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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 4

Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NTBurkitt's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

As if the apostle had said, "Although I warned you, in the foregoing chapter, against an undue esteem of your pastors, and against a factious preference of some before others, to the great scandal of religion, and the prejudice of the gospel; yet I speak not this to draw you off from paying that due honour and deserved respect which belongs to their character. But I desire you to account them all, neither more nor less, but as ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God."

Here observe, 1. A double character given of an evangelical pastor.

He is, (1.) A minister of Christ: that is, a person deputed by the command, and invested with the authority, of Christ, to administer in holy things, to preach the word, administer the sacraments, execute church censures; being in all things an example to the flock! and the people are to account the office and work of the ministry, as a divine institution and appointment of Christ in his church; whoever slights or opposes the ministry, flies in the face of Christ himself.

(2.) He is a steward of the mysteries of God; and that in a twofold respect.

First, He is a steward of the truths of God; secondly,

of the ordinances of God.

Of the truths of God he is a steward, to open and explain them for the spiritual edification of all Christians, and to defend and maintain them against the opposition of all adversaries: God's steward must not suffer vermin to destroy the provision of God's household.

He is a steward of the ordinances of God also: which he is obliged to dispense in all faithfulness to his congregation. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 1 Peter 4:10.

Observe, 2. As the ministers of Christ are described, they are stewards; so the qualification of a steward is declared, and that is faithfulness: It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful. What ground is there for trust, where there is no truth?

Now this faithfulness in our stewardship includes,

(1.) Purity of intention; a pure end in all our services will give us abundance of comfort at the end of our service.

(2.) Sincerity and integrity of heart: a faithful minister is a sincere-hearted minister, who preaches his sermons first to himself, and then to his hearers.

(3.) Ministerial diligence: a slothful minister can never be a faithful steward; we must study the truths of God to paleness, preach them to faintness, maintain and defend them with stedfastness: we look for happiness from God as long as he is in heaven, and he expects faithfulness from us as long as we are upon earth.

(4.) Faithfulness in stewardship includes impariality in all the adminstrations of Christ's house: we must take the same care of, manifest the same love unto, attend with the same diligence upon, the poorest and meanest in our congregations, as we do the rich, the great, and the honourable: for all our souls are at one price, and rated at one value in our Lord's book.

O! let us take care we be impartial stewards, for we must shortly give an account of our stewardship before an impartial God.

Verse 3

Not as if the apostle was unconcerned whether the Corinthians had a good esteem of him, or not; or were regardless of his reputation among men: but the meaning is, he did not much value himself upon the opinion and judgment which any persons had of him, knowing that his case would not be finally determines by any man's judgment, nor yet by his own.

Therefore, says he, I judge not myself; that is, definitively, so as to acquiesce in that judgment: for I may be deceived in my judgment of myself, therefore I leave myself to the judgment of God. It is a singular support to all the members, but especially the ministers of Jesus Christ, that they and their actions have a more righteous judge to be examined and tried by, than either the world or themselves; the world's judgment may falsely condemn them, their own judgment may flatter and deceive them, but the judgment of God will deal impartially with them.

Verse 4

These words are not to be understood absolutely and universally, but relatively and respectively; not as if the apostle knew no sin in himself, (for he went groaning under a body of sin to his grave,) but with respect to his ministry; his conscience cleared him of all unfaithfulness and neglect of duty. Though I know nothing of unfaithfulness by myself, yet am I not thereby justified at God's tribunal; for he that judgeth me is the Lord.

Note here, 1. St. Paul's justification of himself: before men he knew nothing by himself; that is, in general, his conscience did not charge him with any negligence or unfaithfulness, in respect of his office; he had not been an unfaithful steward of divine mysteries, nor guilty of any crimes that his adversaries could charge him with.

Note, 2. His disclaiming all justification thereby in the sight of God: Yet am I not thereby justified. His sincerity did comfort him, but could not justify him; the righteousness of the holiest and best of men, is not pleadable before the righteous and holy God for justification.

