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Sermon Message


"Characteristics of a Kingdom Hero"

1 Corinthians 4:1-21
Theme: Paul's words to the Coninthian believers gives us seven qualities we should seek to imitate in the Christian life.

(Delivered Sunday, September 10, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

Have you ever thought about the “heroes” you look up to in life—who it is that you seek to imitate?

The classical understanding of a “hero” is as someone in a fable or epic who embodies certain qualities or virtues that are considered honorable and worthy of imitation. For us today, they may be fictional, or they may be historical. We are naturally drawn to imitate such “heroes”; so it's a good idea to stop and take inventory now and then of the people you—consciously or unconsciously—seek to imitate. Who is it that inspires you? Why do you look up to them? What are the qualities about them that you aspire to possess?

I'm told that my first hero in life was, in the classical tradtion, a mythical one—'Popeye the Sailor'. When I was as young as three or four, I was apparently walking around and talking like Popeye—as best as a three our four year old could, anyway. I was even told that, when I went to my first Sunday school class, I refused give the teacher my real name. I wanted to be called 'Popeye'. I can even remember—very faintly—taking a ball-point pen and making little anchors on my forearms.

As we grow and mature, we also grow and mature in the heroes we seek to imitate. I identified myself with lots of other heroes during my growing up years—most of them fictional; but a few of them real. And as I look back, I can clearly see that I chose my heroes on the basis of what I thought was important at the time. They still influence me. (Even to this day, for example, I like spinach salad!)

But in the summer of 1973, something happened to me that radically changed me from the inside out. My fundamental sense of what is important was forever transformed, and a new set of values and priorities has been maturing in me ever since. It was during that summer that I first heard the message of God's love through His Son Jesus Christ; and that I placed my faith in Him as my Savior and Lord.

On that day, Jesus became my primary “hero”—my model for imitation. He became the great, motivating love of my life. I was far back then from where I should have been. And I'm still very far from where I should be today. But once I surrendered myself to Him, and He began to occupy the central place of my life, He began to progressively transform my core values and priorities—making them more like His own.

Such a radical change of values and priorities could not help but result in a change in the whole list of other “heroes” I admired. I no longer exalted or sought to imitate the kinds of people I used to. I wanted to be like Jesus and to imitate Him above all else. And today, with Jesus as my first and foremost “hero”, I look up to, and admire, and to seek to imitate, a whole different set of people—people who are, like myself, imperfect flesh-and-blood beings; but who love the Savior I love, and who are further along than I am in imitating Him.

One of the greatest of such “heroes” in my life has grown to be the apostle Paul. I believe that God deliberately gave him to the church as a man to imitate. Paul himself certainly believed this to be the case. He—it seems to me—had a very conscious awareness that he was set before the people of God as a pattern to follow. He once said, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16). He said, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). And in the most clearest terms of all, he said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

This morning, I speak to my brothers and sisters in Christ. With Jesus Himself as—I trust—the greatest love of your heart, I would like to point out some qualities and characteristics in the life of Paul that are very much worth our effort to imitate. He was an utterly Christ-absorbed man; a man who sought with all his being to be like Jesus Christ and to fulfill His call on his life. And in the fourth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, we see in Paul certain qualities that we should seek to imitate in the Christian life.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Corinthian believers were big on exalting “heroes”. But they were exalting the wrong ones. They lived in a very paganistic culture; and they tended to behave like the culture around them by measuring one another against the great Grecian heroes of the day.

Sadly, this practice was impacting their behavior in the church. They were beginning to disregard Paul and his co-workers, because they didn't follow the accepted patterns of speech and rhetoric that the great, popular, intellectual “heroes” of the day had mastered. They had a bad habit of making “heroes” out of the people that the unbelieving world considered “wise”.

And what's more, they even began to break into factions—associating themselves with some particular apostle or church leader, and positioning themselves against the others. One would say, “I am of Paul.” Another would say, “Not me! I am of Peter.” Another would say, “I'm of neither. I am of Apollos.”

