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1 Corinthians 4


The Ministry of the Apostles Stewards of the Mysteries of God Applications Apostles of Christ Conclusions
4:1-5 4:1-5 4:1-5 4:1-5 4:1-5
  Fools for Christ's Sake      
4:6-13 4:6-13 4:6-7 4:6-7 4:6-13
    4:8-13 4:8-13  
  Paul's Paternal Care Fatherly Admonition and Warning   An Appeal
4:14-21 4:14-21 4:14-21 4:14-17 4:14-17
      4:18-21 4:18-21

READING CYCLE THREE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five modern translations. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one main subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. Verses 1-5 deal with Christians judging and being judged.


B. Verses 6-13 contrast the proud Corinthian leaders and true apostles.


C. In verses 14-21 Paul discusses his authority and travel plans in light of opponents' charges.



Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 3But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God.

4:1 "Let a man regard us in this manner" This is a present middle (deponent) imperative. Believers must evaluate or consider the status of leadership. For the Kingdom of God leadership is servanthood/stewardship (cf. Mark 10:42-44). Paul's theology follows Jesus' words.

▣ "servants of Christ" See Special Topic below.


▣ "stewards" This is a compound Greek term from "house" and "law." It was the servant who managed the house/estate and gave an account to the owner (i.e., term in Matt. 25:14-46; Luke 16:1, the concept of "to allot," "that which is assigned to someone"). This is the emphasis on responsibility to and trustworthiness of the gospel (cf. v. 2; 4:1; 9:17; Col. 1:25; I Thess. 2:4; Titus 1:7; I Pet. 4:10). God will judge His stewards (cf. vv. 4,5; 3:13). What an awesome privilege and obligation!

▣ "of the mysteries of God" This term is used in several different ways by Paul. The primary thrust seems to be that the one God is going to unite Jews and Gentiles into one family through Christ, thereby fulfilling Gen. 3:15 and 12:3. See Special Topic: the Mystery at 2:1.

▣ "that one be found trustworthy" This is the adjective pistos. Jesus used the concept of a faithful servant in Matt. 24:45; 25:21,23!


4:3 "But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you" Paul was under personal attack by certain groups (i.e., babies in Christ, cf. 3:1, or even Jewish opposition similar to the Judaizers of Galatians) at Corinth. Their estimation of his apostolic commission was not a central concern (yet it was still painful). He was concerned how people viewed the gospel and the church (cf. 8:13; 9:19-23; 10:23,33; II Cor. 4:2; 5:11; Rom. 14:1-15:13).

▣ "or by any human court" This is literally "human day." It refers to human court proceedings as 3:13 refers to "divine" court proceedings on the last day (cf. 1:8; 5:5). As 4:3a refers to the sarkinois (i.e., immature believers of 3:1), this phrase refers to the psuchikos (i.e., natural people without the Spirit) of 2:14.

"I do not even examine myself" It is very hard to properly examine oneself spiritually. Often believers are too hard on themselves and too easy on others. Often we compare ourselves to other humans (cf. II Cor. 10:12-18). We must let God judge (cf. v. 5). He knows the heart and the circumstances (cf. I Sam. 16:7; I Kgs. 8:39; I Chr. 28:9; Jer. 17:10; Luke 16:15; Acts 1:24).

4:4 "For I am conscious of nothing against myself" Before Paul's conversion he felt this way about his relationship to the Mosaic Law (cf. Acts 23:1; Phil. 3:5-6). The Spirit revealed his covetousness (cf. Rom. 7:7) and Paul was convicted of sin and responded to the grace of God in Christ alone (cf. Rom. 3:19-26). He lived and ministered in this grace as a steward. In the paradox of free grace, but accountable stewardship, he had a peaceful conscience, but only a divine Judge in an eschatological setting could make the appropriate evaluation and reward!

