This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 1 Corinthians 4:1
Paul, Apollos and the other leaders were just servants of Christ. The apostle does not use the normal word of diakonos for “servant” but rather, the word hupēretēs. This has the meaning of “under-rower.” 1 Quite a number of commentators feel this is a reference to those who rowed the large Roman galleys. 2 There are probably some pastors and Christian leaders today who feel that they have been pressed into the role of galley slaves.
The apostles, servants or stewards of the church are also entrusted with God’s mysteries. The word used here for steward is oikonomous. In the ancient world it was customary for wealthy families to have such a steward, who was responsible for everything pertaining to the management of the estate. Often this person was a slave, but a very gifted and responsible slave to be sure. Barclay says of him, “…He was in charge of the whole administration of the house or the estate; he controlled the staff; he issued the supplies; but, however much he controlled the household staff, he himself was still a slave where the master was concerned.” 3 As we remember, Joseph, in Genesis 39:2-19, was in such a position to Potiphar down in Egypt.
Paul speaks of stewards as being entrusted with God’s mysteries. Certainly, Paul shared many deep mysteries with the early church. Perhaps the deepest was the mystery of the church found in Ephesians 3:6. The church father, Origen, says: “There is a big difference between being a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. Anyone who has read the Bible can be a servant of Christ, but to be a steward of the mysteries one must plumb their depths.” 4
“Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (4:2). Keener says about this: “Because stewards were trusted to handle their master’s finances, purchasing slaves and goods and making wise investments, it was most important that they be ‘trustworthy’ or ‘faithful.’” 5 There were always opportunities for stewards to take advantage of their masters for their own personal gain, as in the case of the unfaithful steward or manager in Luke 16:1-9. If it is important for stewards to be faithful in the natural things of this world, then how much more is it important for God’s stewards to be faithful in the things of the gospel (Lk.12:42-44).
“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” (4:3). It was precisely because Paul was a steward of God that he cared so little about the judgment of himself by others. After all, a steward only had to please one person, his master. So it is today. If our master is happy with us it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Someone has said, “Jesus is a lot easier to please than his disciples.” This is probably the case. We should therefore find out what pleases the Lord and concentrate on doing that thing with all our heart and might (Eph. 5:10).
People don’t have much business judging others anyway. We have not walked in their shoes and we know so little about their individual situations that it is folly for us to judge. Pfeiffer and Harrison make this very plain saying, “There was to be no pre-judgment seat judgment!” 6 We have all got enough things that could bring judgment upon us that we hardly need to be concerned about judging others.
It should also be noted that the voice of the people is quite often wrong. The people of Israel once cried out for Aaron to make them gods to worship (Acts. 7:40). On another occasion we see that the people were quite prepared to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:11-13). 7 Often what is highly esteemed by people is an abomination in the sight of God (Lk. 16:15).
The apostle adds that he doesn’t even dare to judge himself. Calvin says that the meaning of this is: “I do not venture to judge myself, though I know myself best; how then will you judge me, to whom I am less intimately known?” 8
“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (4:4). God has given each of us a conscience to guide us on this earth. This is true for the righteous and the unrighteous as well. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.” 9 Our conscience is much like a compass that always points north. However, it is possible for one to mess with his or her conscience. We may have a very accurate compass but if there is a magnetic interference, that compass will likely give us an erroneous reading. Paul felt he was right but he desired to give God the judgment of his life.
Trapp comments: “Paul a chosen vessel, but yet an earthen vessel, knew well that he had his cracks and his flaws, which God could easily find out.” 10 The Bible says in Proverbs 21:2, “A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart.”
The apostle advises: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (4:5). Long ago Ambrosiaster said: “God will judge in his own good time. A judge is insulted if a servant presumes to pronounce a verdict before the judge makes the decision known.” 11 Clearly, the appointed time is the Day of Judgment, which is still future and will come at the end of this age. On that day all secrets will be made known, even the deepest secrets of the heart.
