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But while we are not to exalt a ministering servant, no more are we to despise him or his work. The apostles should certainly be recognized for what they actually were, "ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God." They both served Christ, and ministered Christ to others; and were entrusted with a stewardship in reference to rightly administering the truth of the mysteries of God which had been revealed to them for the sake of all the saints of God. How blessed an honor, yet how solemn a charge! For the requirement of paramount importance in a steward is that he be found faithful. Human intellect, zeal, ingenuity, ability, are all of no value if this one matter of faithfulness is missing.
As to this, the steward is not answerable to men, but to God. It was of trivial importance to Paul that in this he should be judged by the Corinthians, "or of man's day" (margin). A mere human judgment based on what is observable in man's brief history of independence of God, was to Paul only empty vanity. In fact, as to estimating the value of his own work, Paul did not even judge as to this himself. For though he knew nothing against himself (a more correct translation), yet this itself did not justify him: his own estimation decided nothing: this discerning judgment as to the value of his work was entirely God's prerogative, not his, nor any man's.
In these things, the Corinthians are told to "judge nothing before tile time, until the Lord come." We must of course be careful to consider this in its context, for chapter 5:12 shows that the Corinthians had been negligent in judging when they ought to have judged. In this chapter (4) they were judging when they ought not. But the Lord, at His coming, will bring to light what we do not see in the work of His servants, making manifest the counsels of the hearts. Not merely the outward work done, but the motives discerned only rightly by Him, will be involved in the praise that each servant receives from God. Too frequently we may assume that our own motives are right, when in fact they may be badly mixed with selfishness and pride. How well then for us to be in constant remembrance that God will bring all to light.
These principles Paul applies directly to himself and to Apollos, to teach the Corinthians that neither the one nor the other must be exalted as a leader; for the true value of each will be actually revealed only at the coming of the Lord. And they are to apply the same principles to themselves also, to avoid having special favourites among themselves, and being puffed up in a spirit of rivalry.
Verse 7 strikes sharply at this unseemly pride. Who had created the differences among saints? Certainly not themselves. It is God who has made each just what he is. Or if it is a question of abilities, capacities, or spiritual gifts, we have not been originators of these, but receivers. And if simply having received them (from God, of course), then only thankful humility should be our response, not boasting as though one were a self-made being.
This spirit too had led to self-complacency and an emphasis on material advantage that virtually made them to "reign as kings." They were filled up with earthly things (Corinth means "satiated"), and "rich," but not in a practical spiritual sense. This show of material prosperity is unbecoming to the character of the Church of God, a people who trust a despised, rejected Lord, and wait for the time of His being exalted and reigning. They sought to reign before the time, and as Paul says, "without us," the apostles, who were willingly suffering with Christ.
Not that Paul did not deeply desire the day of reigning: he did indeed, and that both the Corinthians and the apostle might reign together; but God, not they, will introduce that day. Meanwhile, it is a day of testing of faith and patience.
But rather than exalting the apostles on earth, God had, in Paul's opinion, set them forth last, giving them the lowest place so far as this life is concerned, appointed to death, not to earthly honor. (It must not be forgotten, however, that the first shall be last, and the last first.) For they were in the limelight of the world's contempt and ridicule, a strange sight to angels and to men, willing to be fools in the world's estimation, for Christ's sake. This was practical experience, while the Corinthians would stop short at the position that was theirs as "wise in Christ," not choosing to accept the experience with it of suffering with Christ. In this real Christian experience the apostles were "weak" and "despised," but the Corinthians desired only the attractive side of the truth, with its strength and honor.
To make the precious truth of God known, the apostles were willing to sacrifice every temporal advantage, to the point even of hunger and thirst, lack of clothing, hard knocks, and being deprived of any assured place of dwelling.
And along with the proclaiming of the gospel of God, they laboured with their own hands rather than taking support from the Corinthians. When reviled, they returned blessing; persecuted, they quietly endured it; falsely represented, they used entreaty rather than indignant self-defence. Their treatment by the world was as though they were only garbage to be thrown out, or an undesirable accumulation to be scoured off a vessel. It is good to take note, however, of the expression "unto this day." This continues only through the present day of grace. What a change indeed when "the day of the Lord" comes!
If this did make the Corinthians ashamed, as no doubt it should, yet this was not the object of the apostle in so writing. Rather he was warning them, as a father who loved his children, of the dangers of their living in self-pleasing and self-complacency, the danger of their suffering loss at the judgment-seat of Christ because of living for present advantage rather than in view of eternity.
For they were his own children in the faith, and their soul prosperity was his deep concern. He was not merely acting as an "instructor" as so many are inclined to do, communicating knowledge apart from a true interest in the state of the souls of those whom they instruct. The thousand of these are not worth the value of one man of God who has a father's heart. And having begotten them in Christ Jesus, through the gospel, he would not cease to care for them.
His entreaty in verse 16 that they should be followers of him, must be considered in its context. He certainly did not merely seek followers for himself, but urges them to follow his example of willing self-sacrifice for Christ's sake, rather than to be self-indulgent. This important object led him to send Timothy to Corinth (his beloved child in the faith also), one who met the requirement of verse 2 of faithfulness to the Lord. He was not sent to teach them any new thing, but to reaffirm the truth as Paul had given it, truth exemplified in Paul's ways which were "in Christ," and which Paul had consistently taught everywhere in every assembly. The same truth is applicable to all saints everywhere, and at all times.
But he knew that in Corinth some were puffed up in the vanity and pride of the flesh. He does not single them out, but holds the assembly as such responsible for the condition. They thought to have things their own way, counting on no intervention by Paul. But he would come, he says, if the Lord will, and would show up what was merely speech, and what was true power. "For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." How deeply important a matter is this sober, sound, discerning spiritual power.
And He gives them the choice as to how he should come to them -- whether with a rod, that is, with sharp, chastening apostolic authority; or in love and the spirit of meekness. In the former, certainly love would not be lacking, but it could not be free and affectionate in its expression. And meek submission would be out of place where judgment of evil is required.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter