Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-21

Chapter 7


So keenly alive is Paul to the danger and folly of party spirit in the Church, that he has still one more word of rebuke to utter. He has shown the Corinthians that to give their faith to one teacher, and shut their ears to every other form of truth than that which he delivers, is to impoverish and defraud themselves. All teachers are theirs, and are sent, not to win disciples to themselves, who may spread their fame and reflect credit on their talents, but to serve the people, and be merged in self-obliterating toil. The preachers, Paul tells them, exist for the Church: not the Church for the preachers. The people are the primary consideration, the main end to which the preachers are subordinate. The mistake often made in things civil, that the people exist for the king, not the king for the people, is made also in things ecclesiastical, and has, in some instances, attained such dimensions that the "Church" means the clergy, not the laity, and that when a man enters the ministry he is said to enter the Church, -as if already he were not in it as a layman.

Paul now proceeds to demonstrate the futility of the judgment passed upon their teachers by the Corinthians. Paul and the rest were servants of Christ, stewards sent by Him to dispense to others what He had entrusted to them. The question therefore was, were they faithful, did they dispense what they had received in conformity with Christ’s purpose? The question was not, were they eloquent, were they philosophical, were they learned? Criticism no preacher need expect to escape. Sometimes one might suppose sermons were of no other use than to furnish material for a little discussion and pleasant exercise of the critical faculty. Everyone considers himself capable of this form of criticism, and once a sermon has been sorted and labelled as of this, that, or the other quality, it is too often put permanently, aside. In such criticism, Paul reminds us, it is a great matter to bear in mind that what has no great attraction for us may yet serve some good purpose. The gifts dispensed by Christ are various. The influence of some ministers is most felt in private, while others are shy and stiff, and can only utter themselves freely in the pulpit. In the pulpit again various gifts appear, some having good nerve and a ready and felicitous address which reaches the multitude; while others have more power of thought, and a finer literary gift, or a sympathetic manner of handling peculiarities of spiritual experience. Who shall say which of these styles is most edifying to the Church? And who shall say which teacher is most faithfully serving his Master? Who shall determine whether this preacher or that is the better steward, most truly seeking his Lord’s glory, and careless of his own? May it not be expected that when the things at present hidden in darkness, the motives and thoughts of the heart, are brought to light in Christ’s judgment, many that are first shall be last, and the last first?

He who is conscious that he is the servant of Christ and must give account to Him, can always say with Paul, "It is a very small thing that I should be judged of man’s judgment," whether for acquittal and applause or condemnation and abuse. He who utters what is peculiar to himself must expect to be misjudged by those who do not look at things from his point of view. A teacher who thinks for himself and is not a mere echo of other men, finds himself compelled to utter truths which he knows will be misunderstood by many; but so long as he is conscious that he is faithfully delivering what has been made known to himself, the condemnation of the many can trouble him very little or not at all. It is to his own Master he stands or falls; and if he feels sure that he is doing his Master’s will, he may regret the opposition of men, but he can neither be greatly astonished nor greatly perturbed by it. And, on the other hand, the approval and applause of men come to him only as a reminder that there is no finality in man’s judgment, and that it is only Christ’s approval which avails to give permanent satisfaction. A sympathetic audience every teacher needs, but general approval will be his in the inverse ratio of the individuality of his teaching.

In his whole discussion of this subject Paul has named only himself and Apollos, but he means that what he has said of them should be applied to all. "These things I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another." But great difficulty has always been experienced in tracing the similarities and distinctions which exist between the Apostles and the ordinary ministry of the Church, and had Paul been writing this epistle in our own day he would have felt himself compelled to speak more definitely on these points. For what makes union hopeless in Christendom at present is not that parties are formed round individual leaders, but that Churches are based on diametrically opposed opinions regarding the ministry itself. The Church of Rome unchurches all the rest, and defends her action by the simplest process of reasoning. There can be no true Church, she says, where there are no forgiveness of sins and no sacraments, and there can be no forgiveness and no sacraments where there are no true ministers to administer them, and there are no true ministers save those who can trace their orders to the Apostles. This theory of the ministry proceeds on the idea that the Apostles received from Christ a commission to exercise the apostolic office, and along with it a deposit of grace, with powers to communicate this to those who should succeed them. This deposit of grace derived from Christ Himself has been handed down from generation to generation, through a line of consecrated persons, each member of the series receiving at his ordination, and irrespective of his moral character, both the commission and the powers which belonged to his predecessor in office.

