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Oct 16, 2011

Too Comfortable for Closeness

Passage: 1 Corinthians 4:5-17

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Life Together--First Corinthians

Category: Christian Walk

Keywords: ministry, pastors, spiritual leaders, gospel, judging, disillusionment


This sermon looks at how we are to look at church leaders and how we are not to view them. It examines the dangers of not viewing them as Paul calls us to. It also looks at the true marks of church leaders we should immitate verses those who just look attractive.


Too Comfortable for Closeness

I Corinthians 4:6-21

October 16, 2011

If you were with us last week you may remember that we were in I Corinthians 4 talking about measuring ministry.  Paul was reminding the Corinthian believers that the yardstick they should be using to measure the greatness of someone’s ministry is not what we normally use.  It’s not about speaking ability or crowd charisma.  It’s not to be about how well people speak of you or how well-know you are.

      What it IS to be about is how humbly someone serves and how well they manage the “trust” or “stewardship” of the gospel message of eternal life in Jesus Christ.  We saw that Paul’s model was to lead and live in absolute obedience to the call of Christ upon his life just as the lowliest of the galley slaves rowing a Roman warship simply served his commander and rather than worrying about how well he was liked by his fellow slaves or how famous he was in the fleet! J

      Then Paul addressed the issue of even judging your own life in Kingdom ministry.  While living certainly an exemplary life with a clear conscience, he admitted that even his own critique about his work was not the audience he or any of us should be playing to.  Rather, he pointed all of us back to that “audience of One”, our Savior Jesus who will one day be our Judge, as the only reliable yardstick that would judge now just what everyone sees on the outside but also what we even fail to see of motives on the inside. 

      And he ended that paragraph in 4:6 with these comforting words:  “At that time each will receive his praise from God.”  At what time?  When “he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.” 

      I used to read those words and think, “Wow!  I’m toast!  I know my own heart and it’s pretty narcissistic.  Too much of what I do is self-driven and too little is Christ-focused.”

      But having spent more time soaking in this passage, I think Paul is saying something that is both a warning and an encouraging promise.  Yes, motives in doing anything are important.  Yes, human motives are almost always mixed.  But here Paul promises that “each will receive his praise from God.”  Our Savior is not our Judge who is looking for any possible reason to disqualify us from his applause.  Rather, he is looking for every possible reason to qualify us for his praise. 

      Where others cannot see a heart struggling to serve Christ, God does.  Where others may think they smell pride and egotism, God senses the baby steps of a servants heart.  Even when we may fail to see much progress towards fruitfulness, God sees the heart that longs to bear fruit.  Our Savior who is our Judge will not only place all of our selfish and sinful motives under His own cleansing blood; he will also recognize any Spirit-led desires to honor Christ…and he will have praise for every one of his children…before all of heaven…in the halls of eternity. 

ILL:  If you’ve had children, you’ve watched them grow from lying on their stomachs like little 10 pound slugs…to learning how to flip over on their backs and get stuck there like beached turtles.  But you didn’t berate them for that; you applauded them, right?

      From there they learned to scoot themselves across the floor, sometimes in reverse before they found the forward gear.  And you cheered them on rather than making fun of their developing motor skills.  From there it was on to crawling…and pulling themselves up on the coffee table or chair leg.  Then the big day arrived:  their first steps.  You could have died a happy parent that day, right?  Those first few halting, teetering steps were enough to bring cheers and applause, hugs and kisses from you. 

      God’s judgment of us is like that.  He’s there cheering every time we make a new move into maturity. Even if it’s just a heart-felt longing, he sees it.  Even if the working out of that desire to walk in Christ means you fell on your face 6 times but took 2 whole baby steps, He’s applauding. 

      Brothers and sisters, everyone in Christ is someday going to “receive his/her praise from God.”  There will be no exceptions.  EVERYONE of God’s children will hear His voice and feel His hug of proud affirmation.  Everyone in Christ!

In today’s passage beginning at vs. 6, Paul first challenges the church to view their leaders in a certain way and then calls upon them to view their own church experience quite differently from their natural inclination.  Let’s look first at what he says about church leaders.

Read 4:6-7

Now, brothers and sisters, 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 be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 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? 

Paul isn’t pointing fingers or name calling other teachers or leaders in the Corinthian church.  He chose to talk about himself and his good friend and coworker in the Gospel, Apollos.  Having recognized that even he does ministry with imperfect and mixed motives and that the best of God’s servants really stands or falls before God and God alone, he now calls on the church to change the way they look at spiritual leaders. 

