Pursue God’s Agenda

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about believers pursuing God’s agenda by recognizing their accountability to God, holding uncompromisingly to the gospel, and living out their devotion to the church.

Recognize Your Accountability to God:  1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

[1]  This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. [2]  Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. [3]  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. [4]  For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. [5]  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.  [ESV]

If the Corinthians have a completely wrong view of Paul, Apollos and Peter, what is the correct one? This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Being man-centered, the Corinthians were giving their allegiance to men, men of God, but only men. Whenever the church follows big names and becomes man-centered, it is aping the world. No, says Paul, do not boast of men; you are not servants of such people: they are your servants. The Greek word for servants used here is unusual, literally meaning an under rower, i.e. someone who is simply responding to higher authority and doing his job. This authority is that of Jesus Christ. The second word, stewards, is fairly common in the New Testament. The Greek steward was a housekeeper or overseer charged with providing the establishment of a large estate with food and all things needful. He was responsible, not to his fellows, but to his lord. He was not expected to exercise his own initiative, still less his own personal authority. He simply did his master’s bidding and looked after his affairs. So Paul sees himself as responsible, not to the Corinthians or to any human court [3], but to the Lord [4] alone. He is very much aware that he must render account of his stewardship, and this sensitivity keeps him more than alert to the needs of the Corinthians. He will not lord it over them. He is not going to curry favor with them. He is not going to play fast and loose with them. He is not going to deprive them of what God has provided for them. Like a good steward, he will ensure that the right nourishment is provided at the right time. He has nothing to give them except what he has himself received from his master. Paul’s supreme motivation as a minister of God to the Corinthians is that one day he will have to give an account to his Master. Because Paul sees himself and the others as stewards, he exhorts the Corinthians not to slip into any judging attitude: do not condemn us, and also do not eulogize us. Leave that to the Lord: He will do all the judging. If a man deserves to be commended for his stewardship, then the Lord will indeed commend him [5]. Do not pronounce judgment before the time, i.e. before all the evidence is out in the open, and that will be only when the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Paul is free of any sense of guilt about the way he has so far discharged his stewardship, but a clear conscience in itself is not the same as full acquittal: only God, the righteous judge, can pronounce that. Paul is more than content to leave his case with God. Verse 4 is of special interest. The first part of the verse can be interpreted like this: ‘My conscience says nothing against me, but I have not been justified on that basis.’ Paul’s understanding of the role of conscience is seen in Romans 2:14-16. Even if this conscience did accuse him, there were two cleansing and strengthening secrets, summed up in these two passages: how much more will the blood of Christ … purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God [Heb. 9:14] and for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything [1 John 3:20]. The essential ground for Paul’s clear conscience is the fact that God justifies the ungodly by virtue of the cross of Christ. So, when Paul says in verse 4 that, because there is nothing on his conscience, he is not thereby justified, he is actually pointing to the only grounds of justification and the only source of a clear conscience – Jesus Christ and Him crucified. No wonder he made that the kernel of his preaching. In the teaching of these verses there is a door open into true freedom for Christian workers. Paul had a grim past as a vicious opponent of Jesus Christ, but, such is his experience of the grace of God in forgiving him, he can boldly say, I am not aware of anything against myself. The remainder of his life is consecrated to being a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. He knows that the Lord’s criterion, in ultimately scrutinizing his ministry, will be neither success nor popularity, but faithfulness.

Hold Uncompromisingly to the Gospel:  Galatians 1:6-10.

[6]  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– [7]  not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. [8]  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. [9]  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. [10]  For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.  [ESV]

