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Sunday, December 3rd, 2023
the First Week of Advent
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 4

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Verses 1-21

Secrets Made Known

1 Corinthians 4:1

The point for us is, 'What does the word "mystery" mean in the New Testament?' Mystery in the New Testament means one thing only, and that is something which has been kept secret for centuries, but has at last been revealed. And I am going to speak to you about five secrets five mysteries if you like five things which have been kept secret since the foundation of the world, but which have at last been told us.

Now what are those five secrets?

I. What was there Behind that which we can See? It is a question which men have been trying to answer for thousands of years. What is behind it all? The answer has now been revealed, and it is astonishing to me the apathetic way in which thousands of men today regard this secret. The answer that has been given is that behind this puzzling universe of ours there is a living Person. He watches you with as much attention as if there were not another living person in the world. And when you pray, it is not as if you have one-forty-millionth part of God's attention, but you have His whole attention, because He is the living Person Who watches over all the world. It is a mystery of light, not a mystery of darkness.

II. What is it all Tending to? What is the Object of Life? It has been divulged to us that the stream of life the main stream is a stream of love. With all its suffering, the happiness of human life outweighs the misery by ninety-nine to one. And therefore the Gospel that we have to preach is that you, and I, and all men move under a canopy of love.

III. Can Sin be Forgiven? What we have to preach today is that sin can be forgiven. Hut can those be forgiven who lead the innocent astray? Not while they are impenitent. If they are penitent they will be forgiven. To those who believe in the crucifixion of our Lord, and still go on sinning and leading others to sin, I say that you are trampling the Son of God under foot and putting him to an open shame.

IV. How is the Pardoned Felon to become a Holy Saint, to be Ready for Heaven? How is it that we find girls like pure lilies-of-the-valley in London living in houses which one would think can only produce the garbage of the streets, and boys standing firm under temptations to which some of the older men might succumb? The answer is, By the wonderful and extraordinary mystery of grace.

V. What is the Relation of God to this World? God is using the outward world as a veil through which to teach and bless His children. Every sunrise is a sacrament of love and every sunset a sacrament of peace.

Apostolic Succession

1 Corinthians 4:1

Apostolic succession, in the general usage of the phrase, stands for the theory of the origin of the episcopal ministry, which was developed in the conflicts with the heretics of the second and third centuries, which was formulated by the organising genius of St. Cyprian, and commended to the acceptance of the Church by his lofty character and masterful personality, and which was finally established in Christian thought and practice by the still greater authority of St. Augustine. Apostolic succession, as the title-deeds of an exclusive hierarchy, is a fiction, but as a doctrine of the Christian ministry, as such, it is profoundly true. And here we may distinguish three characteristics of the ministry, which attach to it by virtue of the fact that it perpetuates within the Christian society the ministry of the Apostles.

I. The Divine Commission. We are warned away from low views of the ministerial vocation. We are reminded that the Christian ministry is no afterthought, no creature of policy, no temporary feature of the historic society, but, in and through all varieties of organisation, a Divinely ordained, Divinely commissioned, perpetually obligatory means of grace. It is no fiction, but blessed and momentous verity, that the Christian ministry stands in the succession of those Apostles to whom Christ's ordaining word was spoken: 'As the Father sent Me, even so send I you'.

II. The Sacerdotal Usurpation. The Christian ministry, standing in the succession of the Apostles, has the same essential character. It is not, in the usual sense of the phrase, a sacerdotal ministry, and the most unfortunate results necessarily followed from the early and natural transference of Mosaic nomenclature to Christian ministers. Almost from the first the language implied and strengthened an utterly unchristian way of regarding the ministry. The conception of a ministry, succeeding to the sacrificial functions, and perpetuating the sacerdotal character of the Jewish priesthood, is obviously and utterly opposed to the apostolic conception.

