A Call For Humility – 1 Corinthians 4

Misplaced Confidence

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Don’t you miss those days? Of course I’m not referring to awkward first dates, or acne, or the drama of school friendships, I’m mainly thinking of the ability to know everything. Don’t you miss that? Man, I used to be so smart when I was 17…and talented! I remember at a certain age, after going through a growth spurt and being involved in sports on a regular basis, challenging my dad. I had gotten a lot taller and stronger than I was just a few years earlier and I felt like I could take on the world – all 160 pounds of me. So I challenged my dad to arm wrestling and would sneak up on him and try to put him in a headlock from behind and so on. And, as a good dad does, he always firmly, yet gently put me in my place by exerting just enough strength to let me know that I would never be able to take him.

This is a great analogy of what Paul does in 1 Corinthians chapter 4 to the church at Corinth. In Paul’s absence the church had become incredibly arrogant, there were divisions among them based on which former pastor they had like the best, and now they had become judgmental and rebellious regarding Paul. Paul’s twofold aim was to bring healing to the disunity of the church and reestablish his authority over them as an apostle in hopes of leading them to spiritual obedience. So now Paul speaks to both of these issues as he attempts to bring them to a conclusion before moving on to address the questions the church had asked him in their letter.

If we rewind a bit to verses 21-22 of chapter 3 we hear Paul say,

“So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

Paul wanted them to recognize that they were all on the same team. It wasn’t Paul versus Apollos or Peter, they were all working toward the same goal. Paul continues this thought as he begins chapter 4.

1 Corinthians 4:1-7

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

6 Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over against another. 7 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?

Because Paul and Apollos and Peter were on the same team, working toward the same goal, Paul reminds the church that it is foolish to waste time fighting over which of them were the best. After all (as Paul says in verse 1) they were only servants! Paul was telling the church to stop arguing over who was the best servant and focus on and unite in loyalty to the Master! He explains in verse 2 that his job as a servant of God was to faithfully administer the trust given to him. What was that trust? What trust, or job, was Paul to be faithful in doing? We hear Paul talk about it in Colossians 1:25 where speaking of the church he says, “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness.” God had given Paul (and Apollos and Peter and all pastors) the job of faithfully administering the word of God in its fullness. So Paul essentially says in verses 3-4, “I don’t care what you think of me, in fact, I don’t even care what I think of myself, my job is to faithfully administer the word of God and I know that I’m doing that, so my conscience is clear.” He reminds them in verses 4-5 that since God is his boss, it is God’s job to judge him, so they needed to stop putting themselves in God’s place of judgment over him and wait for the appointed time of God’s judgment to take place. Paul wants to assure them that judgment will take place, but he also wants to teach them that it is not their job, so they should stop focusing on mere men and unite together in worship and service of the Lord.

In addition to the fact that the church was judging Paul when it wasn’t their job to do so, Paul also corrects the way they were attempting to judge him. They had been judging him (and Apollos and Peter) based on their own preferences and prejudices, but Paul reminds them in verse 6 “not to go beyond what is written.” He wants them to be people of the Word. God’s Word is the only true basis for evaluation and had they been using it Paul knows that they wouldn’t have “take(n) pride in one man over another.”

Paul concludes this first section of chapter 4 in verse 7 with some crushing questions that were aimed at instilling some humility in the church. He asks three rhetorical questions with obvious answers. He asks;

  • “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?”

So Paul wanted them, in the midst of their arrogant boasting and judgment against Paul, to see that everything they had was a gracious gift from God, and God’s grace should always lead to gratitude and humility.

A Little Sarcasm

Because their boasting reflected such a self-exalting attitude, Paul turns to irony and sarcasm to help them see the folly of their arrogance. One thing that’s important to note as we look at the next paragraph is that behind and underneath it is Paul’s eschatological understanding compared to that of the Corinthian church. Eschatology is the study of the end times, the final events of history, the ultimate destiny of humanity. Paul’s eschatological perspective is one of “already, but not yet,” while the Corinthian church’s perspective was one of “already.” What this means is that Paul believed that we, as followers of Jesus, are already actively taking part in the kingdom of God, but the kingdom will not reach its full expression until sometime in the future. We are “already” in the kingdom, but we do “not yet” see it in its glory. Because of this perspective, Paul sees the Corinthian church’s boasting as equivalent to their supposing that the final reign of God had already begun. So he sets out to compare his (and the other apostles’) lives to their view of themselves in order to prove that their view was inaccurate and that they had not, in fact, arrived but were still in need of much growth.

