Study Notes for I Corinthians 4:1-5 (click here for Study Sheet)
Paul has just declared his startling announcement: "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God." Now he makes another startling statement: "Men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God."
What are those "secret things of God" over which we, his followers, have management? The secret of Godliness, or the mystery of Godliness, means the "revealed secret of true piety". It is the secret of what produces true piety in people. What is that secret?
I Timothy 3:16 lists several parts of the secret: Jesus Christ appeared in body; he was vindicated by the Spirit (he drove out demons and performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit raised him to life); he was seen by angels; he was (and is) preached among the nations; he is believed on in the world; and he was taken into glory. These facts about Jesus are the heart of the secret of our righteousness.
Ephesians 2:2 says that the "mystery of God" is Christ, and in him hide all "treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
Ephesians 1:9 and Colossians 1:25-27 both assert that the mystery of Christ is that the Gentiles have become heirs with Israel.
Romans 11:25-32 has a reminder to us Gentile Christians to keep us from thinking we've replaced Israel: "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in..Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all."
We, as part of the Body of Christ, are the overseers and managers of these astonishing truths that were hidden from human understanding until Jesus came and redeemed us. These truths are the real source of righteousness in humanity. The Old Covenant laws and prophecies promised this redemption, but not until Jesus actually came did the New Covenant become real. We are entrusted with representing Jesus to a world locked in sin and works.
Jesus has commissioned us to go and make disciples. Our job is not to teach doctrines or theology; our job is to proclaim "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor 2:2). When people discover Christ and accept him, they are sealed with the Holy Spirit. Then they have a spiritual context in which practical instruction on how to live as a Christian makes sense. When heard through a heart made alive by the Spirit, practical Christianity is no longer about doing good works. Instead, it is about responding with eagerness and trust to the promptings of a loving Savior who reveals, step by step, what he wants our lives to become.
As administrators of the "secret things of God", we will be judged by other people. Both believers and non-believers will evaluate our truthfulness and sincerity. Because we represent God, the unknowable, omniscient One whom even unbelievers fear, people may perceive us as either deluded or misinformed. But when we commit ourselves to knowing truth and are honestly responsive to the Holy Spirit, we don't need to be intimidated by any person's judgment. Only God's evaluation of us matters.
We must be accountable to our fellow believers, however, and we must be open to their cautions and counsel. But we can't even know our own hearts. We cannot decide on our own whether or not our decisions were driven by pure motives. When we let the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures direct our lives, we depend on God to lead us. Ultimately, we answer only to him. Ultimately, we represent Jesus on earth, and we must allow his love to color all our decisions.
Even if we have a clear conscience, Paul says, that "doesn't make [us] innocent." We are never innocent; we are born flawed. Even after we accept Jesus, we still have sinful flesh. The only way we can be judged worthy is by accepting the righteousness of Jesus as our own. And when we accept that righteousness, we remember that by making it possible for us to be covered with his righteousness, Jesus became sin for us. It was not a fair trade. It was a sacrifice of pure love.
Paul says in this passage not to judge anything "before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes." In I Corinthians 2:15,16, however, Paul say that we "have the mind of Christ" and can make "judgments about all things."
Paul is asking us in this passage not to judge each other's motives. As stewards of God's secrets, we are all in the business of doing God's work. We are not to tear one another down or become disciples of a particular person. Part of representing Jesus on earth is being loving and redemptive to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But as Christ-followers we have discernment. Having "the mind of Christ" means that we are expected to be sensitive to truth and error, good and evil. Jesus wants to give us the ability to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the presence of evil. He wants to protect us from deception, and he wants to give us his wisdom in all situations. In a spiritual sense, we are to judge "all things".
Our fellow believers, however, God asks us to leave in his hands. Unless there is overt evil, our responsibility is to pray for each other, support each other, and speak the truth in love.
God calls us to live in the light-to live with integrity. When he comes he will expose the secrets of our hearts that have been hidden in darkness. This certainty does not mean that if we have hidden secrets we will not be saved. It is, however, a certainty that makes it clear that God wants us to be willing to let him expose our secrets to us now.
David understood the problems of hidden secrets getting in the way of living with integrity. "Surely I was sinful at birth," he says in Psalm 51:5-6; "sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place."
God wants to heal our hearts. He wants our lives to be victorious and congruent. His Holy Spirit in us constantly nudges us to discover what we've tried to forget. He lovingly reminds us of our private dishonesties. This ongoing revelation is not a judgment on us; it is our loving Father's way of helping us to grow up in him. Sometimes it seems overwhelmingly embarrassing or painful to remember how badly we did things. But unless we remember these things in the presence of Jesus, he cannot wipe the shame of them from our hearts. Only by allowing Jesus to confront us with the things we would most like to forget can we receive healing.
God calls us to live with trust and integrity. But those are things we cannot self-generate. We can only live with trust and integrity as we let his love prod and guide us into unfamiliar territory. As we experience his love and forgiveness at each step, we gradually learn that we can trust our Savior to cherish us in his heart and to hold us safely in his hand. We can trust him to teach us to have integrity. We can trust him to uncover our secrets.
The truth will set us free.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 23, 2000.