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7. Follow the Leader (1 Cor. 4:1-21)


The Corinthian church has a leadership crisis. Small cliques have attached themselves to leaders in whom they take pride. Highly regarded in the secular world, these leaders are chosen because of their message and their methods. Their content is thought to be the essence of wisdom. Their methods are powerful. Viewed simply from the standpoint of numbers, the church may be experiencing significant growth.

From Paul’s statements in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, one would suppose that each clique is a personal following of one of the apostles, of Paul, Apollos, or Peter. We should already have concluded that the apostles themselves are not the problem. They are not competing with one another for positions of power and prominence.51 If we think the rivalry at Corinth is between the followers of certain apostles like Paul or Apollos or Peter, Paul has a surprise for us in chapter 4. Here, in verse 6, Paul indicates that the real cliques have been established around personal allegiance to certain unnamed men, who are not apostles. As the two Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians continue to unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that some of these leaders are spiritual (1 Corinthians 14:37-38), and some are not even believers, but rather “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

In contrast to the “leadership” of these cult-like leaders, we find the Apostle Paul. In chapter 4, Paul speaks of himself, along with his fellow-apostles, and informs the Corinthians about the way in which he and his colleagues should be regarded (4:1-5). He then exposes the real leadership problem at Corinth, outlining the dramatic contrast between the way the Corinthians view themselves and the way they view Paul (4:6-13). Verses 14-17 express Paul’s emotional appeal to the Corinthians to heed his instruction and to follow his leadership. The final verses (18-21) contain a warning for those who will not repent of their error. Paul will come to them, and if need be, he will come with “ a rod.”

The Context of our Text

After his introductory words (1:1-9), Paul brings up the problem of divisions among the Corinthians. From 1:10—3:9, Paul approaches the problem in terms of principle. He shows that the basis for the divisions in Corinth is contradictory to the gospel as it is expounded in the Scriptures. In 1:10—3:9, Paul attacks the Corinthian schisms theologically; now, beginning at 3:10, Paul spells out specific corrective measures which must be taken to set this matter right. Here, Paul is not only calling for repentance, but spelling out the form repentance must take.

Paul indicates in 3:10 that each Christian must be careful how he or she builds upon the foundation which Paul has laid. The ministry of each believer is described as the construction of a portion of “God’s building” (3:9). Each believer is a workman, assigned with the construction of a certain portion. Each must build on the foundation Paul has laid. Both the materials and the workmanship of each believer must be of the highest quality. If the workman’s work endures, he will receive a reward from God (3:13-14). If the workman’s construction is detrimental and destructive to the “temple of God” (verses 16-17), Paul warns that God will destroy this workman. It is clear from the context that this does not refer to his eternal damnation (see verse 15), but it must surely speak of earthly judgment (5:5), and of loss of eternal rewards (3:15).

In 3:18-23, Paul warns the Corinthians not to deceive themselves by thinking themselves to be wise in this age. This worldly wisdom is “folly” to God and actually the means of our own downfall (3:19-20). We must therefore become truly wise by becoming a fool in this age (3:18). Knowing that the wisdom which comes from men is foolish to God, one must certainly cease boasting in men (3:21-23), as though they are the means to divine wisdom. Rather than taking pride in belonging to a certain group and a particular leader, the Corinthians should rejoice that in Christ they possess all things, and they belong only to God.

Now, in 4:1-5, Paul sets down yet another manifestation of the repentance which God desires and requires from the Corinthians. Let us listen well to these words of the Apostle Paul, knowing that what God required of the Corinthians, He also requires of us. Let us seek not only to discern the strong words of this apostle, but also his warmth of heart and his gentle spirit. Here is a man who is a model leader, a model for all to follow.

Simply Stewards

1 Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore 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.

The Corinthians had given themselves to one leader, a leader whom they elevated to the place which rightly belongs only to our Lord. Speaking for himself and for the other true apostles, Paul seeks to revise their perception of leaders. Even those whom God had appointed as apostles are to be regarded as servants, not as masters. Paul made this point earlier in chapter 3, verse 5: “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.”

