Earlier in the service, the Scripture was read to us from 1 Corinthians chapter 4, verses 1 through 13, and that is the scripture that I would like to take as a text for a word of challenge to our graduating class.
First Corinthians chapter 4, verses 1 through 13. You might want to open your Bible to that text. The great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “I believe every Christian man has a choice between being humble and being humbled.” Humility creates the vacuum that divine grace and power fills. The passage read earlier is a passage about humility. Humility is the benchmark of any useful servant of God.
Admittedly, we live in a world system that neither desires nor requires humility, whether in politics, business, professions, the arts, sports – wherever it is, people work very hard to lift themselves up, seeking prominence, popularity, publicity, fame, wealth, prosperity. And frankly, in our world today, humility has no place. Sadly, this has spilled over into the church and even infected those in pastoral positions of leadership.
We have, today, personality cults. We have a striving among pastors and Christian leaders for celebrity status, and we have the Christian public granting it to some of them. There is a concern among many men who name the name of Christ and who minister in His behalf about how high up the ladder they can climb and how preeminent they can become. But the true man of God chooses the hidden path of sacrifice, the approval of his Lord rather than the spotlight and the adulation of the carnal crowd.
The greatness of John the Baptist, for example, was not in the strength of conviction that made him denounce the evil of his time. The greatness of John the Baptist was not in the powerful, convicting words that cut to the heart of his contemporaries. The greatness of John the Baptist is summed up in the attitude that made him say of Christ, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The mighty impact of the apostle Paul was not developed out of his great logical mind. The mighty impact of Paul was not developed out of his vast knowledge. The mighty impact of Paul was not the result of his convictions about truth, as strong as they were. In fact, it was the heart attitude that made him honestly say, “I am the least of all apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle. I am the very least of all saints, and I am the foremost of all sinners.”
On one occasion, Samuel Brengle was introduced as “the great Dr. Brengle.” That night, in his diary, he wrote this, “If I appear great in their eyes, the Lord is most graciously helping me to see how absolutely nothing I am without Him, and helping me to keep little in my own eyes. He does use me, but I’m so concerned that He uses me and that it is not of me that the work is done. The ax cannot boast of the trees it cuts down. It could do nothing but for the woodsman. He made it, he sharpened it, and he used it. The moment he throws it aside, it becomes only old iron. Oh that I may never lose sight of this.”
All the honors of this occasion and any other occasion must be kept, then, in perspective. Especially for those in the Lord’s service. And so, that is what draws me to this very important text. The Corinthian church, as you know, had developed a severe case of division through the exaltation of human leaders.
Back in chapter 1, Paul referred to it when he said, “Each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,” and, “I of Apollos,” and, “I of Cephas,” and, “I of Christ.” In chapter 3, he referred to it again when he said, in verse 4, “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What, then, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed.” Again in verse 21 of that same third chapter, “So then, let no one boast in men! For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come – all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
The Corinthians got caught up in the celebrity game. They were evaluating and ranking and comparing the ministers of Christ. As Paul sets out to deal with this problem, he comes to this great fourth chapter which calls the believer, and particularly the servant of Christ in the ministry, to true humility.
And as the text unfolds, and it is specifically a call to humility, it comes not in the form of the usual Pauline logic. Not even in the form of the oft-repeated Pauline doctrine, but it comes by way of example. He’s not unbearing the genius of his logical mind, nor is he reciting theology here. He is simply portraying himself. And he offers himself humbly as a pattern of lowliness as the text unfolded to me. I saw that there were five things that identified him as a humble man.
First of all, he was content to be a servant. Verse 1, “Let a man regard us in this manner: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.” He said, “When the record is done and when someone writes down something about us by way of commendation, let it be said, in that record, that we were servants of Christ, nothing more and nothing less.”