Until that time comes we must not be in the judging business (Lk. 6:37). We can however pray that God will even now reveal the hidden things of darkness. My wife prays this way all the time and she seems to be getting results as scandal after scandal is coming to light, especially in the US. I kid her a little and say that some of those newly accused people should want to pay her off just to quit praying.
NOT GOING BEYOND WHAT IS WRITTEN
Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 1 Corinthians 4:6
Paul is including himself and Apollos as he gently instructs the Corinthians. Barclay comments concerning this: “Paul had a wonderfully courteous way of including himself in his own warnings and his own condemnations. The true preacher seldom uses the word you and always uses the word we; he does not speak down to men; he speaks as one who sits where they sit and who is a man of like passions with them…” 12
The word for “applied” in the Greek is meteschēmatisa, and it has provoked a good deal of discussion among commentators. The Greek scholar Marvin Vincent notes how this is made up of two words, meta (exchange) and schema (outward fashion). 13 Utley says “The basic idea is to transfer a set of circumstances from one group to another group. Paul is using himself and Apollos as examples for all leaders.” 14
We are immediately presented with another brain twister in the expression, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Grosheide feels that this was a well-known proverb among the Corinthians. 15 Smith thinks that this difficult expression, huper ha gegraptai, should read, “not beyond what is written,”16 an obvious reference to Scripture. Simply, we should not go beyond what is written in the Bible.
The overall message is that the Corinthians should not be puffed up, boast, or take pride one over the other. Glynn says: “…after philosophy, or intelligence, pride was the core virtue of the classical philosophical outlook, the ‘crown of the virtues.’…In the classical understanding, the strong, the beautiful, the intelligent, the rich were not just better off, but morally better than the weak, the poor, the meek, the downtrodden.” 17 Paul wishes to make clear that such an outlook will not work in Christianity. It is an upside-down religion. To live, one must die, to be honored, one must be abased.
“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (4:7). Wiersbe remarks that the best commentary on this verse is the witness of John the Baptist, found in John 3:27, 30. He said, “…A person can receive only what is given them from heaven… He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less.” 18
A LITTLE SATIRE
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 1 Corinthians 4:8
Here Paul cannot resist using a little satire, sarcasm and irony. The Corinthians were puffed up with pride and the apostle was determined to let some of the hot air out of their balloons. Guzik says, “…they were proud of their own spirituality, and they were somewhat embarrassed of Paul because of his ‘weakness’ and humble state.” 19 They thought they were rich but Paul knew they were poor, perhaps even like the poor church in Revelation 3:17. They thought they were reigning in life with Christ (Rom. 5:17), but Paul knew that there were many things ruling over them, perhaps chiefly their pride. Had they been really rich in spiritual treasures; had they really begun to reign with Christ, Paul and the other leaders would have gladly joined with them.
In recent decades, theologians have spoken a great deal about “realized eschatology,” which means that we can enjoy some eternal things while we live on this earth. Smith comments here that the Corinthians were suffering from what might be called “overrealized eschatology,” an idea that all the end-time blessings are being fully experienced while on this earth. 20 It appears that the apostle is trying to instill a more realistic theology, or what some today might call “the already but not yet” approach. Because of the Holy Spirit within us we already have many benefits of the age to come, but we do not yet have them all. For instance, we do not yet have the resurrection of
the dead. 21
“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings” (4:9). When the Lord called Paul he made it clear that he would have to endure much suffering for the sake of the name (Acts 9:16). Indeed, it came to pass and Paul suffered horribly for Jesus sake. Perhaps few men on earth ever suffered the repeated indignities that Paul suffered.
The apostle uses a very common Roman symbol in describing his position of suffering. That symbol is perhaps made up of two things. First, it is undoubtedly a picture of the Roman triumphal march into the city. When Rome’s victorious armies returned to the capital they brought with them certain treasures of their triumph. But at the end of their marching column, there were the condemned prisoners over whom they had triumphed. 22 This was Rome’s way of assuring that victories were really legitimate.
