Sermon notes: 1 Corinthians Pt. 6 – A “Spectacular” Ministry

Wax Seal Sermon

1 Corinthians Pt. 6

Reid A Ferguson

1 Corinthians 4:8–21


This is now our 6th installment in this 1st letter of Paul to the greatly gifted but deeply divided Church at Corinth.

And it might be worth a few moments of our time to briefly review what we’ve covered so far, before tackling this latter portion of Ch. 4. A portion which marks the end of Paul’s direct address to the issue of divisions among them. Tho in reality, the entire rest of the letter will always be referring in one way or another to the theme of Christian unity: its basis, its challenges and its cures once it has been ruptured.

The reason why this is so important will be the core of where we are this morning. For the Church in every generation and situation has to come to grips with the fact that disunity among the brethren is always counter to the reality that those in Christ are united into a single Body – for a single purpose. A purpose we’ll tap into today.

Our Common Call: Sainthood

So if we jump back to Ch. 1 we will recall how Paul reminds them that ALL of those in Christ share an Identical Call: To be Saints. Holy ones. People uniquely set apart by God for Himself and His purposes.

As such, no one in the Body of Christ is more special or less essential than anyone else. Just as a circle can never be complete unless all of its arcs are joined together – the Body of Christ is not complete minus any of its members. All are essential to comprising the whole.

So it is, this call is rooted in the Centrality of Christ, and leaves absolutely no room for the curse of competition among us – no room for any to claim or strive for spiritual superiority over any other.

You remember how the Church had begun to form cliques around certain personalities like Paul himself, Peter, Apollos and others in a grab for each to establish some sense of spiritual superiority. To gain standing both within the Church and in the larger culture – a culture steeped in people seeking fame, recognition, status and ultimately the power that comes from those.

Very much like our own celebrity-based culture today.

Our Self-confidence Challenged by The Cross

In the 2nd part of Ch. 1 – Jim brought us Paul’s challenge to that mindset. How, by God’s means of salvation through the foolishness of preaching the Cross – God graciously destroys our self-confidence so that all of our trust for our standing before God rests in Christ alone.

We can take credit for nothing in this regard. No one can possibly claim higher ground in Christ than any other.

No one can possibly claim higher ground in the Church. And, to those outside of it, the whole notion of the Cross seems foolish: That we would make our chief concern in life being reconciled to God – necessary because of our alienation from Him by sin – and finding the remedy to that sin in a man who was crucified as a common criminal in a troubled middle-eastern Roman conscript. It makes no sense.

Trying to make that look laudable to the World is an exercise in futility.

Our Common Call: Sainthood

Our Self-confidence Challenged by The Cross

A Necessary Caution

In ch. 2 we were met with a 3-fold caution: That when we pollute the centrality and simplicity of the Gospel with personal advancement; Embrace a salvation rooted in human reason above a divine revelation of Christ in a bid to appear more rational and respectable to the culture; and fail to distinguish between the spiritual and the natural – bringing the World and its values uncritically into the Church – division can be the only result. Again, WHY this issue of division is SO important we’ll get to today.

Our Common Call: Sainthood

Our Self-confidence Challenged by The Cross

A Necessary Caution

A Great Concern

In Ch. 3 Paul expressed his great concern for the Corinthians – their stunted spiritual growth.

Divided Christians reveal spiritual immaturity.

He gave this diagnosis and then proceeded to show how it stemmed from writing off spiritual truth while at the same time importing the World’s wisdom. And that proceeding along those lines, will result in building into each other’s lives things which will not stand the test either of time or of God’s refining fire of judgment. Things which are not consistent with the foundation of Christ which had already been laid – what he called nothing but wood, hay and stubble. How they are not pursuing their Christianity in a way which would earn a “well done” by God, but rather kudos from their contemporaries in the World and the Church – now.

Our Common Call: Sainthood

Our Self-confidence Challenged by The Cross

A Necessary Caution

A Great Concern

A Critical Disposition

Then, in the 1st portion of Ch. 4, Jim went on to show how in the Corinthian’s practice of either elevating or denigrating those like Paul or Apollos in their attempt to gain a higher self-image – they had entered into judging these men and their ministries in a very unhealthy way.

