The Under Rowers
Preparing to teach the Gospel of Luke this month (January, 2006), I was reminded of the marvelous way Luke opens his gospel, attesting to the historically accurate eye-witness accounts he had thoroughly researched in compiling his gospel:
"Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed." (Luke 1:1-4 NKJV)
Since the Greek of these four verses is said to be the very best in the New Testament I dug out my lexicons right away. Immediately I was struck by the fact that Luke uses an unusual word for "ministers." Ray Stedman once said that since Luke was evidently a medical doctor, the Greek word here translated "ministers" could well be translated "physician's assistants."
It has been probably two decades since I have anyone mention the Greek word huperetes. It is a truly great word for us Christians--because all of us are called to carry on "the work of the ministry" together. Huperetes (from hupo, under, and eretes, a rower) came to mean any subordinate acting under another's direction. But the literal meaning of the word is quite instructive. I could not help but feel that a whole new generation of Christians needs to be fully informed of our calling to be under rowers in the service of our Captain Jesus. In a wonderful classic series of messages on expository teaching Ray Stedman remarked,
"I want to go back to the passage, which as I said has been to me a great guideline on the ministry. In the 4th chapter of 1 Corinthians the apostle is describing his own ministry. Now you could hardly ask for a better model of a preacher and teacher than the apostle Paul. The impact of that remarkable ministry is with us yet today. This is the man who in the providence of God and in the grace of God has changed history in every generation since he lived. And he did it by the power of the message that he spoke. This is that secret and hidden wisdom of God, which contains within it the lost secrets of our humanity. These truths when known by and practiced by men and women will bring them out of their brokenness and fragmentation and hurt and emptiness, into wholeness of life, and fulfill or produce the intended glory of humanity. Now I believe that with all my heart. I believe this is the business of the church -- to instruct the minds of the people, first of all by the preaching and teaching of the word as to what these secrets are -- God's view of life -- because God's view is reality. And when you begin live Biblically, you may for the first time begin to deal with life realistically. It is the world that is confused and following pipe dreams and illusions, and not even knowing their illusions. And it is the business of the preacher to so understand the scriptures under the illumination of the Holy Spirit and by diligent effort in his own study to be able to impart to the people the truths that will dispel the illusions and produce fruitful humanity.
This is a confused age in which we live, you know that. Somebody has well said, "If you're not confused today, then you're not thinking clearly." And how do you get people to thinking clearly? Well, by getting them to think like God thinks! He is the ultimate realist; he never deceives himself or anyone else. He always deals absolutely realistically with everything. That's why therefore the business of preaching is such an important calling -- because it is correcting all the confusion and the illusion around about us.
Now we [previously] looked in the passage at two words the apostle uses to describe the ministry: servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. And in our first study we tried to explore what is meant by a steward of the mysteries of God. I've just briefly reviewed what we said along that line. Now I'd like to turn to the first of the words which I will handle secondly in order, as the apostle himself does in this passage: servants of Christ. If the steward, and what the apostle says about that is discussing the responsibility of a preacher or teacher, then the word "servant" which he employs is discussing the accountability of a preacher or teacher: whom does he answer to? Who is responsible for him?
Now as many of you know I'm sure, the word that is employed here is a rather infrequently used word, it is not doulos (or douloi in the plural), a bondslave, but it is the word huperetes, the under-rower. It derives its meaning from the military life of the Roman empire, notably the warships, the war galleys of the Romans, which as we're told in that ancient world had a low deck just a foot or so above the water, and there were the seats of the rowers, the slaves, who were for the most part chained to their seats. They were impressed into servitude, many of them educated people, captives who had been taken by the Roman armies. If you've seen the picture -- isn't it The Robe? -- you have a vivid description of Ben Hur who served as such an oarsman. And then in a slightly raised deck at the prow of the ship where every rower could see him was the director, or the captain. And it was he who gave orders to the rowers. And they had to instantly obey his orders because this was a warship. They couldn't depend on the winds to maneuver the ship in battle -- they were too uncertain, they didn't blow in the right direction, it took too long to change the sails -- and so in battle they used the oarsmen. And the ship had to stop suddenly, back up even, turn to the right or left, and be very maneuverable. And therefore the duty of the oarsmen was to instantly obey the word of the captain.
