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1 Corinthians 4

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Verse 1

1 COR. 4

Paul had stressed the inspiration of the apostles in the previous chapter; but in the first paragraph here he pointed out that even apostolic authority was not absolute and that even he himself and Apollos were but stewards of Christ, their first concern being to please the Lord, and not to accommodate their teaching to win favor with false teachers. He stated that the lower courts of conscience and public opinion were inferior to the judgment of the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:1-5). We agree with Adam Clarke that a more logical division of the chapters would have been to extend chapter 3 through the fifth verse here.[1]

In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul pointed out that his use of his own name and that of Apollos was not to be construed as an admission that he and Apollos had actually headed any divisive parties in Corinth, but that he had used these names figuratively for the purpose of teaching against all divisions.

Most of the remainder of the chapter deals with the false teacher, without naming him, ending with a dramatic promise that he would return to Corinth, the Lord willing, and that the Lord would enable him to vanquish the false teacher and set the Corinthians once more in the right way of humility and service. He severely condemned their vain-glorious boasting, egotism and conceit (1 Corinthians 4:7-21).

Verse 2

Here, moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.

Trustworthiness was the outstanding characteristic of a good steward, and it was that which Paul brought into view here. Furthermore, the proper person to pass on such a question was not to be found among the people who knew the steward or did business with him, but he was the steward's lord. The next three verses would deal with that thought.

In the New Testament, the term "steward" was applied to all Christians, "as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10), to elders of the church; "A bishop then must be blameless as God's steward" (Titus 1:7), and to apostles and preachers of the gospel in this verse. "It is important that those entrusted with the truth of God as stewards should be faithful and honest."[6] A failure to teach people God's truth leaves the blood of the lost on the hands of unfaithful stewards who neglected or refused to teach it.

Verse 3

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment; yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself; yet am I hereby not justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.

In this and the following verse, Paul considers the three tribunals of judgment, these being: (1) conscience, (2) the court of public opinion, and (3) the Lord the righteous judge of all people. The supremacy of that court of last resort is dramatically affirmed.

The implication of Paul's words here as directed toward the false teacher is as follows:

If I do not regard my own opinion of myself as of high value, I cannot be suspected of undervaluing you when I say that I do not much regard your opinion. If I do not estimate highly my own opinion of myself, then it is not to be expected that I should set a high value on the opinions of others.[7]

Farrar's paraphrase of the thought is:

The verdict of my own conscience acquits me of all unfaithfulness; but this is insufficient, because God sees with clearer eyes than ours. Who can understand his errors? (Psalms 19:12).[8]

Regarding the lower and higher courts which come into view in this passage, the following is submitted:


I. The court of public opinion. Later on in this epistle, Paul indicated that, despite its inferiority, the court of public opinion is of some importance and not to be ignored by Christians. These Corinthians were bringing the whole Christian movement into disgrace by their ecstatic tongue-speaking; and Paul wrote: "If therefore the whole church be come together in one place, and all speak with tongues ... will they not say that ye are mad?" (1 Corinthians 14:23). Timothy was instructed to have regard to this court through the requirement that any man appointed as a bishop should have a good report from "them that are without" (1 Timothy 3:7). The sacred evangelist Luke stressed that Jesus himself advanced in favor with men (Luke 2:52), and that the believers in Jerusalem had "favor with all the people" (Acts 2:47).

Nevertheless, desirable as a favorable public opinion undoubtedly is, it should always be courted within the strictest limits of absolute fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. Public opinion is a lower court, not a higher one.

Paul said, "I for my part care very little about being examined by you or by any human court." All people should have this attitude where any question of faithfulness to the Lord is involved; and what a pity it is that there are some like the wretched parents of the man born blind (John 9) who would not even acknowledge the Lord of glory out of deference to the wicked Pharisees.

"Vox Populi Vox Dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God) is a suitable motto in politics, but not in holy religion. The voice of the people is frequently the voice of Satan, as when the people cried, "Make us gods to go before us" (Acts 7:40), or when the people prepared to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:11). God pity the poor soul which pauses on the threshold of any clear duty and asks, "Will this be popular?"

II. The voice of conscience. This is a higher court than that of public opinion, but not the highest court. It is exceedingly important that people respect it, for "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our hearts" (1 John 3:20). Paul always respected and honored the court of conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16), being far more attentive to it than to the court of public opinion. And yet we are indebted to Paul for the information that, regardless of its value, this court is still not the final tribunal. He said, While my conscience does not trouble me at all, that does not prove that I am innocent."[9]

The great difficulty with conscience is that it is much like a watch, the value of which (as a timepiece) is determined by the accuracy of its synchronization with the correct time, determined not by the watch, but by the movement of the sun over a certain meridian. Just so, a man's conscience must be monitored and adjusted to be in perfect harmony with the will of God before it can be of much value.