No doubt it would have been a terrible thought to Paul to realize that cathedrals all over the world would be named after him or even cities. “When you regard us, let it be like this: that we were servants.” He chooses a wonderful word for servant – hupēretēs. It means literally one who rowed in the lower tier of a war galley, and under rower. Great ships were propelled by three levels of rowing slaves, nondescript men, men of absolutely no significance or prominence, little more than animals by consideration, and they rowed to move the great, hulking ships through the sea. They were unseen, and they were utterly unknown. And Paul says, “When judgment is made and a verdict is rendered on us, let it be said that they were third-level galley slaves, unknown, unheralded, unhonored, but we pulled our oar.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, a little bit later – or chapter 9, rather, a little bit later - verse 16, the apostle again speaks about this same attitude. He says, “If I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I’m under compulsion. For woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” Like that under rowing slave, if he didn’t pull his oar, a whip would flash across his back and split his skin open. And Paul says, “In a sense, that’s the way it is with me. Don’t commend me for what I do; I do it because there’s someone standing over me and I am compelled to do it.” I didn’t choose to do it.
Verse 17, “If I had done it voluntarily, then I might be worthy of a reward” – if my calling was my own choice. “But if against my will” - as indeed is the truth – “I have a stewardship entrusted to me. What then is my reward?” I’m not in the ministry because I chose; God chose. It is, in fact, against my will that I am here. My will was to persecute Christ; His will was to preach Christ. A man who serves by his own noble choice might be worthy of commendation. A man who serves by compulsion against his own will is worthy of no commendation.
We are servants like Paul. It is not our choice that has brought us to this time; it is God’s choice. We, too, are under compulsion. We, too, have responsibility. We, too, serve against our own human will and by the will of God – the compulsive will of the Spirit. No reward is due to us, only to the God who called us.
Further, he says, “Consider us not only as servants of Christ, but as stewards of the mysteries of God.” And he takes that concept of servant a little broader. He further defines the role. We are simply no-name, obscure slaves, and the format in which we offer our service is that of stewards. A steward was a manager or a trustee. The word oikonomos means one who rules over a house. He didn’t own the house; he simply managed all of its properties and assets for the good of the master of the house and the owner.
In other words, we have been entrusted with possessions that belong to somebody else, and we are responsible for their proper management. We are servants of Christ. The format of our service is that of a steward who is responsible to manage the things of God. And what are they? The mysteries of God. What are they? Formerly hidden truths now revealed, new covenant truth, New Testament truth. The great veracity of the New Testament.
So, Paul said, “When you look at my life, don’t commend me. When you look at my life, don’t honor me. When you look at my life, just say, ‘He pulled his oar. He did what he was to do. He did it under compulsion. He did it against his will. He managed the stewardship that was given to him of the things that didn’t belong to him.
There’s only one thing that could possibly be required of such a steward and such a slave, verse 12 – verse 2 rather – and that is that he be found trustworthy. He says, “All I can do is be trustworthy; all I can do is be faithful.” And, of course, you and I know very well that indeed he was.
But the point here is a simple one. Paul saw himself as a servant of Christ and was content with that. And the measure of his service was that he was faithful; that’s all – that’s all. He did what he was told to do; he fulfilled his duty.
There’s a second element in Paul’s humility that is revealed here. He not only was content to be a servant, but secondly, he was content to be judged by God. He was content to be judged by God. There is another mark of humility.
Notice what he says in verse 3. “To me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. I am conscience of nothing against myself, yet I am not, by this acquitted, but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts. And then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”
It’s going to be a great temptation, men, and it’s going to be very difficult to resist the accolades of people. There’s something in us that seeks approval from men. There’s something in us that seeks affirmation, respect, admiration, reputation. And we can get caught in that. And we begin to play to the crowd, loving the adulation. Humble servant of Christ that Paul was, he said, “It really doesn’t matter what the crowd says; it doesn’t matter what anybody says.”
And by the way, when he says, “It is a very small thing that I should be examined by you,” he was referring to the fact that the Corinthians were really attacking his character. It was more than just a party spirit in Corinthian. It was more than just some for Paul and some for others. There was a movement against him, and there were some who were judging him. He says, “It’s a small thing. It’s a small thing.” That word translated “examined” could even be “cross-examined,” or “critically evaluated.” “It doesn’t matter to me how you evaluate me; you’re human. I am not concerned with preliminary, human examination to determine my value as a minister. It is of little consequence to me what any human court says.”
