Biblical View of Ministry – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Good morning everyone! A warm welcome to all who have joined us this morning at the hall and online as well. As we sit under the preaching of God’s Word this morning, I want to remind us of this verse from Hebrews 4:12 which tells us about the significance of what’s taking place as we open up God’s Word:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

It’s not a pep talk. It’s not best practices on how to live your life. This is the living and active word of God whose purpose is to reveal the intentions of our hearts.

So with that in mind, we will continue in our series from 1st Corinthians titled The Church: God’s Dwelling Place. And we’ve already seen this theme play out – God’s chosen residence is not a building or a temple or a religious place.

God’s chosen residence is among those He redeemed in Christ – the church. God takes great pleasure in declaring that His residence is in His people and not in a building.

And today we’ve arrived at Chapter 4. But before we move ahead, let’s pray and ask God to prepare our hearts to receive His word.

I’d like to start our time today by asking an open-ended question. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. The question is this “If Instagram was the only window available for the world into the church, how would the world describe the job of a pastor? If your non-church going friends were to only look at Instagram (think about all the top church handles), how would they describe the role of a pastor to you?”

They’d probably say strong communicator, motivational speaker, magnetic personality, good looking, well dressed, phenomenal leader & even influencer. I remember someone from one of my previous churches telling me that the main job of the pastor was of administration.

So it’s not just people on the outside, but sometimes even the people within the church are not particularly clear on what the role of a pastor is.

And that’s why passages like the one we’re studying today is apt because it clarifies for us on what is a biblical view of ministry. It’s not adapted from culture. It’s not coming out of human experience. It’s God’s view and expectation from Christian ministry.  

But some of us may wonder “why is it important for me to have a biblical view of ministry because I’m not called to be a pastor?”

Well, firstly it’s important to have a biblical view of ministry because it’ll help us discern and speak up when leaders stray from their pastoral calling.

Secondly, it’s important to have a biblical view of ministry so that we can offer the right kind of support needed for pastors and ministers to be able to do what God has called them to. That’s why it’s so critical for the whole church to have a biblical view of ministry.

So how does this passage break this down for us. 3 things:

1. Humble Role of ministry (v1-2)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 

Just a little bit of context to help us understand this passage – The Corinthian church was a divided church at that time. Members in their church had formed certain fan clubs based on the leaders that they associated themselves with (be it with Paul, Apollos or Peter).

And these fan clubs ended up warring against each other – they engaged in a bitter fight over a long period of time. It became evident that they were more concerned about their loyalty to their leaders than their loyalty to Jesus Christ.

And Paul is basically telling them that they are getting it all wrong. They were merely servants who were assigned to help the Corinthian church be loyal to Christ. They were not meant to distract them from their loyalty to Jesus Christ. That’s the background to this passage and then in chapter 4 v1 & 2 he describes what is their actual role in ministry – what is their job description which was handed to them.

Look at the words used to describe his role and position. Firstly “servants” – this is an interesting word because it’s translated as “under-rower on a ship”. In those days, large ships would have a bunch of under-rowers whose job was to keep rowing to keep the ship moving.

This wasn’t an honourable job and involved hard physical labour. On top of that, the word “under-rower” obviously indicates that they are not the ones in command. Somebody else is – the captain on the ship.

And so when Paul uses this word to describe himself, he’s referring to hard labour, no honour and someone under the authority of Jesus Christ.

But not only does he use servants of Christ, he also refers to himself as a “steward(s) of the mysteries of God”.  Again, an interesting but intentional choice of words.

He’s saying that he’s a steward not an owner. The owner owns everything but the steward has a specific job to manage the owner’s resources in such a way that it profits the owner.

He’s a manager on behalf of the owner – he’s a steward on behalf owner. But what is he stewarding?

Mysteries of God! When we usually use the term “mystery”, we refer to things that can’t be understood or explained but that’s not what it means in the Bible.

Whenever the Bible uses the term “mystery”, it’s referring to hidden truths of God which are now being revealed to the church. Paul is saying that he’s been called by God to steward the preaching of the Gospel & other spiritual truths which were hidden in the past but is now being revealed to the church.

V2 adds some more flavour to this job description. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. The word faithful means someone who is reliable & trustworthy.

Paul is saying that the owner (Lord Jesus Christ) has entrusted His possessions (the precious Gospel and other spiritual truths) to him so that he can manage it on Christ’s behalf. So that involves a great amount of trust, wouldn’t you agree? There is a weight of responsibility because you’re looking after something that belongs to someone else.

And it’s telling us that not only does the steward need to be competent and skilled in managing, but also he needs to be trustworthy and reliable. In some ways, you could say that trustworthiness and reliability of the steward’s character is more important than how skilled or competent he is as a manager.

So it’s clear that Paul saw his ministry as one which was entrusted to him by Jesus Christ but also one where he longs to be found and seen as a trustworthy and reliable steward. And he’s telling the Corinthian church that this is how they need to regard him and Apollos as – simply “servants” and “stewards”.

