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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 10-21

A. Divisions in the church 1:10-4:21

The first major problem that Paul addressed was the divisions that were fragmenting this church.

". . . this opening issue is the most crucial in the letter, not because their ’quarrels’ were the most significant error in the church, but because the nature of this particular strife had as its root cause their false theology, which had exchanged the theology of the cross for a false triumphalism that went beyond, or excluded, the cross." [Note: Idem, The First . . ., p. 50.]

Triumphalism is the belief that Christians are triumphing now over sin and its consequences to the exclusion of persecution, suffering, and some human limitations. It is sometimes, and it was in Corinth, an evidence of an over-realized eschatology, which is that we have already entered into certain blessings of salvation that really lie ahead of us in the eschaton (end times). Prosperity theology is one popular form of triumphalism.


7. The Corinthians’ relationship with Paul ch. 4

The apostle now returned to the subject of himself and the other teachers of the Corinthians as servants of God. He did so to say more about what it means to be a servant of God. In this section he clarified the essential features of an acceptable servant of God. He did this so his readers would appreciate them all more and so they would follow Paul’s example as a servant themselves. However, Paul stressed his authority too since the factions in the church that favored Apollos, Peter, or Christ really opposed Paul.

"Throughout 1 Corinthians 1-4 Paul is primarily concerned to address the factionalism that was tearing the church apart with squabbles, jealousy, and one-upmanship. But because not a little of this quarreling arose from the habit of different groups in the church associating themselves with various well-known Christian leaders (’I follow Paul,’ . . .), Paul found it necessary to address several Corinthian misconceptions regarding the nature of genuine Christian leadership. These believers were adopting too many models from their surrounding world." [Note: Carson, p. 93.]

"What Paul is trying to do above all else is to get the Corinthians to enter his orbit, to see things from his eschatological perspective. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of his being right and their being wrong on certain specific issues. It has to do with one’s whole existence, one’s whole way of looking at life, since ’you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.’" [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 157.]

Verse 1

Learners should view teachers as servants of God and stewards of God’s mysteries rather than as party leaders. Paul used a different word for servants here (hyperetai) than he did in 1 Corinthians 3:5 (diakonoi). This word means an under-rower, a figure taken from the galley ships of the time. Slaves who rowed under the authority of the man who coordinated their individual efforts propelled the ship. The ship sailed straight ahead rather than in circles as the slaves followed the instructions of their leader. The other word (diakonoi) is the normal word for a servant.

A steward ("those entrusted with," NIV) was a servant whom his master entrusted with the administration of his business or property. His job was to devote his time, talents, and energy to executing his master’s interests, not his own. The figure stresses both the apostles’ humble position as belonging to Christ and their trusted yet accountable position under God. The mysteries of God refer to the truths of the Christian faith.

"(’Mysteries’ appear often in this letter, 1 Corinthians 2:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 Corinthians 14:2; and perhaps 1 Corinthians 2:1; this is consistent with their interest in Hellenistic wisdom [cf. Wisdom of Solomon 2:22; Wisdom of Solomon 6:22; as opposed to pagan mysteries in Wisdom of Solomon 14:15; Wisdom of Solomon 14:23].)" [Note: Keener, p. 43.]

Verses 1-5

Judging God’s servants 4:1-5

"The first paragraph (1 Corinthians 4:1-5) leads the way by making an application of the servant model and showing how that relates to their treatment of him [Paul]. He changes images from farm to household and insists that he is God’s servant, not theirs; and they are not allowed to judge another’s servant. While on the theme of judgment, he gently broadens the perspective to remind them again of the future judgment that all must experience." [Note: Ibid., p. 156.]

Verse 2

The most important quality in a steward is that he manage his master’s affairs so the desires of his lord materialize (cf. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13; Luke 19:11-27; 1 Peter 4:10). He must be faithful to his master’s trust. For Paul this meant remaining faithful to the gospel as he had received it and preached it (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).

Verse 3

It mattered little to Paul how well the Corinthians or anyone else thought he was carrying out his stewardship, how popular or unpopular he was. His personal evaluations of his own performance were irrelevant too. What did matter to him was God’s estimation of his service. Paul did not give much time and attention to introspection, though he sought to live with a good conscience before God. Rather he concentrated on doing the job God had put before him to the best of his ability since he was accountable (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13).

Verse 4

As far as Paul knew, he was serving God faithfully. However, he realized that his conscience might not be as sensitive as it should be. [Note: See Roy B. Zuck, "The Doctrine of Conscience," Bibliotheca Sacra 126:504 (October-December 1969):329-40.] Only his Master had the insight as well as the authority to judge him.