In this verse (3:5), Paul employs the first of three Greek terms for a servant, which he will employ in reference to himself and the other apostles. Diakonos is a common term for servant, which on a few occasions refers to the office of deacon. The term for servant in 4:1 is hyperetes,52 which refers to a slave who was seated under the deck of a ship and was one of a number of rowers, by whom the ship was propelled. It is not a position of status, and thus Paul employed this term to emphasize the humble service of the apostles. The third term, oikonomos, is rendered “steward.” The steward was also a slave, but one given a higher authority, under his master:

The oikonomos (oikos and nemein) was the responsible head of the establishment, assigning to each slave his duties and entrusted with the administration of the stores. He was a slave in relation to his master (Luke xii. 42), but the epitropos or overseer (Matt. xx. 8) in relation to the workmen.”53

Thus the Corinthians must take their leader off the pedestal on which they had placed him (or her). Even apostles are mere men, who have been chosen and appointed by God to be His servants, and to whom He has given authority to serve as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” These words are pregnant with meaning, but we will only mention several important nuances. First, the apostles are servants. Servants do not own things; they are owned by their Master. As servants, the apostles did not own or possess their followers as the false teachers seemed to do, and as their followers even boasted (“We are of …”). As stewards, the apostles had a certain authority to act in behalf of their Master, but they are still slaves, servants of Christ. As slaves and stewards, the apostles are not intent on pleasing men (see Galatians 1:10), but on pleasing the Master. The Lord is their Master, and He will be their Judge. They will give account to Him for their stewardship, and the standard for judgment is their faithfulness in fulfilling their stewardship.

In verses 3 and 4, Paul now pursues the matter of the judgment of himself and the other apostles as God’s stewards. He is conveying to the Corinthians the inherent weaknesses in human judgment. Paul informs them that he is not overly influenced by their judgment of his faithfulness to his calling as an apostle. He does so, not by directly attacking their ability to judge him, but rather by pointing out his own limitations in judging himself. If Paul cannot rely completely on his own self-evaluation, then how can he be heavily influenced by the judgment of the Corinthians, whose knowledge of Paul is much more limited? Paul can search his conscience to see if there is something worthy of an indictment, but even if his conscience gives him a clean bill of health, his conscience may be ill-informed. Consequently, the only One who is completely qualified to judge Paul is his Master. It is the Lord who examines him.

If human judgment is fallible, then Paul can rightly instruct the Corinthians to refrain from making final judgments, which should be left to God. This he does in verse 5. “Therefore” indicates that the instructions Paul gives here are the conclusion (or the application) of his argument in verses 1-4. When he says, “do not go on passing judgment,” we know that the Corinthians are passing judgment, and Paul is instructing them to cease doing so.

How can Paul instruct us to cease judging, when we know there are times when we must judge? What is wrong with the Corinthians’ judging that might not be wrong with other judgments? Let us pause for a moment to consider what the Bible as a whole has to say on the subject of judging. We are required to judge many things. Let me mention some of them. The Book of Proverbs is written to enable us to discern character, and various character types are vividly described: the naive, simple or gullible, the fool, the sluggard, and the scoffer. Contrasted with these is the wise. We are to deal with a person according to their character, and thus we must judge character, based upon the descriptions given in Scripture. We are to judge sin, which is clearly defined in the Scriptures, and clearly evident in our life (1 Corinthians 11:17-31) and in the life of another (1 Corinthians 5). We are also to make judgments on spiritual matters involving believers (1 Corinthians 6). We are to judge the doctrinal truth of what we are taught (Acts 17:10-11).

There are also things we must not judge. We are not to judge the convictions of a brother in the Lord, since these are not matters of biblically defined sin, but of liberties (Romans 14:4). Neither are we to judge or speak against a brother in any matter which the Scriptures have not defined as sin, and for which we have no biblical support. To do so is to place ourselves above the Word of God and to pass judgment on God’s law and God, the Lawgiver and the Judge (James 4:11-12).

When God calls upon the saints to judge, they do so in God’s behalf (Matthew 18:18-19). When we wrongly judge, we judge in God’s place (James 4:11-12). In our text, Paul is forbidding men to judge in God’s place, passing judgment upon those things which God alone can judge. The judgment which does not belong to men is that which will be done by our Lord in the day of judgment, when He returns to the earth to establish His kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). We dare not “go on passing judgment” before “the time” (4:5). The judgment Paul forbids is God’s judgment, a judgment to be carried out by God in His appointed time. This judgment is God’s judgment alone, because it is that which only God can perform.

