In Mark 9:35, Jesus provided His followers with an important piece of instruction: “…Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all” (GNB). This type of mindset serves to reflect the characteristics of courtesy, respect, a modest self-opinion, and a willingness to perform in a menial capacity when needed. It also represents an attitude that is opposed to those expressions of conceit, arrogance, or pride that we often see exhibited within our world today.
Although it may not seem obvious from the text, Paul the Apostle will go on to provide us with a graphic description of this idea in the opening verse of 1 Corinthians chapter four…
“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).
With the advent of motorized transportation, it’s easy to forget the burdensome manner in which past civilizations transported people and goods within the ancient world. For instance, airplane transport was not invented until the early 20th century while road transportation was primarily accomplished through the use of human or animal powered vehicles until the steam locomotive came into use early in the 19th century. Because of this, travel by sea often represented the fastest and most efficient means of transportation for those ancients who could take advantage of it.
So what does all this information have to do with 1 Corinthians 4:1? Well in the original language, the word used for “servants” in this passage is a seafaring term that literally means “underowers.” This may be an unfamiliar term to many of us in the 21st century because most nautical vessels are typically powered by some type of engine today. But in Paul the Apostle’s era, the only way that someone could effectively travel upon the ocean was through the use of a ship equipped with sails and/or human oarsmen.
The underowers were the oarsmen who sat below the deck of a ship and provided the power that was necessary to move the vessel across the water. The underowers were not the people who gave the orders- they took their orders from the captain of the ship and then carried them out. This work was difficult, strenuous, and thankless. It was also something that was absolutely necessary, for if these unseen underowers did not do their jobs, their ship would never reach its intended destination.
This is the word-picture that the Apostle Paul used to illustrate his job description in 1 Corinthians 4:1: “Rather than power brokers, think of us as servants…” (Voice).
“This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1 NIV).
As mentioned previously, the word translated “servants” in 1 Corinthians 4:1 literally refers to “underowers.” The underowers were the human oarsmen who sat below the deck of an ancient ship and provided the power necessary to move it across the ocean. This is how the Apostle Paul referred to himself in speaking to those who sought to elevate the status of their leaders to an inappropriate level.
The use of this word carries great significance for those who are serving in various ministerial capacities today. For instance, its often easy for someone to become discouraged when the work that he or she puts into a ministerial effort goes unseen or unappreciated. It is also possible to feel a subtle sense of inadequacy when coming into contact with other leaders who have been given an opportunity to represent Christ in a more visible position.
For example, a bi-vocational minister who works to provide for a family and serve the needs of a congregation may be troubled by the lack of opportunity for sermon preparation. Or perhaps a musician who has been given the privilege of leading a small group of God’s people in worship may long for an opportunity to minister to a wider audience. Those who possess the gifts of leadership, teaching, administration, or evangelism (to name a few), may wonder why God has not opened the door to utilize those gifts more fully.
This is where Paul’s self-assessment in 1 Corinthians 4:1 can help to provide us with real encouragement. You see, the work that God has given us to do (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may appear to be) carries great value. If those small, thankless ministry responsibilities were left unfulfilled, then we might miss out on an opportunity to help others reach the destination that God intends for them. Therefore, as Paul himself reminds us in Galatians 6:9, “…let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
In light of these things, it’s important to recognize our responsibility to be faithful to God in acting upon the work He has called us to do regardless of how limited or unimportant those opportunities may seem to be. For Paul, this represented a type of stewardship- and we’ll take a closer look at that idea next.
“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).
The imagery that the Apostle Paul employs within this passage is that of a manager (or “steward”) who serves as an employee in relation to a business owner but a person of superior rank in relation to the other workers within the business. One source clarifies this responsibility in the following manner…
“A steward… was a servant whom his master entrusted with the administration of his business or property. His job was to devote his time, talents, and energy to executing his master’s interests, not his own. The figure stresses both the apostles’ humble position as belonging to Christ and their trusted yet accountable position under God.” (1)
So Paul first made certain to recognize his position as a servant in relationship to Jesus. That recognition subsequently informed and influenced the use of his authority in order to serve as a caretaker or trustee who had been “…put in charge of explaining God’s mysteries” (NLV).
As mentioned earlier, the Biblical idea of a “mystery” refers to a spiritual truth that was previously hidden but has now been (or will be) revealed. In this instance, Paul was tasked with the responsibility of dispensing these mysteries of God and communicating their application to the churches under his care, much as someone might instruct those who are less experienced in order to facilitate their growth
In considering the application of this passage, we might say that every follower of Christ maintains a similar type of management responsibility in a sense. The idea is that every Christian carries an obligation to prayerfully manage his or her God-given gifts, skills, opportunities and authority in a way that honors Him. Those who manage such assets in a God-honoring manner can look forward to a great reward, for as as Jesus Himself once remarked…
“The trustworthy servant is the one whom the master puts in charge of all the servants of his household; it is the trustworthy servant who not only oversees all the work, but also ensures the servants are properly fed and cared for. And it is, of course, crucial that a servant who is given such responsibility performs his responsibility to his master’s standards so when the master returns he finds his trust has been rewarded. For then the master will put that good servant in charge of all his possessions” (Matthew 24:45-47 Voice).
(1) Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [4:1] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm#p714
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Earlier in his letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul said, “The spiritual person is able to judge all things, but no one can judge him” (1 Corinthians 2:15 NCV). Paul now returns to the subject of judgment here in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 by way of a self-application. Since the book of 1 Corinthians will come back to this idea of judgment again in future chapters, its important to maintain a good understanding of this concept in order to apply it in a God-honoring manner.
