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1 Corinthians 4: Kings or Criminals Print E-mail
1 Corinthians
Sunday, 13 September 2015

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There are those who believe in heaven on earth. Their lives are marked by such joy and blessing that they cannot really imagine anything better in the life to come. Granted, very few hold on to that belief when trials come (and they always come), but it seems to be true for a season. There are even professing Christians who claim that Christ came to bring us heaven on earth. Through belief in His work on the cross, we can now be free of any difficulty or suffering. We rise above the trials of this life and bask in the blessings of the Kingdom. Our future existence in heaven will simply be a continuation of the joys we experienced in life. Jesus, the King, has ushered in the Kingdom of God and we get to enjoy it in all its fullness here and now.

When you step back and look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as a whole, it seems that the Corinthians struggled with such a belief. Paul preached Christ to them and they were ready to enjoy all the pleasures that His Kingdom had to offer. But there is a problem in this way of thinking. Although Jesus has indeed ushered in the Kingdom here on earth with His death and resurrection, the fullness of the Kingdom will not be known until His return. The Kingdom is already here, but it is not yet here in its fullness. The Corinthians’ failure to understand this was leading them into all kinds of trouble, as we will see throughout the letter.

Paul combats this error by reminding his readers of his own life (and the life of Christ) and calling them to “Imitate me.” Look at what he writes in verses 14-16. This is the main imperative of this chapter and it is how Paul brings his argument against division and for unity to a close. It is not the only place that Paul tells his readers to imitate him (see 1 Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 3:17, and 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Although there is much we can say about what it means to imitate Paul, what are the specifics in this particular context? What characteristics is he encouraging the Corinthians (and us) to imitate? Let’s consider four from the text.

We should be trustworthy stewards of the mysteries of God (v. 1-2)

Paul spent chapter 3 reminding the Corinthians that he and Apollos were simply servants in God’s field and God’s temple. He continues that line of thought in verses 1-2. Look at those with me. Paul is a servant who had the privilege of laying the foundation for the Church at Corinth. Apollos is a servant who had the privilege of building on that foundation. Both of them did what they did as servants of God. Their charge as gospel ministers was to simply be trustworthy stewards of the mysteries of God, which we have seen is a reference to the gospel (see 2:7). God has revealed the great message of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners and Paul and Apollos were simply steward of that good news. And so are we. We should imitate Paul in being good steward of the gospel.

We should not pronounce judgment before the time (v. 3-5)

The letter indicates that some in Corinth had turned against Paul. But he is not as concerned with their judgment as with the judgment to come. Look at verses 3-5. It is difficult to know exactly why they were criticizing Paul. If the first few chapters are any indication, it seems that they thought he was too simple and not wise enough. Apparently he did not look like or act like the other men of learning in those days. In the present context, it could be that they were questioning his motives (the purposes of the heart). Maybe they thought he wanted power or influence or control. But either way, Paul cautions them against such premature judgment. He is not their servant, but the servant of God. He will not have to stand before them but before Him. Paul is not saying that we should never listen to the criticisms or judgments of others. He will command them to judge the brother who is living in sin in 5:12. But judging someone with the false standard of worldly wisdom or calling into question a brother’s motives is not for us to do. Truth be told, we cannot even judge ourselves faithfully at times. Rather, we can, and should, entrust such judgment to the Lord. He is the faithful Judge!

We should not be ‘puffed up’ or boast in gifts (v. 6-7)

Once again we see the problem of division being addressed. Look at verse 6. The Corinthians were siding with their leaders over and against one another. Some followed Paul while others followed Apollos. Paul has pleaded with them and given them argument after argument to show them that such action was wrong and sinful. What is his argument here? Look at verse 7. Since pride is the root of their division, Paul reminds them that they have nothing to boast about. Everything they have is a gift of God’s grace! How can someone boast over a gift they received? It is like a child boasting the day after Christmas over the hard work they put in designing and building their new bike. ‘I am the best bike manufacturer ever,’ they would say, ‘And my parents are lucky to have me to spend their money on.’ It’s foolish and silly. Just like when God’s people boast over the gifts that they have received from Him.

Sure, we may work hard to refine our gifts and use them well (as we should), but that does not change the fact that they are still gifts. Instead of boasting, we should respond with thanksgiving and humility. This is the proper response to God’s grace. One of my commentators writes: “Grace leads to gratitude; ‘wisdom’ and self-sufficiency lead to boasting and judging. Grace has a leveling effect; self-esteem has a self-exalting effect. Grace means humility; boasting means one has arrived.” We must ever be mindful of the truth that everything we have is a gift of God’s grace so that we can avoid the sins of pride and boasting and the problems they lead to, namely division.