Riding on their favorite’s coattails, they were assuming this one or that one was more than what they truly were: servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God – whose faithfulness to these offices would be judged by God in due time – not by the Corinthians.

In that day, it would not be their particular giftedness or supposed outward success or fame which would be judged, but their faithfulness in having fulfilled their roles as servants and stewards, along with the hidden motives of their hearts.

Many a man and woman has appeared to serve the cause of Christ powerfully and successfully, who in the final analysis may in fact have been serving only their own desires and interests and not Christ’s at all – even though it was done in the name of Christ. So, Jesus could warn:

Matthew 7:21–23 ESV / “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

So neither they nor we can safely wear the badge of any of Christ’s servants. We must wait to see what commendation if any – they or WE will receive from God in the day of judgment.

All of which brings us to our text today. Ch 4:6-21 where Paul has 4 concluding thoughts on this whole issue.

The core problem is:

6-8 The transgression of Biblical boundaries

Which leads to –

9-13 A distorted Biblical identity

And so there is –

14-17 A call to take up this “spectacular” ministry

And to see –

18-21 The dis-empowering loss of Biblical humility

Let’s take them one at a time.

  1. 6-8 / The transgression of Biblical boundaries

In effect Paul says: I told you that the right way to think of those like Apollos and myself – and others for that matter – is to see us only as servants and stewards.

NOT, as celebrities or personalities to be traded upon and pitted against each other like star athletes with trading cards. Comparing ministry stats and cheering for a favorite as if on competing teams.

1 Corinthians 4:6 ESV / 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.

This is not what the Scripture is meant to produce. It’s a perversion.

Jesus Himself told us in John 5 that the focus of the Scriptures is that they bear witness about Him. There is nothing in it about other spiritual heroes. They only appear in as much as they may shed some light on His person and work by types and shadows. No Biblical personage is meant to be our hero – but Christ and Christ alone. All others are only servants and stewards and products of His grace – set here to do His bidding.

You’ve become like people who celebrate the paperboy who has nothing to do with writing what’s in the paper! We’ve delivered a message, but it is the message that is important, and the One whom the message declares.

When Jesus appeared to the 2 on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself! (Luke 24:27)

So how can you Corinthians go beyond the bounds of Scripture and create groups and sub-groups built around the servants, your personal likes and dislikes and ways to look better than others in your own eyes, when the whole of the Bible has its focus upon the person and work of Christ?

And we can ask ourselves the same questions, can’t we?

How easily we make more of worship styles, Bible translations, music choices, pet doctrines, causes, our favorite preachers or teachers – and our attachment to them than we do of Jesus Christ and Him crucified!

The Scriptures aren’t a celebration of spiritual heroes but a revelation of the only begotten Son of God.

Laying aside a Christ-centered focus of the Scriptures we inevitably make Christianity about other things. And we will then divide up to cluster around those other things to our own liking.

And so in vs 7 he asks – who is it you are trying to appear more than a servant or a steward to? Yourself? The World? Some group in the Church?

1 Corinthians 4:7 ESV / 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?

Did you make yourself who you are so you can brag about it? Did even Paul or Apollos?

Then if all we have in Christ are gifts of His grace, unearned and undeserved – where is there any conceivable room for boasting or being puffed up against one another?

You’ve gone beyond the bounds of what is written.

And as a result, you are settling for the reward of the pitiful glory you might get from how others see you or how you see yourself – rather than waiting for the glory that you would hope to receive when Christ comes. The only One in the long run whose opinion really matters. You see it in vs. 8.

1 Corinthians 4:8 ESV / 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!

Before the day when we actually WILL rule and reign with Christ – WILL share in His glory – you’re trying to get glory now – and from men! Not just from other Christians, but even from the World. You want to look wise and successful and desirable to them.

3 times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: If you do your giving or praying or even fasting to be thought of in certain way by others you’ve already received your reward – by their high opinions. And therefore, there is no reward from Christ.

Worse yet – As Jesus says in John 5:44 ESV / How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

You even destroy your own ability to have and live by true faith when you seek the good opinions of men rather than seeking to please the Master alone.

So this is not just an issue of “isn’t it nicer or better if we don’t have these divisions”. It is an issue of actual eternal importance regarding our own souls.