One of the reasons Paul wrote his first letter to them was to combat this problem. In chapter three, he wrote,

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; and again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's (1 Corinthians 3:18-23).

As Paul writes to deal with this problem, he speak to the Corinthian believers about his own sense of ministry before the Lord, and the sense of ministry he shares with his co-workers and fellow apostles. And in the course of doing so, he—sort of 'between the lines' —reveals certain qualities about himself and his co-workers that are worthy of imitation. They are not qualities that the people of this ungodly world admire; but they are qualities that stand very high in the evaluation of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

First, we see that Paul presents himself as . . .


He tells them, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (v. 1). Paul didn't seek to elevate himself before the Corinthians. He didn't say, “How dare you treat me in any other way than with the utmost repsect! Don't you know who I am? I am the great apostle Paul! I write Scripture!”

That, by the way, was the kind of attitude with which many of the false teachers that the Corinthians were listening to had been presenting themselves. They elevated themselves because of their great learning, and they demanded to be respected because of their mastery of Greek patterns of speech and worldly wisdom. They were “credentialed”. They were “cultured”. They were “sought-after.” They presented themselves as “seminal thinkers” who presented the world with new, innovative insights. But Paul and his co-workers refused to be thought of in that way. Instead—in contrast to the 'great ones' of this world, Paul insisted that he be thought of as simply “a servant” of another. He insisted that he be thought of simply as someone who had been entrusted with a “stewardship” of “mysteries” that were revealed to him by someone else.

I suggest to you that Paul's servant attitude makes him a true “hero” in the kingdom of Christ—someone that we should imitate. Jesus Himself once told the apostles;

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

If you truly value the kingdom of Jesus Christ, then you won't go about seeking to build up your own kingdom. You will value becoming a servant of Christ's kingdom. You will not look upon yourself as a 'great originator', but rather as a 'humble steward' of mysteries that had been entrusted to you by Him. You will view yourself—and present yourself—as nothing more than a humble servant of Christ.

I notice that that's a great characteristic of many of the other New Testament apostolic writers. James, for example, began his New Testament letter by calling himself, “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Peter introduced himself in his second letter as “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). Jude began his letter by calling himself, “Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ . . .” (Jude 1).

Taking the title of “bondservant” to yourself is certainly not something that the world considers to be 'heroic'. But the truth is that there is no honor in this world greater than that of being a humble servant of Jesus Christ. And I suggest to you that, to the degree that a man or woman has truly humbled themselves to become the servant of Christ, to that degree will that man or woman be an example for you and me to follow!

Look to true “servants of Christ”; elevate them in your esteem; and imitate them! They stand high in the kingdom of Christ!

* * * * * * * * * *

Another feature we see in the life of Paul is that he was . . .


This second characteristic follows on the heels of the first. It's one thing to call yourself a “servant of Christ”; but it's another thing altogether to prove it by being faithful in the things that Christ has given you to do. The question in the end is not, “What did you claim about yourself?”, but “How did you do?” Such faithfulness was a value that Paul embodied. He said, “Moreover it is required in a steward that one be found faithful” (v. 2).

One of the things that I admire about Paul is the fact that he didn't have any questions about what he was called by God to do. He was absolutely clear about his calling. He said, “To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ . . .” (Ephesians 3:8). Paul suffered greatly in the fulfillment of that calling. He was opposed at every turn. In the flesh, it would have been very tempting to forsake the calling Christ had given him. It even eventually cost him his life. But at the end of it all, he was able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). He proved to be an outstandingly faithful servant of Christ.

When I think of this, I think of the parable that the Lord Jesus gave of the man who entrusted talents to three of his servants. All three of the servants were called “servants”. But one of them did nothing with what was given to him. He was “unfaithful”. He didn't follow-through. His master called him a “wicked and lazy servant”; and took away from him what he had (Matthew 25:26-28).