When the word “judge” is employed outside a court of law, it generally refers to to the act of forming an opinion or evaluation. It may also be used to designate someone who makes estimates as to worth, quality, or fitness. (1) When used within the Scriptures, the word “judge” can mean to distinguish (or) to decide (2) or to be of an opinion, to deem, (or) to think. (3)
When this reference to “judgment” first appeared within the book of 1 Corinthians, the context involved those who were qualified to properly assess spiritual matters. In that instance, Paul observed that a person who used a non-spiritual standard to measure spiritual things lacked the ability to properly judge a God-honoring man or woman.
However, this does not mean we should automatically dismiss others whose judgments differ from our own. For instance, the Scriptures tell us that we have a general obligation to follow the judgments of those in authority, provided they do not commit us to act unscripturally, illegally, immorally, or unethically (Romans 13:1). And as much as we might be reluctant to admit it, it seems that non-Christians sometimes possess an uncanny ability to accurately assess a Christian who may not be acting in accordance with what he or she professes to believe.
In light of this, we should notice that Paul did not say that the judgment of those within the Corinthian church was worthless; it was only that “…it matters very little to me how I am evaluated by you or by any human court” (CJB). In other words, Paul took such judgments and subjected them to the highest authority- the Lord Himself. We’ll consider some some practical ways to make similar assessments next.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary third edition
(2) New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. © 1994, Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, Inc.
(3) The Online Bible Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Copyright © 1993, Woodside Bible Fellowship, Ontario, Canada. Licensed from the Institute for Creation Research.
“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” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NIV).
The Corinthian church’s view of the Apostle Paul and his ministry meant very little to him. He felt the same way regarding the verdicts rendered by human courts- and Paul stood before a considerable number of them. (1) In fact, Paul refused to accept his own assessment in this area even though he was personally unaware of anything that might be held against him.
If such judgments were of limited value to Paul the Apostle, then how can we make good, God-honoring evaluations in our own lives? Well, the Scriptures provide us with a number of checks and balances that we can use to help us make good decisions when considering the opinions of others. For example…
- Are we being encouraged to pursue a God-honoring course of action? “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).
- Is there a person who holds a legitimate position of spiritual authority involved? “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
- Is there a person who holds a legitimate position of civil authority involved? “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1).
- Do we have enough information to make a wise and informed decision? “Without deliberation, plans go wrong; but with many advisers, they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22 CJB).
- Are we simply feeling pressured to go along with the crowd? “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
- Is there an attitude of Christ-like love? “For the love of Christ compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
We’ll look at some additional guidelines taken from Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount that we can use to make good decisions in this area next.
Portions of this study originally appeared here
“As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord Himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NLT).
The Apostle Paul’s regard for the evaluations and assessments of others provides us with a good opportunity to consider how we should respond to those who seek to offer such counsel in our own lives. A look at Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount (as found within Matthew chapters five to seven) can help provide us with a helpful framework for use in evaluating the opinions of others when they seek to pass judgment upon us.
For instance, we might prayerfully consider the following questions…
- Have we acted in meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity and/or peace? (Matthew 5:1-9).
- What are the motives of those who seek to evaluate us? (Matthew 5:10-12)
- Have we truly been engaged in an effort to honor and glorify God (Matthew 5:16) or have we been motivated to make such choices so others can honor and glorify us (Matthew 6:1-6)?
- Do our choices reflect an eternal investment or do they reflect something else? (Matthew 6:19-21)
- Are we first seeking the “…the kingdom of God and His righteousness” or is there some other agenda involved? (Matthew 6:31-34)
- What is the standard of judgment that we choose to employ in our own assessment of others? (Matthew 7:1-6).
- What is the general lifestyle of those who are seek to render their opinion of us? What kind of results (or “fruit”) have their lives produced? (Matthew 7:15-20).
A person who prayerfully reflects on these questions is someone should be well-prepared to make good, God-honoring evaluations in many different circumstances of life. As one commentator has pointed out…
“It mattered little to Paul… how well the Corinthians or anyone else thought he was carrying out his stewardship, how popular or unpopular he was. His personal evaluations of his own performance were irrelevant too.
What did matter to him was God’s estimation of his service. Paul did not give much time and attention to introspection… though he sought to live with a good conscience before God. Rather he concentrated on doing the job God had put before him to the best of his ability since he was accountable…” (1)
(1) Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [4:3] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm#p714
“Now, I am not at all concerned about being judged by you or by any human standard; I don’t even pass judgment on myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not prove that I am really innocent. The Lord is the one who passes judgment on me” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 GNB).
A person who is familiar with the Biblical book of 1 Corinthians may be aware of the Apostle Paul’s counsel from later within this book: “…if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:31). In light of that counsel, how then could Paul make such a seemingly contradictory statement here in 1 Corinthians chapter four in saying, “I do not even judge myself” (NET) ?
While it may seem as if Paul is trying to have it both ways on this question, he was actually speaking in two different contexts. For instance, Paul clarified the meaning of his statement here in chapter four when he said: “I have a clear conscience, but that doesn’t mean I have God’s approval. It is the Lord who cross-examines me” (GW).
Even though Paul was personally unaware of anything that could be held against him, he accepted the fact that God would serve as the ultimate arbiter of his choices and decisions. However, that did not relieve Paul of the responsibility to Biblically evaluate (or pass judgment) upon himself to ensure that his life and work was in alignment with God’s will for him to the best of his ability (as implied in 1 Corinthians 11:31).