Like a watch, conscience can have many things wrong with it. It can be evil (Hebrews 10:22), seared (1 Timothy 4:2), defiled (Titus 1:15), ignorant (1 Timothy 1:13), choked with dead works (Hebrews 9:14), etc. Is there any wonder then, that it was a proverb millenniums ago that said "He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool" (Proverbs 28:6)?

III. The highest court of all. This is the great assize at the Last Advent of Jesus Christ, when the dead, small and great, as well as all who are then alive, shall be summoned before the Great White Throne for the final judgment. None shall escape the judgment and sentence of this court (2 Corinthians 5:10); it shall be presided over by Jesus Christ our Lord (Acts 10:42). Then shall be exposed the secrets of people's hearts (Romans 2:16). The court crier, an angel of light, shall stand with one foot on the land and one on the sea, and blow the trumpet that shall herald the gathering of the myriads of earth to the final judgment before the King of kings and Lord of lords. How infinitely blessed shall be those who are able to stand before that tribunal of righteousness and truth!

I judge not mine own self ... In 1 Corinthians 11:31, Paul said, "If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged"; but "two different words are used. There the apostle is emphasizing the necessity of self-examination";[10] but in this statement, he is saying:

"I myself am not competent to assess the quality of my apostolic service and pronounce a verdict on it; only One can do that; and I shall submit myself to his decision: "It is the Lord who judges me.[11]

[7] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949), 1Cor., p. 69.

[8] F. W. Farrar, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), Vol. 19, p. 132.

[9] Edgar J. Goodspeed, The New Testament: An American Translation (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1923), p. 318.

[10] F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 90.

[11] Ibid.

Verse 5

Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God.

It is a mistake to read into such passages as this and in 1 Corinthians 15:51 that "Paul evidently expected the Advent of Christ within the lifetime of himself and his converts."[12] Since the time of the Second Advent was unknown by all of the apostolic preachers, and not even known by the Lord himself as a man (Matthew 24:36), it was altogether proper that the certainty of that event (whenever it was to come) was a legitimate basis of appeal and motivation for Christians of EVERY generation, including the first. It is a positive certainty that both Christ and his apostles taught that the Second Coming was an event to be expected at a very remote time in the future, although not impossible at ANY TIME. See my Commentary on Luke, pp. 456-457. Paul's great prophecy of the apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:1,2) makes it certain that he did not expect the coming of Christ in his own lifetime; and the apostle John devoted the last chapter of his gospel to shooting down the proposition that Jesus had promised to come in John's lifetime (John 21:23).

The import of this verse, according to Morris, is "Stop judging!"[13] This injunction is necessary because: (1) the only judgment that matters will be announced by the Lord at the final judgment and, besides that; (2) people do not have sufficient information or competence to judge one another, not even themselves.

Each man shall have his praise from God ... Shore's perceptive comment on this is: "God, unlike man who selects only some one for praise, will give to every worker his own share of approval."[14] Moreover, it must not be supposed that no blame will be assigned in the judgment, for "The word rendered praise denotes in this place reward,"[15] indicating that God will reward every man according to his works "whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Some misunderstand this place as teaching universal salvation, as Johnson for example, "Wonder of wonders - every man (believer) shall have some praise from God!"[16] Regarding Paul's probable reason for stressing praise rather than blame in this verse, Farrar noted that:

He was thinking of faithful teachers like Cephas, Apollos and himself, who were depreciated by rival factions; and like all the apostles, he had an invariable tendency to allude to the bright side, rather than the dark side of judgment.[17]

The hidden things ... and "counsels, of the hearts ..." show "how much that is needful for a correct estimate of people's conduct lies now under an impenetrable veil."[18]

The background of Paul's teaching in these profound lines was a sordid condition among the community of Corinthian believers.

There must have been a very considerable group of church leaders, Paul's own converts, who, in Paul's absence, had become influential and self-important, and were trying to run away with the church. They had become haughty, overbearing, and boastful in their attitude toward Paul.[19]

[12] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 898.

[13] Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), p. 76.

[14] T. Teignmouth Shore, Ellicott's Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 298.

[15] Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 71.

[16] S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p 599

[17] F. W. Farrar, op. cit., p. 133.

[18] John Wesley, One Volume New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), in loco.

