You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labours at it.  I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you.  For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.

1 Corinthians 16:15-18

I found David Prior’s commentary on these verses very challenging and helpful, and worth sharing (‘The Bible Speaks Today, The Message of  1 Corinthians, p. 283): “Stephanas’  extended family (the contemporary meaning of the word ‘household’, ie relatives and retainers included) had seen the priority in the Christian community of simply BEING AVAILABLE, with the gift of hospitality, to wait on the needs of the ‘saints’.  So they ‘devoted themselves’ (the word speaks of a dedicated and disciplined lifestyle) to serving others.  As these folk began to meet the needs of their fellow-Christians, people began to recognise in them the marks of true Christian leadership.  Paul felt able to urge the Corinthians to ‘be subject’ [‘submit’] to such people, ie to respect their leadership gifts.  This insight challenges our notions, but particularly our practice, of leadership.  We tend to give leadership to those who have received one particular kind of education, who have a measure of articulacy and general ability to think and speak on their feet, who measure up to worldly criteria of leadership.  Do we ever take with proper seriousness the perspective Paul provides on leadership as SERVICE?  Jesus taught the same truth: ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.’ (Matthew 20:26). This indicates that the authentic, solid leadership of a local church will come from people who give themselves to SERVING the saints.  Such leadership does not depend on education, qualifications, degrees, or natural charisma.  It comes from the grace of God equipping his people with gifts which enable them to be SERVANTS OF OTHERS in the fellowship of believers.  The whole family of Stephanas lived like that: as a family they served others – adults, teenagers and children; master of the house and domestic servants; the elderly and the very young. … … Children are very good at serving others; they often relish the opportunity and seize it without being solicited.  One of the most effective testimonies to the reality of the risen Christ is the servant-lifestyle of a Christian family.  Such resources for Christian ministry are present in every local church.  Every home, every person is a RESOURCE and therefore constitutes a RESPONSIBILITY for those resources to be used for the glory of God. … … Above all, [Paul] stressed the absolute priority of LOVE for everything they do as a church.  These words stand, therefore, as the nub of Paul’s instructions to a lively, divided, exuberant and precarious church.  They articulate accurately what lay close to Paul’s heart.” (EMPHASES ADDED)

As I read these comments, I thought about the burden of Mark Greene’s exhortation in “Fruitfulness on the Frontline” – about how we ALL have SOMETHING to offer wherever our own particular ‘frontline’ might be!

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

Luke 17:10

The point of Jesus’ parable of the servant coming in from the field (7-10) is quite sobering.  In it, the Lord of Creation, the Son of Man who will one day come in all his glory to reveal his Kingdom (20-37), is reminding us just who we ARE: SERVANTS of God.  This is NOT an easy truth for us to come to grips with.  We were made in the IMAGE and LIKENESS of God, but we are NOT God; and in the end we will ALL be accountable to the One who IS God for the way we have SERVED HIM.

The important point Jesus is making in all this is that we can never EARN any merit or credit before our Maker.  Even if I CAN manage to live the whole REMAINDER of my life in PERFECT obedience to all God’s commands (and so far my track record doesn’t give me much confidence of this) I have ‘ONLY DONE MY DUTY’ – and I am already carrying the ’baggage’ of 80 sin-filled years that I must account for!   To think that we could ever earn merit ABOVE what is required of us – or even that some special people we beatify as ‘saints‘ could do that FOR us, as in the very odious doctrine of supererogation – is an OFFENCE to a HOLY God.   As the next event recorded by Luke bears out (11-19), the only thing we can ever offer to God is DEEP GRATITUDE for HIS amazing, undeserved GRACE.  In that account, it is interesting that nine of the healed lepers (who presumably were Jews) LACKED such gratitude because they did not see themselves as being in NEED of such grace, while the Samaritan ‘foreigner’ did!

All this is a salutary warning to those of us who have benefitted over many years from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit: we are too prone, like the Jews, to take for granted our spiritual growth, and to think this growth is somehow OUR contribution TO God, rather than HIS gift to US.  I like the verse of the old hymn about the Holy Spirit’s work IN us: “And every virtue we possess and every victory won, and every thought of holiness, are HIS alone.” 

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.  Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.  On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

2 Corinthians 4:1-3

What great comfort and instruction these verses provide for us as we labour in the work of the Gospel.  Once we have experienced for ourselves the rich and comprehensive blessing of God’s saving grace, we have an overwhelming desire to share this blessing with others, especially those close to us and those who are really struggling with the burdens of our troubled world.

But this desire, and the labour/prayer it engenders, are frustrated by the difficulty we have in being EFFECTIVE and FRUITFUL in sharing the Good News of Jesus.  Our present culture has no understanding of sin and NO PLACE for the One True Creator God in its worldview!  It therefore thinks it has no NEED of a Saviour, and even if it did have some sense of hopelessness, it still has no framework in which to CRY OUT to the ONLY One who can help!

So the Apostle Paul reminds us of some very important truths to keep in mind as we struggle.

Firstly, our own salvation, and our taking hold of it, was never a result of OUR work/efforts, but is only ever brought about by God’s Sovereign MERCY!

Secondly, and because of this, we must never LOSE HEART – If God managed to soften MY proud, rebellious, self-centred, self-sufficient heart, he can do the same for anyone else as swell!

Thirdly, we must never resort to using the world’s tactics/weapons, or to ‘watering down’ the claims of the Gospel, just to ‘get people in’.  As he wrote to the Christians in Corinth: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4).

Fourthly, although it might be twisted and deadened by SIN, Man-made-in-the-image-of-God still HAS a CONSCIENCE that the Holy Spirit can use to convict of “sin and righteousness and Judgement” (John 16:8)!

Fifthly, it is NOT OUR job to CHANGE people – nor is it ever within our skill-set!  ONLY GOD can remove the ‘veil’ that prevents people from coming to repentance-and-faith and thus dissociating themselves from all those who are ’perishing’.  Our only job is to PROCLAIM the GOOD NEWS, FAITHFULLY, PERSISTENTLY and PRAYERFULLY, whenever and wherever we can, and then to leave the outcome in GOD’s hands (cf 1 Corinthians 3:6)!