Both contexts still hold true for God’s people today and Paul was quick to add a personal application in the following verse…
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
This passage reminds us that one of the most valuable gifts we can receive from God is the gift of discernment. In a spiritual sense, discernment involves the ability to see things as God sees them and not necessarily how they may appear to be. Discernment is listed among the spiritual gifts that Paul will later go on to identify in 1 Corinthians chapter twelve and it helps provide us with the ability to exercise perception, understanding, and/or good judgment in a given situation.
A person who seeks God daily for His wisdom and discernment is someone who can transcend his or her limited conscience to reveal any hidden motivations that may only be known to God.
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
One of the more difficult challenges of life involves identifying and interacting with those who seem to possess an ulterior motive. In business, politics, relationships, or other areas of life, those who hold such hidden agendas (consciously or unconsciously) may not always be what they appear to be.
Therefore, a wise person will prayerfully seek to depend upon the Spirit of God to accurately assess “…the real reasons why people do what they do” (NIRV) and respond appropriately.
Regrettably, Paul had to act upon such God-given discernment as he explained in a deeply personal section of his Biblical letter to the Philippians…
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what happened to me has helped to spread the Good News. As a result, it has become clear to all the soldiers who guard the emperor and to everyone else that I am in prison because of Christ. So through my being in prison, the Lord has given most of our brothers and sisters confidence to speak God’s word more boldly and fearlessly than ever.
Some people tell the message about Christ because of their jealousy and envy. Others tell the message about him because of their good will. Those who tell the message about Christ out of love know that God has put me here to defend the Good News. But the others are insincere. They tell the message about Christ out of selfish ambition in order to stir up trouble for me while I’m in prison.
But what does it matter? Nothing matters except that, in one way or another, people are told the message about Christ, whether with honest or dishonest motives, and I’m happy about that. Yes, I will continue to be happy” (Philippians 1:12-18 GW).
So there were some who outwardly seemed to be engaged in a great work for God but were actually driven by highly inappropriate motives. Since it is often impossible for fallible human beings (who possess faulty judgments of their own) to identify such motivation, Paul wisely cautioned the Corinthian church as follows…
“…resist the temptation to act as judges before all the evidence is in. When the Lord comes, He will draw our buried motives, thoughts, and deeds (even things we don’t know or admit to ourselves) out of the dark shadows of our hearts into His light” (Voice).
“So don’t pronounce judgment prematurely, before the Lord comes; for he will bring to light what is now hidden in darkness; he will expose the motives of people’s hearts; and then each will receive from God whatever praise he deserves” (1 Corinthians 4:5 CJB).
The counsel found here in 1 Corinthians 4:5 is timeless and highly applicable to a number of different life situations both inside and outside the church.
For example, the challenges and difficulties that we experience with others at home, at church, in the workplace, or other areas of life may lead us to pursue a kind of internal judgment that places those individuals on trial for the wrongs (real or imagined) they may have committed. The problem is that we often have little or no ability to ascertain the real motive that may have led someone to choose a particular course of action in many instances.
Since we often lack sufficient evidence to reach an accurate verdict whenever we place others on trial in this manner, we are inevitably left to render a judgment based on insufficient evidence. The issue is that whenever we seek to judge another person’s motive, we are venturing into an area where it is easy to sentence others for crimes they did not commit.
Another issue is related to our qualification to judge in this manner. It is important to keep in mind that God is the only person who has all the information necessary to render an accurate assessment of another person’s motive. As Paul the Apostle cautioned in his letter to the church at Rome, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
Therefore, it would be much better to learn from the actions of others than seek to judge their internal motivations. It would be better to apply the lessons that others teach us through their choices (and resultant consequences) instead of rendering judgment in areas where we lack sufficient evidence. Remember that everyone serves to teach and instruct others through the example of their lives. Some teach others what to do and some teach others what not to do.
As Jesus Himself was quoted as saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).
“Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
The Apostle Paul has made use of a number of analogies thus far in his letter to the church at Corinth. Those analogies included comparisons to the worlds of agriculture, building construction, and architecture (1 Corinthians 3:6-15), as well as the concept of God’s people as the Temple of God (3:16-17), and stewards of the calling that He has placed upon our lives (4:1-2).
So having now shared these analogies for the benefit of his readers, Paul went on to establish his conclusion in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “Dear brothers and sisters, I have used Apollos and myself to illustrate what I’ve been saying. If you pay attention to what I have quoted from the Scriptures, you won’t be proud of one of your leaders at the expense of another” (NLT).
On important thing to note from this passage is the fact that Paul cautioned against showing favor to one teacher against (NIV) another. You see, it was not that some among the Corinthian fellowship liked one teacher over another. It wasn’t that some connected better with one teacher than another. It was not that there were those who preferred one style of teaching over a different style of teaching. It was that some were for one leader and against another- and Paul will go on to deal with that attitude in a rather aggressive manner over the next few verses of chapter four.
However, there is another important aspect to consider within this verse as well: “You should learn from us not to go beyond what is written in Scripture” (GW). A person who aligns his or her view of leadership and ministry with the Word of God is someone who is not likely to repeat the example of those within the Corinthian church. On the other hand, a person who applies an extrabiblical standard in these areas may end up with something just as bad or worse.
As one commentator has thoughtfully observed, “Many people today evaluate a pastor or a minister on unbiblical standards. They judge him on the basis of his humor, or entertainment value, his appearance, or his skill at marketing and sales. But this is to think beyond what is written in the sense Paul means it here.” (1)
(1) David Guzik, 1 Corinthians 4 Are You Glorified Without Us? https://enduringword.com/commentary/1-corinthians-4/
“Now I have applied these things [that is, the analogies about factions] to myself and Apollos for your benefit, believers, so that you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written [in Scripture], so that none of you will become arrogant and boast in favor of one [minister or teacher] against the other” (1Corinthians 4:6 AMP).
