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I Corinthians 4

I Corinthians 4

4 Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. 3 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. 4 For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. 5 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.

Fools for Christ’s Sake

6 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. 7 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?
8 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! 9 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. 10 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! 11 To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. 12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.

Paul’s Paternal Care

14 I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. 15 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. 16 Therefore I urge you, imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.
18 Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. 19 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. 20 For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. 21 What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?

The New King James Version. (1982). (1 Co 4:1–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


Chapter 4

With the exception of vv. 14–17, the chapter is a philippic. In vv. 1–5 Paul, attaching to his definitions in 3:5, 9, fixes the criterion by which he and his coworkers are to be judged, denying Corinth’s (or his own) competence to apply it. In vv. 6–13 he heaps up antitheses in a biting contrast between the realities into which his office has thrust him and Corinth’s imagined superiority. In vv. 14–21, following a brief change in mood, he promises to put the arrogant to the test.

The Criterion for Testing (4:1–5)

This is how one should regard us (v. 1). If earlier Paul had held up the absurdity of matching him against Christ (“Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” 1:13), the tactic was clearly for other reasons than to disavow divinity. At Corinth, none had to be restrained from making sacrifice to Paul (cf. Acts 14:8–18). In, with, and under the quarreling, the apostle had come off badly. Corinth’s initial receptivity had cooled, and whatever could be left to inference respecting the waning of Paul’s authority in chaps. 2 and 3 (“my speech and my message were not in persuasive words of wisdom.… Yet among the mature [perfect] we do impart wisdom,” and “I … could not address you as spiritual … like a wise architect I laid a foundation”) needed stating flat outright in a direct and frontal response. If the self-designation in 3:5, 9 had lacked clarity (“servants through whom you believed … God’s fellow workers”), the nouns in 4:1 remedy the lack. “This is how one should regard us, as Christ’s adjuncts, his aides-de-camp [servants, RSV, is too pale], those who execute his will; stewards, masters of the house, privy to the intention and decision of God.” While the term apostle would have to wait for promotion, those words translated “servant” and “steward” would make do, and with a vengeance. But with all the pique, Paul has not lost his head. There is no confusion of the roles of appointee and appointer, no contradiction of that demurrer in 3:5 (“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?”). The adjunct has a superior, the steward has a master—servants of Christ—and the stewardship is restricted. It does not extend to a knowledge of the intention or purpose of deity beyond what deity has disclosed—the mysteries, that in which God had hidden his “wisdom” but had now revealed (the use of the plural includes nothing which would not begin or end with that event, but it does include everything which relates to it). Verse 1, then, is not a general statement. However inclusive (at least of Apollos, cf. 3:5–6) the use of the pronoun in the plural—this is how one should regard us—is not intended to distract attention from the one whose authority is “on the line.”
What should be the criterion? The answer begins maximlike in v. 2, only to slide into the particular: Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. The English “faithful” does better duty than the Greek it translates, pistos—a term which, together with its congeners, was always liable to misunderstanding among Paul’s readers who would set it in the context of human initiative, whether of mind or will.
Corinth, however, is not competent to apply the criterion to Paul: But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged (the term is juridical and denotes being subjected to an examination at a “hearing”) by you or by any human court (v. 3a). Even if Corinth were to apply the criterion, Paul would place no value on it. And the reason for Corinth’s incompetence did not lie in what it lacked, as though Corinth were “fleshly” now (2:6ff.; 3:1ff.), but could conceivably mature to the point where it would be capable of judging. Not even Paul himself was competent to apply the criterion—I do not even judge myself (v. 3b). Paul then turns the coin over in v. 4, best translated to read: “My conscience does not accuse me” (RSV, I am not aware of anything against myself). This is not a man who is aware of his “pure intention and sacred activity” (Weiss on the passage), nor a man for whom conscience is not authorized to exonerate, simply because it can only hand down an immanent judgment. The words but I am not thereby acquitted (or “justified”), and it is the Lord who judges me are not a contrast between the lower, inferior, and the transcendent. They fix the competence for judgment elsewhere—with the Lord, not with my “knowing together with” (the Greek term for “conscience”), a function which commences and lodges approval or complaint with the self. The old saw, “let conscience be your guide,” would never do for Paul, because it was the self, signaled in that pronoun and always at the center of that function from which one needed to get free. Self-judgment, then, was as impossible as self-redemption.
It is the Lord who judges me. Often enough, that phrase appears trippingly on the tongue. And if Paul’s readers should gather that by it Paul intends to avoid examination altogether, v. 5 quickly dispels the notion: “So, do not judge anything before the time, when the Lord comes.” Wherever in Paul there is talk of judging or evaluating, such talk finally comes round to that “coming.” Wherever there is reference to God’s knowing the secrets of the heart, it all comes round to their disclosure on that “Day.” In chap. 3 that note had already been struck: “He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his own reward” (3:8); “the work of each will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it” (3:13). In our “Second” Corinthians, Paul will write: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). Justification, acquittal, or indictment await confirmation in a final revelation, “on that day when according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16).
But the eschatology of Paul, his alteration of the ancient teaching that God knows the heart to a future event of disclosure; his linking of justification (or, as in v. 5, “praise”) to a final judgment as its sealing or ratifying, is not a mere remnant from the past which he was unable to shrug off. The dogmatism which requires agreement concerning “the last things” as a final test of orthodoxy was alien to Paul. He had abandoned performance and quid pro quo for the sake of grace (3:5, “to each as the Lord gave”; “according to the grace of God given to me,” 3:10). He had mulcted the “Day of the Lord” of its terror (“if any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved,” 3:15; note the conclusion to our section: “Then there will be praise for each from God”). Why not finish the job, give that “Day” a final coup de grace in one, grand announcement of grace without judgment, or at least demythologize the concept in Johannine fashion:

Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (John 5:24)?

Paul’s “pupil” would not balk at breaking the link:

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) [!], and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4–6).

Why this clinging to a day of judgment shorn of terror?
The answer lies in Paul’s Christology, in what he conceived to be the nature of that “wisdom of God,” once hidden and now revealed. What had been revealed was still hidden—“a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”—known only to “those who are called” (1:23–24). But if still hidden, that wisdom lunged toward visibility. Still, it was not visibility itself on which everything hinged, but who or what should become visible: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (15:25). The Lordship of Christ, now exercised in its opposite, in weakness and death, in the cruciform, a Lordship apprehended only by faith (1:21) and “through the Spirit” (2:10), pressed toward disclosure in an event at which “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess” (Phil. 2:10–11). The particular of Damascus demanded a universal, an unrestricted encounter in which none would stand “speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:7). If it was eschatology that struck down the popular notion of conscience, it was Christology that robbed eschatology of its preoccupation with the damned and the saved, twisting it to the shape of the Lordship of Christ become visible. And if it was the coming of the Lord on which everything hinged, if everything depended on the Lordship of Christ become visible, then Corinth and Paul’s consciences were incompetent because they were untimely. Do not pronounce judgment before the time. The time of the “Day” was to be left with him, and hope, expectation in the face of the demand for signs and the search for wisdom, was the other side of faith. Here lay the fault with Corinth’s eschatology, its trading of hope in the visible coming of the Lord for visibility.
But Corinth and Paul’s consciences were not merely incompetent because untimely. They were perilous, for if the evaluation lay there, then there was no surety of “praise for each”! Here lay the error in Corinth’s enthusiasm, its preoccupation with the demonstrable and the bizarre which rendered praise conditional, questionable, dependent on allegiances, on “gifts” or a “spirit” inherited or acquired. Galatia and Corinth, the legalist and the enthusiast, for all their disparate genealogies, had never occupied separate beds.
It is the Lord … who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. When the Lord comes, “there will be praise” (RSV: commendation). It was this indissoluble connection between Christology and eschatology which had altered anxiety to hope. But the justification, the acquittal, the praise or the reward—it would all be secondary, subordinate, moved to the wings, giving way to the one to come. Nothing of Paul’s past, his language or his conceptuality; nothing of his view of the world or of human existence, of God or religion, of Scripture or tradition, had escaped fracture. Nothing had escaped alteration, qualification, reduction, even elimination in face of the event signaled in the phrase “the Lord”—“and, indeed, this one crucified.”

