Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2016
Lesson #11: 1 Corinthians 4:6-21 (ESV)
A Kingdom of Real Power
Some doctors are known for their unethical medicating of patients just to keep them happy. They ignore real symptoms and neglect proper treatments. They prescribe pain pills or tranquilizers that make it seem like they are curing the disease, when really, they are just making the patient feel as if they have gotten better. Often their patients love them and trust them without question. But the treatments they are getting only allow the real diseases to get worse.
There is a philosophy of education that produces unprepared students. It does not want to correct them when they are wrong. It rewards them even if they spell words incorrectly, or get wrong answers in math. They are more concerned with the child’s perception of success than they are with teaching him. These uneducated graduates go out into the work force with a diploma only to discover that they can’t do the work required to succeed in the real world.
There is often a similar danger that hurts churches. Back in Corinth, spiritually immature believers were being mislead by manipulative teachers. They made them feel good by their oratorical powers, popular ways, and innovative ideas. but it was dividing the congregation into immature and unprepared factions. Their love for what was culturally accepted, and made them feel like they fit in, was subverting God’s ways.
They should be showing that their faith in Christ was legitimate and not just a superficial delusion. Redeemed hearts should be growing into mature believers, grounded in God’s truth and hope. They did not need to be entertained, and fired up by stirring speakers. What God had provided in the gospel stirs the soul quite well enough.
Chapter 4 begins by telling them about the true measure of those who rightly lead God’s people.
1. This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
2. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
3. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be 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 thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
5. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
Christ’s trustworthy servants were faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, the truths revealed in his word.
had been examples of truly transformed lives.
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.
Back in the first chapter, verse 12 Paul said, “… each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ ” Though the names of Paul and Peter and Apollos had been used by the factions in Corinth, these teachers wanted no part in it. They did not want that kind of false honor. They were willing to let their own ministries stand as an example of what faithfulness really looks like. They dared to stay within the boundaries of Scripture regardless of popular opinion. Where the Bible is silent, they did not fill in with their own impressive ideas. All the faithful teachers taught could be tested from Scripture alone.
This left no room for one minister to be exalted over another. They were all called to serve the same Kingdom with the same message and hope. It was not their delivery, or popularity that made them successful. It was God’s work through the message he gave them to deliver.
for what only comes from God.
7. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8. Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!
We don’t like it when somebody takes credit for what someone else did. One time presidential candidate Al Gore didn’t help his campaign when he claimed that he invented the internet. If it was a fair quote or not, it still haunts him as part of his legacy. How must God see those who give credit to their own innovative programs, campaigns, books, or methods, when it’s the work of divine grace that causes good in a person’s life? And how must God look on the cruelty that is done toward his children, when they are led along by what is popular, instead of feeding them from the depths of his revealed truth?
The Corinthian manipulators were deceiving God’s people. Their impressive words, ideas, and programs got all the attention instead of glorifying God alone. It made the immature believers trust in the wrong things for their hope and growth. They gave them the illusion of feeling good when they were sick with a deadly disease. In the opinion of their own party, they were doing just fine because of their special insights. They believed they were already filled full of all the spiritual powers they needed, that they were already rich and powerful like kings,
and therefore the need for working on spiritual growth was beneath them.
Oh, if it was only true. Paul could have benefited from them — if that was the case. But it was not what it seemed.
The sad thing is that they had the potential for real spiritual victories and growth. As Paul said back in chapter 3:22-23, “… all are yours, and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s”.
Their spiritual potential was being neglected because of these deceptions. God had redeemed them through Paul, and improved their spiritual life by the teachings of Apollos and Peter. They had not achieved new life by the special teachings of these disruptive teachers. It was a gift of grace from God himself. There was nothing to boast about. Instead they should be humbly, guardedly, thankful to God for his mercies to them.
God’s prescription for curing the prideful attitude of arrogance is this: Recognize that all you have is God’s blessing, and you have all you need in God’s truth.
9. For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death,
because we have become a spectacle to the world, 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 held in honor, but we in disrepute.