III. The Pastoral Ministry. Necessarily, in the wake of faithful preaching, follows the situation out of which the pastoral character of the Apostolic ministry arises. I need not remind you that in both its great branches, moral discipline and the administration of the sacraments, this pastoral ministry draws its authority from the Gospel. As a pastor, emphatically, the Christian minister answers to St. Paul's description. He is a 'minister of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God'.

H. Hensley Henson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. p. 401.

References. IV. 1. F. St. John Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 7. E. A. Stuart, His Dear Son and other Sermons, vol. v. p. 41. H. H. Henson, Godly Union and Concord, p. 239. IV. 1, 2. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 275.

Faithfulness and Fear ( For Advent )

1 Corinthians 4:1 ; 1 Corinthians 4:4

I. Faithfulness to God. The warning, 'It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful,' refers to all Christians. And the duty of faithfulness demands of all:

(a) That we do not despise the gifts with which God has entrusted to us. These gifts are called 'mysteries'. The treasures of Divine truth and love are not indeed secrets mysteries, in the sense that they remain completely hidden from us, or that they are only intended for a select circle. Still, every heavenly blessing is so far a secret that it is hidden to the natural man. Humanity with all its wisdom could not discover it. And it remains a mystery even now to the unspiritual. 'The natural man receiveth not the things of God.' It is when the heart feels its own natural weakness and poverty that these gifts are not despised, but greatly valued.

(b) That we preserve these gifts pure and unadulterated. Unbelief despises, superstition adulterates, the truth. The sacraments, the way of salvation, and many other truths of Scripture, have been obscured by errors. In the opposite direction, the superstition of the understanding has reduced our Lord Jesus to a Jewish Rabbi, and denied the Atonement.

(c) That we diligently employ these gifts in the spirit of the Lord. The Church must not be like the unprofitable servant who hid his Lord's talent in the earth. The Church of England, by its regular reading of God's Word, is a faithful steward of the mysteries of Christ.

II. Among other Qualities Necessary in a Steward, the fear of God occupies a large place. This is implied by the words: 'But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment.... He that judgeth me is the Lord.' In this is included:

(a) Fearlessness of man's judgment of himself. Many people boast, 'What do I care for men's opinion?' Such a boast is not often grounded in the fear of God, but in pride and self-will, or lightness of mind, or in a defiant spirit. St. Paul's freedom from that 'fear of man which brings a snare' was grounded on this: 'He that judgeth me is the Lord'. When we avoid all that, in the light of His Word, is displeasing to Him, we have a sure ground for disregarding the mere opinion of our fellows.

(b) Mistrust of his own judgment of himself. 'Yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself.' It is only Godless self-exaltation which says, 'I do not care for the judgment of others, I rely on my own'. St. Paul, on the other hand, has learnt how precarious his own judgment of himself really was. By it he was formerly led into the most dangerous courses. He who thinks more of God's judgment than either of his own or other men's will be likely to be led into right actions, and a right use of God's gifts, and will hesitate to pronounce judgment on others. He will leave such judgment to the Judge of all, the great trier of hearts. 'Therefore judge nothing before the time.' He will wait for the judgment and approbation of the Lord, 'Who will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.'

The great day comes when He comes.

References. IV. 2. W. R. Inge, All Saints' Sermons, 1906-7, p. 134. IV. 3. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. i. p. 190.

The Three Tribunals

1 Corinthians 4:3-4

The Church at Corinth was honeycombed by the characteristic Greek vice of party spirit. The three great teachers, Paul, Peter, Apollos, were pitted against each other, and each was unduly exalted by those who swore by him, and unduly depreciated by the other two factions. So Paul, in the immediate context, associating Peter and Apollos with himself, bids the Corinthians think of ' us' as being servants of Christ, and not therefore responsible to men; and as stewards of the mysteries of God, that is, dispensers of truths long hidden but now revealed, and as therefore accountable for correct accounts and faithful dispensation only to the Lord of the household.

Here we have three tribunals, that of men's estimates, that of our own consciences, that of Jesus Christ So let us look briefly at these three tribunals.

