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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:God makes his people a spectacle to the world
Text:1 Corinthians 4:9b (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 70:1,2
Ps 97:6
Ps 129:1,2,3,4
Ps 66:4,5
Hy 52:1,2,3
I Cor 4
Is 53:1-6
I Cor 4:9b
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!

This world has some people who don’t mind being centre-stage, open to public display. Most of us, though, don’t like being a public spectacle; we’d sooner hide away.

Now we read in our text that “we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” The thought makes us somewhat uncomfortable. What, we a public spectacle?! Angels and men observing all we do?

The answer, beloved, is Yes. The Lord would have us know that He makes His own to be a spectacle to the world. Yet what’s displayed to the world is ultimately not anything from us, but God’s faithfulness.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:

  1. The meaning of the spectacle.

  2. The reason for mentioning the spectacle.

  3. The encouragement in the spectacle for us.

1. The meaning of the spectacle.

The imagery of the apostle Paul in our text, brothers and sisters, is striking. He speaks of a ‘spectacle’. The literal meaning of the word Paul uses is ‘theatre’.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul’s choice of this word was, of course, no accident. Every town of any standing in Greece had a theatre; acting in a play or watching others act in a play was simply part and parcel of cultured Greek life. Dictionaries1 tell us that the term ‘theatre’ had three meanings to the Greeks. A theatre was the (open air) building or auditorium in which a play was enacted, and that’s how the term is still used generally in English. In Paul’s days the term was also used for the audience that filled the building – but that’s a usage English doesn’t give to the term ‘theatre’. The third way the term was used in Paul’s days was to describe the play itself. We today also use the word ‘theatre’ in this way; we say of a given play that “it’s good theatre”.

Well now, of the three possible usages of the term, Paul in our text means the last one. He says that he and Apollos (those are the two persons meant by the word ‘we’ in our text - cf vs 6) have been made a spectacle, a theatre, a play. That is, Paul and Apollos are on stage. No, Paul doesn’t refer to the stage of a building; rather, life is the stage. Paul knows: how he acts every day constitutes a public display, simply because there is always an audience watching what he does.

That audience is “the world”, is every Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to cast an eye on Paul – be it the people of Ephesus (where Paul was living when he wrote this letter) or the people of Corinth who observe Paul from a distance through the letter he writes to them. Good people see Paul ‘on stage’, and so do bad people. That is: Christians observe Paul and so do those who hate the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, even the angels observe what Paul is doing, Paul adds, and that will be a reference both to the good angels whom God sends to minister to the needs of His children (Heb 1:14) as well as to the evil angels (the demons) who attempt to trip up the children of God. Always, in every moment and circumstance, Paul is on display, his actions and his words and his attitudes open to the public to observe and read.

This play that constitutes Paul’s life is not chaotic or random, as in: we’ll see what each day brings. Rather, the Director of this play is God Himself. For the Lord God established a plan before the foundation of the world, and He works out all things in history according to the counsel of His will (cf Eph 1:11; Ps 139:16). In accordance with this script written long ago, God directs Paul’s life as He does.

In the verses around our text the apostle relates to his Corinthian readers some of the more remarkable acts of the play Paul is in. What is it that the audience sees in Paul’s life? Vs 10: “we are fools…, we are weak…, we are dishonoured.” Vs 11 expands on how he and Apollos are fools in the eyes of the public, are weak and dishonoured. Says Paul: “to the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labour, working with our own hands.” The audience can see it with their own eyes; this is the sort of thing happening daily in Paul’s life. He’s not well fed, he’s not richly dressed, he hasn’t got a comfortable house with several servants to supply his needs; instead, his history is a continual suffering. As Paul wrote elsewhere: “Five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…” (II Cor 11:24ff). His was the sort of life you’d look down on; a chap that suffers like that must be asking for it. As Paul also says: “we are fools for Christ’s sake.” That’s the public assessment: “fools…, weak…, dishonoured.” Vs 12: he’s “reviled…, persecuted…, defamed.”