Verse 5 characterizes the judgment of which Paul speaks: it is divine judgment, the judgment God Himself will pronounce. Here is the judgment of believers in Jesus Christ, not the judgment of unbelievers. The outcome of this is not punishment, but rewards. In order to exalt one leader, the Corinthians find it necessary to judge and condemn the rest. Paul speaks of rewards, of God’s praise, for all. It is a future judgment which will occur when the Lord comes. It is the final judgment, the final verdict, when all the results are in. Our judgment is temporal and incomplete; it is not final, nor can it be. Let me seek to illustrate what this means. During the recent elections, television networks continued to give updated results, as the precincts closed and votes were counted and reported. After a while, certain trends became apparent, and winners were “predicted” and announced as such. While such predictions are usually accurate, the final outcome cannot be determined until all the precinct voting places have closed and all the ballots have been counted. Our judgment is not the final verdict. Such pronouncements belong only to God.

When God passes judgment in that coming day, it will result in praise. That praise will be given for things unknown and unknowable to us.54 Paul tells us that God’s judgment will occur when He reveals or brings to light “things hidden in the darkness” and when He discloses “the motives of men’s hearts.” These “heart motives” and “things hidden in the darkness” are not just the wrong and sinful things invisible to the human eye, but also the wholesome and commendable things we cannot see or know. Only God can reveal these things, and reveal them He will! Until then, we do not have sufficient information on which to make a final judgment.

Paul instructs the Corinthian saints to cease judging their fellow servants because they do not have sufficient data on which to base a judgment now. The arrogant, boastful Corinthians who are judging actually think they are wise enough to judge in God’s place. They base their judgments on outward appearances, a very dangerous thing to do (see Luke 16:15). No wonder we will soon find Paul insisting that all do not possess gifts which produce visible results (1 Corinthians 12:29-30). These are the gifts the boastful Corinthians hold in such high esteem, because those granted such gifts are able to produce visible results, and thus judged spiritually superior by their fellow-saints.

One thing remains vague in what Paul says, something we must infer from the context: what are the Corinthians judging about which they are told to cease passing judgment? It seems evident that it is making a final and decisive judgment on the success and quality of the ministry of an apostle of our Lord. Paul warns these Corinthians (who are themselves “servants” of Christ) not to keep on passing judgment on the service of those servants who are apostles, and in so doing condemning apostolic leadership, while choosing to follow a particular favorite leader. Just who these individuals are becomes more and more clear as Paul’s epistles fill in further details.

A Surprising Revelation

6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, 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. 10 We 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. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.

Centuries before the days of Paul and the Corinthians, Nathan the prophet provided us an excellent example of indirect confrontation. David had sinned greatly, not only by taking Bathsheba in an adulterous act, but by also attempting to cover up his sin of the thinly-veiled murder of her husband. When Nathan confronted David, he did not immediately accuse him of his sins. Instead, he approached David with the story of a poor man whose only lamb was taken away by a very rich man. David was incensed and demanded that this “sinner” be brought to justice. Only then did Nathan disclose that this story was but a parable, and that the guilty man was none other than King David. David confessed his sin and was forgiven, although serious consequences followed. The indirect approach of Nathan was effective as it committed David to a righteous course of action in principle when it did not appear to relate personally to him. Once David embraced the matter in principle, Nathan spelled it out to the king in very personal terms.

Paul does something very similar in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians have a problem of divisions in the church, divisions based upon undue attachment to a particular leader, one that leads to the rejection (or at least disdain) of other leaders. The leader they follow is a great source of pride to these cultic cliques. They boast of belonging to a particular person as their leader. Paul first deals with the matter in principle, contrasting the gospel, weak and foolish in the eyes of the unbelieving world, with the false wisdom and power of those who are considered leaders in the secular world.

Paul also addresses the problem of divisions at Corinth in terms of personalities: Paul, Apollos, Cephas [Peter], and Christ (1:12), and then later just in terms of himself (Paul) and Apollos in 3:4-5. Paul and Apollos are not competitors but co-workers, in the kingdom of God. Each has his unique role to play. Paul was first at Corinth, and so he speaks of himself as the one who sowed the seed of the gospel there. Later, Apollos arrived at Corinth, and so Paul speaks of him as the one who waters (3:6). Both are laboring in the same cause of the gospel. Both are “one.” And each has his own distinct role to play, just as each will receive his own rewards. There is unity in diversity as seen in the relationship of Paul and Apollos. How can any attempt be made to play them against each other?

