I was reading recently about the wealthiest preachers in America. The preacher at the top of that list (I won’t give you his name) has a net worth of somewhere between 300 and 750 million dollars. The list includes preachers with million-dollar homes who get paid tens of thousands of dollars just to show up and speak, staying in five-star hotels, with an entourage, limousines, and private jets.
All of that is a very sharp contrast to the Christian leaders of the first century. The most valuable leaders in the early church would have been the apostles. So, it’s rather shocking to hear Paul describe himself and the other apostles as “the scum of the world”. Unfortunately, some people use religion as a platform for pride and arrogance, working their way to the top so they can look down on others. But the message of the cross and the gospel of grace will always result in us exalting God instead of ourselves.
We’re several weeks into our study of I Corinthians. As we’ve seen so far, Paul heard that there were some problems in the Corinthian church. And the root of their problems was pride. Pride can tear a church apart, and that’s exactly what was happening in Corinth. This church was filled with proud people, and proud people spend a lot of time judging others.
Paul had experienced this first-hand. Christians in Corinth were ranking their favorite preachers – “I like Paul the best, I like Peter the best, I like Apollos the best.” They were choosing sides, becoming very divisive. And divisive people tend to be very judgmental. If you have ever felt judged by others, this lesson is for you, because that’s what Paul was experiencing.
When you’re being judged and condemned by others, it can be difficult to handle it in a godly manner. But Paul is going to show us this morning how to best deal with critical people. Let’s read the entire passage in I Corinthians chapter 4, and then we’ll go back and look at it piece by piece:
“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. 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. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
“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?
“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! 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.
“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, 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.”
“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.” (I Corinthians 4:1-16)
As we begin this chapter, I want you to see how Paul views himself and where he finds his identity. In verse 1, “This is how one should regard us.” And us refers to those preachers that the Corinthians were arguing about. Paul says, “You guys are ranking all the preachers, you’re putting one over the other, you’re choosing sides, becoming divisive. so let me just set something straight — when you think about us, here’s how you should view us – “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
The word that Paul uses for “servant” here is a word that referred to someone who was an assistant to someone in an official position. The significance of this word is that the servant’s responsibility was to carry out the orders or the wishes of the official who was over him. It’s a word that was originally used to describe men who were seated in the galley of a ship rowing. They were nothing more than servants, and their responsibility was to carry out the orders of the person in charge.
Paul says, “That’s what we are. Those of us who are preachers, we’re nothing more than servants, and it is our responsibility to carry out the orders and the wishes of our master, Jesus Christ.”
Then Paul uses another picture. He says, “We’re just stewards of the mysteries of God.” Now, we’ve already talked about that word “mystery”, a couple of weeks ago. In Colossians 2, Paul tells us that the mystery (or secret) of God is Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, God had prophets and he gave them different clues about the coming Messiah. He told Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He told Isaiah that the Messiah would suffer greatly for his people (Isaiah 53). He told the psalmist some of the things that would be a part of the Messiah’s ministry here on this earth.
I love the analogy that I heard recently. It was like the prophets were all working together trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle, and all of them had a few pieces. But nobody had all the pieces. And, to make matters worse, nobody had a box with a picture of what it was supposed to look like when it was all put together. And if you’ve ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box, you know just how tough that can be. But now that Jesus has come, we’ve got the box with the picture on it, and we’ve got all the pieces. And that mystery is no longer a mystery.
Paul says that “God has given those of us who are preachers the responsibility of sharing this message about Jesus Christ. Our ministry is about bringing the gospel of Jesus into people’s lives so that they can be transformed.”
And the word that Paul uses here to describe that responsibility is the word “steward”. He says, “[We are] stewards of the mysteries of God.” Now, a steward was also a servant, but he was a special kind of servant. He was the person who was in charge of all of his master’s possessions. In the Old Testament, Joseph was the steward in Potiphar’s house.
It was the steward’s job to make sure the bills were paid, it was the steward’s job to deal with any problems with the other servants, it was the steward’s job to make sure that there was always food in the house. Everything that was necessary to run the household, that’s what the steward did.
So, the steward handled a lot of money and a lot of stuff, but none of it was his. Everything he had in his possession belonged to his master. And that’s the point that Paul is making – for all of us, we don’t really own anything. Everything in our possession actually belongs to God.
