, whether for good or for evil. Then it will be known definitely whether it was faithfulness and obedience to the Word of God which actuated the servants of Christ; then the full measure of their love for Christ and for the immortal souls entrusted to their care will be shown. All human investigations and trials, all premature judging and condemning, will then be brought to shame, as Luther says, "just as though I should intend to weigh eggs on a scale, and would weigh them according to their shells alone, leaving the yolks and the whites outside." And then, in the just judgment of God, praise will come upon every one from God. In the same measure as the Lord finds faithfulness flowing from the love of Christ and the believers, in that measure will He openly bestow praise upon every one of His ministers and stewards, not from vague opinions and estimates, but from the clearness of omniscient knowledge. Christ's commendation, judging on God's behalf, alone is of value, a reward that might well be coveted by every pastor. "Praise the Corinthian partisans lavished on their admired leaders: this is God's prerogative, let them check their impertinent eulogies."

All spiritual gifts from God: V. 6. And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes, that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. V. 7. 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? In order to make the illustration more concrete, and to bring it home to his readers with greater force, Paul purposely made reference principally to the relations between him and Apollos on the one side and the congregation on the other. In the way in which he had put the entire matter before them, it was adapted to the situation as it concerned these two teachers. And this he had done on their account, for their better instruction, since they might not have gotten his meaning so readily if he had spoken in a more general way. His rebuke is directed to the people that manifested the disagreeable and sinful party spirit, and in no way implicates the men that had been made the heads of the Corinthian factions without their knowledge and consent. And his purpose was that his readers, from the very teachers whom they were dishonoring by their wranglings, should learn a different rule and method of procedure, namely, not to go beyond that which is written. They should observe the rule of Scripture, they should follow the injunction which is repeated so often, that all honor be given to God. And from that it follows that none of them should be puffed up each for his own teacher, against the other. That was the disagreeable, the objectionable feature of the entire movement in Corinth, that every one prided himself in his own teacher and leader at the expense of all the others. Ostensibly for the glorification of Paul those that called themselves after his name bragged against those that did the same thing with reference to Apollos. But in the final analysis the boasting of every party was of itself, of its own cleverness in choosing such a learned and gifted champion. If we appreciate the servants of Christ in our midst rightly, if we always keep in mind the revealing light of the great day that is coming, then all such manifestations of carnal-mindedness will vanish in our congregations and we shall hesitate to require more in our pastors than that they are assistants of God for the edification of the congregation.

The folly of their conceited behavior is brought home to the Corinthian Christians by three pointed questions: For who distinguishes thee, sets thee in a class or party by thyself? Who gave them the right and warrant to observe such foolish distinctions, to form cliques and brotherhoods in this fashion? Also: Moreover, what hast thou that thou didst not receive? All the spiritual gifts in the possession of the congregation at Corinth, including that of having had faithful pastors, were merciful presents at the hand of God, and there was nothing in themselves that merited any consideration from God. They had no work of which they could boast before God, no divine wisdom, no regeneration, no faith, no love, nothing at all as their own performance and product: it was all God's grace. And therefore finally: If, however, thou didst indeed receive all these gifts by the mercy of God, why boast as one that had not received them ? What vain conceit, what empty boasting, what unwarranted pride in the gift of their teachers, in which they themselves had no part! To have received everything out of free grace and mercy and still to boast is a most offensive contradiction. Only the most humble prayer, praise, and thanksgiving should at all times be found in the mouth of all Christians. "He can have little acquaintance with his own heart who is not aware of the possibility of pride lurking under the exclamation, Why me! when comparing his own gracious state with the unregenerate state of another."