And if that imagery isn’t negative enough, look at the picture the apostle draws in the first part of vs 9. “I think,” he writes, “that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death.” The language of the sentence is borrowed from the victory parade common in Paul’s days when soldiers came home after a successful battle. In that parade the general and his soldiers would march at the head of the procession. Behind them would come the booty they’d captured, and at the tail end of the procession would be the riff-raff they’d caught, the old and sick and maimed and injured that would be fed to the wild animals in the local arena – for the entertainment of the town. Says Paul: we apostles are last in this procession. We –vs 13? are the “filth of the world, the off-scouring” that’s going to be fed to the beasts, we’re “as men condemned to death”, a spectacle to the world. That’s the play of our lives, the script the Great Director of Life’s Play has ordained for the apostles….

We’re grateful that we don’t have to suffer as Paul did. That doesn’t take away, though, from the fact that we also suffer, each in our own way. Marriages break down, and that constitutes suffering – particularly for the person who wants to serve the Lord. Children stray from the ways of the Lord, and that constitutes suffering – particularly for parents who seek to live close to the Lord. Mates at work ridicule our faith, and that constitutes suffering. In a small way we can relate to Paul’s statement that he’s been “made as the filth,” the rubbish, “of the world, the off-scouring of all things.” We don’t exactly like it, but we can live with that.

But I suspect, brothers and sisters, that what bothers us most is Paul’s statement in our text that his suffering is public, that he’s a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We’re certain: when we suffer, the last thing we want is a million eyes looking at us!

That raises the question: why has God put Paul with his sufferings on the public stage? What does the Director of life’s theatre –our God in heaven!? want the audience to see and to learn from these actors, from Paul and Apollos? We all know: any play worthy of being good theatre has a purpose, a message. How much more would that be true of theatre directed by sovereign God Himself! As a trained audience will look past the actors themselves to grasp the message of the director, so here; angels and men need to look past the persons of Paul and Apollos to grasp the message God is giving to the world through the script He has prepared for the lives of these apostles.

On the surface, the audience sees Paul being reviled, but not reviling in return; he blesses – a response the world judges as foolishness, evidence of weakness. The audience sees Paul being defamed, and responding with words of kindness – a response the world again judges to be madness. But here, beloved, is the deeper message of the Great Director of the Play of Life. For: how come the apostles bless those who curse them? Why don’t they revile in return? How come they endure when they are persecuted? Why don’t the apostles quit preaching the gospel in the face of so much opposition? How come they speak well to those who defame them? Why not let their oppressors feel their displeasure, give them what they –by all human reckoning? deserve? Here, brothers and sisters, on the public stage is the work of the Holy Spirit! People still dead in sin, people still aligned to Satan will not bless when they are reviled, will not endure when they are persecuted, will not speak kindly to those who defame them. But the apostles do it nevertheless, for all the world to see, and so they give evidence of the mighty work on the Holy Spirit in their hearts! There, beloved,is the message the Director of this play of life wants the world to see. The world must see the behaviour of Paul and Apollos, how they do not get angry in the face of hostility, how they do not take vengeance in the face of persecution, how they do not despair in the face of opposition, how they instead dish out deeds of love to those who would hurt them. As the world puzzles how downtrodden persons could act like this –for to the world this is foolishness!? the world will have to recognize that the Lord God has worked and is working in the hearts and lives of such men. In the actions of these apostles, then, the world is made to see something of the power of God’s renewing work in sinful, broken people! Centre-stage, then, is ultimately not these apostles, but God Himself.

Before I move on to our second point, there is one more element that needs our attention. In a play the actors have rehearsed their role often, with as result that there is supposed to be no place for surprise elements when they’re on stage. But in the play of life to which Paul alludes in our text, there is no rehearsal. There’s not even set lines to memorize. Instead, in the play of life the Great Director has given His holy Word as a lamp for the feet of His actors and a light on their path. As the Lord God leads the apostles’ daily lives, He asks them to work concretely with the promises and obligations of His Word. That is, as He –before the eyes of angels and men? leads the apostles into this situation or that (according to the script He ordained long ago), the apostles are obligated to respond to the changing circumstances according to the promises and obligations of the Word God has given them. Angels and men, of course, will observe whether these actors stay with God’s word, trust His promises and obey or whether they depart from the Word, stumble. Important to the actors is not what praise the audience gives, but instead what the Great Director will say on the Day of Judgment (cf I Cor 4:3ff).

