You know that the household of Stephanas were the first-fruits in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors 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. So recognise such people. (1 Corinthians 16:15-18)
In these four verses about Stephanas and his colleagues, Paul gives us some insights into how he viewed their Christian service. Here are seven lessons about Christian service that can be gleaned from this passage.
1. Appointment to Ministry?
In 1 Corinthians 16:15 we read that Stephanas and his household had devoted themselves to service, or ministry. The Greek word translated as “devoted” can also mean “appointed”. It is probable that no one appointed Stephanas for ministry, but that he took it upon himself to be a minister to God’s people—he “appointed” himself. Stephanas saw a need, and probably felt a “calling” or compulsion, and simply started ministering.
Lesson 1: We do not need to wait for someone to choose us, or appoint us, for ministry. There are so many needs in the Christian community and in the world. We should simply start ministering where we see a need and an opportunity, and where we have the appropriate ability and spiritual gifting.
2. Ministry that Refreshes the Spirit
The apostle Paul was one of the people Stephanas ministered to. Stephanas and his colleagues travelled from Corinth to Ephesus to visit Paul and serve him in his mission. Paul was missing the Corinthian Christians, but the presence of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus from Corinth made up for this. Paul expresses this in an idiomatic way in his letter; he says that “they have supplied what was lacking from you [the Corinthian church]” (1 Cor 16:17).
The visit of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus had refreshed Paul’s spirit in the same way as their ministry had refreshed the spirits of the Christians back at Corinth. Paul wrote elsewhere about ministry that refreshes the spirit (Rom. 15:32; 2 Cor. 7:13; 2 Tim. 1:16; Phlm. 1:7, 20; cf. Matt. 11:28-30; Acts 3:19).
Lesson 2: “Refreshing the spirit” should be one of our main goals of ministry. One of the best ways we can do this is by visiting and spending time with people. (I would love to have a ministry that is described as “refreshing the spirit”. Wouldn’t you?)
3. Ministry is Service
The Greek word for “ministry” is diakonia. This word is used in verse 15. Diakonia may be translated as either “service” or “ministry” as the meaning of these words is identical—Christian ministry is service, Christian service is ministry. And we do this as agents of Jesus Christ.
The use of diakonia in Acts 6:1-6, for example, illustrates a range of service. Diakonia is used for the practical ministry of distributing funds to the widows (Acts 6:1) and for the more spiritual ministry of teaching the Word (Acts 6:4). We do not know exactly what ministries Stephanas and his household were involved in. They may have been involved in a range of services to the saints.
Every kind of Christian ministry—including being a leader of a congregation—requires being a servant, and even a slave. Jesus taught about this in Matthew 20:26-28:
“ . . . whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slaves—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Lesson 3: We need to prayerfully meditate on Jesus’ example of ministry. Most of us still have a long way to go before we truly recognise and live out the kind of servitude needed for ministry that pleases Jesus and truly emulates his example of love, sacrifice, and service.
4. Tassō and Hupotassō
Stephanas and his household—which would have included both men and women, and both free and slaves—had ordered or arranged (tassō) their lives, so that they could be devoted to ministering to God’s people. Paul writes that the Corinthians should submit (hupotassō) to people like these and to everyone who shares in the work, i.e. “coworkers.” Perhaps there is a play on words with tassō and hupotassō in this passage.
The word “submit” is used numerous times in the New Testament, in many contexts. Submission, that is, deference, cooperation, loyalty, humility and respect, should be in all our relationships with believers.
In commenting on 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 Gordon D. Fee wrote:
The verb “submit” is used only here in the NT to refer to the relationship of a Christian community to those who labor among them. Although this could possibly mean to be in submission to them in some form of obedience, both the context and the similar passage in 1 Thess. 5:12-13 suggest rather that it means “Submission in the sense of a voluntary yielding in love” (BDAG) much the same as in Eph. 5:21, where all are urged to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Lesson 4: Just as Stephanas and his household had voluntarily devoted or appointed (tassō) themselves to serving God’s people, God’s people should voluntarily submit (hupotassō) themselves to (i.e. cooperate with) people such as Stephanas.
5. Join In
Part of being submissive to people in Christian service is being cooperative. We should join in and help where possible. Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus had voluntarily come to Ephesus to join Paul, and support his missionary work. This is like us today “finding the Mother Theresas of this world and joining them in servanthood.”
Paul seems to have always ministered with people by his side, people who helped him while he, in turn, encouraged them. Even though Paul was an apostle and a leader he saw his ministry as collaborative (2 Cor. 1:24 cf. 1 Pet. 5:3).
Lesson 5: We need to be helping and supporting other ministers and ministries. Is there a ministry that you can join and help out? Or, how can you encourage people to join in and help with what you are doing? If we are ministering alone, are we doing something wrong?
6. Ministry Offices and Titles?
Paul does not mention any ministry office, title, or position in these few verses, yet there is no doubt that Stephanas was a leader in the Corinthian church. He was possibly a leader of one of the house churches. Instead of a title, Paul uses a participle of sunergos in 16:16 in reference to the gospel ministry of Stephanas. This participle is translated as “joins in the work” in the NIV. Paul uses the noun sunergos (“co-worker”) several times in his letters for his ministry colleagues. In fact, “co-worker” was one of Paul’s favourite terms for those who were involved in significant gospel ministry.