[19] Henry H. Halley, Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1927), P. 545.

Verse 6

Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which were written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against the other.

The first clause here was spoken by way of anticipating and refuting any notion that Paul had conceded (in his use of the names of himself and Apollos) any approval of factions, the allegation here being that Paul had used these names as a figure of what was going on, the real culprits being, not himself or Apollos, but the factious leaders in Corinth.

That ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written ... The traditional use of this clause as a commandment that Christians should order their lives and their service of God by the holy scriptures, and that it is prohibited that they should go beyond the word of God is without any doubt whatever the true interpretation. Farrar said that "This text, like so many others, has only a very remote connection with the sense in which it is usually quoted";[20] but like all such denials, it is unsupported by any logical evidence. There is no other valid meaning of this passage except that traditionally assigned to it.

Not to go beyond what is written ... is in the Greek literally, "Not beyond what is written."[21] "These words must be a sort of quotation, or in any case a standing expression,"[22] associated with the preaching of Paul and all the apostles. It has the effect of a universal proverb among Christians, "well known to the Corinthians, so that Paul could assume the words to be clear."[23] Russell declared the meaning to be: "The things which are written ... no special text, but the teaching of the scriptures as a whole, which no leader, however gifted, may supersede."[24] "This was a catch-cry familiar to Paul and his readers directing attention to the need for conformity to scripture."[25] There is no need to multiply scholarly support of the usual view of this place; no other explanation is tenable.

And, of course, it was precisely in this matter of going beyond the word of God that the factions in Corinth had developed. They were evaluating the word and authority of people upon a parity with the holy scriptures, thinking of people more highly than they should, and spurning the meekness and humility taught throughout the Bible. Thus, as Grosheide said, "The whole question of factions was raised to a higher level,"[26] namely that of violating the scriptural rule of faith for the believer. "It is not his own words that Paul insists that the Corinthians must not go beyond; it is the word of God."[27]

Puffed up for the one against the other ... An interesting phase of this rebuke is that instead of puffing up their favorite teachers, it was themselves which had become puffed up! This is a sure result of "blowing up" any man.

[20] F. W. Farrar, op. cit., p. 134.

[21] Paul W. Marsh, op. cit., p. 382.

[22] F. W. Grosheide, The New International Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), p. 103.

[23] Ibid.

[24] John William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 408.

[25] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 78.

[26] F. W. Grosheide, op. cit., p. 103.

[27] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 43.

Verse 7

For who maketh thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? but if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?

It is God who gives to every man life, talent, ability, opportunity, health, personality, strength - everything that he is or has; and what kind of conceit blinds the eyes of people who behave as if this were not so?

Verse 8

Already are ye filled, already ye are become rich, ye have come to reign without us: yea, and I would that ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.

The first three clauses are directed against the false teachers, who had promoted themselves in the eyes of their admirers, were receiving honors and emoluments from them, and affecting all the airs of "big men," not merely in the church, but in the whole city. The three pungent clauses are spoken in irony and disapproval, the true state of such impostors being far different from what they imagined.

I would that ye did reign ... has the equivalent meaning of "Oh, if it were only true, what you think of yourselves because if it were true, together we could go on building up the temple of God."

Verse 9

For, I think, God hath set forth us apostles last of all, as men doomed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, both to angels and men.

Beginning with 1 Corinthians 4:7, the remainder of this chapter is devoted to the rebuke of the false teachers and exposure of their sins of worldliness, vanity, conceit, vain glory and division. At the very moment of their sporting all those prideful airs of popularity and success, Paul in this verse reminds them how it is with the GENUINE teachers of the true faith, the holy apostles.

The imagery here is that of the Roman Coliseum. "Paul pictures himself and fellow apostles as `the last and most worthless band' brought forth to die in the great arena, where the whole world, including men and angels, view the spectacle."[28]

We are not informed in scripture of the exact manner in which angels are concerned with earth life; but the fact is plainly stated. See my Commentary on Hebrews, p. 35. There is a similar scene suggested by Hebrews 12:1.

Verse 10

We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye have glory, but we have dishonor.

The power of these words derives from the truth that Paul was himself the founder of the church in Corinth. 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.

Fools ... means "fools in the eyes of the world."

We ... yet, etc. ... contrasts Paul with the Corinthians in terms of their own egotistical reversal of the true values. Forsaking the true values and methods as taught by the apostles, those at Corinth had discovered a way of preaching "so as to procure a name of wisdom, reputation and profundity."[29] To discover such a way and then to walk in it has been a temptation to every preacher of the word of God who ever lived.

Verse 11

Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place.

