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Author:Pastor Dirk Boersma
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Congregation:Emmanuel American Reformed Church
 Denver, Colorado
 www.emmanuelarc.org
 
Title:God entrusts us with his secrets
Text:1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2005-03-06
Added:2005-04-05
Updated:2007-02-11
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Call to worship Ephesians 1:6-10
Song of praise Psalm 63,1.2
Reading of the law / Confession of sin
Declaration of mercy Romans 6:1-4
Song of response Psalm 119: 33-34
Readings from Scripture 1Corinthians 3:18-4:21
Song before the sermon Psalm 103: 4,6-8
Sermon text 1Corinthians 4:1-2
Song after the sermon Psalm 71, 8-10
Song after the offering Psalm 96: 2, 4, 8

Suggestions for prayer:
* express wonder about the mystery God has revealed to us: Christ in us!
* ask for courage and faith to continue to share this mystery with those around us
* ask for blessing on church life, that congregation may grow in maturity
* pray for work of Spirit so that members live lives of integrity
* pray for those slowing down in their growth or not growing at all
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

I am sure some of you young people have experienced this situation: one of your friends takes you apart with a special look in their eyes. The look on their face is like a conspirator. In a hushed voice, as if everybody is listening, they ask you a question: "Can you keep a secret"?

Of course you nod vehemently, afraid your friend will change his mind and keep you out of the loop. Now it's getting interesting! Here is something you need to know.

After you have pledged your friend to keep this secret ("my lips are sealed, you can trust me!"), you hear the secret. Maybe it is something personal and your friend wants to hear your advice. Of course you are not going to tell anyone else and embarrass your friend!

Or maybe it is something someone else in your class has done, and you are now part of the gossip-chain. In that case, you probably kept the secret until you just had to tell somebody else, after making them promise to keep it a secret too, of course.

We can all imagine people who are sworn to secrecy. Egyptian Pharaohs presumably appointed people to guard their tombs and make sure nobody would find the entrance and rob their graves. Priests as well as attorneys are protected by law to keep the things they hear in the confessional or from their clients to themselves.

We can imagine people who have a special obligation to keep a secret. But how about people who have been appointed to share secrets publicly? Have you ever met such people? Leaking secrets is usually not highly appreciated. In some cases it is against the law, or it can endanger national security. Who would be interested in having their secrets trumpeted all over the place?

Yet this is what the apostles' task is all about. They deal in secrets, and they are not supposed to keep them to themselves. They were appointed to make the world's best kept secret public and available to everybody. This secret had been hidden, but has been revealed by God. He wants it to be broadcast all over the world.

Let's find out what we've got to do with this. How does this determine our church life?

This is the theme:

God entrusts us with his secrets

1. through the ministry of the Word

2. for our ministry to the world.


1. Through the ministry of the word
When you were reading the first part of this chapter, you may have thought "what's this got to do with me?"

From earlier chapters we know that Paul had to defend himself against the members of the church in Corinth. They were very impressed with preachers who had arrived after Paul had left, and they kind of looked down on Paul and his preaching. Being Greeks, they were enamored with wisdom and modern philosophies, and the so-called wisdom of those visiting preachers left Paul's message of the cross of Christ in the shadow. It didn't impress them much and did not mean much to them any more.

If we don't have such a situation in our church, can we still profit from these words? Or could we just move on to the next chapter in the hope there is some timeless truth for us instead of old quarrels from the past?

If we don't have a conflict with our church leaders, what meaning could these verses possibly have for us?

I could argue that the passage should be instructive because it is in the Bible, and we can learn from this defense of the authority of the apostle. However, I would like to concentrate on vs. 1 and 2 and draw your attention to Paul's approach.

As usual, Paul does not directly answer the question people asked him or address the disagreement or sin at hand. He always places it in context, broadens your horizon, and addresses the situation by going back to what Christ has done for us or commanded us to do. Sometimes you wonder whether he avoids the problem, but you always find that he is a Christ-centered problem solver / teacher.

Listen to his words in vs. 1 and 2:

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

Without delving deep into the following verses about judging, I want to draw your attention to these first two sentences today.

Paul characterizes apostles, and all preachers in the Christian church for that matter, as servants of Christ and those entrusted with the secret things of God.

