We love to compare. We compare titles, salaries, and the number of people we have “under” us. We compare our children, our possessions, and our popularity. Athletes compare their “stats” to determine how much they believe they are worth. Even when we are sharing gossip (which of course, is sin) we rank each other on the basis of who seems to be more “in the know”.
You would think this kind of foolishness would be absent from the church. O that it were! Church members inevitably compare the size of the congregation, the newness of the facilities, or the cool things the church does. You often hear people say they go to “so-and-so’s” church.
In the church in Corinth the people were playing this game. It appears they were ranking the various Pastors and leaders of the church. Some favored Paul, some Apollos, others Peter. The debate was creating division.
In the early chapters of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul has been working to eliminate this spirit of competition. Paul appealed first to basic logic. He reminded the people that none of these Pastors or teachers had done anything to save them. Jesus alone deserved their loyalty.
Next Paul described the true nature of believers by using various word pictures. He told the congregation that believers are like farmers. Some plant, some water, but God is always the one responsible for growth. He said believers are like builders. There is only one true foundation: Jesus. Our job is to build on that foundation with the finest of materials. We have different jobs, to do but we are all building the same structure. Our job is to make sure we are doing our job to the best of our ability.
In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul adds a couple of additional word pictures.
THE ROLE OF LEADERS
So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
There are two vivid pictures in the text. The first is found in the word “servants”. Paul does not use the normal word for servant. He used a word that pictured the men who were in the guts of a great ship pulling on the oars to move the boat. These men toiled in anonymity. The slaves were “bit players”. They were a necessary part of the ship but could easily be replaced. We could say that just as the slaves needed to work together to propel the ship forward, so the various leaders in the church had to work together (rather than against each other) for the Kingdom of God to move forward.
The second picture is in the phrase “those entrusted with the secret things of God”. The word for entrusted is the word for a steward. A steward was a person who ran the household of his master. He controlled the staff, issued supplies, and reported directly to his employer. He was a manager. His job was simple: look after the interests of the Master.
Both of these pictures help us understand our role as Christ-followers. We serve the Lord. We have been given a great trust. We have been called to share the secret things of God. We have been called to share with others the mysteries of God’s love and grace. As a Doctor is called to help people find and maintain health, so our job as followers of Christ is to help people find spiritual health. There is no greater privilege….there is no higher pursuit. When we forget out job, when we stand in His spotlight, when we promote ourselves instead of Him, when we promote our church over others, and when we spotlight our spiritual successes we not only prove unfaithful . . . we abandon the great privilege that we have been given. We are not only robbing others . . . we are robbing ourselves!
Imagine being a tour guide in a great art museum that housed the masterpieces of the world. Your job as a guide is to bring people to the paintings or Renoir, Cezanne, Rembrandt, DaVinci, Michelangelo and others and help them see why their works are considered masterpieces. Your job is to help people see things they may not have seen or appreciated before. However, let’s say that instead of doing this, you take your tour group to a side room and spend the day showing them pictures of your family. No matter how attractive or interesting your life may be, you would be fired from your job. You would be stealing from these people the opportunity to enjoy a greater beauty. Not only so, you would be wasting your time because you could be doing something much greater: introducing people to the masters.
This is what we are doing when we bicker about whose church, Pastor, or experience is better. Our job is to introduce people to God and His expression of love and grace in Jesus Christ. Our job is not to expound our theories but to share His Word. When we fail to do these things, when we divert attention from Him, we are unfaithful stewards and rebellious servants.
Paul addressed this spirit of competition from another level. He wrote,
3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
In this passage Paul recognized that there were three different sources of judgment. Two were unreliable. The first is the judgment of others. There will always be those who are eager to tell you what you are doing wrong . . . even if you don’t ask them! Paul was not concerned about the judgment of others.
Don’t get me wrong, we can learn a great deal from each other. Other people can often see things in us that we cannot see. Each week Rick and I talk about the sermon for the week. It provides an additional perspective that sometimes helps us see things we didn’t see before. I believe each message is better because of this collaboration.
In like manner, an honest enemy or a trusted friend can help us learn important things about ourselves. However, we must be careful that we don’t start living in order to please men. Our goal must not be to win the praise of men. If we tailor our lives and our message to the opinions of others, we will be frustrated (because the standard will keep changing), and we will be enslaved to every person who wants to take a “shot” at us. Eventually, we will drift from the Lord because His standards are different from the standards of men.
The second judgment that Paul mentions is the judgment from within. Paul said, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.” Paul understood that he could believe he was doing a great job and be mistaken. Our conscience can easily be dulled so that we start believing things that are wrong, are really right.
People who try to shape public opinion know this. They know that if they expose us to certain behaviors we gradually come to accept that behavior as normative. If they repeat a particular sound bite enough people will start believing it is true. Our conscience can be dulled to the point where it finds sin acceptable. We are so good at justifying that we can rationalize just about any wrong. We are experts in overlooking our own faults.
Remember King David? He committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed to cover his sin. By all accounts it seems that David felt justified in his actions. After an appropriate time for grieving, David married Bathsheba.
The prophet Nathan came to see David and told him a story about a very rich man who had stolen the sole cherished lamb of a poor man so that he could serve it to his friends. David was infuriated and declared that this man deserved to be punished! Nathan looked at David and said, “You are the man!” David could see the fault in others, but was blinded to the greater fault in his own life. This can happen in our own lives,
- We believe that our spouse should be faithful to us but may find ourselves justifying our own sin by saying “my needs weren’t being met”.
- We recognize when someone else is being rude or abusive to a store clerk but when we do it we celebrate and brag about the fact that we “refused to be pushed around”
- We grumble at the ways others abuse the system and we justify our own abuses saying, we only “did what we had to do to get what we deserved…besides, it’s legal.”