      While his statement, “Do not go beyond what is written,” is a very difficult one to translate in Greek (it literally translates “that you may learn in us the ‘not beyond what is written’”), I think what he is essentially saying is, “Look, don’t go beyond the terms of what God is doing with people.  Don’t take pride in one man over against another.  Don’t get into this business of looking at people…even the leaders of God’s church…in ways that make you proud about this leader over that one.”  The sort of super-star ranking or the annual NCAA team rankings is not to be played out in the church.

The end of vs. 6 is very clear:  we simply are not to “take pride in one man over against another.”  That term “take pride” means also “to be puffed up.”  Paul uses it 6 times in this book (4:18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4).  When it comes to church leaders, while church leaders are to manage their lives and families in such a way that they are respected for it, that is a far cry from putting a church leader up on a pedestal in a way that idolizes them or looks to them as some kind of knight in shinning armor.  Paul knows all too well where that kind of adulation of even good people will lead you. 

Here’s the difference between proper respect for a leader and improper pride about a leader.  What will your response be if your “leader” fails?  What will you do…or stop doing…if someone you have looked up to spiritually stumbles and falls? 

      If their human failure leads you to turn away from God’s divine presence and relationship, you’ve been improperly attached to that leader.

      If their personal sin leads you to walk away from your public worship with God’s people, you’ve been too adoring of their ministry.  You’ve gotten too “puffed up with pride” about another imperfect human being rather than built up in faith towards our perfect God. 

ILL:  I’ve seen it happen way too often in church life.  I was first introduced to this in a personal way when I was in college.  It came through a series of failures in men I deeply respected and admired in ministry. 

  • I think the first one came when one of my favorite teachers from the Christian high school I graduated from walked out on his wife and 6 children to live with another woman.  To this day I don’t understand what possessed this man to throw away his family, his career, his reputation and his seemingly genuine relationship with Christ to shack up with another woman.  It was disappointing but it was not devastating.  Even spiritual people are still people.
  • The next one came the first Sunday I came back for summer break from college after my sophomore year.  I sat stunned in the college class as one of my friends told me that the church had just discovered that one of its pastors was guilty of sodomy with a minor.  Many people first learned of it in their Sunday paper.  And the shock began to register as I realized that one of the young men I had worked with and counseled at camp the summer before regarding his homosexual behavior had, in fact, been taken advantage of by this pastor.  That reality was disappointing.  It was shocking.  It was even discouraging.  But it did not turn me from my Savior or His people.
  • Four years later, in my home church in Portland, on my first Sunday back from a year overseas, I sat stunned as one of the pastors of that congregation publically confessed and repented of a long string of affairs he had had in multiple churches over the years including now this church.  To make matters worse, he was a man my wife had known years before in her own home church in a different state, a man who had taken advantage of young women just like her. I was stunned.  I was angry.  I was disappointed.  But, by the grace of God, my faith was not being built on men.
  • Then came one more blow.  It came from that same church I just mentioned, a church and pastor who had actually done the hard work of restoring this last man to ministry after several years of a hard, faithful, yet loving discipline and restoration.  Sandy and I were in language school.  Just a few months earlier we had been at a wonderful reunion of this amazing church staff that was now scattered all over the country and world. We had both worked on this church staff for several years.  Our last time with all of them on earth was at that year’s denominational meetings.  I remember all 8 or 10 couples sitting crammed into the hotel room of this senior pastor and his wife, sharing memories, laughing, crying and praying together.   Then the news came while we were in Costa Rica in language study that the Senior Pastor of this large, wonderful home church of ours had left his wife, left the church, left the ministry and left much more for an affair with his publicist. 

Almost makes you wonder if you want to be my friend, right?  J

But by the grace of God…and, I think, because I may have never elevated these servants of God to some “puffed-up” hero status in life, I have not walked away from the church in disgust or from God in disappointment.  But I know too many people of God, people who were at one time living in God’s family, who have allowed the failings of other failed saints to drive them far from the church and, in some ways, far from God. 

That’s what happens when you “take pride in one man over another.” 

That’s what happens when your faith is somehow wedded too closely with the spiritual image you want to have about spiritual leaders. 

When good people throw out the church when spiritual leaders fail, that’s a sure sign that Christ has not been their life.  Something or someone else has been.

Every human being, be they “saints” in God’s family or sinners in the world, will at some point disappoint us if not outright sin against us.  But WE are the only ones who can take the blame for that destroying our fellowship with God’s people and our walk with God. 

Well, while on this topic of taking pride in spiritual leaders, Paul ask 3 rapid-fire questions of the church at Corinth.  Look at vs. 7. 