The status of the heralds of salvation: V. 8. Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us; and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you. V. 9. 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. V. 10. We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised. V. 11. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; v. 12. and labor, working with our own hands; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it; v. 13. being defamed, we intreat; we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. The behavior of the Corinthians had resulted in a most unfortunate condition, namely, in this, that they believed themselves perfect in their congregational life and wanting in nothing. In scornful irony, Paul sets this fact before them, with an abruptness which shows the excitement that was agitating him: Thus soon you are glutted; thus soon you have grown rich; without our aid you have obtained your kingdom! The apostle brings out an intentional climax in deriding their false contentment, their vain self-sufficiency, their lofty bearing. They thought they knew it all in spiritual matters, that all further instruction was superfluous and therefore unwelcome. So soon did they have their fill, so fully instructed they believed themselves to be, so abounding in knowledge and understanding that they resented the idea of being told a further truth. So rich in spiritual talents and graces they felt themselves to be that any intimation of spiritual poverty was extremely distasteful to them; they had all the bearing of the newly rich, an ostentation of wealth which corrupted their spiritual possessions; for any one that is satisfied with his knowledge in spiritual matters shuts himself off from further gain. But the height of their complacent foolishness was reached in this, that some of the Corinthian Christians believed themselves to have attained to a state in which they fondly and fatuously considered themselves in full possession of the promised kingdom. They had not only outgrown Paul's teaching, they not only resented the idea of his having anything more to impart to them. The disgrace of the foolish, the lowliness of the weak, the cross of the persecuted, no longer existed for them. For them the kingdom had begun, not in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, but in outward observation. Where both the unfathomable depths of sin and the unattainable heights of mercy's glory are not understood, there shallow Christians, as in our days, deceive themselves and dream of a kingdom of Christ here on earth and of the earth which, in spite of all the beautiful Scripture-phrases with which it is praised, is essentially earthly and has nothing in common with the true kingdom of Christ. But Paul, in his great grief over the blindness of the Corinthians, calls out: And I would indeed that you had come into your kingdom! If only it were true, that we also might share your reign with you! If that time were only here, in order that we might be delivered from all the evil of the present persecutions and distresses!

This bitter cry over the ingratitude of men Paul now substantiates: For in my opinion God has exhibited us, the apostles, as the last, as men appointed for death. Paul has in mind either a public procession on a great festival day, in which the condemned criminals on their way to the arena marched last, or he thinks of gladiators who, no matter how often they escaped death on one day or during one season, were always brought forth again and were thus doomed to die. That was the disgrace to which the apostles were subjected: they had become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. Just as far as the range of their labors extended, over the entire world then known, so far they were set forth to public contempt, both men here below and the invisible watchers around and above them marking the spectacle.

The apostle now names some of the details in which some of the disgrace becomes apparent: We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ, v. 10. The ministers of Christ must pass for fools, because they preach Christ crucified, a message which in no way conforms with the wisdom of the world. But the Corinthians, and many of their followers at the present time, are wise, sensible, they are very careful about keeping on good terms with the world, the confession of Christ being kept discreetly in the background. Note that the apostle speaks in a tone of irony and scorn throughout. He continues: We are weak, but you are strong. The conduct of the Corinthians intimated that they did not think Paul had made use of the proper energy in his work, that the mere preaching of the Gospel was not sufficient in their learned city. In contrast with this weakness, they were determined to show the proper spirit and power, they proudly paraded a show of ability to do the work of the Lord after their own manner. And finally: You in honor, but we in dishonor. They were splendid, glorious; their ideas of world improvement were wonderful and inclusive and projected great things for the Church of God. In comparison with them the apostles were without all esteem, in shame and disgrace. Paul felt that he and his simple, foolish Gospel had no show at all where such wonderful plans were being matured.

Purposely Paul continues in his strain of describing his own condition: To this very hour we both hunger and thirst and are ill-clad, v. 11. He shared the fate of the people poor in this world's goods, as so many of his followers have since his time. And we are violently treated, the violence sometimes extending to physical mistreatment, to blows and fisticuffs. We have no definite home; Paul might always expect to be obliged to flee on account of persecutions. And we work hard, laboring with our own hands. All the work of his ministry was hard labor; but, in addition, Paul chose to support himself with manual labor, Acts 18, 3; 20, 34. Note that the words of the apostle find their application to this very hour, in the midst of our so-called enlightened civilization, and that many a minister endures the same afflictions, even to the last, not from choice, but from necessity — more's the pity!

