I think we’ve all met two very different kinds of people. From time to time we meet people who strike us as being very slap-dash and careless and who pay very little attention to detail. Maybe it’s someone we’ve worked with and their work always needed to be double-checked and there was always something important they’d missed which someone else had to correct. Something had to be put right or something had to be added to what they had done. And then, on the other hand, there are the kind of people who are the exact opposite and they’re very thorough and careful and they pay close attention to the smallest details. Their work is always perfect and nothing they do ever has to be sent back. And if you work with such a person, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can rely on them and you know that everything they do will be done well. But it’s a curse because their thoroughness probably highlights our own carelessness and they’re able to point out the things we’ve missed.
Well, I have no doubt that the apostle Paul was the kind of person who was thorough and careful and who paid close attention to the smallest details. Why do I think that? Well, because of the care he’s taken at the beginning of this letter to deal with the problem of divisions in the church. He started to address this issue back in verse 10 of chapter 1. And here we are now, at the end of chapter 3, and only now is he beginning to wind up what he wants to say about this issue. This was an important issue in the church in Corinth. And he wanted to address this problem as thoroughly and as comprehensively and as carefully as possible.
And the problem he was addressing was the problem of divisions in the church. The church was divided into these different parties or groups, with one group boasting that they follow Paul, and another group boasting that they follow Apollos, and another group boasting that they follow Peter. And there was even a group that boasted that they follow Christ. And the church was divided and there were these rivalries. And instead of loving and serving one another, they were exalting themselves over one another.
And in addressing this issue, Paul made clear that the preacher is nothing. The preacher is nothing and whatever success any preacher has in his ministry is due, not to his own ability, but to the wisdom and power of God, because the preacher is called by God to preach the message of Christ crucified, a message which seems weak and foolish to so many people in the world. However, to those who are being saved, this message of Christ crucified is the power of God. And whenever the gospel message is proclaimed, whenever the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed, the power of God to bring salvation is unleashed in the world. Nevertheless, the power to save lies, not in the preacher, but in the Lord. And so, why boast about men? Why boast about this preacher and that preacher? The preacher is nothing; the one who counts, the one who makes a difference, the one who is able to save is the Lord God.
Two Kinds of Wisdom
And in the course of what he’s been saying, Paul has referred to two kinds of wisdom. Do you remember? There’s the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of this present evil age which is destined for destruction. And then there’s the wisdom of God.
And when Paul refers to the wisdom of the world, he’s referring to the way people look at the world and try to make sense of it without paying attention to what God has revealed. So, instead of paying attention to God’s word and to what he has revealed about himself and about the world and about sin and salvation, they try to work it out on their own and they try to make sense of these things by themselves. Instead of bowing before the Lord, and accepting what he has said, they refuse to accept his word. They rely on what makes sense to them, instead of relying on what the Lord has said. And do you remember? It all goes back to the Garden of Eden when Eve relied on what made sense to her; and it made more sense to her to listen to the serpent than to listen to the Lord who warned her about eating from the Tree of Knowledge. And it’s been the same ever sense: what counts is what makes sense to me.
But no one, no one — relying on the wisdom of the world and on what make sense to them — has ever come to know God and his salvation. Human ingenuity can get us far: and just think of all the advances we’ve made in science and in medicine over the years and how we know so much more today than people did in the past. We know so much about the world and how it works. We know so much about the human body and how it works. We can send rockets into space and we can heal the sick like never before. However, despite all that we know, no one — relying only on human wisdom and on what makes sense to them — has ever come to know God and his salvation. Relying on human wisdom does not lead to the knowledge of God and of his salvation, because the only way to know God and his salvation comes through the gospel of a crucified Christ. And even though the gospel of a crucified Christ may seem foolish and weak to those who are relying on human wisdom, nevertheless the message of a crucified Christ is the way to know God and his salvation.