Paul pictures himself and the other apostles as the condemned captives at the end of the march. Such folks were doomed to death. They were usually taken to the coliseum where they became gladiators or else were fed to the lions to satiate the lusts of the crowds. On their way to certain death they were to salute the Emperor and cry out, “Morituri te salutamus,” (“We who are about to die salute you”). 23 Paul was picturing himself and the other apostles as participants in this dreadful scene.
Paul claims that he and the other apostles have become a spectacle to both angels and men. The word for spectacle is theatron, from which we get our word “theater.” We can understand how they would become a spectacle to men, but how can they become a spectacle to angels? We see in 1 Peter 1:12, that even angels long to look into the things of our salvation. Indeed, they are created to be ministering spirits in regard to this salvation (Heb. 1:14). Paul speaks of the angels watching the activities of the assemblies (1 Cor. 11:10). They are watching and perhaps learning of God’s great grace to humankind. Perhaps they are marveling as they watch humans participate in sufferings like those of Christ. Ambrose (fourth century) once remarked:” Paul was worthy to be watched by angels as he strove to win the prize of Christ…” 24
“We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (4:10). Coffman sums up the absurdity of the Corinthians’ position saying:
He had rescued them from the temples of vice and debauchery, preached to them the unsearchable riches of Christ, nurtured them in their weakness and immaturity as Christians, and suffered and toiled among them, even working in order to eat bread; and now, at the first visible signs of material prosperity among them, they openly despised their teacher, heaped unto themselves popular, shallow leaders after their own lusts, and were indulging the most amazing boastfulness and conceit. It was truly a disgusting development; and Paul’s words here exposed the moral ugliness of their behavior. 25
Paul was a fool for Christ’s sake. He was weak and dishonored for Christ. The Corinthians were supposedly wise and strong. Obviously, there were some valuable but painful lessons still for them to learn. They would have to learn to take up the cross of Christ and suffer for him as the apostles had done. They would have to learn to be nothing that Christ could be everything in their lives. We almost feel sorry for the Corinthians at this point.
Clarke hastens to clarify the apostle’s real condition. He comments: “Surely all these expressions are meant ironically; the apostles were neither fools, nor weak, nor contemptible; nor were the Corinthians, morally speaking, wise, and strong, and honorable.” 26
THE HARD ROAD OF APOSTLESHIP
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 1 Corinthians 4:11
This section must be a difficult one for those Christians who hold to the Prosperity Doctrine. These believe that every Christian has the right to be healthy and prosperous. If they are not so, it is their own fault, and they simply do not have a strong enough faith. Paul’s faith was pretty strong, yet by his own admission he went around hungry, thirsty, in rags, treated poorly and homeless. This reminds us a lot of Jesus who lived from a common purse with his disciples. To make matters worse one disciple even stole from that purse (Jn. 12:6). Jesus also didn’t have a place to call home (Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58). Comfort says of them: “Far from being honored for their preaching and fawned over as kings, they faced severe suffering.” 27
The apostle speaks of his many troubles in other passages (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10; 11:23-30). All these things sound very similar to what saints of old have always endured for the sake of the faith (e.g. Heb. 11:34-38). Paul recounts many things in these Corinthian passages. He had been hard pressed, persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, endured sleepless nights, lashed five times, beaten with rods, and stoned. He had suffered danger from rivers, bandits, fellow Jews, from Gentiles and from false believers.
“We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world— right up to this moment” (4:12-13). Clearly Paul and others worked with their hands in manual labor. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3), and the Greeks looked down on this and all other manual labor. They considered such things to be the work of slaves. 28 Keener says, “well-to-do people in the church would be embarrassed to invite friends of their own social circle to hear the teachings of Paul, who worked as an artisan (skilled laborer).” 29
It is interesting that the apostle did not get a bad attitude regarding his work or regarding all the trials and tribulations which he had suffered. Rather, he reflected the attitude and teachings of Jesus (Matt. 5:10-12; 1 Pet. 2:23). When cursed, he blessed; when persecuted he endured it; when slandered he gave a kind answer. By living in such a way he took the wind out of Satan’s sails. Instead of multiplying evil on earth, he absorbed it and caused it to decrease.