All of these terms refer to genuine, bitter hardships, involving insufficient food and clothing, beatings and chastisements by enemies of the truth, and that lonely itinerancy which was the invariable mark of apostolic preachers. The false teachers in Corinth suffered none of these injuries or discomforts.

Verse 12

And we toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure.

And we toil ... "The Greeks despised all manual labor, regarding it as the duty of slaves or people mentally unfit for anything else."[30] Paul was a tentmaker by trade and frequently worked in order to support himself.

Reviled ... persecuted ... Instead of retaliating in kind, Paul returned good for evil, blessing for reviling, and patient endurance for persecution.

Verse 13

Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things, even until now.

The imagery here is still that of the Coliseum, where, after the bloody games were over, the grounds-keepers cleaned the theater by the removal of the bloody corpses, the offal and the debris. Paul, in this remarkably blunt, shocking paragraph, merely stated the true facts with a view to bringing the giddy and irresponsible Corinthians to their senses.

Verse 14

I write not these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my dear children.

What a wealth of abused and suffering love lies in such a tender appeal as this! Not a word of blame, in the sense of recrimination not a trace of bitterness, just the appeal of a loving father for his wayward children. The great thrust of this whole argument was accurately seen by Morris "as an emphasis on the contradiction between the values of true Christians, and those of the worldly-wise Greeks."[31] The Corinthians had simply become mixed up regarding what were true values and what were not. The word from which "admonish" is translated in this place is the root of the cognate noun "admonition" (Ephesians 4:4), where "It is used of the duty of a father to his children."[32] Thus the metaphor of his being the father of the Corinthians was already in Paul's mind.

[31] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 82.

[32] Ibid., p. 83.

Verse 15

For though ye have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I begat you through the gospel.

Ten thousand tutors ... An element of humor is in this, for certainly that many tutors is too many; and if the word is rendered "guides," as by some, it would still be far too many. Just how many guides could one follow, anyway? As McGarvey said, "The large number rebukes their itch for teachers."[33] The meaning both of "tutor" and of "guide" derives from the Greek word here, [@paidagogos], "who was a slave who escorted his master's child to school."[34] Of course, such an attendant might form a strong attachment for a child, but his love would never approach that of a father.

I begat you through the gospel ... This is used loosely in a metaphorical sense; because in the highest sense, people are begotten only by the gospel. As Farrar put it: "We are begotten only by the will of God, by that word of truth (James 1:18), to which Paul alludes here in the words `through the gospel.'"[35]

[33] J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on First Corinthians (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1916), p. 70.

[34] Donald Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House, 1970), p. 1057.

[35] F. W. Farrar, op. cit., p. 136.

Verse 16

I beseech you therefore, be ye imitators of me.

Paul never meant this in any absolute sense but in the sense of "Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). See also Ephesians 5:1, Phil. 3:17,2Thess. 3:9,1 Thessalonians 1:6.

Verse 17

For this cause have I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who shall put you in remembrance of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church.

From this, it is clear what Paul meant regarding imitation of himself namely, that they should imitate his ways "in Christ," meaning as Paul was truly in the Lord and fully identified with Christ, ways of which Timothy would shortly remind them.

Paul had sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia, probably with instructions to go to Corinth if convenient; since it is not certain that Timothy will

arrive there (1 Corinthians 16:10). This was probably while Paul was at Ephesus (Acts 19:22).[36]

Verse 18

Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you.

Some considerable time had elapsed following Paul's dispatch of Timothy to Corinth; and, when the word came of Timothy's intended arrival, some of the factionists said, "Ah, Paul is afraid to show his face here and is sending Timothy instead of coming himself" However, Paul would explode that misconception with the stern warning written a moment later.

Verse 19

But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will; and I will know, not the word of them that are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?

If the Lord will ... Paul's purpose of going to Corinth to set things in order was dependent only upon the divine pleasure. These words have the effect of "unless providentially hindered."

Not the word ... but the power ... not in word, but in power ... Paul was conscious of his own apostolic power. Elymas had been stricken blind for opposing Paul's teaching at Paphos (Acts 13:11), and many other notable miracles had been wrought by him; and there can be no doubt that Paul counted fully upon the confirmation of the word of God which he proclaimed at Corinth by just such signs and wonders and mighty deeds as God had enabled previously.

What will ye ...? has the effect of "All right, do you really want to put me to the test? If so, I am ready." Paul concludes this particular admonition with a suggestion that it would be far better if they amended their behavior to enable Paul to come to them in loving affection, rather than for the purpose of punishing their wickedness.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.