The reason given why the apostle did not, durst not, plead his own righteousness before God for justification. For he that judgeth me is the Lord; as if he had said, "Were I to appear at man's bar, I doubt not but to come off well enough, for none knows me so well as myself; but I have to do with an heart-searching God, who knows me better than myself; and when God comes to look over my work, he will spy that which the most eagle-eyed person cannot spy.

Therefore there is no standing for me, a creature, before God, in any creature-purity. Angelical perfection is imperfect in his sight: angels, though they have not the least spot of sin in their natures, yet are they chargeable with folly, their nature being potentially sinful, and the heavens themselves are not clean in God's sight.

Verse 5

Our apostle's design in these words, is not to condemn all judgment of persons, words, or actions, or to oblige us to suspend our judging till the day of judgment; but only forbids rash censuring, unadvised, uncertain, and unseasonable judging of the hearts and final states of men. We may judge what appeareth, but not what is hidden and unseen: for the judging of hidden things is referred to him from whom nothing is hidden.

Learn hence, That to take upon us to judge the heart, or to judge that which doth not appear, is to assume the office, and to take upon us the place of God: only he that is invisible can look into that which is invisible.

Observe farther, The person spoken of, who makes manifest the counsels of the heart, and brings to light the hidden things of darkness: it is Jesus Christ. Judge nothing till the Lord come, the Lord Jesus Christ.

A strong argument to prove the divinity of our blessed Saviour; he that has knowledge of the heart, of the secrets of the hearts of all men, and has all these subject to his judgment, is undoubtedly God. But Christ ascribes all this knowledge to himself, All the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give to every one according to his works: Revelation 2:23 therefore he is essentially and really God.

Observe lastly, What will be the issue and consequence of our Lord's knowing and judging the secrets of men: Then shall every one have praise of God; that is, every one shall have praise that is praiseworthy; every good man, though now dispraised and despised, though censured and condemned, though loaded with scandals and false reports, yet then every righteous man shall have praise from Christ the righteous Judge.

Verse 6

Here the apostle prosecutes his former argument afresh, that neither the Corinthians, nor any other Christians, should so overvalue and magnify some ministers of the gospel, as to undervalue and despise others, making men of eminency the heads of factions and parties; but that they esteem all ministers as instruments only in Christ's hand, doing nothing of themselves, but assisted by the grace and strength of God, to whom therefore the success and entire praise of all their labours is due. This is to think of them according to what is written, Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers? 1 Corinthians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 3:8.

Learn hence, That it is too usual when people have a very great and high esteem of the ministers of Christ, to overvalue themselves by reason of their relation to them and dependence upon them; and whilst they honour and magnify some, to vilify and disesteem others. This is the fault which all along our apostle has been condemning since he began this epistle, and he has not yet done with it; for thus he proceeds:

Verse 7

As if the apostle had said, "Who is it that maketh one minister to differ from and excel another? Is it not God? If so, then let those ministers that have received the greatest gifts from God, whom the inspiration of the Almighty hath made most wise and understanding, be most humble themselves; and let none take occasion from thence to despise others who have received less.

Learn hence, that ministers of great abilities, eminent for gifts and graces, are in great danger of being puft up themselves, and their people also too prone to glory in them. There is a temptation in good things, yea, in the best things, to pride; the best men on earth may be overheated by what they have received from heaven; and Satan may take occasion even from our raptures in spirit to puff us up with spiritual pride; therefore our apostle puts forth this soul-humbling and pride-mortifying expostulation, What hast thou that thou hast not received? who made thee to differ? There is nothing wherein one minister, or indeed one man, differeth or is distinguished from another, or wherein he excelleth another, but it is given him from God; it is God, and not himself, that makes him to differ. It is a high degree of pride for any man to say, Ego discrevi meipsum, I of myself have made myself to differ.

