1 CORINTHIANS 4. 1-5
A partisan SPIRIT had emerged in the assembly at Corinth, so much so that believers were declaring their allegiance to one and another, and in so doing they were creating contentions.
Paul was, as a result, one of those supported by some and criticized by others. In 1 Corinthians 4 he dealt with the issue forcefully, albeit briefly, and in verse 5 summarized his conclusions. They remain exceedingly pertinent for us today, for we easily engage in unjustified reproof of others (often if they take a line different from that adopted by ourselves), or in glowing praise of those we favour — praise which can distort true values.
In his answer to the critics, the apostle declared his calling, and here he had in mind two aspects, as he spoke not only for himself but also for his fellow workers; they were ministers and stewards, v. 1. It is perhaps significant that for the first of these he used a word which does not appear elsewhere in the epistles. The more commonly used word, as for instance in 1 Corinthians 3. 5, is that from which we derive our English word “deacon”. But here he used a word which literally means “an under-rower”. Thus the apostle unreservedly declared his readiness to take a lowly place; in so doing he set an example which we could profitably emulate. Secondly he referred to the role of steward, which conveyed both dignity and responsibility. The steward was, to his master, a slave, but to the slaves on an estate he was an overseer. Faithfulness and accountability were to characterize the carrying out of his tasks.
Paul then turned to the question of examination, firstly by his fellow believers, and secondly self-examination, which he could conduct personally. The first was dismissed with a cursory remark, for the judgment of others hac never been a guide for him, nor had it diverted him from his chosen pathway or contributed to the moulding of his life’s service. By implication he put the whims and fancies of men in proper perspective. Furthermore, in this context self-examination was of little value. (It was not that he was against self-examination, as 11. 28 and 2 Cor. 13. 5 show, but in the matter of his service, it would provide no satisfactory answer). He could claim (could we?) that he knew nothing against himself (for such is the meaning of the expression, 4. 4 R.V. ), yet even a clear conscience provided no satisfaction by itself. Why? Because the Lord was his judge. In the light of this, all other examination would be superficial, premature, and sometimes even wholly wrong.
So his conclusions were set out. They convey at a stroke his reasons for unconcern at the judgment of men, and the certainty of personal examination one day, by the Lord Himself. In that day, in marked contrast to the manner of human judgment, the Lord will —
(1) “Bring to light the hidden things of darkness”. While darkness often has an ethical significance in Scripture, and such a thought may well be included here (thereby linking it to “the counsels of the hearts”), there is, we feel, a word of encouragement too. How much has been done for Him, and in His name, which has been hidden in obscurity? Men have often misconstrued the service of choice saints, who have faithfully trodden the pathway marked out by their Lord, knowing nothing of earthly publicity and glamour. In that day He will recognize such service for what it has been in His sight. He will also
(2) “Make manifest the counsels of the hearts”. Not merely words and deeds, but motives too, are fully known to His all-seeing eye. Searching words these, and a reminder that we are not to be those who aim to please men but “God, which trieth our hearts”.
“And then shall every man have praise of God”. So does he conclude his reasoning. Due praise this — not exaggerated as we sometimes lavish on our favourites, nor underestimated praise as is given when men apply, misguidedly, the standards of the world in assessing service for Christ. As we reflect upon the teaching of this verse, are we not bound to confess that there will be many surprises in that day? Does it not behove us to look again at our service, its manner and its motives?
There is another reason to take the injunction to heart. It is all too easy to criticize, to judge, and even to condemn another. Holding “the truth in love” is an instruction that we who claim to treasure God’s Word do well to heed. Intolerance and rigidity sadly mark some who profess to be contending for the truth, and questions must arise when more of the grace of Christ is seen in those criticized than in their critics.
Let us leave the judgment to the Lord, until He comes, and ensure that in the intervening days we, for our part, are faithful and blameless. Far better this, than to be party now to criticizing those who in that day will earn the commendation of the Lord!