The message contained within 1 Corinthians 4:6 is one that we would do well to observe: “Follow only what is written in the Scriptures” (NCV). To continue with a quotation from a commentator referenced earlier…
“In a broader sense, it is an important lesson: not to think beyond what is written; we must take our every cue from Scripture. It used to be that something was considered Biblical if it came from the Bible; today, people say things are ‘Biblical’ if can’t find a verse which specifically condemns it. This is to think beyond what is written.” (1)
This is a risk that may assume many different forms. For instance, we should be cautious in evaluating novel interpretations of Biblical passages or explanations that feature “hidden meanings” of Biblical texts that claim to have been revealed only to a select few. Remember the wise old general rule of Biblical interpretation: if a Biblical passage makes good sense then we should accept it as it is lest we end up with nonsense.
There are other examples as well. These might include an excessive emphasis on the examination of current events and their potential Biblical significance or the act of taking Biblical numerology to an unhealthy extreme. We must also be careful in appraising those who simply employ Biblical references in support of some large belief system.
Those who seek to justify such things may sometimes appeal to the final verse of John’s Gospel for validation: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen” (John 21:25). The idea is that since Jesus did many other things that are not recorded in the Scriptures, that reality somehow permits us to act upon any interpretation (no matter how dubious) we may choose.
The proper response can be found within 1 Corinthians 4:6: “Do not go beyond what is written” (NIV). If we cannot establish a particular doctrine or belief as something that was validated by Jesus within the Gospels, practiced by the early church within the book of Acts, and taught by the Apostles within the New Testament Epistles, then we would be wise to exercise caution.
(1) David Guzik, 1 Corinthians 4 – Are You Glorified Without Us? https://enduringword.com/commentary/1-corinthians-4/
“For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
1 Corinthians 4:7 is a passage that serves to draw our attention to the relationship between the things we possess and the things we’ve received.
Consider the area of finances as an example. A person who has worked hard to utilize his or her talent in accumulating financial wealth may feel justified in saying, “It’s my money and I can do whatever I want with it.” While a strong work ethic is certainly commendable, a person who holds to such a belief should also consider this question: “Where did you get the talent, ability, and opportunity that enabled you to be successful?”
You see, a person who possesses the qualities that are necessary for achievement in life should recognize that we do not possess anything that God has not allowed us to have. Therefore, we should be respectful and thankful toward the God who has provided us with those skills, talents, opportunities and abilities we need in order to prosper. Once we recognize the fact that we owe everything we have to God, it it becomes easier to view our possessions (both material and immaterial) in the proper light.
We can look to the example of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob to provide us with an illustration of this idea in action. When Jacob’s employer repeatedly attempted to change the terms of their working agreement to benefit himself, Jacob responded in the following manner…
“If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you” (Genesis 31:42).
While Jacob worked hard to achieve what he had, he also knew that God was the One who was truly responsible for his success. Because of this, Jacob made certain to credit the Lord for His protection and provision. It seems that Jacob understood a Biblical concept that was later recorded in a portion of Scripture that we would do well to remember…
“You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NIV).
“For what gives you the right to make such a judgment? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7 NLT).
The unhealthy attitude expressed by some within the Corinthian church has led one commentator to make an astute observation: “Paul is reminding these proud leaders that they were not the originators or discoverers of truth, but recipients of other’s ministry… Some leaders and their followers were acting as if they were the source of the truths they proclaimed.” (1)
The Apostle Paul’s pointed response here in 1 Corinthians 4:7 also brings to mind God’s message to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel…
“In the tenth year, in the tenth month on the twelfth day, the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt.
Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “‘I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams. You say, “The Nile belongs to me; I made it for myself”” (Ezekiel 29:1-3 NIV).
What was it that led God to interact with the king of Egypt in such a manner? The answer is pride and arrogance: “…You say, ‘The Nile is mine; I made it for myself'” (NCV). In light of this, we can say that Pharaoh had apparently forgotten (or refused to recognize) the fact that every good thing we possess is a gift from God (see James 1:17)
The Scriptures take a decidedly negative view of such pretentiousness. For instance, Proverbs 8:13 tells us, “If anyone respects and fears God, he will hate evil. For wisdom hates pride, arrogance, corruption, and deceit of every kind” (TLB). As the Apostle Paul will also go on to say within the book of 1 Corinthians, “be careful if you think you stand, lest you fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
We should also take note of Paul’s message to the church in Rome as found within the Biblical book of Romans: “…You stand only by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear” (Romans 11:20). When we recognize that God owns all that we have, our role as managers or stewards of those things we possess (a concept that Paul discussed at length earlier within this chapter) then becomes much easier to grasp.
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, 1 Corinthians 4 [4:7] http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_04.html
“You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you!” (1 Corinthians 4:8).
Over the next nine verses of 1 Corinthians chapter four, the Apostle Paul will enter into a frank discussion concerning the general attitude of the Corinthian church. We should note Paul’s use of the term “us” and “we” in reading through this portion of Scripture for the things that Paul will say within this passage will not be related exclusively to him but to all who labored with him in similar leadership capacities.
You see, there was a significant difference in the way the Corinthians viewed their leaders and the way in which Apostles viewed themselves. Unlike those within the Corinthian church, Paul did not see himself in competition with these other leaders nor did he feel threatened by them. On the contrary, Paul expressed his desire that they would all arrive at the point where they all would reign together, as noted in the passage quoted above.