The first word means "subordinate" or servant: someone who simply needs to follow any command his master gives him. Slaves and servants in those days could not argue with their master and question the wisdom of the commands. Neither could they say: "yeah, I'll do it, but just give me a minute, I was just busy doing something else." No, they had to obey immediately, or they faced the wrath of their owner. They could even be killed if they did not obey. There were no laws to protect them.

Of course Jesus is not such a master that he would kill his servants. But the point is clear: he sends out apostles and other preachers, and they answer to him. They are under his command and they serve his kingdom.

The second word describes more what they do. Paul calls himself and other preachers "stewards". Most people when they hear the word "steward" would probably think of a cruise ship or flight attendants, who bring you refreshments when you push a button.

Maybe you remember that steward in one of Jesus' parables, who cooked the books to secure a future for himself. He had been appointed to take care of his master's business. He was in charge of the production, kept the books, and dealt with creditors and suppliers.
Instead of stewards you could read "estate managers". This was a function of importance.

They could be even more important when their responsibilities were not limited to the business of the master, but extended to his household. Another parable shows us a slave who was in charge of the slaves and had to take care of their needs. And Galatians 4 tells us about a slave in charge of the education of the children until they became mature. You can count on it that he had a great deal of responsibility: the master had put the future of his children into his hands!

When we know what Paul is talking about we can begin to realize what an important function the apostles had. This remains true for all preachers until today whom the Lord has called.

Why is this important? Is Paul trying to give himself a status here? And could this be a favorite text for pastors who feel criticized and manipulated by their congregation? If a pastor chooses to preach on this text, can you conclude that he must have some problem with his church?

It is obviously not about status, because "slave" does not sound as impressive as CEO or president. Instead of asserting his status, Paul makes the lines of command clear. Apostles and preachers answer to their boss in heaven, and should not follow public opinion or be subject to majority rule in the church.

It is necessary to be clear about the role and responsibility of those with authority in the church.
In Paul's time the apostles may have been strange figures: they just showed up in a town, preached the gospel, and told people how to organize the church. Then they sent letters telling them what to do. You can imagine some people wondering: "Who gave you the right to talk like that? Are you any better than us?"

It was necessary to make it clear that they had not assumed this authority, but worked under command of Jesus Christ, the founder and owner of the church. He had commissioned them and they had to obey him. Led by the Spirit of Christ, the apostles passed on Jesus' will to his churches. They did not play the boss and lorded it over the churches. They were themselves subject to the will of Christ, and received their legitimacy only from him.

Other so-called "apostles" or preachers might show up and create a following by impressing the Corinthians, but the apostles did not claim anything from themselves and for themselves. They served Christ and obeyed him.

These verses remained significant during the subsequent history of the church. John Calvin's explanation of these verses clearly breathes the atmosphere of his time. He had to battle the power of the Roman Catholic church that dominated not only religion but also society. Priests and bishops had assumed a position merely on basis of their title, and at the top was the Pope, someone who declared himself the successor of Peter. The Pope has always had and continues to have a special qualification: he can make declarations that are binding for the church. He can define what the church believes and determine the policy for the church all by himself. His word is law. You wouldn't think so if you see the frail man waving from behind a hospital window? You may just think that he is a friendly old man. But don't make a mistake about the powers that church has given him and all his predecessors and successors. It is a power that goes beyond what Paul states.

Any preacher and person of authority in the church needs to answer to Jesus and place the Lord in the center. He has to follow God's commands and cannot come up with his own rules and write his own task description.

The authority of leaders in the church remains an issue until today.

The church went wrong in the past by overstating the authority of the Pope, bishops, and priests.
Today there is a danger that this authority is either completely denied or overrated. We need to be aware of the position of leaders in the church and the attitude of members and the general public towards them.

There are churches today that were planted by a pastor who gains control of the entire organization. He determines what happens, he hires and fires the staff, and he influences the direction of the church. People follow him because he is the founder and trust his leadership. He can pretty much do whatever he likes. If you don't like it, too bad. You better leave and find another church. It's hard to criticize or even fire the man who is the face of the church

On the opposite side of the spectrum there is a different attitude toward the pastor. He is just a guy who was hired to do a job. He needs to serve the church with encouragement, vision, and new ideas. He should always be in touch with what the people want. It is his responsibility to draw people to the church with a good presentation, therefore he must be a skilled communicator or even a little bit of an entertainer. He is the face of the church, but if he does not perform, he gets fired and they find someone else.

