I Corinthians 4:1
Today there are all kinds of famous people—Hollywood stars, professional
athletes, narcissistic politicians, even celebrity preachers overseeing multi-million dollar ministries. It appears that our world has lost sight of what Christ said in Mark 10:43, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.”
The Corinthian church was divided over their favorite minister (1 Corinthians 3), but Paul told them to regard him and his companions as servants. The word that Paul chose for “servants” communicated a picture of unquestionable humility and absolute servility. Corinth, one of the wealthiest cities in that day, sat astride the isthmus that connected mainland Greece (Macedonia) with the peninsula to the south (Achaia). The people of Corinth frequently saw the ship tramway moving vessels over land to the opposite shoreline. Like the Panama Canal today, it was always in use and saved many from days of travel in treacherous seas. One of the most common boats of the day was the galley slave ship with three banks of oars. The slaves that sat chained to those oars at the bottom of the boat were ‘huperetes’, or under rowers
The Greek word Paul uses to describe himself in 4:1 is not ‘doulos’ or ‘diakonos,’ but ‘huperetes.’ ‘Huperetes’ hardly means anything to us, but to the first century Corinthian, it was a loathsome term; it brought to mind a picture of an enslaved under rower chained to an oar in the belly of a galley ship.
We learn several things from this picture of a servant in 1 Corinthians 4:1. First, as we think about life at the bottom of the boat, we see that we are called to be ‘huperetes’ or an under rower in a boat! The life of an under rower was tough, busy, and permanent. Most slaves rowed all day every day until they died at the oar. Likewise, the Christian life isn’t easy, it’s full of responsibility and it is permanent!
Then we see that a slave rowed to the Captain’s beat. With 3 slaves per oar and up to 150 oars, coordination was critical. One oarsman could not be pulling while another was pushing and a third one resting! To avoid chaos and to help the rowers work together, a designated crew member would beat out a rhythmic tempo on a drum. The rowers would row in time to the beat. In the church, it isn’t easy to get people to work together for a common goal, but submission to Spirit, like the beat of the Captain’s drum, makes unity possible.
We also learn that a ‘huperetes’ had to trust the Captain. In the hull of the boat, he had no idea where he was or where he was going. We don’t want to follow the analogy too closely but an under rower could only trust the Captain and the beat. A more rapid beat could signify an enemy attack, an approaching storm or a hurried schedule. The slave could not question the beat, only obey it. He had no rights. Christianity does not require blind loyalty, but we should not expect God to give us an explanation for every trial we experience or an answer for every question we have. He is the Captain and we are the under rowers.
Finally, an under rower was committed to an invisible life. Only the captain was visible to the outside world. It was a tough environment in the bottom of the boat: dark, damp, hard benches, aching backs, no sunshine or fresh air, no time off, leg irons, and no doubt repeated illnesses and a shortened life. Thousands of slaves gave their strength and life to keep the ship moving but they were never seen or rewarded. If they were seen it meant they weren’t doing their job!
Just by using the word ‘huperetes,’ Paul painted a picture that was horribly vivid to his first century readers. In many ways, it was a self-portrait. Paul was submissive to His Lord, like an under rower to his captain. He was sensitive to those around him and worked in harmony with others like one of many galley slaves. He was dedicated to his task until he died for Christ. He was humble—living, praying, preaching and working for his Captain’s glory, not his own.
Like the ‘huperetes,’ we belong to someone else. “You are not your own…for you were bought at a price” (I Corinthians 6:19-20). We are not held captive by iron chains but with the bonds of love “For the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Are you a faithful under rower for Christ?