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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 4

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-21

Chapter 4

THE THREE JUDGMENTS ( 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 )

4:1-5 Let a man then so think of us as the servants of Christ and stewards of the secrets which God reveals to his own people. In ordinary everyday life, that a man should be found faithful, is a quality required in stewards. To me it matters very little that I should be judged by you or by any human day. No--I do not even judge myself. For, supposing that I am conscious of no fault, yet I am not acquitted because of that. He who judges me is the Lord. So then, make a practice of passing no judgment before the proper time--until the Lord comes--for he will light up the hidden things of darkness and he will bring to light the counsels of men's hearts; and then each man will receive his praise from God.

Paul urges the Corinthians not to think of Apollos and Cephas and himself as leaders of parties; but to think of them all as servants of Christ. The word that he uses for a servant is interesting; it is huperetes ( G5257) and originally meant a rower on the lower bank of a trireme, one of the slaves who pulled at the great sweeps which moved the triremes through the sea. Some commentators have wished to stress this and to make it a picture of Christ as the pilot who directs the course of the ship and Paul as the servant who accepts the pilot's orders and labours only as his Master directs.

Then Paul uses another picture. He thinks of himself and his fellow preachers as stewards of the secrets which God desires to reveal to his own people. The steward (oikonomos, G3623) was the major domo. He was in charge of the whole administration of the house or the estate; he controlled the staff; he issued the supplies; but, however much he controlled the household staff, he himself was still a slave where the master was concerned. Whatever be a man's position in the Church, and whatever power he may yield there or whatever prestige he may enjoy, be still remains the servant of Christ.

That brings Paul to the thought of judgment. The one thing that an oikonomos ( G3623) must be is reliable. The very fact that he enjoys so much independence and responsibility makes it all the more necessary that his master should be able to depend absolutely upon him. The Corinthians, with their sects and their appropriation of the leaders of the Church as their masters, have exercised judgments on these leaders, preferring one to the other. So Paul speaks of three judgments that every man must face.

(i) He must face the judgment of his fellow men. In this case Paul says that that is nothing to him. But there is a sense in which a man cannot disregard the judgment of his fellow men. The odd thing is that, in spite of its occasional radical mistakes, the judgment of our fellow men is often right. That is due to the fact that every man instinctively admires the basic qualities of honour, honesty, reliability, generosity, sacrifice and love. Antisthenes, the Cynic philosopher, used to say, "There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself--an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly." It is quite true that we should never let the judgment of men deflect us from what we believe to be right; but it is also true that the judgment of men is often more accurate than we would like to think, because they instinctively admire the lovely things.

(ii) He must face the judgment of himself. Once again Paul disregards that. He knew very well that a man's judgment of himself can be clouded by self-satisfaction, by pride and by conceit. But in a very real sense every man must face his own judgment. One of the basic Greek ethical laws was, "Man, know thyself." The Cynics insisted that one of the first characteristics of a real man was "the ability to get on with himself." A man cannot get away from himself and if he loses his self-respect, life becomes an intolerable thing.

(iii) He must face the judgment of God. In the last analysis this is the only real judgment. For Paul, the judgment he awaited was not that of any human day but the judgment of the Day of the Lord. God's is the final judgment for two reasons. (a) Only God knows all the circumstances. He knows the struggles a man has had; he knows the secrets that a man can tell to no one; he knows what a man might have sunk to and he also knows what he might have climbed to. (b) Only God knows all the motives. "Man sees the deed but God sees the intention." Many a deed that looks noble may have been done from the most selfish and ignoble motives; and many a deed which looks base may have been done from the highest motives. He who made the human heart alone knows it and can judge it.

We would do well to remember two things--first, even if we escape all other judgments or shut our eyes to them, we cannot escape the judgment of God; and, second, judgment belongs to God and we do well not to judge any man.


4:6-13 Brothers, I have transferred these things by way of illustration to myself and to Apollos, so that through us you may learn to observe the principle of not going beyond that which is written, so that none of you may speak boastfully of one teacher and disparagingly of the other.

Who sees anything special in you? What do you possess that you did not receive? And, if you did receive it, why are you boasting as if you had acquired it yourself? No doubt you are already fed to the full! No doubt you are already rich! No doubt you have already come into your kingdom without any help from us! I would that you had already come into your kingdom so that we too might reign with you! For I think that God has exhibited the apostles, bringing up the rear of the procession, like men marked out to die! I think that we have become a spectacle for the world and for angels and for men! We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak but you are strong! You are famous, we have no honour! Until this very hour, we are hungry, we are thirsty, we are naked, we are buffeted, we are homeless wanderers, we toil working with our own hands. When we are insulted, we bless; when we are persecuted, we bear it. When we are slandered, we gently plead. We have been treated like the scum of the earth, like the dregs of all things--and this treatment still goes on.

All that Paul has been saying about himself and about Apollos is true not only for them but also for the Corinthians. It is not only he and Apollos who must be kept humble by the thought that it is not the judgment of men they are facing, but the judgment of God; the Corinthians must walk in a like humility. Paul had a wonderfully courteous way of including himself in his own warnings and his own condemnations. The true preacher seldom uses the word you and always uses the word we; he does not speak down to men; he speaks as one who sits where they sit and who is a man of like passions with them. If we really wish to help and to save men our attitude must be not that of condemnation but of pleading; our accent must be not that of criticism but of compassion. It is not his own words that Paul insists the Corinthians must not go beyond; it is the word of God, which condemns all pride.