So rather than exert his preeminence as an Apostle, Paul looked forward to a time when he would reign with those who served within the Corinthian church and not exercise leadership responsibility over them. And while Paul will be very direct in speaking to his readers over the next few verses, it helps to remember that he was speaking to an audience that was under the impression that they were closer to God then they actually were.
This passage will also serve to remind us that there are times when the most appropriate thing we can do for others is speak the truth in no uncertain terms. Yet even this does not permit us to interact with others in an unkind or disrespectful manner. For instance, it may be possible to communicate difficult truths simply by asking a series of questions as Paul did here: “Do you already have everything you need? Are you already rich? Have you become kings, even though we are not? Well, I wish you really were kings, so that we could be kings together with you” (GNB).
As one source has observed in commenting on this passage, “(Paul’s) readers were behaving as though they had already received their commendation at the judgment seat of Christ… They should have been conducting themselves as under-rowing servants and paying attention to managing God’s work faithfully (1 Corinthians 4:1).” (1)
(1) Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition Dr. Thomas L. Constable [4:8, pg 51] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/1corinthians.pdf
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!” (1 Corinthians 4: 9-10).
Using imagery borrowed from the society of his day, the Apostle Paul will spend the next portion of 1 Corinthians chapter four sharing the irony of the relationship that had developed between the Apostles and those whom they served. To do so, he will use his experience with the members of the church at Corinth as his case in point.
Although the Corinthians believed that they possessed enough spiritual maturity to pass judgment upon the Apostles and their other spiritual leaders, let’s consider Paul’s description of himself and his fellow Apostles within this passage: “Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed” (NLT).
While sources vary widely, many commentators believe that this verse refers to a Roman triumphal procession, a theatrical exhibition, or perhaps both. If Paul had the former view in mind, then this image is associated with a conquering Roman general who led a great procession upon his victorious return from the battlefield.
As part of this procession, the conquering army would be first to march on display. Next came the spoils of war that were collected from the battle. At the end of this procession came the defeated captives and others who were condemned to be thrown to the lions and die in the arena. Those who were condemned to die in this manner thus became part of what was known as the “spectacle.” As used in the original language, this word forms the basis from which we derive the modern-day word “theatre.”
Another possibility is related to the gladiatorial games of that era where prisoners or other combatants were brought to an arena where they were destined to perish in battle or be killed via an attack by a wild animal. Yet even those who managed to survive these contests achieved little more than a hollow victory, for as one commentator observes, “…the victor did not escape with his life, though he should destroy his adversary, but was only kept for another combat, and must be killed at last.” (1)
These are the word-pictures that Paul used to describe his ministry along with that of the other Apostles.
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/Matthew-Henry/1Cor/Cautions-Against-Despising
“But it seems to me that God has given me and the other apostles the last place. We are like prisoners condemned to die, led in a parade for the whole world to see–not just people but angels too. We are fools for Christ, but you think you are so wise in Christ. We are weak, but you think you are so strong. People give you honor, but they don’t honor us” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10 ERV).
One commentary provides us with some additional insight regarding the imagery found within this passage: “The figure is drawn from the Roman amphitheatre. At ‘last,’ near the close of the games, gladiators doomed to die were led forth and shown to the spectators, then stripped of all armor, and exposed naked to the attack of others.” (1) This was the illustration that the Apostle Paul selected under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to help describe the lives and ministries of the Apostles.
In certain respects, our 21st century age of technology serves to provide us with a unique historical vantage point from which to consider these verses. For instance, today’s video-sharing platforms make it easy to document the events of our lives in near real-time. With the advent of mobile video technology, we now possess the ability to record those events as they occur and quickly share them with millions of others throughout the world.
With this in mind, consider how you might feel if someone were to provide a 24 hour live stream of every painful, slanderous, hurtful thing that you ever had to endure. What if someone were to produce a daily video documentary that featured every instance where you were dishonored, ridiculed, or embarrassed? In a sense, this was something like what life was like for Paul and the other Apostles. Although people tend to act differently when they are in front of a camera and try to present themselves in the best possible light, that wasn’t an option for the Apostles.
But the lives of Paul and his fellow Apostles were actually on display before a far wider audience: “We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings” (NIV). While its likely that Paul was referring to those angels who were good and loyal to God, he may have had the demonic side of the angelic realm in mind as well. If so, then its possible that the challenges and difficulties endured by these men of God provided these demonic beings with an opportunity to mock and ridicule their sufferings as well.
(1) Johnson, Barton W. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:4”. “People’s New Testament”. “www.studylight.org/commentaries/pnt/1-corinthians-4.html“. 1891.
“As for us, fools are we on account of Christ. But as for you, you are members of the intelligentsia in your union with Christ. As for us, we are those who are frail and infirm. But as for all of you, you are those who are mighty. As for all of you, you are those who are illustrious, honorable, held in esteem by others. But as for us, we are those whom no one respects” (1 Corinthians 4:10 Wuest).
In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13, the Apostle Paul will go on to provide us with some insight into his life and the lives of his fellow Apostles. But what does this passage mean for our relationships with church leaders today? We’ll consider that question over the course of the next few studies.
You see, there may be some who attend church on Sunday and wonder what a minister does during the remainder of the week. For such people, it may seem as if the work of the Pastor requires the preparation of weekly sermon and little else. But then there are others who recognize and appreciate the immense responsibility that accompanies a Pastoral ministry.
For instance, consider the qualifications for such ministers as found within the New Testament books of 1 Timothy and Titus…
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:2-7).
