1CORINTHIANS 4:1-21 – THE BURDEN OF THE APOSTLE
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
Chapter 4 concludes the first section of 1Corinthians in which Paul is addressing a defective underlying attitude to God's truth. This underlying failure had resulted in divisions based on alignment to individual teachers of the truth. Paul concludes his teaching about this with three instructions:
Judge nothing before the appointed time [1-5].
Do not go beyond what is written [6-7].
Imitate me [8-21].
A. JUDGE NOTHING BEFORE THE APPOINTED TIME – 4:1-5
Read 4:1-5. From each verse list what Paul says about his role and/or his attitude to human judgment.
Having spent chapter 3 putting himself and Apollos in correct perspective, Paul now says 'So then …' Here are the conclusions he wants his readers to hear:
A.1 He and Apollos are 'servants' of Christ
The word translated 'servants' – huperetes – refers to subordinate servants. This kind of servant was often engaged in manual work, which was despised by the Greeks. By calling himself and Apollos such subordinate 'servants' he is telling his readers that their boasting about himself or Apollos is totally out of order.
A.2 He and Apollos are 'entrusted with the secret things of God'
His meaning is that they are 'stewards' of God's truth. But this seemingly high position does not justify human boasting about these stewards. Rather it demands of these stewards a high standard of faithfulness to God. Note the NIV 'entrusted' [verse 1] and verse 2 where Paul states that faithfulness is required of 'those who have been given a trust'. Their role as apostles, as teachers of God's mysteries, makes them accountable to God. Their roles were not taken up out of a quest for human acclaim, or even to boost their own personal achievement. It was not about them at all: it was all about God. They are his stewards, responsible for handling his Word; he requires faithfulness of them; they are not in it to get praise from their fellow humans.
A.3 'I care very little …'
Because his accountability is to God, not to his fellow humans, because he seeks God's glory not his own, Paul expresses his lack of interest in what people think about him personally [verse 3]. He doesn't care if he is 'judged' by anyone. Here the word translated 'judged' refers to critical assessment. He doesn't care, personally, if they measure him against human standards of wisdom and eloquence, by human criteria. Indeed, he does not even judge himself against such criteria.
A.4 'My conscience is clear ...'
Because he doesn't go along with the kind of personal introspection, self-focus and self-evaluation that was encouraged by the Corinthians' partisanship [and indeed is encouraged and even commanded in some Christian circles today], Paul states that his conscience is clear. He doesn't mean to infer that he thinks himself 'innocent', but that he doesn't set himself as his own judge and jury, and nor does he allow his fellow humans to usurp that role. It is the Lord who judges him.
He is not talking here about the judgment that puts a person in heaven or in hell. That judgment, as far as those who believe in Christ are concerned, has already been fully borne by Jesus Christ. Rather, he is talking of that same judgment of which he spoke in 3:12-15, in which the quality of the 'work' of the Christian servant is revealed.
A.5 '… judge nothing before the appointed time ...'
The Corinthians were critically assessing their teachers on the basis of human values. Such external factors as eloquence and philosophical wisdom do not take internal factors into account. When the Lord comes he will expose things that are unseen and unknown to the human observer – things like 'the motives of men's hearts'. So Paul instructs his readers to wait till the Lord comes – to stop making their premature assessments, and giving out praise based on externals. When Christ comes 'each will receive his praise from God'. That is what matters, not temporary and fickle human praise.
Note: It is important to recognise that Paul's command not to judge is not a prohibition directed against discernment of false teaching. That is a different issue entirely, and we are all commanded in many places in the New Testament to exercise acute discernment, and extremely necessary judgement, in relation to false prophets, counterfeit Christs, deceptive miracles, and so on. In this very same letter Paul exposes and opposes various expressions of false teaching.
B. DO NOT GO BEYOND WHAT IS WRITTEN – 4:6,7
In this brief section Paul puts sets some boundaries:
 Paul says that he has been using himself and Apollos as examples in order to teach his readers about the inappropriateness of their exaltation of one teacher above another. He wants to make sure that they don't get the wrong idea and think that there is something particularly good or bad about either him or Apollos.
The reason he wrote of himself and Apollos was for their benefit. He wanted them to learn, from the example of himself and Apollos, ['from us', verse 6], not to go beyond what is written.
 Bible scholars are divided about what 'the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written” ' refers to. There is no identical saying in the Bible. The conclusion is that this was a fairly common saying. Paul's intention, however, is clearer: It is clearly written in the scripture that we ought not to glory or boast in human achievement or ability, but in God. He has already written this in 1:28-31.
 Glorying in another human being ends up setting 'one man over against another' [verse 6], which is outlawed by the Gospel.
Check these scriptures:
The Corinthian believers were 'taking pride in' the apostle/teacher of their choice. The Greek verb actually means 'inflated', 'puffed up'. Not only were they exalting their favourite teacher, they were also gaining a boost to their personal egos by their affiliation with their teacher. They were deriving their value, their importance and their identity from that teacher, rather than deriving their value, importance and identity from Jesus Christ. As such, they were only a hair's breadth from both blasphemy and idolatry.