This theory of the efficacy of ministration in the Church, with its entirely external account of its transmission, is but one manifestation of the old superstition that confounds the outward symbol of Christian grace with that grace itself. It is a survival from a time in which religion was treated as a kind of magic, in which it was only needful to observe the right words of incantation and the right outward order. Even supposing that any priest now alive could trace his orders back to the Apostles, which no priest can, is it credible that the mere observance of an outward form should secure the transmission of the highest spiritual functions to those who may or may not have any spirituality of mind? However much grace the ordaining bishop may himself possess, however many of the qualifications of a good minister of Christ he may have, he can transmit none of these by the laying on of his hands. He can confer the external authority in the Church which belongs to the office to which he ordains, but he cannot communicate that which fits a man to use this authority. The laying on of hands is the outward symbol of the bestowed of the Holy Spirit, but it does not confer that Spirit, which is given, not by man, but by Christ alone. The laying on of hands is a fit symbol to use at ordination when those who use it have satisfied themselves that the ordained person is in possession of the Spirit. It is the expression of their reasonable belief that the Spirit is given.

In some Churches reaction against the theory of apostolical succession has led men to distrust and repudiate ordination altogether, and to maintain that any man may preach who can get people to listen to him, and may administer the sacraments to any who apply for them. No outward recognition by the Church is deemed necessary. The middle course is safer, which acknowledges not only the supreme necessity of an inward call, but also the expediency of an outward call by the Church. By an inward call it is meant that it is the inward and spiritual fitness of any person which constitutes his main right of entrance to the ministry. There are certain mental and moral endowments, certain circumstances and educational advantages, personal inclinations and leanings, which, when they meet in a boy or young man, point him out as suited for the work of the ministry. The evidence that Christ means that anyone should take office in His Church, -in other words calls him to office, - is the fact that He bestows on that person the gifts which fit him for it.

But besides this inward persuasion wrought in the mind of the individual, and which constitutes the inward call, there must be an outward call also by the Church’s recognition of fitness and communication of authority. Any man who, at his own instance and on his own authority, gathers a congregation and dispenses the sacraments is guilty of schism. Even Barnabas and Paul were ordained by the Church. As in the State a prince though legitimate does not succeed to the throne without formal consecration and coronation, so in the Church there is needful a formal recognition of the title which anyone claims to office. It is not the consecration which constitutes the prince’s right; that he already possesses by birth: so, neither is it the Church’s ordination which qualifies and entitles the minister to his office; this he already has by the gift of Christ; but recognition by the Church is needed to give him due authority to exercise the functions of his office. It is a matter of expediency and of order. It is calculated to maintain the unity of the Church. Admission to the ministry being regulated by those already in office, schisms are less likely to occur. Ordination has been a bulwark against fanaticism, against foolish private opinions and doctrines, against divisive courses in worship and in organisation. If the Church was to be kept together and to grow as a consistent whole, it was necessary that those already in office should be allowed to scrutinise the claims of aspirants to office, and should not have their order invaded, their work thwarted and obstructed, their doctrine denied and contradicted by everyone who might profess to have an inward call to the ministry.

It would therefore seem to be everyone’s duty to inquire, before he gives himself to another profession or business, whether Christ is not claiming him to serve in His Church. The qualifications which constitute a call to the ministry are such as these: an interest in men, in their ways, and habits, and character; a social disposition, inclining you to mix with other people, to take pleasure in their thoughts and feelings, to be of service to them, to talk frankly with them; a liking for reading, if not for hard study; some capacity for thinking and arranging your thoughts and expressing them, which, however, is to so great an extent the result of study and practice that you may find it impossible to say whether you have it or not. There are negative qualifications equally important, such as an indifference to money making, a shrinking from the eager competition and hurry of a business life. And, above all, there are the deeper and essential qualifications which are the fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying energy: some genuine sense of your indebtedness to Christ; a strong desire to serve Him; an ambition to preach Him, to proclaim His worth, to invite men to appreciate and love Him. If you have these desires, and if you would fain be of use in things spiritual to your fellow men, then it would seem that you are called by Christ to the ministry. I do not say that all ministers are so qualified, but only that anyone who is so qualified should be careful how he chooses some other calling in preference to the ministry.