The steward was given a tremendous amount of responsibility, and he had one job and one job only – to make sure that everything in that house ran exactly the way his master wanted it to run. And there was only one person’s opinion that mattered for the steward — only one — and that was the opinion of his master. The steward’s job was to faithfully carry out his master’s wishes, so that when the master dropped in to see how things were going, he would say, “Good job. You did exactly what I wanted you to do.” “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”
Paul says, at the end of the day, preachers aren’t supposed to be put up on pedestals. They’re simply servants and stewards of the Master. And at the end of the day, that’s what we all are: servants and stewards. And our success is defined by one thing and one thing only – by how faithful we are to what God has called us to do. That means that God is the only person I’m trying to please.”
Which is why Paul says what he does in the very next verse – “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or any human court.” (I Corinthians 4:3)
As we get further into Corinthians, we’re going to find out that there were some opponents of Paul who were trying to come in, take over the church, who wanted to really be somebody important. And, in order to do that, they felt like they needed to discredit Paul, they needed to put Paul down a few notches. So, you can imagine the kind of things they were saying, and Paul has to respond to that. And what he says is that at the end of the day, people can say whatever they want to say about him. Paul doesn’t have to answer to them; he only answers to God.
Now I realize that none of us like to be criticized and none of us like to be misrepresented. None of us likes it when people say things about us that aren’t true. But, as Christians, we need to accept the fact that there are going to be times when that will happen. People where you work, people where you live, people at school, sometimes even people at church — are going to say things about you that aren’t nice and aren’t true. They’re going to misrepresent you and, at the end of the day, we need to remember that ultimately, the only thing that really matters is what God thinks about us
If you truly understand and embrace what Paul is saying here, it will absolutely change your life. Because what Paul is doing is he’s giving you your true identity. and our identity is extremely important. Every single one of us is on a quest to figure out, “Who am I?” And the way you answer that question will determine the course of your life and how you live it. Who am I? What is my identity?
Some of you have experienced a lot of judgment over the years. Maybe because of the color of your skin. Or maybe because of how you looked or how much you weighed. Or maybe because of the kind of house you lived in or the kind of car your family drove. And other people have judged us and told us what they think about us. And if we’re not careful, we can let the opinion of other people shape our identity. We can come to believe that we’re worthless, just like everyone says we are.
What Paul is teaching us to do here is to not shape our identity based on what other people think about us, but on what God thinks about us. And I think that’s why Paul was able to accomplish so much as a preacher of the gospel. Because he allowed Jesus to shape his identity. And it’s not that he didn’t care what other people thought about him; it’s that he cared most about what God thought.
Paul said it didn’t even matter what he thought about himself. “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.” (I Corinthians 4:4)
One of the things that I’ve noticed about myself and one of the things I’ve noticed about others, is we’re not nearly as good at self-assessment as we think we are. It is so easy for us to look into the mirror and say, “I don’t see any problem.” It’s easy to get into a situation and think, “I was perfectly right, perfectly justified; it’s somebody else’s fault.” But what I’ve found over the years is that we tend to be very biased toward ourselves. Right? So, what I think about myself isn’t nearly as important as what God thinks about me.
Paul says, “So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time — before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.” (I Corinthians 4:5, NLT)
Paul says, “Stop making judgments about one another, about who’s the best and who’s not good enough.” He says, “Just let God be the judge.” But the easiest activity in the world – it takes no effort at all, it no brains at all – is to be a critic. Just remember that. And I just explained to you in a nutshell the world of social media.
The easiest thing to do in the world is to criticize others, and once you develop a critical eye toward people, it’s hard to stop. It’s hard to reel it in. It’s hard to use restraint. So, we need to be very careful in our judgment of others, realizing that they are not going to have to stand before you — thank God — for their ultimate reward or punishment.
Besides, the truth is, we’re not very good at judging. We have to judge based on what we can see and what we can see sometimes isn’t the whole picture. God is the only one who has an all-seeing, all-knowing perspective, so let’s just let God be the judge.
I heard a story that illustrates how inadequate we are at judging. There was a young couple that moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning, the wife looks out the kitchen window at the lady next door who is hanging her clothes out to dry. And she says to her husband, “Look how dirty those clothes are. Somebody really needs to teach her how to clean her clothes.”
A couple of days later, they’re eating breakfast again, the wife is looking out the window. Same thing happened. She sees her neighbor hanging up dirty clothes, and she says, “That woman needs to use a different kind of detergent. Those clothes are filthy.”
This went on for a couple of months. But then one morning, the wife looks out the window and she sees that her neighbor’s clothes are absolutely clean. She says, “Wow! Either she changed detergents or someone finally taught that woman how to clean clothes.” Her husband said, “No, what happened is I woke up early this morning and cleaned our window.”
We’ve all got dirty windows, don’t we? Jesus talked about the need to clean up our own lives before we start judging what we see in others. It’s not that we don’t step into each other’s lives and help each other learn and grow and admonish one another. It comes down to the way that we do it.