I. First, the lowest men's judgment. Such a character as Paul's could not but be quick to feel the surrounding atmosphere, whether it was of love or of suspicion. So, he had to harden himself against what naturally had a great effect upon him, the estimate which he felt that people round him were making of him. I need not say a word about the power which that terrible court which is always sitting, and which passes judgment upon every one of us, though we do not always hear the sentences read, has upon us all. There is a power which it is meant to have. It is not good for a man to stand constantly in the attitude of defying whatever anybody else chooses to say or to think about him. But the danger to which we are all exposed, far more than that other extreme, is of deferring too completely and slavishly to, and being far too subtly influenced in all that we do by, the thought of what A, B, or C may have to say or to think about it. 'The last infirmity of noble minds,' says Milton about the love of fame. It is an infirmity to love it, and long for it, and live by it. (1) But not only in these higher forms of seeking after reputation, but in lower forms, this trembling before, and seeking to conciliate, the tribunal of what we call 'general opinion,' which means the voices of the half-dozen people that are beside us, and know about us, besets us all, and weakens us all in a thousand ways. (2) The direct tendency of Christian faith and principle is to dwindle into wholesome insignificance the multitudinous voice of men's judgments. (3) Cultivate more distinctly, as a plain Christian duty, this wholesome independence of men's judgment.

II. Note the higher court of conscience. The absolving by conscience is not infallible. I fancy that conscience is more reliable when it condemns than when it acquits. The inward judge needs to be stimulated, to be enlightened, to be corrected often.

III. Note the supreme court of final appeal. 'He that judgeth me' not, 'will judge,' but now at this very moment. (1) The estimate will dwindle the sentences of the other two tribunals into nothingness. (2) That judgment, persistent all through each of our lives, is preliminary to the future tribunal and sentence.

A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 152.

References. IV. 3, 4. J. T. Bramston, Fratribus, p. 156. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. i. p. 155. J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, p. 284. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Corinthians, p. 74.

Spiritual Character

1 Corinthians 4:4

The Apostle has been talking of judgment, and he has plainly said, 'With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself against myself, as between man and man, 'yet am I not hereby,' through that simple fact, 'justified,' or made just; the fact is we have nothing to do with judgment; 'He that judgeth me is the Lord'. How calm he was, how almost defiant when face to face with social or hostile criticism! How heart-searching he was; how thoroughly this man grips every case that he deals with! There is no escaping his iron handling. He is the kind of man to follow when we do not quite know what to do with some things. He is so courtly, so learned in the deepest laws, so profoundly human. Yet there is about him such mystery and gladness of unexplained divinity.

I. We are not to judge ourselves as others see us, but as we really, interiorly, spiritually are. Who then can stand? None. That is the whole mystery; if men would believe that one little sentence we should see new heavens and a new earth, if they acted upon the vision, and were obedient to the heavenly revelation. We see one another externally; we think we are nice men. Oh the lie! It is because we fail just there that we need no cross. As to our own self-gratulation, boasting, and vain pride, we do everything conventionally well; we pay our debts, we exchange social courtesies, and we conduct ourselves generally so that our neighbours say about us we are nice, agreeable, respectable people. Oh if they knew, really knew!

We make ourselves coats and clothing of fig leaves, and we hide up all that is foul or unlovely in our sight and in the sight of other men. But no man can destroy his own sin. If any one could be persuaded to believe that not merely to nod assent to that, but to believe it there would go up out of this nation such a cry for the Gospel as would make a new nation of it. Concealment of sin is not destruction of sin; momentary forgetfulness of sin does not quench one cinder in hell. It is sin, sinful sin, the abominable thing which God hates, and which can only be really cleansed out of the soul by the hot heart-blood of the Priest of the universe.