We’re not ruling and reigning with Christ yet.

We’re not already in the fullness of His Kingdom having received our reward. And we need to wait to receive all of our approbation from Him and Him alone.

If not, as we’ll see next, the entire mission of the Church is set aside. And for what? To look good in our own, and the eyes of others. What a supreme tragedy.

What is the result of going beyond what is written?

  1. 9-13 / A distorted Biblical identity

Adopting the World’s values regarding fame, success, reputation, status and superiority is a total distortion of our true Biblical identity, and ruins the Church for its mission.

We stop seeing ourselves as: Christ’s people on Christ’s mission.

And here, Paul lets us in on what we might properly call a truly spectacular mission.

1 Corinthians 4:9 ESV / For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.

“I think” says Paul, “I am of the opinion” that it is God’s design to use we apostles – Paul & Apollos as men who bring up the rear – like men sentenced to face death as a spectacle – like those in the arena at the Roman Coliseum.

We are on display in our weakness and suffering and disrepute specifically to be gawked at by the World and even the angelic host – as well as by you.

What is he saying? That as the Apostles, the first and specially appointed by Christ – we serve as a testimony to every Culture and generation that despite any social standing, economic situation, intellectual capacity, educational background, individual giftedness or connection with anyone famous or otherwise gifted – we are first and foremost Christ’s – and set here make Him and the freedom He gives from this worldly system – known.

Christ’s people on Christ’s mission. Living in such a way as to rebuke human status seeking, pride, envy and the seeking of power.

Look at 1 Corinthians 4:10–11 ESV / We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,

We, the apostles, we are willingly thought of as fools for the sake Christ. We don’t care what the World thinks or what – in those terms – anyone who calls themselves a Christian, thinks. But you are desperate to be thought of as wise – like the World wants.

We are weak, because the World celebrates strength – and you are doing just what the World does.

You seek to be held in honor while in fulfilling Christ’s mission to be spectacles to the World, we live in disrepute.

We’re not trying to get the benefits of Heaven now – we’re on mission. So we continue on that course right up to the present hour – willingly suffering hunger, thirst, being dressed like peasants, powerless against others and even homeless – and working at the most menial of jobs to support ourselves.

1 Corinthians 4:12–13 ESV / and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

We live so as to turn the World’s wisdom upside down and reject its values.

This is the mission of the Church – and in buying into these worldly ways – you’ve abandoned that mission.

You want so desperately to be well thought of.

We do it because every human being needs to be reconciled to God out of our rebellion against His rights over us as Creator and Lord – and there is but one means of that reconciliation and that is faith in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of His incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, supernatural resurrection and return to judge the world and fulfill His kingdom.

No one else can save you, and nothing the world offers can save you.

  1. 14-17 / A call to take up this “spectacular” ministry

1 Corinthians 4:14–17 ESV / I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.

I don’t want to manipulate you by shame in bringing all of this to your attention – but as a father who loves his children – to bring you into God’s reality for the Church and its mission.

He wants to challenge, not crush. Restore not merely reprimand.

There is no question he says – there are 10,000 people out there who would claim to teach you the ways of Christ – but I’m the one who brought the Gospel and saw you birthed into the Kingdom – so when it comes to all of this – IMITATE ME!

Don’t discount me because I am so counter to your culture – I do that on purpose. Do the same.

And so, I am sending Timothy to you who will remind you that this is ALWAYS the way I live, and this is just what I teach in every Church – not just there in Corinth. I’m not picking on you.

Imitate my refusal to celebrate men above Christ. My willingness to be counted as nothing other than a laborer doing my job.

Paul needed to move them out of a theology that prized giftedness above godliness; Reputation above righteousness; Status above sanctification; Men’s accolades above God’s approval; and Respectability above responsibility to the Christ of the Cross and His mission in the World.

And then he makes one last point. You’ve got to reckon with:

18-21 The dis-empowering loss of Biblical humility

1 Corinthians 4:18–21 ESV / 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?

Now Paul knows human nature enough that with a group this invested in these Corinthian values – they might scoff a bit at just Timothy coming to speak to them. So maybe they don’t really need to listen, especially to this 2nd tier guy.