With this sad condition, with the specific hardships which he had to endure, agreed the spirit which Paul was wont to show at all times: Reviled to our faces, deeply insulted, we bless. What the world believes to be an abject, cowardly spirit is the mark of the servants of Christ, and it takes more character to bear an insult in silence and reply with a blessing than to revile in return. Persecuted, we endure it; the servants of Christ use neither physical force to resist the evil, nor do they try to evade it by betraying their Lord; they put up with all such conditions patiently. Being slanderously spoken of, we entreat; for defaming speeches the ministers of Christ return dissuasions. In everything their aim is, if possible, to gain the enemy: they beg men not to be wicked, but to return to a better mind, to be converted to Christ. And now the apostle presents the very climax of degradation: As the rinsings of the world we have become, as the scraping of all things. He compares himself and the other ministers of Christ to the scum, the dregs, the last sediment in a dirty kettle that must be scraped off; and to the dirt which is scraped from the shoes after one has waded through filth and mire. That is what the faithful ministers of the Gospel are in the eyes of the world, like "the filth that one gets rid of through the sink and the gutter." And these terms, as here used, may have a further significance. For the words were used "especially of those condemned criminals of the lowest class who were sacrificed as expiatory offerings, as scapegoats in effect, because of their degraded life. It was the custom at Athens to reserve certain worthless persons who in case of plague, famine, or other visitations from heaven might be thrown into the sea, in the belief that they would 'cleanse away,' or 'wipe off,' the guilt of the nation." (Lightfoot.) Note: The temper of the world has changed but little since the time of Paul, although there is a veneer of kindness and toleration for the ministers of the Gospel. At the slightest supposed provocation and suspicion, however, the mask is withdrawn, and it is plainly shown that, as Luther says, they are regarded "as the world's sweepings and everybody's refuse and doormat." 31)

The apostle's fatherly discipline: V. 14. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. V. 15. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel. V. 16. Wherefore I beseech you, Be ye followers of me. V. 17. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. V. 18. Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. V. 19. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. V. 20. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. V. 21. What will ye? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness? The apostle had written the last passage in holy indignation; like a stream, his speech had poured forth portraying the afflictions which were heaped upon the ministers of the Lord. And he can almost feel the deep humiliation, the feeling of confusion which must enter the hearts of his readers at this point. As a wise teacher, therefore, he adds a section which is intended to prevent their becoming embittered. He could indeed not bring out his rebuke without making them feel humiliated, but this feeling should lead to a true childlike reverence of his position and words. His severity springs from the anxious heart of a father that feels the deepest concern for his children: Not by way of shaming you do I write this, but by way of warning you as my beloved children. He regarded them still with the fullness of paternal affection, and it grieved him that they should be showing evidence of such unfilial behavior, hence his urgent appeal to them.

Paul substantiates his right to such fatherly admonition: For though you had ten thousand pedagogs in Christ, yet not many fathers. The word pedagog, in those days, denoted the family slave whose duty it was to bring the boys to school and to accompany them home. They had charge of the boys also during the hours not spent in school and thus assisted in their training. St. Paul here applies the word to the other teachers that may have been in Corinth, good and legitimate teachers indeed, doing their work in Christ and for His glory. Of these they may have had ever so many, yet they had only one father, only one that could be connected with them in the bonds of true fatherly affection: For in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you. They were his spiritual children, their call to the fellowship of Jesus Christ, their regeneration was due to his personal work; that is what makes them so near and dear to him. Cp. I Pet. 1, 23; 1 Thess. 1, 5; 2, 19; John 6, 63.

