The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 9; 1 Corinthians 4: 1 - 21; "God's Fools"

The Corinthian Correspondence  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  47:25
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"God's fools." This is what Paul actually called himself and his fellow leaders whom God used to build the church in Corinth. What does it mean to be God's fool? As a Christian, why would one even desire to to label himself or herself in this way? It's been said, "Paul was a fool for Christ. Whose fool are you?" Come with the Grace United crew to find out how this is so.

The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 9; 1 Corinthians 4:1-21 “God’s Fools” As we begin the message let me remind us of the power of good Christian music. The Lord often uses it to get truth into our hearts in ways that are profound. But music is also powerful in a negative sense--like getting things that are false into our hearts. Like with the song, “What a Wonderful Name”. Much of that song is great. But the writer just had to include these lyrics: “You didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus you brought heaven down.” Now, I have searched Scripture, and nowhere does it even give a hint of the message these lyrics convey. Call me crazy but I really do think that before God created the universe he was quite OK with us not being there! But “What a Wonderful Name” was on Billboard's Hot Christian Songs chart for 77 weeks, making it the 3rd longest run of a song on that chart ever. And at Grace United, we sing this song from time to time, but we have changed the lyrics in question, to make it more in line with Truth. Singer and songwriter Michael Card is a brother extremely talented and blessed of the Lord. As a songwriter, the lyrics of his songs reflect his accurate understanding of God’s word. Like his song “God’s Own Fool,” and the lyrics go like this: Seems I've imagined Him all of my life, As the wisest of all of mankind. But if God's Holy wisdom is foolish to man, He must have seemed out of His mind. Even His family said He was mad (crazy), And the priest said a demon's to blame. But, God in the form of this angry young man, Could not have seemed perfectly sane. We in our foolishness thought we were wise. He played the fool and He opened our eyes. We in our weakness believed we were strong. He became helpless to show we were wrong. So much in our world, in our lives, depends on how we see things--like lenses through which we look at life through. We have a clear picture of this as we encounter the coronavirus. Some have absolutely panicked. Cases and cases of toilet paper purchased. No hand sanitizer anywhere to be found. Some have completely blown the whole thing off and not stocked up on anything. Most of us are in the middle. Especially now, we need to be wise in the ways of social distancing, and good hygiene practices, but let’s not go overboard. I love what Dawn Davis recently posted on Facebook: This is Bob. Bob is not panicking. Bob listens to scientists instead of news media. Bob is not buying items in bulk. Bob washes his hands all year long because he’s not gross and knows basic hygiene. Be like Bob. When it comes to our passage for today, the Corinthians were beginning to see their faith in Christ in a way that was different from when Paul introduced them to the Lord. They drifted from what Paul and his fellow workers established. Remember how Paul said that he likened himself to a master builder laying a foundation which other leaders were building on. But what kind of foundation? Jesus Christ and him crucified. The foundation that is repulsive and scandalous to the natural person, or non-Christians in our way of saying things. But by Paul’s preaching of this gospel many came to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. God had not only given them a new life and a new heart. He also gave them a new set of lenses, so to speak so they could see life in a whole new way. The message of the cross began as something precious to the Corinthian believers. They were hungry to hear and live the truth. And they amassed strong teachers to help them. But over time, they began to take off the new glasses and put on their old ones back on. And it was tainting their relationship with the Lord and their fellowship with God’s people. They were again using human wisdom to evaluate their leaders, with so much zeal that quarrels broke out about who was the best leader. They put their leaders on pedestals and campaigned for their champion. And as we know, Paul became aware of the division that was threatening to break apart the church in Corinth because the believers reverted back to their old ways of seeing life. And for the first 3 chapters of this letter, in so many different ways, Paul in essence said “Enough of this! Stop boasting in men! Don’t divide what Jesus is building!” In our passage for today, 1 Corinthians 4:1-21, we will see the vast difference between the skewed viewpoint of the Corinthian Christians and true reality of the Christian life preached and lived out by Paul and his fellow leaders. And like the difference between the lyrics of “What a Wonderful Name” and “God’s Own Fool”, the songs Paul and the Corinthian church sang show they were on different sheets of music. But sadly, we are more like the Corinthian church than we care to admit. The Corinthian church tended to drift toward enjoying God’s gifts and not so much embracing the reality of true Christianity. And often we do the same. They did not, and neither do we, want to be viewed as foolish in their world. But my encouragement for us today is that we sing more from Paul’s sheet of music, than from the Corinthian believers’ sheet. The theme for our passage today, if you haven’t already guessed, is reflected in the title “God’s fools,” for this is the description Paul gave himself and to those who were the godly leaders in the Corinthian church. We are going to see Paul and company as God’s fools setting forth the reality of what life in Christ is--and once again, see the radical difference between God’s life and the what the world calls life. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world said the apostle earlier in his Corinthian correspondence. In vv.1-5 we see God’s fools bashing the pedestals the Corinthian Christians put them on. Paul declared themselves as servants and stewards. In these verses, Paul continues to take himself and particularly Apollos, but by way of application, all the godly leaders in the church, down off the pedestal the Corinthian believers put them on. Let’s read these verses: 1 Corinthians 4:1–5: 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. Servants and stewards. Not god-like leaders to idolize. That was what Paul strongly encouraged the Corinthians to see them and, indeed all of their leaders as. But they were not mere servants and stewards. They were servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. This is what kept Paul and Apollos focused on what God called them to do, and for Paul, to carry on undistracted for he heard about some of them even judging him. Now, we don’t know exactly who were judging Paul, at least not here. But we will find our much more about them in 2 Corinthians. In a nutshell, let me say, that there were attacks from false teachers, infiltrators from the outside. They were able to gain some influence and some of the Christians began to turn against Paul. These teachers were whom Paul referred to as “super apostles.” He described them as Satan’s “ministers of righteousness,” attempting to undermine his God-given authority as an apostle. But Paul cared nothing for their judgment of him. There was one and only one person he was answerable to--the very one he was the servant of. The Lord Jesus. The Lord sent him to Corinth. And one day everything will be made clear. He also said that he had a duty to fulfill. As a faithful steward of God’s mysteries. As we see this, we might think, “Great! I love a good mystery! Who dun it?” Well, mystery in this sense is not quite that way. Mystery in this context is really something that God mentioned, in the past, but now through further revelation God has uncovered it and made it plain. Let me give a classic example. In Ephesians 1:9-10, Paul praises the Lord and mentions a mystery that the Lord revealed to him. Paul said: God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. We see the mystery is one of unity--specifically to unite all things in him. But if we stop there we can misunderstand and misapply what this means. Some in fact say that Paul is talking about universal salvation here, where everybody eventually goes to heaven because Christ’s death unites the creation. But nothing can be farther from the truth. Paul specifically deals with the mystery in Ephesians 3:4–6: When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Did you see it? The mystery, which was hidden before is now brought out by the Lord through Paul. And that mystery is Jews and Gentiles, through the gospel are now one people in Christ. This discharging of the stewardship of God’s mysteries was yet another motivator that kept Paul going. He knew that he would have to give an account one day of how he handled these mysteries. Paul was hard at work in his 2-fold task as servant and steward and he let nothing or no one deter him from achieving his goal. And that is why it did not matter to him who or how many judged him. It’s as if Paul was saying, “your judgment of me is like water and I am like a duck. I’m not aware of anything I’m guilty of but that does not mean I’m innocent. Guys listen! I’m too busy to worry about your judgment. Why don’t we wait until the day of judgment when we will stand before the Lord and he will bring all things into the light.” And what a single minded focus we can take as an example for us. How many weak willed religious people do you know? One criticism and they are done moving forward in the Lord or in ministry. We will see later on in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence just what kind of flak he received from others. And if we read carefully, we will find people actually deserted Paul just when he needed them the most. We look at “Paul the Great”. What kept Paul going? It was his love for the Lord Jesus, because Jesus loved him first. This was at the heart of Paul’s commitment to the Lord. It’s been said that Paul never got over the wonder of God’s saving him; therefore he served him. How about you and me? Remember how Paul described the Corinthians? They were set apart for Christ. Christ was their righteousness. Christ was their redemption from sin. Christ was their Lord and savior. Christ was their wisdom. Now we who are saved are saved for 2 things: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. What a privilege, my dear friends! We have access to all the riches found in a close walk with Jesus, to include peace even in the midst of economic crises and health pandemics. We