That’s why, when we come to verse 18 of chapter 3, Paul can say that if anyone thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise. The one who relies on the wisdom of this world, or the wisdom of this present evil age, will never come to know God and his salvation. No one can come to know God that way. And so, in order to know God and his salvation, we need to become fools in the sight of the world, which means we have to believe the message of a crucified Christ. In the eyes of the world that message is foolish and weak; and whoever believes it is foolish and weak. Isn’t that the way Christians are regarded by so many in today’s society who think they’re wise? The message of the cross seems like nonsense to them; and it seems to them that those who believe it are foolish. And yet, in order to know God and to know his salvation, we have to become fools in the sight of the world by believing the gospel message of Christ crucified.
Now, you might be wondering: Why is Paul talking about these things again? After all, he’s compared the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God before. So, why is he writing about these things again? Well, it’s because he’s about to reach his conclusion. And his conclusion is there in verse 21 where he writes:
‘So then’ is a signpost which tells us this is his conclusion.
So then, no more boasting about men!
No more boasting about human preachers like Paul and Apollos and Peter and whatever other local preachers there were in Corinth at that time. No more boasting about men, as if the preachers themselves using their own wisdom and ingenuity were able to save you. You didn’t come to know God because of their cleverness. No, you came to know God and his salvation through the message of the cross and by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, instead of boasting about men, you should boast in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for sinners on the cross and who was raised on the third day; and who sends his Spirit to enable sinners to believe the gospel and to turn to God for salvation. No more boasting about men; boast instead in Jesus Christ the Lord.
Preachers as Servants
Well, if we’re not to boast about preachers, how should we regard them? Well, we should regard them as servants who have been appointed by God not to rule the church, but to serve the church for its good. That’s the point of what Paul says in verses 21 to 23 of chapter 3 and in verses 1 to 5 of chapter 4.
First of all, in verses 21 to 23 he says that all things are yours. In other words, Paul and Apollos and Peter and whatever other preachers there may be belong to the church and are sent by God to serve the church for their good. So, the Corinthians had got things back to front. They were saying: We belong to Paul. We belong to Apollos. We belong to Peter. They were saying: We belong to them and we’ll do what we can for them. But you’ve got it backwards, says Paul, because the preachers belong to the church and they’re to serve the church.
In fact, says Paul, God has so arranged it, that all things belong to you and have been appointed by God to serve you for your good. That includes the world itself and it includes life and death and whatever happens in the present and whatever happens in the future. Our loving heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ our Saviour, who rules over all things in heaven above and on the earth below, arranges all things for our benefit. He’s able to work together all things for our good. So, we don’t need to be afraid or anxious about anything, because our loving heavenly Father and Jesus Christ our Saviour are able to arrange all things so that whatever happens to us — even the bad things which happen to us — will ultimately be used by him for our good.
In the same way, God has appointed preachers to serve us and to benefit us. And just as the preachers belong to the church, so the church belongs to Christ. That means we’re to serve him. And the Lord Jesus Christ in a sense belongs to God the Father and he therefore serves his Father in heaven. So, the Son serves the Father. The church serves the Son. And the preachers are called by God to serve the church.
And that leads to what Paul says in verses 1 to 5 of chapter 4 where Paul compares preachers to servants of Christ and as those who have been entrusted with the secret things of God. Now, I’m not sure why the NIV has translated Paul’s word like that, because what Paul really said is that preachers are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And what I want to do for the remainder of our time is to think about this image of the preacher as a steward. We need to think about what a steward is and how a preacher is like a steward. And we need to think about the mysteries entrusted to the preacher’s care. And we need to think about what God expects from his preachers.
Preachers as Stewards
So, first of all, what is the steward and how is a preacher like a steward? Well, when we hear the word ‘steward’, we probably think of the kind of person who works on a aeroplane and who serves us a meal and who tries to sell us perfume whenever we’re flying somewhere on our holidays. These are air-stewards. Or you might think of the people who work on sea-ferries who are there to look after the passengers and to make sure we have what we need. Or a steward is an official at a motor-racing circuit who is responsible for looking after the spectators and making sure that no-one gets in danger by getting too near the race-cars. And that’s kind of what a steward was in Bible-times: a steward was responsible for looking after other people and caring for them.
