Have you ever listened to a conversation in which, though no one has actually said it outright, nevertheless you sense a lot of tension? The participants may be talking about one issue, but it is evident that an underlying issue is really what the conversation is about. That is happening in this letter.
Paul has addressed two issues – divisions in the church and the Corinthians captivation with worldly wisdom. As we have examined his discussion of these issues, we have noted that the Corinthians were questioning Paul’s own qualifications to be their authority. There were divisions because some were holding up other church leaders as the men they belonged to rather than to him. Yes, they were enamored with what they perceived as wisdom that he did not seem to possess.
In our text this morning, Paul makes it clear, “Don’t judge me.” He certainly seems like a man of our time. If we voted on the bumper sticker saying that most characterized modern Americans, it would be “Don’t judge me.” “You judging me?” are fighting words. Is Paul a modern man? Let’s see what judgment we come up with!
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Paul is back to his teaching about the roles that Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and he play in the church. They are servants of Christ. He has said that before in 3:5, though he is using a different Greek term for servant than used then. This term indicates a person who exercises some amount of authority under the authority of another.
The next descriptive word identifies the type of authority Paul has in mind. They are stewards of the mysteries of God. That is a “mysterious” phrase in itself, something you would expect Gandalf or Merlin to say: “I am the steward of the mysteries of God.” A sudden gust of wind would accompany the statement, perhaps even a minor chord! What does Paul mean?
A steward is one entrusted with something to keep and manage. A steward of his master’s house would be entrusted with managing the household’s operations. Joseph was a steward of the house of the Egyptian officer, Potiphar. He eventually rose to be in essence the steward of Egypt under Pharaoh. The steward is in charge to use money and resources, even to direct the service of others; but what he has charge over belongs to another, his master or an official above him, and the authority he possesses is subservient to higher authority. His authority is only to be used in service to the one over him.
What are these “mysteries” of God? Are they secret knowledge that require arduous learning to master? The druids of England were stewards of such mysteries; so are the shamans of nature cults. In the time of Paul, mystery cults flourished. These were religious sects which claimed to possess secret knowledge, which one could obtain only after going through initiation rites and which may take years to master. For Paul, the “mysteries of God,” or “mystery” as he writes everywhere else, is the gospel of Christ. It is secret, or hidden, knowledge in the sense that God had not made it clear until Christ actually came. Even then, Jesus ordained his apostles to be taught by the Holy Spirit this mystery and commissioned them to teach it to the church. Paul, himself, was directly ordained by the resurrected and glorified Jesus.