“…if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:6-9).
It may be helpful to keep these demanding qualifications in mind whenever we are tempted to criticize those who serve within a Pastoral ministry.
“To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless” (1 Corinthians 4:11).
Most athletes know what it means to face judgment. You see, an athlete is routinely judged (often quite harshly) by spectators who observe his or her performance. Athletes also face judgment from those who catalog the statistical aspects of their career for the benefit of gamblers, “fantasy sports” gamers, and others who feel qualified to offer their own amateur analysis of their performance.
While a friendly debate concerning the merits of our favorite players and teams may provide a welcome diversion from the pressures and challenges of life, there is a certain irony associated with these types of judgments. You see, an athlete who competes at the highest level of his or her sport is among the very few people on Earth (often numbering in the hundreds) who is actually capable of such competitive endeavors. Yet millions of spectators, journalists, and amateur talent evaluators often feel justified in brutally criticizing those who possess the ability to perform at such a high level if they should ever fail.
To a certain extent, this illustrates the manner in which some choose to relate to Pastoral ministers within the church. For instance, we may feel justified in critiquing what we believe to be a sub-par message from the pulpit, but how many people within an average congregation actually know what its like to prepare and deliver a message from God’s Word? How many of us can truly appreciate the tremendous accountability and responsibility associated with teaching the Scriptures? How many have had to deliver a sermon when they were ill, tired, or otherwise unable to adequately prepare?
But there some other aspects associated with such judgments as well. For instance, the Pastor must sometimes live with the unrealistic expectations of those who assume that every member of the clergy should possess a vast reservoir of knowledge concerning their particular area of spiritual interest or is a subject matter expert in the application of Biblical truth in the areas of science, politics, current events and virtually any other topic imaginable.
It is these types of things that have led one Pastor to observe, “In many situations, the pastor needs to be a Bible teacher, accountant, strategist, visionary, computer tech, counselor, public speaker, worship director, prayer warrior, mentor, leadership trainer and fundraiser. Who can be all of that?” (1)
The answer of course, is no one other than those whom God has given the strength and ability to do so.
(1) Philip Wagner The Secret Pain of Pastors http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/167379-philip-wagner-secret-pain-of-pastors.html
“And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure;” (1 Corinthians 4:12).
Many of those within the Corinthian church failed to recognize the struggles and difficulties that Paul and his fellow Apostles were forced to endure in the course of fulfilling God’s call upon their lives. In like manner, those who attend church today may not have a real appreciation for the challenges that a Pastoral leader encounters on a regular basis as well.
For instance, an average week might find a Pastor visiting with those who are hospitalized or someone who is facing a crisis situation. Since emergencies are never planned in advance, this means that the Pastor is often on call 24 hours a day to provide spiritual and emotional support to those who have been entrusted to his care.
This might involve any conceivable situation from counseling with others to serving in the role of a chaplain during a time of national emergency. Because these ministerial leaders are called by God, they can be counted upon to run toward the scene of an emergency (and not away from it) in order to fulfill the calling to represent Christ and serve others.
While most people generally look forward to Friday and the end of the work week, a Pastoral leader often works on the weekends to officiate weddings or other ceremonies (sometimes without compensation). And while many view Sunday as a day of rest, Sunday represents a working day for the minister.
Funeral services may also be particularly challenging for a Pastoral leader for they often require a great degree of humility, sensitivity, and grace. The Pastor must comfort the grieving, graciously interact with those who are in deep emotional pain over the passing of a loved one, and fulfill the responsibility to communicate the gospel of salvation through Christ- all at the same time. The ability to successfully carry out such responsibilities are gifts that most people simply do not possess.
But there are other, more mundane aspects of Pastoral ministry that may go unnoticed. For example, the Pastor is often responsible for attempting to make various repairs around the church if no one else is available to do so. Unless the church is large enough to retain an administrative staff, the Pastor will likely have to deal with all manner of business solicitations or requests from those who are seeking church support for various causes.
These are all items that fall under the Pastor’s job description but may go unnoticed (and unappreciated) by others.
“being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Corinthians 4:13).
Paul the Apostle’s graphic description found here within 1 Corinthians 4:13 invokes the image of a cleansing agent that one might use to thoroughly clean and polish some other object. But once that cleansing agent has completed its task, it is then discarded leaving the effects of its work as the only evidence of its existence.
To some degree, this image is reflective of the manner in which Paul had been treated by some within the Corinthian church. Unfortunately, a similar attitude may sometimes exist towards those who also serve in ministry positions today. Consider the following anecdote related by a modern-day Pastoral leader…
“A pastor told me that when he was new at his present church, he received a phone call from a woman in his congregation. ‘Pastor, I have bought some file cabinets for our association. Would you go get them today and bring them to the associational office?’
He said, ‘No, I won’t be able to do that.’ The woman replied, ‘What do you mean ‘no’?’
…The pastor said, ‘Ma’am, today is my off day. My wife and I are out of town, visiting with friends. My car is not big enough to carry those file cabinets. You bought them for the director of missions; let him come get them. And besides, the associational office is closed today.’
The woman replied, ‘I didn’t know we had hired us a socialite.'” (1)
We can use the descriptive elements found within 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 to help avoid such unfortunate attitudes towards ministry leaders today. For example, let’s say that we have a disagreement with a Pastoral minister. Perhaps a member of the clergy has acted insensitively or has failed to meet our expectations in some manner. Or perhaps we have a difference of opinion on a secondary issue or minor theological point.