- We are infuriated when others gossip about us, but justify our gossip about others saying, “We just wanted to make sure people had all the information”.
- We criticize the stinginess of others and justify our own self-indulgence saying, “I should be entitled to enjoy the results of my labor”.
The point I’m making is that our conscience is unreliable. It can make us feel better (and worse) than we should feel. Our conscience can be blind to our sin or can beat us up with our failures.
The third judgment is the judgment of the Lord. We should not be overly concerned about the judgment of others or the voice within. They are unreliable. However, we should be concerned about the judgment of the Lord. Paul reminds us that God is the only just Judge. He “brings to light what is hidden in darkness, and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” God knows what we did, why we did it, and what we were hoping to gain by doing it. He knows,
- The sense of superiority we felt when caring for someone
- The way we tried to manipulate a situation for our benefit in our “act of kindness”
- He knows when the circumstance that turned out badly was really something we did out of love and a desire to help.
- He knows when we are telling another person what will be most beneficial for us rather than telling them the truth.
- He knows when we have told the truth but another person refused to believe it.
- He knows when we have given sacrificially and when we have not
We need to step out of the spotlight regularly (whether that spotlights leads to cheers or boos) and get alone with the Lord. In those quiet times we need to forget what others are saying and even how we feel about ourselves. The question in that quiet time is a simple one: “Lord, am I doing what you want me to be doing? Am I serving you as a faithful steward?” If the answer is “No” then changes need to be made, even if the crowd exalts you. If the answer is “Yes” then we draw strength to keep going even if the crowd vilifies you.
When all is said and done what will matter in the end is not how many people knew your name, applauded your efforts, or admired you. What will matter is how much of Jesus you left behind. On the Day of Judgment I believe there will be many who were famous in the world who will receive little or no reward in Heaven. These people sought fame in this world and that is what they received. Others however will be brought forward in that Day who will be unknown to most of us, but they will be celebrated by the Lord and the many who were impacted by them. They will be people who have lived and loved in Jesus’ name. It may be a lonely prayer warrior, a compassionate friend, an honest businessman, or a person with a positive attitude and a consistent testimony. In that Day God will honor those who have been faithful to Him. That’s what we should be striving for.
Paul continues his instruction,
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
In these words Paul encourages us to be balanced in two areas: When it comes to making Judgments. Anytime you read something such as verse 5, “judge nothing before the appointed time” there will be people who conclude we should never says certain behaviors or beliefs are right or wrong. This is to misuse this text! That is not what Paul meant.
In chapter 5 Paul “calls out” or confronts one of the members of the Church in Corinth who was living a blatantly immoral life. He told the church to excommunicate (or kick out) the man who was engaging in this lifestyle. In chapter 6 he told the church that we should be able to judge cases within the Christian community rather than take them to the pagan courts. Paul is obviously not saying that we should never make judgments.
In verse 6 Paul said we must learn “not go beyond what it written.” This is not an easy passage to interpret but I think Paul is telling us that we need to learn to make judgments only on things on which God has clearly spoken. We should be careful about drawing conclusions about the actions and beliefs of others. We do not see clearly. However, we are right to announce that certain behaviors and attitudes are wrong when the Bible clearly says they are wrong. In this case we are simply reporting the conclusions of the Judge who does see clearly.
When it Comes to Our View of Ourselves (v.7). There is a second area where we need balance and that is in the area of our attitude toward ourselves. Paul wrote, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
Paul encouraged us to live our lives with a deep awareness of the fact that without God’s grace, we would be in deep trouble. When we forget where we were when He found us, we begin to feel arrogant, superior, and that we have the “right” to condemn and dismiss others.
I often wonder, where would I be today if it had not been for God’s grace? To be honest, I sometimes shudder. Would I have trouble being faithful to my marriage vows? Would I be spending all my income on drugs? Would I abuse my children? Would I be able to hold down a job? Would I be imprisoned for some reckless and foolish act? What if my parents had been poor or one of my parents died while I was a child? Where would I be today if I had been born in Saudi Arabia rather than the United States?
We need to remember that we are recipients of grace. If we focus on the mercy that has been extended to us, we will find that we will be much less harsh and divisive. We will be more understanding, and we will try to help people rather than beat them up. We will appreciate life more fully and we will resist the tendency to insist that people be like us, and will instead point them to the One who offers mercy and grace.
Every one of us is a servant and a steward of the Lord. We get into trouble in our churches and in our own lives when we start pushing our agenda rather than His; when we play to the crowd rather than to the King, or when we exalt ourselves or our churches over the Lord.
So I challenge you to do three things. First, go before the Lord in prayer. Ask him to search your life and expose those places where you have been acting like the Corinthians. Identify where you are playing the game of “compare” and then repent. Resolve that you will not tear down other churches, slander other Pastors, or dismiss what others are trying to do.
Second, every time you look in a mirror remind yourself to “See yourself clearly” (you might even want to write those words on the mirror). Use that mirror as a reminder to look at your own life by the objective standard of God’s Word rather than by the judgment of society or even your own conscience.
Finally, write down verse 7 on a piece of paper and keep it in your wallet or your pocket. Perhaps you could laminate it so it doesn’t fade. Keep it with you. Put it in a prominent place and read it often so you will be reminded of those penetrating and perspective restoring questions. Remind yourself at every opportunity that you are a recipient of grace and have no reason at all to boast.
Let’s accept the fact that people are going to continue to play the “compare game”. When we see the game being played we need to resist the tendency to compare ourselves to those we think will make us look good and instead compare ourselves to the love of Jesus and to the pure standards of God’s Word. If we can learn to do this, we will be less prone to division, more useful for the Lord’s work, and I believe we’ll even be a little more enjoyable to be around.