I move on to our second point:

2. The reason for mentioning the spectacle.

Why does the apostle tell the Corinthians about the spectacle, the play in which he’s an actor? What prompts our text?

The reason for Paul mentioning this play of life, congregation, is Paul’s attempt to get the Corinthians to realize that they themselves are also a spectacle to the world. For what is true of Paul and Apollos –namely, that the Lord God has written the script of their lives, and now directs the Play of Life according to that script? is true for the Corinthians also. In fact, the world, both angels and men, observe how the Corinthians are acting on the stage of life.

How, now, are the Corinthians acting? Here is the point: they acted sodifferently than Paul and Apollos did! Vs 10: “We are weak, but you are strong!” Paul and Apollos are repeatedly dishonoured on the stage of life, but not so the believers of Corinth; to the public eye they are “distinguished” citizens of the community. In fact –vs 8? “you are already full! You are already rich! Your have reigned as kings….” The contrast couldn’t be bigger: “You are already full,” says Paul of the Corinthians, but of himself he says, “to the present hour we both hunger and thirst” (vs 11). “You are already rich,” he says of the Corinthians, but “we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless” (vs 11) “You have reigned as kings,” but –vs 12? “we labour, working with our own hands;” in fact, we’re reviled, persecuted, defamed, made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things.

Should the Corinthians be pleased that they’re so different than Paul? Should we, for that matter, be like the Corinthians on this point, or like Paul? True, we’d prefer to be like the Corinthians, full, rich, distinguished members of our society. And, in so many ways, Christians of the western world are exactly that. Sure, we suffer from this or that, but on the whole we are full, are rich, are well received in our community. And we like it that way, we’re comfortable that way.

That’s why we have to know, brothers and sisters, that the current situation in which we find ourselves in our tolerant and affluent society is not the norm the Lord has foretold in Scripture. Jesus said: “A servant is not greater than his master” (Jn 13:16). Isaiah describes how society felt about the Master. We read it: “He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…” (Is 53:2f). We know enough about the life of Jesus to realize that this passage sums up the way Jesus was treated during His time on earth. Though there was a time that the crowds adored Jesus, when push came to shove they despised and rejected Him. The teachers of His day insisted He was in league with the devil, saw Him as a law-breaker, and ultimately demanded His crucifixion and death. Well, “if they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” Jesus told His disciples (Mt 10:24). On another occasion: “if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20). Hence the challenge for all those who would belong to Jesus; “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mt 16:24). In a word, beloved: to follow the Lord means that we need to be prepared to be despised and rejected by men, to be people of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

The apostle Paul experienced this rejection. He and the other apostles with him denied themselves, were content with hunger and thirst for the sake of gospel, content with being poorly dressed for Christ’s sake, content with being beaten on account of the faith, content to be reviled, persecuted, defamed for the sake of the gospel. Paul and those with him were despised and rejected, and people saw them as rejects, as social outcasts, as the garbage of the world, the offscouring of all things. Paul knew: God has put them on the stage of the world, for angels and men to view, public examples of how the Lord Jesus Christ was rejected also.

But see, the Corinthians were not hungry and thirsty; they instead were already full! The Christians of Corinth were not poorly clothed, beaten and homeless; they were instead rich! They were not reviled or persecuted or defamed or made as the filth of the world; they were instead kings! Then yes, the Corinthians may claim to be wise according to the standards of this age (3:18) – who, after all, has respect for a person who’s forever being reviled and defamed, and then doesn’t even stand up to defend himself either, and who would want to associate with such persons! But Paul would have the Corinthians change. Vs 16: “therefore I urge you, imitate me.” Our Lord Jesus Christ was “despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3). “A servant is not above his master,” and so –says Paul? you saints of Corinth should investigate where the problem lies in your lives. Christ has not come back yet, we still live in the hatred and brokenness of this fallen world, and so you should join us apostles in doing the kind of conduct on the Stage of Life that the world does not understand. To help the Corinthian believers reach this point, Paul –vs 17? sent Timothy to Corinth “who will remind you of my ways in Christ.” And “my ways in Christ” refers to the suffering that the Lord Jesus Christ said would characterise those who desire to live godly lives before God on the stage of the world.

