Faithfulness of Servants and Stewards
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).
After stating that “all things are yours,” Paul shows how this cannot lead to boasting, but rather to faithfulness and gratitude to God.
Applications for Church Unity
Faithfulness of Servants and Stewards
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.
Paul was being judged and attacked by at least some of the Corinthians
faithful Here, being faithful means imparting the truth which the Spirit reveals without tainting it with the wisdom of people
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.
I do not even judge myself. Though Paul’s conscience is clear (v. 5), ultimately only God determines whether one has proved faithful.
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 do not pronounce judgment. Not an absolute command (5:2; 6:2), but a warning not to usurp Christ’s role as judge in pronouncing final judgment. Paul speaks here to illegitimate criticisms raised against him.
bring to light the things now hidden. At the judgment, nothing will escape God’s searching light (Matt. 10:26 and parallels).
Corinthian Stewards Contrasted with Godly Stewards
4:8–13 In this powerful passage, the apostle makes use of biting irony to show the Corinthians how trivial are their concerns and how unfair their criticisms. The sufferings of Paul are comparable to the pain and public humiliation of captives condemned to die (2 Cor. 11:23–30). In contrast, some of the Corinthians think of themselves as notably successful, but only because they do not understand what it means to be “fools for Christ’s sake” (v. 10)—not to behave nonsensically, but to identify with Christ’s cross, which seems foolish to the perishing but is God’s true wisdom (1:18–25). The deprivation, contempt, and manual labor experienced by the apostles disqualify and devalue their mission in the eyes of the world and of many in the church as well (2 Cor. 11:12–12:11).
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
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
be inflated with pride Paul identifies pride as the cause of division in the church community
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Admonished to be Imitators
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.
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
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
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.
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.