With these things in mind, we should ask if such disagreements make it appropriate to act in a disrespectful manner towards a Pastor or other church leader. Do such disagreements permit us to be inconsiderate or interact with that person in a manner that we would not appreciate? Do such differences make it permissible to share them in a way that serves to undermine that leader?
Remember Jesus’ message from Matthew 7:2: “…God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others” (GNB). If we had a greater appreciation for the job that our Pastoral leaders do, then perhaps we might not be so quick to criticize them.
(1) Joe McKeever 5 Little-Known Truths About Pastors http://www.outreachmagazine.com/features/17280-5-little-known-truths-about-pastors.html/2
“I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:14-16).
The lengthy list of hardships and difficulties associated with the life of apostle (as detailed within the preceding verses of 1 Corinthians chapter four) was not intended to elicit a sense of sympathy for Paul the Apostle. Instead, one commentator identifies the real motivation behind Paul’s graphic description of his life as an apostle…
“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. Hence Paul’s vindication of himself.” (1)
Paul was clearly concerned that the congregation at Corinth had begun to diverge from the path that he had originally modeled for them. Many among the members of that fellowship were spiritually immature. Some were arrogant. Others were caught up in a “cult of personality” with regard to various leaders within the church. In response, Paul’s candid description of his life and ministry was designed to illustrate the type of attitude that was really important- so important that Paul framed his response in terms of a parental responsibility.
In a similar manner, there may be some who are familiar with the heartache of watching a loved one travel down a life path that is certain to end in pain, sorrow, or regret. In such instances, we may sometimes turn to our own life experiences in an effort to convince those we love to act in their own best interest and make choices that honor God. In a sense, this was something like Paul’s experience with those within the Corinthian church.
Paul was sincerely motivated by his deep concern for their spiritual well being; so much so that he was willing to use the motivational tools at his disposal (including a description of his life as an apostle that others might have viewed as self-serving) in order to help them make the right choices. While the members of the church at Corinth may not have been called upon to make the same kinds of sacrifices that Paul and his fellow apostles were called to make, they could certainly emulate the same type of spiritual attitude.
(1) Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1 Corinthians Chapter 4. Paul’s Self-Vindication [pg. 594] Copyright © 2000, 2007 by Halley’s Bible Handbook, Inc.
“I’m not writing this to shame you, but to warn you as my dear children. For you can have 10,000 instructors in Christ, but you can’t have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:14-16 HCSB).
There is an old proverbial saying that tells us, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” In a similar manner, the statement “Ten thousand people may teach you about Christ…” (CEV) may represent a subtle implication that the members of the Corinthian church had more such teachers than was desirable. (1)
In any event, a look at the original language used to author this portion of Scripture tells us that Paul the Apostle sought to establish an important contrast. For instance, the “instructor” referenced here (or paidagogos as found in the original language) has been described by one source in the following manner…
“Among the Greeks and the Romans the name was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.” (2)
While such a teacher might retain a valued and respected place in the life of a student, a teacher was certainly no substitute for a child’s parent. The parent was the one who brought the student into physical life- and no third-party teacher could ever make such a claim.
As the human agent that God used to bring the members of the Corinthian church into spiritual life, Paul felt the similar weight of a parental responsibility towards the congregation at Corinth. Paul took this responsibility so seriously that he will go on to adapt this idea of a paidagogos for use with the members of the Corinthian church in the following verse.
Of course, anyone who observes little children will quickly discover that they often learn by imitating others. For example, a child will learn to walk, talk, and interact with others simply by watching and imitating the things that he or she sees and hears. Paul used this idea to illustrate the fact that God’s people should also be imitators of those who lead by example in demonstrating a genuine, Christ-like attitude. In fact, Paul will later go on to offer this same exhortation again in 1 Corinthians by encouraging his readers to “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
(1) A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments [1 Corinthians 4:15] by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown
(2) G3807 paidagogos Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“This is why I have sent Timothy to you. He is my dearly loved and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you about my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17).
The “Timothy” referenced within this passage is perhaps best known for his association with the two New Testament books that bear his name. Timothy was the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother who had become a Christian (Acts 16:2). He was also someone who had been well-acquainted with the Scriptures from his youth (2 Timothy 1:5, 2 Timothy 3:15).
Although Timothy held a leadership role within the church at Ephesus at one point in his ministry, it appears that he acted as something of a troubleshooter for Paul in regard to the situation at Corinth. One source provides us with some additional background information on Paul’s relationship with Timothy and the decision to send him to Corinth…
“Timothy had traveled with Paul on Paul’s second missionary journey (see Act_16:1-3) and was a key person in the growth of the early church. Timothy probably did not deliver this letter to Corinth but more likely arrived there shortly after the letter came (see 1Co_16:10). Timothy’s role was to see that Paul’s advice was read and implemented. Then he was to return to Paul and report on the church’s progress.” (1)
The New Testament book of Philippians tells us that Paul also sought to engage Timothy’s help with another first century church- but this time under very different circumstances…
“If the Lord Jesus is willing, I hope to send Timothy to you soon for a visit. Then he can cheer me up by telling me how you are getting along. I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ. But you know how Timothy has proved himself. Like a son with his father, he has served with me in preaching the Good News” (Philippians 2:19-22 NLT).
So Timothy had proven himself as someone who was primarily interested in “…what matters to Jesus Christ.” Thus he would serve as an excellent role model for the Corinthian church to follow. And if perhaps the members of the Corinthian church felt as if they had been singled out for some reason, Paul was quick to add, “Timothy will tell you what I do to follow Christ and how it agrees with what I always teach about Christ in every church” (CEV).