But these weren’t people on a boat or in a plane or at a race-track. No, the steward was responsible for looking after the people who made up a household. You see, in Bible times, a wealthy man was the head of his household. And the household was made up of the members of the householder’s family — his wife and children and whatever other relatives were there — plus his servants. And every member of the household relied on the householder to keep them and to look after them. The food they ate was bought with the householder’s money. The clothes they wore were bought with the householder’s money. The house in which they lived was owned by the householder. Everyone in the household depended on the householder.
However, the householder was a important man and a busy man and he probably had many business interests. He didn’t have time to look after his household and to administer its affairs. So he delegated all this responsibility to the steward. The steward was appointed by the householder to look after his domestic affairs. So, he was to supervise the household and make sure everything ran smoothly in the home. And he was to ensure that the members of the household had enough food each day. He took care of everything at home on behalf of his master.
Well, we come across various stewards in the Bible. For instance, there was Joseph in the Old Testament who became Potiphar’s steward. And do you remember? When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, he said to her that everything Potiphar owned had been entrusted by Potiphar into Joseph’s care; nothing — apart from his wife — had been withheld from him. And that gives us an idea of how important this job was and the level of responsibility and trust it involved. The steward was in charge of everything.
So, what’s the connection with the preacher? How is a preacher like a steward? Well, the steward had the job of ensuring that all the householder’s family and servants received everything they needed each day. For instance, a faithful steward made sure that everyone received all the food they needed every day. If a steward was unfaithful or careless or mean, then the members of the household would go hungry. But a faithful steward was careful to give them what they needed each day. And a preacher is like a steward in that God has entrusted to him the task of ensuring that every member of the church — every member of God’s household — receives what God has entrusted to the preacher. The steward’s job was to take what had been entrusted to him and to distribute it to the household; and the preacher’s job is to take what has been entrusted to him by God and to distribute it to the members of God’s household who make up the church. So not only is the preacher like a farm-labourer who plants and sows the seed of God’s word by his preaching. And not only is the preacher like a builder who builds up the church by his preaching. But the preacher is also like a steward who — by his preaching — gives to the members of the church what God has entrusted to his care.
So what has God entrusted to the preacher’s care? Well, look what Paul says in verse 1:
So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
God has entrusted to his preachers ‘the secret things of God’. Or, as I’ve already said, a better translation of Paul’s words is that God has entrusted his preachers with ‘the mysteries of God’. That’s what the preacher must distribute by his preaching to the members of God’s household who make up the church.
Now, when people hear the word ‘mystery’ or ‘mysteries’, they might think of a whodunnit. You’re reading a book or watching a movie and someone has been murdered and it’s a mystery: no one knows who committed the crime; everyone is completely flummoxed and they’re wondering who could possibly have done this terrible thing. And they’re all scratching their heads and saying: ‘It’s a complete mystery!’ But then along comes Hercule Poirot and he looks at the evidence and he pieces it all together and in the last chapter he reveals whodunnit and the mystery is solved. You see, for us, a mystery is something that’s really puzzling and hard to figure out, but if the right person thinks hard enough and works at it and is able to put together all the evidence, then the mystery will be solved. And what was once puzzling will become clear. All you need to do is work it out.
That’s the kind of thing we think about when we hear the word ‘mystery’. But in the Bible, a mystery is something entirely different. It’s not something that is hard to understand, but which we can eventually figure out. No, in the Bible a mystery is something that we can never work out ourselves. Never in a million years would we work out God’s mystery. It has to be revealed to us. God’s mystery is a secret that no-one knew or could ever possibly find out until God made it known. In fact, that’s how Paul used the word ‘mystery’ in chapter 2 and verse 7. Look back at that verse for just a moment. Paul wrote:
We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden.
Do you see? It was hidden, but then it was revealed to the apostle Paul so that he was able to tell others what this mystery was. Paul didn’t figure it out. It was made known to him by God.