The world was not worthy of Paul, yet it considered Paul not worthy of it. There are two repulsive Greek words used here in verse 13 by the apostle. The first is perikatharma, and according to Barnes it means, “…filth, or that which is collected by sweeping a house, or that which is collected and cast away by purifying or cleansing anything; hence, any vile, worthless, and contemptible object.” 30 The other word is very similar. It is peripsēma, and it means the offscouring of a vessel being cleaned.31
Godbey sums up the apostles’ situation saying: “We see here Paul and his comrades ranked in popular estimation at the very bottom of society, without money, reputation, social standing, influence or friends. Jesus came down to the bottom that he might put his shoulder under the lowest and lift them up. The apostles were like him. This was necessary to affect an eternal divorce from the world, with its power. ‘That the excellency may be of God and not of man.’” 32
NOT MANY FATHERS
I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 1 Corinthians 4:14-16
Meyer says here, “The relationship between the apostle and his converts was very tender. They were his children.” 33 The Corinthians only had one father in the faith and that was Paul. They may have had innumerable guardians (paidagōgous) however. In the Greek, the word paidagogous usually spoke of a slave or “slave tutor” (cf. Gal. 3:24). Utley says: “These slaves were responsible for accompanying the older male children to school, teaching them at home, and guarding them from danger.” 34
Because Paul was their spiritual father he begs them to imitate him. The Greek word here is mimētai, a word from which we get our English word “mimic.” 35 Probably very few leaders in the church today would be able to advise others to mimic them. The apostle was careful to add that they should follow him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). We see Paul making this charge in several places (cf. Eph. 5:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6).
“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (4:17). Here we sense a definite shift in the letter. Paul has spent a good amount of time addressing the problems of strife and divisions in the church, but at this point he begins to answer some very practical questions that the church had asked him. 36 In order to accomplish this effectively he sends Timothy, his beloved assistant. It is thought by many that Timothy did not actually carry this letter, but that he was sent on ahead to prepare the people for it.37 The letter itself was probably carried by Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who are indicated as being from Corinth and who are said to be visiting with Paul (16:17).
What can we say about Timothy? He joined with Paul on his second missionary journey through the Galatian area (Acts 16:1ff.). He was quite young and yet he had a good reputation in the church. Timothy was half Jewish, so Paul had him circumcised, no doubt so that he could better minister among the Jewish people. He quickly became the apostle’s faithful co-worker and apostolic representative. Paul would later say, “I have no one else like him…” (Phi. 2:20). Paul could trust Timothy to teach the people because Paul and Timothy were of the same mind.
PAUL’S DESIRE TO VISIT
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 1 Corinthians 4:18
It seems that the Corinthians were easily puffed up with pride about a number of things. They were even puffed up about Paul’s proposed coming, thinking that he would not really come to them. Obviously, some in Corinth were using the absence of Paul as a means to attack him. 38 We remember from the first chapter that the Corinthians were divided into factions, with some supporting Cephas, some Apollos and some Paul. We know from 2 Corinthians 2:1 that Paul did make his visit, but it was a painful one.
“But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have” (4:19). Paul may have been weak in appearance but he was mighty in the Spirit. God had invested him with great authority to establish the Gentile church. No wise person would want to come up against that apostolic power. We remember how Elymas was stricken blind when he opposed Paul’s teaching on Paphos (Acts 13:11). Many other powerful miracles also had been wrought by Paul. 39
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (4:20). Talk is cheap as they say. The thing that gets people’s attention is the message that has power behind it, where people get saved, healed, and delivered of their afflictions. Today on many foreign fields there are so-called “power encounters,” where demonic spirits are bound and where many astounding healing miracles happen. In these cases, churches are quickly formed and the gospel goes forward mightily.
“What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” (4:21). The rod mentioned here probably refers to the tutor’s stick.40 Just as children needed discipline with the rod (Pro. 13:24; 23:13-14), Christians sometimes need discipline. Paul will deal with this much in the next chapter and later in the epistle.