Now in verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul has a surprise for his readers. The problem is not between the apostles, or even between any who might claim to be followers of a particular apostle as opposed to the rest. Paul speaks of the apostles—particularly of himself and Apollos because both ministered at Corinth—in a figurative way. The apostles are used as a kind of parable or analogy. From what he has said about his relationship with Apollos, Paul hopes to turn the Corinthians from the folly of attaching themselves to one leader, while opposing the rest. He speaks of himself and Apollos so that they might learn in themnot to exceed what is written,” which in turn will keep them from boasting in one man over and above another.

For the moment, let us dwell on Paul’s general statement, and then move on to the particulars of Paul’s argument in support of his general statements. The real problem at Corinth is not between any of the apostles or their alleged followers. The real problem is divisions and cliques which center about others. Paul’s teaching to this point in the first Epistle to the Corinthians is intended to draw men’s attention and commitment to the Scriptures, to “what is written.” The Corinthians departed from the Scriptures, and in so doing, proudly boasted of their attachment to a certain leader and their disdain for others. In verses 1-4 of chapter 3, Paul exposes the carnality of the Corinthians and offers as evidence of their condition their weakness in handling the Word and their attachment to men. Now, Paul indicates that carnal Christians attach themselves to men because they have gone beyond the Scriptures to find truth and wisdom.

In a general way, these Corinthians have become arrogant in behalf of one against another. In verse 7, Paul becomes much more specific: the Corinthians have become arrogant against the apostles. Verses 7-13 are a graphic description of how the Corinthians look at themselves and, in contrast, how they look at Paul and his fellow-apostles.

Paul raises three very crucial questions in verse 7 which, if answered correctly by the Corinthians, will expose the seriousness of their self-deception and sin. Paul first asks, “Who regards you as superior?” Who is their judge? If the Corinthians are so high and mighty, who thinks this? Is it the unbelieving community? God is their judge, not the corrupt Corinthians of that day. Paul asks yet another question: “What do you have that you did not receive?” Do the Corinthians boast in their abilities? Where did these abilities come from? If they were given, and they were, then they were given by God. If the Corinthians are boasting in their God-given gifts, then they are boasting in God’s place. They have the wrong judge, and they have the wrong object of praise. Men have taken the place of God.

There is then a third and final question: “If all that the Corinthians possess is a God-given gift, then how can they boast, as if it were not a gift?” The Corinthians think themselves so wise. They are arrogant and boastful. Yet, if they are so wise, how can they be so foolish as to take credit for something they were given, as though they were not the recipients of a gift? They have forgotten—or worse yet, they have forsaken—grace. These all-wise Corinthians are self-deceived.

In verse 8, by divine inspiration and enablement, Paul virtually reads the minds of his audience and describes the way they look on themselves. They are “already” filled; they have “already” become rich. Indeed, they have become kings. These Corinthians are much like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked’” (Revelation 3:17).

The word “already,” used twice by Paul in verse 8, is most enlightening. It indicates that in their minds, the Corinthians have “already” arrived. It will soon be clear that Paul and the other apostles have not. How can this be? How can the carnal Corinthians think they have arrived when the apostles have not?

In effect, the Corinthians think that they have already” entered into the kingdom; they have “already entered into the full benefits and blessings of Christ’s work at Calvary. They are not unlike a number of professing Christians today, who argue that all of the blessings resulting from Christ’s work on the cross are our present possession, and that all we need do is have the faith to claim them. They claim to possess them and look down upon all who do not. They also claim that those who do not possess them suffer and are afflicted in this life and do not experience success and the good life here and now.

Such thinking contradicts the clear teaching of our Lord and of his apostles. Jesus clearly speaks of suffering and adversity in this life, and the glories of His kingdom in the next, as did all of the apostles:

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me (Philippians 1:27-30).

10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).

And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12-13).