We should be fools for Christ (v. 8-13)

The heart of Paul’s argument in this section is found in verses 8-13. He contrasts the thinking and living of the Corinthians with that of the apostles. He does this to show them the error of their pride and boasting. The picture he paints is striking. Look at verse 8. Paul is using a bit of sarcasm in this description of the Corinthians. His emphasis is that they are reigning as kings already. Paul knows the blessings of eternity with Christ. He knows that all Christians will one day reign with Him in glory. But this will not happen until the return of Christ. The Corinthians see it as already happening but Paul views it as not yet. They think they have heaven on earth, their best life now, but Paul does not agree with this perspective.

He contrasts this with his description of the apostles. Look at verse 9. When the people entered the arena in those days, the kings and rulers would lead them in, followed by the citizens and other people. But the group that came in last would be those sentenced to death, those men who were going to die in the arena for the entertainment of the crowds. Paul says: ‘We are like those men. We are those sentenced to die before a watching world. You are the kings but we are the criminals. You reign while we suffer.’ He goes on with the contrast in verse 10. The Corinthians are ‘wise’ and strong and held in honor, while the apostles are fools and weak and held in disrepute. The Corinthians are wise in their own eyes and the apostles are fools for Christ.

What does it look like to be a fool for Christ? Paul explains with three descriptions. First, fools for Christ work hard but are not materialistic. Look at verse 11-12a. These men are currently hungry, poorly dressed, and homeless. ‘Well, they should get a job,’ we might say. No, they work hard with their hands along with their work in the ministry. The implication seems to be not that they do not work or have money, but that they use their money and resources to serve others and not themselves. These are hard words for American Christians and our embarrassment of riches. We have to constantly guard against entitlement and materialism if we are going to imitate Paul and be fools for Christ. Second, fools for Christ persevere through suffering. Look at verses 12b-13a. These men respond well to suffering and persecution.

The truth is, with the current climate in our country and people being persecuted and arrested for Christian beliefs, we must be prepared to suffer well. That will take great wisdom on our part because every situation is different. But we want to be fools for Christ who bless and endure and entreat when the difficulties come, whatever that may look like. Third, fools for Christ have little regard for their reputation. Look at verse 13b. Most sink drains today have a filter that you can put on to catch bits of food as you wash the dishes. When you are finished washing and drain the sink, the trash left over in the filter is the equivalent to scum and refuse in this verse. It is not a flattering picture. But fools for Christ are ok with having such a reputation in this fallen world. Why? Because they treated our Savior like scum and refuse. They beat Him and mocked Him and hung Him naked on a cross. We are in good company when the world treats us like Him. If He was willing to be abused like that for our salvation, then surely we can be such fools for Him!

So Paul concludes his argument against division by telling the Corinthians to imitate him in these ways. He is their spiritual father and he wants to see them walk in his ways. Look at verses 14-21. As their father, Paul does not want to come against them with discipline, but he will if he has to. Rather, he wants them to repent of their arrogance and imitate his humility. He wants their relationship to be restored. He is willing to show them tough love as a good father, but he hopes to visit them with love in a spirit of gentleness. In order for that to happen, he encourages them to imitate his ways in Christ: to be trustworthy stewards and not judge before the proper time, to not be arrogant but fools for Christ.

So let me ask you: are you imitating Paul in these areas? Are you a fool for Christ? Truth is, our own efforts will never be enough. I will never be a trustworthy steward of the gospel without grace. I will be judgmental and full of pride. I will never be a fool for Christ apart from grace. So what can I do? Run to Calvary for the mercy found at the cross of Christ. Through faith in Jesus I can be trustworthy with the gospel and humble in the way I live my life. He served me, so I can serve Him. He humbled Himself at the cross, so I can humble myself. He endured persecution and suffering, so I can do the same. I can be treated like a criminal for Christ because He was treated like a criminal for me. Becoming a fool for Him is the highest privilege given to man. And by His grace we can be just that.

Let me close with a word to fathers. Paul is the spiritual father of the Corinthians and he tells them to imitate him. Can we say that to our young men? Paul is not saying this because he thinks he is some super-Christian. He has argued against that for the last couple of chapters. No, he is just a humble, faithful follower of Christ laboring to use His gifts for the good of others and the glory of God. Are you doing that men? Can you say to the next generation: ‘Follow Christ like me’? I challenge you to be such men and to hold me accountable to be such a man as well through the grace that we find at Calvary. Amen.

1 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1987), p. 171.

~ William Marshall ~ 


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