By depending on their teacher for their identity they were placing that teacher in the position where only God should be. By heaping on themselves a vicarious significance derived from their teacher, they were trusting in, depending on, a fellow human being, rather than on God.
 In verse 7 Paul asks three questions of any individual [the pronouns and verbs here are singular, not plural as previously] who is engaging in such unjustified boasting.
Read verse 7. What three questions does Paul ask, and what does he mean by them?
These questions are meant to make such a person aware of the wrongness of puffing himself up – in this context because of the perceived superiority of his teacher – but also for any other reason:
Who makes you different from anyone else? The scripture teaches human equality in sin and under judgment, and the equality of believers in Christ. All who are in Christ are equally blessed with every spiritual blessing [Ephesians 1:3]. There is no difference – and therefore no basis for puffing oneself up.
What do you have that you did not receive? All that any believer has – whether physical/material blessings, or spiritual/salvation blessings – has been given as a gift. It is all something that has been 'received' – not something that was earned, deserved or merited. Even the teachers in whom they were glorying, and from whom they were deriving self-glory, were God's gift to them. They can take no personal credit. Again, the basis for puffing themselves up is removed.
And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? Their boasting, their glorying, is illogical. It has no basis.
C. IMITATE ME – 4:8-21
C.1 The contrast – 4:8-13
Read 4:8-13. Answer these questions:
 How does Paul describe the Corinthians in verse 8?
 Do you think he is being sarcastic? Explain your answer.
 Suggest what he means by 'really had become kings' and why he wants to 'be kings with you'.
 Make a list of Paul's descriptions of 'us apostles' [verse 9 to 13]
C.1.1 The Corinthians – verse 8
Paul takes only half a verse to describe the Corinthians:
You have all you want.
Already you have become rich.
You have become kings.
There seems to be an element of sarcasm in these statements. The Corinthians are indeed acting and speaking as though these things are true – puffing themselves up as though they had some personal significance, and putting others down because they don't measure up to certain criteria of wisdom and eloquence.
In addition, Paul has already stated in 1:5-7 that they have been enriched in every way and do not lack any spiritual gift. But these are prefaced by Paul's thankfulness to God because of 'his grace given you in Christ Jesus' [verse 4]. It is only 'in him' [verse 5] that the Corinthians have these riches and this blessedness, and they are the possession of everyone who is 'in Christ'.
Paul and the other apostles share totally in the common blessedness and riches 'in Christ'. But he and the apostles do not share in these three things noted in 4:8. Rather their experience is the opposite, as the following verses emphasise.
Paul has described his readers in terms of the values of the world, because that is how they are defining themselves, and that is the basis of the teacher-based divisions in the church. They are thinking and acting with the mindset of the man without the Spirit. So Paul defines them according to the mindset of the man without the Spirit. And it sounds so good. In terms of the world's values, they see themselves as lacking nothing. They are successful. They have plenty. They are powerful. What more could they want! And because of this a proud arrogance characterises them.
Read Revelation 3:17. Comment on its similarity to 1Corinthians 4:8a.
C.1.2 Paul's wish – verse 8
When Paul described his readers by these three terms, he added 'and that without us'. In other words, the apostles had not experienced the same prosperity and exaltation. On the contrary. But before he goes on to detail the apostles' experiences he says 'How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you.'
This wish, firstly, infers that the Corinthians had not really 'become kings'. They were merely acting as if they were kings – puffed up, full of themselves and their own importance.
Some people interpret this verse to mean that Paul wished the Corinthians actually were 'kings', then the apostles could gain some benefit from that. But this seems to be out of character, unless the wish also is part of Paul's sarcasm.
An alternative interpretation of this verse lifts Paul's meaning way above the sarcasm he has temporarily adopted, and way above the petty pride and self-importance of his readers: Paul is here looking way beyond and above the concept of earthly 'kings', to the eternal state, where all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are 'kings' in the new heaven and the new earth, where the present but hidden reality of that 'holy nation' that 'royal priesthood' takes on its ultimate and eternal expression.
When we read Paul's list of the apostles' suffering it is not surprising that he longed for this eternal state for both himself and his fellow apostles.
C.1.3 The lot of the apostles – 4:9-13
The language Paul uses in verse 9 is that of the arena where huge crowds gathered to watch the spectacle of men killing each other, men fighting wild animals, men humiliated while the crowds cheered at their struggle and their death.
Note what Paul states in verse 9:
God has put … Paul attributes the apostles’ lowly position to God. It is not merely an unfortunate circumstance. It is by God's action and God's will that the messengers of the Gospel are not in positions of power or of human praise and glory.
'… us apostles …' In contrast to the Corinthian believers, and in contrast to the glory the Corinthians were giving to individual apostles.
'… on display at the end of the procession …' The Corinthians were exalting their individual teachers, and gaining personal significance from that exaltation. This is completely the opposite of the action of God, who put the apostles in least honourable place. In the context of the arena, those 'at the end of the procession' of the various participating fighters were the least of all. Least famous. Least respected. Most despised.