NASB, NRSV "acquitted"

This is a perfect passive indicative. It is a legal technical term for one being acquitted from the consequences of a crime (cf. Rom. 3:24). It is theologically similar to the "no condemnation" in Rom. 8:1 and the legal context of Rom. 8:31-35. In this context it means that Paul is not free from divine judgment (cf. II Cor. 5:10) simply because his conscience was clear.

"but the one who examines me is the Lord" Stewards will give an account for their trustworthiness (cf. v. 2; 3:11; II Cor. 5:10; 10:18).


NJB"for that reason"

This is the conclusion of Paul's discussion on this topic and it is a command related to premature human evaluations.

▣ "do not go on passing judgment before the time" This is a present active imperative with the negative particle, which usually means to stop an act already in process (cf. Matt. 7:1-5). These factious groups or the adherents of the false teachers had already judged Paul. Paul must have had many critics at Corinth through the years (cf. II Cor. 10-12).

▣ "but wait until the Lord comes" The Second Coming is certain; the time and manner are uncertain. True evaluation must wait until the right moment (cf. Matt. 13:24-30,36-43).

▣ "who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness" Even believers will give an account of their motives, plans, and attitudes (cf. 3:13; John 3:17-21; Rom. 2:16; II Cor. 5:10), but thank God, not their sins! Paul uses this same word "hidden things" (krupta) several times.

1. Romans 2:16 - "the hidden things of men"

2. I Corinthians 4:26 - "the hidden things of darkness"

3. I Corinthians 14:25 - "the hidden things of the heart"

4. II Corinthians 4:2 - "the hidden things of shame"


▣ "and disclose the motives of men's hearts" This is crucial. This is why only God can judge fairly. Believers are only responsible for what they do understand, but they are always responsible for their attitudes and motives. Faithfulness will be rewarded (cf. 3:8,14,15), unfaithfulness judged (cf. 3:16-17). See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE HEART at 14:25.

▣ "and each man's praise will come to him from God" This is a recurrent theme (cf. Job 34:11; Ps. 62:12; Eccl. 12:14; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Matt. 16:27; 25:31-40; Rom. 2:16; 14:12; I Cor. 3:8; II Cor.5:10; I Pet. 1:17; Rev. 2:23; 20:12; 22:12) based on the principle of Gal. 6:7.

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?


NASB"I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos"
NKJV"figuratively transferred"

The Greek word "figuratively applied" (i.e., meteschēmatisa, which is an Aorist active indicative) is very hard to translate in this context. In other contexts, Phil. 3:21, the active voice means to "transform," and in II Cor. 11:13-15, the middle voice means "to disguise." The basic idea is to transfer a set of circumstances from one group to another group. Paul is using himself and Apollos as examples for all leaders.

NASB"that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written"
NKJV"that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written"
NRSV"so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying 'Nothing beyond what is written'"
TEV"observe the proper rules"
NJB"nothing beyond what is written"

The phrase, "it is written" is commonly used in the NT to introduce OT quotes. Here it seems to introduce a well-known proverb. The possible interpretations are

1. an introduction to a quote from the OT (cf. 1:19,31; 3:19)

2. a party slogan of one of the factions at Corinth

3. "to observe the proper rules" (i.e., believers should live in submission to the Scriptures:

a. especially those Paul has quoted in chapters 1-3

b. not to go beyond the Scriptures like some of the Jewish false teachers)


NASB"so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other"
NKJV"that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other"
NRSV"so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another"
TEV"none of you should be proud of one person and despise another"
NJB"no individual among you must become filled with his own importance and make comparisons, to another's detriment"

The Greek term phusioō originally meant to inflate or puff up something (i.e., Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, p. 105, and Vincent, Word Studies, p. 766, from phusa - bellows). It came to be used in Christian literature (possibly coined by Paul) metaphorically for pride or arrogance. This was a major spiritual problem for the church at Corinth. Paul uses this word in I Cor. 4:6,18,19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4 and in a list of sins in II Cor. 12:20. It is only used outside the Corinthian letters in the NT in Col. 2:18, where it refers to Gnostic visions of special knowledge.