remember what Jesus told his disciples right before went to the cross: John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” And in John 16:33 Jesus said: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Let’s be so wrapped up in our walk with the Lord and our work for the Lord that we grow deaf to every nay-sayer, regardless of who is opposing us and how shrill their opposition is! Now in vv. 6-7 we see the boldness of God’s fools. Paul here chides the Corinthians once again, and warns them about spiritual pride: I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? Let me be brief here, for lack of time and simply apply this to our lives. In a nutshell, Paul is pointing out to them that when they apply human wisdom to put their favorite guy on a pedestal and try to champion his cause, this is only a demonstration of pride. Paul is dragging them back, as it were to the only standard by which any and every spiritual leader is to be evaluated: the word of God. No less than 20 times in the first 3 chapters of this letter alone, Paul makes some kind of reference to the Scripture--and as we know the only Scripture the Corinthian Christians had was the Old Testament. There’s much we can say here, but let me just comment this way. We all need to live under that authority of God’s word. Tragically though, we even in the church live in an age where feelings, not truth rules the day. And we have the holy responsibility to help one another to be more holy in our lifestyle. And we can only do that if we are consistently living by the standard of Scripture. For example to Christian, men, and some women, I cannot point out the sin of their engaging in pornography if I am doing that. But since I am not engaging in it, I have the responsibility of lovingly but firmly telling those who are watching it to stop, lest it destroy their own soul and their relationships. Paul said to the Corinthians and to us by extension: don’t go beyond the standard of God’s word, for when we do, we become puffed up with pride. Paul’s bottom line here is that obedience to Scripture out of love for the Lord is the divine foundation upon which Christian unity rests. We’ve noticed in vv.1-5 how Paul bashed the pedestal the Corinthians put him and the other leaders on, and in vv. 6-7, that they were bold as they warned the Corinthian believers about spiritual pride and what causes it. In the last section for today, in vv.8-21 We see the beacon God’s fools shine in bringing the Corinthian believers back to divine reality. Let’s read these verses and then allow me to walk us through them. 1 Corinthians 4:8–21 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.  For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? For the first time, Paul is in a sense, “beating them at their own game.” It’s almost as if he is saying, “you want powerful rhetoric, biting sarcasm, let’s do it.” And so, he served up a scandalous rebuke to the foolishness of the immature Corinthians. Their spiritual foolishness was the cause of their disunity and Paul wanted to forcefully but lovingly uncover their immaturity. In vv.8-14, we see Paul address the immature Corinthians as spiritually full. Rich. Mature. Powerful--even likening them to kings. Paul described the Corinthian believers as wise. Strong. Honorable. This was pleasing to the ear. Great rhetoric, Paul! But in reality, what is Paul saying? “Busted!” Paul pointed out their immaturity in earlier chapters. Here was biting sarcasm. And now he began to shine the light, like a bright beacon back to the life he had spent 18 months instructing them. Paul previously mentioned about their blessings in Christ at the end of chapter 3. “For all things are yours, Paul said. “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future”. Oh, the treasures they had in Christ! How they loved to hear about the blessings they had. The gifts of God because of salvation in Christ! But narrowly focusing on the blessings in Christ gives a very unbalanced view of life. And the Corinthians became stuck in simply living a “better life.” Paul sarcastically called them wise, strong, honorable. But to focus on the gifts of God at the expense of the reality of the Christian life left their pride intact, and it showed itself in their disunity. They were at each others’ throats because of the promotion of their own things, and in their case it was the promotion of “their guy”. That’s why there were the Paulites, Apollosites, Cephasites and mystical Christites. The focus on gifts revealed their spiritual pride. And it was killing their unity. Obviously we don’t have any apostles named Paul or Apollos here. But we still are tempted at self-promotion here at Grace United. What about good old fashioned self-reliance--I can make it on my own, “I don’t need you but I will offer myself because you need me?” Or a “once a week” meeting and my religious box is checked--almost as if my walk with the Lord is confined within the walls of this building? Or perhaps traditional church done in the traditional way--after all, our civil war era traditional building can lend itself to this. Some of the temptation I think we have resisted: music for example. We no longer have hymnals and few to none know how to operate the organ, let alone play it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong per se with either one. But how easy is it to get “locked in” to our own comfort level, not allowing room for other ways that are not sinful. I thank the Lord that we can be and are