1.)    “For who makes you different from anyone else?”  Answer?  God.  You may be smarter than the average bear, but God gave you those smarts.  You may be funnier, a better leader, more outgoing, a better communicator or a hundred other things.  Where did that come from?  All of it was a gift of God.  He could have made you a dumb and dull as a rock.  And He would have loved you the same…but people would have looked at you differently.

2.)    “What do you have that you did not receive?”  From the day we were born, God has been pouring out everything from food to health to opportunities upon us.  We all came into this world about as helpless, uneducated, poor, needy and funny looking as you can get.  And everything since then has pretty much been a gift.  Yes, you may have developed it.  But even the opportunity to do so was a gift of God.  Hundreds of millions of people in this world have never had a fraction of the opportunities you and I sitting in this room have had.  From the breath of life to the salvation of our souls, most of life has been a gift.  If you don’t think so, you’re even more arrogant than I am!

3.)    “And if you did receive it [what you have], why do you boast as though you did not?  Answer?  Because we don’t see our lives from God’s perspective…an accurate perspective.  We think we’ve got the good things of life because of our own effort or goodness or hard work.  All it takes is 1 tornado, 1 earthquake, 1 financial collapse, 1 stroke and that deception is unmasked. 

The church of Corinth was developing an unrealistic and unspiritual view of themselves.  By their measuring stick, they were a church that had the tiger by the tail.  Just how skewed their perspective was is revealed to us by Paul in the next paragraph. 

Read 4:8-13

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.     

If you don’t think Paul is using just a little bit of sarcasm here, you’ll not understand this passage.  Paul is repeating what this church is thinking (and perhaps saying) about itself. 

  • “We have all we want!  We couldn’t ask for life to be better.  In fact, we sort of hope things don’t change from how pleasant and good they are now.”
  • “Why, we must be one of the most blessed, one of the spiritually richest churches in the Roman empire.  Just look at all the amazing people and programs and spiritual gifts God has poured out in this place.” 
  • “In fact, King Jesus seems to have given us an early taste of what it’s going to be like when He starts reigning on this earth.  We’re already getting respect from our neighbors.  We’re already gaining power in the city.  We’re becoming the movers and shakers of this town.  Praise be to God!”

There are at least a couple of marks here of a church and individual Christians who have  lost focus on what is important in life. 

The first mark of myopic spiritual vision is when we think, “I’ve arrived.  We have a corner on the truth  This church, this ministry is really humming right along.  We must be doing something right for God to be blessing us like this.”  Such a mindset had blinded them to the reality that Paul saw and will shortly unfold to them that they were a congregation that was spiritually immature, divided, worldly and scandal-ridden. 

The second mark of spiritually myopic people is a sort of exclusive attitude.  Paul tags this attitude as one that says, “We’re doing fine as is.  We’re spiritual kings.  We don’t need input from others.  We can solve our own problems and heal our own diseases.  Paul, you just run along and deal with other churches that have far bigger messes.”   It’s kind of Spokane’s anti-outsider mentality taken into the church.  J  “No problems here.  Just keep moving along.  There’s really nothing wrong here and certainly nothing you can help with.” 

Paul is just shaking his head.  “Oh that all that was true!  Because if it was,” says Paul, “the life that we Apostles, we founders of the church, those of us who have been foundational in this Kingdom work…would be SO different.”

      “Instead,” Paul says, “it looks to me like God has made us apostles the dishonored, disrespected, disliked fools—clowns at the end of the world’s parade of beautiful people whose job it is to scoop poop left by the fancy parade horses.” 

Actually, the image Paul uses here is far more disturbing than that.  Clowns in a parade would have been an upgrade.  Instead, Paul talks about how God has “put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe….”

      The term “spectacle” here is the Greek word from which we get the English word “theater.”  But it was an “R” rated sort of theater…”R” for violence.  Paul was thinking of the Roman amphitheaters and coliseums which were the focus of Roman entertainment.  People came by the tens of thousands to watch gladiators fight to the death and condemned prisoners torn to pieces by wild animals.  When the “main events” were ended, then the poorest and weakest prisoners were brought in to fight the beasts.  Nobody expected too much from their performance.

What a contrast from how the Corinthians saw themselves!  Theirs was not a life of suffering but of plenty.  Just look at the list of things Paul mentions as by way of contrast to the Corinthians.

Vs. 10—“fools for Christ” while the Corinthians saw themselves as so “wise.”

--“Weak” while the church at Corinth believed itself so strong.

--“Dishonored” while Corinthian Christians felt so “honored.”

--“Hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated, homeless… common laborers who work hard with their hands, cursed, persecuted, slandered, “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” 

Do you think that maybe Paul is feeling just a little beat up in the spiritual battle?  Do you think he’s tired of hearing the “health-wealth” messages from people who look like they’ve got it all together in the church? 