1 Corinthians 4:8-13

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 10 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! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.

In these verses Paul contrasts himself and the other apostles with the Corinthian church’s view of themselves by saying:

You have all you want (v. 8) We go hungry and thirsty (v. 11)
You have become rich (v. 8) We are in rags (v. 11)
You have become kings (v. 8) We are brutally treated and homeless and work hard (v. 11)
You are so wise in Christ (v. 10) We have become fools for Christ (v. 10)
You are strong (v. 10) We are weak (v. 10)
You are honored (v. 10) We are dishonored (v. 10)

Paul reveals some perspective in v. 8 by stating, “How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!” But then he reveals that this is obviously not the case, at least for he and the other apostles because it appeared to him that rather than living as kings, it was as if “God [had] put [them] on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.” (v. 9) His point of course was that he had not entered into a time of reigning, and by implication, they clearly hadn’t either.

Paul goes on to explain in verses 12-13, in contrast to the Corinthians, what the apostles’ attitudes were. He says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” In conclusion, he explains that up to this point in time, they had been treated like scum, which ironically was how Jesus was treated as well. Paul wasn’t complaining about being treated bad, he simply wanted the Corinthians to understand the times they were living in and the corollary attitude they needed to take on. Paul believed that his sufferings and weaknesses were a genuine participation in Christ and he felt that these earthly sufferings were not worth comparing to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. He summarizes these feelings in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 saying, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

A Father Figure

The argument that began in 1:10 is now finished; but Paul is not. The most delicate issue still remains: in light of all that is been said, how is he to reestablish his authority over them? He needs to address the matter directly, but how shall he do that without losing the force of the argument to this point? He does so with a change of metaphors – that of a father and his children. The inherent authority of the father/child relationship allows him alternately to admonish and, if all else fails, to threaten discipline.

1 Corinthians 4:14-18

I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I am sending 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.

18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 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. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?

In light of the irony and sarcasm of the preceding paragraph, how can Paul now deny that he was intending to shame? He realized they should have been ashamed, but that was not the reason for what he wrote. The purpose was to warn them as his dear children.

Having called them his dear children he proceeds to make use of this imagery in 2 ways – first to reestablish his unique, and therefore authoritative, relationship to them as their founder. Secondly, he urges them to conform their behavior to their father’s example – and he states that he is their only father. His unique relationship to them was that of father, in that he led them to Christ. This relationship gave him a special authority over and responsibility toward them. By stating this relationship, he was both reasserting his authority and appealing to their loyalty. The picture he draws is one of a father who has instructed his children in proper behavior by his own example and his concern over their behavior is now given as the reason for him having sent Timothy.

As we think about Paul relating to the Corinthians as their spiritual father, it serves as a good reminder to us that this is what all of us are to be doing spiritually. We have all been commanded to go and make disciples. That is the heartbeat of who we want to be as a church. I want every person here discipling others. We are to each fish for men, then we are to disciple them as Jesus did so that they can, in turn, carry on the same cycle with others. Paul teaches Timothy this process in a verse that I would like all of you to memorize, 1 Timothy 2:2, it says,

“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

We are not called to simply follow Jesus, we are to follow Him, so that we can become fishers of men who make disciples who make disciples. I know I’ve said it a hundred times, but THIS is God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We don’t need massive crusades or big tent revivals, we need each Christian to make disciples, who will in turn make more disciples. Are you doing this? Or are you just here to make some friends and learn about the Bible? We must all get in the game and get the job done, that all may know the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul closes in verses 18-21 with a warning for the leaders among them who had initiated the trouble. He affirms his plans to return to Corinth and he closes with a threat of discipline. The clear implication being that they either needed to follow his guidance or be prepared to face the consequences when he arrived.

My prayer for us is that we don’t operate out of a fear of judgment, but rather that we work tirelessly for the kingdom of God out a mindset of gratitude and hope and joy and inspiration and love for God’s disconnected children.

I pray that the Holy Spirit would open our eyes to the reality of the invisible and eternal kingdom of God and that we would not continue to be duped by this temporary world and the trappings of worldly pleasure that Satan has created.

Today I challenge you to redefine your life, to commit to living intentionally, to make specific plans to disciple specific people and to continue that purpose and journey for the rest of your life. DO NOT WASTE the precious time that God has given you. Pour out your life for others, RUN toward the finish line, commit to making this life count.




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