Of his right as father the apostle now makes use: I beseech you, then, become imitators of me, v. 16. The children should show the character of the father, they should make him their model, they should imitate him, they should follow him in his conduct as a Christian and true disciple of the Lord. If this way was one of cross and affliction (vv. 9—12), it would incidentally serve to strengthen their character and to make them safer against denial, now and in the days to come. In order that this object might be accomplished, Paul had either just sent, or was sending with this letter, his young assistant, whom he calls a beloved child of his and faithful in the Lord, 1 Tim. 1, 2; 2 Tim. 1, 2. Timothy had also been converted through the work of Paul, had through his efforts derived spiritual life, and was therefore regarded by the apostle as a true son. And since his characteristic, through the agency of the Lord Jesus Christ in his heart, was faithfulness in his Christian conduct, therefore he was the very man for this mission: Who shall remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere, in every congregation. The Corinthians had evidently forgotten, not only a large part of Paul's doctrine, but also his habits of life which he showed in their midst; their knowledge had been repressed by those evil influences which Paul has spoken of throughout the letter. No more fitting person, therefore, could have been found to recall both the conduct and the words of Paul than the man whom Paul had selected as his representative, who would do his reminding in accordance with Paul's teaching, for this was uniform in all the Gentile congregations. For they surely did not want to separate themselves from that apostolic doctrine which was in vogue everywhere; they would surely heed the kind admonition of his personal representative and return to proper Christian sanity.

And lest some of the Corinthians might be tempted to misconstrue the mission of Timothy, Paul hastens to add: But as though I am not coming to you, some have been puffed up. Since the apostle was not coming in person at this time, a group of persons, probably hostile to Paul's ways, were beginning to spread bragging surmises. They conducted themselves all the more insolently as they thought that Paul might be afraid of them. But their presumption was destined speedily to come to naught, for the apostle announces his intention to come speedily, just as soon as he can make arrangements to that effect. This he writes in emphatic calmness and in the consciousness of the office which he is filling. But the spirit of deferring in everything to the Lord and having His will govern all his actions causes Paul to add: If the Lord will. Cp. Acts 18, 21. For he was not so conceited as to deem himself indispensable in the Church, and without the Lord he did not intend to attempt any move. But when he did come, then he would know, pay the proper attention to, not the word of the inflated ones (the blowers), but the power. About their words he was not concerned, with them he was sufficiently acquainted, hollow pretensions did not affect him at all. He wanted to ascertain only if there were some evidence of the Spirit of God in the actions that followed their bragging words. He wanted to find out whether these pretended leaders in the congregation at Corinth were showing results in their fight with sin, whether they were exhibiting actual proofs of faith and of patience in tribulation. And this he felt himself obliged to do, since not in word lies the kingdom of God, but in power. The Corinthians were placing their faith in externals, they were assuming that the kingdom of Christ, the Church in its real sense, was a visible, concrete substance. But in this they, like their modern followers, were wrong. The kingdom of Christ does not consist in paltry eloquence, in great, swelling words of vanity, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, exerted through the Word upon the hearts of men. Where this power rules, there is the kingdom of the Savior. "Faith is a living, substantial thing, renews a person entirely, changes his mind and converts him altogether. It goes down to the bottom and effects there a renewing of the whole man, that, as before I saw a sinner, I now see in his different conduct, in his different ways, in his different life, that he believes. Such a great thing it is about faith. And in this way the Holy Ghost has caused the insistence upon good works, since they are witnesses of faith. In whose case, therefore, works are not noticeable, there we can soon say and conclude: They have heard about faith, but it did not sink down to the bottom. For if thou wilt remain lying in pride and unchastity, in avarice and anger, and yet prate much of faith, St. Paul will come and say: Hear, my dear friend, the kingdom of God is not in words, but in power and deeds; it wants to live and be done, and not be performed in empty talk." 32) And therefore Paul asks, in conclusion: What would you? What do you prefer? With a rod am I to come to you, or in love as well as in a spirit of meekness? That he will come he does not leave to their decision, that is a matter of his office. But it depends upon their conduct in what way he will come. If they continue in their vain and presumptuous ways, then he will be obliged to come to them with a sharp rebuke, Titus 1, 13, in order that they might feel their disobedience. But Paul would much prefer to come with all meekness and gentleness, the evidence of his love in kindness being much more pleasant to him than sternness. He intimates to them, therefore, that they should accept the present gentle hint and warning and thus save him a disagreeable task. Note the force of the passage. "For nerve and vigor, for dignity and composed confidence, this passage cannot be easily paralleled even in Demosthenes himself." (Bloomfield.)

Summary. Paul shows the relation of the ministers of Christ to the Lord Himself, sketches the treatment usually accorded them in the world, and, as a true spiritual father, administers a rebuke to the Corinthians for their negligence in sanctity.