But, he says – I am planning to come there myself, and it is my deep desire to do so in gentleness and not having to ratchet things up and chasten you like little children.

As one writer put it: “Paul is not one of those pastors who relish confrontation; quite the reverse is the case. Nevertheless, he will not allow moral cowardice to relieve him from taking matters firmly in hand, if such has to be done. As a sensitive pastor, he is reluctant to bring matters to a head, but resolved to do so if there proves to be no other way forward. His appeal to the criterion of the cross is not part of a clever power strategy on his own behalf, but underlines his concern for the welfare of the entire community, and for the effective living out of the gospel principle at Corinth.” Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 378–379.

He’s saying “look, when I get there, I’ll sort it out. And I’m not interested in anyone’s smart, smug or high-flying reasoning, I want to know the fruit of all this nonsense you’ve gotten yourselves into.”

And I think we can see this on 2 fronts.

  1. The question of “power” here might be this: Does sticking up for or claiming one preacher above another (Apollos, Paul, Cephas, etc.) save anyone?

No. It is not the Gospel. It’s powerless. The only thing that has power to save is the Gospel. The only thing which has the power to change the lives of the Believers is till the Gospel. Nothing else. Why then would you be so divided over personalities and other things which do not save? Over anything which does not save? It is foolishness of the highest order. Stick to what has real power – the Gospel. Champion that, and not people, movements, opinions or anything else. Champion the Gospel. THAT alone, has power.

But more likely his idea is this: We’ll find out if they merely profess true Christianity, or live in the power of a Christianity which frees them from seeking importance or status from others either in the Church or in the World.

Are they transformed by the power of the Gospel so as to renounce seeking spiritual superiority or status over anyone else? Can they live for Christ and to see men reconciled to God through the Gospel, and do so rebuking the very things the World places so much importance on? Can they live crucified with Christ?

Is the Gospel’s power evident in them in rejecting the World, that the Gospel might have its full power in bringing the lost to Christ.

And of course, that then is the very challenge we live with ourselves today isn’t it?

The transgression of Biblical boundaries

Which leads to –

A distorted Biblical identity

And so we need ourselves a fresh – call to take up this “spectacular” ministry

And to overcome – The dis-empowering loss of Biblical humility

In closing, I want us to see that the sword of this passage cuts 2 ways – both, for the sake of freedom.

For some, who suffer under guilt by association – that is, your lack of income, social status, trials, gifts etc., have somehow made you feel as though you aren’t a good witness or are not living “the victorious Christian life” – whatever that means: Take up this passage to cut those cords of bondage.

Christ appoints us a spectacle to the world and even to the angels that such things are no part of our standing before God – and in fact are most useful for His witness.

It rebukes the World’s emphasis on these things and shows how we live for an entirely different set of values. How our lives are meant to show the world true wealth, status and standing are in Christ alone. Who Himself was rejected for these very same things.

As James 1.9 counsels: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.” That Christ has ordained to use you to make the wisdom and values of this present world appear in all their bankruptcy before God.

Do NOT be ashamed. Join Paul and the other apostles, join Jesus Himself in this spectacular ministry.

And for those of you who suffer the bondage of legitimacy by association: That, because you read this author or listen to that preacher or subscribe to this particular school or orthodoxy or practice your Christianity the “purest” way, or that your intellectual approach to Christianity gives you some  supposed credibility in the World’s eyes or in the eyes of some group within the broader Church: This passage is meant to set you free as well.

To get you out from under the need to drop names, associate yourself with ministries, or books or movements or particular churches to legitimize yourself.

Seek Christ! Repent from the way the World’s values have crept into your heart and mind and look to Christ and Christ alone.

And if He has given you worldly goods, a comfortable life, a modicum of success in the way we think of it in America today – reject any notion that somehow that makes you more loved, blessed or spiritual than those who’ve not received the same.

As God spoke through Jeremiah so many centuries ago: Jeremiah 9:23–24 ESV / Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Might we be willing to see where the World’s viewpoints, values and methods have crept into our own hearts and minds – and reject them, that the Gospel might have its unhindered power in working through us.

Who cares what anyone thinks of us – or even what we think of ourselves – if we know we are pleasing to our Master above all?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s