The Apostles’ Ministry, 1-13

4:1 One should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 4:2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 4:3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4:4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord.

Servants of Christ – ‘assistants’, ‘subordinates’ (REB).  Possibly includes the notion of subordination (servants are, by definition, ‘under’ their master).  So Ciampa & Rosner: ‘church leaders are hardly worthy of ultimate loyalty or attachment, for they themselves are subsidiary to another.’

'<em>Hyperetas</em>' - under-rowers?
The word ‘servants’, ‘hyperetas’, is thought to be derived from ‘eresso’, ‘to row’ and ‘hypo’, ‘below’, and thus to mean (‘literally’) ‘under-rower’.  Lay preachers and popular writers tend to make much of this.  Wiersbe, for example, writes: ‘The word translated ministers is literally “under-rowers.” It described the slaves who rowed the huge Roman galleys. “We are not the captains of the ship,” said Paul, “but only the galley slaves who are under orders.’

But by the time of the NT the word had taken on a broader meaning.  In Lk 4:20, for example, it is used of the attendant in the local synagogue.  The word is never used in the sense of ‘under-rower’ in the NT, nor (with one possible exception) in the whole of classical literature. “The ‘hyperetes’ in the New Testament is a servant, and often there is little if anything to distinguish him from a ‘diakonos’” (Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 29). To define the meaning of a word simply from the derivation of its component parts is to be guilty of the ‘root fallacy’ (Carson). Such reasoning would be forced to say that a pineapple is ‘literally’ an apple that grows on a pine tree, or that a dandelion is ‘literally’ a lion’s tooth.

According to Barrett, there is ‘little difference’ in meaning between ‘hyperetes‘ and ‘diakonos‘.  In both cases, the ‘servant…has no significance of his own; the work done is not his but his master’s’.

‘The fact that household slavery, which is the only kind referred to in the NT, was generally governed by feelings of goodwill and affection, is implied by its figurative use in the ‘household of God’. (Eph 2:19) The apostles are regularly God’s stewards (1 Cor 4:1; Tit 1:7; 1 Pet 4:10) and even plain servants. (Rom 1:1; Php 1:1) The legal character of ‘the yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1) was not forgotten, however, and the idea of manumission and adoption into the family itself was a proud conclusion to this train of thought. (Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:5-7) Thus, whether in practice or by analogy, the apostles clearly branded the institution as part of the order that was passing away. In the last resort the fraternity of the sons of God would see all its members free of their bonds.’ (NBD)

‘The apostles were

  1. not to be overvalued, for they were ministers, not masters; stewards, not lords. They were servants of Christ, and no more, though they were servants of the highest rank, that had the care of his household, that were to provide food for the rest, and appoint and direct their work…
  2. not to be undervalued; for, though they were ministers, they were ministers of Christ. The character and dignity of their master put an honour on them. Though they are but stewards, they are not stewards of the common things of the world, but of divine mysteries. They had a great trust, and for that reason had an honourable office. They were stewards of God’s household, high-stewards in his kingdom of grace. They did not set up for masters, but they deserved respect and esteem in this honourable service.’ (MHC, emphasis added)

Those entrusted with the secret things of God – This is the language of stewardship.  Paul’s teaching here is consistent with what he has said earlier, that God has entrusted to his servants a wisdom that the world cannot know or understand.  Cf. our Lord’s teaching in Mt 13:11.


In everyday usage, the word ‘mystery’ suggests ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’ (COD).

Unfortunately, this usage is too readily imported into discussions about what the word means in its biblical context.

So let’s take a look.

In the OT, the word ‘mystery’ only occurs in the Aramaic part of the book of Daniel (Dan 2:18–19, 27–30, 47; 4:9), where the word rāz is rendered mystērion in the LXX.  In that context, the word refers to God’s hidden plan which revelation and the unfolding of events are in the process of making known.

In the NT, the word mystērion again refers to a secret that has been, or is being, or will be, divinely revealed.  Its meaning is, therefore, close to that of apokalypsis, ‘revelation’.

Mounce notes that the word ‘mysterion‘ occurs in the following expressions:-

  • “the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11);
  • “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4; Col 4:3);
  • “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19);
  • “the mystery of God” (1 Cor. 2:1; 4:1; Rev 10:7);
  • “the mystery of God, namely Christ” (Col 2:2);
  • “God’s secret wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:7);
  • “the mysteries of the faith” (1 Tim. 3:9);
  • “the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16).

So it’s clear that most of the NT references to ‘mystery’ occur in Paul’s letters:-

  1. it is focused on the divine plan of salvation, centred on Christ, Col 2:2; decreed before all ages, 1 Cor 2:7; contained in God’s everlasting counsels, Eph 3:9; long-hidden to human perception, 1 Cor 2:8; Rom 16:25; now openly preached, Eph 6:19.
  2. it has been disclosed in history by Christ himself, Eph 1:9; 3:3f; in the fullness of time, Gal 4:4; declared in the person and reconciling work of Jesus Christ, 2 Cor 5:18f; proclaimed by Paul, Eph 3:8f; and bringing a message of hope and new life, Eph 3:8.
  3. it is perceived spiritually, having been entrusted to the prophets and apostles by the Spirit, Eph 3:5.  What is revealed by the Spirit must be understood by the Spirit.
  4. it is eschatological in its outcome, for what has already been revealed it yet to reach its consummation, 1 Cor 15:51ff.

Such a mystery, even as it is revealed, overwhelms us with an appreciation of God’s wisdom and knowledge, Col 2:2.

Based on NBD, art. ‘Mystery’ (S.S. Smalley)

The ‘secret things of God’ are, lit., ‘God’s mysteries’, probably meaning the gospel, ‘God’s eternal will and work for the salvation of humanity, things that were incomprehensible apart from their revelation in Christ and him crucified.’ (Soards)

4:5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.