Paul and Corinth in Contrast (4:6–13)

The section begins with a puzzling sentence: “Now these things, brethren, I have given shape as applying to myself and Apollos for your sake, that you might learn from us the ‘not beyond what is written’ (RSV, not to go beyond what is written), that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one (teacher) against another.” “These things” hark back to the argument begun at 3:5 (“what then is Apollos? And what is Paul?…”) and concluded at 3:22–23 (“whether Paul or Apollos … all things are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s”), or at 4:5 (“then there will be praise for each from God”). The argument had more than Paul or Apollos in view. Nothing had divided them or damaged their perspective, and for precisely that reason the argument had been given this curious shape (the verb translated applied in the RSV means to pour into a form other than the usual or expected). Paul and Apollos illustrated the attitude which should have prevailed at Corinth, and if not every soul at Corinth had joined a faction, the disunity, in Paul’s mind, had reached sufficient proportion to suggest that what should have prevailed at Corinth simply did not, or if it did, only among an unidentifiable few, for which reason none at Corinth could serve as illustration. At any rate, the argument had been for your benefit. The sentence smacks of arrogance. But it is hardly a match for the apostle’s earlier contention that one’s eternal fate rested on how one built on what he had laid (cf. 3:10–15)! It was for such “self-understanding” that one author wrote 25 years ago:

Where, really, does Paul of Tarsus derive the special privilege of thoroughly crushing everyone when and as he pleases, and of forbidding all criticism of himself, even any that is relevant or respectful? Is he immune, is he a tabu, a mimosa, a fetish?… This man seems to regard himself as inerrant, despite all the formulae of humility with which he embellishes his letters; a judge of hearts and destinies, of persons and morals, of near and far—HE alone.… I love Paul, but would rather not assign him an inerrant teaching office. Jesus of Nazareth is the measure of all things. He and no one else.

Arrogance, perhaps, at least to the well-bred—but let no one judge “before the time”!—though with that author Paul’s arrogance had served its purpose, moved him to a confession he could not have made without him.
More than one has described that elliptical phrase in v. 6—“the not beyond what is written”—as totally unintelligible. The fact that it is substantivized by the neuter article suggests a quotation (cf., e.g., Rom. 13:9, “For the ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, in the ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ”). But if it is a quotation, from what? From the Old Testament passages referred to earlier in the letter (1:19–20, 31; 2:9, 16; or 3:19–20)? If so, the relative pronoun would require a Gulliver’s leap backward to locate its antecedent. (The relative what in the phrase, what is written, and which appears in the plural in the original, could refer to the all this in v. 6, thus to the argument beginning at 3:5, were it not for the fact that what is written always involves a quotation.) Or, is the quotation lodged in the clause itself, a slogan, perhaps, by which Paul’s opponents disparaged his preaching—“with Paul, everything by the book!”—and which he now hurls back at them? The hypotheses mount with each new reading. The suggestion that the phrase is a gloss which finally crept into the text is too clever by far. (According to this hypothesis, between the clause that you may learn by us and the clause that none of you may be puffed up, a copyist had inserted the note that he had supplied the negative omitted in some of his manuscripts by writing it over the alpha of the conjunction that in the final clause, or over the numeral one, in the Greek denoted by the letter a hence: The not is written above the a!)
Whether or not the phrase contains a reference to specific Old Testament texts, to a slogan at Corinth, or to a maxim of Paul, it refers to the norm which Paul and Apollos had observed in their behavior toward each other. In form, the clause is thus analogous to those rules governing mutual conduct (mishpatim) which Jewish teachers derived from the Torah, and which eventually found their way into the Talmud. Paul’s reference in 11:2 to the “traditions” which he had handed on and which Corinth had preserved is of the same type. And, just as in chap. 11, those traditions are not enumerated but rather interpreted in 11:3 and what follows, so here the “canon” or norm is simply stated, its interpretation already given in what proved to be an illustration from Paul’s and Apollos’s life with each other (“these things, brethren, I have given shape as applying to myself and Apollos”).
The series of three questions hurled at his readers in v. 7 describes the distance between Paul’s and Corinth’s adherence to the norm: “For who has singled you out [the phrase translated sees anything different in you in the RSV means to separate or distinguish, thus to judge to the advantage of one over the other]? Or, what do you have that you did not receive? And if you received (it), why do you boast as though you had not received?” The first question demands a “no one,” and the second a “nothing” in answer. The third does not wait for an answer, but cuts it off with the verse following.
Party allegiance, sloganeering, boasting—“on behalf of the one against the other”—had done grace in at Corinth. And at the bottom lay its enthusiasm, whether congealed in a theory or worldview, whether simply the consequence of allegiances on which it had never bothered to reflect, or both. But the effect of that enthusiasm was to create a gulf between Paul and Corinth, signaled in that apostrophe to irony in vv. 8–13:
“You are filled! You are rich! You reigned! [v. 8]. You are wise in Christ! You are strong! You are held in honor! [v. 10]—we have been exhibited as apostles last in rank [antithesis], as sentenced to death, a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men [v. 9]! We are fools! We are weak! We are in disrepute! [v. 10]. We hunger and thirst and are naked, have our ears boxed, no roof over our heads [v. 11], and we labor working with our own hands; when cursed we bless [antithesis], when persecuted we endure [antithesis; v. 12], when blasphemed we comfort, admonish, speak a good word [antithesis—all these senses are contained in the verb translated we try to conciliate]; we have been made like the refuse of the world, the scum of everything till now! [v. 13].” The use of temporal adverbs and phrases only heightens the contrast: “Already you are filled! Already you are rich! Till this very moment we hunger and thirst [v. 11], the scum of everything till now! [v. 13].” And the pathos cannot be missed in the prepositional phrase and the expression of a wish gone begging at the conclusion of v. 8: “Apart from us you reigned; and would that you did reign, so that we too might reign with you!” If the gulf between Paul and Corinth was to be bridged, the initiative would have to come from Corinth, for it was God who had exhibited those who had been promised first seats as Johnny-come-latelies (cf. Matt. 19:28), had made them a spectacle. It was God who had reduced them to the status of condemned criminals, battling for their execution in the arena, or to that of sacrificial victims whose lives were such a torture they went willingly to their deaths—“For I think [the verb translated here expresses more than an opinion] that God has made us to be apostles last in rank.… We were made a spectacle.… We were made the refuse of the world” (vv. 9, 13).
The wise man as spectacle for gods and men in his struggle with destiny was a favorite Stoic picture. Seneca wrote of Cato, who preferred suicide to witnessing the decline of the republic following Caesar’s victory over Pompey:

Lo! here a contest worthy of God—a brave man matched against ill-fortune, and doubly so if his also was the challenge. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect amid the ruins of the commonwealth.

But if Cato had resolved to stand erect under whatever fate he himself had provoked, making himself a marvel to gods and men, Paul had no hand at all in his misfortune. Its cause lay with a Jupiter who would not merely turn his head to look, once the spectacle had begun, but had set it all in motion with nailing his apostle to his suffering for the world and all to see (antithesis!).
The list of sufferings in the antitheses of vv. 11–13, but particularly of vv. 12b and 13a (“when cursed we bless; when persecuted we endure; when blasphemed we speak a good word”) echoes Jesus’ “Sermon” in Matthew and Luke, even to the choice of terms (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.… Pray for those who persecute you,” Matt. 5:10–11, 44; Luke 6:22, 28; cf. Rom. 12:14–21, in which the list is reproduced in exhortation). More, v. 11 of that catalog is a tiny passion narrative. Christ’s life and death had been replicated in Paul’s own existence: “We hunger (cf. Mark 11:12) and thirst (cf. Mark 15:36 and John 19:28) and are naked (cf. Mark 15:20, 24), have our ears boxed (cf. Mark 14:65), no roof over our heads” (Matt. 8:20). The First Epistle of Peter would summon its readers to an imitation of Christ’s passion (“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps,” 1 Peter 2:21–22). But for Paul the “imitation” had never been left to a summons, as though a choice or resolve were needed for its achieving. From the outset his life had begun to be hammered into the cruciform. Corinth had resisted that shape for itself; the already tells the story—Already you are filled! Already you are rich! Corinth had anticipated the “then” in the “not yet,” had traded a theology of the cross for one of glory.