Paul’s and the others God sent had not been seeking popularity. Instead of promoting themselves as first and foremost among men, they were the last, the most lowly servants of others in the church. They were treated as condemned men, as spectacles, oddities to be stared at, as if both angels and men had no respect for them.
They were seen as Christian fools, while the mislead saw themselves as wise in Christ. The word for “fool” there is “moros” (μωρός), from which we get our word “moron”. The Apostles were thought of as weak and without honor, while the arrogant members imagined themselves to be strong and distinguished. Even today, the popular movements that dare call themselves Christian, brag about their numbers and successes, and look down on those who conserve the simple truths of gospel as less intelligent, out of step and unworthy of being called brothers.
the Apostles had a different set of values.
11. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,
12. and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;
They were not taken in by false promises of prosperity, riches, and popular acceptance. They were not feasting on good food and drinks. They were unable to dress richly. They were treated roughly rather than being followed by admiring crowds. They had no fine homes to go to every night. They often had to work extra hours just to support themselves and their work.
the way Jesus commanded.
12. … When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;
13. when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
In Matthew 5:3 Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verses 10-12 he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The similarities in these passages is amazing. Both show how godly people respond to abuse by the religious deceivers of the day. When persecuted for their simple faith and unyielding obedience to God, they consider it an honor to take their stand for Christ. They don’t attack back, they show changed hearts. As Paul says here, they bless their accusers. They entreat, that is they try to encourage them to godly behavior where there are contentions. They are peacemakers who understand that to many, God’s true ministers are like scum, the sweepings of refuse.
Both passages deal with the true nature of God’s Kingdom.
the depth of his deep concern for them.
14. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
15. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
16. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
Paul had the tender heart of a father toward the believers in Corinth. He was more concerned for their spiritual growth, than the greatness of his reputation. God had used him to plant that church in the midst of paganism. He was not writing to shame them. He was encouraging them to do what’s best for them.
In Ephesians 6:4 Paul explained how a good father disciplines his children. There he wrote: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,
but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Similarly in Colossians 3:21 Paul told parents, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” The word Paul used there for provoke is ἐρεθίζω. It means to provoke or irritate someone, to stimulate in a negative way, to embitter them.
Loving parents are careful not to discourage or exasperate their children. Poor parents may mean well, but if they don’t follow God’s ways, they can do a lot of harm. Children are discouraged by parents who are too permissive, inconsistent, or too cruel.
The misleading teachers in Corinth were poor parents. They were setting the people up for discouragement and exasperation by excusing moral and doctrinal errors. Permissiveness destroys in the long run, though for the moment it might feel good. Inconsistency with God’s word might not show up right away, but eventually it teaches that all things are relative, and that there is no real truth.
But Paul was a good spiritual father to the congregation he founded. He wanted them to know the truth, to learn to be grown-ups in the faith. And he wasn’t going to be harsh about it either. He was approaching them in tender love. He didn’t want them deceived by false promises and artificial hope.
No matter how many instructors might come along, even thousand of them, a countless number, they should not forget their foundation, the gospel, brought to them by the earthly father God sent. Paul was the one who brought life to them by teachings that really transform. What changed them from lost and floundering souls into redeemed children of God should not be forgotten. Paul, as a good spiritual parent, was ready to be their example.
17. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
Paul wanted to come to Corinth to help them in person, but he had other responsibilities too. So until he could get there, he wrote this letter and was sending Timothy, a specially good man, a valuable helper to Paul, and a beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He was a good choice to guide the Corinthians too. Timothy had been there with Paul when the congregation was founded about 5 years earlier. He knew and cared for them, and they had respect for Timothy.
When this helper comes, he will remind them of the ways that gave them life. They did not need new ideas. He would help them remember the foundation, perhaps to understand it more fully.
Paul wanted them to know that he was not picking on just the people in Corinth. These were the same truths Paul was teaching everywhere in every church. The real principles of God are universally helpful. They do not become outdated or old-fashioned.
They do not change from place to place, or from culture to culture.