Do not judge anything before time – Morris says that the force may be: ‘stop judging’, implying that the Corinthians were actually engaging in this activity.

They (and we) are not to understand this as a prohibition of all evaluation of the attitudes and behaviours of others.  The context shows that this cannot be the case.

He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness – Chris Wright puts it forthrightly: ‘On the judgement day of God all wrongs will be exposed.  There will be no longer any hiding place.  No secret accounts to conceal the fruits of exploitation.  No more right security, bullet-proof cars, or safe houses.  No more excuses for ourselves or for others.  No more skilled lawyers pleading technicalities.  No more sentimental allowance for old age and infirmity.  No more recourse even to the oblivion of suicide.  No more escape at all, by any means, to any place, ever.  The day of judgement will reveal everything, assess everything, and deal with everything.  All unrepented, persistent wickedness will be met with the verdict of God’s perfect justice.  And that divine verdict will be public, validated by the evidence, indisputably vindicated, beyond complaint of appeal, irreversible, and inescapable.  God will put all things right.’ (The God I Don’t Understand, p186)  See Rom 2:16;

‘Every prayer made with melting eyes, every good service, every work of charity, shall be openly declared before men and angels. ‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: thirsty, and ye gave me drink: naked, and ye clothed me.’ Mt 25:35,36. Thus God will set a trophy of honour upon all his children at the last day. ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’ Mt 13:43.’ (Thomas Watson)

4:6 I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other.
4:7 For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not? 4:8 Already you are satisfied! Already you are rich! You have become kings without us! I wish you had become kings so that we could reign with you!

Note the bitter irony in the verse.

‘I pray observe how he lays the accent on the particle now – now ye are rich, as if he had said, I knew the time when if Paul had come to town, and news spread abroad in the city that Paul was to preach, you would have flocked to hear him, and blessed God for the season; but then you were poor and empty, now ye are full, you have got to a higher attainment – Paul is a plain fellow now, he may carry his cheer to a hungry people if he will; we are well apaid satisfied. And when once the heart is come to this, it is easy to judge what will follow.’ (Gurnall)

4:9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people.
4:10 We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, we are dishonored.
4:11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads. 4:12 We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, 4:13 when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now.

A Father’s Warning, 14-21

4:14 I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children.

Sometimes it is a solemn duty before God to warn people, Eze 3:20. See also Pr 29:1.

1. Warnings of Example, Jude 1:6,7,17-19.

2. Warnings of Instruction, concerning,

  • the uncertainty of life, Jas 4:13-14;
  • offending the living God, Rom 2:8-9;
  • forsaking Christ, Heb 2:1-4;
  • turning away from our only hope, Acts 4:12

3. Warnings of Experience,

  • that the experience of sin is bitter, Rom 7:24
  • that the enjoyments of salvation are sweet, 2 Thess 2:16-17
  • that warning, in order to do us good, must be
    • heard, 2 Tim 4:3-4,
    • believed, Gen 19:14;
    • obeyed, Mt 21:28-31,

(Richardson, in The Biblical Illustrator, adapted)

One pastor has testified, ‘My most painful experiences have been when I’ve had a problem and no one loved me enough to tell me about it.’

‘At times one hesitates to reprove or admonish evil-doers, either because one seeks a more favorable moment or fears his rebuke might make them worse, and further, discourage weak brethren from seeking to lead a good and holy life, or turn them aside from the faith. In such circumstances forbearance is not prompted by selfish considerations but by well advised charity.

What is reprehensible, however, is that while leading good lives themselves and abhorring those of wicked men, some, fearing to offend, shut their eyes to evil deeds instead of condemning them and pointing out their malice. To be sure, the motive behind their malice is that they may suffer no hurt in the possession of those temporal goods which virtuous and blameless men may lawfully enjoy; still there is more self-seeking here than becomes men who are mere sojourners in this world and who profess the hope of a home in heaven.’ (Augustine)

4:15 For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 4:16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me.

Guardians – Gk ‘paidagogos’. He ‘was not the teacher of the child. He was an old and trusted slave who daily took the child to school, who trained him in moral matters, cared for his character and tried to make a man of him. A child might have many tutors but he had only one father; in the days to come the Corinthians might have many tutors but none of them could do what Paul had done; none of them could beget them to life in Christ Jesus.’ (DSB)

4:17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
4:18 Some have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 4:19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing, and I will find out not only the talk of these arrogant people, but also their power. 4:20 For the kingdom of God is demonstrated not in idle talk but with power.

This is one of relatively few instances in Paul where the kingdom of God is spoken of as present (Rom 14:17; Col 1:13; 4:11). In all others, it is referred to as future.

The gospel is, first of all, the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:18), and then, as here, divine empowerment for us to put into practice what we know to be true.

Don’t neglect the very close relationship between this verse and v19. The gospel does not simply tell people what they ought to do; it gives them power to do it.

This verse seems to betray Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’ kingdom preaching as accompanied by miracles. (cf. Lk 11:20 and parallels).

Thiselton suggests that ‘power’ is equivalent to ‘efficacy’: ‘Paul is concerned with the contrast, so relevant today in relation to rhetorical “spin” and to postmodernity, between rhetoric and reality. The reign of God manifests solid reality in and through the cross of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25; 3:18–4:5).’

‘It is not set up, nor propagated, nor established, in the hearts of men, by plausible reasonings nor florid discourses, but by the external power of the Holy Spirit in miraculous operations at first, and the powerful influence of divine truth on the minds and manners of men.’ (MHC)

4:21 What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline or with love and a spirit of gentleness?