This is the second of a two-part series on 1 Corinthians 4, so please open up to 1 Corinthians 4 and let’s read verse 1 to remind ourselves about what we talked about last week. It says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This verse gives the summary for the two themes that are captured in the rest of the chapter.
Last week we started off a study of what 1 Corinthians 4 has to say about apostleship by looking at the first aspect, which was that Apostles are “faithful” servants and stewards of their master Jesus Christ. We then drew application from this about the importance of our own commitment to remaining “faithful” to Jesus by not changing what He has said to us in order that we might impress people because it is He who will judge us and not anyone else.
We ended last week with the challenge to go home and ask ourselves why we say what we say and do what we do – to look inside and see if we have moved away from who God wants us to be because of the pressure to conform to those around us.
This week we are looking at the second of the two descriptors Paul uses in verse 1: an apostle is a “steward of the mysteries of God”.
It is in verse 6 Paul makes the transition from talking about the apostles being faithful “servants of Christ” to being faithful “stewards of the mysteries of God”. This is the part that people normally take issue with. Most people have a problem with those who claim to be messengers from God! And rightly so! There has been a lot of abuse by people claiming to speak for God.
Don’t Go Beyond the Bible
In verse 6 Paul says,
“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. 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?”
Essentially, he’s saying, “I might be using myself and Apollos as examples, but that’s not because we are so special – it just happens that we’re the people that you guys are fighting over. The only reason I’m even mentioning us is to remind you that we are of so little importance! When you’re talking about us, arguing about us, and setting us up as your leaders, you’re completely missing the point. Your sole authority is God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. You need to stop fighting about us and get back to the Bible. Since you have left the Bible and moved way past what it says, you have gotten yourselves in trouble. Stop going beyond what is written! The reason you have become puffed up, jealous, prideful, and divided, is because you stopped reading and believing in the word of God as it was given to you. Instead, you started listening to false teachers, worldly wisdom, and false apostles who invented things that gave you troubles. I, one of the real apostles, brought you the true Gospel and opened up the mysteries of God as He had told me. I told you about Jesus, the prophets, the Law, and all you needed to know, and it was all in agreement with what God had already written, and you checked me out and then received it as truth. Jesus gives it to me, I give it to you, and then you receive. But then you went beyond it! You started to boast as if you could come up with more things than I told you, that you could learn more about God than what the Bible teaches. Stop that and get back to what you received.”
Now, there are some who would give that a hearty “Amen, preach it brother”, but there is a large swath of people inside and outside the church who don’t see it that way. Where some see the Bible as the foundational, immoveable, God-breathed, bedrock document that teaches humanity everything they need to know about God, salvation, faith, life, religion and priorities – or as Ephesians 2:20-21 puts it, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”, others see it as more of a starting point.
It was good at one time, but now we’ve moved beyond it. It is for an old era full of foolish ancients, and we are the new, enlightened, modern people who know more and better than they. Maybe there are a few things we can learn, but it’s mostly an untrustworthy jumble of religious nonsense, patriarchal bias, and religious rules that don’t apply to our more progressive and free-thinking society. The Corinthian mindset has not gone away.
I don’t intend to give an apologetic defense of why the Bible is God’s Word this morning, but I will say this – Christians believe that God’s Word is perfect, necessary, unchanging, and universal. It is not to be bargained with, but studied and applied.
We live by what 2 Timothy 3:12-17 says,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
You Are Kings‽
Paul says something really interesting in verse 8 that I want you to see:
“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!”
What we see here is some really intense sarcasm directed towards those who think they can go beyond what the prophets and apostles have revealed and discover more and better truths.
The Corinthians were actually on the verge of dismissing the apostles, and therefore the Word of God, altogether. They believed themselves to be better, smarter, holier, and more informed than those whom God had appointed as His chosen messengers.
They, like many churches and Christians today, had done a little studying of the scriptures, had listened to a few sermons, and thought they knew better. They threw out the things they thought were too old, dismissed the authoritative parts people didn’t like, updated some of the stories, edited the controversial parts, and then invented some things to make it more interesting. Just like today.
Keep in mind that the New Testament hadn’t even been written by this time. 1st Corinthians is one of the earliest New Testament letters, so this church didn’t have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to teach them about Jesus’s life and ministry. They didn’t have the theology of Romans or Hebrews, or the any of the other letters that address important issues. Paul and Apollos had moved away but the church still had the Old Testament, which was more than enough to keep them on the straight and narrow because it tells them a lot about Jesus. But now they had their own home-grown teachers who thought they were hot-stuff, had dropped the Bible, and were coming up with all kinds of crazy things about God, the church, worship, and morality.
So Paul uses sarcasm to call them out saying, “Wow, you guys think you have everything, don’t you? You’ve moved away from the Bible, away from the one, true, apostolic faith, and have come up with your own versions of God and Jesus. You think you’ve got it all nailed down. You’re the rich, kings of the church, outranking us poor, dumb, old apostles.”
Like today, some of these false teachers had changed the gospel message so they could become more popular, and quite frankly, richer from the proceeds of their teaching. They were lie-tellers and apostolic-frauds who lived like kings while Paul and the rest of the apostles who stuck to the truth were suffering.
So next Paul contrasts their life with his. He compares what happens to those who tell the unpopular truth with those who tell popular lies.
