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1 Corinthians 4

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1 Corinthians 4:1-2… People should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful.


            The Apostle Paul concludes his argument from the previous chapters of his letter to the Corinthians by commanding the members of that church to think of himself, Apollos, and Peter as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” No one is greater than the other.

            Whereas Paul initially spoke of farming in reference to the knowledge of Christ (sowing and watering seeds), later spoke of building a house in relation to the Christian life (laying a foundation and building upon it), now he moves to household servants under divine authority. He wants everyone who knows him, Apollos, and Peter to know them as “servants of Christ.” He knew that his once impeccable authority among the Corinthians was being chastised. They had judged him according to his perceived “unwise” preaching (1:17); for the weak way that he dealt with them (2:3); for his elementary teaching of the cross of Christ (3:2) in speaking to them as infants; and his insistence that he was a “wise master-builder” laying a foundation (3:10). All of this added up to their judging him and scorning the cross of Christ in favor of worldly wisdom.

            Now Paul wants to stress that though he does in fact belong to the Corinthians as one who had a large part in their conversion to Christ, he was not in fact accountable to them. He is only accountable to God, the One whom he serves. In 3:5-9 Paul called himself a “servant,” and he used the Greek word diakonos (deacon). This word signifies his task under God’s authority. Now, however, he uses the more general Greek word hyperetas (an under-rower) to describe his service to God. This word has the connotation of administering the affairs of another. It was used of the lowest of slaves in the Roman empire who were in charge of rowing the huge Roman Navy ships below the main deck. Paul is saying, “We are not the captains of the ship. We are only the slaves under orders to row the ship. None of us outranks the other, for we are all just under-rowers.” This is how Paul wanted Christians to view him, Apollos, and Peter as well.

            Not only were these men to be considered “under-rowers” – servants of God – they were also “stewards of the mysteries of God.” A “steward” was one who owned nothing but managed His master’s possessions. In this case, Paul is the steward, and he was responsible for the things of God. Therefore he only answers to God for his service. This is why he isn’t accountable to his fellow servants in how he serves (he would be in the case of sinful behavior however). His specific service was to dispense the “mysteries of God.” A mystery is a once-hidden secret now revealed. The “mystery” Paul speaks of is the cross of Christ (the death of God). He laid that foundation without error and without apology because it was his task as God’s steward. The only thing Paul was pressing for was faithfulness to his task in verse 2. A good steward is faithful to his/her task, and that is exactly what Paul was… faithful to lay the foundation of Christ crucified.

Food for Thought

            Church leaders today are oftentimes hailed as “clergy” – a high ranking “tight-with-God” group of people who are above all the rest. This is quite foreign to the Bible. It speaks of God’s people as “servants” – those in charge of what God owns. They are called “pastors” – literally “shepherds” who were the lowest of servants watching over sheep all day and night. That is how all Christians should be viewed, both by themselves and all others. As servants of God – who alone is to be hailed – they must serve their Master. God’s servants own nothing; He owns it all, and even though our fellow servants may examine us and critique our service, we answer only to our Master. In the end, the bottom line is this: “Have you been faithful to your Master?”

1 Corinthians 4:3-4… So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord.  


            Paul previously stated that the Corinthians’ assessment of his leadership among them should not be judged. The only service a servant of God is to be judged for is whether he/she is faithful to his/her task. The service of God’s servants is never to be scrutinized by fellow servants. Since they belong to God, only God can truly judge their service to Him. As long as the servant is faithful to the service in which he/she is called there is no judgment to be had. However, God’s people must judge between right and wrong behavior because immoral behavior among God’s people reflects not only on the Church but ultimately on God Himself.

            For Paul, in verse 3, he believed it to be of little importance that he was being critiqued by such shallow and immature Christians. Furthermore, he considered it a “minor matter” to be critiqued by anyone for the way he was serving God by laying the foundation of Jesus Christ. There was no man or human court that he considered worthy to judge his service to God. As a matter of fact, he would not even judge himself. His personal evaluations of himself were irrelevant. MacArthur says, “No Christian, no matter how advanced in the faith, is able to properly evaluate his own spiritual life. Before we know it, we will be ranking ourselves, classifying ourselves, and discover that a great deal of time is being spent in thinking of nothing but ourselves. The bias in our own favor and the tendency of the flesh toward self-justification make this a dangerous prospect.” Paul’s only concern was what his Master thought of him.