Believers must not arrogantly choose certain teachers over other teachers. They must judge proclaimers by the content of their message (I John 4:1-6) and their lifestyle (Matt. 7:1ff), not by their presentation nor their personality nor by their personal preferences nor by the human leaders they claim as their own (i.e., denomination).


NASB"For who regards you as superior"
NKJV"For who makes you differ from another"
NRSV"For who sees anything different in you"
TEV"Who made you superior to others"
NJB"Who made you so important"

The pronoun "you" and the verbs are singular in v. 7, but it is still an "any-of-you" context. The plural "you" continues in v. 8.

The Greek compound term diakrinō is used often in I Corinthians and in several senses.

1. to prefer or to confer a superiority (cf. 4:7)

2. to judge (cf. 6:5)

3. to make a distinction (cf. 11:29)

4. to examine (cf. 11:31; 14:29)

5. to discern (the noun form of diakrisis, cf. 12:10)

The related compound anakrinō is used in 2:15 (twice); 4:3,4 and 14:24. The proper evaluation process between believers and leaders and between leaders and leaders was crucial for the church at Corinth.

This question/answer format is a typical method of Paul's teaching known as "diatribe." It is a common OT (cf. Malachi) and rabbinical technique. Paul seems to be addressing the proud leaders of the factious groups (possibly house churches).

▣ "What do you have that you did not receive" Paul is reminding these proud leaders that they were not the originators or discoverers of truth, but recipients of other's ministry.

▣ "if" This is a first class conditional sentence, which is assumed to be true from the point of view of the writer or for his literary purposes. This is the third rhetorical question of v. 7. Some leaders and their followers were acting as if they were the source of the truths they proclaimed. Another problem of Corinth was human boasting (cf. 1:29,31; 3:21; 4:7; 13:4). See Special Topic at 5:6.

You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.

4:8-13 This is shocking sarcasm!


NASB"You are already filled"
NKJV"You are already full"
NRSV"Already you have all you want"
TEV"Do you already have everything you need"
NJB"you have everything"

The pronoun "you" is plural in vv. 8,10. This term "filled" is normally used of physical eating (cf. Acts 27:38), but here is it a metaphor (cf. Matt. 5:6) of spiritual pride. Verse 8 can be three questions (cf. TEV) or three statements (cf. NASB, NKJV, RSV, and REB). These are a series of sarcastic statements or questions that reveal the pride of the Corinthian factious leaders. They thought they had arrived (i.e., perfect passive periphrastic). Paul wished they had, but it was not true; their actions revealed their maturity level (i.e., babies in Christ).

"kings. . .reign" Paul is using eschatological imagery to jolt the leaders' arrogant self-sufficiency. In Christ all believers will co-reign with King Jesus, but only after the Second Coming. These leaders considered themselves as already reigning, spiritually speaking.

4:9 "God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death" This verse is an illustration taken from a Roman Triumphal March (cf. Col. 2:15), where condemned prisoners (i.e., usually later killed in the Roman arena, cf. 15:32) were displayed last in a Roman victory parade.


"we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men" Paul is referring to the difficult task of preaching the gospel (cf. II Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10; 11:23-30).

The phrase "to angels" may be linked to Eph. 2:7; 3:10. God has revealed Himself to the angelic world by His actions towards humans (cf. I Pet. 1:12).

4:10 "We are fools for Christ's sake" God's wisdom is foolishness to the world, even sometimes to arrogant Christians. For "fools" see note at 1:25 and Special Topic at 15:36.

▣ "but you are prudent in Christ. . .but you are strong; you are distinguished" This is biting sarcasm which continues from vv. 7-9.

▣ "weak" See SPECIAL TOPIC: WEAKNESS at II Cor. 12:9.

4:11 "To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless" These verses reflect Paul's own experience (cf. II Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10 and 11:23-30, also notice Hebrews 11:34-38). He wrote I Corinthians from Ephesus.

