Today, ministry is often cast in terms of strength. Ministers are expected to be self-starters, go-getters, and workhorses. Books on leadership abound. The apostle Paul, being quite familiar with the church’s craving for powerful personalities, often spoke differently. He liked to turn our natural expectations upside down by introducing terms like weakness, suffering, and grace into our vocabularies. He wanted to give us a different picture:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. . . . For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. . . . when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:1,9, 13)
For Paul, glory and power belong to God, and God displays his glory through weakness. He had learned this fact firsthand from God himself as he suffered with a weakness that he called a thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:7–10). This is why the apostle uses such strong language: he wants to jolt us out of our natural way of thinking. He wants us to consider the God behind the minister. He wants to point us to true power. He wants to accent the graced-character of gospel ministry and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul makes two very important claims.
1. Ministers are servants of Christ and keepers of the mysteries of God.
This is Paul’s way of saying that ministers serve God’s agenda. This agenda is to speak the gospel into deadness. Here and elsewhere, Paul uses the language of “the mysteries of God” to refer to the gospel. The gospel is the mystery revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s what Israel and the world didn’t expect—that God himself would come and save the world through death on a cross.
As ministers speak—whether in preaching, counseling, or praying—God is breathing eternal life into the spiritually dead. God is healing the broken. God is saving the distressed. And in this work, God has chosen people to serve Christ’s purpose of bringing grace and peace into the lives of ordinary people like you and me. Defying our expectations and opposing our misguided hopes, God gives us what we fail to desire—new life in communion with the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and all the saints, past and present.
2. Faithful gospel ministry may appear weak.
Ministers may be talented people. They may be good public speakers with sharp minds and inspiring personalities. Yet, God uses human weakness. God is happy to use the ordinary and even the less than ordinary to accomplish his saving purpose. Most of the time in history, God has taken great sinners and graced them with the privilege to serve God’s people. Many were deeply flawed. Some had tempers. Others suffered from deep bouts of depression. Still, God used them and continues to use many of them through their writings to display his glory among the nations.
The challenge of Paul’s message is this: is your God big enough to use foolish and weak ministers, or does your God need a powerful personality to accomplish his will? God doesn’t need the strong; he can take the mediocre and give them the power of the Holy Spirit to raise the dead to life. In fact, both biblical history and church history teach that God actually prefers the weak to the strong, so that his grace may be made perfect in weakness.