'… like men condemned to die in the arena' The verb used here was used in reference to criminals condemned to death. Often such criminals were paraded before the public who mocked and derided them. [Consider: Jesus on the way to Calvary, suffering the derision of men and women.]
'We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as men' Just like the combatants in the arena, just like the condemned criminal, the apostles were a public spectacle – not one of fame and glory, but of shame and humiliation. And not just in a Roman arena, or on the streets of a city, but in the presence of the whole universe: brought low, made nothing in the sight not only of men but also of 'angels'.
How great the contrast between the real position and status of the apostles, where God had put them, and the glory the Corinthians were giving them, setting one against the other, and using that glory to gain glory for themselves!
Note Paul statements in verse 10, in which he contrasts apostles ['we'] with the way the Corinthians were viewing themselves:
We are fools for Christ, you are so wise in Christ.
We are weak, you are strong.
We are dishonoured, you are honoured.
Verses 11 to 13a list some of the evidence of this in the apostles' experience. The second half of verse 13 sums up just how despised the apostles were: '… we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.' Both of these descriptions refer to rubbish that is discarded after a thorough cleansing – worthless stuff fit for nothing but being thrown out. Note that Paul says the apostles are the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world [where the Greek has 'of all things']. This is how the apostles are treated by the inhabitants of the earth. Despised. Useless. Irrelevant. Not worth thinking about.
C.1.4 Paul's purpose in writing as he did – 4:14-21
Read 4:14-21. List the reasons Paul gives for what he has just said.
 Not to shame, but to warn – verse 14
If his readers are sensitive, Paul's words could cause personal shame. But that is not the response Paul has in mind. He doesn't want them to feel ashamed of their actions and attitudes in exalting one apostle over another and thereby creating divisions in the church. He wants them to realize how wrong their actions and attitudes are, how contrary to the Gospel, how far from the mind of Christ … and to thus be warned. They way they are behaving makes it look like they have not understood the Gospel, that they don't know Christ.
 But Paul knows they are Christ's, because he became their father in Christ through the Gospel – verse 15
Many people have been teaching and leading them - you have ten thousand guardians – and some of these they were boasting in and getting personal glory from – but it was Paul who had led them to a saving knowledge of Christ. He, and he alone, was their spiritual father.
 Therefore … imitate me – verse 16
A 'guardian' [verse 15 – paidagogos] was a household slave entrusted with the well-being of the children. He had no blood relationship with the children. A 'father', on the other hand, is the one who gave life and existence to the child, and whose very nature is shared by the child. His relationship with the child is quite different from the guardian's relationship with the child, regardless of how much the guardian does for the child or loves the child. In the natural sense, the child inherits traits from his father, not from his guardian. So Paul says: I am your father. Imitate me. Reflect those same attitudes that you saw in me.
 I am sending to you Timothy … verse 17
Paul continues the concept of himself as a spiritual father by calling Timothy 'my son whom I love'. He further describes Timothy as 'faithful in the Lord'. Paul purpose in sending Timothy is that Timothy will remind the Corinthians of Paul's 'way of life in Christ Jesus'. This will fill out what Paul means by 'imitate me'. Paul's life reflected his teaching. What he taught, he also lived. Timothy will remind them of that teaching and that life. Such a reminder was necessary because of the teacher-related divisions in the church, stemming from a failure in their perception of the message of Christ. Their divisions reflected that distorted perception.
 Some of you have become arrogant … verse 18 [see also verse 19 – 'arrogant people']
Here Paul identifies the key issue. Arrogance has no place in those who are saved by grace. Confidence, yes. Total assurance, yes. But based on Christ in whom we trust and grounded in his death by which we are justified. Never self-pride. Nor pride, boasting, in another human being. Never gaining personal significance and identity from another human being.
Such arrogance runs contrary to the message of Christ crucified and contrary to the way that Paul, their father in Christ, lived his life.
 I will come to you …. I will find out … verse 19
Their level of arrogance indicated that they did not anticipate a visit by Paul, but their assumption was ill-founded. He would come. And in coming he would see not only their boastful, puffed up speech, but also whether or not any of the real power of the Gospel was evident in them.
 For the kingdom of God … verse 20
Many of the parables of Jesus began with 'In the kingdom of heaven this is what it’s like …' and in those parables Jesus turned human values upside down. When Paul comes, he says, he will discover if there is any of this 'power' of the kingdom evident in their lives. Are they still living their lives and defining values by the mindset of the world? Or has the power of the Gospel so transformed them that they are living their lives and defining their values by the Gospel of the kingdom, the Gospel of grace?
 What do you prefer? … verse 21
Paul hopes to come 'in love and with a gentle spirit', but if they are not lining up with the values of the Kingdom, then he must come 'with a whip' in order to rebuke and correct them. This letter, and Timothy's visit, were intended to remove the necessity for the 'whip'.