It reminds me of Galatians 1:10, when he asked the Galatians if he sounded like a man-pleaser. It doesn’t matter to him what people think. He lived purely; he lived nobly before God as a dutiful slave, carrying out his stewardship, and he was not tried legitimately by any human court.
And he goes on to say, “Even my own human evaluation is really useless. I don’t even examine myself,” he says in verse 3. “My own conscience is not perfect. And even if my own conscience acquits me, it may only reveal that my conscience, like the rest of me, has fallen.”
Proverbs 21:2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” And even when I say I know nothing against myself, he says, in verse 4, “When I am conscience of nothing against myself, that doesn’t mean I am acquitted. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that should be rendered against me.”
I don’t trust your judgment, I don’t trust the judgment of any court, and I don’t trust my own judgment. Human evaluations mean nothing. They don’t matter. Can I say that emphatically? You may spend your ministry being underestimated. You may spend your ministry in some degree of obscurity. As far as the world is concerned, you may be put on the lowest level of assessment. It doesn’t matter; it’s absolutely inconsequential; it means nothing.
On the other hand, you may find yourself on the highest pedestal of celebrity status and Christianity, and you may find yourself being overestimated by people. That doesn’t matter either. You may receive the big church; you may get the honorary degrees; you may get the kudos of the crowd, or you may not. In either case, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. If you get all that, it’ll tend to make you proud. If you don’t get it, your flesh will cry out in envy and jealousy. In either case, it doesn’t matter. Your attitude does. The accolades of the crowd don’t. They don’t really know your heart. The only one who matters is God. And so, at the end of verse 4, he says, “But the One who examines me is the Lord.” And the point here is I’m content with that.
So, he says, “Therefore” – verse 5 – “don’t go on passing judgment before the time when the Lord’s going to do that.” Listen to this; every verdict of a servant of Christ issued before the coming of Christ is illegal, irrelevant, invalid, and rendered by a usurper who has no right to judge you.
Paul says, “Wait; wait till the Lord comes. You’ll bring to light the things hidden in the darkness, disclosing the motives of men’s hearts. And then each man’s praise will be from God.” It is a mark of humility to be eager to be considered a servant, and it is a mark of humility to be welcoming the judgment of God and to be content with that.
There’s a third component of Paul’s humility here. He was content also to be equal with other servants - he was content also to be equal with other servants. Verse 6 says, “Now, these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sake.” In other words, “I’m using myself and Apollos as an illustration to make this vivid – this principle vivid in flesh – that in us you might learn; that you might learn by seeing us not to exceed what is written in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” Don’t you ever get into a comparative contest, determining value by your own ignorance, comparing one man against the other.
I had a privilege of standing with my family over the grave of Robert Morrison, the great beloved missionary to China. Not only his grave, but the grave of his young son. And as a family, we prayed over that grave. He had had a great impact on my life and the things I had read about him. One of the statements that has lingered in my mind is the statement that he made, on one occasion, to his mission, when he said, “The great fault in our mission is that no one likes to be second.” But the true servant of God doesn’t care about that.
Abraham answered and said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.”
Jacob said to the Lord, “I am unworthy of all the loving kindness and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant.”
Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
And even the Lord Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly at heart.”
In spite of that and many other biblical illustrations, the Corinthians had a severe pride problem. They were boasting not only about human wisdom, but that selfish pride had led to factions and splits. They were boasting about their identification and personal preference of leaders. They created personality cults and further split the assembly. And Paul has to say, “Stop that. That is the ugly sin of pride.” He says, “I want you not to set one man over another. Nor should any man see himself as better than another. We’re not in competition with each other.”
Verse 7 says, “For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you didn’t receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you hadn’t received it.” In the event that you might have more visible gifts, that you might have a larger church or a larger ministry or a greater following, are you under the illusion that this is by your own doing? He says, “You have everything because God has given it to you” – implied.
When in verse 6 he says, “Learn not to exceed what is written.” That little phrase “what is written” is a regular formula introducing Old Testament quotes. And I believe that Paul here is referring to the whole tenor of Scripture that God exalts the humble and debases the proud. He’s saying, “Don’t go beyond the principles of humility in Scripture and start pitting yourself against others, for whatever it is that you are you are because God made you that way and God gave you that privilege.” Everything is a gift from Him.