And when we read this and compare it with the church culture today, it seems like something that’s worlds apart.

The definition of a pastor is no longer a role fulfilled by certain people in the church, it’s a fully-fledged title! The number of pre-fixes that are attached to pastor just keep increasing. I understand that in bigger churches, having these pre-fixes helps them explain their structure to people but I think it’s helpful for all churches (including ours) to frequently examine ourselves if we view “pastor” as a role or has now been converted into a title – a symbol of prestige?

Biblically speaking, it’s the role of a servant and steward – hard labour, no honour, under the authority of Jesus who have been entrusted with the Gospel and spiritual truths. There is a weight of responsibility when we realize that Jesus is entrusting us with something so important.

It’s a humble role of ministry but not just that, there’s

2. Great Accountability in ministry (v3-5a)

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. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 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. 

When we look at the previous chapters, it seems that there was a certain section among the Corinthian church (probably part of the other fan clubs) who were passing snap judgments on Paul’s ministry specifically his oratory and speaking skills – They probably felt like he lacked eloquence compared to the other leaders.

And also they looked down on the way he went about his ministry – which was in weakness and trembling. They were expecting a charismatic, dominating leader and felt like he wasn’t right up there.

And in response, Paul is trying to say that he’s not looking to any church, human court or even himself to validate his faithfulness in ministry. People’s opinions or judgments of his ministry is not the benchmark that he uses.

But at the same time he’s not using it as an excuse to avoid accountability. Because if that were the case, he wouldn’t be saying these things to Timothy: 1 Timothy 4:16 ESV‬

 [16] Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

And then later on in 1 Tim 5, he talks about disciplining wayward church pastors:

 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

So there’s clearly accountability for all ministers and pastors. So then what was Paul meaning here? V4 answers that for us.

For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me

He’s not absolving himself from accountability but actually pointing to a greater level accountability because the one who is going to take stock of his faithfulness is not mere man but God Himself. It is the Lord who will ultimately judge his ministry and that’s what matters in the end.

So interesting that Paul uses court language throughout this passage. He uses that to indicate that God is the ultimate Judge. Unlike human judgments which are tainted by sin and superficial, God’s judgments are accurate and go as deep as the intentions of our hearts. Look at v5:

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. 

At the second coming of Jesus Christ, He will not only judge our public ministry, but also reveal the acts or deeds done in private. Not just private deeds but as the ultimate Judge, God will also reveal the hidden intentions of the heart. So it’s going to be a thorough, comprehensive diagnostic report of our ministry not just a quick scan of ministry

And when we read it in this way, it is a sobering truth to realize that the God who is the ultimate Righteous Judge will actually judge the quality of our Christian ministry.

It’s not the number of Instagram followers, it’s not the number of likes and engagements on our handles, it’s not the number of people who turn up at our services, it’s not the applauses and praises we receive from people.

It’s God who is the ultimate Judge. He will examine and judge the faithfulness and quality of our ministry. And look who is saying all this. This is Paul after all – despite all of his credentials and accomplishments as a church planter, Paul was humbled in the way he saw his ministry because he knew who He was accountable to and who was going to judge his ministry in the end.

It’s like the steward of a house who is being told how great a job he is doing by the people on the outside the house and he’ll simply say “yeah, that’s all okay but what matters is what my owner thinks about the quality of work”.

It’s not just the humble role of ministry and great accountability in ministry but also there is an

3. Eventual Reward for faithful ministry (v5b)

Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

Paul makes it clear that it’s not just doom and gloom for people in ministry. For those who have been faithful in ministry, they have a reward to look forward to. And that reward is the commendation from God – praise from God!

This is convicting and encouraging for me – because I know my heart and how I gravitate towards seeking approval and praises from people when it comes to ministry. And this passage encourages me to not settle for the cheap momentary thrills from the approval of man. Rather it tells of the most glorious appreciation and reward for faithful ministry which will come from God Himself and that’s what I need to long and look forward to.

The fact is that most pastors or people in Christian ministry won’t be recognized in their lifetime. It’s just a fraction who will end up being influential church planters, pastors and authors. In all likelihood, most of them will end up having an insignificant ministry in the eyes of the world and this passage says that’s okay.

Because what awaits them after a lifetime of faithfully serving and stewarding their calling is the greatest ever recognition and reward – praise from God Himself.

Finally, what are take always for us as a church today:

  • Firstly – what we shouldn’t do? We shouldn’t make celebrities or heroes out of pastors or people in ministry. In reality it puts a burden on them which they aren’t able to carry. Pastors can’t be your Savior. Pastors can’t replace Jesus. It makes them susceptible to thinking more of themselves than they need to and on the other hand, it isolates them to pretend and live up to the identity that has been created for them.
  • What we truly need and ask you to do? Pray for your pastors.
    • Pray that we would understanding our calling and faithfully minister.
    • Pray that the motivations of our hearts are guarded and protected.
    • Pray that we’re strengthened in times of discouragement knowing that one day we will receive the appreciation and commendation from God.

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