flexible. Let’s be about the interests of the other person--let our own agenda die, even as Paul outlined in Philippians 2:4, where he told his friends in Philippi to consider others more significant than themselves, for the sake of their mutual love for Jesus and for one another. Rather than focusing on the blessings of Christ as the vision of the real Christian life, Paul put forth, by his own example, of the other side of the real Christian life. Paul reminds them the real Christian life was something far different than the path they had begun to go down. Let’s take a look at the contrast between the Corinthian believers and that of Paul and the leaders. Paul says of themselves as leaders that they were foolish, weak, dishonorable. They simply did not look the part of leaders. They lived their lives in great need, even regarding basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter. They lived their lives in humble service, engaging in honest labor. And when they were opposed, this is when they shined brightly. When people made up and spread the vilest stuff about them, Paul and his friends blessed them. When people even tracked them down and made life miserable for them, they soldiered on, enduring for the sake of Christ--not giving up regardless of how much pushback they received. Now how was it that they could and did respond that way? In the worst of situations brought about by the non-Christians of their day, what made them tick? In part it was their embrace of reality. See, Paul and his fellow leaders accepted life as it was, not as how they wanted things to be. They did not attempt to change anything about themselves or their message. They were not disillusioned by how non-Christians treated them. And Paul concluded that the world saw them as scum. Refuse. Belonging to the garbage heap of their day. And what is more amazing is that Paul and company not only acknowledged their “scum identity,” they embraced it, and had done so for a long time. Let’s all think about this for a minute and bring things up to date in our world. And I include all of us here because later on Paul told his Corinthian brothers and sisters to imitate him. So, what would life be like for us if we really embraced a “scum identity,” knowing that the world sees us this way? Imagine yourself being severely criticized for being a Christian. What is the fallout from that? Lose friends. Defriended on social media. And depending on who is offended, your livelihood can be at stake. If your name is Barronelle Stutzman and you are in the floral business, how would you handle things if not, 1, not 2 but 3 lawsuits are levied against you because of your Christian convictions? Talk about life not being fair! Well, if we had a “scum identity” then we would expect that and even be surprised if the world treated us with any dignity at all. But it comes with the territory. When we step over the line and identify with the biblical Jesus, we are going to be viewed and often treated as scum of the world. And tragically, the failure of leaders in the church in our day to embrace “scum identity” is why we cater to the world and its ways. We love the blessings of following Jesus. But to embrace the hatred of the world that hates Jesus? Not so much. Let’s never forget that when Paul walked into Corinth as Christ’s servant and the steward of God’s mysteries, he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt that the message, Jesus Christ and him crucified, would not be accepted. And the fact that a church was established in that place was the primary evidence that God did a work there. Because only the spirit of God could bring conviction and open spiritually blinded eyes and enable someone to embrace the gospel. The world sees the scandalous character of true servants of God and it is uncomfortable with them at best. They can’t handle it when a Christian is persecuted and they don’t stop serving the Lord and even come back for more persecution. Or when a Christian is reviled and they bless the revilers. The spiritual fact of life is that true Christians who are sold out for Jesus are scum to the world. Always has been, always will be. Try using that as a recruiting tool to win the lost. “Now, when you begin to follow Jesus” you tell the non-Christian, “you will be hated. People won’t understand you. They will drag you before government officials because you live for God. You will be severely mistreated, and maybe even killed.” Who in the world would sign up for that? How about 11 disciples, because that is exactly what Jesus told them would happen to them. And what did happen to them? As we know, church tradition tells us that every apostle was indeed severely mistreated for following Jesus. And according to some authors, every one of the apostles were martyred, except for John and he was boiled in oil and lived to tell about it--truly God did a miracle in John’s life! But consider what often passes for gospel proclamation today. It’s almost as if Jesus is begging people to accept him. No need for repentance from sin, just believe. So what has changed? Is it the gospel? Or is it that we want to use human wisdom to reach the world for Christ? Could it be that we have moved a little bit backwards and have adopted perhaps some Corinthian Comfort, seeking to have Jesus make our lives a bit better, wise, strong, honorable rather than to embrace “scum identity”? When I was a kid, I would see this certain commercial about luxurious Chrysler cars. Maybe you did, too if