II. So we are face to face with the great doctrine of spiritual character; what we are in motive, in purpose, in our heart of hearts, that is the question. O thou who dost boast of thy good reputation amongst neighbours, and empty thy pockets of testimonials to prove how respectable a man thou art, that is not the question. It is, What are we in the sight of white light, what are we in the sanctuary? Who can stand? None. What then? Penitence, self-renunciation, an earnest, piercing cry to the heavens for mercy, a clinging round the Cross. We are cursed by being satisfied with mere respectability. Respectability now takes the place of spiritual criticism. We do not refer to God, we refer to man. If a man with a thousand a year can testify that I am a respectable person, I care for nothing else; you know my referee, this is what he says about me. And socially, conventionally, that is true; spiritually and interiorly it is a lie; take it back, burn it.

III. Then we come face to face with the great doctrine of regeneration. Marvel not that I say unto you, Ye must be born again; except a man be born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He must be born again without explanation, though he is a very intelligent creature. God is continually snubbing intelligence; God is often ordering mere knowledge off the doorstep of His palace. He does not want knowledge, intelligence, criticism, or anything of that kind, separately, independently, and by itself, so to say, but He wants the outgoing desire of the heart, the longing of the soul, the cry in the dark, Oh that I knew where I might find Him! The Gospel has a great broad, clear, trumpet-like answer to that inquiry. We see Jesus crucified, and we see Jesus crowned. That is God's answer. Then let us cease comparison with others and let us make every day a day of judgment upon ourselves.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. IV. p. 155.

1 Corinthians 4:4

In the eighth chapter of her Life of Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell quotes a friend who says that, 'One time I mentioned that some one had asked me what religion I was of (with the view of getting me for a partisan) and that I had said that that was between God and me; Emily (who was lying on the hearthrug) exclaimed, "That's right". This was all I ever heard Emily say on religious subjects.'

Reference. IV. 4, 5. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. ii. p. 177.

The Intermediate Goal

1 Corinthians 4:5

I. We may be certain that the thought of the coming of the Lord is meant to act as an incentive. When we feel tired and care-laden, when the way is steep and the lesson harder than usual, what a difference it might make to remind ourselves that it will not go on so for ever. After all, it is only 'until the Lord come'.

II. The thought of our Lord's coming will not only rouse and strengthen us to do things; it will also keep us from doing things, unnecessary things, and from one thing more especially. Let us listen to the Apostle as he describes it. Having spoken of the duty of faithfulness in the discharge of appointed duty, St. Paul goes on to say: 'But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment; yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not hereby justified; but He that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.' You see what he means. The thought of the Lord's coming is to serve not only as an incentive to action, it is to be also a restraint upon criticism.

A. W. Robinson, Church Family Newspaper, vol. XIV. p. 1000.


1 Corinthians 4:5

The rashness of hearers in pronouncing judgment upon ministers is no novelty. Such of the Corinthians as elected to prefer the teaching of Apollos or of Cephas to that of Paul, appear to have proceeded to charge the Apostle with having imperfectly instructed them in the Gospel. He does not submit to their tribunal; nor will he even trust to his own judgment. His appeal is to an infinitely higher Court. He announces

I. That the Coming Lord will sit in Judgment.

(1) His 'day of judgment' will extend over a long period. (a) The term 'day' in Scripture is often used to express a considerable period. (b) The period of the judgment is not in the text expressly called a 'day,' but it is so described by implication. For it is here opposed to 'man's day' in the context (see v. 3, marg.). (c) In this view 'The Lord's day' will be opposed to a period of 6,000 years. It cannot, there fore, be limited to four-and-twenty hours, or to any inconsiderable period. It must extend through many ages.

(2) His day of judgment will be a day of ruling.

(a) Such is 'man's day' viz., of judgment, to which it is opposed. This is the period in which man's opinions are current, his principles of action sanctioned, and his standards of truth, of morals and religion, admitted and approved. (6) Judgment in Scripture is not used exclusively, or even chiefly, in the forensic sense, but is another term for ruling. (c) Hence Christ comes to judgment in His quality as King (see Psalms 2:6 ; Psalms 2:9 ; Psalms 72:1-2 ; St. Matthew 25:34-40 ). So the coming to judge and the coming to reign are the same thing (see Isaiah 32:1 ; Jeremiah 23:5 ; 2 Timothy 4:1 ). There are not three personal advents of Christ.

