In our last essay we studied chapter three. In this essay we are studying 4:1-7, in which Paul continues to talk about the role of apostles and other ministers, but in a different way. Whereas in chapter three Paul was dealing with their work as ministers: tilling God’s “field,” or building God’s “temple,” in chapter four Paul shifts to the role of ministers in relation, to God on the one hand, and to the people in the churches on the other. In addition he attacks the pride of some of the Corinthians.
Notice in verse one that Paul uses two terms to describe the relationship of ministers to God. The first is “servants of Christ;” but this is not the same word for servant that he used in chapter three. There the word was diakonoi, from which we get our English word “deacon.” Here Paul uses a different term (hyperetas), which originally meant “under-rowers,” the slaves who rowed large ships. The term later became generalized to mean low-placed servants. Because the term had become so generalized, most scholars maintain that it means the same thing as diakonoi. But I believe that the idea Paul is expressing is that the apostles, even though they are the highest placed ministers of all, are not like ships’ captains. Rather they are more like ships’ “under-rowers.” In other words, God is the captain of the ship, and they are very lowly servants of God.
The second term is “stewards.” Ministers are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” The Greek word is oikonomois from which we get our English words “economy,” “economist,” and “economics.” A steward was a servant who was given great responsibility. He was placed in charge of managing the entire household or estate of the owner, but he himself owned nothing.
Ministers as “stewards of the mysteries of God” again place the focus upon God as the master, the owner, to whom the apostles were responsible. And as verse two indicates, the primary responsibility of the steward is to be “trustworthy.” “Faithful” would be a more literal, and my opinion more satisfactory, translation. “It is required of stewards that they be faithful.” Thus we see that ministers of the gospel of Christ are to be faithful servant-stewards. And that for which we are responsible are “the mysteries of God.”
What ,are the “mysteries of God?” The word “mystery” always has a special meaning in the New Testament. It does not mean a puzzle to be solved, like a murder mystery, or something that is hard to understand, as when we say “it’s a mystery to me.” Rather it refers to a revelation of God that has been hidden until he chose to reveal it. In this case Paul means the recently revealed mystery of salvation through Christ.
In verses 3-5 Paul speaks about judgment of ministers. Paul mentions three judgments. First, there is man’s judgment (3a). Literally the first part of verse three reads: “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human day,” meaning a human day of judgment. In other words, apostles and all other ministers, are not going to evaluated by God on the basis of human judgment.
Second, there is the minister’s own judgment (3b-4a). Even though Paul knew of nothing that was amiss in his ministry, that did not excuse him, because he is not the one who makes that judgment. Sometimes we ministers do not really know the value of our ministries. In other words we are perfectly capable of misreading the condition of our own ministries. We may completely overrate our performance. Or we may think of ourselves as total failures, when in God’s sight we are successful.
Then, third, there is God’s judgment (4b). It is God who is the captain, the master. Therefore it is God who will make the final judgment on a minister’s service.
In verse five Paul shifts to a double warning about judging ministers. First, they can be judged at the wrong time (5a). This statement is particularly difficult to digest, because Paul seems to be saying that no time other than the end time is the right time. And second, they can be judged out of wrong motives (5b). That is why the purposes of the heart will be revealed in the final judgment. Commendations, or rewards, will be based on our motives.
All right, we have seen that the key apostolic or ministerial relationship is with God. Ministers are to be faithful, servant-stewards of the mysteries of God; and it is God who will hold them accountable. Now in the next section, verses 6-13, we will see that the primary and proper characteristic of the minister is humility. However we have space to go only a far as verse seven.
As you can see, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is applying all this to Apollos and himself for their benefit. And the reason he gives is that he wants them to learn the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written.” Some have suggested that this statement might refer in a general way to scripture. Others hold that it may have been a proverb. But it is so obscure that it isn’t possible to know with any certainty what the source of it was, or what Paul meant by it.
However, Paul’s final goal is clear. He wants them to stop being “puffed up,” or “prideful,” in the “one,” meaning one particular minister, in such a way as to be “over against the other.” In this context, the “one” and the “other would have been Paul and Apollos.
In verse seven Paul asks three rhetorical questions. The first reads in the NRSV, “Who sees anything different in you?” The NIV reads, “Who makes you different from anyone else”? This question sounds odd to our ears. Literally, it reads, “who distinguishes you”? Gordon Fee suggests that the modern equivalent would be, “Who do you think you are anyway?” Thus the first question marks the Corinthians pride as presumptuous.
The second question is, “What do you have that you did not receive?” This question hit at their pride from a different angle. It accused them of being ungrateful. Everything comes from God as a gift of God’s grace. And they had no right to boast about anything.
With the third question, Paul drove home his point. “If you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The Corinthians not only were presumptuous and ungrateful, they also were possessive of their gifts. They saw them as their own.