5. 1 Corinthians 4:1–21
Our flesh seeks to justify ourselves by passing judgment on each other, but judging others or even ourselves is not permitted—the salvation Jesus bought for us on the cross was to rescue us from ourselves, from our flesh.
The Corinthians were promoting and favouring particular men, but this was leading to divisions in the assembly. They were smug in their claims while the apostles were left in last place, overlooked and despised—but which were the wise? Paul exhorted them to imitate him as a father, and to live honourably without deliberate sin. Meanwhile, the boasting words of false apostles and the arrogant words of the Corinthians was dividing the assembly. But the kingdom of God is not of words but of power…
1 Corinthians 4
1 So you should count us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,
This follows on from Paul’s discussion in the previous chapter. He and Apollos are just servants of Christ, like us. Being an apostle is not a position, it is a function or role, which Paul fulfills to the best of his ability in the power of Christ which works “so strongly in him.” He is determined that they shouldn’t continue to be seen as something special which is distracting the Corinthian saints from Jesus and dividing the assembly.
2 though it is also required of stewards that they may be found faithful,
Here he points out that his responsibilities demand faithful and complete performance of his duties,
3 yet it’s of little concern to me if I am appraised by you or anyone; I don’t even grade myself.
but it will make no difference to him whether anyone appraises his faithfulness or not. It is important however, for them to do so, as they need to see that he is faithful so that they can trust his teachings and build their faith on a firm foundation. In the meantime, Paul is so Christ-focused that he doesn’t bother to assess his own behaviour—he isn’t interested in even looking at himself.
4 I have nothing on my conscience, but that doesn’t justify me: the one who judges me is the Lord.
It is very important to maintain a clear conscience at all times, but, while it helps to keep us free from sin, it is no guarantee of purity, in itself. We are not going to be judged by our conscience but by the Lord, because the conscience can only respond to what it knows—what we know.
5 Therefore judge no one before the time when the Lord comes. He will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive praise from God.
Judging people in this context refers to ‘passing judgment’ in the flesh. We are still supposed to ‘know them (in the Spirit) by their fruit,’ so this is much more about pointlessly taking sides and therefore bringing division into the assembly.
All the other translations have used “nothing” for μὴ τις (me tis) or “not anything” even though it means ‘(not) a certain one, any man, another,’ and so on. I have corrected it to “no one” as this passage is not about judging things at all.
Paul’s point is that first, we have no right to be judging each other as we are all equal servants of the Lord, and second, we are not qualified to do so, as we can never know all the salient points of another’s relationship with God, so we must not pass judgment.
This revealing which Jesus will do “on that day” will be a tough experience for many, but for those whose heart motives are good it will be a wonderful day.
6 Brethren, these things I have demonstrated for you using Apollos and myself, so that in us you may learn that one cannot think of anyone more highly than what has been written, so no one may boast of one against another.
They cannot go beyond what has been written, ie, scripture in general, which points out that Jesus alone is Lord of all, and before Him all people are equal with no claim to special glory—not even apostles, archbishops or popes. Therefore to promote one man above another in the body of Christ is to oppose scripture.
7 For who are you to discriminate? And what [right] do you have which you didn’t claim for yourself? But if you took it for yourself, why do you boast as though you didn’t?
Paul is challenging them for claiming the right to promote one apostle over another and for then rejoicing that their self-proclaimed division was somehow superior to any other and was therefore God’s idea, ie, boasting as though they didn’t! Not that they would have seen their behaviour in those terms, of course, but any creation of divisions in the body of Christ (not only by promoting men but also like any of the denominations) is in direct defiance of scripture.
None of the other translations have this meaning for this verse, but it does fit rather better, without compromising the Greek at all.
8 Already you are satisfied, already you are rich! You have claimed your kingship without us! I wish that you really were reigning, so that we would be reigning together with you.
The Corinthians thought they had arrived and had started to strut and boast, not growing in grace with the apostles, who were well aware they all had plenty of growing still to do before they reached perfection.
9 For it seems to me that God has disposed us apostles in the last place, as those doomed to die, for we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to all mankind.
The apostles particularly were to suffer for the name of Jesus, but all saints are called to suffer—it’s the way we grow in grace—so Paul’s position is “stop kidding yourselves—get with the program!” True discipleship is about taking the last position voluntarily, and graciously (even gratefully) accepting the persecution which God allows.
10 We are fools on account of Christ, yet you are so wise in Christ; we are weak, yet you are strong; you are esteemed, yet we are despised.