And the mystery which Paul has been referring to is none other than the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and the wonderful truth that for the sake of Jesus Christ God forgives sinners all their sins completely and forever. For the sake of Jesus Christ — who died in the place of sinners and who bore the punishment we deserve — God is able to pardon all who repent and believe in his Son.
And why is this good news a mystery? Well, this idea of God’s mystery is related to what Paul was saying before about the wisdom of the world and God’s wisdom. Relying on the wisdom of this world and to what makes sense to us, we would never come to know God’s mystery and the salvation which Christ has won for us. In order to know God’s mystery — in order to know the good news of salvation — God must make it known to us. And in order to make it known to us, the Lord has entrusted this message to his preachers; and he has given them the task of preaching this message to the members of his household. The householder in Bible times was trusting his steward to distribute to his household everything that they needed. And God knows what you need to hear. He knows what you need to hear today and next week and the week after that. He knows that you need to hear again and again the message of Christ crucified so that you will never, ever forget that there is a way for sinners to be reconciled to the one who made us. God knows you need to hear this again and again, because he knows some of you will be tempted to think that God accepts you because of the goodness of your lives and the things you have done and the sacrifices you have made and the devotion you have shown him. And therefore you need to be reminded that nothing you do is ever good enough to make up for your sins and that you need to rely entirely on Jesus Christ and him crucified. And God knows that you need to hear this message again and again because he knows that some of you may be tempted to despair because you think you’re too bad for God and that God could never accept someone as sinful as you are. And therefore God knows you need to be reminded that Christ by his death has paid for all your sins in full and he promises to remember your sins no more.
You see, our loving heavenly Father knows what his people need to hear each week. And so he sends preachers to his people; and he has entrusted to those preachers the task of preaching Christ crucified again and again and again, so that his people will receive again and again and again everything they need to persevere in the faith.
So, the preacher is like a steward, because he’s been given the task of giving to the members of God’s church the gospel of Christ crucified.
Well if that’s the case, what does God expect from his preachers? And the answer is very simple, isn’t it? What did the householder expect from his steward? Well, the householder was trusting the steward to take care of the household. And when someone is trusting us to do something, they expect that we will be trustworthy. And that’s what God expects from his preachers: he expects them to be trustworthy and faithful to their calling. And that’s what Paul says in verse 2:
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
It’s important for Paul to say this, because — do you remember? — the members of the church in Corinth were boasting about the various preachers. They were boasting about some and they were being critical of others. And from what Paul says in these verses about being judged by the Corinthians, it’s clear that some of them were being critical of him and that he did not measure up as a preacher. And Paul had written about the sophists who went from place to place in the ancient world, dazzling the crowds with their wisdom and eloquence and wise and persuasive words, and with all their cleverness and sophistication. And perhaps the Christians in Corinth were criticising Paul for not being more like them, because that’s what they wanted: they wanted their preachers to be the same as the sophists; they wanted impressive preachers and they were critical of those like Paul who were not. Or perhaps the Christians in Corinth were criticising Paul for not being more like the philosophers who would come to Corinth with the latest ideas and with new and original ideas to teach which appeal to human wisdom. Perhaps they wanted Paul to be more like them and they were critical of those who would not teach them the latest ideas.
It seems that some of the Corinthians were criticising Paul and were judging him. But was does God want from his preachers? Faithfulness. Preachers who will be faithful in preaching the message of the cross of Christ week by week by week. And he wants faithful preachers, because God knows that what his people need to receive again and again and again is the good news of the gospel of Christ crucified. And when you come to church on Sundays, you should come in order to hear and to receive the message of Christ crucified, because by this message you’re being saved, if you hold on to it firmly. If you rely on the wisdom of this present evil age, you’ll be looking for the wrong things when you come to church. But when you disregard the wisdom of the world, and when you humble yourself and become fools in the sight of the world, then that’s when you’ll be ready to receive what God has prepared for you and for all his people in every generation and which he has sent his preachers to give to his people.