Now that is the word that describes a servant of Christ, a preacher or teacher of the word of God. He is to take his orders from the captain, who of course is clearly stated to be Christ, the Lord Jesus himself. He tells us what we are to say. We are not to get it from Time magazine, although we can use that as illustrative material, we are not to get it from any other source, especially we are not to take it from the secular convictions around us, because they are the very thing we are warned against, the wisdom of the world. Human knowledge, as we saw before, is perfectly acceptable to the believer, and we are encouraged to explore every dimension and every channel of human thought these days, and use it as we will. But how is it put to practical work?
That is where wisdom comes in, and human wisdom does not lead men to God. In fact, it leads him to make, as we have ample demonstration on every side today, the most atrocious blunders that result in human misery and degradation and dehumanization and the glutting of our city streets and the polluting of our atmosphere and our rivers and all these things, and the failure to properly distribute food throughout the earth -- that's all the result of human wisdom. And everywhere the word of God challenges the wisdom of the world. It is the business of preaching, you see, to set forth the wisdom of God.
Now, we are to keep our eyes, therefore, upon the captain. And the figure which is employed here is particularly emphasizing the singleness of purpose of a preacher, the one from whom alone he takes his orders. And the apostle now goes on to develop this in the passage that follows. He is writing to these Corinthians who, like everyone else, were anxious to tell him how he should conduct his ministry. When you are dealing with the accountability of a preacher, every one of us has discovered that there are hundreds of volunteers who offer themselves in this capacity. And we have to be aware of that fact, and the apostle even suffered from this phenomenon. And he writes to them these rather startling words: "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you." I imagine that was a very popular verse in Corinth. I imagine that they printed it on little cards and put it up on their refrigerator to remember. Memorize. It is a very small thing, said the apostle, that I should ever be judged by you. No, they must have felt very offended when he wrote this. But he wrote it nevertheless. "Or by any human court." Literally, it is "by man's day." I do not even judge myself, he says. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. And then every man will receive his commendation from God."
Commenting further on 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 on another occasion, Ray wrote,
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy [or faithful]. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2 RSV)
That verse describes the responsibilities of ministers. In Verses 3 through 5 Paul is going to give us the proper evaluation of ministers, and in Verses 6 and 7 the freedom which they are to exercise when the congregation sees them in the proper light. (I give you those divisions so that if you drowse off while I am preaching you will know where to pick it up.) When I use the term "minister of Christ," I am not speaking of the traditional concept of a full-time employee of a church who is kept around to do the preaching, the teaching, the counseling and to run the mimeograph machine. Unfortunately that is a widespread concept of what the pastor ought to be and I run into it in many places. This concept, of course, is totally unknown in the New Testament. The idea of having a single pastor, the pastor, is an unbiblical imposition that has come into the church within the past 250 years. A minister of Christ in the New Testament churches was anyone, anyone, who by virtue of a gift of the Spirit was a preacher or a teacher of the Word of God. That is what Paul is talking about here.
There is a sense in which we are all ministers of Christ. Every Christian is in the ministry -- I have said that many times. But there is a special sense -- Paul is dealing with it here -- of those who have the gift of teaching or preaching ("prophesying" as it is called in Scripture), and their function within the body of Christ. There are dozens of ministers like that in every church. In fact, here at PBC, since we have stressed some of these things for a long time, there are probably scores, if not hundreds, of people who fulfill the qualifications and the characterization of ministers of Christ as Paul is speaking of them in this particular passage. Well, how are we to look at people like that, and what are we to think about them? Paul deals with this first. Who are these people? Should we call them bishops? Are they wardens, as the Episcopalians call them? Are they doctors, rabbis, popes or even senior pastors? Well, you do not find those titles in the Scriptures. (Bishops are referred to, but not in the usual sense that we think of them today. Bishops were not in oversight over more than one church. They were the equivalent of elders and overseers.) The word the apostle uses here is a very remarkable one. He says, "We want you to look at us as servants of Christ." The word for servant is the Greek word huperetes, which literally means "an under-rower."