(1) Life Application Study Bible NIV [1 Corinthians 4:17] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:18-20).
The term “puffed up” (as found within the New King James Version of 1 Corinthians 4:18) carries the general idea of pride or arrogance. This phrase (or a variation of it) appears three separate times within 1 Corinthians chapter four and a number of other times within the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians as well. (1) The repeated use of this terminology to describe the Corinthian believers implies that this kind of attitude must have been widespread among the members of this church.
It also appears that the Apostle Paul anticipated that some within the Corinthian fellowship might view his decision to send Timothy to work with them as a sign of fear or weakness on his part. As one commentator explains, “Some people in Corinth, probably the instructors who had caused divisions (v. 15), acted as though Paul would never return to hold them accountable for their actions.” (2)
However, those who were inclined towards such an opinion were about to receive a direct challenge from Paul himself: “Some of you have become arrogant, thinking I will not visit you again. But I will come—and soon—if the Lord lets me, and then I’ll find out whether these arrogant people just give pretentious speeches or whether they really have God’s power” (NLT).
Even though Paul was willing to confirm his teaching with a face to face meeting, he respectfully qualified such plans by submitting them to God’s ultimate approval. This serves to remind us of another portion of Scripture that was directed toward those who lived and planned for the future without regard to God’s sovereignty: “…you should say, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and carry out our plans'” (James 4:15 GW).
So Paul was willing to defer to God’s sovereign authority over his future plans, even at the risk of being viewed as weak and ineffectual by certain members of the Corinthian church as a result. Nevertheless, we can turn to the New Testament book of James once again for an important warning concerning those who might be inclined to follow the Corinthians’ attitude in this regard: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 NLT).
(2) The NKJV Study Bible 1 Corinthians 4:18-20 [pg 1803] Thomas Nelson Publishers
“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20 GNB).
It is possible for a person to receive a great deal of spiritual instruction yet show little actual evidence of God’s work within his or her life. Such was the experience of those within the Corinthian church. While there was a great deal of teaching in regard to spiritual matters, it seems that there was very little spiritual maturity to be found within their fellowship. Thus as Paul the Apostle sought to remind the church at Corinth, “…the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power” (NLT).
The “Kingdom of God” is a concept that refers to both a present and future reality. For example, a “kingdom” is representative of an area that is ruled by a sovereign authority. In light of this, we can understand the “Kingdom of God” in a general sense as a place where God rules and people follow Him.
We can see examples of this idea in action today in those places where the Scriptures are taught and people grow in Christ-likeness. Whenever such things occur, we can say that we are within the Kingdom of God for such things are characteristics of God’s leadership. This does not necessarily need to be within a church- it could be a prison, a home, a hospital, a school, or even within someone’s own life
Jesus once explained the idea behind this concept in a conversation with the religious leaders of His day…
“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you'” (Luke 17:20-21 NIV).
In a broader sense, the kingdom of God will be completely fulfilled upon Jesus’ return as detailed within the book of Revelation (see Revelation 1:7). With regard to Paul’s use of this term, one commentator offers the following observation…
“Paul does not use this concept as much as Jesus did… It refers to God’s reign in human hearts now (cf. Rom_14:17), which will one day be consummated over all the earth as it is in heaven (cf. Mat_6:10). Paul uses this phrase more in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1Co_4:20; 1Co_6:9; 1Co_15:24; 1Co_15:50) than any other of his writings. These believers needed to know that they were part of a larger Christian agenda (cf. 1Co_4:17).” (1)
(1) Dr. Bob Utley 1 Corinthians 4 [4:20] Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_04.html
“What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21).
In every area of life, the choices we make today will often lead to the consequences we must face tomorrow. The Apostle Paul served to remind the Corinthians of this reality in asking, “So how should I prepare to come to you? As a severe disciplinarian who makes you toe the mark? Or as a good friend and counselor who wants to share heart-to-heart with you? You decide” (MSG).
For those who were inclined to believe that Paul would never return to hold the members of the Corinthian church accountable for their inappropriate behavior, the resulting consequence would be one of punishment (TLB), chastisement (Phillips), or discipline (Voice). But those who were willing to take Paul’s counsel seriously would encounter an attitude of love, gentleness, and meekness (KJV).
Much like the Apostle Paul, one identifying mark of a good friend or leader involves the ability to “exhort and convict,” two qualities that Paul also mentioned in his New Testament letter to a church leader named Titus. (1) For example, a person who genuinely desires to do God’s will is someone who might benefit from exhortation, or the ability to comfort, encourage, and/or strengthen another person, especially when it comes to the idea of teaching or instruction. (2)
For others who willfully continue to engage in practices that are wrong or inappropriate (such as those found within the Corinthian church), “conviction” might be a more appropriate choice. The idea of conviction carries a more negative connotation that identifies the kind of refutation that involves “…a suggestion of shame of the person convicted.” (3)
Of course, the challenge often involves choosing the right course of action, especially when dealing with those we love and care for. Paul clearly preferred to engage the members of the Corinthian church is a spirit of love and gentleness but he was fully prepared to honor God by altering that course if necessary.
As one source has observed in commenting on this passage, “Paul puts the whole matter into the hands of these people. Paul will be true to his convictions, and will act accordingly depending on how the Corinthians choose to live.” (4) Unfortunately, we’ll find that Paul will be forced to address another serious matter within the Corinthian church as we move forward into chapter five of this letter.
(1) Titus 1:8-9
(2) G3870 parakaleo, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
(3) G1651 elegcho, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
(4) Bob Caldwell, 1 Corinthians 4 Stewards of the Mysteries of God [v. 21]