Translation note: “fools” here does not simply mean stupid but also implies morally worthless in heart and character, rejecting God’s demands. Paul means that they are being written off by both the religious establishment and by the Corinthians, but for different reasons of course: the Pharisees were appalled that they (all those who followed the Way) weren’t obeying Torah; the Corinthians thought they (particularly the apostles) were fools for not using the power of the Holy Spirit to reign victoriously. But clearly the power we have in Christ is to serve God through serving others, not to rule over them.
At the same time “wise” here is more than prudent or intelligent: there is also a hint of conceitedness built in to the word, so we can see that Paul is raising an eyebrow concerning their view of themselves. In particular, the Corinthians are held in high esteem by whom but themselves?
11 Up to now we are hungry, thirsty and ragged; we are beaten and homeless;
12 we toil with our hands; when insulted we bless, when persecuted we endure it;
13 when slandered we implore; we have become the refuse of the world, the dregs of all things, right up till now.
Paul catalogues the struggles he and the other apostles face because he wants the Corinthians to see that their triumphalist lifestyles are completely inappropriate. Their response to insult should also be to bless, to being slandered should also be to implore. When he says ‘implore,’ he means that the response of the apostles to their defamation is to attempt to convince, and therefore convert, their accusers. He is also steadfastly refusing to take command over them.
Translation note: Not only do the Greek words for ‘refuse’ and ‘dregs’ mean rubbish or sweepings, they also referred to those ‘despicable men’ kept imprisoned for their crimes who would be sacrificed to Poseidon by being thrown into the sea, in order to ward off calamity, particularly earthquakes, on behalf of the community. So there is an appropriately sacrificial element here which is hard to reference in English.
14 I write these things not to shame you, but, as my dear children I’m exhorting you,
Paul is “exhorting” them to imitate his example, not “warning them” as most translations put it. And again, not commanding them.
15 for though you have countless tutors in Christ, you don’t have many fathers: for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,
Most of the older translations put “ten thousand” tutors, but the word primarily means “innumerable” or “countless” which is the meaning here.
‘Tutors’ were servants placed in charge of boys to train them in the responsibilities of manhood until they were old enough to take on those responsibilities, but the ‘tutors’ in this verse are actually passages scattered through the Torah, leading the Jews to faith. Paul is saying “even if you study the Torah, finding countless ‘tutors’ (arousing consciousness of sin)…I am your only father in Christ.” Even so, he would insist that no one calls him ‘father’ as Jesus said “call no man father,” since only God is our Father now.
16 so I implore you to become my imitators.
Paul’s claim to being their father is simply that they are to imitate his behaviour, faith and lifestyle—just like children learn to imitate their natural fathers and thereby become just like them.
17 For this reason I’m sending Timothy to you: my beloved and faithful son in the Lord; who will remind you of my conduct in Christ, in line with what I teach everywhere in every assembly.
Timothy is not Paul’s relative, far less his son, as we already know about his mother and grandmother without any reference to Paul’s relationship to either. He calls him ‘son’ in the same sense as he claims fatherhood over the Corinthians in verse 15.
Paul’s conduct among all the assemblies matches his teaching, thereby proving that a genuinely holy life is entirely achievable with the help of the Holy Spirit. Like a son, Timothy has imitated Paul as his behaviour has matched Jesus, so he too lives a truly holy life having chosen to live without deliberate sin.
18 While I have not been coming to you, some have become arrogant,
He wants to confront the tendency of some to slip into the arrogance of divisions which he’s sure they couldn’t have done had he stayed with them.
19 but soon I will come to you if the Lord wills, and I won’t want to know the words of these boasters but their power,
20 for the kingdom of God is not of words but of power.
In other words, if all they can offer is words and boasting but no power, then they are not labouring for the kingdom of God. How many ‘churches’ today are run on many words and no power?
21 Do you want me to come to you with the sceptre, or in a spirit of love and meekness?
This is the only possible “warning” in this chapter—too far from the exhortation in verse 14 to permit that wording there. This is still Paul urging those responsible to repent and get their lives right, so he can visit in love and they can all be mutually encouraged.
All the other translations put “rod,” but it is the same word as ‘staff’ or ‘sceptre.’ There is still a sense of correction here but Paul is not implying that he might physically beat anyone, just that he will confront those in rebellion with the authority of the king, ie, in the power of His word. Either way, whether they need correcting or not, he will approach them in love and in Christ.
Bless you folks, Geoff >ᴥ<