Corinthian Pride vs. Paul's Weakness part 1
1 Corinthians 4:6-13
Corinthian Pride vs. Paul’s Weakness
There are two predominant themes in this passage of chapter four: the pride of the Corinthian believers and Paul’s weaknesses. Paul contrasts their view of his own status as an apostle with the distorted image the Corinthians have of themselves.
There are strong parallels between the Corinthian’s perception of themselves and the image the church today seeks to portray of ourselves to our society around us. Most evangelical churches today are seeking the same status in our communities that the Corinthian church was pursuing among their community. But in contrast, Paul and the apostles, as they are described in this passage, more accurately reflect the image of Jesus Christ in the eyes of society. But there is a sharp contrast between, on the one hand, Jesus and His apostles and, on the other, the Corinthian church and believers in North America today.
Many of the Corinthian church believed that they were prominent and respected citizens with status and influence in their society; while Paul was like a worthless, rejected man condemned to die in the arena. They thought themselves to be wise, strong, and honored; but they believed Paul to be foolish, weak, and dishonored. They are embarrassed of Paul and of the image he portrays to their community. Then at the end of this passage, in verses 11-13, Paul boasts in the very things about himself that the Corinthian Christians scorn and seek to avoid any association with.
The irony of this passage is that the very image that the Corinthians are proud of and seek to portray in their lives and in their church (vs. 8, 10) is the way they wish that Paul would also be. But the way that Paul actually is, as described in verses 11-13, is the way that all believers, as followers of Christ, are supposed to be, in principle if not in actual circumstances. In chapter 1:18 through 2:16 the Bible outlines the theology of the cross in the crucified life. Verses 6-13 of chapter four, that we are looking at today, describe the life of an apostle showing it to be a crucified life. But the next paragraph, verses 14-17, urges all believers to imitate Paul, meaning to follow his way of the crucified life in Christ Jesus.
Here we are reminded that the Corinthian believers are puffed up with pride. They are also divided over their loyalties to different apostles. In this case Paul is addressing those who are puffed up on behalf of Apollos, and are opposed to Paul. In other words they are proud to consider themselves followers of Apollos rather than followers of Paul. They want nothing to do with Paul. They are embarrassed of Paul.
Verse six is not easy to interpret. It begins by saying that Paul has named himself and Apollos in order to illustrate the point he is making. But what he is saying about the attitudes that exist between followers of Apollos and Paul can just as accurately be applied to other factions in the church. “. . . That you may learn in us not to think [or go] beyond what is written . . .” This could also be translated to say, ‘“Follow only what is written in the Scriptures.’ Then you will not be more proud of one person than another.” (NCV)
The instruction here seems to be an exhortation to be followers of the word of God rather than followers of men and their particular interpretation of the word. Rather than upholding the word of God as our authority it is often much easier for some Christians to simply follow whatever their favorite Bible teacher says about the word. Many Christians say, “Well I believe whatever John MacArthur says about the Bible.” Or, “Whatever Hank Hannegraf says, that’s what I believe.” Or maybe it is Bill Gothard’s interpretation that you follow, or Charles Price, or Chuck Smith or John Piper.
We need to guard against becoming the follower of any particular person, and just uncritically accepting whatever they say rather than checking it out for ourselves in the bible. We need to be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11and check out what is said with the scripture. Don’t merely believe it because you respect the one who said it because even the best of leaders will make mistakes. Even some of the writings of the apostle Paul did not make it into the Bible because not everything he said was the word of God. (i.e. 5:9) ‘“Follow only what is written in the Scriptures.’ Then you will not be more proud of one person than another.” (NCV) Following a person is especially dangerous when following that person results in divisions between us and those who follow a different leader’s view of scripture.
Paul now confronts those who are outspoken in their opposition to his ministry. Their pride in Apollos, for example, reflects a lack of gratitude and a lack of proper perspective of how God works.
Because of the fall, we all tend to have an arrogant view of our own importance. Instead of offering humble gratitude for God’s gracious ministry in our lives through all the many various individuals He has used to influence us, we pick and choose those few that best enhance the image we want to portray of ourselves. We are guilty of doing this with many people, even with our own parents, especially when we are younger. For example, if your parents are cool in the eyes of those you want to impress, or if they help to make you look cool then you are glad to associate with them. But if your parents do not live up to the image you are seeking to portray then you will seek to distance yourself from them, you may be embarrassed of them, you won’t want to associate with them, even though they have given you everything you have in life. This is what the Corinthian church was doing to Paul, even though he was their spiritual father.
Notice the question in verse 7: “For who makes you differ from another?” The modern equivalent to this would be, “Who in the world do you think you are, anyway?” What kind of conceited self-delusion is it that makes you think you are qualified to judge God’s servant? (Gordon Fee, p. 171)
The second question exposes the fact that they are ungrateful: “And what do you have that you did not receive?”
