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1 Corinthians chapter 4

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What does 1 Corinthians chapter 4 mean?

Paul's words to the Christians in Corinth become more stern and pointed as he comes to the end of the first section of his letter to them. Paul has pointed out that these believers are acting like spiritual children (1 Corinthians 3:1–2). One of the things Paul has been challenging the Corinthians about is how they have divided themselves based on which of their Christian leaders they are loyal to (1 Corinthians 1:10–13).

In doing so, they have set themselves against some of the other leaders, such as Paul, Apollos, and Peter. They have made themselves judges in this way. Paul begins 1 Corinthians 4 by agreeing that he and the other ministers are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In that role, it does matter that they are faithful, and the Lord will judge their works when the time comes. Paul, though, is not worried about the opinion of the Corinthians or anyone else. They are not his judges. He refuses even to judge himself. That is the Lord's work (1 Corinthians 4:1–5).

The Corinthians must not puff themselves up to put themselves in the position of judging one of their ministers against another. In doing so, Paul strongly affirms the principle that God's written Word—and not human tradition or opinion—is the ultimate arbiter of our faith. When personal opinion is elevated to the same status as God's Word, bickering and division will result. As Paul says, believers are far from perfect, themselves. The good that is in their lives has been received from God as a gift. Why would they boast about something that has been given to them as if they had it all along (1 Corinthians 4:6–7)?

Paul uses sarcasm to describe their attitude of pride and self-reliance instead of humility and dependence on God. Why would they need anything from God? They already have everything they want, right? They are rich. They have become kings. Paul satirically wishes they really were kings, so he could be a king, too, instead of living under persecution and in poverty. He begins to show the differences between his life as an apostle and their lives of status-seeking and wealth-gathering in Corinth. He is not complaining. He sees his life as an apostle as one put on display by God before the world as a man condemned to death (1 Corinthians 4:8–9).

Paul and the other apostles appear to the world as fools for Christ's sake. The Corinthians see themselves as wise. The apostles are weak and dishonorable in worldly terms. The Corinthians wish to be strong and respected in their culture. Paul and the other apostles live in poverty. They are hungry, homeless, and beat up by life. They must do manual labor to support themselves, in addition to the work of ministry. They are mistreated, insulted, persecuted, and slandered, though they follow Jesus' example of blessing those who harm them. In short, they are considered the scum of the earth in the world's eyes (1 Corinthians 4:10–13).

Paul insists that he does not write these things to make the Corinthians feel bad about living for status and wealth and comfort. Instead, he hopes his strong words will help them to change the course of their lives. Since he led them to Christ, he is like their spiritual father. Paul is not attempting to claim some title, or honor (Matthew 23:9), but only to explain his loving care for their spiritual growth. These are his beloved "children," spiritually speaking. He wants them to go beyond understanding his teaching; he wants them to imitate how he lives it out in his own life. He is sending Timothy to them to show them how to do that (1 Corinthians 4:14–17).

Paul is also planning to come to see them himself, to confront those who are arrogant with the genuine power of God as displayed in the Holy Spirit. In the ancient world, just as today, people often "talk tough" when they don't think they'll be confronted face-to-face. Paul asks a very reasonable question: would they prefer him to come with a rod of correction, or in a spirit of gentleness (1 Corinthians 4:18–21)?
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