How can these Corinthians miss the fact that if we identify with Christ in this age, we will suffer rejection, persecution, and affliction, but with the assurance of entering into the blessings of His kingdom when He comes? The answer is quite simple. First, Paul has already told us that these Corinthians need to learn not to “go beyond what is written.” They are wrong because they have forsaken the Scriptures as the only source of divine truth. Second, they have twisted the Scriptures pertaining to prophecy and future things. Like many others in New Testament times (not to mention our own), they have distorted the doctrine of the resurrection, future judgment, and the blessings of Christ’s kingdom:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12).

That you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

Men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:18).

3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).

If the Corinthians, boasting in their worldly wisdom, think they have arrived, they are equally convinced the apostles have not. Judgmentally, they look down upon the apostles in their suffering and humble service. Paul paints the picture of the Corinthians, sitting “on high” looking down from their lofty heights, disdaining the apostles who are a shame and a reproach to them. Paul says God has exhibited the apostles before the world as those condemned to die, as those being led to their execution. They are a spectacle to angels and to men. The apostles are fools; the Corinthians are wise. The apostles are weak; the Corinthians are strong. The Corinthians are distinguished; the apostles are without honor (verse 10).

Paul’s description of the apostles in verse 11 sounds remarkably like a description of the lowest rung of our own social ladder today. It also sounds like the men and women I have seen in prisons and in the skid road missions in various parts of this country. They are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, and homeless. Though not said, it takes little imagination to picture the contrasting condition of the Corinthians. In today’s terms, the Corinthians are like many of the televangelists of our time. They are well fed, impeccably dressed, highly esteemed (this may be changing), often possessing several expensive homes, indeed, mansions.

Even more amazing is the response of Paul and his fellow apostles to the abusive treatment of the world, and even some in the church. This response is described in verses 12 and 13. Rather than living like kings off of the saints, Paul labors with his own hands. He is not supported by those whom he serves; rather, he supports them (Acts 18:3; 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). When the apostles are reviled, they give a blessing in return. When persecuted, they endure. When slandered, they seek to conciliate. In spite of this—or perhaps, because of this—they are regarded as the scum of the world, the dregs, the bottom of the social barrel.

In some ways, those who have raised teenagers may identify somewhat with Paul’s words. Parents invest their lives in their children. They do without so their children might have what they need. In the early days of childhood, the children depend upon their parents; they cling to them. But when the teenage years arrive, teens begin to think of their parents as a liability, rather than an asset. They prefer to be seen apart from their parents than with them. This is the same way the Corinthians look upon and treat Paul, only worse.

A Fatherly Appeal and a Word of Warning

14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For 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. 16 I exhort you therefore, 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. 18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But 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. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. 21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?

Paul’s response to the Corinthians is nothing less than amazing, an example of what he has just said in verses 12 and 13. Paul is a model leader. He is a very different leader from those whom some Corinthians are choosing to follow:

19 For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. 20 For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. 21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).

The unholy leaders whom some find so appealing are authoritarian leaders. They are men who lead in the same way the pagans ruled over others (see Mark 10:42). They push people around, and their followers love it.

Paul’s words in verses 14-17 are a dramatic contrast to this kind of leadership. He does not seek to shame them, or put a guilt trip on them. Guilt is profitable when it is a response to sin, and when it leads to repentance. But the fuel on which the ministry and life of the church runs is not guilt, but grace. Paul’s epistle is not written to shame the Corinthians, but to warn them of the direction in which they are heading, and to urge them to turn around. Paul speaks to them not as a “lord,” but as their father, and that he is, for many came to faith through his ministry.

Paul could command them to follow certain rules, but here he exhorts them to follow him, to follow his example (verse 16). While Paul cannot be present with the Corinthians, he does send his finest gift—Timothy (see Philippians 2:19-24). Timothy will remind them of what they have already seen and heard from Paul. He will remind them of Paul’s conduct (his ways) and of his teaching, which are in Christ. Paul’s preaching is fleshed out by his practice. Paul can not only say, “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do.” Paul practices what he preaches. Timothy will remind the Corinthians of these matters. Furthermore, Timothy’s reminder of Paul’s teaching and conduct will be exactly the same message as he and Paul teach in any other church: “Just as I teach everywhere in every church.” This is a very important statement, which contradicts all those who tell us that Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are uniquely fashioned for this one situation, but not for other churches. That is not what Paul says. His teaching and his practice are consistent in every church.