Then in verse 8, we find that the Corinthians had even felt themselves superior to Paul. And so, with sarcasm in condemning their pride, he says, “You are already filled! You have already become rich! You have become kings without us!” They had elevated themselves above Paul. They were sitting in judgment on him. And he’s saying, “Aren’t you something? You’ve arrived spiritually, haven’t you?” This is irony. This is sarcasm.
“You have full satisfaction, don’t you? You have full riches! You have reached the throne! You have all kingdom blessings! You have arrived spiritually, and you did it without us, didn’t you? You’ve left your teachers far behind, and you’ve gone right into the fullness of kingdom life, and you didn’t even need us. You attained the blessedness of the Messiah’s reign all by yourself, and now you’re already perfected” – hah – verse 8. “I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you! I wish it were true. I wish it were true.”
They were into the whole spectrum of prideful superiority sins. But on the other hand, Paul was content to be an equal. He didn’t want to see himself elevated above anybody else, because he knew that great principle of Proverbs 16:5, that everyone who has a proud heart is an abomination to the Lord. How you react when someone is selected to a larger ministry than you are, how you react when someone outshines you in visible giftedness and accomplishment will always take your spiritual temperature. How you react to the praises given to other men, without having any desire to belittle them or their work, will show the truth of your humility. How you react when others prosper and you struggle will reveal your heart.
Wherever he went, George Whitefield had great popularity. Masses of people came to hear him preach. To one who warned him to beware of the evils of being more popular than other ministers, he replied with these words – quote – “I thank you for that warning heartily. May God reward you for watching over my soul. And as to what my enemies say against me, I know more things of myself that are worse than they could ever say.” End quote.
Paul was content to be a servant, content to be judged by God, content to be equal to others. Fourthly, he was content to suffer. There is suffering out there, gentlemen. Verse 9, Paul chronicles some of it in his own life in general terms. “I think,” he says, “God has exhibited us apostles last of all. As men condemned to death because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” This is a powerful, powerful section.
He says, “God has appointed us to last place” - last place – “to go on exhibit as men condemned to death like common criminals.” It’s a rare word, by the way. It refers to condemned criminals who were paraded as objects of mockery and ridicule. He says, “It seems as though the Lord has just put us on display in last place, to be ridiculed.”
He says then also, in verse 9, “Because we have become a spectacle to the world” – that “spectacle” is an interesting term. When a Roman general won a great victory, he would parade his victorious army back through the streets of the city. And coming along behind that army would be the condemned captives to be taken to the arena and killed by the gladiators or the wild animals. And they were the little spectacle, the conquered, the vanquished who would come and be fuel for the bloodlust of the people. They were last; they were lowliest; on exhibit to be mocked and murdered.
Paul says, “Look, I think God has sort of put us in that group. We’re the last little group of paraded prisoners to be mocked and led to death.” How sickening is pride in men not even close to being the spiritual equal of Paul and yet who esteemed themselves as some great one.
Back to the sarcasm in verse 10, he says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are without honor! You in your pride,” he says, “think you’re prudent, and think you’re strong, and think you’re distinguished, but we know we are fools. We know we are weak, and we know we are without honor.”
That’s how it is; hardship/suffering is our way of life. If you will be a godly preacher, if you will confront an ungodly society and you will be faithful to the calling that God has given to you, in the eyes of the world you will be weak; in the eyes of the world you will be a fool; and in the eyes of the world you will be dishonored and mocked.
Verse 11 he goes even further, “To this present hour, we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated.” And he was even among the original homeless. It isn’t that way anymore, in the ministry, is it? Hungry? Thirsty? Poorly clothed? Roughly treated? Homeless? Vagabond?
In verse 12 he says, “We toil, working with our own hands.” Why should the servant of Christ endure all of this? Well, it was God’s plan to humble through suffering.
You say, “Why did God want to humble?”
Because as 2 Corinthians 12 says, “His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” In our weakness. That’s why Paul said he would rejoice in those things which humbled him, because when he was weak, then he was strong. The ground of power is suffering. And when you come to the end of all your resources, then you’re in a position where the power of God can flow.