Verse 6, “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.” (I Corinthians 4:6)
The solution to their problem is to “not go beyond what is written”. In order, focus on God and what God has told us through his Word and that will help us to bring our pride under control. Because God doesn’t give us anything to boast about. We’re just servants. We’re stewards. Our job is just to do what God has told us to do. That doesn’t give us any room for pride or arrogance, arguing about which of us is more important than any of the rest of us.
In verse 7 “What gives you the right to make such a judgment? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?” (I Corinthians 4:7, NLT)
Paul says, “You think you’re something special. Tell me, what do you own that God didn’t give to you? And if God is the one who gave you everything, that what in the world are you so proud about?” When we understand the concept of God’s grace, there is absolutely no room for arrogance in the church.
Then in verse 8, Paul does something that I don’t recommend for preachers to do – he uses sarcasm. When we use sarcasm, it’s often a way of belittling people, of being condescending, but that’s not what Paul is doing here. I think he’s using sarcasm to shock the Corinthians a bit, to make them really stop and think, to see the absurdity of their actions, behaviors and attitudes.
In verse 8, “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! (I Corinthians 4:8)
Parents will tell you that one of the most irritating things in the world is a teenager who thinks he knows more than his parents do, because his parents are dumb and he’s got all the answers. It is especially irritating when a 16-year-old who has been driving all of six months thinks that he knows how to drive better than his parents who have been driving for over 30 years.
There’s an old saying that the most dangerous person in the church is a one-year Bible college student. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You’ve got just enough information to be dangerous. You think, “I’ve got it all figured out. Everybody else is doing it wrong. And I’ll tell you how to do it right.”
And that’s kinda what’s going on here. Paul says, “Apparently, you guys have got everything figured out and you don’t need us. You guys have been Christians for what, three years. You seem to be doing so much better than us apostles who’ve been at this for 20 years or so. You’re already filled; you’re already rich; you’re already kings. And I wish you really were kings because it would be so great for us apostles to know some kings.”
While you guys are up at the top looking down on everybody else, let me tell you where I am.
Verse 9, “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 Corinthians 4:9)
Paul uses an image here that would have been very familiar to the Corinthians. When a Roman army went out to battle, defeated an enemy and came back home, they had a procession through town. The soldiers and the generals and all of them would be up front, and then you’d have all of the spoils of victory that would be displayed, and then the last ones to come through would be the prisoners of war. And those prisoners, before the end of the day, would often be executed. That’s the image that Paul is using. We’re like those guys at the end of the procession, “like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world.”
In verse 10, “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, and we labor, working with our own hands.” (I Corinthians 4:10-11)
While you guys are playing these silly games — dividing into little cliques and throwing darts at each other — the apostles are out there on the front line laying it all down for the cause of Christ. They’re abused; they’re arrested; they’re in prison; they’re beat up; and eventually they will be executed. Paul says, “You guys want to act like kings, but us apostles, we’re like those guys in chains. People make fun of us, they laugh at us, they lead us to our place of execution where they make sport of us and then we die.”
I think it’s important for us all to hear Paul’s message. Because when we look around at Christianity today, we see people spending way too much time playing silly games — dividing into factions and throwing darts at each other, while the true followers of Jesus are out there in the trenches, getting the job done for the cause of Christ. We have brothers and sisters in Christ around the world today who fit Paul’s description. Every day, there is a Christian executed every three minutes.
Paul says in verse 13, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” (I Corinthians 4:13)
Those words “scum of the world” mean exactly what you think they do. They mean that stuff that sticks to the bottom of your shoe. You take something and you scrape it off and throw it away. It’s a disgusting term. But Paul says, in the eyes of the world, the apostles weren’t celebrities. They didn’t have limousines and entourages and fancy titles. In the eyes of the world, they were scum — worth nothing more than to be scraped off the bottom of their shoe and discarded.
After being a bit harsh, Paul’s tender side comes out. In verse 14, “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.” (I Corinthians 4:14-16)
We all need to be imitators of Paul. Because the more we identify ourselves as servants of God, the more freedom we have to be what God created us to be. And we can stop worrying about everybody else thinks about us and get to the point where I care very little what you think. The only thing that matters to me is what my master thinks. Because one day, I’m going to stand in front of that master and what I want to hear and what I want for you to hear are those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You did what I asked you to do. Enter into the joy of your master.”
On that day, there will be a great reversal and what is now considered by the world to be the scum of the earth will become God’s absolute treasure. Because that, my brothers and sisters, is our true identity.