Written by: Don Carson
PAUL IN 1 CORINTHIANS 3 HAS BEEN telling the Corinthians how not to view servants of Christ. They are not to view any particular servant of Christ as a group guru, for that means other servants of Christ are implicitly inferior. When each different group within the church has its own Christian guru, there are therefore two evils: unnecessary division within the church, and a censorious condescension that pronounces judgment on who is worthy to be a guru and who is not. Paul insists that all that God has for the church in a Paul or an Apollos or a Cephas rightly belongs to the whole church (1 Cor. 3:21-22).
At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 4, Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians how they are to view servants of Christ: "as those entrusted with the secret things of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). The word rendered "secret things" does not mean "mysterious things" or "things that only the elite of the elect may learn." The word is often rendered "mysteries" in our older versions. In the New Testament, it most commonly refers to something that God has in some measure kept veiled, hidden, or secret in the past, but which he is now making abundantly clear in Christ Jesus. In short, these "servants of Christ" are entrusted with the Gospel--all that God has made clear in the coming of Jesus Christ.
Those given a trust must prove faithful to the one to whom they are accountable (1 Cor. 4:2). For that reason, Paul knows that how the Corinthians view him is of little importance; indeed, how he assesses himself has no great significance either (1 Cor. 4:3). Paul knows that it is important to keep a clear conscience before the Lord. But it is possible to have a clear conscience and still be guilty of many things, because conscience is not a perfect instrument. Conscience may be misinformed or hardened. The only person whose judgment is absolutely right, and of ultimate importance, is the Lord himself (1 Cor. 4:4). It follows that the Corinthians should not appoint themselves judges over all the "servants of Christ" whom Christ sends. When the Lord returns, the final accounting will become clear. At that point, Paul says, "each will receive his praise from God" (1 Cor. 4:5)--a wonderful thought, for it appears that the final Judge will prove more encouraging and positive than many human judges.
Some place remains in the church for discernment and judgment: see tomorrow's meditation! But there are always batteries of critics who go way "beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6) with legalistic tests of their own disgruntled devising, attaching themselves to their gurus and abominating the rest. They often think they are prophetic, whereas in fact their pretensions come close to usurping God's place.