Paul modeled humility. Content to be a servant; content to be judged only by God; content to be equal to others, not superior; content to suffer and labor, to be the man that God would use powerfully and mightily.
And then lastly, he was content to sacrifice his reputation. That follows right in the flow of the last point, but is more specific in verse 12b and 13; he was content to sacrifice his reputation.
It’s sad to me, sometimes, to hear someone say that it’s important for a minister of Jesus Christ to have a good reputation in the community unless they understand what that means. We should have a good reputation in terms of purity, virtue, integrity, honesty, righteousness. But if we preach the truth in that community, we will not be accepted.
And so says Paul, in verse 12, “When we are reviled” – and we are – “we bless; and when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate.” That is so important. When they come after you, what do you do? Well, you bless them; you endure them; and you do everything you can to conciliate them, even though they are destroying your reputation, slandering your name, persecuting, reviling, speaking evil falsely against you. You meet that kind of defamation with kindness – kindness.
And then in verse 13, he says these almost unthinkable things, “We have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.” You all know what scum is; it’s the stuff you have to scrape off after you’ve cleaned the rest. It’s the dirtiest of the dirt, the foulest of the foul, the vilest of the vile. And you all know what dregs are. The contemporary word would be “crud” probably. That which is caked on the bottom, crusted and filthy. Paul says that’s us. That’s who we are. We’re the scum in the view of the world. We’re the dregs in the view of the world. Why does the world think this of us? Because we confront it with the truth.
Paul says, “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest with the world. Oh, I want them to look at my life and see that it’s above reproach, and they can find no true accusation against my virtue. But at the same time, I know they see me as scum and dregs.”
Our goal is not to seek to be popular with the world. When you enter the ministry, and you begin to preach boldly against sin, and you live godly in your community, and you confront the ungodliness of that community, you will sacrifice your public reputation and prestige. You will suffer some rejection, persecution, slander. The world may see you as scum and dregs, but that’s not what we’re seeking anyway – their commendation. We do not seek to be exalted, but rather desire to be a lowly slave, obedient, concerned not with our own self-esteem, our own reputation, but the verdict of the Lord who alone knows the truth.
This passage fascinates me because of its context. Here were these Corinthians – proud in their carnality, lording it over Paul, belittling, condemning him. And how did he respond? Not by telling them how great he was and fighting back for their proper estimation, but saying, “We’re scum; we’re dregs; we’re weak; we’re fools; we’re without honor; hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless, toiling, reviled, persecuted, slandered. He embraced that; he really did. He embraced that. He learned to embrace it, for that was the true humility.
Peter summed it up, 1 Peter 5:5, when he said this, “Be clothed with humility.” Shall we pray?
Father, we know that this is an occasion for celebration. It’s an occasion to render honor to whom honor is due, men who have nobly served You in the pursuit of this training, and who have finished well. But, Lord, even as we think about them, and giving to them that honor which is due, we realize that whatever they are and whatever they’ve done that is right is completely because of You.
We also realize that because they bear the imprint of a degree does not cause them to ascend beyond being a dutiful, compelled, obligated slave; lowly, unknown, unnamed, unseen, bound by duty to serve Christ. Whatever they have accomplished should not in any way cause them to accept the verdict of men, but rather to wait to be judged by You, graciously receiving human compliments for what they are and no more, that no matter what they have attained as over against what others may not have had opportunity to attain, they must consider themselves not superior but only equals. For what have they that You did not give them?
And though they have accomplished this, and though they have been suited for ministry, and though they have been set apart, being better trained and better equipped than some others in terms of what they know and the refining of their skills, this will not protect them from the suffering that will come against their faithful ministry, nor will the degree they bear render them impervious to a slandered reputation, to being seen as the scum and the dregs by a hostile world, who comes to know their message and rejects it.
And so, Lord, on the one hand, today we thank You that we can commend these choice men, and that we can honor their dutiful effort, while holding that in balance and realizing that all the glory goes to You. We offer You, therefore, the praise, in the name of Christ, amen.
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