Are there those who will not heed Paul’s gentle plea for repentance? Are there those who have somehow become bold in Paul’s absence, convinced that they will never see him again? With Paul gone, some Corinthian leaders are beginning to reign roughshod over their followers. How bold they are in Paul’s absence! For such folks, Paul has a stronger word of warning: “Look out! I am coming soon, and when I come, I will be as tough as I have to be.”

Paul’s intent is to come as quickly to Corinth as he can. His desire is that the saints there have heeded his written warnings and made right the things in which they are wrong. If such is the case, Paul can expect to come and be warmly received, forgetting the sins of the past. But if there is no repentance, if those who oppose him persist, Paul will come in power, and he will then use his apostolic authority to deal with them. The eloquent speech of these leaders will not be enough when Paul arrives, for he will expose their lack of real spiritual power.

Timothy will come shortly. But soon, Paul is coming to Corinth. How do they want him to come? Do they wish to have him come with love and a spirit of gentleness, made possible by their repentance? Or, do they wish him to come with the rod of correction? The choice is theirs.


Paul’s words to the Corinthians are for us as well, and they have much to say. Let me conclude by suggesting some of the implications of our text.

(1) Paul’s words speak volumes on the subject of leadership. I hear a great deal about leadership in the church these days. Sadly, most of what is said is from the secular wisdom of this world. We seem to hear more from Peter Drucker than from Jesus or from Paul. What is said that “sounds” spiritual is usually secular at its core—with a sugar coating of spiritual terminology, proof-texted by some passage, strained beyond its meaning or intent.

Paul attributes the leadership which many Corinthians follow to the secular wisdom and power of the day. These are the leaders whose followers disdain and even reject the apostles. Paul’s leadership is described as a radical contrast to this worldly-wise leadership. We are told that a leader is “one who has followers.” Leadership, by this definition, is not a matter of divine calling or of Christ-like character. Paul must have overlooked something very important, then, when he spelled out the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Peter too must have missed the mark in the fifth chapter of 1 Peter.

If I could take up the text of 1 Corinthians 4 and wring it out like a wet rag, it would virtually ooze with Christ, “Christ crucified.” In verses 1-5, Paul speaks of himself and the other apostles as servants and stewards, and he urges the Corinthians to hold up on judgments they cannot and should not be making. I find this reminiscent of our Lord:

Jesus therefore said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me” (John 8:28).

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me” (John 8:42).

“For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak” (John 12:49).

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:10).

“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

47 “And if anyone hears My sayings, and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:47-48).

Were the apostles homeless? So was our Lord:

57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:57-58).

Are Paul and his apostolic colleagues despised and rejected, the scum of the earth? So was the Lord Jesus Christ. Are they exhibited as those condemned to death? So was our Lord:

3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:3-6).

When the apostles are abused, mistreated, and wrongly accused, do they respond graciously, seeking reconciliation? So did our Lord.

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

The apostles are simply living out the life of Christ: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This is exactly what we are called, and even commanded, to do. Paul instructs the Corinthians to be imitators of him (1 Corinthians 4:16). In the context of his words, we see that he is calling upon us to suffer for Christ’s sake, to “take up our cross daily,” and to follow Him. The cross is not merely the means by which we are saved; it is the basis for our sanctification, and it is the paradigm for our daily lives. The foolishness and the weakness of the gospel is that which we not only embrace to be saved, but which we embrace as the model for our lives. No wonder Paul forsakes secular leadership principles and turns us to Christ. To do this is not drudgery; it is a joy and a privilege:

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me (Philippians 1:29-30).

8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).

(2) Paul’s words caution us about seeking to please men, rather than God, and striving to do those things which appear to be successful and worthwhile. There is a time to judge ourselves and others. But here Paul warns of the danger of judging others. He even warns of the danger of judging oneself. The Corinthians want to possess those spiritual gifts which are verbal and visible, the gifts many think are the best. Paul shocks them by challenging their system of evaluating the importance of the gifts in chapter 12. He seeks to encourage those with seemingly insignificant gifts that they indeed play a most vital role in the body of Christ. Let us be careful that we do not gauge our effectiveness on the basis of what others say, or even on the basis of what we think or feel. Our task is not to succeed, but as servants and stewards to fulfill the calling which God has given us. Our work may not seem successful, significant, or effective, but neither did our Lord’s word win the approval of men. Paul too looks a miserable failure. But today is not the time to judge the results of our ministry, and we are not the ones to judge such things. Let us leave these matters to God and faithfully continue to fulfill our stewardship.