4:12 "we toil, working with our own hands" This reflects the Jewish emphasis on the appropriateness of manual labor (cf. Acts 18:3; 20:34; I Thess. 2:9; II Thess. 3:8). It was depreciated by Greek culture, including the church at Corinth.

"when we are reviled, we bless" Paul is reflecting the teachings of Jesus (cf. Matt. 5:10-12; I Pet. 2:23). The term "reviled" (i.e., loidoreō) is also included in the list of sins in I Cor. 5:11 and 6:10 (i.e., loidoros). Vincent, Word Studies, says this term refers to personal verbal abuse, while the term "slandered" (i.e., dusphēmeō, cf. v. 13) means public defamation (cf. 4:13; II Cor. 6:8). I have not been able to confirm this distinction. They both are part of a large number of Koine Greek terms used in the semantical category of "insult and slander" (cf. Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, vol. 1, pp. 433-434).

Paul experienced verbal abuse from many false teachers, but it was the church at Corinth that must have wounded him the most. A group of people whom he personally led to Christ became his most vocal slanderers.

4:13 "conciliate" See full note at II Cor. 1:4-11.

NASB"we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things"
NKJV"we have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things"
NRSV"we have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things"
TEV"we are no more than the world's garbage; we are the scum of the earth"
NJB"we are treated even now as the dregs of the world, the very lowest scum"

This paragraph (vv. 8-13) shows Paul's personal pain involved in preaching the gospel. He felt humiliated and rejected not only by the unbelieving, but by these arrogant Corinthian leaders.

The first phrase "scum of the world" referred to what was left over after the cleaning of kitchen utensils. It is literally "to cleanse all around on all sides." In defining these rare synonyms the question of the origin of Paul's metaphors is crucial.

1. If he uses the OT background as expressed through the Greek translation, the Septuagint, this term is used of a thorough cleansing and thereby a ransoming (cf. Pro. 21:18). Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker's Greek/English Lexicon, p. 647, and A. T. Robertson's Word Pictures, p. 108, suggest it could be understood as "scapegoat," possibly from its use in Tobit 5:19.

2. If he is using Helenistic background the two terms in v. 13 are synonymous of that which is removed by a thorough cleaning.

3. If he is using them metaphorically then they both simply refer to humility (cf. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker's Greek/English Lexicon, p. 653).

The second phrase "dregs of all things" also refers to that which had been scraped out in the cleansing process. These two terms are synonymous. They are strong terms, but were used as metaphors or idioms. Possibly they are so strong and colorful to us because they are rare terms. They help intensify Paul's sarcasm.

I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 18Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. 20For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. 21What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?

4:14 "I do not write these things to shame you" Verses 8-13 have been very sarcastic. Paul feels they should be ashamed (cf. 6:5; 15:34). It is uncertain if this paragraph (i.e., vv. 14-24) points backward (i.e., chapters 1-4) or forward. They had much to be ashamed of.

"but to admonish you as my beloved children" Paul is using the metaphor of child training to encourage the Corinthians (cf. Eph. 6:4). This is a compound Greek word (i.e., "mind" plus "to place") used to remind (cf. 10:11 and Titus 3:10). A related term (i.e., "with" plus "remembrance") is used in v. 17; 11:24-25; II Cor. 7:15.

4:15 "if" This is a third class conditional sentence which means potential action.

NASB"countless tutors"
NKJV"ten thousand instructors"
NRSV, TEV"ten thousand guardians"
NJB"ten thousand slaves to look after you"

This is literally "slave tutors" (cf. Gal. 3:24). These slaves were responsible for accompanying the older male children to school, teaching them at home, and guarding them from danger.

"fathers. . .father" This is Paul's metaphor for describing himself as the evangelist who initially led them to faith in Christ. This deserves some respect and priority!

4:16 "I exhort you, be imitators of me" This is a present middle (deponent) imperative. We get our English word "mimic" from this Greek term "imitator." Paul lived his faith (cf. I Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; I Thess. 1:6; 3:9) and he called on these Corinthian church leaders to do the same.