But the other two servants in the parable took what their master had given them; and they invested it and multiplied it. They were “faithful”. The lord in the parable praised them and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (vv. 21; 23). And that was the kind of servant Paul was—a faithful one who followed-through on what his Master had given him to do.

I believe that, as Paul reached the end of his days of service on earth, he fully expected to hear Jesus Christ say to him on that Day, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Paul was not just a servant of Christ, but he was a very faithful one! That makes him a great hero in the kingdom of Christ—one worth imitating!

* * * * * * * * * *

A third quality we see is that Paul was . . .


True heroes in the kingdom of Jesus Christ are those who do not care whether the people of this world approved of their values and commitments and works of service. The only thing that consumes them is whether or not Christ is pleased.

And that most certainly was the kind of man Paul was. He told the Corinthians,

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God (vv. 3-5).

The teachers that the Corinthians were looking up to were people who cared very deeply about what the world thought of them. They wanted to be thought of as “wise” and “respectful” and “cultured”. It mattered very greatly to them that they be judged favorably by men. But Paul's consuming concern was, “How will I be evaluated before the throne of my Lord? What will be the evaluation I will receive from my Master?” It might be that the world would evaluate him well; but then again, it might not. He might be looked upon by the world as a fool, or as a scoundrel, or as a heretic, or as a loser. And in fact, that's how the world DOES look upon Paul.

But none or it mattered to him. He wasn't motivated by the applause of this world. He was only motivated by hearing His Master say, “Well done!”—and if he had the approval of Christ, it absolutely did not matter whether or not he had the approval of the people of this world.

Now understand; this is not a matter of disrespecting people and being careless over how you live. We should be careful to live in such a way as we do not bring justifiable reproach upon ourselves, or in such a way as to bring shame to the name of our Lord. But it has been my observation that the people in the church who are the most concerned about what the world things of them are the people who will be the least effective in the work of the kingdom! Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 14:19).

Paul was a man who was very active in this world, but was not of this world. He had been given a commission by Christ to proclaim Him to this world; and it didn't matter to Paul whether or not the world approved of the message he was given to proclaim. Paul didn't seek the world's approval, but rather the approval of the one who sent Him. He didn't seek to hear the world's applause, but rather to hear the Savior's “Well done!”

This makes Paul a 'hero' by the standards of Christ's kingdom. We should imitate him.

* * * * * * * * * *

A fourth things we see is that Paul was . . .


In my opinion, Paul was the greatest Christian who ever lived. He was most certainly given to us to be a prime example of the Christian life. And God used him more than any other man to give us the Christian truth we possess in the New Testament. And yet, he didn't boast about himself. He didn't elevate himself. He recognized that it was all a gift of God's grace to him.

In this, he stood in stark contrast to the worldly “heroes” that the Corinthian believers were elevating. He did not seek to make a name for himself; but rather to fit in with God's call on his life. He told the Corinthians,

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against another. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (vv. 6-7).

In another place, he wrote,

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then, neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it (1 Corinthians 3:5-10a).

The people that this world admires are the people who make a name for themselves and chart their own course in life. But Paul did not seek to establish his own name in the kingdom of his Lord. He didn't seek to chart out his own course. Rather, as the life-long servant of another, he saw himself as a recipient of a calling. He didn't boast in anything but what had been given to him; and he sought to nothing else but the work entrusted to him, and according to the grace of God's unique calling for him.

Men and women who see themselves as the humble recipients of God's call on their lives, and who seek faithfully to please God by fulfilling that calling, are true heroes in the kingdom of Christ. As Paul says elsewhere, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). People who walk in this way are worthy of imitation!

* * * * * * * * * *

Fifthly, we see that Paul was willing to be . . .


It wasn't just that Paul didn't seek the applause of this world. He was even willing to be positively despised and scorned and laughed at by this world—if that's what Christ's call on his life required.