[6-7] The Greek word for deserting signifies ‘to transfer one’s allegiance’. It is used of soldiers in the army who revolt or desert, and of men who change sides in politics or philosophy. It is of this that Paul accuses the Galatians. They are religious turncoats, spiritual deserters. They are turning away from Him who had called them in the grace of Christ and are embracing another gospel. The true gospel is in its essence what Paul called it in Acts 20:24, the gospel of the grace of God. It is good news of a God who is gracious to underserving sinners. In grace He gave His Son to die for us. In grace He calls us to Himself. In grace He justifies us when we believe. All is from God [2 Cor. 5:18]. Nothing is due to our efforts, merits or works; everything in salvation is due to the grace of God. But the Galatian converts, who had received this gospel of grace, were now turning away to another gospel, a gospel of works. The false teachers were evidently Judaizers, whose ‘gospel’ is summarized in Acts 15:1: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. They did not deny that you must believe in Jesus for salvation, but they stressed that you must be circumcised and keep the law as well. In other words, you must let Moses finish what Christ has begun. Or rather, you yourself must finish, by your obedience to the law, what Christ has begun. You must add your works to the work of Christ. You must finish Christ’s unfinished work. This doctrine Paul simply will not tolerate. The work of Christ is a finished work; and the gospel of Christ is a gospel of free grace. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, without any admixture of human works or merits. It is due solely to God’s gracious call, and not to any good works of our own. Paul goes further than this. He says that the defection of the Galatian converts was in their experience as well as in their theology. He accuses them not of deserting the gospel of grace for another gospel, but of deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. In other words, theology and experience, Christian faith and Christian life, belong together and cannot be separated. To turn from the gospel of grace is to turn from the God of grace. It is impossible to forsake the gospel without forsaking God. The Galatian congregations had been thrown by the false teachers into a state of turmoil – intellectual confusion on the one hand and warring factions on the other. The Greek word for trouble means to shake or agitate. This trouble was caused by false doctrine. The Judaizers were trying to distort the gospel of Christ. You cannot modify or supplement the gospel without radically changing its character. So the two chief characteristics of the false teachers are that they were troubling the church and changing the gospel. These two go together. To tamper with the gospel is always to trouble the church. You cannot touch the gospel and leave the church untouched, because the church is created and lives by the gospel. Indeed, the church’s greatest troublemakers are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel. It is they who trouble the church. The best way to serve the church is to believe and to preach the gospel.

[8-10]  The situation in the Galatian churches should by now be clear. False teachers were distorting the gospel, so that Paul’s converts were deserting it. Paul’s first reaction was one of utter astonishment [6]. The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine. Paul’s second reaction was indignation over the false teachers, upon whom he now pronounces a solemn curse [8-9]. He expresses the wish that God’s judgment will fall upon them. The Galatian churches, it is implied, will surely then not accord such teachers a welcome or a hearing, but refuse to receive or listen to them, because they are men whom God has rejected. Why did Paul feel so strongly and use such drastic language: let him be accursed. Two reasons are plain. The first is that the glory of Christ was at stake. To make men’s works necessary to salvation, even as a supplement to the work of Christ, is derogatory to His finished work. It is to imply that Christ’s work was in some way unsatisfactory, and that men need to add to it and improve on it. The second reason why Paul felt this matter so keenly is that the good of men’s souls was also at stake. He was not writing about some trivial doctrine, but about something that is fundamental to the gospel. Paul cared deeply for the souls of men. He knew that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation. Therefore to corrupt the gospel was to destroy the way of salvation.

CONCLUSION. The lesson which stands out from this paragraph is that there is only one gospel. The message of the false teachers was not an alternative gospel; it was a perverted gospel. How can we recognize the true gospel? Its marks are given us here. They concern its substance (what it is) and its source (where it comes from). The substance is the gospel of grace, of God’s free and unmerited favor. Whenever teachers start exalting man, implying that he can contribute anything to his salvation by his own morality, religion, philosophy or respectability, the gospel of grace is being corrupted. This is the first test. The true gospel magnifies the free grace of God. The second test concerns the gospel’s origin. The true gospel is the gospel of the apostles of Jesus Christ, in other words, the New Testament gospel. The norm, the criterion, by which all systems and opinions are to be tested, is the gospel which the apostles preached and which is now recorded in the New Testament. As we hear the multifarious views of men and women today, spoken, written, broadcast and televised, we must subject each of them to these two rigorous tests. Is their opinion consistent with the free grace of God and with the plain teaching of the New Testament? If not, we must reject it. We must not compromise the gospel like the Judaizers, nor desert it like the Galatians, but live by it ourselves and seek to make it known to others.

Live Out Your Devotion to the Church:  1 Thessalonians 2:7-12.

[7]  But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.