Conclusion of the Argument Begun at 1:10 (4:14–21)

The section begins with a radical change of tone: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you [the verb admonish is peculiar to Paul and those under his influence] as my beloved children.” Did Paul have second thoughts over having spent all that shot and shell on Corinth? (epidiorthōsis is the rhetorician’s term for a literary change of heart). Of the later “letter of tears” (cf. 2 Cor. 2:3–4, 9), following his personal disaster at Corinth, Paul would write: “Even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it” and then would add, “though I did regret it” (cf. 2 Cor. 7:8). Regret it or not, Paul insists that what is occurring between him and Corinth is a family affair: “I write these things … as admonishing my beloved children.” Children—the term is not handed down to the laity from some episcopal height. What Paul was to Corinth needed a metaphor which would carry heavier freight than the earlier “I planted” or “I laid a foundation” (3:6, 10), and which had left open the question of the link between planter and planted, builder and the thing built. A figure was needed to indicate that what Paul was to Corinth no one else could be: “For if you were to have ten thousand pedagogues [the clause expresses a condition, the reality of which is not assumed], you still do not have many fathers.” Corinth might have had an army of guides, but it had only one father (the term pedagogue first denoted the slave or houseboy who protected the son and heir from molesters on his way to school; it later came to denote “teacher” or “guide,” as, e.g., in the Talmud, where the term appears untranslated).
But there is more afoot here than Paul’s reaching for a figure to describe what he was to Corinth. Something had occurred through the instrumentality of his preaching which demanded the metaphor. But in the use of the metaphor, it had come to stand on its own feet, to make its own demands, to disclose a sphere of meaning beyond what “father,” “child,” or “birth” had ever had in any standard lexicon. The commentator’s note that Paul merely intends to state that his relationship to Corinth is not natural is trivial. Who needs the assurance that it did not come by way of natural, biological generation?! The old words had not lost their meaning, but in their use a “transfer” (the root meaning of “metaphor”) had occurred, and not merely according to likeness. For if Corinth had been a nothing (1:28), then what had occurred with it “through the gospel” had been a being born, a coming into existence. Then Paul was Corinth’s true father, and the life into which he had birthed Corinth was that of Christ himself. (Note the same thought in Paul’s letter to Philemon: “I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self,” Philemon 19.) This is the meaning which use of the metaphor “father” and “child” or “I birthed you in Christ Jesus” demands. In the metaphor, in the transference of words occurs a transfer of things. For Paul, at least, that is how it was with the “gospel,” with “theological speech.”
Loosed from its context, v. 16—I urge you, then, be imitators of me—can only be a summons to imitate Paul’s fatherhood. (Note the use of the imperative in place of an infinitive or purpose clause—in keeping with Paul’s preference for direct speech.) But the verse faces in two directions: Backward to v. 6, to the rule of conduct put in the negative, and forward to v. 17, to its positive application to Corinth in the sending of Timothy. “Imitate me,” that is, “apply to yourselves what I had poured in a form as applying to Apollos and to me, and prove the constancy of your love, as I do in hurrying Timothy off to you.”
Timothy and Corinth had a common ancestor—Paul had birthed them both (my beloved … child, cf. v. 14), and into the same existence (in the Lord, cf. v. 15). Paul adds the word faithful (my beloved and faithful child), not so much to contrast him with Corinth (though Corinth would not miss the comparison) as to present him as a genuine surrogate: “He will remind you of my ways which are in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” The expression my ways is odd, but tethered to the final clause can only denote Paul’s teaching, synonymous with those “traditions” later referred to in 11:2. The call to Corinth to imitate, then, was not a call to replicate the outward circumstances of Paul’s life, to imitate his action or hearken to the will of God in every conceivable situation. Those circumstances were not accidental and therefore were incapable of repetition. They were a given, the shape of his apostleship (“God has exhibited us … we were made,” vv. 9, 13). Timothy would remind them, and who would not need reminding, party affiliate or no, since the gospel of the cross violated every canon of sense or conception? But if Timothy had been sent before the letter was completed, he would arrive following the letter’s reception at Corinth—no doubt on foot, and a grueling trip if it meant detouring the Aegean, swinging northward from Ephesus, crossing the sea at its narrowest point (at Troas?) and dropping down to the isthmus. The term “faithful” screens a passion not only for Paul’s “ways,” but for the apostle himself.
In v. 18, Paul sharpens his tone to secure the proof of his affection against misinterpretation: “Some are puffed up” (in the original, the verb appears in the passive, as with most verbs having to do with emotional or affective states) as though I were not coming to you. Clearly, the reason for arrogance was not that some would be left to their shenanigans in the absence of Paul. Some were puffed up as if Paul would not, or because they maintained he would not come, but dared only treat through emissaries. Had the taunt been made public—“Why doesn’t Paul come?” “He is afraid to come!”—so that Paul had report of it and reproduced it here? In v. 19, Paul rebuts the challenge: “I will come to you quickly,” then adds the qualifier, “if the Lord wills.” The natural urge to save face had been subordinated. This was the way with Paul; his “spring of action” had nothing of autonomy about it. Even such a commendable and explicable action as arriving at Corinth for the sake of extricating the gospel of God from alien entanglements was subordinated. Not merely natural, human projects were given second seat, but even motives which could be called purely religious, “on God’s behalf.” What Luther had written of the purpose for Romans, viz., to allow the human to be nothing and God everything, was true also of its author. Everything hinged on God—everything had to wait on God’s will, even the good. It was precisely this conviction which rendered him and his behavior capable of misinterpretation—as due to cowardice (here) or to historical accident (“we hunger and thirst and are naked, have our ears boxed, no roof over our heads …” v. 11). But Paul did not allow the misinterpretation to alter his behavior. He insisted upon another reading of his intent. Precisely for this reason, being “all things to all men” (9:22) could not have applause for its aim. The rule was: “the one who judges me is the Lord” (4:4).
And how would Paul know if it was the Lord’s will that he come to Corinth? By deduction or inference? Those references to his first appearance “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4), to his having received “the Spirit which is from God” (2:12), to having the “mind of Christ” (2:16), point in a quite different direction. Paul was a charismatic—God would make known his will directly, and the decision would not read, “after much prayer and deliberation, I have come to the conviction that.…” “When I come,” Paul adds, “I’ll not attend to what ‘some’ say, but to whether or not they can lay claim to a ‘demonstration of the Spirit and power’ accompanying what they say! So, go to! Let us match ‘power’ with ‘power’—mine is of God … and theirs?!” The verse conjures up associations with Old Testament history—Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh; Elijah and the priests of Baal. And what will constitute the difference is the “kingdom of God” as consisting “not in word, but in power.” Does this mean that words are detachable from what they signify? a mere copy of the thing itself; a mere vehicle for the idea, the concept, the notion? The great freethinker of the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza, had written that truth could not be mediated by words; that God could not make himself known through words or “any kind of external sign.” Religion, therefore, dependent upon words and dogmas, concerned with obedience and not with truth, was to be separated from reason or philosophy, that rational knowledge of God which alone yielded happiness. But for Paul a chasm lay between “word” and “word of the cross” (1:18), between “word” and “my speech and my message … in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”!

Harrisville, R. A. (1987). I Corinthians (pp. 65–78). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.


Paul has spoken in this manner to make the Corinthians ashamed of their senseless infatuations. He now wants to wipe out the hasty judgments that some of the Corinthians harbor toward him. In 4:1–5 he moves to picture his position as that of a minister of Christ and a steward of God’s hidden truths. Only the judgment of God concerning his own ministry is of concern to him.
Paul’s words in verse 1 suggest a contrast with the heights to which he had raised his readers at the conclusion of 3:23. Paul suggests that the apostles are not competing party leaders but the humble servants of Christ. There are no lofty pretensions in Paul. The term for “servants” here is different from that used in 3:5. The term here was used outside the New Testament of an underrower, a servant who rowed in the lower bank of oars on a ship. Bruce feels that in practice there is little distinction in the words.
A steward had oversight of his master’s household. The apostles, as God’s stewards, were entrusted with the administration of the mysteries of God or the truths of the gospel. The NEB translates the first half of v. 1: “We must be regarded as Christ’s underlings.” Williams catches the thought of the final section with: “Trustees to handle God’s uncovered truths.”
The primary responsibility of a steward is that he be fully trustworthy (v. 2). By its very nature the work of a steward was not closely supervised. He was not to exercise his own personal authority and initiative, but he was expected to do his master’s bidding. Before God a spiritual steward will be judged strictly on his faithfulness. It is at this point that the judgment of man is quite inadequate, and Paul now moves to make this clear.
In the previous verses the words related to preachers in general and especially to Apollos and Paul. In verse 3 the reference becomes wholly personal. The term “judged” technically denotes an examination rather than a judgment, but this examination results in a sentence, and the word “judge” is an effective translation. “Human court” is literally “a human day.” Here “day” is used in the sense of the day of judgment, and, by analogy with the Day of the Lord, the term refers to the judgment itself. Paul has stated that he has no interest in the judgment of the Corinthians or any other human being about him. It does not matter to him whether or not these judgments exist. This is not a disparaging remark about the abilities of the Corinthians to conduct judgments, but it demonstrates the incompetency of all human beings to judge. As a further example of Paul’s indifference toward human assessment of his accomplishments, he states that he does not pass judgment on himself. Paul is not prohibiting self-evaluation but is warning against a decisive, final judgment that will justify or condemn a person on account of his works. He is concerned that such a judgment would usurp God’s place of judgment, for within him “there are unexplored recesses which do not allow him to discover thoroughly the real state of things, the full integrity of his own fidelity, and consequently to pronounce a valid sentence on himself” (Godet). Bruce expresses his insights in the following words:

A trustworthy steward need not trouble greatly about the opinions of others, provided his master is satisfied with him. Members of the Corinthian church might put Paul high or low down on their list of favourite ministers; but this was a matter of little consequence in his eyes …; even his own self-assessment was ultimately immaterial, although in this as in other respects he endeavoured to preserve a good conscience.