            In verse 4 Paul elaborates on what he said in verse 3. Though he doesn’t feel the need to scrutinize his service to the Lord in verse 3, he’s also not aware of anything that warrants such scrutiny. It’s not that Paul wasn’t looking into his own motives as to why he was laying the foundation of Jesus Christ through his evangelistic service; it’s simply that he knew he was being faithful to the task in which he had been called. His faithfulness to the task meant that his conscience was clear. However, this in itself did not “acquit” him. The perfect passive verb form of “acquit” here means “to be made righteous.” In other words, just because Paul felt no need to scrutinize himself because of no perceived personal sin, this in itself didn’t mean that he was innocent. He knew that God would have the final say, not his own free conscience. To illustrate, we might take the popular notion today that some have about right and wrong. Some believe that “if it’s right for you then it must be right.” Paul said that his conscience was clear in reference to his service to God, but this in itself didn’t make him “righteous” any more so than thinking if something is right for you then it must in fact be right. God was his final judge in all things.

Food for Thought

            As God’s servants we are to be critiqued in our service to Him only by Him. We must not, however, fail to judge immoral behavior in our fellow believers. For instance, we must not tell someone that they shouldn’t serve God in the foreign mission field. If that’s where God has led them to serve Him, who are we to say any different? However, when that same person who wants to serve God in the foreign mission field has an extramarital affair or cheats on his/her tax return, for instance, they must be judged by their brothers in Christ. Their sin must be confronted by those who are spiritual, and it must be confessed and repented of by the offender. We are obligated to judge the immoral behavior of other Christians (Matt. 18:15ff), but we are forbidden to judge their service to God (1 Cor. 2:15). The former is encouraged; the latter is a sin.

1 Corinthians 4:5… So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.


            Drawing the logical conclusion in verse 5, Paul says, “Don’t judge anything before the time.” In verses 3-4 Paul uses a word for “judge” that literally means “to search out; to investigate.” He told them that it was a small thing to him for them to examine him, and furthermore, that he himself wasn’t even searching out his own life. Paul’s only concern was what God would determine about him through His “examination.” Now, however, in verse 5, Paul uses another Greek word when he says “do not judge…” Whereas the previous word he used which is normally translated as “judge” actually means “to examine,” now he uses the word properly translated “judge.” This particular word means to “decide; to condemn.” The former word has to do with an investigation, and the latter word has to do with sentencing. In other words, Paul is telling the church in Corinth to stop investigating him in vv. 3-4 because the true judgment is coming from God in verse 5 in a yet future time.

            The Corinthians, because of their fascination with worldly wisdom, were scrutinizing and  passing judgment on their Christians leaders. Worldly wisdom begets this because it pits Godly wisdom against its own interpretation of truth – foolishness to God. Nothing, however, is to be judged before the “time.” The “time” here has to do with the sentence that immediately follows – the Day the Lord returns to earth. Paul is speaking eschatologically (of the end times). His whole life was spent serving God in the capacity that God called him to serve (laying the foundation of Jesus Christ), and since he knew he was being faithful, along with his brothers Peter and Apollos, he felt there was no need to judge their faithfulness. It is important, however, to note that Paul is not forbidding all judgments. In 5:12 he clearly speaks of the necessity of judging the immoral actions of believers, and in 6:2-4 he plainly teaches that believers must judge their own legal cases as opposed to taking one another to civil courts – an admonition for Christians only.

            The third phrase in verse 5 says that when the Lord returns (speaking of the second coming of Jesus Christ to the earth) “He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of the hearts.” This is what will take place when Jesus returns. It is he who will reveal the secrets of all men’s hearts. The Corinthians had taken this responsibility on themselves, but Paul concludes that this is the Lord’s job and His alone. Since God is light all darkness will fade when He brings out the hidden motives of all people. Once this is done, “each will receive recognition from God.” Once the motives for serving Christ of all men’s hearts are revealed it is then that judgment and rewards comes. Again, this is purely the Lord’s prerogative.

Food for Thought

            As one who serves the Lord in a pastoral capacity, I’m amazed at how so many who are not called to this ministry seem to know exactly how to perform its duties. This is widespread however. A few years ago a popular Christian musician detoured from her Christian music roots to record a pop album. She was immediately chastised by Christian radio stations – even banned for a time. To her she was attempting to reach out to the unsaved populace with her music and sing as she felt led. Her music was topical but moral, and she did nothing sinful. But she was judged by many as “selling out.” Who are any of us to judge her? Let us watch our doctrine closely, and let us cease from this kind of judging and allow others to serve God the way He has led them. If we should slip into immorality, may God graciously send a brother to correct us.

1 Corinthians 4:6-7… I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other. 7 For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?


