The apostle Paul has been writing to the Christians in Corinth who are arguing, fighting, and dividing. He began this section of teaching by appealing to them and imploring them that “there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). In the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians we will see the apostle Paul continuing to teach these Christians about the proper mind and thought process they must have a followers of Christ.
True Servants of Christ (4:1-5)
Paul wants the Corinthians to have a proper perspective of Apollos and himself. Once again he declares that they should be regarded as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Recall in the second chapter that the apostle Paul declared that they had been given the Spirit of God (2:12), which is the mind of Christ (2:16). They imparted these words with the Spirit’s words, not with their own human words or wisdom (2:13). Therefore, they should be regarded as those who possess the mysteries of God. But the point is not to bow down to them or elevate them. They are privileged to be servants of God, possessing the mysteries of God which they reveal through their preaching and their writings. We need to make the point again the mysteries of God have been revealed through the apostles and prophets. You do not need to try figure out the mysteries of God. You do not need to seek the mysteries of God through some sort of special revelation or prophecy. The mysteries of God have been revealed through the Holy Spirit that was given to the apostles and prophets. There are no more secrets to be revealed. God has revealed all that he has determine to reveal, which is the point of book of 1 John.
Because they possess the mysteries of God and are servants of Christ, they must be found faithful in their work. Their concern is standing before God on the day of judgment (4:3). But he is not going to be evaluated by these Corinthians because they are not acting as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh and infants in Christ (3:1). Being judged by worldly standards is pointless. Paul says that the criticisms these Corinthians have of him and his work are regarded as nothing to him. This is an important reminder that we must do what we know God has called us to do and disregard the criticism of those who are not thinking spiritually.
The reverse point is also true. We may think we are doing great but that does not acquit us (4:4). The praise of others is also not the basis of judgment. We must work, teach, and do right because God will judge us. We are responsible to God which is far weightier than the opinion of humans. Even self-evaluation is unreliable. We must look to God and his word. This brings Paul to his first point in verse 5. No one knows the heart or the conscience until it is revealed. God will judge the motives and thoughts hidden within the recesses of a person’s mind and heart. God will expose it for God knows it! You cannot be fake. God knows your motives. At the end, we will receive our praise and commending from God. This is a great hope for those whose hearts are pure and motives are true to God. God sees our hearts and though others may doubt us, we can continue to live faithfully knowing that God will commend us.
Arrogance Has No Part In Our Lives (4:6-13)
Now Paul says something fascinating in verse 6. I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)
Paul says that he has been applying these things to himself and Apollos for their benefit. Paul was not simply talking about themselves and what they are doing. The Corinthians were to learn from how the apostles behaved and thought about themselves and follow that example themselves. Paul was not trying to talk about himself for nothing. He is talking about what he has been doing so that they would do the same thing. What did Paul want them to learn? Do not exceed what is written!
This is the point we have seen many times in these study of the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. Do not listen to or follow human wisdom. Stay to the scriptures because it is the mind of Christ and possesses the revealed mysteries of God. Do not apply human wisdom to give yourself justification to exceed what is written. Do not go beyond the word of God. The purpose is to keep ourselves from pride and arrogance (4:6). When we go beyond the word, we are exhibiting pride. I do not know that we have always thought about this in this way. We are showing our pride and arrogance when we move away from the direct declarations of the Lord. This principle of staying with the word of God will keep us from being “puffed up in favor of one against another.” How can we possibly be arrogant? How can we elevate one person over another? Doing such means we have forgotten the grace of God and moved away from the scriptures. It is not about us. It is all about God. We must not elevate ourselves. We must not think highly of ourselves. We have walked away from the scriptures when we place any importance on ourselves. Pride is being self-focused. We are self-focused when we elevate ourselves and think of ourselves highly. We are self-focused when we demean ourselves and think of ourselves negatively. The apostle Paul is constantly teaching the need for having a God-focused life, not a self-focused life. You have gone beyond what is written when you are no longer God-focused.
The apostle Paul pushes this point even further in verse 7. How are you different than anyone else? What makes you so superior? Now you may start answering that question by listing all that you can do, or all that you have achieved, or all the value you think you have. Listen to what Paul says. “What do you have that you did not receive?” How can you boast when nothing that you have is yours? All that you have received is from God. Your talent is from God. Your wealth is from God. Your faith is from God? Your hope is from God? Your life is from God. Your next breath is from God. In the words of Job, you came into this world naked and you will leave this world with nothing. How can you boast as if you did not receive it? In sarcasm Paul declares that these Corinthians are so self-sufficient and so rich that they apparently have no need for anything (4:8). You are already satisfied in this life. You think you have reached full maturity, ruling and reigning, rather than walking humbly with God. This is what they thought of themselves. They are foolish as the Laodiceans.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:16–17 ESV)
Self-satisfaction leaves us poor and blind before God. Self-focus means you do not see who you truly are before God. You did it all without God or anyone else’s help, didn’t you! What a contrast to the thinking of Paul when he speaks to the Philippians.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way. (Philippians 3:12–15 ESV)
To keep away from fighting and divisions we must have a God-centered focused, seeing ourselves for who we truly are and not have a self-focus.
Paul continues to show how ridiculous their prideful thinking is. We wish you Corinthian Christians were reigning so that we might share the rule with you (4:8)! We are fools for Christ’s sake but you are wise. We are weak but you are strong. You are held in honor but we are held in disrepute (4:10). What Paul shows them is this truth: “We have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.” Our sacrifice is on display. Listen to verses 11-13.
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Corinthians 4:11–13 ESV)
Do you see how the apostles have responded their mistreatments? They give and sacrifice and the result is that they are like the scum of the world and the refuse of all things. This description is a Greek word that describes the scrapings of a pot or dish that are thrown away. So you know that cooked on grime that gets stuck on a plate or pot? That is what the apostle Paul says that they have become to the world. I think the NKJV rendering of this word, that they have become “the offscouring of all things.” Listen to Paul. We are hungry and thirsty. We are poorly dressed, beaten, and homeless. We labor because we do not have it easy. We are reviled, we are persecuted, and we are slandered. We have become the scum of the world and the trash can of all things. Now, where is the room for pride?
Imitate Paul (4:14-21)
So Paul says that he writes these things, not to shame them, but to admonish them as loved children. You have all kinds of guides and teachers but Paul has been a father to them in the gospel. Therefore, be imitators of me (4:16). These things have been applied to Paul and Apollos so that these Christians would follow in their footsteps. In fact, Paul says he sent Timothy to them to remind them of Paul’s ways in Christ, “as I teach them everywhere in every church.” Paul is teaching in all the churches that this is the sacrificial life in Christ. There will not be divisions and fighting if we will have this attitude that we see present in the apostle Paul. We completely sacrifice ourselves, even to the point of being regarded as the scum of the world and the garbage of all things. Now, we are not these things in the sight of God. But we are willing to be considered these things in the eyes of the world.
Our resistance to this kind of thinking shows how much we have been influenced by the wisdom of the world. We will be mistreated and we will suffer loss. But when we are reviled, we must bless. When we are persecuted, we must maintain our faith and endure. When we are slandered, we will answer graciously. These things will even happen in the church and we must respond the same way. We do not avoid. We do not mistreat. We continue to show Christian love and grace to all, even if we have been wronged or hurt. Imitate Paul. Do not think about self. Stay God-focused. Do what is spiritually good for others. This is how we show spiritual maturity and show ourselves to be faithful servants of God.