In verse 4 Paul indicates that he does not know of a failure in his service, but he relies on God’s judgment to provide a proper verdict. In the fact of his ignorance before God Paul can put no confidence. He means that he has at present no guilty secret to share with himself. This fact, however, speaks more of his ignorance than of his innocence. An unaccusing conscience does not mean the absence of guilt. Only God has adequate insight to evaluate the true sources of action and service. Paul’s words should not be viewed as a vain boast, for the apostle did not intend to proclaim his spiritual sinlessness. He stated that his conscience did not prick him with a pressing awareness of unfaithfulness. Doubtless God could have flashed before Paul innumerable instances of disobedience in his own life.
The conclusion to these warnings is introduced by the “therefore” of verse 5. The Corinthians are to stop judging. The fact that they were already judging is evident from the use in Greek of a present imperative to express this prohibition. Any present judgment will be partial, premature, and incompetent. Only the judgment of the Lord can uncover the true acts and motives of the individual. In Paul’s letter there is frequent reference to the prospect of having his apostolic service reviewed by the Lord at the parousia (2 Cor. 1:14; 5:9, 10; Phil. 2:16), and an awareness of these facts was doubtless a significant incentive toward godly effort. Godet suggests that “what is hidden in darkness” refer to the full revelation of the acts of an individual. The “motives of men’s hearts” are seen as a reference to the motives prompting these acts. When these factors are examined, the result will be praise from God. Bruce notes that the word used by Paul for “praise” is a positive word rather than a more neutral word that could refer to good or bad awards. “The implication may be that the Lord in his omniscience will find cause for approval where another judge would find none.”
It is interesting to distinguish three separate judgments mentioned in this section. Verse 3 speaks of a judgment passed on us by others. In verse 4 there is a reference to the judgment of one’s own conscience. In verses 4 and 5 we find a discussion of the Lord’s judgment. Only the Lord’s judgment carries any concern for Paul. Since God can see the totality of actions and the springs of the will prompting them, He can judge with exacting precision and bypass all of man’s pompous pretenses to reward. He can also find grounds for reward when skeptical human beings would find none.

  1. Human pride (4:6–13)

Paul concludes his explanation of the reasons for the factions by suggesting in verses 6 and 7 that the leaders of the factions should be able to see their own pride in the illustrations he has been using of himself and Apollos. Further, he uses irony in verses 8–13 to point out that the apostles about whom they had been debating were little more than “fools for Christ.”
In the foregoing passages Paul has used various metaphors—agricultural workers, builders, servants, and stewards. He has applied all of these to himself and to Apollos so that the Corinthians might learn to practice humility and to banish pride. Paul’s mention of Apollos (v. 6) suggests that there were friendly relations between them, and Paul is also careful not to mention anything that might be seen as criticism of Peter. The word for “applied” means to present a thing or a person in a form different from its natural figure so as to alter or disguise it. Paul means that in the passages from 3:5 on he has been presenting truths and relating them outwardly to Apollos and himself while intending them for certain teachers and for a church.
The phrase, “beyond what is written,” in verse 6 is a formula that Paul frequently uses in quoting Scripture. There is no Old Testament passage with exactly the idea of 4:6, but Morris feels that “Paul will be referring to the general sense of the Old Testament.” He is directing their attention to the fact that they must learn the scriptural idea of the subordination of man and cease to think too highly of him. All his efforts had attempted to prevent their practice of partisanship. “He desires that they have no feelings of pride as they contemplate the particular teacher to whom they have attached themselves” (Morris). His use of the present tense in “take pride in” suggests that a condition that ought not to be was in progress then in Corinth. Paul moves in verse 7 to show what is to be condemned in becoming proud.
The “for” of verse 7 introduces a reason why conceit is out of place. Paul handles his objections by asking three questions: Who makes one of you superior to another? What do you have that has not been given to you? Why boast in what you have been given? Here Paul’s thought has moved into the area of gifts received from God, and he is not dealing with instructions received from teachers. The teachers about whom the Corinthians were glorying were but ministers of the grace of God. The proper attitude to be shown was humble gratitude. Knox renders the first question with the words: “After all, friend, who is it that gives thee this preeminence?” Phillips catches the spirit of the third question with: “Why boast of it as if it were something you had achieved yourself?” In the next verses the sin of the Corinthians becomes so vivid for Paul that his conversation with them moves into a long expression of polite sarcasm.
His words in verse 8 use irony to attack the self-esteem of his readers. Robertson and Plummer see the first three verbs of verse 8 as forming a climax in which the highly blessed Corinthians are seen as already in the kingdom of God and enjoying its banquets and treasures. The phrase “all you want” is used frequently of food and denotes satiation, a feeling of satisfaction. In contrast with Jesus’ appeal to hunger and thirst after righteousness in Matthew 5:6 the Corinthians felt no lack. The next two verbs show the fancied security and absence of a sense of need in the Corinthians. Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church (Rev. 3:17) show how dangerous this is.
Paul’s teaching had suggested that suffering would precede glory (Rom. 8:16–17). Bruce feels that some of the Corinthians resorted to an “over-realized” eschatology, and that they felt they had already attained the kingdom and glory of Christ at the same time that they received the Spirit of God. They would thus have bypassed suffering and achieved glory. Paul’s sarcastic response in verse 8 indicates that it is a pity that they are wrong because he and his fellow apostles would like to believe that suffering was a thing of the past.
Instead of reigning, the apostles actually suffered many trials and were humiliated in it all. For Paul the suffering of the apostles is still a present experience (v. 9). He was not complaining about this fact, for he was eager to experience personally the afflictions of Christ to relieve his fellow Christians (2 Cor. 1:4–7; 4:11, 12; Col. 1:24). He compared the lot of the apostles to that of men who were sentenced to death, like condemned criminals in the amphitheater. The word “spectacle” was normally the place where plays or spectacles were presented. Paul is saying that the apostles were being exhibited as a spectacle to a world that consisted of angels and men. Robertson and Plummer suggest that Paul is thinking of “a great pageant in which the Apostles form the ignominious finale, consisting of doomed men, who will have to fight in the arena till they are killed.” It is a disgraceful picture for the apostle to consider for himself.
The implications of being made such a spectacle are brought out in verse 10. Paul uses three pairs of contrasting adjectives that fall on the proud Corinthians like so many blows. The words would be spoken to the principal men of Corinth, but they would also prick the members of the church who share the pretensions of their leaders. The first pair of adjectives forms an antithesis with reference to teaching. The apostles had to encounter the reputation for foolishness, and the Corinthians, by contrast, tried to find a way to preach Christ so as to obtain a reputation for wisdom and pretentious loftiness. If Paul had remained true to his work as a rabbi, he might have become as celebrated as a Gamaliel or a Hillel. Instead, he consented to pass as a fool. The Corinthians managed to make their teaching of the gospel a means of gaining personal esteem.
The second pair of adjectives related to general conduct. The demeanor of the apostles was weak as witnessed in Paul’s description in 2:1–5. The Corinthians appear in public with the feeling of their strength. There is no hesitation or timidity in them.
The third pair of antithetical adjectives related to their worldly position. The Corinthians are honored and are seen as the ornament of cultivated circles. The apostles are despised, reviled, and excoriated. The word “dishonored” now becomes a theme that Paul paints with reference to the apostles in verses 11–13.
Williams translates verse 11 as: “To this very hour we have gone hungry, thirsty, poorly clad; we have been roughly knocked around, we have had no home.” For Paul these disgraces were going on up to that very moment. There was no relief from labor and suffering in his life. Verse 11 suggests that Paul and the apostles lacked suitable food, water, and clothing. To be “brutally treated” was to be struck with the fist just as Christ was (Matt. 26:67). The word showing that Paul was “homeless” does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. Robertson and Plummer suggest that it means that “they were vagrants, and were stigmatized as such.” Paul is relating all of these difficulties to remind the Corinthians just how far removed he and the apostles are from reigning. He is warning the Corinthians against their pride and is summoning them to imitate him.
The hard work of verse 12 refers to labor to the point of exhaustion. The MLB suggests that it means: “We toil to exhaustion with our own hands.” Barrett points out that the word for “work hard” is used by Paul for specifically Christian work such as the labor of preaching and caring for the churches (Col. 1:29). The word may thus refer to his practice of supporting himself by his craft without making an appeal for help from his converts. Paul would thus be saying that he did his Christian work and also supported himself by secular work. The Greeks who despised manual labor would detest such behavior in a teacher, but Paul glories in it. The word “cursed” is used in 1 Peter 2:23 to describe the sufferings of Christ. When Paul and the apostles were treated as Jesus had been treated, they obeyed His injunction in Luke 6:28 to bless their accusers. Phillips renders the last pair of verbs in verse 12 as: “They make our lives miserable, but we take it patiently.”
Williams suggests that the opening verbs of verse 13 should be translated: “When we are slandered by them we try to conciliate them.” The Greeks would see this as cowardliness, but Paul sees this as a demonstration of the virtues of Christianity. The word “scum” can be used of the impurities that are removed and thrown away whenever a vessel is cleansed. The word was occasionally used of a worthless human being on whom the guilt of a community was unloaded. Bruce mentions that this use of the word “would fit in well with his comparison of the apostles to the condemned criminals in the amphitheatre.” The word “refuse” may also be used of vile criminals whose blood was shed by pagans to avert the wrath of the gods.
Paul’s strong words were inspired by an indignation that saw the state of spiritual life in Corinth as a mortal danger to the life and future of the church. Further, the weapon of ridicule or irony was often quite effective against the problem of proud infatuation that Paul found in the city. Perhaps these penetrating words could be softened somewhat by the tenderness and compassion displayed in verses 14–21. Here Paul brought to a conclusion all he has written from 1:12 on.