            The “these things” Paul is speaking of as applying to the Corinthians are his previous figures of speech. He used the figure of farming in 3:6-9, of laying a foundation and building a structure in 3:10-15, and of servant-stewards in 4:1-5. All three figures of speech were used by Paul to describe himself and Apollos and their ministries. Keep in mind that the Corinthians had created divisions in the church between these two men (and Peter). Paul was using himself and Apollos as examples of what God’s ministers are to be (one plants, one waters; one pours the foundation, the other builds on it; one servant rows the boat, the other cleans the oars). They are humble and meek because they are servants – not exalted men who are to be worshipped. However, God had inspired many writings by Paul’s day that pertained to honoring His servants. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12 God’s servants who labor in the ministry and teach God’s Word are encouraged to be appreciated. In 1 Timothy 5:17 they are to be financially compensated for their work. These passages allude to OT passages, and they teach that God’s servants are to be honored but only within the realm that scripture allows. To go beyond what scripture teaches is to sin by giving more honor than what is deserved, hence, Paul says, “Do not go beyond what is written.” To do so would sow the seeds of arrogance and pride (“puffed up”) and pit one servant against another. This is exactly what was going on in Corinth, and it is exactly what happens when worldly wisdom rules the day. Both preachers were being compared with the other to the point that the church was splitting, and the focus on Jesus Christ was being blurred.

            Verse 7 is the kind of preaching that is designed to humiliate those caught in the trap of pride and arrogance as the Corinthians had. As each group stood on their side of the fence, as it were, they spouted off their prideful words of “I’m of Paul” and “I’m of Apollos.” Verse 7, in asking, “Who concedes you any superiority” really means to say, “What makes you think you’re so special?” The fact that each of these men had been given to the church in Corinth as servants of God could only mean that there was nothing to boast about. Paul asks the rhetorical question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” How can people boast and swell with pride over things given to them? They were acting as though they were superior to others because one loved Paul and the other loved Apollos. Both were gifts from God, but God received no glory.

Food for Thought

            Pride is a terrible thing. God detests pride. Pride says, “Look at me! Look at my accomplishments! Honor me!” The problem here is that it takes our focus off of God and puts in onto ourselves. Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Of course the answer is “nothing.” Now if everything we possess was given to us, then how can pride enter in? Are you healthy? God gave it to you. Did you come from a prominent and/or wealthy family who raised you accordingly and took you to church every Sunday? God put you in that family. Do you know Christ as Lord and Savior of your life? God did that too – you can take no credit for that either. How about the gifts with which you serve our Lord (teaching, exhortation, faith, etc.)? Even these gifts are given by God to serve God. In the end we’re left with nothing to boast about; nothing with which to exalt ourselves. Praise be to God for granting us all we possess.

1 Corinthians 4:8-9… You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.


            The words of Paul in verse 8 are very sarcastic. The tone here should not be missed as this great man of God lambastes these immature and pompous Christians in Corinth. Like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3:17 the Corinthians believed themselves to be rich, royal, and wise above all others because of their newfound “wisdom.” In a spiritual sense they were all of this to some degree, but these qualities were gifts from God (cf. 4:7), and they serve to glorify Him, not the recipient of those gifts. Moreover, all of God’s gifts are to bring humility and lead their recipients into worship – not pride and arrogant pomp like the Corinthians possessed. The irony of the state of these people is that though they had everything in Christ, they had reduced themselves to nothing through their arrogant boasting and prideful behavior.

Paul sarcastically mentions three characteristics of the Corinthians’ faulty thought patterns. First, they believed themselves to be “filled” – a term signifying a gluttonous appetite that is satisfied. They thought they had it all with all their spiritual gifts (1:4-7) and their worldly philosophies they had added to those. Second, they had already become “rich” in their own minds. This word is used in reference to money and possessions. Apparently these folks, like many Christians today, had gained some wealth to the point of thinking very highly of themselves. Third, they had become “kings” in their own minds. Whereas Paul, Apollos, and Peter were all serving the Lord as paupers, as it were, (vv. 9-13), the Corinthians believed they had arrived. They were royalty, and they were above all others. Paul’s sarcasm is unmistakable. He continues on by telling them that he wished they had become kings “so that we also might reign with you.” Paul knew that his ultimate fate (and the ultimate fate of all believers) was to reign as kings but not until the Day – the second coming of Christ. The Corinthians had already inaugurated their kingship, but they received Paul’s stinging rebuke as a result. The Day had not arrived, and though Paul wished it had so that Christ’s final kingdom would reign, it hadn’t.

In verse 9 Paul describes he and his fellow apostles as the “last of all… men condemned to death… a spectacle to the world.” The imagery here is that of a Roman general who, upon arriving home in victory over his enemies, would parade his armies and the booty they claimed in front of their countrymen. At the end of the procession their captives would line up and await their fate in the arena for all to see – they would become the “spectacle.” James Moffatt translates the verse, “God means us apostles to come in at the very end like doomed gladiators in the arena.” Paul says that the apostles are viewed this way not only before men but angels too. For it is the angels who observe all the activities of mankind (cf. 1 Cor. 11:10; Eph. 3:10).