What Paul wrote then, nearly 2000 years ago, is still what we need to learn today. The church does not need to adopt an updated image to succeed in our world today. It needs a return to the ancient foundation of God’s covenant of grace.
was out of sight and his message was forgotten.
18. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.
19. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.
It’s easy to criticize or distort what someone says when they aren’t there. These false teacher acted as if they could say whatever they wanted about Paul with no consequences. But Paul was not going to let them steal his beloved children away. His plan, if the Lord wills it, was to come to them as soon as he was able.
He would not be coming to hear these false teachings and claims as if to debate them on equal terms. He would come to expose the what’s behind their deceptions. The Greeks treasured the power of great speakers and persuasive philosophers. But the real power that changes lives is the power of God, not the persuasions of men.
In the old story of the Wizard of Oz, everybody in the Emerald City relied on the great Wizard. When Dorothy and her friends looked behind the curtain in the great throne room, they discovered that it was just a tired old man who manipulated levers and switches. It was all just special effects, a lie that made people feel good. But the old man finally had to admit — he was really powerless.
Similarly, the power behind these false teachers was an illusion, a powerless deception. It was just fancy words, impressive theories, and hopes that were lies. It will all be over when the Apostle gets there. He planned to pull back the curtain, and reveal what really moves them and empowers them.
in God’s true promises and Kingdom.
20. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
We need what makes us grow spiritually so that we can live to please God and to enjoy him forever. We do not need words that only make us feel as if everything is ok. We are part of that Kingdom, the King’s children, not just because we think the right thoughts, but because God our Father is really the King.
21. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
This is a segway to the next section of the letter. Paul was about to deal with some serious errors in Corinth. He would give them stern warnings and admonitions, but they would be given in love in a spirit of gentleness.
But how were they going to respond to his loving correction as their spiritual father in the Lord? Will Paul come to find them still addicted to their deceptions and lies? Will he have to treat them like rebellious children who will not listen to what’s good for them?
Or will he find them ready to listen? ready to hear the answer of God’s truth? Will they be ready to go back to get that milk they need so they can finally grow up? Will they at last be ready for the real meat of God’s promises and principles? So he wrote this letter and sent Timothy to prepare them for when he finally was able to go there.
It was time to grow up. Their spiritual childhood had to come to an end.
Children love to play make believe. I remember cowboy hats, spurs, holsters, and ropes I used to tame an imagined wild west in my back-yard. I remember an ill-fitting army helmet, wooden rifle, and canteen that helped me re-fight World War 2. One year my mom made me a Superman costume which I wore as much as I could. I imagined flying over tall buildings, bending steel in my bare hands, and fighting for peace, justice, and the American way.
And there were the times (when I was too young to really object politely) when I was talked into playing house. The girl across the street and I were not much beyond Pre-School age. I would be the father of the house. She had us bathe and change dolls, put them to bed, and pretend to drink little cups of pretend tea. She also had us play hospital a lot. I was the doctor and she was always the patient. She had me do transfusions and give her injections. She really had a serious disease and had a lot of hospital visits. Peggy died when I was still very young. I did not quite understand it all back then.
Adults live the realities children only pretend. They have to meet real needs, defend against real crime, fight real wars, care for real children who need good parenting, and they have to treat real illnesses. And spiritually — false hopes and popular movements are damaging deceptions.
Pretending is only for children. Spiritual grown-ups need to dig into God’s word seriously. They need to spend quality time in prayer, worship attentively, and get over themselves. They need to gently encourage one another, even those who are not very easy to appreciate. Later in this same epistle, in 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
That’s what the remaining part of 1 Corinthians is about. It deals with some serious issues. There are churches still today where God’s truth and promises are replaced by shallow entertainment. They teach doctrines that make them feel like they are not really so bad. A fun Sunday morning stage show replacing biblical worship, or “feel good sermon” will not really help us. They might make us feel good for the moment, but we need to grow up and go beyond just wanting to go home in a good mood.
God’s truth challenges us – we need to face things as they really are and trust God’s promises %100.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)