Verse 8

These words are looked upon by interpreters as an ironical reproof given by St. Paul to the Corinthians, in which with an holy derision he rebukes the over-weening and high opinion which they had of their present attainments and spiritual perfections; Ye are full, &c.

As if he had said, "Now you think yourselves so full and rich in all kinds of knowledge, that you despise your spiritual fathers, myself and Apollos, who first converted you to the faith; we are looked upon as dull fellows, not worthy to be named in the same day with your new admired teachers. You advance yourselves as much above us, as a king is above his own subjects. I wish with all my heart your happiness were real, that we might be sharers in it; but verily I fear that you are only puft up with notions: I fear ye have little except in conceit, and there you have a great deal too much."

Learn hence, That spiritual pride (that is, boasting of, and glorying in, the gifts, graces, or privileges, which are conferred upon us) is a sin which the devil strongly tempts, and professors are extremely prone, to the practice and commission of. Now ye are full, now ye are rich.

Observe next, As the flourishing condition of the Corinthians is ironically described, so the afflicted and persecuted condition of the apostles is plainly declared: We are a spectacle to the world, and appointed to death. The original word is, We are set as upon a theatre or stage, in public view; heaven, earth, and hell, are spectators; God, angels, and men, wait to see the glorious triumphs of our faith and fortitude.

What a great solemnity is there at the sufferings of a saint! Bloody persecutors are for making all the members, especially all the ministers of Christ, a spectacle to the world: an allusion to the Roman spectacles, who carried those persons about for a sight that were to fight with wild beasts; and if they escaped, were only reserved for slaughter against another day. Thus the apostles in their martyrdom conflicted with all sorts of misery, and with death itself at last.

Observe lastly, How the false professors of Christianity branded the apostles with folly for exposing themselves thus to sufferings and death for the sake of Christ: We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; that is, in your account we are fools, because we run so many hazards for the sake of Christ; but you are wise in your profession of Christ, because you have an art to profess him, and yet enjoy outward prosperity with him. The wisdom of suffering Christians, in hazarding all for Christ, and laying down their lives in the cause of Christ, has been always accounted weakness and folly by the men of the world. We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ.

Verse 11

Observe here, 1. The several kinds of sufferings which the holy apostles were exposed to, and exercised with; namely, hunger, and want, poverty, and reproach, persecution, and death. They suffered in their bodies by hunger, and nakedness, and stripes; in their names, by scandals and reproaches, being accounted the filth of the world, and the off-scouring of all things.

The word, say some, signifies that dirt and filth which scavengers do rake together in the streets, and carry to the dung-hill. Others think it an allusion to the sacrifices which the heathens used for the lustration of a city, who when their city was under any great calamity, chose out some very base, vile, and nasty person, and burnt him in a ditch, and cast his ashes into the sea, as a sacrifice unto Neptune, saying, Be thou a purgation for us. Such a base and vile esteem had the world of the holy apostles and messengers of Christ.

Lord! to see such a man as St. Paul going up and down the world with a naked back and empty belly, without a house of settled abode to hide his head in; one that did more service for God in his day, than perhaps we have done him all our days: can we, the ministers of Christ, complain of hard usage form the world, when we consider that this great apostle suffered in the world?

Observe, 2. The duration and continuance of the apostles' sufferings, Even unto this day, and unto this present hour. It was not only at their first entrance upon the apostolical office, when all the world was set against Christianity, that they met with this usage, but all along, from the first hour they began to preach the gospel, even unto this hour, did they meet with opposition and persecution.

As long as there is a devil in hell, and wicked men upon earth, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution: but surely the dregs in this cup have in all ages been reserved for the ministers of Christ Jesus; as if to preach were nothing else but to stir up the rage, and be blotted with the obloquies of men.