Verse 5

Since only one Person has enough insight and is authoritative enough to pass final judgment, it is unwise for us to try to do so. Let there be no "pre-judgment seat judgment!" [Note: Johnson, p. 1235.] Of course, we must make judgments from time to time, but we should always do so with the knowledge that our understanding is imperfect. The place God will judge our lives is the judgment seat of Christ. If Paul’s references to his judgment by God in his epistles are any measure of how he regarded that event, he took it very seriously and thought about it often (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:14; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 4:8; et al.).

"Paul lives in expectation of the imminent coming again of Christ." [Note: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "erchomai," by Johannes Schneider, 2:674.]

The things hidden in the darkness probably include the unconscious motives of God’s servants. Evidently God will find something in every faithful Christian’s life for which to praise him or her on that day. Paul did not just say each servant would receive what he or she deserves but that each would receive some praise. Of course, the more faithful among us will receive more praise than the less faithful.

"He [Paul] says nothing here about those who will receive not praise but blame [cf. 1 John 2:28]; he is still thinking in terms of the Corinthian situation, in which some have praise for Paul, some for Apollos, some for Cephas." [Note: Barrett, p. 104.]

1 Corinthians 4:1-5 help us view those who minister to us as God’s servants, not our servants. They also help us as servants of God to remember to serve for the future approval of our Lord rather than for the present praise of people. The Corinthian church was not the only one that ever became disillusioned with its minister because he lacked "charismatic" qualities.

Verse 6

Paul had used various illustrations to describe himself and Apollos: farmers, builders, servants, and stewards. To exceed what God has written would be to go beyond the teaching of the Scriptures (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). If his readers avoided this pitfall, they would not take pride in one of their teachers over another.

In this letter Paul often used the verb translated "arrogant" or "puffed up" (Gr. physioomai) to describe attitudes and activities that smacked of human pride rather than godly wisdom and love (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:18-19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13:4). The frequent use of this word identifies one of the Corinthians’ main problems. Their attitude was wrong because their outlook was wrong. Paul proceeded to deal with it, and the rejection of him that it produced, in the remainder of this pericope.

Verses 6-13

Taking pride in the wrong things 4:6-13

"With rhetoric full of sarcasm and irony he [Paul] goes for the jugular. His own apostleship, which he portrays in bold relief, contrasting his own ’shame’ with their perceived ’high station,’ is alone consonant with a theology of the cross." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 156.]

Verse 7

The apostle reminded the Corinthians that they were not intrinsically superior to anyone else, an attitude that judging others presupposes. God had given them everything they had. Consequently they should be grateful, not boastful.

Verse 8

His readers were behaving as though they had already received their commendation at the judgment seat of Christ. This is an indication of their over-realized eschatology. They should have been conducting themselves as under-rowing servants and paying attention to managing God’s work faithfully (1 Corinthians 4:1). Ironically Paul said he wished the time for rewards had arrived so he could enjoy reigning with his readers. Unfortunately suffering must precede glory.

"The irony is devastating: How they perceive themselves, masterfully overstated in 1 Corinthians 4:8; 1 Corinthians 4:10, is undoubtedly the way they think he ought to be. But the way he actually is, set forth in the rhetoric of 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, is the way they all ought to be." [Note: Ibid., p. 165.]

Irony and sarcasm were popular modes of discourse in Greco-Roman antiquity (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:7). [Note: Keener, p. 45.]

Verse 9

Paul may have had the Roman games in mind here, specifically the battles between condemned criminals and wild beasts in the amphitheaters. [Note: Bruce, p. 50.] Another view is that Paul was thinking of the Roman triumph, a figure that he developed more fully elsewhere (2 Corinthians 2:14). At the end of that procession came the captives of war who would die in the arena. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 174-75.] In either case, Paul seems to have been thinking of the apostles as the ultimately humiliated group. They were the leaders, and their sufferings for the cause of Christ were common knowledge. How inappropriate it was then for the Corinthians to be living as kings rather than joining in suffering with their teachers.

"The Corinthians in their blatant pride were like the conquering general displaying the trophies of his prowess; the apostles were like the little group of captives, men doomed to die. To the Corinthians the Christian life meant flaunting their pride and their privileges and reckoning up their achievement; to Paul it meant a humble service, ready to die for Christ." [Note: Barclay, p. 45.]

Paul evidently meant good angels since he sometimes used "principalities and powers" to refer to what we call bad angels (cf. Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 1:16; Colossians 2:15).