This is the opposite: the pastor as the employee of the church, the people's servant. The steward on the cruise ship who keeps everybody happy.

It is difficult to steer a safe course between these two cliffs, the Scylla and Charibdys of being the boss or being the doormat.

How can you avoid this? How can a church give its preachers and elders a healthy form of respect and authority?

Paul has already given us the answer centuries ago. He wrote it down for us with the authority of the Holy Spirit, so that the church of all ages would obey the will of her Lord Jesus Christ and not get caught up in tyranny or people-pleasing.

Preachers are servants of Christ and must answer to him. This places their ministry in perspective and determines the boundaries.

It determines the requirements for their task: they need to be faithful. The Greek word is a mix of competence, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. The people Jesus appointed in the church need to be faithful to Christ's calling and competent in their task as stewards of the mystery, the thing that Christ has entrusted them with.

This means that their ministry is not determined by the success of their methods and the number of people who are impressed or pleased with their work.

John Calvin puts it like this: "Everyone who teaches the truth is not necessarily faithful, but only he who desires from the heart to serve the Lord and advance Christ's kingdom."

Pastors should not base their authority in themselves, their title, their success, or the number of people who follow them, although this is often how they are evaluated.

Here are the qualifications Jesus gave: they must be competent and faithful: they must follow the will of the owner of the house. Nobody else can write their task description or change it. And they cannot determine for themselves what they are going to do, or rewrite their function to suit their needs or to make it more effective in their own eyes. They have to follow the instructions of the owner, the Lord Jesus Christ. Both the church and the pastor need to study the will of God as they find it in the Bible in order to find out what God expects from all them, in exercising and following the authority God gives to his servants.


2. For our ministry to the world
Then, in the second place we need to zoom in more on what this stewardship means and how it determines church life.
As we have seen earlier, a steward in Biblical times was in charge of a business or a household: manpower, money, supplies, and even education of the children. The stewardship Paul is talking about is special. The apostles have been put in charge of the mysteries or secrets of God.

Paul is quite fond of this word "mystery". He is actually almost the only one who uses it in the New Testament. Only Jesus had used it before, and it is used in the book of Revelation.

The mystery he is talking about always centers around Jesus Christ. Paul could not stop thinking and talking about the gigantic increase in revelation that had taken place with the coming of Christ. What had been hidden for centuries and was only sparingly known was suddenly uncovered when Jesus appeared. Paul expresses this clearly in Col1,25-27:

I have become its servant [of the church] by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

It seems like this revelation is limited to the saints: the believers. But Paul also says that God made the glorious riches of this mystery known among the gentiles. God had this mystery revealed first in the preaching of his Son, and then through the preaching of the apostles, who went out to bring this message everywhere where the Spirit led them. They did not limit themselves to the temple and the synagogues. They started there, but went further: they preached to the gentiles. Thousands who had been outside the circle of God's revelation suddenly received it and became saints, as well.

The New Testament does not appear to have any limits to this revelation of the mystery. And it does not say that this has stopped. Jesus gave this task to his church when he commanded her to go and make disciples of all nations. This happened first under the leadership of the apostles, but even then this task was not limited to those 12 men.

All Christians shared the knowledge of this mystery with those around them. How could they not? how could they keep this secret to themselves after they had seen it change their lives. Christ among you, the hope of glory; new life, eternal life, reconciliation with God how can you remain silent about such things when you know that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son? The public announcement of this mystery has not stopped after the apostles died. The church continues to be God's broadcasting agent of the mystery until it has reached all nations, the ends of the earth, and the number of believers is full.

It is important that we realize the extent of this task. It is not limited to preachers but given to the church as a whole. The church is called the pillar and foundation or support of the truth in 1Tim3. Together we are responsible for this task, and the elders and ministers are available to all of us to equip us for this task and other tasks the Lord has given us. We cannot delegate this, but we should see it as our common task, something we work on together.

We are not in the business of keeping the secret to ourselves and hiding it from the world. The world is in dire need of salvation and light, and Christ has given us a place in this world and chosen us to be a light, not to hide. We should not try to look for excuses to dodge this task, because we find it too difficult or because we are afraid of negative responses. Instead, we should be excited and honored that the Lord has given us a place in his plan. He has entrusted us with his secrets, not only to marvel at them ourselves and live in that wonderful fellowship with God, but also to pass it on to others and call them to turn away from their sinful lives and to return to God.