D. Appeal for Reconciliation (4:14–21)

Paul’s words in these verses are based on his special relationship with the Corinthians. They are his beloved children, and in Christ Jesus he has begotten them through the gospel. He wants them to understand that the severe words he has just spoken are not inspired by resentment or hatred but reflect his deep concern for them.
Williams renders the thought of verse 14 as: “I do not write this to make you blush with shame but to give you counsel as my dear children.” The word “shame” means literally to “turn one’s back upon himself,” and, by deduction from this, “to cause shame.” Perhaps Paul had seemed to speak to them in a humiliating way, but he truly wanted to lead them firmly in another direction. Later, in 6:5, he does speak with the view of making them ashamed. Here he desires to admonish them. He wants to bring their mind back to a calm and settled place. He is the only one of the teachers who is their spiritual father and who can address them as “my dear children.” The next verse tries to justify his position as father.
The “guardian” or “tutor” of verse 15 was the Roman pedagogue who took the child of patrician families to school and looked after him. He might dearly love the child, but he was not the father and thus lacked fatherly affection for him. The teachers whom Paul had mentioned in these verses were related to the Corinthians as a pedagogue to the child, but only Paul was their father. Paul’s missionary work had led them to become Christians. He had not begotten them in his own right, for Christ was the agent of their conversion, and the gospel was the means by which they had been brought to new life. Not only does Paul have the right to admonish them, but as their father he has a duty.
In verse 16 Paul urges the Corinthians to become his imitators. He is not recruiting personal followers in the sense of 1:12, but he wants them to imitate him so that they might imitate Christ (11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6). The life of the apostle had been a clear reflection of Christ crucified, and on other occasions he appealed to his readers to imitate him as a means of duplicating the behavior of the Lord (Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). Robertson and Plummer note that “the charge is not given in a spirit of self-confidence. He has received the charge to lead them, and he is bound to set an example for them to follow.” Individual believers should show such an obedience to Christ that they should not fear to say modestly, “Follow me even as I follow the Lord.”
Timothy had probably set out on the journey mentioned by Paul in verse 17, for the absence of his name from the salutation in 1:1 would suggest this. There is a later reference to Timothy’s visit in 16:10 and 11, and this trip may also be referred to in Acts 19:22. Timothy was a product of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 16:1–5) and had become one of Paul’s closest associates. Paul’s appreciation of his character and service is mentioned in Philippians 2:20–22, but the admonitions of 2 Timothy 1:6–9 suggest some of Timothy’s shortcomings. Timothy was being sent to remind his hearers of the truths and ethical principles that Paul had also demanded elsewhere. In other passages of 1 Corinthians Paul showed his concern that all his churches should exhibit the same standards of Christian practice (7:17; 11:16; 14:33). Paul had a general consistency in his teaching, and Timothy could lead the Corinthians to understand this. The sending of Timothy might cause some to suppose that Timothy was a substitute for Paul. They might conclude that Paul would not consider coming himself. Paul notes that some of the Corinthians were exulting in this possibility, and he deals with this insulting suggestion in verses 18–21.
The words “become arrogant” in verse 18 refer “to the air of triumph” with which Paul’s opponents in Corinth greeted the idea that Paul was not coming (Godet). Godet sees these opponents as members of the “Christ” party, for Paul’s references to opposition in 2 Corinthians seem to picture them in that way (2 Cor. 10:7; 11:23). In 2 Corinthians there is also evidence that Paul’s opponents charged him with frightening the church by writing threatening letters (2 Cor. 10:9–10) with the implication that in person he would be unimpressive and cowardly. Paul had exercised restraint with the Corinthians, and some of the church members may have practiced license in his absence. They had overlooked the possibility of his return, and they saw themselves as masters of the situation. Paul’s next words would be jarring to such people.
In verse 19 Paul promises to come to Corinth shortly, and only divine restraint will prevent his appearance. When he comes, he will examine the pompous words of the Corinthians. The phrase “find out” is the language of a judge who sets about to make an examination. Here the expression “talking” refers to the lofty discourses, eloquent tirades, and profound speeches that some of the Corinthians had used. Paul is not interested in these, but he is concerned about the actual power in their lives. He wants to know if they have the humility and compassion of the Holy Spirit. Detecting this is a field in which Paul is an expert, and they will not be able to deceive him at this point. Some of those who were “arrogant” will later be rebuked by Paul in the words of 5:2. Taylor renders the latter half of verse 19 as: “I’ll find out whether these proud men are just big talkers or whether they really have God’s power.”
The kingdom of God is not a reference to the messianic kingdom but to the spiritual kingdom of God that already lives in the souls of believers (v. 20). God’s reign spiritually in the heart of the humble believer will prepare the way for its future appearance. The rule of God in the heart of the individual is not a matter of high-powered words and fine advice. There must be power in the individual to live a godly life with full dependence on the strength that God can provide (Gal. 5:22–24). Conybeare translates the verse as: “For mighty deeds, not empty words, are the tokens of God’s kingdom.”
The question was not whether Paul would come, but how he would come (v. 21). That would be settled by the response of the Corinthians. Paul’s use of “whip” suggests that he sensed the need for disciplinary action among the Corinthians. He might rebuke or chastise them. The combination of “love and with a gentle spirit” suggests that Paul will come in this manner if the Corinthians humble themselves and repent of their prideful ways. Even if Paul came with the whip, he would still come in love. The question is whether the love is to be expressed in gentleness or violence. Not the mood of Paul, but the response of the Corinthians will determine this.
The references to the coming visit of Timothy and his own visit would be suitable for ending the letter. Paul may have been preparing to conclude this letter when further news arrived from Corinth about problems that needed addressing. The news may have been brought by the bearers of the letter that he answers in 7:1, and these bearers may have been Stephanas, Fortunatas, and Achaicus (16:17).

Vaughan, C., & Lea, T. D. (2002). 1 Corinthians (pp. 46–54). Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press.


1 Co 4:1–21. TRUE VIEW OF MINISTERS: THE JUDGMENT IS NOT TO BE FORESTALLED; MEANWHILE THE APOSTLES’ LOW STATE CONTRASTS WITH THE CORINTHIANS’ PARTY PRIDE, NOT THAT PAUL WOULD SHAME THEM, BUT AS A FATHER WARN THEM; FOR WHICH END HE SENT TIMOTHY, AND WILL SOON COME HIMSELF.