Verse 10

These contrasts between the apostles and the Corinthians clarify the differences in their conditions. Natural men thought the apostles were fools, but they were willing to suffer this judgment for Christ’s sake. The Corinthians and others, on the other hand, regarded themselves as prudent in their behavior as Christians. To the naturally wise the apostles looked weak, but the Corinthians appeared strong. They looked distinguished while the apostles seemed to be dishonorable.

Verses 11-13

Paul proceeded to detail the dishonor that befalls those who bear the message of the cross. The Greeks despised people who did manual labor, as Paul had done in Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:4-18; Acts 18:3; Acts 18:5; 2 Corinthians 11:9; 2 Corinthians 12:13-17); they regarded it as the work of slaves. [Note: Morris, p. 81.] To the world it is foolish to bless those who curse us, but that is what Paul did following the teaching and example of Jesus (cf. Luke 6:28; Luke 23:34). All of these descriptions of the apostles emphasize the depths to which they were willing to stoop to proclaim the gospel (cf. Philippians 2). They did so even though people who viewed things naturally called them fools.

In this section (1 Corinthians 4:6-13) Paul contrasted the viewpoint of the Corinthians with that of the apostles. The viewpoint of the Corinthians was virtually identical to that of natural, unsaved people. The viewpoint of the apostles, whom his readers professed to venerate and follow, was quite different. Not only were the Corinthians unwise, but they were also proud.

Verses 14-15

It was not Paul’s purpose in writing the immediately preceding verses to humiliate the Corinthians. Other congregations would read this epistle. However, he did want to admonish them strongly as their father in the faith. They had many "tutors" or "guardians" (Gr. paidagogoi) who sought to bring them along in their growth in grace, but he was their only spiritual father.

"The paidagogos was the personal attendant who accompanied the boy, took him to school and home again, heard him recite his ’lines’, taught him good manners and generally looked after him; he was entitled to respect and normally received it, but there was no comparison between his relation to the boy and that of the boy’s father." [Note: Bruce, p. 51.]

Verses 14-21

A final appeal and exhortation 4:14-21

Paul concluded this first major section of the epistle (1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21) by reasserting his apostolic authority, which had led to his correcting the Corinthians’ shameful conduct and carnal philosophy. He changed the metaphor again and now appealed to them as a father to his children. He ended by warning them that if they did not respond to his gentle approach he would have to be more severe.

Verse 16

The Corinthians were to learn from Paul as a son learns by observing the example of his father. Contemporary Greek philosophers also provided moral examples for their followers to imitate, sometimes themselves. [Note: Keener, p. 45.] Paul was doing that here (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1).

". . . Paul’s actual ethical instruction as it appears in his Epistles rarely uses the language of Jesus as it is recorded in the Gospels; but on every page it reflects his example and his teaching . . ." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 187.]

For example, Paul never used the word "disciple" in his epistles. Instead he appealed to his readers as his children or his brethren. The metaphor of father and children to refer to a teacher and his disciples was also common in Judaism.

Verse 17

Timothy would serve as Paul’s personal representative in Corinth soon (along with Erastus; Acts 19:22). Several factors point to the probability that Timothy had already departed from Ephesus but had not yet arrived in Corinth when Paul wrote this epistle (cf. Acts 19:22). One of these is Paul’s lack of reference to Timothy in this epistle’s salutation. A second is the tense of the verb translated "have sent" (NASB) or "am sending" (NIV; epempsa, aorist tense). A third is Paul’s later reference to Timothy (1 Corinthians 16:10-11). Timothy was, of course, one of Paul’s closest and most trusted fellow workers.

Paul’s way of life here refers to the ethical principles that he taught and practiced.

". . . the Christian leader today not only must teach the gospel, but also must teach how the gospel works out in daily life and conduct. And that union must be modeled as well as explained.

"The need is evident even at a confessional seminary like the one at which I teach. Increasingly, we have students who come from thoroughly pagan or secular backgrounds, who have been converted in their late teens or twenties, and who come to us in their thirties. Not uncommonly, they spring from dysfunctional families, and they carry a fair bit of baggage. More dramatically yet, a surprising number of them cannot easily make connections between the truths of the gospel and how to live.

"A couple of years ago a student who was about to graduate was called in by one of our faculty members who had learned the student was planning to return to computer science and abandon plans to enter vocational ministry. The student was pleasant, with a solid B+ to his credit. But as the faculty member probed, it became obvious that this student had not put it all together. He could define propitiation but did not know what it was like to feel forgiven. He could defend the priority of grace in salvation but still felt as if he could never be good enough to be a minister. He could define holiness but found himself practicing firm self-discipline rather than pursuing holiness. His life and his theological grasp had not come together.