We come to our last point:

3. The encouragement in the spectacle for us.

To be honest, we don’t find this material all that encouraging. We don’t mind to be associated with Jesus Christ, follow Jesus Christ. But the cost…. To be despised and rejected as Jesus was, be judged a fool by the world around us, be reviled, persecuted, defamed, be ready to suffer hunger and thirst for the sake of the Lord…. How tempting to give up this notion of wanting to follow Jesus…. Or, if follow Jesus we must, how tempting to follow Him in the fashion of the Corinthians… ? be full, be rich, be kings, esteemed by the public…. But that’s not how the Scriptures portray what the Christian ought to expect. And then to read that God puts us on the stage of Life for all angels and men to observe how we act; isn’t that asking too much? Yes, to suffer is one thing, but who, brothers and sisters, wants to suffer on the public stage?? In truth, who is willing and who is able to provide “good theatre” to the public of Yarrow, so that the people of town can see in us what God had done in Jesus Christ and is still doing in reconciling a world to Himself?

But the point, beloved, is not how we fare on the stage of Life! O yes, we have a responsibility to act according to the precepts of God’s word; the Lord gave us the Bible to be a lamp to our feet. And Jesus told us how to act in the face of adversity; “bless,” He said in Luke 6, “bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (vs 28). He set the example Himself: “Father,” Jesus prayed concerning those who crucified Him, “forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Paul and Apollos were reviled, and –wonder of wonders!? by the working of the Holy Spirit they blessed – in obedience to the Lord’s command and as display of God’s mighty work in broken people. Paul and Apollos were persecuted, but –O delightful marvel!? they persevered – in obedience to the Lord’s command and as display of God’s mighty work in broken people. Paul and Apollos were defamed, but –thank God!? by the working of the Holy Spirit they spoke kindly to their enemies – in obedience to the Lord’s command and as display of God’s mighty work in broken people. In the way they responded to the abuse heaped on them as servants of Jesus Christ, they were good theatre to the world. The Great Director used their manner of response to trials as testimony to the world of the power of God in Christ.

God, brothers and sisters, has not changed! No, we don’t get a say in what the script of our lives looks like, what suffering there will be for us tomorrow or next year. Our Father in Jesus Christ in wisdom leads our lives from one circumstance to the next, and repeatedly there’s suffering involved – as Jesus said would happen. But whatever the circumstance, whatever the suffering, He gives strength to imitate Christ (11:1), He gives strength to trust that God makes no mistake, He gives strength to obey His instructions – and so be “good theatre” to the world, a display to the public of God’s life-saving work. He makes us a spectacle not so that we might shine; He makes us a spectacle so that He might shine!

He is faithful, beloved, He is faithful. So do not fear the ridicule of the world, neither of the unbelieving or even of the demons. God has made you a spectacle to the world, and the Great Director of the Play of Life uses His people’s conduct in the storms of life to communicate to the world that He is powerful to save from hell and danger and the grave.

Let them laugh at you, let them scorn your faith and call you fools. Today already the inhabitants of heaven –the godly angels and the deceased brethren alike? praise the God of heaven for the mighty works they see Him do in the lives of His saints on earth – says Rev 5. And on the earth below the godly today join these heavenly choruses in praise of their God and Saviour on account of God’s public work in our public lives. And tomorrow, when Jesus Christ returns on the clouds of heaven to give His rewards to men on earth, all His saints will receive the best Grammy ever: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master.”

And those who laughed before and called us fools will bend the knee also before the King of kings – and admit that those they ridiculed were right after all.

1 See TDNT. Also K Schilder in Hermanus Knoop, A Theatre in Dachau (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 2002), pg 10f.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2002, Rev. C. Bouwman

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