  1. account … us—Paul and Apollos.

ministers of Christ—not heads of the Church in whom ye are severally to glory (1 Co 1:12); the headship belongs to Christ alone; we are but His servants ministering to you (1 Co 1:13).

stewards—(Lu 12:42; 1 Pe 4:10). Not the depositories of grace, but dispensers of it (“rightly dividing” or dispensing it), so far as God gives us it, to others. The chazan, or “overseer,” in the synagogue answered to the bishop or “angel” of the Church, who called seven of the synagogue to read the law every sabbath, and oversaw them. The parnasin of the synagogue, like the ancient “deacon” of the Church, took care of the poor (Ac 6:1–7) and subsequently preached in subordination to the presbyters or bishops, as Stephen and Philip did. The Church is not the appendage to the priesthood; but the minister is the steward of God to the Church. Man shrinks from too close contact with God; hence he willingly puts a priesthood between, and would serve God by deputy. The pagan (like the modern Romish) priest was rather to conceal than to explain “the mysteries of God.” The minister’s office is to “preach” (literally, “proclaim as a herald,” Mt 10:27) the deep truths of God (“mysteries,” heavenly truths, only known by revelation), so far as they have been revealed, and so far as his hearers are disposed to receive them. JOSEPHUS says that the Jewish religion made known to all the people the mysteries of their religion, while the pagans concealed from all but the “initiated” few, the mysteries of theirs.

  1. Moreover—The oldest manuscripts read, “Moreover here” (that is, on earth). The contrast thus is between man’s usage as to stewards (1 Co 4:2), and God’s way (1 Co 4:3). Though here below, in the case of stewards, inquiry is made, that one man be found (that is, proved to be) faithful; yet God’s steward awaits no such judgment of man, in man’s day, but the Lord’s judgment in His great day. Another argument against the Corinthians for their partial preferences of certain teachers for their gifts: whereas what God requires in His stewards is faithfulness (1 Sa 3:20, Margin; Heb 3:5); as indeed is required in earthly stewards, but with this difference (1 Co 4:3), that God’s stewards await not man’s judgment to test them, but the testing which shall be in the day of the Lord.

  2. it is a very small thing—literally, “it amounts to a very small matter”; not that I despise your judgment, but as compared with God’s, it almost comes to nothing.

judged … of man’s judgment—literally, “man’s day,” contrasted with the day (1 Co 3:13) of the Lord (1 Co 4:5; 1 Th 5:4). “The day of man” is here put before us as a person [WAHL]. All days previous to the day of the Lord are man’s days. EMESTI translates the thrice recurring Greek for “judged … judge … judgeth” (1 Co 4:4), thus: To me for my part (though capable of being found faithful) it is a very small matter that I should be approved of by man’s judgment; yea, I do not even assume the right of judgment and approving myself—but He that has the right, and is able to judge on my case (the Dijudicator), is the Lord.

  1. by myself—Translate, “I am conscious to myself of no (ministerial) unfaithfulness.” BENGEL explains the Greek compound, “to decide in judgments on one in relation to others,” not simply to judge.

am I not hereby justified—Therefore conscience is not an infallible guide. Paul did not consider his so. This verse is directly against the judicial power claimed by the priests of Rome.

  1. Disproving the judicial power claimed by the Romish priesthood in the confessional.

Therefore—as the Lord is the sole Decider or Adjudicator.

judge—not the same Greek word as in 1 Co 4:3, 4, where the meaning is to approve of or decide on, the merits of one’s case. Here all judgments in general are forbidden, which would, on our part, presumptuously forestall God’s prerogative of final judgment.

Lord—Jesus Christ, whose “ministers” we are (1 Co 4:1), and who is to be the judge (Jn 5:22, 27; Ac 10:42; 17:31).

manifest … hearts—Our judgments now (as those of the Corinthians respecting their teachers) are necessarily defective; as we only see the outward act, we cannot see the motives of “hearts.” “Faithfulness” (1 Co 4:2) will hereby be estimated, and the “Lord” will “justify,” or the reverse (1 Co 4:4), according to the state of the heart.

then shall every man have praise—(1 Co 3:8; 1 Sa 26:23; Mt 25:21, 23; 28). Rather, “his due praise,” not exaggerated praise, such as the Corinthians heaped on favorite teachers; “the praise” (so the Greek) due for acts estimated by the motives. “Then,” not before: therefore wait till then (Jam 5:7).

  1. And—“Now,” marking transition.

in a figure transferred to myself—that is, I have represented under the persons of Apollos and myself what really holds good of all teachers, making us two a figure or type of all the others. I have mentioned us two, whose names have been used as a party cry; but under our names I mean others to be understood, whom I do not name, in order not to shame you [ESTIUS].

not to think, &c.—The best manuscripts omit “think.” Translate, “That in us (as your example) ye might learn (this), not (to go) beyond what is written.” Revere the silence of Holy Writ, as much as its declarations: so you will less dogmatize on what is not expressly revealed (De 29:29).

puffed up for one—namely, “for one (favorite minister) against another.” The Greek indicative implies, “That ye be not puffed up as ye are.”

  1. Translate, “Who distinguisheth thee (above another)?” Not thyself, but God.

glory, as if thou hadst not received it—as if it was to thyself, not to God, thou owest the receiving of it.

  1. Irony. Translate, “Already ye are filled full (with spiritual food), already ye are rich, ye have seated yourselves upon your throne as kings, without us.” The emphasis is on “already” and “without us”; ye act as if ye needed no more to “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” and as if already ye had reached the “kingdom” for which Christians have to strive and suffer. Ye are so puffed up with your favorite teachers, and your own fancied spiritual attainments in knowledge through them, that ye feel like those “filled full” at a feast, or as a “rich” man priding himself in his riches: so ye feel ye can now do “without us,” your first spiritual fathers (1 Co 4:15). They forgot that before the “kingdom” and the “fulness of joy,” at the marriage feast of the Lamb, must come the cross, and suffering, to every true believer (2 Ti 2:5, 11, 12). They were like the self-complacent Laodiceans (Rev 3:17; compare Ho 12:8). Temporal fulness and riches doubtless tended in some cases at Corinth, to generate this spiritual self-sufficiency; the contrast to the apostle’s literal “hunger and thirst” (1 Co 4:11) proves this.

I would … ye did reign—Translate, “I would indeed,” &c. I would truly it were so, and that your kingdom had really begun.

that we also might reign with you—(2 Co 12:14). “I seek not yours, but you.” Your spiritual prosperity would redound to that of us, your fathers in Christ (1 Co 9:23). When you reach the kingdom, you shall be our “crown of rejoicing, in the presence of our Lord Jesus” (1 Th 2:19).

  1. For—assigning the reason for desiring that the “reign” of himself and his fellow apostles with the Corinthians were come; namely, the present afflictions of the former.

I think—The Corinthians (1 Co 3:18) “seemed” to (literally, as here, “thought”) themselves “wise in this world.” Paul, in contrast, “thinks” that God has sent forth him and his fellow ministers “last,” that is, the lowest in this world. The apostles fared worse than even the prophets, who, though sometimes afflicted, were often honored (2 Ki 1:10; 5:9).

set forth—as a spectacle or gazing-stock.

us the apostles—Paul includes Apollos with the apostles, in the broader sense of the word; so Ro 16:7; 2 Co 8:23 (Greek for “messengers,” apostles).

as it were appointed to death—as criminals condemned to die.

made a spectacle—literally, “a theatrical spectacle.” So the Greek in Heb 10:33, “made a gazing-stock by reproaches and afflictions.” Criminals “condemned to die,” in Paul’s time, were exhibited as a gazing-stock to amuse the populace in the amphitheater. They were “set forth last” in the show, to fight with wild beasts. This explains the imagery of Paul here. (Compare TERTULLIAN [On Modesty, 14]).

the world—to the whole world, including “both angels and men”; “the whole family in heaven and earth” (Eph 3:15). As Jesus was “seen of angels” (1 Ti 3:16), so His followers are a spectacle to the holy angels who take a deep interest in all the progressive steps of redemption (Eph 3:10; 1 Pe 1:12). Paul tacitly implies that though “last” and lowest in the world’s judgment, Christ’s servants are deemed by angels a spectacle worthy of their most intense regard [CHRYSOSTOM]. However, since “the world” is a comprehensive expression, and is applied in this Epistle to the evil especially (1 Co 1:27, 28), and since the spectators (in the image drawn from the amphitheater) gaze at the show with savage delight, rather than with sympathy for the sufferers, I think bad angels are included, besides good angels. ESTIUS makes the bad alone to be meant. But the generality of the term “angels,” and its frequent use in a good sense, as well as Eph 3:10; 1 Pe 1:12, incline me to include good as well as bad angels, though, for the reasons stated above, the bad may be principally meant.