(3) The reign will close with a great assize. (a) It will commence with military judgments. As God went forth in His Shechinah at the head of the armies of Israel, so in the latter days will He fight against the anti-Christian confederacy (see Joel 3:9-17 ; Haggai 2:6 ; Zechariah 14:1-2 ; Zechariah 14:9 ; Revelation 19:11-21 ).

(b) These military judgments will introduce the reign of Christ. It will extend through the millennium. It will be distinguished by justice and truth. (c) At the close of this great period will be the great assize (Revelation 20:11-15 ).

II. That Every Man then shall have Perfect Justice.

(1) Such a judgment is a necessity in equity. (a) The maxims of man's day will need to be reviewed. (b) The judgments of man's day will have to be reviewed. The fearful aggregate of wrongs perpetrated and suffered in the whole history of man's day will be adjusted in judgment. (c) The best human judgments are imperfect. Motives are misread by upright but fallible judges.

(2) In it shall every man have his meed of praise. (a) To this end all must appear before the Judge. (b) The Judge is competent to the task. He can 'bring to light the hidden things of darkness'. (c) The 'sons of God' will have the greater praise. The day of judgment will be the day of their 'manifestation,' or 'revealing' (Romans 8:19 ; 1 John 3:2 ). Their grandeur will then come out to the day. (d) The 'servants of God' also will have His praise. (e) Even the pronouncedly wicked the downright servants of the devil will have any praise they can justly claim. But in reference to these it is to be feared praise is used euphemistically; the contrary of praise being implied (cf. 1 Samuel 26:23 ). (f) The praise of God will be a true reward. If He says 'Well done,' the whole universe will re-echo the Approbation. When He says, 'Well done,' it is the prelude to substantial and permanent promotion. The moral is that we should strive to merit this applause. The way is through the merits of Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:5

Is there record kept anywhere of fancies conceived, beautiful, unborn? Some day will they assume form in some undeveloped light? If our bad unspoken thoughts are registered against us, and are written in the awful account, will not the good thoughts unspoken, the love and tenderness, the pity, beauty, charity, which pass through the breast, and cause the heart to throb with silent good, find a remembrance too?

Thackeray, in The Last Sketch.

1 Corinthians 4:5

But if I plan a little sin,

So small no eye can enter in?

Thou fool! if thine own soul can see,

What need for God to look at thee?

Evelyn Phinney.

References. IV. 5. T. F. Crosse, Sermons, p. 74. Bishop Wilberforce, Sermons, p. 67. R. W. Church, Village Sermons, p. 8. F. J. A. Hort, Village Sermons in Outline, p. 217. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Notes of Sermons for the Year, pt. i. p. 13. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 390. IV. 6. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 406. IV. 6-13. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. i. p. 204.

The Grace of Receptivity

1 Corinthians 4:7

'Receptiveness,' George Eliot says, 'is a noble and massive virtue.'

I. There are two tendencies which are characteristic of the present time, and which make it hard to write our text upon our banner. (1) First, then, this is an inventive age. In every one of us, perhaps quite unconsciously, there is a touch of the inventor's and the discoverer's temper. That is to say, we are bred in the idea that all that is best and highest and most noble has to be won by human search and seeking. Does that then make us arrogant? Not so. But it makes it hard to remember that the things which count are after all not wages but are gifts. (2) Then this is a critical age. All of us, more or less, are touched with the critical spirit of the day, and the critical spirit even at its noblest is very far away from receptivity. When we are accustomed to get at truth by fine dissection, it is not easy to regard it as a gift.