The Cost of Apostleship
In verse 9 he contrasts how both of them stand before crowds. The liar stands before his adoring audience, drinking in their praise and filling his pockets, while the true apostles were, “exhibited… like men sentenced to death… a spectacle to the world.” Both stood before crowds, but the Apostle stood in chains, paraded through the streets as prisoners, as Jesus was before his public execution. What a prophetic word showing what would actually happen to many of the apostles.
Being a true apostle of Jesus wasn’t a one-way ticket to easy street. Because of their willingness to preach the true message of Jesus Christ as Saviour, Lord, and God, every apostle was tortured and given the choice to change their story and deny Christ. And all of them chose torture and death instead. Why? Because they knew what they were saying was the truth and they cared more about what Jesus thought than any human authority.
We have a lot of cleaned up versions of the cross around, but crucifixion was the worst possible death imaginable, and there wasn’t just one way to crucify someone. Part of the torture was that they would nail your wrists, feet, and other parts of your body, to the wood and suspend you in many different postures, just for their amusement. If they hung you right-side up, it wouldn’t be long before your arms would give out and your shoulders come out of their sockets. Most would try to put weight on the nail driven through their feet, but couldn’t last long. Some would die from sheer blood loss, others by slowly suffocating as their position and body weight prevented them from taking a full breath, while others died of exposure as they spent days hanging in open air. Many apostles were crucified.
- The Apostles Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot were crucified like Jesus.
- Peter was crucified, upside down, by Emperor Nero. Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- James was killed publically by sword. Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Matthew was killed by a halberd (a large axe) to the back.
- At age 94 the Apostle James was stoned by a crowd of people and then beaten to death with clubs. John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
- John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
To be called as a Christian is costly – to be called as a Christian Apostle a death sentence.
Paul knew what was coming, and had already experienced some of this. He was there at the stoning of Stephen. He had met with the apostles and had seen the persecutions in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The false apostles and fake Christians would never face that because they didn’t really follow Jesus.
Look at verse 10. The apostles looked like fools for Christ’s sake, but these fakers looked like the wise ones. The apostles gave everything up, went for days without food, were rejected and imprisoned, and were seen as weak, while the well-fed fakers stayed strong and healthy.
“To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands.”
Why? Because they were preaching the truth and they knew it. They cared more about what God said than anyone else, and they knew that they had no right to change the message, no matter what anyone did to them. Their job was to be “faithful” “stewards” of the messages God had given them. Could they have fudged some details to be more popular? Sure! Could they have rounded off some of the hard teachings so that more people would like them? Sure! Could they have said they were lying to avoid torture? Sure. But they wouldn’t! Why? Because they had met Jesus and loved and feared Him more than anyone else!
The call to Apostleship wasn’t a call to popularity and success, but to service and suffering. What did they gain? Very little on earth. They weren’t venerated or held in special esteem for any part of their lives. They lived difficult lives because they knew they had a short time to spread the Gospel before God would call them home and then they would receive their reward. They had met Jesus, talked to Him, had been forgiven and saved from death, and wanted everyone to know Him too. So they traveled, wrote, preached, and faced the worst this world had to offer, so that we might know the truth about salvation through Jesus Christ.
The fakers don’t do that. As vs 12 says, the apostles blessed those who hated them, endured persecution, and begged those who slandered them to listen to the truth. They were treated “like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things”. The word picture there is that they had become like the stuff you scrape off the bottom of your shoe after walking through a farmer’s field, or the dirt you sweep off the kitchen floor and throw away. The word “refuse” was used to describe the sick and wretched Athenians who, during a plague, would be tossed into the sea to drown in order to appease the gods. Treated as human waste.
The Apostles gave everything up because of their love for and faith in Jesus and desire to pass that message on to us – and were treated like garbage for it, while the fakers pranced along healthy, wealthy and popular.
How Do You Want Me?
Verses 18-21 are very interesting and you can read the authority and love with which he speaks as he lays down a solid, fatherly threat. He says,
“Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 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. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
He writes with the heart of a father who caught his kids throwing a wild party while he was out of town. He says, “You’re acting and speaking like I’m not ever coming back and that you’re going to get away with all this nonsense! Well, unless God Himself stops me, I am definitely making a trip back and we’ll see who the real apostle is and who the false one is. Anyone can say they speak for God¸ but the proof is in the pudding – or better, the proof is in the power.”
Perhaps Paul was calling to their minds what had happened to the occult teacher Elymas when he was in Cyprus and tried to interrupt Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. It says in Acts 13:9-11, “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.’ Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.”
“So”, he asks the Corinthians, “do you want the carrot or the stick? Are you going to clean up your house before I get there so I can celebrate with you, or shall I come with rod in hand to clear out the liars, fools and enemies from among you by the power of God?”
Let me close with this: The Apostles are, as Paul says in verse 15, the fathers of our faith. They are the servants of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God. There are “countless guides” along the road of this journey called Christianity – pastors, teachers, preachers, elders, disciples, friends, and leaders – but there are very few fathers to our faith. Jesus made these men our spiritual fathers under His authority as our King and Lord, and so, we believers work hard to teach, preach and proclaim the truths they passed along to us – without messing with them. The words of scripture are not old words to be rejected or changed, nor do they bend to our opinions or preferences. They are revelations from God, given to ordinary men, but inspired by God Himself and held together for thousands of years as His consistent message to us about His Son Jesus Christ.
It should anger you that there are still so many false teachers today. It should drive you crazy that there are so many out there who believe lies about Jesus. And it should bring you to guilty repentance for any falsehood and hypocrisy you contain within yourself.
I challenge you to ask yourself. Are you following the full teachings of scripture? Are you willing to suffer for the truth?