I’ve got two questions for you this morning. First of all, “What makes for a successful ministry?” And the second question is this: “What makes for a successful minister?” I’m certain that if we were to send out a questionnaire to those who call Britton Christian Church their church “home” we would get a wide variety of answers to those two questions. Most people would label a church a success if the church is growing. The more rapid the growth, the more successful the church. Others would look to innovation to prove the success of a church. “Our church is doing things that no other church in town is doing.”  

When it comes to ministers we use all kinds of metrics to judge whether a minister is successful or not. The size of the church, the number of baptisms in a given year, new members coming to the church at the present time, the number of followers the minister has on social media, the degrees earned by the minister, the number of books written by the minister, or the speaking skills of a minister–these are some,  not all, but some of what people use to determine whether the minister is a success or not. 

I read an article this past week titled, “Top Churches in America.” It was written by the Church Relevance Team. I would say that if anybody should know if a church is relevant, successful, it should be the Church Relevance Team, wouldn’t you? Before they listed the top churches in America they wrote,

The act of ranking churches is a dangerous thing when approached with an unhealthy perspective of competition, idolization, or biblical immaturity. So before we get to the rankings let’s cover some do’s and don’ts.

  • DO remember that what man says is a successful church isn’t always what God says is a successful church.
  • DO understand that we’re incapable of measuring what God values (i.e., heart attitude, authentic conversions, true discipleship, selfless advancement of the gospel, etc.) so we settle for measuring things that only hint at the possibility of spiritual fruit (i.e., church size, growth rate, influence, church planting, etc.).
  • DO remember sometimes unhealthy churches know all the right formulas to give the appearance of spiritual success.

I loved their very first “DO.” “Remember that what man says is a successful church isn’t always what God says is a successful church.”  If that is the case then why do we insist on using the world’s measure of success to judge churches and ministers? This is nothing new of course, it was going on in Paul’s day. We’ve heard for three straight chapters how the church in Corinth was picking their favorite minister like Pharrel Williams and Blake Shelton choose their teams on The Voice. 

This past week, while I was studying our Scripture for today, I remembered a time several years ago when a young guy who was hired by a youth ministry group in OKC began attending BCC. The ministry is a nation-wide organization and after about a year the new guy was catching heat from his Board. As I said, he was attending church here and the two of us would get together often to talk about God’s Word, ministry, and his particular ministry with kids in Oklahoma City. The reason he was catching heat wasn’t because of any moral failure or being lazy and not doing his job, but it was because he didn’t have the charismatic personality and over-the-top creativity of his predecessor. I knew the guy he had replaced. He went to church here at BCC as well. He was one of the most talented guys I’ve ever known. He was so funny he could have been a comedian. He played guitar, had a great voice, and could sell a ham sandwich to a hog. He was amazing. 

I was at John Marshall one night watching J.R. Giddens play basketball when I saw my young friend coming up the steps. The look on his face wasn’t good. He sat down and began to tell me he couldn’t sleep at night, he wasn’t eating, he feared he was going to get fired, and he hated that because he loved his job. I listened for a while and then I told him, “God didn’t call you to be anybody other than who He made you to be. You have gifts that they don’t recognize because they are comparing you to your predecessor. If they fire you then God has another place for you, but don’t you dare change to try and please your Board.”  He didn’t get fired, but he did get offered a job at Crossings where he is still on staff and doing an incredible job to this day. We’ve got to stop judging those who minister among us by the standards of this world. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for this morning found in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

1 This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:1-5 NIV)

Paul says, “I know how you have been viewing us, but this is how you ought to regard us.” How is it that we should see those who minister among us? As “servants of Christ and those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” 

Now, I need to remind you that according to Scripture we are all “ambassadors of Christ.” Every follower of Jesus has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit which are to be used to minister for the glory of God as we share the gospel and minister to others. We are a room full of ministers and I pray that you are using your gifts to bless those the Lord has placed in your life. Here, Paul has in mind those who have been given the gift of teaching or preaching. Paul says the church should view those who teach and preach as “servants of Christ and those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” I want us to take a moment to understand the word “servant.” 

Paul uses different words that are translated as “servant” in the New Testament. In Romans 1:1 we read, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” The word for “servant” in this instance is “doulos,” which means “slave or bond servant.” In Ephesians 3:7, Paul writes,

7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. (Ephesians 3:7 NIV)

Here, “servant” is translated from the Greek word, “diakonos,” which is used to describe a table server, waiter, or someone who carries out the commands of another. It’s the word from which we get our word, “Deacon.” It’s one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses it 22 times in his letters in the New Testament. 

In 1 Corinthians 4:1, the word “servant” isn’t “diakonos” or “doulos,” but it is the word “????????” (huperetes). It’s a compound word: “hupo” which means “under” and “eretes” which means “a rower.” The word was used to describe the lowest slaves who did the rowing aboard the warships of the Romans. The Roman warships had three levels of rowers and these were the bottom level of rowers. The word became synonymous for the person doing the lowest, most menial work. Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he, even though he was an apostle, was the lowest of all of Jesus’ servants. Ray Stedman gives us more insight into this powerfully descriptive word.