Paul points to his sufferings for the sake of the gospel as a more accurate measure of Christian faithfulness and maturity than the success measurements the Corinthians were using of good times and an easy life. 

By that measuring stick, how mature is much of the American church today? 

By that measuring stick, how mature are our lives in Christ? 

I’m beginning to wonder if the reason my life is so filled with abundance and relative ease is not because I’m doing do many things right in the kingdom.  Maybe if I was living the kind of bold, spiritually radical lifestyle the apostles lived, preaching the gospel more out in the pagan world than inside the professing church, my life might be significantly more difficult and taxing than it is right now. 

People who know they have a terminal illness usually stop dealing in life’s trivialities. They become focused on what’s important in life.  The dispose of their property, make final arrangements for their loved ones, they say what they want people to remember and what’s important. 

  • Take Steve Jobs, one of the richest and most creative men of our generation.  What did he pay attention to at the end of his life?  Working with his biographer so that his children and grandchildren would know what kind of man he was even though he wasn’t often around to show them enough in person.

Paul ends this passage clarifying that he has not made all these comparisons in order to “shame” his spiritual children.  But he does want to warn them.  Look at what he says in 4:14-17.

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

Paul, who just finished telling his spiritual children how amazingly difficult his life is right now, turns and says to them, “Therefore I urge you to imitate me…my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” 

      Hungry…thirsty…in rags…brutally treated…homeless… common laborers who work hard with their hands…blessing others when cursed…enduring patently when persecuted… answering kindly when slandered…the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world???

      That’s not much of a recruiting pitch!  For a world bent upon making life as easy, as painless, as non-taxing as possible, that add campaign isn’t going to gain a lot of customers. 

Unless you really bank your life on Jesus’ statement of reality in Mt. 16:24 when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It only really makes sense when you believe Jesus about what he said in the next verse (Mt. 16:25), “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

As we will see in upcoming chapters, the Corinthians avoided reproach by accommodating themselves to the world.  They put up with anything in the church and they never judged any behavior as wrong.  By compromising with the world, they escaped the world’s reproach. 

ILL: I had a conversation with a brother in town this week who works with an international Christian organization that works in China.  The church in China is one of the fastest growing churches in the world.  This organization trains Chinese college students to be vocal about their faith in Christ, to share Christ relentlessly with their peers on the university campuses. 

      Recently they’ve done some studies of how well that is translating into the workplace.  And they’ve discovered a disturbing trend.  Over 90% of these believers, after having been in the workplace for several years, stop sharing their faith.  They stop sharing the gospel. 

      As they’ve dug into it a bit deeper, one of the things they’ve been able to isolate is that those less than 10% of former students who are sharing their faith in the secular workplace have a decidedly more complete and thorough Christian world view.  In other words, those students really understand and really believe that Christ is not in their life simply to impact their “spiritual life.”  They understand that He is Lord of their life to impact every part, every facet, every corner of their lives from work to worship, recreation to religious life.  And they have come to grips with the biblical truth that this world and its nations and governments and cultures is temporary and passing while God’s kingdom, his truth and his calling are eternal. 

ILL:  This week, if you were reading the news, you saw how over 300 people were wounded and some 26 Christians killed in Egypt.  Coptic Christians there were marching in the streets demonstrating against Muslim crowds who had attacked several of their churches.  This week the Coptic protesters were attacked by street thugs thought to be recruited by the military as well as purposely run over by a military armored car.  These are the same Christians who earlier this year, when the military was threatening the Muslim neighbors in Tehrir Square formed a human shield around them as they prayed and called upon God for peace.  It is not easy nor safe nor comfortable to hold up a Christian cross in a nation where your faith holds a mere 10% of the population in the face of a religion that demands your conversion, your subjugation or sometimes even your death. 

I repeat Paul’s words to the Corinthians:  I don’t say this to shame us but to warn us. 

We are not called in this Bible to a life of comfort or ease or silence or secrecy.  Too much comfort can render us ineffective for the Gospel.  Too much prosperity can make us poverty stricken when it comes to sharing Christ boldly in our culture. 

APP:  Maybe the relative ease and peace we are experiencing in the American church is not a sign of God’s blessing for our obedience but of our culture’s acceptance of our silence about the Gospel.  Maybe God is inviting us to follow more men like the Apostle Paul in the sharing of our faith even in hostile environments rather than the hiding of our faith in peaceful accommodation with a culture that has little room for the Lord Jesus Christ. 

PRAYER:  (Invite people to listen for a moment to what the Spirit of God might say to them about the stewarding of the Gospel message…

  • In our neighborhoods?
  • In our schools?
  • In our places of work?
  • In our downtown core?