Some men and women who were Paul’s co-workers included: Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:6); Urbanus (Rom. 16:9); Timothy (Rom. 16:21); Titus (2 Cor. 8:23); Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Phil. 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus (Col. 4:10-11); Philemon (Philem. 1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Philem. 24). Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus could be added to this list (1 Cor. 16:16).
Lesson 6: The jargon and traditions of church life can get in the way of authentic ministry. We do not need titles or official appointments to be genuine ministers of the gospel, in service to Jesus Christ, his Church and others.
7. Acknowledge Ministers and Ministries
In verse 16 Paul uses the word “labour” (verb: kopiaō; noun: kopos) in the context of ministry. He uses this word to describe his own ministry work (1 Cor. 3:8; 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col 1:29; 1 Thess. 3:5) and the ministry work of others (Rom. 16:6, 12). Paul also uses the word clearly in reference to leadership ministries (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17).
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a Paul wrote about ministers who work hard:
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard (kopiaō) among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.
Paul is clear that people like Stephanas, who are working hard in ministry, should be given recognition and held in high regard (1 Cor. 16:18b).
Lesson 7: We should be acknowledging those who are serving in our congregations and communities, not just the people with titles and positions, but all those who are refreshing the spirits of others. How can you acknowledge people you know who are involved in Christian service?
Furthermore, we should be looking out for people in our churches, all sorts of people, who may have ministry gifts and callings. We should be supporting and encouraging them in service, and giving them opportunities to grow as ministers.
There are so many tired and hurting souls that need refreshing with simple acts of kindness, with companionship, or with deeper spiritual training. We need more people who will devote themselves to this service, people who will ignore obstacles (including the obstacles of inadequate and stifling church jargon and traditions) and who will work hard for the kingdom, people like Stephanas.
 Etaxan is the third person plural aorist active indicative of tassō which means arrange, set, appoint, or devote, etc.
 It is likely that Fortunatus and Achaicus were slaves of Stephanas, his sons, or freedmen that worked for him. There is also a possibility, however, that Fortunatus and Archaicus were those who had been sent by Chloe with a report for Paul (1 Cor 1:11). Chloe appears to have been the mistress of her own household, as Stephanas was the master of his own household (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15). Chloe may have also been a house church leader and minister in Corinth like Stephanas. (More on Chloe here.)
 A similar expression is used by Paul in Philippians 2:30. Leon Morris writes that the sense of this phrase can be expressed as “my lack of you”. Paul was missing (lacking) the Corinthian Christians. Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 240.
William Barclay suggests that what Paul was missing was news from Corinth. If so, the three men supplied Paul’s lack by bringing him “first hand information which filled in the gaps in his knowledge of what was happening in Corinth.” William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (The Daily Study Bible) (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1975, 1984), 166.
 The infinitive of diakonia is also used in Acts 6:2: “. . . to serve at tables.” (These tables (trapezai) were probably banking tables where funds, and not hot meals, were distributed. More in this here.)
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 830.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 491.
 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 829.
 “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Phoebe and Apphia], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).” E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Editors: Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 183.
 Paul occasionally used the word in the context of ordinary manual labour (1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8).
A Note on Firstfruits
In the Old Testament, firstfruits was an offering made to God of the first and best animal of a flock, or the first harvested sheaf of a crop, the first basket of fruit or nuts, or the first portion of products such as wine, oil, honey, or fleeces. (Some information about the specifics of these offerings is here.)
The concept of firstfruits derives from God’s creation work. Because God created everything that exists, all of creation belongs to him (Psalm 24:1). Consequently, that which is first and best belongs to him and is to be given to him.
Harold Mare, “Firstfruits”, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Walter A. Elwell (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996) (Source)
In the New Testament, the term firstfruits (ἀπαρχή) occurs eight times. It is used metaphorically in a variety of contexts, but it retains a resonance with Old Testament usage, that of a sacred first portion.
~ It is used of Jesus as the first to have been raised from death (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). “As such, he is the guarantee that all those who belong to him will be raised from the dead at his second coming.”*
~ It is used of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us as a deposit while we wait for the culmination of our salvation: “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23; cf. 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14).
~ It is used of the first believers—birthed by God and his word of truth—who were the first to be part of God’s New Creation (Jas 1:18).
~ It is used of the patriarchs, the first fathers of Israel (Rom. 11:16; cf. Jer. 2:3).
~ Paul used it for Epaenetus (Rom. 16:4b-5) and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15) who were Paul’s first converts in Asia Minor and Achaia respectively.
~ It is used of the 144000 consecrated virgins mentioned in the Revelation (Rev. 14:4).
Harold Mare further explains: “In the natural world, the first sheaf of the crop was to be brought to God (Lev. 23:10-11; 23:17 ) as a guarantee that the rest of the harvest was coming. So it is in God’s redemption harvest. First, Christ the ‘firstfruits’ has triumphed in his resurrection; then, the rest of his ‘crop’, the redeemed, will be raised triumphantly at his second coming (1 Cor. 15:23).” (Source)
Image credit: Towel and Basin © sterlsev (iStockphoto 5713845)
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