1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Submitted by admin on Sun, 2009-06-28 09:29.

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Based on the discussion that follows, the first person plural “us” appears to include Paul and fellow apostles (particularly apostles of congregations whom he knew personally). It was his desire that others would consider him and them as “servants” or “helpers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” As servants of Christ, they would be advancing his interests, declaring the message about him and assisting others to become and remain his loyal disciples. The “mysteries of God” related to his arrangement for humans to be forgiven of their sins and come into an approved relationship with him as his children. As stewards, Paul and fellow apostles would be making known the “mysteries of God,” which had long remained hidden but came to be fully revealed when his Son arrived on the earthly scene. From the time of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, those entrusted with the stewardship of the “mysteries of God” needed to make them known to others. (4:1)

The position of a steward was one of trust. Though themselves servants, stewards had significant responsibilities, often being in charge of a body of servants and the management of the owner’s property. Therefore, as Paul noted, the essential requirement for stewards was that the owner would find them to be “faithful,” trustworthy, or dependable. (4:2)

As one whom God and Christ owned, Paul gave no weight to any judgment humans might render concerning him. When speaking of such evaluation as a “least thing” or insignificant matter, he used the expression “human day,” meaning a time for humans to hold an accounting or to pass judgment. Even he did not judge or make an assessment of himself. (4:3)

Although Paul was not aware of anything against himself in the discharge of his divinely granted stewardship, this did not prove that he was justified or free from any fault. The judgment that counted was not his own, but that of his Lord, the one who would judge him. In view of his thereafter referring to the coming of the Lord, Paul meant the Lord Jesus Christ. (4:4)

Having established that human judgments have no real significance, the apostle admonished the Corinthians not to judge anything “before the time,” but to wait until “the Lord comes.” He is the one who “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts.” (4:5)

For believers to pass judgments on others in relation to their service of Christ would be premature and disrespectful to him as the Lord who has the authority to judge his servants. He, not humans, is able to bring to light things that may have been done in secret (whether good or bad). Though certain acts may have been concealed from human view as under the cover of darkness, they are not hidden from the Lord Jesus Christ. He can also reveal the “counsels of the hearts” or the aims or purposes originating in the inmost selves of the individuals, disclosing the true motives that he is unerringly able to discern. Upon receiving his favorable judgment, individual believers will then come to have “praise from God,” receiving commendation that truly counts. (4:5)

It was for the Corinthians or for their benefit that Paul had applied to himself and Apollos the things he wrote. This suggests that he did not include the names of those to whom certain ones looked as leaders and who had a following, resulting in divisions within the community of believers. By using himself and Apollos as examples, Paul wanted to illustrate the impropriety of setting up men as leaders. Regarding his purpose, he said, “so that through us you may learn not to go beyond the things written.” The “things written” could refer to what Paul had written or the “sacred writings,” which exalt God, not men. When the words directed against an inordinate elevation of humans are heeded, this prevents people from having an inflated view of one person over another. (4:6)

Paul then raised the question, “For who differentiates you?” This has been understood in two basic ways: (1) For who makes you different from another person? (2) For who discerns anything different in you? (4:7)

Regardless of which way the question is understood, the implied answer is that one person is not so outstandingly distinguished from another as to make him more important. In their renderings, a number of translations make the question implicit, which also affects the implied answer. “Who says you are better than others?” (NCV) “Who made you so important?” (NJB) “Who confers distinction upon you?” (NAB) “What is so special about you?” (CEV)

The apostle continued, “What do you have that you did not receive? If, however, you also received [it], why do you brag as [if] you did not receive [it]?” The gifts or endowments the Corinthians had were not of their own making. They had received these endowments, ruling out all grounds for boasting and exalting humans. (4:7)

In their infantile spiritual state, many of the Corinthians reflected a boastful spirit, which appears to have been directly linked to their looking to certain men as their leaders. In their prideful manner of acting, they made it appear as if they had attained everything they wanted. This is evident from the questions Paul directed to them. “Already satisfied, are you? Already rich? Begun reigning without us?” He would have wished that they had indeed been reigning so that he and his fellow apostles could reign with them. (4:8)

The apostle contrasted his own humiliated state and that of the other apostles with the prideful or assumed elevated state of many in Corinth. The hardships and dangers from which he and the others had not been divinely shielded made him think that God had exhibited him and them like men appointed to die as a spectacle during the last event in an amphitheater or arena, a spectacle to “the world [kósmos], both [literally, and] to angels and to men.” (4:9; see the Notes section.)

Paul continued, “We are fools on account of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are glorified, but we are dishonored.” (4:10) To the world alienated from God, they appeared like fools, subject to mockery and abuse. In their own estimation, certain ones in Corinth, on the other hand, regarded themselves as wise. Submitted to persecution and ridicule, Paul and his fellow apostles appeared to be weak. Those in Corinth who boasted in their presumed exalted state, however, seemed strong. They were held in honor, whereas Paul and his fellow apostles were in disgrace, treated as nobodies.