"Mercifully, this particular faculty member was spiritually insightful. He took the student back to the cross and worked outward from that point. The student began to weep and weep as he glimpsed the love of God for him. Today he is in the ministry." [Note: Carson, p. 111.]

Paul gave another gentle reminder that it was the Corinthians and not he who had departed from the Christian way. What he reminded them of here was standard teaching in all the churches (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 7:17; 1 Corinthians 11:16; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 1 Corinthians 14:36).

Verse 18

Some of the Corinthians who did not value Paul as highly as they should have had become puffed up in their own estimation of themselves and their ideas (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6). They had done so as though they would not face him again. Evidently they felt he would not return to Corinth, and even if he did, they could overcome his influence.

Verse 19

However, Paul did plan to return if God allowed him to do so. Evidently he was not able to return for some time. In 2 Corinthians he responded to criticism from within the church to the effect that he had promised to come but did not (2 Corinthians 1:15-18).

Paul knew that all the pretension to superior wisdom in the church was a result to viewing things from a worldly perspective; there was no reality behind it.

Verse 20

The apostle returned to his earlier contrast between words and real power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Real power is the power of the Holy Spirit working through humble messengers. The kingdom of God here does not refer to the future millennial kingdom alone but to God’s rule over all, including His people in the church now, as the context clarifies.

Verse 21

The Corinthians’ response to this epistle would determine whether the apostle would return to them as a disciplining or as a delighted father. A spirit of gentleness also marked the Lord Jesus (Matthew 11:29), though it stood in stark contrast to the spirit of arrogance in Corinth.

Paul concluded this part of 1 Corinthians with a strong confronting challenge.

"Christian leadership means being entrusted with the ’mysteries’ of God (1 Corinthians 4:1-7).

"Christian leadership means living life in the light of the cross (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).

"Christian leadership means encouraging-and if necessary, enforcing-the way of the cross among the people of God (1 Corinthians 4:14-21)." [Note: Ibid., pp. 94, 103, 108.]

The depreciation of some of their teachers resulted in the Corinthians’ not deriving maximum benefit from them. It also manifested a serious error in the Corinthians’ outlook. They were evaluating God’s servants as natural, unbelieving people do. This carnal perspective is the main subject of chapters 1-4. The Corinthians had not allowed the Holy Spirit to transform their attitudes.

"Paul’s view of the Christian ministry as revealed in this section (1 Corinthians 3-4) may now be summed up. The ministry is a divine provision which is responsible to Christ. It is a part of the Church given to the rest of the Church to be employed in its service. It comprises a multiplicity of gifts and functions, but is united by the unity of God and the unity of the Church. It serves the Church by itself first living out the life of suffering and sacrifice exhibited by the Lord on earth, thereby setting an example for the Church as a whole to follow." [Note: Ronald Y. K. Fung, "The Nature of the Ministry according to Paul," Evangelical Quarterly 54 (1982):132.]

"Even though at times Paul seems to be weaving in and out of several topics, the concern throughout is singular: to stop a current fascination with ’wisdom’ on the part of the Corinthians that has allowed them not only to ’boast,’ but to stand over against Paul and his gospel. With a variety of turns to the argument he sets forth his gospel over against their ’wisdom’ and tries to reshape their understanding of ministry and church. . . .

"The changes of tone in this passage reveal some of the real tensions that continue to exist in Christian ministry. How to be prophetic without being harsh or implying that one is above the sins of others. How to get people to change their behavior to conform to the gospel when they think too highly of themselves. There is no easy answer, as this passage reveals. But one called to minister in the church must ever strive to do it; calling people to repentance is part of the task." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 193-94.]

Perhaps Paul originally intended to end this epistle here. [Note: Bruce, pp. 52-53.] This opinion rests on the fact that the first four chapters could stand alone. This view points out the unity of this section of the letter. However it is impossible to prove or to disprove this hypothesis.

"It becomes evident in chaps. 5 through 14 as specific problems in the Corinthian community are considered and as pastoral directions are given that at the same time something else is going on. With statements here and there, the epistemology presented in 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16 is kept before the readers. They are nudged into viewing themselves and their congregational life in new and different ways, consistent with the message of the crucified Messiah." [Note: Cousar, "The Theological . . .," p. 101.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-4.html. 2012.
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