(3) Paul’s words exhort us to live in the light of the second coming. To Paul, what we do in the present is very important, but only when considered in the light of eternity. The Corinthians err in assuming that they presently possess those blessings God provides and promises for the future. They fail to understand that those who are men and women of faith must be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake in this age, so that they can enter into His glory in the next. This is the theme of the Book of Hebrews, and the point of all those named in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. The unbelieving world, with its “wisdom” and “power” is all of this age. The Christian’s “world” includes this age and the one to come. We are to live in this age in the light of the next. The unbeliever lives only for the present. Eschatology (the doctrine of future things—prophecy) has very important implications for godly living in this present age.

(4) Paul’s teaching in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians is an example of godly leadership and a model for us in dealing with problems in the church. The church at Corinth has many problems, but in the light of eternity, we probably have just as many in our own church today. Paul could have come on like gangbusters, wielding his apostolic authority by naming names and calling out orders. He could have gone straight to Corinth and “had it out” with the problem people. Paul’s dealings with those in the wrong at Corinth are an example of his instructions to Timothy in handling problem people at Ephesus:

21 Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:21-26).

How could Paul be more gentle than he is with the Corinthians? He exposes the problem and then deals with it in principle, rather than in terms of personalities. When he does name names, they are only figurative analogies so that the real culprits remain unnamed. Finally, Paul clearly exposes the problem: little groups of arrogant Christians are proudly following leaders who use secular means and who proclaim a secular message, turning believers from the truths of the Word and the simplicity of the gospel. These folks have come to think too highly of themselves and too poorly of Paul and his fellow-apostles. And yet even now, Paul admonishes them as their father, seeking to bring about repentance and reconciliation without the use of more aggressive means. Only as a last resort does Paul threaten the use of these more forceful means. Here is a different breed of leader, a leader who is like Christ, and a leader whom all of us should seek to imitate. Let us learn to deal with problems as graciously as Paul.

(5) Finally, Paul’s teaching in chapters 1-4 lays the foundation for what he is about to say in chapters 5 and following. There are many specific problems in Corinth which need correction. The next matter Paul must address is incest in the church (chapter 5). Why does Paul not begin with this problem? It is because right thinking precedes right conduct. The Corinthians are misbehaving because they are weak in their grasp of the Word. Paul’s first four chapters are about the right foundation. The Corinthians must see that God’s Word is true wisdom, and that God’s power is displayed through human weakness. They must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation for all life and ministry in the church. Christ crucified is the foundation and the standard for all church life. And the good news of the gospel is that which humbles us, breaking our pride and arrogance. Only when these fundamental matters are set straight does Paul move on to address particular problems. Right thinking precedes right conduct. Right thinking comes from the Word of God as we are illuminated and empowered by the Spirit of God. May we be men and women of the Word, filled with His Spirit.

51 One could not have said this of the disciples before the crucifixion and ascension of our Lord, for in those days of His earthly ministry, they were competitive with each other (see Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45).

52 It is significant that this term is employed by Paul, especially in the light of Paul’s testimony in Acts 26:16: “‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister [hypereten] and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you.’” The first words our Lord spoke to Paul on that Damascus road characterized his ministry as an apostle as that of lowly service. No doubt this influenced his choice of words in verse 1. “The word [hyperetas] originally denotes those who … in the lower tier of a trireme, and then came to mean those who do anything under another, and hence simply ‘underlings.’” Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), p. 74.

53 Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, p. 74.

54 Knowing that the final judgment of our service comes from the Lord when He returns, and that it is based upon things we cannot see or know at present, helps to explain two texts in the Gospel of Matthew. This principle Paul sets down concerning the future judgment of men explains why both believers and unbelievers are surprised and taken back by the final judgment of God. In Matthew 7:15-23, our Lord revealed that many self-righteous religious leaders would be rejected as unbelievers by our Lord, much to their surprise. In Matthew 25:31-40, those believers whom our Lord commends for their righteous deeds do not even remember what they have done for the Lord or realize that such deeds were acts worthy of divine rewards.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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