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. – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 ESV
Paul is still concerned with the divisive factions within the body of Christ in Corinth. In his estimation, the believers in Corinth have a faulty view of Christian leadership. They are basing their assessments of those who minister to them on worldly criteria. In the end, some had chosen to follow Paul, some Apollos and others, Cephas. It had become a popularity contest. But Paul wanted them to understand that each of these men, himself included, were servants of Christ. The Greek word Paul uses is ὑπηρέτης (hypēretēs) and it refers to “an underrower or subordinate rower” – one of the slaves who served as a rower in the hold of a ship’s galley (“G5257 – hypēretēs – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). They served under the direction and authority of a superior. This same Greek word was used to describe a servant or “any one who aids another in any work”.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to see himself and the other men who ministered to them as servants of Christ. He even compares them to household stewards – οἰκονόμος (oikonomos) – the manager “to whom the head of the house or proprietor has intrusted the management of his affairs” (“G3623 – oikonomos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Paul, Apollos and Cephas were nothing more than stewards of the message of the gospel entrusted to them by Jesus. And Paul tells the Corinthians, “This is how one should regard us” (1 Corinthians 4:1a ESV). There was no reason to idolize these men. And Paul also wanted the Corinthians to know that there was no reason for them to view these men as somehow working for them. They were “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1b ESV). And as a steward, Paul knew that he had only one person to whom he must answer: God. His ministry was being judged by God, and that was all that mattered to him. He was determined to be faithful in the execution of his God-given assignment to reveal “the mysteries of God.”
At the heart of the factionalism that existed in the Corinthian church was a spirit of judgment. In order to elevate one man over another, the believers in Corinth were judging their value and worth based on external criteria. They were choosing sides solely on the merit of things such as speaking skills, charisma, physical appearance, intelligence, persuasiveness and popularity. They each had their favorite. Some may have preferred Apollos because he was a dynamic speaker. Others chose to follow Cephas because he seemed more in touch with the common man. Those who followed Paul did so because they found something about him that they liked. But Paul said, “As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority” (1 Corinthians 4:3 NLT). He didn’t care what they thought about him. He wasn’t concerned with their evaluation of his abilities. In fact, Paul wasn’t even willing to trust his own judgment of himself. He knew himself to be a lousy judge of his performance or effectiveness. While he may feel free to give himself a high score for his efforts, he knew his evaluation meant nothing. Which is what led him to say, “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Corinthians 4:4 NLT). Paul followed the advice he had given the believers in Rome, “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3 ESV). And even then, after having judged himself soberly and seriously, Paul knew that the only judgment that mattered was what Christ would have to say when He returned.
And he warned the Corinthians believers to “not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5a ESV). In other words, they were not to pre-judge prematurely. James gives us a sobering warning against judging one another: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12 ESV). It wasn’t up to the Corinthians to judge one man’s effectiveness over another. It wasn’t their responsibility to determine the worth or value of one of God’s servants based on outward appearances or earthly criteria. They needed to remember that God alone “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5b ESV). God Himself claims, “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10 ESV). And according to that same passage, we are incapable of knowing the condition of our own hearts, let alone the heart of someone else. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)
Just as Paul was attempting to be a faithful servant of Christ and a trustworthy steward of the mysteries of God, he called on the Corinthians to faithfully focus their attention on God and not men. They were to see themselves as followers of Christ and Him alone. They were to respect Paul, Cephas and Apollos as servants of Christ, but not revere and worship them. Like the believers in Corinth, we have the habit of making much of men. We also tend to judge our leaders based on external, worldly factors. We can be easily swayed by soaring rhetoric and lofty words. We can be taken in by a winsome personality and fall prey to the cult of personality. But Paul would have us remain focused on the message, not the messenger. What makes the good news great is its content, not the communicator. Men don’t save, God does. Men don’t change lives, the gospel does. And long after Paul, Cephas and Apollos disappeared from the scene, the message of salvation through Christ continues to spread. Many messengers have come and gone, but the message remains the same, and the promises of God, unwavering.