  1. Irony. How much your lot (supposing it real) is to be envied, and ours to be pitied.

fools—(1 Co 1:21; 3:18; compare Ac 17:18; 26:24).

for Christ’s sake … in Christ—Our connection with Christ only entails on us the lowest ignominy, “ON ACCOUNT OF,” or, “FOR THE SAKE OF” Him, as “fools”; yours gives you full fellowship IN Him as “wise” (that is, supposing you really are all you seem, 1 Co 3:18).

we … weak … ye … strong—(1 Co 2:3; 2 Co 13:9).

we … despised—(2 Co 10:10) because of our “weakness,” and our not using worldly philosophy and rhetoric, on account of which ye Corinthians and your teachers are (seemingly) so “honorable.” Contrast with “despised” the “ye (Galatians) despised not my temptation … in my flesh” (Ga 4:14).

  1. (2 Co 11:23–27).

naked—that is, insufficiently clad (Ro 8:35).

buffeted—as a slave (1 Pe 2:20), the reverse of the state of the Corinthians, “reigning as kings” (Ac 23:2). So Paul’s master before him was “buffeted” as a slave, when about to die a slave’s death (Mt 26:67).

  1. working with our own hands—namely, “even unto this present hour” (1 Co 4:11). This is not stated in the narrative of Paul’s proceedings at Ephesus, from which city he wrote this Epistle (though it is expressly stated of him at Corinth, compare Ac 18:3, 19). But in his address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Ac 20:34), he says, “Ye yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my necessities,” &c. The undesignedness of the coincidence thus indirectly brought out is incompatible with forgery.

  2. defamed, we entreat—namely, God for our defamers, as Christ enjoined (Mt 5:10, 44) [GROTIUS]. We reply gently [ESTIUS].

filth—“the refuse” [CONYBEARE and HOWSON], the sweepings or rubbish thrown out after a cleaning.

of all things—not of the “World” only.

  1. warn—rather, “admonish” as a father uses “admonition” to “beloved sons,” not provoking them to wrath (Eph 6:4). The Corinthians might well be “ashamed” at the disparity of state between the father, Paul, and his spiritual children themselves.

  2. ten thousand—implying that the Corinthians had more of them than was desirable.

instructors—tutors who had the care of rearing, but had not the rights, or peculiar affection, of the father, who alone had begotten them spiritually.

in Christ—Paul admits that these “instructors” were not mere legalists, but evangelical teachers. He uses, however, a stronger phrase of himself in begetting them spiritually, “In Christ Jesus,” implying both the Saviour’s office and person. As Paul was the means of spiritually regenerating them, and yet “baptized none of them save Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas,” regeneration cannot be inseparably in and by baptism (1 Co 1:14–17).

  1. be ye followers of me—literally, “imitators,” namely, in my ways, which be in Christ (1 Co 4:17; 1 Co 11:1), not in my crosses (1 Co 4:8–13; Ac 26:29; Ga 4:12).

  2. For this came—that ye may the better “be followers of me” (1 Co 4:16), through his admonitions.

sent … Timotheus—(1 Co 16:10; Ac 19:21, 22). “Paul purposed … when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem. So he sent into Macedonia Timotheus and Erastus.” Here it is not expressly said that he sent Timothy into Achaia (of which Corinth was the capital), but it is implied, for he sent him with Erastus before him. As he therefore purposed to go into Achaia himself, there is every probability they were to go thither also. They are said only to have been sent into Macedonia, because it was the country to which they went immediately from Ephesus. The undesignedness of the coincidence establishes the genuineness of both the Epistle and the history. In both, Timothy’s journey is closely connected with Paul’s own (compare 1 Co 4:19). Erastus is not specified in the Epistle, probably because it was Timothy who was charged with Paul’s orders, and possibly Erastus was a Corinthian, who, in accompanying Timothy, was only returning home. The seeming discrepancy at least shows that the passages were not taken from one another [PALEY, Horae Paulinae].

son—that is, converted by me (compare 1 Co 4:14, 15; 1 Co 4:14, 15, Ac 14:6, 7 with Ac 16:1, 2; Ac 16:1, 2, 1 Ti 1:2, 18; 2 Ti 1:2). Translate, “My son, beloved and faithful in the Lord.”

bring you into remembrance—Timothy, from his spiritual connection with Paul, as converted by him, was best suited to remind them of the apostle’s walk and teaching (2 Ti 3:10), which they in some respects, though not altogether (1 Co 11:2), had forgotten.

as I teach … in every church—an argument implying that what the Spirit directed Paul to teach “everywhere” else, must be necessary at Corinth also (1 Co 7:17).

  1. some … as though I would not come—He guards against some misconstruing (as by the Spirit he foresees they will, when his letter shall have arrived) his sending Timothy, “as though” he “would not come” (or, “were not coming”) himself. A puffed-up spirit was the besetting sin of the Corinthians (compare 1 Co 1:11; 5:2).

  2. ALFORD translates, “But come I will”; an emphatical negation of their supposition (1 Co 4:18).

shortly—after Pentecost (1 Co 16:8).

if the Lord will—a wise proviso (Jam 4:15). He does not seem to have been able to go as soon as he intended.

and will know—take cognizance of.

but the power—I care not for their high-sounding “speech,” “but” what I desire to know is “their power,” whether they be really powerful in the Spirit, or not. The predominant feature of Grecian character, a love for power of discourse, rather than that of godliness, showed itself at Corinth.

  1. kingdom of God is not in word—Translate, as in 1 Co 4:19, to which the reference is “speech.” Not empty “speeches,” but the manifest “power” of the Spirit attests the presence of “the kingdom of God” (the reign of the Gospel spiritually), in a church or in an individual (compare 1 Co 2:1, 4; 1 Th 1:5).

  2. with a rod, or in love—The Greek preposition is used in both clauses; must I come IN displeasure to exercise the rod, or IN love, and the Spirit of meekness (Is 11:4; 2 Co 13:3)?

Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 269–271). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.


  1. Let a man account us as servants of Christ—The original word properly signifies, such servants as laboured at the oar in rowing vessels. And accordingly intimates the pains which every faithful minister takes in his Lord’s work. O God, where are these ministers to be found? Lord, thou knowest. And stewards of the mysteries of God—Dispensers of the mysterious truths of the Gospel.
  2. Yea, I judge not myself—My final state is not to be determined by my own judgment.
  3. I am not conscious to myself of any thing evil: yet am I not hereby justified—I depend not on this, as a sufficient justification of myself in God’s account: But he that judgeth me is the Lord—By his sentence I am to stand or fall.
  4. Therefore judge nothing before the time—Appointed for judging all men; until the Lord come, who in order to pass a righteous judgment, which otherwise would be impossible, will both bring to light the things which are now covered with impenetrable darkness, and manifest the most secret springs of action, the principles and intention of every heart. And then shall every one, every faithful steward, have praise of God.
  5. These things—Mentioned ch. 1:10, &c. I have by a very obvious figure transferred to myself, and Apollos, and Cephas, instead of naming those particular preachers at Corinth, to whom ye are so fondly attached, that ye may learn by us—From what has been said concerning us, (who, however eminent we are, are mere instruments in God’s hand) not to think of any man above what is here written, or above what Scripture warrants.
  6. Who maketh thee to differ—Either in gifts or graces? As if thou hadst not received it—As if thou hadst it originally from thyself.
  7. Now ye are full—The Corinthians abounded with spiritual gifts. And so did the apostles. But the apostles, by continual want and sufferings were kept from self-complacency. The Corinthians suffering nothing, and having plenty of all things, were pleased with and applauded themselves. And they were like children, who being raised in the world, disregarded their poor parents. Now are ye full: (says the apostle, in a beautiful gradation) ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings—A proverbial expression, denoting the most splendid and plentiful circumstances, without any thought of us. And I would ye did reign—In the best sense: I would ye had attained the height of holiness: that we might reign with you—Having no more sorrow on your account, but sharing in your happiness.
  8. God hath set forth us last, as appointed to death—Alluding to the Roman custom, of bringing forth those persons last on the stage, either to fight with each other, or with wild beasts, who were devoted to death: so that if they escaped one day, they were brought out again and again, till they were killed.
  9. We are fools, in the account of the world, for Christ’s sake: but ye are wise in Christ—Though ye are Christians, ye think yourselves wise; and ye have found means to make the world think you so too. We are weak—In presence, in infirmities, in sufferings: but ye are strong—In just opposite circumstances.
  10. And are naked—Who can imagine a more glorious triumph of the truth, than that which is gained in these circumstances? When St. Paul, with an impediment in his speech, and a person rather contemptible than graceful, appeared in a mean, perhaps tattered dress, before persons of the highest distinction, and yet commanded such attention, and made such deep impressions upon them.
  11. We bless—suffer it—entreat—We do not return revilings, persecution, defamation: nothing but blessing.
  12. We are made at the filth of the world, and off scouring of all things—Such were those poor wretches among the heathens, who were taken from the dregs of the people, to be offered as expiatory sacrifices to the infernal gods. They were loaded with curses, affronts, and injuries all the way they went to the altars. And when the ashes of those unhappy men were thrown into the sea, these very names were given them in the ceremony.
  13. I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children, I warn you—It is with admirable prudence and sweetness the apostle adds this, to prevent any unkind construction of his words.
  14. I have begotten you—This excludes not only Apollos his successor, but also Silas and Timothy his companions. And a relation between a spiritual father and his children brings with it an inexpressible nearness and affection.
  15. Be ye followers of me—In that spirit and behaviour, which I have so largely declared.
  16. My beloved son—Elsewhere he styles him brother; (2 Cor. 1:1) but here paternal affection takes place. As I teach—No less by example than precept.
  17. Now some are puffed up—St. Paul saw by a divine light, the thoughts which would arise in their hearts. As if I would not come—Because I send Timothy.
  18. I will know—He here shows his fatherly authority, not the big empty speech of these vain boasters, but how much of the power of God attends them.
  19. For the kingdom of God—Real religion, does not consist in words, but in the power of God ruling the heart.
  20. With a rod—That is, with severity.