Then Paul asks them the most pertinent and basic of all questions. "What do you possess," he said, "that you did not receive?" In this single sentence Augustine saw the whole doctrine of grace. At one time Augustine had thought in terms of human achievement, but he came to say, "To solve this question we laboured hard in the cause of the freedom of man's will, but the grace of God won the day." No man could ever have known him unless God had revealed himself; no man could ever have won his own salvation; a man does not save himself, he is saved. When we think of what we have done and think of what God has done for us, pride is ruled out and only humble gratitude remains. The basic fault of the Corinthians was that they had forgotten that they owed their souls to God.

Then comes one of these winged outbursts which meet us ever and again in the letters of Paul. He turns on the Corinthians with scathing irony. He compares their pride, their self-satisfaction, their feeling of superiority with the life that an apostle lives. He chooses a vivid picture. When a Roman general won a great victory he was allowed to parade his victorious army through the streets of the city with all the trophies that he had won; the procession was called a Triumph. But at the end there came a little group of captives who were doomed to death; they were being taken to the arena to fight with the beasts and so to die. 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 doomed to die. To the Corinthians the Christian life meant flaunting their privileges and reckoning up their achievement; to Paul it meant humble service and a readiness to die for Christ.

In the list of things which Paul declares that the apostles undergo there are two specially interesting words. (i) He says that they are buffeted (kolaphizesthai, G2852) . That is the word used for beating a slave. Plutarch tells how a witness gave evidence that a slave belonged to a certain man because he had seen the man beating him and this is the word that is used. Paul was willing for the sake of Christ to be treated like a slave. (ii) He says, "When we are insulted (loidoresthai, G3058) , we bless." We probably do not realize just how surprising a statement this would be to a pagan. Aristotle declares that the highest virtue is megalopsuchia, great-heartedness, the virtue of the man with the great soul; and he defines this virtue as the quality which will not endure to be insulted. To the ancient world Christian humility was a virtue altogether new. This indeed was the kind of conduct that to men looked crazily foolish although this very foolishness was the wisdom of God.

A FATHER IN THE FAITH ( 1 Corinthians 4:14-21 )

4:14-21 It is not to shame you that I write these things, but to warn you as my beloved children. You may have thousands of tutors in Christ, but you have not many fathers; for, in Christ Jesus, through the good news, I begat you. So then, I urge you, show yourselves imitators of me. That is why I send to you Timothy, who is my beloved child and faithful in the Lord, for he will bring back to your memory my ways in Christ--exactly the same things as I teach everywhere and in every Church. There are some who have been inflated with their own importance, as though I were not coming to you. I will come to you soon, if the Lord will, and I will find out, not what these inflated people say, but what they can do; for the Kingdom of God does not exist in talking but in powerful action. What do you wish? Am I to come to you with a stick? Or am I to come in love and in the spirit of gentleness?

With this passage Paul brings to an end the section of the letter which deals directly with the dissensions and divisions at Corinth. It is as a father that he writes. The very word which he uses in 1 Corinthians 4:14 for to warn (nouthetein, G3560) is the word regularly used to express the admonition and advice which a father gives his children. ( Ephesians 6:4). He may be speaking with the accents of severity; but it is not the severity which seeks to bring an unruly slave to heel, but the severity which seeks to put back on the right rails a foolish son who has gone astray.

Paul felt that he was in a unique position as regards the Corinthian Church. The tutor (paidagogos, G3807: compare Galatians 3:24) was not the teacher of the child. He was an old and trusted slave who daily took the child to school, who trained him in moral matters, cared for his character and tried to make a man of him. A child might have many tutors but he had only one father; in the days to come the Corinthians might have many tutors but none of them could do what Paul had done; none of them could beget them to life in Christ Jesus.

Then Paul says an amazing thing. In effect he says, "I call upon my children to take after their father." It is so seldom that a father can say that. For the most part it is too often true that a father's hope and prayer is that a son will turn out to be all that he has never succeeded in being. Most of us who teach cannot help saying, not, "Do as I do," but, "Do as I say." But Paul, not with pride, but with complete unself-consciousness, can call upon his children in the faith to copy him.

Then he pays them a delicate compliment. He says that he will send Timothy to remind them of his ways. In effect, he says that all their errors and mistaken ways are due, not to deliberate rebellion, but to the fact that they have forgotten. That is so true of human nature. So often it is not that we rebel against Christ; it is simply that we forget him. So often it is not that we deliberately turn our backs upon him; it is simply that we forget that he is in the scheme of things at all. Most of us need one thing above all--a deliberate effort to live in the conscious realization of the presence of Jesus Christ. It is not only at the sacrament but at every moment of every day that Jesus Christ is saying to us, "Remember Me."

Paul moves on to a challenge. They need not say that because he is sending Timothy he is not coming himself. He will come if the way opens up; and then will come their test. These Corinthians can talk enough; but it is not their high-sounding words that matter; it is their deeds. Jesus never said, "By their words you shall know them," He said, "By their fruits you shall know them." The world is full of talk about Christianity, but one deed is worth a thousand words.

In the end Paul demands whether he is to come to mete out discipline or to company with them in love. The love of Paul for his children in Christ throbs through every letter he wrote; but that love was no blind, sentimental love; it was a love which knew that sometimes discipline was necessary and was prepared to exercise it. There is a love which can ruin a man by shutting its eyes to his faults; and there is a love which can mend a man because it sees him with the clarity of the eyes of Christ. Paul's love was the love which knows that sometimes it has to hurt in order to amend.

Paul has dealt with the problem of strife and divisions within the Corinthian Church, and now he goes on to deal with certain very practical questions and certain very grave situations within the Church, of which news has come to him. This section includes 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 deals with a case of incest. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 urges discipline for the unchaste. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 deals with the tendency of the Corinthians to go to law with each other. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 stresses the need for purity.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/1-corinthians-4.html. 1956-1959.
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