Now everyone in Corinth understood what that word meant. Corinth was where the war galleys of the Roman Empire crossed through the isthmus that separated the Ionian Sea from the Aegean Sea, and the Corinthians knew that the lowest deck of a war galley was made of single rows of benches on both sides of the ship where the rowers sat. Then on a little deck raised up above them all, so that each rower could see him, was the captain of the ship. It was the rowers' task to row according to what he said. If he wanted the ship to move then they were to row; if he wanted them to stop they had to stop instantly. Their whole business was to obey his orders. Now, that is the word that Paul chooses to describe those who are teachers, preachers and ministers of the Word of God within the congregation of the Church. They are "under-rowers" of Christ.
This is a word that is used in other places in Scripture also. When our Lord stood before Pontius Pilate and Pilate asked him if he were a king, Jesus said, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants (huperetes) would fight," John 18:36 RSV). That is, "If my kingdom were an earthly kingdom and I told my servants to fight that is what they would do. They would obey what I said." This word is used again in the account of Paul and Barnabas as they go out on the first missionary journey. Luke tells us that they took with them a young man named John Mark to be their "minister" (huperetes). Did that mean that he was to be in charge of the devotions every morning? No, it meant that he was the one who got the airline tickets, checked their baggage, and made hotel reservations, ran the errands, and did what they told him.
Paul says, "That is what we want you to think about us. We are not big shots, we are not among you as domineering leaders with the last word to utter. We are servants of Christ, under-rowers with our eyes fixed on him." What he tells us to say that is what we are to say, and what he tells us not to do that is where our limits are. That is what we want you to think about us as you see us ministering among you.
From this flows what I think is a biblical independence of ministers of Christ, using that term in its widest sense. They are not to be servants of the Board, for the members of the Board themselves, the elders, are joint ministers of Christ with them. Ministers are not to be servants of the congregation, and least of all the denomination. They are servants of Christ. Paul says in Galatians, Chapter 1, "If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ," (Galatians 1:10 RSV). There he draws a sharp contrast. They are not to be paying heed to what the congregation, or any one group within the congregation, wants to hear, but they are to say what the Lord tells them to say. That is what the servant of Christ, the under-rower of Christ, must do. I tell you I have never valued anything more in my whole life than the fact that I belong with that crowd. I see myself as an huperetes, an under-rower, of Christ, and it is my responsibility to say and do what he says and tells me to do. (http://raystedman.org/1corinthians/3581.html)
We are now living a quarter-century later in history since Ray called his congregation to be faithful under rowers of Christ. If the church is like a galley (or even a barge) the only possible way or going anywhere is for every rower to listen to and obey the rowing captain.
Today I know many fine Christians who truly want to serve God. Perhaps we have all fallen victim to the rugged individualism which dominates our secular culture? There is not much interest in "rowing together" as far as I can detect. What I miss is the team spirit of pulling together with vision from God and a clear sense of a very high calling. These motivations were much more common among Christians a few decades ago. No matter how diligently we may be rowing for Christ as individuals if we are not all marching to the clear beat of our Captain's drum, we row in vain.
The word doulos also seems to have lost its meaning for many Christians in the past few decades. Under rowers are also slaves. Romans Chapter 6 reminds me that if I choose not to be a bond-slave of Jesus I will automatically default to being a slave to sin.
"Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:16-23)
Our Lord knows how to steer his ship and how to revive his languishing church. My prayer for 2006 is that God would move all of us into serious obedience, willing self-sacrifice, a clear renunciation of the world, and a regular reminder, "You are not you own, you are bought with a price. therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Corinthians 6:20)
Praying for Servant-Hearted Children, by John Barnett. (A study of huperetes), http://www.discoverthebook.org/message_detail.asp?fileid=452
Ancient Ships: Roman Galleons: http://www.artsales.com/Ancient Ships/mRomanGalleons.htm
Ray C. Stedman's newly completed independent web site, http://raystedman.org/, features all of Ray's books, a weekly Podcast, and more than 800 sermons in printed and audio formats.
News: I appreciate the privilege and opportunity given me to teach through Luke's gospel in the Forum Class at my home church, PBC of Palo Alto, starting Sunday, January 8. As usual I'll put notes and mp3 files on my web site. See http://ldolphin.org/luke/
January 1, 2006.