Observe, 3. The holy and humble behaviour, the meek and patient carriage and demeanour, of the apostles, under all this load and burden of reproach and scorn, disgrace and shame, persecution and ill usage: being reviled, we bless. When we meet with opprobrious words, we are so far from rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, that we speak well of, and wish well to, the persons that are thus injurious to us: Being persecuted by them, we suffer it patiently from them; being defamed by any of them, we entreat God for them, to pity and pardon them; and we entreat them to pity themselves.

To publish invectives against those, though the worst of men, who reproach and persecute us, is a modern piece of zeal, which the blessed apostles and holy sufferers in the primitive times were not only little acquainted with, but perfect strangers to.

Verse 14

Observe here, 1. The holy ingenuity of the apostle, discovered in the sharp reproofs given to the Corinthians: it was to warn them of their duty, not to reproach them for their crimes: I write not these things to shame, but warn you. The ministers of God take far greater pleasure in exhorting people to be good, than in complaining of their badness.

Observe, 2. The relation which St. Paul stood in to the Corinthians: he was their spiritual father, and they his children. He first converted them to Christianity by his ministry amongst them. In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.

In Christ Jesus: that is, by the gracious influence of the Spirit of Christ, accompanying my preaching, I have turned you from idols to serve the living and true God. Hence it is that I have such an endeared affection for you, and challenge a deserved respect from you.

Learn from hence, That persons may and ought to have a great value for, and bear a tender respect towards, those ministers whom God hath honoured, by making them instruments of their first conversion, and bringing home to Christ. These are in a proper sense their spiritual fathers: and verily there is no greater love, no stronger affection betwixt any relations upon earth, than between the ministers of Christ and such of their beloved people as they have been happily instrumental to bring home to God.

Observe, 3. The apostle having asserted his relation to them, that of a spiritual father, challenged from them their duty of obedient children; namely, to follow him in the steps of holiness and sincere obedience: Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.

Lord, what holiness of life, and exactness of conversation, ought to be found with the ministers of Christ, seeing they are to be patterns as well as preachers; and their people not only to be their hearers, but their followers!

We are to tread out before them the steps which they are to take towards heaven; and it will be found at the great day as dangerous to have misled them by our example, as by our doctrine. Happy those ministers that can safely say to their people, Be ye followers of us.

Verse 17

No sooner had St. Paul planted a church in Corinth, but, by the envy and malice of Satan, most notorious disorders, and scandalous abuses, were cast into it. To obviate which great and growing mischief, he writes them his mind in this epistle. But lest this method should prove ineffectual, because writing at a distance is not so moving as conferring face to face, he sends Timotheus unto them, to excite and persuade them to their duty, by bringing to their remembrance his ways which were in Christ, both what he had formerly taught, and did yet continue to teach in every church: I have sent unto you Timotheus, my beloved Son, and faithful in the Lord.

Here note, 1. The messenger sent to them, described by his name, Timotheus, or Timothy; by his relation, his beloved Son; that is, his son in the faith, his spiritual son, possibly converted, undoubtedly instructed by him in the principles of Christianity.

He is farther described by his zeal and diligence in the work of the gospel: faithful in the Lord, that is, faithful in the work of the Lord.

A noble character of a gospel minister: faithful to God, faithful to souls, faithful in his intentions, faithful in his endeavours, faithful in all the administrations of Christ's house; faithful and affectionate towards the poor of the flock, remembering that all souls are rated at one value in his Master's book; faithful in public preaching, faithful in private inspection. Happy are the people who have such faithful persons for their spiritual guides and pastors.

Note, 2. The message and errand Timothy was sent upon, namely, to acquaint the Corinthians with St. Paul's doctrine and practice, and to excite and persuade them to their duty, by bringing his ways to their remembrance.

Where observe, That St. Paul had led so holy and unblamable a conversation in every place where he had lived, that he is neither afraid nor ashamed that his course of life should be discovered and made known to all the world. A great example for our imitation, to walk before God and our people with such care and caution, with such heedfulness nad circumspection, that we need not blush, when either our doctrine or practice are published before all the churches of Jesus Christ. Timothy shall acquaint you with my ways, and with what I teach everywhere in every church.