Now everyone in Corinth understood what that word meant. Corinth was where the war galleys of the Roman Empire crossed through the isthmus that separated the Ionian Sea from the Aegean Sea, and the Corinthians knew that the lowest deck of a war galley was made of single rows of benches on both sides of the ship where the rowers sat. Then on a little deck raised up above them all, so that each rower could see him, was the captain of the ship. It was the rowers’ task to row according to what he said. If he wanted the ship to move then they were to row; if he wanted them to stop they had to stop instantly. Their whole business was to obey his orders. Now, that is the word that Paul chooses to describe those who are teachers, preachers and ministers of the Word of God within the congregation of the Church. They are “under-rowers” of Christ. (Ray Stedman, The True Minister.)

Isn’t that powerful? What a beautiful description of you and me. We are “under-rowers for Christ!” We have no desire to be the big man on campus, we’re not climbing the ladder of success, we’re not jockeying for a better position, a bigger platform–we are servants of our Captain, under-rowers with our eyes fixed on Jesus. We don’t follow public opinion polls to decide what we will say or do–we do what He calls us to do, when He calls us to do it, and we don’t stop until He says so. This is totally opposite of how the world operates. It reminds me of what Jesus told His disciples in Mark 10:42-45. 

42 Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their men of high positions exercise power over them. 43 But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life– a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 CSB)

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life–a ransom for many.” Our Captain is the greatest servant of all and we must keep our eyes fixed on Him. Henri Nouwen writes,

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. (Henry Nouwen)

Paul says that he and others who minister for the Lord are not only under-rowers for Jesus, but we are also “stewards of the mysteries God has revealed.” The Greek word for “stewards” literally means “house manager.” The house manager was “placed in complete control of the owner’s household. He oversaw the property, the fields and vineyards, the finances, the food, and the other servants on behalf of his master” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. pg. 98).

We are stewards of the mysteries God has revealed to us. What are those mysteries? That’s a great question. I want to take a moment to remind you of a great principle that is so important for you and me. When you have questions about God’s Word, look to God’s Word for the answers. With a question like, “What are the mysteries of God?” it would be so easy to just offer whatever we think. Please don’t do that because we will be wrong the vast majority of the time. Look to God’s Word for the answer. Turn with me to Colossians 2:2-4 and let’s read together.

2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery– Christ. 3 All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Him. 4 I am saying this so that no one will deceive you with persuasive arguments. (Colossians 2:2-4 CSB)

The mystery of God is Christ. Knowledge of the coming Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, but the details were largely hidden, not fully revealed for ages, but then the time came when He was made known. There are other mysteries of God that are written about in Scripture. There is the “mystery of the kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11. Then, in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, there is the “mystery of lawlessness.” What is that all about? Well, let’s read 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8. 

7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one now restraining will do so until he is out of the way, 8 and then the lawless one will be revealed. The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of His mouth and will bring him to nothing with the brightness of His coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 CSB)

What is this “mystery of lawlessness?” It is that this world is bound, enslaved in sin, and on our own there is nothing we can do about it. Throughout the generations we’ve seen the same dilemma faced by all people. We may be making advances technologically, educationally, and in other ways, but people are still struggling with the same besetting sins as every generation in the past. The great German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once said, “History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.”

There are two more mysteries written about in God’s Word. There is the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16). Then there is the “mystery of the church” written about in Ephesians 3:1-6. All of these are mysteries from the standpoint that the world knows nothing about any of them, but they are revealed to God’s people through God’s Word by God’s ministers. Those who teach and preach are given the responsibility of teaching these truths to God’s people.

Let me say from experience that there is so much more that those who are given the responsibility to teach could be doing, but they are not nearly as important as teaching the mysteries of God to God’s people. I’m sure many of you do not know this, but it is important for me to let you know how much the leaders of this church treasure the teaching of God’s Word. Many years ago, the leaders of our church recognized that while I am at the office it is difficult to have quiet time to study. They told me to stay home in the morning and study God’s Word so that I can be prepared to teach the sermon and the other Bible studies that I teach during the week. So, after spending the entire morning studying God’s Word, I arrive at the church about noon and take care of my other responsibilities. This is a great blessing to me and I hope to you as well. Let’s take a look at verse 2-4. Paul writes,

2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.(1 Corinthians 4:2-4 NIV)

What is the one thing required of us who follow Jesus, who minister in Jesus’ name? Is it to be liked? Everybody likes to be liked, but that is not what is required of us. Is it to grow the church? I’d love for BCC to grow. I told someone just last week, “Our Sunday morning worship attendance is closer to what it was 30 years ago when I arrived than it was one year ago.” I’ll admit, that can be and has been very discouraging to me, but growth in numbers is not what the Lord requires of you and me. What is required then? Paul said it: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” We are called to be faithful to God’s call upon our lives. 