Paul concludes this portion of his Epistle with a pathetic comparison of his condition as an Apostle with the condition of those in Corinth who were glorying in this or that teacher. They spoke as if they needed his instructions no more, and as if already they had attained the highest Christian advantages. "Already ye are full; already ye are rich: ye have reigned as kings without us." They behave as if all the trial of the Christian life were over. With the frothy spirit of young converts, they are full of a triumph which they despise Paul for not inculcating. By one leap they had attained, or thought they had attained, a superiority to all disturbance, and to all trial, and to all need of teaching, which, in fact, as Paul’s own experience taught him, could only be attained in another life. While they thus triumphed, he who had begotten them in Christ was being treated as the offscouring and filth of the world.

Paul can only compare himself and the other Apostles to those gladiators who were condemned to die, and who came into the arena last, after the spectators had been sated with other exhibitions and bloodless performances. "I think that God hath set forth us the Apostles last, as it were appointed to death. For we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels and to men." They came into the arena knowing they should never leave it alive, that they were there for the purpose of enduring the worst their enemies could do to them. It was no fight with buttoned foils Paul and the rest were engaged in. While others sat comfortably looking on, with curtains to shade them from the heat and refreshments to save them from exhaustion or from faintness at the sight of blood, they were in the arena, exposed to wounds, ill usage, and death. They had as little hope of retiring to live a quiet life as the gladiators who had said farewell to their friends and saluted the Emperor as those about to die. Life became no easier, the world no kinder, to Paul as time went on. "Even unto this present hour of writing," he says, "we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place." Here is the finest mind, the noblest spirit, on earth; and this is how he is treated: driven from place to place, thrust aside as interrupting the proper work of men, passed by with a sneer at his rags, refused the commonest charity, paid for his loving words in blows and insolence. And yet he goes on with his work, and lets nothing interrupt that. "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it; being defamed, we entreat." Nay, it is a life which he is so far from giving up himself, that he will call to it the easy-going Christians of Corinth. "I beseech you," he says, "be ye followers of me."

And if the contrast between Paul’s precarious and self-sacrificing life and the luxurious and self-complacent life of the Corinthians might be expected to shame them into some vigorous Christian service, a similar contrast candidly considered may accomplish some good results in us. Already the Corinthians were accepting that pernicious conception of Christianity which looks upon it as merely a new luxury, that they who are already comfortable in all outward respects may be comforted in spirit as well and purge their minds from all anxieties, questionings, and strivings. They recognised how happy a thing it is to be forgiven, to be at peace with God, to have a sure hope of life everlasting. For them the battle was over, the conquest won, the throne ascended. As yet they had not caught a glimpse of what is involved in becoming holy as Christ is holy, nor had steadily conceived in their minds the profound inward change which must pass upon them. As yet it was enough for them that they were called to be God’s children, provided for by a heavenly Father; and Christ’s own view of life and of men had not yet possessed or even dawned upon their soul, causing them to feel that until they could live for others they had no true life.

Are there none still who listen to Christianity rather as a voice soothing their fears than as a bugle summoning them to conflict, who are satisfied if through the Gospel they are enabled to comfort their own soul, and who do not yet respond to Christ’s call to live under the power of that Spirit of His which prompted Him to all sacrifice? Paul does not summon the whole Church to be homeless, destitute, comfortless, outcast from all joy; and yet there is meaning in his words when he says, "Be ye followers of me." He means that there is not one standard of duty for him and another for us. All is wrong with us until we be made somehow to recognise, and make room in our life for the recognition, that we have no right to be lapping ourselves round with all manner of selfish aggrandisement while Paul is driven through life with scarcely one day’s bread provided, that in some way intelligible to our own conscience we must approve ourselves to be his followers, and that no right is secured to any class of Christians to stand selfishly aloof from the common Christian cause. If we be Christ’s, as Paul was, it must inevitably come to this with us: that we cordially yield to him all we are and have; our very selves, with all our tastes and aptitudes and with all we have made by our toil; our life, with all its fruits, we gladly yield to Him. If our hearts be His, this is inevitable and delightful; unless they be so, it is impossible, and seems extravagant. It is vain to say to a man, Serve only yourself in life, seek only to make a reputation for yourself and gather comforts round yourself, and make it the aim of your life to be comfortable and respectable-it is vain to bid a man thus limit and impoverish his life if at the same time you show him a person so attracting human allegiance as Christ does, and so opening to men wider and eternal aims as He floes, and if you show him a cause so kindling every right ambition as Christ’s cause does.