Keep in mind that this is not the words of a mere man who has been offended and is lashing back in self-defense. These are the inspired words of God speaking through His servant Paul. This is like when God put Job on the witness stand in Job 38 and questioned him saying, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line?” Job 38:2-5
In asking, “What do you have that you did not receive?” the Lord is underscoring the fact that everything we have is a gift of His grace; nothing is deserved, nothing we have has been earned. When we genuinely understand this truth of the grace of God we will live with an attitude of overwhelming gratitude towards God and towards all of the many varieties of people He uses to minister into our lives. But when we, like these Corinthians, think of ourselves as being especially gifted and wise and somehow a notch or two higher than those around us who are not so gifted, we put ourselves in that precarious position of judging others. When we judge others as being somehow below us we demonstrate the fact that we completely misunderstand the grace of God and we reveal the absence of the humility of Jesus Christ in our lives. We do this when we see ourselves as being superior to other believers because of the denomination we are affiliated with or because of the church we attend.
Ironically we are guilty of such spiritual pride when we look down on others who do not understand the message of the grace of God as though it is because of something superior in ourselves that we do understand a small measure of God’s grace.
Now the third question, “If you did indeed receive [God’s grace], why do you boast as if you had not received it?” In other words why do you boast as if you have received it because you were more deserving or more worthy than others?
When we truly understand and experience the grace of God it leads to humility and to gratitude; but being filled with natural wisdom and the flesh lead to boasting and judging of others. Grace has a leveling effect, putting no one above another; but the self-esteem of our flesh has a self-exalting effect. (Gordon Fee, p. 171) Grace causes us to realize that I must decrease; boasting means I see myself as better, and more worthy than another. It is because their boasting and judging is evidence that these Corinthians do not understand the grace of God that Paul so strongly confronts them in this chapter.
The words, “You are already full!” means to eat until you are stuffed and can eat no more. “You are already rich!” They are abundantly blessed with good things. The repeated use of the adverb already indicates that they are already in this life on earth enjoying the abundant riches and blessings that many must wait until heaven to experience. Just as in our own time, the vast majority of the world in Paul’s day lived in poverty. The Corinthians were a small minority of privileged people enjoying a wealthy lifestyle. The problem is not with their material and spiritual blessings but the problem is with their attitude toward those blessings and with their pride-filled self esteem.
Several years ago I heard an interview with “the heavenly man”, a pastor from the persecuted underground church in China who was visiting America. They were drawing attention to the strong commitment of the Chinese believers to prayer and to effective evangelism in the face of great opposition. He was asked why the Church in China was so strong in these areas and the Church in America is so weak? His reply was that the Church in China is focused on following Jesus in the way of the cross, while looking forward to receiving their reward in heaven. But the Church in America seems to have become preoccupied with already enjoying all of the riches of heaven now on earth.
These words are filled with irony, meaning this is what the Corinthians believe about themselves, but in spiritual reality the opposite is true. It is true that the Corinthians have been richly gifted in both material blessings and in spiritual blessings. But what they fail to realize is that their gifts are a reflection of the worth of God the giver, not a reflection of the worth of themselves the undeserving receiver. Verse 8 is very similar to what Jesus said to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:17 “You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
“You have reigned as kings without us . . .” This expression also refers to the Millennial Kingdom at the return of Christ when the saints of Christ will rule with Christ in His Kingdom. (Daniel 7:27 “Then the kingdom and dominion, And the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, Shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him.” Cf. Luke 22:29-30, “And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Notice however the qualifying context in verse 28 which the Corinthians did not understand: “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.”)
The Corinthian believers are living with a King’s kid, kingdom prosperity mindset “already” in this life which does not rightly belong to us until the Millennial Kingdom and beyond. When Paul says “You have reigned as kings without us” he means that the apostles do not yet share in the kingdom privileges that you naively (or foolishly) think you already enjoy. It is significant in light of the popularity in North America of the prosperity doctrine and of the belief that we as believers should already be living like King’s kids, to note that this was not the belief or the lifestyle of the Apostles.
The spiritual dimension of the Kingdom of God is already being established through the ministry of the Gospel. But the physical aspects of the Kingdom of God were put on hold with the Jew’s rejection of their King at the cross and will not be resumed until the second coming of Christ to establish His Millennial Kingdom at the end of the Great Tribulation. We are not yet living in the Millennial Kingdom of God, though the Corinthian believers thought they already were. We are living in the church age, also known as the age of grace in which the focus is not on the throne of God but on the cross of Jesus Christ. We are called, not to live a pampered life of a King’s kid, but we are called to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow Jesus in living the crucified life.
In verse 8 Paul says he wishes that the Corinthians truly did already reign as kings because that would mean that Jesus had returned to set up His Millennial Kingdom and that Paul and the other apostles also would be freed from their hardships to reign with Him. But the reality is that they do not live as King’s kids but they continue to live the crucified life as verses 9-13 make clear.
We will continue our study of these verses next week but let us in closing today read verses 9-13 and notice the contrast of the crucified life which the Apostles live with the Corinthians who lived with the Laodicean attitude of, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” But they don’t realize that they are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” And as we read let us consider which description best fits us as believers. Are we of the Corinthian and Laodicean mindset or do we have the mindset of Paul and the apostles and much of the Church of China today?