[8]  So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. [9]  For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. [10]  You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. [11]  For you know how, like a father with his children, [12]  we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.  [ESV]

[5-8]  As the apostle recalls his visit to Thessalonica, he seems to depict it by four metaphors, two of which are quite explicit, while the other two are clearly implied. He likens himself successively to a steward [3-4], a mother [5-8], a father [9-12] and a herald [13-16]. Paul again begins negatively in verses 5-6. He is about to declare his mother-like love for the Thessalonians as his motivation in serving them, but before this he repeats his claim to be free of unworthy motives. He mentions three in particular: flattery, greed, and the hunger for compliments. Then Paul mentions one other trap which he and his companions avoided. As an apostle he might have become a burden to the Thessalonians, either by standing on his dignity and issuing orders, or by insisting on being paid. But they refused to make demands as apostles of Christ upon the Thessalonians. Instead, we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children [7]. The general contrast between an apostle’s authority and a mother’s tenderness is clear enough. Paul adds that he was not only as gentle as a mother with them, but as affectionate and sacrificial too [8]. Far from using them to minister to himself, he gave himself to minister to them. It is a lovely thing that, a man as tough and masculine as the apostle Paul should have used this feminine metaphor. Some Christian leaders become both self-centered and autocratic. The more their authority is challenged, the more they assert it. We all need to cultivate more, in our pastoral ministry, of the gentleness, love and self-sacrifice of a mother.

[9-12]  It is striking that Paul likens himself to their father as well as their mother. And in doing so, for the third time he begins negatively. He refers to the fact, already mentioned in verse 6, that he had not been a burden to any of you in Thessalonica, even while he proclaimed the gospel of God to them. Indeed, it was in order deliberately to avoid being dependent on them financially that he and his companions had worked night and day. Probably they preached by day and labored by night. For Paul his work was tent-making by which he earned his living. Although we know that some gifts were sent to him from the Philippian church, even while he was in Thessalonica [Phil. 4:16], these were evidently inadequate for his needs, perhaps because the Macedonian churches suffered from extreme poverty [2 Cor. 8:1-2]. So in these circumstances Paul could have made himself a burden to the Thessalonian Christians by asking them for money, but he determined not to do so. Instead of being a burden to them, he had been like a father to them, by both his example and his instruction. As for his example, they and God were together witnesses how holy and righteous and blameless he had been among the believers [10]. Although we should not attempt to distinguish too neatly between these three words, yet holy seems to refer to our being devout, pious, pleasing to God, righteous to our dealings with our neighbor, and blameless to our public reputation. Paul evidently saw his example as part of his paternal duty [11-12]. Paul seems to be thinking specially of the educational role of fathers, who, in addition to setting their children a consistent example, should also encourage, comfort and exhort them. In the apostle’s case, he found himself urging the Thessalonians to live worthily of God and His kingdom, and even insisting on it. Since it was part of his teaching that the kingdom of God has both a present manifestation and a future glory, we may assume that he appealed to the Thessalonians to live a life worthy both of their dignity now and of their destiny at the end. There is no need to deduce from the two metaphors which Paul had developed in verses 7 and 11 that he was laying down a stereotype of sexual roles in the home, the mother feeding and the father educating their children. For mothers certainly have an indispensable part in the mental and moral upbringing of their children, while there is no reason (except cultural tradition) why fathers should not take their turn at feeding and bathing the babies. Indeed, Scripture encourages rather than discourages this sharing of responsibilities. What is impressive is that, in his pastoral care of the Thessalonians, Paul could claim to have combined both the father’s and the mother’s roles.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does Paul mean by servants and stewards in 1 Cor. 4:1-5? How can you be a servant and steward of Christ? How was Paul able to say, I am not aware of anything against myself?

2.         In Galatians 1:6-10, how were the false teachers distorting the true gospel? Do we still see this happening in churches today? Why did Paul feel so strongly about the danger of this false teaching?

3.         How can we recognize the true gospel? What two tests should we apply to any teaching concerning the gospel?

4.         How was Paul like a mother to the Thessalonians? Like a father?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, BCNT, Baker.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter Varsity.

The Message of Galatians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Galatians, Leon Morris, Inter Varsity.

The Letters to the Thessalonians, Gene Green, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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