Faithful Servants Prepare People for Christ's Return
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Sunday, December 6, 2015 - Advent 2C
The shopping has begun! Reports show that early Christmas sales are up from last year. $1.6 Billion were spent in the US on Black Friday, which is up from 1.5 Billion from last year. Were you bold enough to venture out on the busiest shopping weekend of the year? Or maybe you're like me and do all your shopping online to avoid the crowds? Do you know just what your wife or husband or kids want this year? Do you know just the right gift that will make them happy? Maybe they helped you out and made you a list of suggestions—things they want and would really like.
Now, what if you were shopping, not for a gift to give, but for a pastor for your church? What would you look for? What characteristics and qualities would you put on your list? What would you want and really like? A dynamic preacher who keeps you sitting on the edge of your seats? An organized neat freak so he doesn't goof up the calendar? A well-read bookworm who knows lots of counseling tips and tricks? An energetic man who has a burning desire for youth ministry? Just someone who's around in his office when you need him?
All of these are good qualities to have in a pastor, right? But what's most important? What's at the top of the list?
Well, that was one of the debates at the church in Corinth. Some liked Paul best. Perhaps it was because he was such an excellent theologian who had been instructed by God himself. Others preferred Peter. He was one of the Twelve and a close friend of none other than Jesus. Others put Apollos at the top of their list. He was a regular guy like one of them. But Paul pointed out what quality they should shop for in a pastor: Faithful servants of Christ prepare God's people for Jesus' return by proclaiming the truths of God's Word that have been entrusted to them. Regardless of other qualities, that one should top the list. Here's how Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5...
1So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 2Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
The church in Corinth was exceedingly blessed. Paul wrote to them in chapter one (v. 17), "You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." But not everything was perfect. They had their fair share of problems too. And one of those problems was their criteria for a pastor. You see, the Greeks praised wisdom and philosophy. They loved eloquent speech and flowery language. They loved the guys who could rally a crowd and whip them into a frenzy with the power of their words.
But Paul didn't have those qualities. In chapter 2 (cf. v. 1-5) Paul said that he didn't come to them with eloquent speech or persuasive words, but in weakness and fear and with much trembling. But those weren't the important qualities. And Paul didn't care if they judged him based on that criteria. No. The most important quality in a pastor was that they prove faithful with the trust that has been given them, namely, the "secret things" of God.
But what are those? What secrets had God given to Paul? Was it a secret handshake? A secret knock on the door of heaven? A secret code to interpret the Bible converting the letters into numbers then back again? No. The secret things of God are the truths about the Gospel.
"Wait a second!" you object. "How can the Gospel be secret? It's gone around the globe and back!" True. But literally "secret things" is the Greek word mysterion; a mystery, or that which is not known by nature. By nature, mankind is blind to the truths of God's Word, hostile to God (cf. Romans 8:5-8), dead in sin (cf. Ephesians 2), and is incapable of discovering the truth on its own. You cannot discover the good news of Jesus' mission completed by sitting in a corner and meditating. It's a mystery that some faithful messenger has revealed to you.
But that means that it's not just pastors who are called to be faithful messengers. You too have now been entrusted with the secret things of God. Maybe you thought this sermon was just going to be about pastors, but it's really about every one of us. We have all been called to be messengers of the gospel to prepare people for Jesus' return.
So what's required of you as such a messenger? You must prove faithful! So, let me ask you: How well have you handled the secret things of God? Have you boldly shared the message of God's law with its impossible demands, "Be perfect"? Have you been eager to share the gospel in all it's beauty? Have you taken a bold stand on God's teachings on election, on close communion, on the roles of men and women? Or have you kept the secret things of God, well, secret?
If you have shared your faith, what were your motives for doing so? Was it out of thanks to Jesus for what he's done for you and you're so excited about it that you just can't keep quiet? Or was it because, well, it was the right thing to do and even though you didn't want to, you knew you'd better. Or maybe because when you did you felt like you were a better Christian than those cowards who are scared to? Unfortunately, even our motives for doing the right actions are exposed by the one who knows men's hearts and will bring to light what is hidden in darkness. What eternal terror we deserve for the way we've all handled the secret things of God. And even if your conscience is clear, so what?! That doesn't make you innocent!
But thankfully it's not our consciences that judge us. We're not answerable to other people who may or may not like the qualities we possess or who wouldn't choose to put us on their list. We're not even answerable to our own consciences! "My conscience is clear," Paul writes, "but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me." And what a comfort that is! In Romans 8:33-34 Paul wrote, "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us."
God—and God alone—judges us. And thank God that he judges us in Christ. You see Jesus was the perfect pastor. He did prove faithful where you and I have not. He always handled the secret things of God as he should and revealed them to people to prepare them for the day of his judgment. He always spoke the truth in love even when it meant he wouldn't be popular, even when it meant they'd try to kill him for what he said, even when they would succeed in that endeavor! And what's more exciting is that Jesus gave us the credit for his perfect faithfulness!
And that's not all! Jesus who was perfect and did prove faithful, took our place in the judgment. He was put on trail and judged in a human court. But it was a mock trial. They knew before a word was spoken that they would condemn an innocent man to die. And die he did, enduring the shame, the pain, the torture, the hell of the cross... in our place. And he took every time we've judged a pastor with bad criteria, every time we've had bad motives in our right actions, and every time we've kept the secret things of God secret, all on himself. And he took every one of our sins away.
Now as we stand trial before God's court, when we die or when Jesus returns, we don't need to be afraid. Because we know we will receive a favorable judgment from God who's chosen us, who's justified us by Jesus' sacrifice, declaring every one of our actions to be right and good and blameless so it's just-as-if-I'd never sinned. Now, when the Lord comes at the appointed time and brings to light what is hidden in darkness, even exposing the motives of men's heart, you will receive praise, not condemnation, from God. For you'll have nothing to hide! Even every sinful motive is removed by faith in Christ and every impurity is burned up in the refiners fire!
And now we can't help but say, "Jesus, how can I ever thank you for what you've done for me, making me, as unfaithful as I am, faithful in God's sight, for judging me innocent when I've been so guilty, for giving me praise when I deserve hell?" And he tells us how. We who have been entrusted with these secret things of God can prove faithful. Share the truths of God's Word that you have learned. Share them boldly. Who cares if you're judged in a human court by human standards? You're judged innocent by God!
You know the word translated as "servant" in verse 1 is literally an "under-rower." Picture the slaves who were chained to their oars in the belly of the Roman galley. They rowed to the beat of the master's drum and followed his instructions exactly. It wasn't a "glorious" position, by any means. But it was an important one. It helped people get to their destination.
Likewise, as you and I follow our Master's instructions, it may not always be glorious, in fact, it may be painful as we're judged by other and rejected by some. But for others, we'll help them reach their destination. For faithful servants prepare people for Jesus' return by proclaiming the truths of God's Word—both Law and Gospel—that have been entrusted to them. Keep rowing to the beat of that drum, dear friends, and when he comes at the appointed time, what praise you'll receive from God! In Jesus' name, amen.