A Study of 1 Corinthians 4
This morning I talked about how Christians are viewed in our culture, especially when it comes to our biblical views of morality. But when I read 1 Corinthians, I realize nothing has really changed. Christians have always been criticized by the world; that’s to be expected. But a lot of Paul’s criticism came from within the church, and that criticism had divided the church in Corinth. Paul deals with this division in 1 Corinthians 1 – 4. Now, I want to confess that I’ve completely lost the thread of Paul’s argument in these four chapters. I thought I was following along pretty well in chapter one, and then I struggled some with chapter two, and even more in chapter three; and here in chapter four my understanding has collapsed as to the flow of Paul’s thought. The next time I preach through 1 Corinthians, I think I’ll understand it better. But for now, I’m a pretty worthless guide. In a broad way, the outline of 1 Corinthians is clear. It’s one of the clearest of his epistles. I could give you an outline of the whole book very easily. But within this first section (chapters 1-4), I’ve gotten lost. For one thing, Paul is writing emotionally. And sometimes it’s hard to follow the logic of emotion. For another, Paul is simply being Paul; and sometimes his logic becomes a little convoluted to us. Even Peter complained a little about it. But for the sake of teaching, let me point out three words that will serve as a kind of outline: We are Servants (verses 1-7); We are Spectacles (verses 9-13); We are Fathers (verses 14-21).
1. We Are Servants – Verses 1-7
Verse 1: This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
We understand very little about the nature of servanthood, but in its essence it means we belong to another and serve Him faithfully. Some of the Corinthians didn’t like the way Paul was doing it, but he told them he didn’t much care what they thought. Their evaluations of him were likely flawed. Furthermore, he said, I have a pretty good opinion of myself, but I might be wrong. The Lord is the only one who sees us correctly.
Verse 3: I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 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.
Now the next verse—verse 6—is one of the most complicated of Paul’s sentences, and I have yet to find anyone who really understands it. One commentary I consulted had seven different possible interpretations: 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 over against the other.
The idea seems to be: “You are divided about so many things. Some of your divisions involve Apollos and me, so I am using this issue as an example. But the real problem is that you are puffed up. You are proud. You are stubborn. You get an opinion in your mind and even thought your opinion goes further than the Bible, you cling to it and cause divisions.
Verse 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 did you boast as though you did not?
2. We are Spectacles – Verses 8-12
So Paul viewed himself as a servant; but his critics viewed him as a spectacle and even as scum (verse 13). In this passage, Paul became sarcastic. I hate sarcasm, but this is inspired biblical sarcasm, so we need so see what it says.
Verse 8: 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!
In other words, some of you think you’re pretty great. You think you’re like a king. You think you’re like a judge. You think you can sit around and make critical comments about me even though you don’t know what you’re talking about. You make me feel like a spectacle, like scum.
Verse 9: 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. 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. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 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.
3. We Are Fathers – Verses 14-21
So, Paul said in effect, I view myself as a servant; you view me as a spectacle; but I’ll tell you what I really am. I am your father. I’m the one who brought you the Gospel through which you became born again.
Verse 14: 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. 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.
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 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. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 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?
Conclusion: The truth is—when we are faithful to Christ, we are servants who must prove faithful; we are spectacles to the world; we are people whom God will use in bringing others to Christ. A friend told me this week that he asked a man who had become a Christian, “Who led you to the Lord?” The man told him. Bill went to that man with the same question. The man told him. He went to the third man with the same question. He traced a chain-reaction of five men, each of whom led the other to the Lord, and then he went to the first man and said, “Did you know about these others who came to the Lord because of your original witness?” The man had no idea. Some of us are spiritual fathers and mothers, having led others to Christ, and we don’t even know it. But that’s the life of a Christian. To some, we a servant; to others we’re a spectacle or even the scum of the earth; to others we’re fathers and mothers in Christ. And I like it that way. We can’t control what others think, but we can be faithful to Him who called us.