This mystery must first be firmly rooted in our hearts and minds. There is much to learn. God took centuries to reveal it, he has given us both the Old and New Testament to study, so that we can marvel at the secret and learn how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all God's promises. There is so much to learn about the way Jesus saved us and what this means for our lives and for how God relates to us!

We can keep the secret hidden by not telling others about it, but we can also keep it hidden for ourselves by taking our salvation for granted and being satisfied with what we know now. Then we disregard the depth of God's revelation and become lazy. Instead we need to be eager to get to know this secret more, so that Jesus Christ will be more prominent in our hearts and minds, so that we will glorify him more for everything he has done for us, and our relationship with him will grow in depth.

When we do this, we will grow in maturity. This is something Paul also had in mind for believers. We are not destined to stay at the same level of knowledge and commitment as when we first believed. There is growth, possible and necessary. The writer to the Hebrews rebukes the Christians of his day that they got stuck in the first teaching and never got any further. How is your growth in the faith? Are you growing in insight, or are you satisfied with where you are now, and therefore becoming unfruitful to the kingdom of God ?

What is the effect of immaturity?

You can see it in Corinth. The Corinthians were impressed with what they had, but they were stuck in the first knowledge and did not even understand the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit.

As a result, they misjudged Paul's work and position, and that is why he had to defend himself in this letter.

Immature Christians judge things by their appearance and are quick to write off people. They would dismiss the words of a pastor because he said it the wrong way. They would disregard Biblical sermons because they don't like the style or because it was not practical enough for them.
Lack of maturity leads to a misunderstanding of the work of leaders in the church and causes you to think highly of yourself.

A stagnation in growth will also affect the way we reveal the secret to those outside. The world will be confused and put on the wrong foot if the church acts immaturely, if we don't live according to the message we preach. Immature Christians will behave like the world, because they don't understand that Christ has called them to be different and to follow the style of the cross. They avoid suffering and persecution, and want an easy life.

It is a sad fact that many churches in America today are in such shape. People are wooed with promises of prosperity, steps towards a better life, encouraging messages, and great programs. But are they growing in maturity? Are they being instructed in the secret, in the mystery of Christ? Does today's church realize what her special position is, and is she concerned with how God dwells in her midst, instead of with appearances and the needs of people?

Growing in knowledge and insight of the secret of Christ will strengthen the congregation both on the inside and the outside. Our church life will deepen and become more centered on the Lord, and outreach will become more determined, motivated, and effective.

Learning and teaching go hand in hand. Growth in maturity and being active in outreach are not mutually exclusive but mutually supportive. People often make it seem as if tweaking the message to what the world wants to hear will make the church more acceptable. However, Jesus never called us to become acceptable to the world. He sent us out to reveal the secret of the cross, the resurrection, and his presence in his church. When we keep this message pure and undiluted, the light of the gospel will shine brightly. A church that does not compromise her message will become more attractive to the world, because she has the unique message of salvation in Christ and that message comes through loud and clear.

Jesus has entrusted his church with God's secrets, with the mystery of the reconciliation with God. We should view it as a privilege that he chose us, his church here in Westminster, to be his agent in this world to not only receive the secret, but also to proclaim it to others. As his servants, we can do nothing else than to obey him, that is what we are for.

We should not think that it is enough if the gospel is preached in this church building. We need to start thinking about new and creative ways to get the message out and to get in touch with the people around us.

We cannot expect them to show up just like that. We cannot say "they know where the church is, they can step inside and listen to the preaching". Sinners will not come by themselves, they are not interested. We need to go to them and tell them the great news. Remember, Paul also taught us that natural man does not understand spiritual things. Sinners hate God. Why would they come to church by themselves? That would be the last place they would go if God did not work in their hearts.

Therefore, we should not expect them to come running to the church and show up of their own accord. It is our charge to bring the message to them, revealing God's secrets to those who have never heard it or do not understand it.

Let us gladly commit ourselves to this task, answering the call of our Lord and obeying his command, while we are impressed and excited with God's secrets.

Amen


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Dirk Boersma, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Dirk Boersma

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