Because of their association with the thinkers and teachers that this world considered to be “wise” and “worthy”, the Corinthian believers had grown to think pretty highly of themselves. They thought that they were “in with the in-crowd”, so to speak. And so, speaking with a measure of sarcasm, Paul told them,

You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish that you did reign, that we also might reign with you! For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men (vv. 8-9).

To be “displayed” as “a spectacle” basically meant to be set forth for public view as if in a theater; and in Paul's day, this would have been a reference to the way criminals were thrust out into the public arenas to be abused and devoured by wild beasts. And that's how Paul said that he and the other apostles had become in the view of this world—mere criminals, condemned to death in the arena; good for nothing more than to be put on display in the theater as entertainment for wicked people. They were “as men condemned to death”; “made a spectacle to the world”—evoking the sympathy of the angels and the laughter of men.

But Paul did not hesitate to accept this, if this was Christ's call for him. He said—again with a bit of sarcasm,

We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscourging of all things until now” (vv. 10-13).

And in all of this, Paul and the other apostles stood in contrast to the 'great ones' of this world; for the 'great ones' would never have allowed themselves to be thought of in these ways. But one of the marks of a true hero in Christ's kingdom is a willingness to be despised by this world in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

Jesus once warned that “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant that he be like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25). Are you willing to be called the names that your Master, Jesus, was called? Are you willing to be thought of as a fool for Christ in the eyes of this world?

Paul was. And in this, he was a hero in the kingdom of Christ. We should imitate him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sixthly, we see that Paul very intentionally saw himself as . . .


He told the Corinthians,

I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children, I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel (vv. 14-15).

Paul insisted that he possessed a special relationship with the Corinthian believers. He had been the one who had brought them the gospel He was the one that had introduced them to Christ and led them to believe on him. He was the one who, in that sense, “fathered” them in the faith. And so, just as a good “father”, he sought to set the example to them of how to live for Christ;

Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church (vv. 16-17).

One of the great 'heroic' characteristics of Paul was the fact that he didn't shy away from scrutiny. He knew that his life was being watched by those to whom he ministered. The false teachers that the Corinthians were listening to sought to teach only by their words and their writings. But Paul taught, not only by his words, but also by his walk. He lived in such a way as to adorn the gospel that he preached; and could urge his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ to not only do as he said, but also to do as he did.

To deliberately, intentionally live in such a way as to be an example to others is a mark of heroism in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We should imitate Paul in being 'imitatable'!

* * * * * * * * * *

And finally, we see that Paul was . . .


In all of this, Paul sought to live—not by his own power—but in the power of Christ. He told the Corinthians, “Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you” (v. 18). To be “puffed up” was to be arrogant and defiant; and many within the Corinthian church were saying that Paul was all talk and no action. They were saying, “His letters . . . are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). But he warned that, what he was presenting himself to be in his letters, he would prove to be in actual presence. And this is because he wasn't acting in his own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit in him—working through love.

He told them,

But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? (vv. 19-21).

Paul had learned the great lesson that the Lord Jesus had taught; that Paul could accomplish nothing in his own power, but only through a moment-by-moment, step-by-step reliance upon the power of Christ Himself. Jesus said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).

The truly heroic men and women in the kingdom of Jesus Christ are not the ones who have done anything in their own power. Rather, it is those who have learned that they can do nothing; and that only through Christ working in them could they do anything. As Paul once said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). He said, that he labored, “striving according to His working which works in me mightily” (Colossians 1:29).

* * * * * * * * * *

So, here's Paul—a true hero in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. With respect to his Lord, he was a servant of Christ and His cause; and was a faithful steward of the things that Christ had entrusted to him. With respect to this world, he sought the approval of God rather than the applause of men, was a humble recipient of God's call on his life, and was willing to be considered a “fool” for Christ's sake. And with respect to his brothers and sisters in faith, he was careful be a good example of how to live for Christ, and was an exhibitor of Christ's power working through love.

May we follow the example of Paul—and imitate him as he sought to imitate Christ.

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