II. Let us apply the text in different ways, and (1) let us think of the world of nature. We invent the telegraph, we do not invent the spring. We discover the power of steam, but not the dawn. These things find us, they are given freely; and I believe that the keenest intellect will fail to grasp the true value of this great creation, unless there come seasons when it can be let alone, and practice the great grace of receptivity. (2) Think again of our capacities and faculties. The possibility of all we do lies not in what we do but in what we get. Our gifts are the only basis of our gain. (3) What is heredity that strange and awful fact but the expansion by science of this inspired word? What motto for the text-books of heredity could match this motto, 'What have ye that ye did not receive?' Whence comes the bent and bias of my nature? The basis of all my strength and all my weakness, of all I battle with, of all I hope to be the basis of it is the unsought-for gift of the generations who have passed and died. (4) Apply the text to the great gospel of the love of God. All love is a gift; you cannot compel or force it; it is only love when it is freely given; and if that is true of the love of man and woman it must be true of the love of God to me. The New Testament throbs and thrills with the glad thought that the Gospel is a gift. Therefore would I say to all who are longing and striving and toiling for the best: all that is best does not begin in striving; it comes as a gift from God and must be taken.

G. H. Morrison, The Unlighted Lustre, p. 57.

1 Corinthians 4:7

When John Knox was dying, Doctor Preston demanded how he did. He replied: 'I have been tempted by Satan. When he saw that he could not prevail, he tempted me to have trusted in myself, or to have rejoiced or boasted of myself. But I repulsed him with this sentence, ' Quid habes quod non accepisti? ' ('What hast thou which thou hast not received').

References. IV. 7. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. i. p. 221. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 18. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1271, and vol. xxiv. No. 1392.

1 Corinthians 4:8

Though there is no recorded instance of our Lord's making use of any of the weapons of wit, nor is it conceivable that He ever did so, a severe taunting irony is sanctioned by the example of the Hebrew prophets, as in Isaiah's sublime invective against idolatry, and in Elijah's controversy with the priests of Baal, and by that of St Paul especially in the fourth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Surely, too, we may say with Milton, in his Animadversions on the Remonstrant, that 'this vein of laughing hath oftimes a strong and sinewy force in teaching and confuting'.

Julius Hare, in Guesses at Truth (1st Series).

References. IV. 8. H. Bonar, Short Sermons for Family Reading, p. 448. Expositor (6th Series), vol. i. p. 94. IV. 9. Ibid. vol. viii. p. 74. IV. 9-14. J. R. Legge, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 68.

1 Corinthians 4:10 f

Compare Cowper's famous lines on Whitefield ( Hope, 574 f.):

He loved the world that hated him: the tear

That dropped upon his Bible was sincere;

Assailed by scandal and the tongue of strife,

His only answer was a blameless life;

And he that forged, and he that threw the dart,

Had each a brother's interest in his heart.

Paul's love of Christ, and steadiness unbribed,

Were copied close in him, and well transcribed.

He followed Paul; his zeal a kindred flame,

His apostolic charity the same.

Like him, crossed cheerfully, tempestuous seas,

Forsaking country, kindred, friends, and ease;

Like him he laboured, and like him content

To bear it, suffered shame where'er he went.

1 Corinthians 4:19

The tongue of a man is very seldom sober.

Maxim Gorky.

References. IV. 10. David Brook, Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 33. IV. 11-13. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 231. IV. 12. Ibid. vol. x. p. 99; ibid. vol. xi. p. 293. IV. 16. E. M. Geldart, Echoes of Truth, p. 247. IV. 17. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 259. IV. 18. Ibid. vol. i. p. 204. IV. 19. J. Bolton, Selected Sermons (2nd Series), p. 251. IV. 20. Bishop Winnington-Ingram, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. p. 234. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 71.

1 Corinthians 4:21

'Nothing moved her more,' says Charlotte Bronte of her sister Emily, 'than any insinuation that the faithfulness and clemency, the longsuffering and lovingkindness which are esteemed virtues in the daughters of Eve, became foibles in the sons of Adam.'

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/1-corinthians-4.html. 1910.
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