It was Christ’s own self-sacrifice that threw such a spell over the Apostles and gave them so new a feeling towards their fellow men and so new an estimate of their deepest needs. After seeing how Christ lived, they could never again justify themselves in living for self. After seeing His regardlessness of bodily comfort, His superiority to traditional necessities and customary luxuries, after witnessing how veritably He was but passing through this world, and used it as the stage on which he might serve God and men, and counted His life best spent in giving it for others, they could not settle down into the old life and aim only at passing comfortably, reputably, and religiously through it. That view of life was made forever impossible to them. The life of Christ had made a new way for itself into a new region, and the horizon rent by the passage never again closed to them. That life became the only spiritual reality to them. And it is because we are so sunk in self-seeking and worldliness, and so blinded by the customs and traditional ideas about spending life, about acquitting ourselves well and making a name, about earning a competence, about everything which turns the regard in upon self instead of outwards upon objects worthy of our exertion-it is therefore that we continue so unapostolic, so unprofitable, so unchanged.

It might encourage us to bring our life more nearly into the line of Paul’s were we to see clearly that the cause he served is really inclusive of all that is worth working for. We can scarcely apprehend this with any clearness without feeling some enthusiasm for it. The kind of devotedness expected of the Christian is illustrated in the lives of all men of any force of character; the Christian’s devotedness is only given to a larger and more reasonable object. There have been statesmen and patriots, and there still are such, who, though possibly not absolutely devoid of some taint of selfish ambition, are yet in the main devoted to their country; its interests are continually on their mind and heart, their time is given wholly to it, and their own personal tastes and pursuits are held in abeyance and abandoned to make room for more important labour. You have seen men become so enamoured of a cause that they will literally sell all they have to forward it, and who obviously have it on their hearts by night and by day, who live for that and for nothing else; you can detect as often as you meet them that the real aim and object of their life is to promote that cause. Some new movement, political or ecclesiastical, some literary scheme, some fresh enterprise of benevolence, some new commercial idea, or no matter what it is, you have seen again and again that men throw themselves so thoroughly into such causes that they cannot be said to be living for themselves. They will part with time, with property, with other important objects, with health, even with life itself, for the sake of their cherished, chosen cause. And when such a cause is worthy, such as the reformation of prison discipline, or the emancipation of slaves, or the liberating of an oppressed nation, the men who adopt it seem to lead the only lives which have some semblance of glory in them; and the sacrifices they make, the obloquy they incur, the toils they endure, make the heart burn and swell as we hear of them. Everyone instinctively acknowledges that such self-forgetful and heroic lives are the right and model lives for all. What a man does for himself is jealously examined, criticised, and passed at the most with an exclamation of wonder; but what he does for others is welcomed with acclamation as an honour to our common humanity. So long as a man labours merely for himself, to win himself a name, to get for himself a possession, he makes no valuable contribution to the world’s good, and only by accident effects anything for which other men are thankful; but let a man even with small means at his command have the interests of others at his heart, and he sets in motion endless agencies and influences that bless whatever they touch.

It is this then that our Lord does for us by claiming our service; He gives us the opportunity of sinking our selfishness, which is in the last analysis our sin, and of living for a worthier object than our own pleasure or our own careful preservation. When He tells us to live for Him and to seek the things that are His, He but tells us in other words and in a more attractive and practical form to seek the common good. We seek the things that are Christ’s when we act as Christ would act were He in our place, when we let Christ live through us, when we, by considering what He would have us do, let His influence still tell on the world and His will still be done in the world. This should be so done by each and every Christian that the result would be the same as if Christ had personally at command all the resources for good that are possessed by His people, as if He were Himself spending all the money, energy, and time that are being expended by His people, so that at every point where there is a Christian Christ’s purposes might be being forwarded. This is the devotedness we are called to; this is the devotedness we must cultivate until we do make some considerable attainment in it.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".