Study Notes for I Corinthians 4:6-13 (click here for Study Sheet)
Paul has just given detailed instructions to the Corinthians about being unified in Christ, about building good works on top of their foundation in Christ, and about not esteeming one person or leader more highly than another. He reminds them, in 3:21-23, that all things are theirs: Apollos, Paul, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, the future-all are theirs in Christ. He follows that reminder with a warning not to judge people's motives. "Wait till the Lord comes," he admonishes. God will bring to light the hidden motives of people's hearts.
Now Paul says that he applies his instructions to himself and to Apollos "for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, 'Do not go beyond what is written.' " (vs. 6) Paul is telling the Corinthians to use the Bible as their guide as they learn to live their new life as Christ-followers. Their view of other men needs to be Biblical. They have to relate to each other in the way God instructs, not in the way their natural inclinations would prompt them.
Naturally humans gravitate toward charismatic and authoritative leaders. But in the New Covenant Jesus is the leader of all those who are born from above. Each of us is a priest of God, and we are one in Christ and the Holy Spirit. We no longer need other men to teach us, because we will all know the Lord. (see Hebrew 8:11) In Christ we all have different callings and jobs. Some are more public than others, but none is higher ranking or more important. In Christ we are all for each other. We go back to an Old Covenant, works way of thinking if we become disciples of powerful leaders and follow them. The New Covenant has given us one leader for all time-Jesus- instead of many human leaders who compete and replace each other.
Paul further warns the Corinthians not to be proud or to feel they deserve special honor for the gifts God grants them. "What makes you different from anyone else?" he asks. Nothing we have is intrinsically our own. God has personally given us every gift or calling we have.
"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us," Paul says in Romans 12:6-8; "If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully."
We can take no honor or credit for doing what God has assigned us to do. We can't boast as though our gifts are the result of our own hard work! Our natural selves keep wanting to resort to salvation by trying and working, but Paul brings us up short. Everything we have is of God; nothing, not our good deeds or our obedience, is the result of our own efforts. We are Christ-followers, and our identity as righteous saints with unique roles in the kingdom of God is entirely the result of his grace! Our assignments in the kingdom of God are for the purpose of honoring Jesus. For us to be proud of ourselves or to idolize each other is to look away from our only leader: Jesus.
Already Rich-Without Us?
Paul suddenly becomes heavily ironic in his letter. "Already you have become rich! You have become kings-and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!"
The Corinthians have lost their sense of calling and commitment. They've made their new-found Christianity a way of life that strokes their egos and their lifestyles. They don't have a sense of need, of taking risks for the sake of the gospel. They are arrogant and comfortable.
Paul launches into a comparison of their lives with his own and his fellow apostles' lives. The Corinthians are wealthy and confident. Paul and the apostles are weak, hungry, cursed, dishonored, slandered. He compares himself to them not to boast but to illustrate what an active Christ-follower can expect to happen in his life. If life is going well for us, we should thank God, but we should never depend on our environments to sustain us. Sooner or later we will be tested for our faith, and we cannot anticipate the form that testing will take. When we commit ourselves to follow Jesus, every moment of our lives becomes his. The Holy Spirit directs us, and we can never assume success or physical well-being is our right. Our lives are his. There is no room for arrogance.
Paul compares his and his fellow-apostles' lives to the prisoners who marched at the backs of the triumphal processions as victorious Roman soldiers returned from battle. Those prisoners became the targets of gladiatorial contests in the Roman arenas where they died fighting hungry wild beasts.
Barclay on Paul
In his commentary The Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay makes two interesting points about this passage. In verse 11 the NIV states, "we are brutally treated." The Greek word in that phrase is kolaphizesthai, or buffeted. That Greek word, Barclay says, occurs in a passage written by Plutarch in which he tells of a witness observing a slave being beaten by his master. The beating, according to this account, proved that the slave belonged to his master because only a master had the authority to beat a slave. Paul, Barclay points out, was willing to suffer beatings for the sake of his master, Jesus.
Barclay's second point refers to verse 13 which the NIV renders, "when we are slandered, we answer kindly." The Greek word in that passage, he points out, is loidoresthai, or insulted. Aristotle wrote that the highest virtue in a man is great-heartedness, or megalopsuchia. Aristotle defines this great-heartedness, Barclay says, as "the quality which will not endure to be insulted." To the pagan Greek mind, Christ-followers enduring insults and suffering for the sake of Christ was pure foolishness. Christian virtue and humility were not part of the Greeks' definition of greatness.
The Corinthians were just learning how following Christ was reshaping their world view.
Many of us were taught to expect persecution for our "peculiar" beliefs someday. Paul is clear that his persecution is for the sake of Christ, not for his refusal to conform to outside standards or laws. Persecution for the sake of a relationship is a completely different phenomenon from persecution for the sake of distinctive beliefs. Believing that we will be persecuted for our standards and practices leads us to try to do more "good works". When standards become our most precious commodity, we are driven to improve them.
We can self-induce suffering and persecution by taking on projects or "good works" that are not God's intent for us. It's hard to know whether or not a certain work is good for us when we're driven by a need to perform.
When we're committed only to Christ, however, the good works become the Holy Spirit's concern. When Jesus is our center, persecution will be peripheral to serving him instead of being the focus of our fearful future.
When we serve Jesus, Satan does oppose us. Sometimes we suffer things we don't recognize as his attacks. Unresolved hostility, chronic health problems, unmanageable stress and time demands-these can be the vulnerable spots through which Satan can oppress us to distract us from the gospel. As Christ-followers we must submit all of our lives to him: the demands, the broken relationships, the health issues, our jobs, the tension of family life, the stress. Jesus can redeem every broken part of our lives, and he can protect us from the attacks of the enemy.
God asks us to trust him in whatever situations we find ourselves. He asks us to give him every situation that frustrates and distracts us. He died to redeem our relationship with him, and his promise to us is Peace and Rest.
God asks us not to try to solve our dilemmas ourselves. When we trust Jesus it no longer makes sense to separate our "spiritual" lives from our "secular" lives. The Holy Spirit integrates our lives. God redeems every part of our lives, and his Spirit is in us through every activity of our lives. Jesus wants us to consciously invite him into every one of our decisions and activities.
God calls us to give up our need to control our lives. "Come unto me," he says, "and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)
His promises are sure. Jesus is our Sabbath rest. In him we experience relief from the need to make our lives "go right". In Jesus we rest, and he shows us through the Holy Spirit what activities he wants us to pursue, what projects he wants us to take on.
God calls us to rest, and he gives us peace. God asks us to remember we are treasures in his heart.
God loves us, and nothing can separate us from his love. His love transforms us and makes us one with him.
"Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
"It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
"Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.
"If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned."
Song of Songs 8:6-7, NIV
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 23, 2000.