you are a little older. What was so luxurious about them? Take a look. And there we have it. What I call “Corinthian Comfort” has tricked us into thinking that the Christian life is one of improvement in this life. Could it be that we have bought the empty bill of goods the world has defined for us as to what the church needs to look like in order to be cool and accepting to them? See, we have attempted to reduce the church that Jesus is building to be just an organization that helps human flourishing, in other words, to help people live a better, happier life. The Action Institute published an article about the role Christianity plays in human flourishing: “The challenge for the church is to define and promote human flourishing (which we might otherwise describe as human well-being, human happiness) . . . in the presence of God amid a culture of death and destruction.” Sounds a little like the Corinthian Comfort--which as we now know is the world’s marketing ploy and it means nothing. So, Corinthians, since you are so wise, what to do to stop the divisions? To cease following the world’s ways you have pledged to leave behind? What is the next step? In a word, imitate Paul. Imitate Paul? You mean the one who embraces scum identity? That Paul? Exactly. In vv.15-18, the apostle invites them to do just that. But why do that? And how? Let’s look at answers to both questions. First Paul gave a compelling reason for their imitating him: he was their spiritual father. This idea of giving honor to one’s father meant so much more then than it does now. Back in the first century, honoring one’s father was absolutely imperative. Kids would rather die than bring dishonor on their father’s good name. And now we have Paul saying that he was their spiritual father. He gave them the gospel and they responded in repentance and faith in Christ. That made him, humanly speaking, their spiritual father. The Corinthian Christians bringing honor to their spiritual father, was something that was a given, even if it meant that they needed to become scum of the earth. But, now, Paul turns his attention from the why to the how. How can the Corinthians follow Paul and his ways when he is not there? “Timothy is coming.” He will remind them of Paul’s ways. Timothy was a close, faithful brother. A carbon copy of Paul’s ways. In other words, Paul effectively sent a clone of himself to the Corinthians. So, what does this boil itself down to? In a word, discipleship. Is not discipleship an imitation of Christ and his ways? It is life on life transformation. It is teaching others Christian character qualities such as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These things cannot be taught in an academic setting. It’s as my life displays these things and as people close to me pick them up, that’s when life transformation happens. Of course, a mentor teaches a mentee some of the mechanics of the Christian life, like how to pray, how to intake and obey Scripture, how to sit down with a non-Christian and give them the gospel, and on and on. And I’m pleased to tell you that last week, 9 of us began formal training on how to hone our disciplemaking skills. Over the next 19 weeks we are going to learn how to more effectively come alongside others to help them become more like Jesus. Please pray for us. And please pray and ask the Lord, not if, but when would be the right time for you to get involved in the command of the Lord Jesus to make disciples if you are not already doing so. That is what the Great Commission is all about. Finally, Paul makes an announcement: “Lord, willing, I will return.” “I want to find out” those who are making this big flash in the pan with their words and exercising human wisdom to influence the church. Get ready! Because, Lord willing, I will deal with those who are using human wisdom to try and divide the fellowship. I would rather come with a spirit of love and gentleness. But if need be I will come with a very heavy hand--a rod of correction. Remember. Through the gospel I became your father. And the Lord has given me the authority to administer discipline. Don’t make me have to do that!” So, what to make of 1 Corinthians 4? As we finish today’s message, I want to stress 1 point here. The bottom line and the reality is: we are all fools. Either we are following God’s own fool as in the Lord Jesus, or we have been fooled by the world, having bought into Corinthian Comfort which is nothing but a marketing ploy to enjoy the world and its ways. If we are following Jesus, count on the world looking at us as nothing but scum. They do not want us. We do not fit in. We really are aliens and strangers in this world. Let’s embrace the scum mentality, for the sake of Jesus. The bottom line: Paul said he was a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you? So come lose your life for a carpenter's son, For a “madman” who died for a dream. And you'll have the faith His first followers had, And you'll feel the weight of the beam—as in the cross beam. So surrender the hunger to say you must know, Have the courage to say “I believe.” For the power of paradox opens your eyes, And blinds those who say they can see We in our foolishness thought we were wise. He played the fool and He opened our eyes. We in our weakness believed we were strong. He became helpless to show we were wrong. So we follow God's own Fool, For only the foolish can tell. Believe the unbelievable, come be a fool as well.
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