Wesley, J. (1818). Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (Fourth American Edition, pp. 428–430). New York: J. Soule and T. Mason.


4:1–13 In this passage, Paul discusses the nature of genuine Christian leadership. He argues that the standard for Christian leaders is set by God alone (vv. 1–5) and that suffering is a hallmark of Christian ministry (vv. 6–13).

4:1 Thus let a person consider us Refers to the ministers Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (3:22).

servants The Greek word used here, hypēretas, is plural, emphasizing that Paul is one of many who ministered among the believers in Corinth. See note on Rom 1:1; compare note on 1 Tim 4:6.

stewards Refers to those entrusted to manage their master’s household. In this context, “stewards” describes Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, whom God entrusted with His mysteries. See note on Gen 2:15.

God’s mysteries Refers to the truth of the gospel message which the Spirit reveals apart from the wisdom of people (see 1 Cor 1:24 and note). Although some Corinthians considered this message foolish, Paul affirms that it expresses the wisdom of God.

4:2 faithful Here, being faithful means imparting the truth which the Spirit reveals without tainting it with the wisdom of people (1:17; 2:1).

4:3 I be judged by you Since Paul considers himself a servant of God and steward of God’s work, he must concern himself with gaining God’s approval, not people’s approval.

4:4 not by this am I vindicated He does not rely on his conscience, but on God to judge his faithfulness; this does not mean that he is acquitted of unfaithfulness. Because Paul does not evaluate himself, he is not aware of any charge of unfaithfulness against him (v. 2).

the one who judges In Paul’s time, only masters had the legal right to judge their servants. Since Paul is God’s servant, only God can judge him. This also implies that the Corinthian believers must not judge each other.

4:5 praise will come May refer to the “reward” Paul mentioned earlier (see note on 3:14).

4:6 not to go beyond what is written The difficult Greek phrase used here, to mē hyper ha gegraptai, likely reflects a common slogan among the Corinthian believers. They may have used it in response to teachers who supplemented received apostolic teaching with worldly wisdom or divisiveness, thereby causing divisions within the congregation (see v. 7; compare 3:15 and note). By using this phrase, Paul is saying that he and Apollos adhered to the accepted standard (preaching the gospel) and did not elevate one teacher over another (compare 1:10–17; 3:4–9). It is also possible that the phrase refers to Scripture in a general sense or, more specifically, to scriptures already cited in the letter (e.g., 1:19, 31; 2:9, 16; 3:19–20).

be inflated with pride Paul identifies pride as the cause of division in the church community (1:10–12).

4:7 boast See 1:29 and note.

4:8 you reign as kings The statements in this verse are ironic. Paul contrasts himself with the believers in Corinth to expose the absurdity of their attitude. They cannot credit themselves for their wisdom, wealth, or status.

4:9 apostles Includes not only the Twelve (Matt 10:2–4), but others sent out to proclaim the gospel message, such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7), and James (Gal 1:19).

last of all Probably a metaphorical reference to the final show in the arena when the most heinous criminals were executed.

as condemned to death Refers to subjection to humiliation as well as execution.

4:10 fools The Corinthian believers assume they have wisdom, but in reality they have acted like fools (1 Cor 4:7). In contrast, the apostles endure humiliation for the sake of Christ and the Church, yet the Corinthians consider them foolish.

4:11 Until the present hour May imply that Paul and his companions suffered daily, or it may refer to Paul’s present suffering in Ephesus.

homeless Paul was an itinerant minister—he moved from place to place without a settled residence. This contrasts the Corinthians, whom Paul sarcastically describes as rich and satiated (v. 8). This line also relates Paul’s work to the ministry and life of Jesus Christ (see Luke 9:58).

4:12 our own hands Paul worked as a tentmaker when he arrived in Corinth (Acts 18:1–4). The socially elite despised those who worked with their hands. Though many of the Corinthian believers only had mid-level social status (1 Cor 1:26), they considered manual labor a sign of dishonor (compare 1 Thess 2:9; 5:12). Jesus also worked with His hands, probably as a carpenter or stonemason (Mark 6:3).

when we are persecuted, we endure The three statements in 1 Cor 4:12–13 articulate some of the opposition Paul encountered during his evangelistic efforts. Like Christ, he persevered for the sake of the gospel. Some of Jesus’ sayings may lie behind Paul’s statements here (see Matt 5:44; Luke 6:28).

4:13 the refuse Paul is using degrading terms to convey the world’s contemptuous evaluation of the apostles. Those who faithfully serve Christ by preaching the message of the cross will always appear to be worthless according to the world’s wisdom.

4:14–21 Paul appeals to the Corinthians as the person who first preached the gospel to them and founded their church. Drawing on his unique relationship with the church, Paul urges the Corinthians to trust his character and imitate him as a worthy Christ follower.

4:14 to shame you People in Graeco-Roman society sought to avoid losing public honor. Paul does not want to provoke or discourage the Corinthians with his letter; rather, he wants to warn them about the disastrous consequences of pride and division.

but admonishing you Paul exhorts the Corinthians to right action in light of his previous criticism and instruction.

my dear children See 2 Cor 6:13 and note.

4:15 guardians Typically refers to a person who accompanied a child to school and was responsible for their safety. Here Paul probably applies the term to other Christian ministers who served the Corinthians but did not instruct them.

I fathered you Paul was responsible for the initial conversions in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:4, 8, 11; compare 2 Cor 10:14). This means that Paul has the authority to discipline them, as was the custom in the Graeco-Roman household.

4:16 become imitators of me Paul encourages the Corinthians to practice his life model since he is imitating Jesus (1 Cor 4:9–13), whom he met personally (Acts 9:1–9).

4:17 I have sent Paul had sent Timothy to Corinth before he wrote this letter (see Acts 19:22). Timothy is not included as a co-sender of it because he had already left for Corinth (1 Cor 1:1; compare 16:10).

Timothy Because Timothy had adopted Paul’s way of life, he became a model for the believers in Corinth. See note on 1 Tim 1:2.

my dear and faithful child Paul refers to Timothy as his spiritual son (see note on Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 1:2).

4:18 arrogant Refers back to 1 Cor 4:6, where the same word (from the root physioō, meaning “to puff up, make proud”) is used to describe those who become prideful because they are associated with specific teachers and cause dissensions. This word also occurs in v. 19.

4:20 kingdom of God Refers to the reign of God expressed in the lives of His people. While the kingdom of God is a present reality, it is not yet fully here. Here Paul urges the Corinthian believers to live according to the value system of God’s kingdom, which prizes powerful deeds more than persuasive speech.

not with talk, but with power See Rom 14:17.

4:21 a rod An instrument used for punishment or discipline.

spirit of gentleness Refers to the gentleness that the Spirit provides, not a gentle attitude. Compare Gal 6:1.

Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Co 4:1–21). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.


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L. Ball
L. Ball

Father. Developer. Coffee Connoisseur. Amateur Guitarist.