Verse 18

Observe here, 1. The advantages which the height and haughtiness of some envious teachers took, upon St. Paul's absence from Corinth; they entertained low and contemptuous thoughts of him, and vaunted that he durst not come before them, nor stand among them.

Observe, 2. St. Paul's positive resolution to come again to Corinth, with God's permission, with the reason for that resolution: I will come, and know, not the speech of them that are puffed up, but the power; that is, I will certainly come and try your boasting, envious teachers, not by their plausible words and fine talk, discovering who hath the smoothest tongue: but I will examine the power; that is, first their authority to preach; and next, what power and efficacy there is in their preaching; and lastly, what power and influence their preaching has upon their own practice: I will find out what real good they have done among you, after all their ostentatious braggings. Behold here the true and great end of episcopal visitations.

For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power; that is, Christianity doth not consist in talking, but in doing; not in vaunting, but in performing great things. But by power, here, may be understood, a power of working miracles for confirming and propagating the gospel, which the apostles had, but these teachers at Corinth had not. To convince men at first of the truth of Christianity, the dead were raised, the devils cast out, and many mighty wonders wrought by the apostles; by all which the gospel doctrine was planted, propagated, established, and confirmed. The kingdom of God, or the gospel church, was not raised at first, or carried on since, by the wisdom of words, by the charms of popular eloquence and rhetorical flourishes; but by a plain way, and familiar manner of preaching the doctrines of the gospel, attested by miracles, and accompanied with works of divine efficacy and power. Thus the kingdom of God was not in word, but in power.

Verse 21

As if the apostle had said, "Come I will among you, to regulate disorders, and to rectify abuses: now choose how I shall come; whether in the milder way of kindness, love, and meekness towards you, or exercising the power God has given me, of inflicting corporal punishments on offenders, by delivering them to Satan as God's executioner upon their bodies."

Note here, 1. A power, which the apostle intimates himself to have in the Christian church; namely, the power of the rod, that is, a power of inflicting the severest of corporal punishments, even death itself, upon notorious offenders.

Thus Elymas the sorcerer was smitten with blindness by St. Paul, Acts 13:8-11.

Ananias and Sapphira struck dead by St. Peter, Acts 5:1-10.

Hymenaeus and Philetus delivered unto Satan, 1 Timothy 1:20.

It was usual with God, in the earlier days of the gospel, to give Satan leave to seize the bodies of such as were, for their obstinate perseverance in sin, cut off from the communion of the church; who plagued them with diseases, and sometimes with death, which is called the destruction of the flesh, 1 Corinthians 5:5.

Note, 2. The necessary reason for investing such a power, so great a power as this, in the apostle; because then there being no civil power of the magistrate on his side, had he been destitute of this extraordinary power, to punish bold and hardened transgressors, he could never have vindicated Christianity from contempt, much less have conciliated any tolerable respect either to himself or it. People would have despised his person, and made a mock of his new religion; whereas, finding him clothed with this power, great fear fell upon the church, yea, on as many as heard these things, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified, Acts 5:11.

Note, 3. How loath and unwilling the apostle was to exercise this power of his, and to come unto them with a rod, desiring rather to use fair and gentle methods, and to come unto them in love, and in the spirit of meekness. His paternal tenderness and fatherly affection prompted him to menace and threaten punishment, but only to the end that he might not execute and inflict it, provided they would by but obliged by kindness, and reclaimed by candid usage.

Note, 4. That the apostle was sometimes forced out of mere pity to take his rod into his hand, to use sharpness, though with great reluctancy; scourging them, to show his compassion to them.

In like manner must ecclesiastical rulers, to the end of the world, in order to maintain the church's purity and peace, by church-censures chastise that vice which doth deface the one, and those divisions that do disturb the other.

Bibliographical Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/wbc/1-corinthians-4.html. 1700-1703.
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