To that very “hour” or time, they experienced hunger, thirst, nakedness (not having sufficient clothing for comfort), and beating or mistreatment. In carrying out their ministry, they were wanderers, without a place to call home. (4:11)

Paul and his fellow apostles toiled with their own hands to support themselves, probably doing so to the point of weariness. Though others reviled them, hurling abusive words at them, they did not retaliate in kind or pronounce curses but “blessed” those who were intent on harming them. They wanted to see a change for the better among those who treated them hatefully. In their attitude and expressions toward them, Paul and his fellow apostles desired good to come to them. Persecuted, he and the others patiently endured the ill treatment. (4:12)

Though themselves defamed, they, in a loving and caring manner, entreated those who had not been favorably inclined, appealing to them to become reconciled to God. Until then, unbelievers regarded them like the “rubbish of the world, the trash of all things.” They looked upon Paul and his fellow apostles as worthless garbage. (4:13)

When drawing this sharp contrast between their presumed exalted state and his own circumstances as a divinely chosen and commissioned apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul did not do so to shame the Corinthians or to make them painfully aware of the folly of their ways. He did so as a fellow believer who deeply loved them. As he had first brought the message about Christ to them and they had responded, they were like children to him for whom he had deep care and concern. His words served to admonish them as his beloved children. (4:14)

They might have many “tutors” in Christ, but they did not have many “fathers.” “In Christ” or by virtue of his being at one with Christ and in his service, Paul had become their father through the evangel. (4:15)

The “tutor” (paidagogós) of ancient times filled the role of a guardian who led a youth to his teacher. So, although the Corinthians might have many tutors “in Christ” or fellow believers who looked out for them and their spiritual interests, Paul’s role was unique. He was the first to be among them, proclaiming the message about the Son of God. Through his ministry in the service of Christ, the community of believers had come into existence. In that sense, he was their only “father.” (4:15; see the Notes section.)

While ministering to the Corinthians, Paul had been like a loving and concerned father, setting a good example for them. For this reason, he could rightly appeal to them, “Become imitators of me.” (4:16) He had not exalted himself and so did not contribute to the divisive party spirit that had developed among the Corinthians. He was in their midst as one serving, laboring with his own hands to supply his needs. In his teaching, Paul directed their attention away from himself and to Jesus Christ and his Father. (Compare Acts 20:31-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:5-12.)

To remind them about the manner he had conducted himself and what and how he had taught, Paul informed them that he was sending Timothy to them. A very close relationship existed between Paul and Timothy. The apostle referred to him as “my beloved and faithful [trustworthy or dependable] child in the Lord.” Young Timothy proved to be like a beloved son to Paul in their mutual relationship of oneness with the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle had the utmost confidence in Timothy, telling the Corinthians, He “will remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in all the congregations.” (4:17; see the Notes section.) In the manner Timothy would conduct himself in their midst, the Corinthians would see the same loving and caring disposition that Paul had displayed. (Compare Philippians 2:20.) In keeping with the apostle’s example, Timothy would make God and Christ central to his teaching, imparting instruction that would serve to promote love, strengthen faith, and encourage praiseworthy conduct and compassionate concern for others. (Compare 1 Timothy 1:3-5; 4:6-11; 6:6-10, 17-19.)

Whereas Paul had proved himself to be an example worthy of imitation as a loyal disciple of Jesus Christ, certain ones among the Corinthian believers had a very negative view of him. They appear to have felt that Paul was personally afraid to come to Corinth again. This seems to have led to their manifesting an arrogant attitude, conducting themselves in a manner that did not advance the cause of God and Christ. (4:18)

Addressing these self-important detractors, Paul continued, “I shall soon come to you, if the Lord wills.” (4:19) Even in his personal determination, he acknowledged that the visit would take place provided it proved to be the will of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Upon being in Corinth, Paul would be in position to “know” or see the difference between the talk of the inflated detractors and their power. The implication is that those who were impressed by their own self-importance could make boastful claims, but they did so without any power or authoritative backing. (4:19)

“The kingdom of God,” or the reign of God in the lives of believers who recognize him as their Sovereign, is not a matter of words. It manifests itself “in power.” Submission to God’s rule produces a real transformation in the lives of individuals. Through the powerful working of holy spirit, believers come to reflect the image of God to an increasingly greater extent. (4:20)

Divine power was at work in Paul as an apostle and so he challengingly asked those who looked down upon him as weak, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of mildness?” They needed to think seriously about whether they would prefer to see Paul in the role of a strict disciplinarian or whether they would be better served if he came to them as a loving brother, with a gentle or kindly disposition. (4:21)


The Greek word kósmos, though commonly associated with the human sphere or the world of mankind, was also used by the ancient Greeks to designate the universe. In view of the reference to angels and men, the meaning of “universe” seems to fit in 1 Corinthians 4:9.

In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul, in his relation to the Corinthians, referred to their not having many fathers but that he had become such to them “in Christ.” This did not mean that he wanted believers there to call him “father,” which would not have been in harmony with Jesus’ words to address only his Father in that manner. (Matthew 23:9) The context limits the apostle’s words to his role in having initially brought the good news about Christ to the Corinthians. This is apparent from the fact that Paul revealed that his relationship to them came about “in Christ” (by virtue of his oneness with Christ and their having come to share in that oneness with the Son of God) and “through the evangel” (or through the good news that he proclaimed and which they accepted). “In Christ Jesus, I have fathered you through the evangel.”

Manuscripts vary, either including or omitting the name “Jesus” in 1 Corinthians 4:17.