▣ "exhort" See SPECIAL TOPIC: COMFORT at I Cor. 1:10.

4:17 "I have sent to you Timothy" We have no other biblical information on this visit. Timothy was converted on Paul's first missionary journey and recruited as a helper on the second. He became Paul's trusted friend, companion, co-worker, and apostolic representative. Sending Timothy showed Paul's love and concern for this church. But Paul worries about how some in the church would treat his young friend and personal representative, Timothy (cf. 16:10-11). See SPECIAL TOPIC: TIMOTHY at II Cor. 1:1.

▣ "just as I teach everywhere in every church" Paul wanted to emphasize that the Corinthian church had been given the same teachings as all the other churches (cf. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). They were not special or advanced. They did not have the right to be different, novel, or avant garde. See Special Topic: Church at 1:2.

4:18-21 This is Paul's future travel plans, as they relate to Corinth. He does this because some in the church are using Paul's absence as a means of attack (cf. v. 18). They were asserting that (1) Paul's absence was a sign that he did not really care about this church or (2) he never followed through on his promises.

4:18 "some have become arrogant" Paul has uses this term three times in this chapter (i.e., vv. 6,18,19) and several times in the Corinthian letters (cf. I Cor. 5:2; 8:1; 13:4 and II Cor. 12:20). This was a special problem for this church. See note at 4:6.

4:19 "I will come to you soon" Paul returned again and again to strengthen the churches he started (cf. 11:34; 16:5). Paul wanted to come to them, but his life was not his own. He must seek and follow the Spirit's direction (cf. Acts 16:6).

▣ "if the Lord wills" This is a third class conditional sentence, which means potential action. This was no meaningless phrase for Paul (cf. 16:7; Acts 18:21; Rom. 1:10; 15:32).

NASB"and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power"
NKJV"and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power"
NRSV"and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power"
TEV"and then I will find out for myself the power which these proud people have, and not just what they say"
NJB"and then I shall find out not what these self-important people say, but what power they have"

The false teachers were eloquent in their speech but powerless in the results (cf. Matthew 7).

4:20 "kingdom of God" Paul does not use this concept as much as Jesus did (i.e., mostly in the Synoptic Gospels). It refers to God's reign in human hearts now (cf. Rom. 14:17), which will one day be consummated over all the earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt. 6:10). Paul uses this phrase more in I Corinthians (cf. 4:20; 6:9; 15:24,50) than any other of his writings. These believers needed to know that they were part of a larger Christian agenda (cf. v. 17).


"does not consist in words but in power" To put this truth in an American proverb, "actions speak louder than words" or "the proof is in the pudding."

4:21 "rod" This refers to the tutor's stick (cf. 4:15). This church had to decide if Paul was to come as a disciplining father or a forgiving father. Their actions determined his approach.

▣ "a spirit of gentleness" In Synonyms of the Old Testament Robert Girdlestone has an interesting discussion of the uses of the term "spirit" in the NT (pp. 61-63).

"1. evil spirits

2. the human spirit

3. the Holy Spirit

4. things that the Spirit produces in and through human spirits

a. 'not a spirit of slavery vs. a spirit of adoption' - Rom. 8:15

b. 'a spirit of gentleness' - I Cor. 4:21

c. 'a spirit of faith' - II Cor. 4:13

d. 'a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him' - Eph. 1:17

e. 'not a spirit of timidity vs. power, love and discipline' - II Tim. 1:7

f. 'spirit of error' vs. 'spirit of truth' - I John 4:6"

See another note on "spirit" at II Cor. 4:13.

The Jerome Bible Commentary, NT, p. 260, mentions that this last sentence in v. 21 may be an allusion to Job 37:13.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. Why are believers not to judge themselves nor allow others to do so? How does this relate to our Christian witness?

2. What does the paragraph, verses 6-13, say about the motives and lifestyle of modern ministers?

3. Define the term "Kingdom of God."

4. Identify and explain Paul's use of ironical sarcasm in this chapter.


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