Paul uses the word “faithful” to describe some of his friends in the ministry. He called Timothy his “beloved and faithful son.” Paul said Tychicus was “a beloved brother and faithful minister.” Epaphras: “Our dear fellow servant and faithful minister.” And of Onesimus, Paul wrote, “A faithful and beloved brother.” One of my favorite verses that speaks about the faithfulness of one of God’s own is found in Revelation 2:12-13. 

12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live– where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city– where Satan lives. (Revelation 2:12-13 NIV)

There’s a great lesson to be learned from Antipas, whoever he was. We know next to nothing about this incredible servant of Jesus, except what is written here in Revelation 2. Jesus calls him, “my faithful witness.” How faithful? He was put to death for the cause of Christ. And the lesson is this: Don’t just look inside of huge buildings with tens of thousands of worshippers to find God’s faithful. Don’t check the TV ratings of our modern-day preachers to determine who is most successful. As a matter of fact, I’d encourage you to look in the most unsuspecting of places, those places where the crowds would never go to find those men and women who are walking with Jesus, faithfully serving Jesus as they serve His people, and while no one is watching.

Let’s take a look at our last verse for this morning before we have to go. Before we read it, let me remind you that Paul let the people of Corinth know he cared very little about their assessment of his ministry. He also said that he made no judgments about his own ministry.  Paul wasn’t being arrogant and he wasn’t blind to his own limitations or missteps, but what he valued more than the judgment of people, including his own, was the evaluation of his ministry by the Lord. Now let’s read verse 5. 

5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:1-5 NIV)

There’s two things I want to point out for us this morning. First of all, there’s no need for you and me to take a look at others and make a determination as to whether or not they are faithfully carrying out God’s call on their life. I’m not saying that you and I don’t need correction when we get off track or that we shouldn’t approach a brother or sister in love, with correction, when our friends fall into sin. We’ll see in the very next chapter how Paul does this very thing with sin that is taking place in the church of Corinth. What I want to do is urge you not to judge the quality of someone’s work for the Lord. I can remember all kinds of criticism that I’ve gotten through the years. Early on, I heard rumblings because I didn’t wear a suit on Sunday. Now that’s important isn’t it? I won’t bore you with the long list of other complaints I’ve heard, but I didn’t pay them much attention to be honest because they had nothing to do with what God had called me to do and that is teach His Word. Here’s the other thing, we don’t see correctly do we? 

I’m reminded of a story I heard about a young couple that moved into a new neighborhood. The first morning they were in their new home, they were sitting at the table eating breakfast. The woman noticed the next door neighbor hanging her clothes on the clothesline to dry. The woman said, “Look at that. Her clothes are still dirty. Somebody needs to teach her how to clean her laundry.” A few days later they were eating breakfast again when the young woman noticed the same woman hanging her clothes out to dry. She said, “Look at that! She needs to change her laundry detergent or something. Somebody needs to help her out.” The husband was silent. This went on for several weeks. Then one morning the couple was eating breakfast again and the same neighbor was hanging her clothes on the clothesline. The woman said, “Look at that! Wow! Either she changed her soap or somebody taught her how to do laundry.” Her husband looked up from eating and said, “I woke up early this morning and cleaned our window.” Folks, the truth of the matter is, we all have dirty windows. Jesus said,

3 Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3 CSB)

It is so easy for us to take a look at someone else and tell them what they should be doing and how they could do it better if they would just listen to us. All of us are a work in progress aren’t we? You aren’t looking at the final product. Be patient with those who are doing the best they can to serve the Lord and trust Him that He is growing them, stretching them, molding and shaping them into the minister He has called them to be. He is able!

Here’s the second thing we need to notice about what Paul wants us to learn. Where we can’t see into the hearts of others or know their motivations, God can and He will bring everything to light one day. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” 

Some of the most insignificant among us on that day will be shown to have faithfully served the Lord with a pure heart and Paul says, “At that time each will receive their praise from God.”  Can you imagine what it will be like to receive praise from God? Let me promise you this: If you desire the praise of people you will compromise the call of God upon your life. We can’t serve the Lord with one eye on the world. We can’t listen for the voice of God if we are seeking the applause of the crowd. Oh but for those who set their faces towards heaven, for those who resolve to know Christ and Him crucified and to make Him known, for those whose one ambition in this life is to honor and serve God with all of their hearts–the praise of God will be theirs. 

How about you? What’s your heart’s desire this morning? Are you still working to win the approval of the crowd? I pray that this morning you have heard the Lord calling you to come out from the crowd, place your hands on the oar, and start rowing for our Captain. Will you surrender your heart and will to Jesus this morning? I pray so.

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

January 31, 2021

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
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