Food for Thought

            All of us fall into the hands of pride. Our own salvation can be a source of that, but most often it comes from our successes in life (education, financial endeavors, etc.). The above passage shoots bullets at those who suffer from this syndrome. Remember today that everything you have you received from God (i.e., health, mind, money). True greatness, however, comes from servanthood and humility. From Abraham, to Jacob, to Moses, to John the Baptist, to Jesus Christ – the greatest men who ever lived were humble and thought less of themselves than even those around them thought of them. The greatest among us are servants (Matt. 23:11).

1 Corinthians 4:10-13…We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.


            In these passages Paul’s sarcasm continues, and he is to be viewed as an angry father lecturing his rebellious teenager who looks at his dad and thinks what most teens think of their dad, namely, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In this case it is the Corinthians who are the immature teenagers. While they thought of themselves as “prudent” (“intelligent”), the apostles were “fools” (literally “morons”) for the sake of Christ. True piety was exhibited in the lives of the apostles. Moreover, they believed themselves to be “strong” and mighty, while the apostles believed themselves to be “weak.” The Corinthians believed themselves to be “distinguished” (to be held in honor; to be glorious), but the apostles were “without honor.” In the same sense that teenagers, generally speaking, know nothing of true maturity but later in life see how ridiculous their behavior once was, so too was the juvenile behavior of the Corinthians in relation to the very spiritually grown-up apostles. Paul sharply rebukes them in hopes that they will listen, see the error of their ways, and put aside their childlike behavior.

            In v. 11 the sarcasm ends and straight talk begins. While the Corinthians were living a life of luxury, the apostles were going hungry, their clothes were shabby, and the surrounding peoples treated them “roughly” (literally, “to strike with a fist”). In other words they were getting beat up by those who didn’t like their preaching of Christ crucified.  The apostles were “homeless,” and this attests to the nature of missionary work, namely, that they have no permanent dwelling place. Those who go hungry, get beat up, and have no home are not typical of those who are reigning as kings. Yet it is very typical of those who will reign with Christ.

            Verses 12-13 sum up the rest of the life of apostles – those who proclaim the message of Christ crucified. They “toil” (get tired) through “working with our own hands.” When one “reviles” them (says harsh things about them), they speak kind words in return (to bless). When they are “persecuted” (literally “chased or hunted”), they “endure” (“hold up to”). In verse 13 when they are “slandered” they “conciliate” – they “humbly make their appeal.”

            The sum of everything a mature Christian endures is found in Paul’s summary statement at the end of v. 13: “We are the scum of the world, the dregs of all things.” These words refer to scraped off food from a plate, and figuratively speaking, they refer to the lowest and most degraded criminals. This is the way the world saw the apostles; quite opposite of the way the Corinthians viewed themselves. But this is always the thought-pattern of the spiritual adolescent.

Food for Thought

            What do you do when someone belittles you? When they curse you, slander you, or cut you off on the freeway? If you’re like most, you retaliate out of prideful anger because you think more highly of yourself than you ought to. Memorize the gist of 1 Corinthians 4:10-13, and let it convict you today that your behavior is likely at the opposite end of the spectrum from where it should be as a mature believer in Jesus Christ. Almost everything about following Christ is contrary to what comes natural and what the world tells us is wise. These verses truly give us something to pray for because they show most of us how short we fall of God’s glory.

Don’t imagine us leaders to be something we aren’t. We are servants of Christ, not his masters. We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them. The requirements for a good guide are reliability and accurate knowledge. It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion. I don’t even rank myself. Comparisons in these matters are pointless. I’m not aware of anything that would disqualify me from being a good guide for you, but that doesn’t mean much. The Master makes that judgment.

      So don’t get ahead of the Master and jump to conclusions with your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes, he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of things we never even dreamed of—inner motives and purposes and prayers. Only then will any one of us get to hear the “Well done!” of God.

      All I’m doing right now, friends, is showing how these things pertain to Apollos and me so that you will learn restraint and not rush into making judgments without knowing all the facts. It’s important to look at things from God’s point of view. I would rather not see you inflating or deflating reputations based on mere hearsay.

      For who do you know that really knows you , knows your heart? And even if they did, is there anything they would discover in you that you could take credit for? Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God? So what’s the point of all this comparing and competing? You already have all you need. You already have more access to God than you can handle. Without bringing either Apollos or me into it, you’re sitting on top of the world—at least God’s world—and we’re right there, sitting alongside you!

      It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We’re something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We’re the Messiah’s misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we’re mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don’t have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, “God bless you.” When they spread rumors about us , we put in a good word for them . We’re treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture’s kitchen. And it’s not getting any better.

      I’m not writing all this as a neighborhood scold just to make you feel rotten. I’m writing as a father to you, my children. I love you and want you to grow up well, not spoiled. There are a lot of people around who can’t wait to tell you what you’ve done wrong, but there aren’t many fathers willing to take the time and effort to help you grow up. It was as Jesus helped me proclaim God’s Message to you that I became your father. I’m not, you know, asking you to do anything I’m not already doing myself.

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