The Real Difference Grace Makes 1 Cor 4:1-21


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1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Text Comment

This chapter 4 concludes the first main argument of the letter which has been concerned with the contrast between worldly wisdom, which had so beguiled these Corinthian Christians, and the true wisdom of God, so different from what the world prizes.  The fundamental reason why the church was in disarray and was riven with factionalism was that it was thinking in a worldly way and emphasizing all the wrong things.

v.1       “those entrusted with” is the word “steward.”  The steward was usually an estate manager; often he was a slave.  It was not such a title as would have impressed the Corinthians, enamored as they were of power and prestige.  The “secret things” are the gospel mystery itself:  that salvation can alone be obtained through faith in a crucified Jewish rabbi!

v.2       For a steward faithfulness is the requirement, not eloquence, nor worldly wisdom or stature or success.

v.4       Paul’s argument in the letter so far has implied that some of the Corinthian Christians were passing judgment on him, criticizing him, but now that fact is made explicit.  The word “court” is literally the word “day” and reminds us of the previous references to “the day,” the day of Judgment, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  “I am the Lord’s steward,” Paul is saying, “and his judgment alone is the one that matters.”  Compared to this judgment, even his own evaluations of his conduct are inconsequential.

v.5       Obviously what Paul is forbidding is a certain kind of judgment.  Later in this same letter Paul will tell them to judge disputes between brothers within the church and in a case of flagrant immorality, he will tell them to pass judgment.  The judgments forbidden are the kind of judgments they are now making that are not based on gospel truth.

v.6       Now Paul applies what he has just written directly to the Corinthian situation.  The argument has reached “the moment of truth.”  [Fee, NICNT, 166]  The interpretation of the statement “Do not go beyond what is written,” is a notorious difficulty.  It seems best, all things considered, to take Paul as saying that they must live in accordance with the teaching of the Scripture.

v.8       The kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope.  These Christians are acting as if the future were already here, as if they had attained to the status and the station that they will receive when Christ comes again.  They are acting as if they had already arrived, when, in fact, they are still, like every other Christian, only on the way.  It is, of course, a way of speaking of their pride and self-congratulation.

v.9       Now Paul is going to “boast” in those very things about himself that they disdain.  The very things that made him a faithful steward of the Lord Christ are the things that lowered him in the estimation of these worldly-thinking Corinthian Christians.  Paul can pile on the sarcasm when he needs to.

v.13     In other words, those who follow Christ in these ways and forsake the wisdom of this world for his sake will not receive the accolades of the world for doing so.

The basic argument is complete, but now comes the difficult part.  How is Paul going to reestablish his authority over this church?

v.17     Timothy had been with Paul during at least some of the time when the Apostle had been in Corinth and was, of course, known as Paul’s assistant.  Paul could not come yet, so he sent Timothy in his place.

v.18     The section concludes with a more stern and direct warning to the troublemakers themselves.

v.20     What the troublemakers lack is the true power of the Holy Spirit, the power to transform lives, the power to deliver from sin and death.  This is the power that has been displayed in the ministry of Paul in Corinth.  But it is power you will find in no worldly wisdom.

v.21     This stern final sentence leads into the next section which deals with the discipline of an immoral man in the Corinthian church.

Now this is a text that sets any earnest and thoughtful Christian back on his or her heels.  It is easy enough for us to identify with Paul in the opening verses of chapter 4; to side with him against the foolish, proud, worldly, and divisive Corinthians.  But when we then read Paul comparing himself to them in vv. 9 –13, we begin to feel a certain discomfort.

He tells them to imitate his way of life in vv. 16-17.  But his way of life was constant exposure to ridicule, persecution, physical attack, even the risk of death.  His way of life required deprivation, punishing work, and that measure of Christian self-control and humility before others that anyone who has ever tried it knows will exhaust the spirit as almost nothing else.

When Paul came to Corinth to bring the message of salvation in Christ to that great city, he supported himself at his trade, which was tent-making or leather-working.  He makes reference to this in v. 12:  “We work hard with our own hands.”  From Acts 18:3 it appears that Paul worked in the shop owned by Priscilla and Aquila, who made their living in the same trade, and also lived with them.   One scholar of first century Corinth pictures the scene in this way.

“[Priscilla and Aquila, having recently come from Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews there,] set up their small shop to sell perhaps leather craft among the commercial developments close to the Lechaeum road…. Possibly they made their home in the loft above the shop…to judge from excavations of comparable commercial properties ‘while Paul slept below amid the tool-strewn workbenches and rolls of leather and canvas.  The workshop was perfect for initial contacts, particularly with women..”  [Thiselton, NIGTC, 23]

Paul was a scholar and a missionary statesman, he was a man of great reputation, an intellectual but also an adventurer whose work would profoundly shape the world for the rest of human history.  Yet, in Corinth he spent long, hot hours, most days in a workshop.  We know that he devoted a considerable amount of his time to this work because it appears that it was “precisely Paul’s working in a menial trade that is implied by the charge [made by some of these Corinthian Christians] that he was ‘weak’ in the sense of socially inferior or unimpressive.” [Ibid.]  A number of these Christians looked down on Paul because he was, after all, a tradesman, hardly the image of the professional philosopher.  Face it, we don’t easily imagine the great Apostle Paul making change for a customer, bagging up the purchase and sending a customer from the shop with a cheerful “Have a nice day,” and “Come again soon.”

Paul will later say in chapter 9 that he did this, not because he had to, but because he did not want to give anyone the impression that he was in gospel work for money and he wanted to be able to give to the Corinthians the gift of the knowledge of Jesus Christ without charge. In Paul’s view, being a servant, a steward of the Lord Jesus Christ, did not involve seeking prestige or worldly status, and it certainly did not mean for him a comfortable and easy life.

As I wrote this sermon, sitting at my comfortable desk, with my computer before me, lots of expensive books scattered over my desk and surrounding me on the shelves, it was hard not to feel a certain dissonance.  [Fee, 182]  I live in a comfortable home, enjoy my wife and family, am well paid.  What is there, then, in my life, that compares to Paul’s description of his life?  What is there that is the equivalent of working in a leather shop when I am in fact a great man, a man of renown, a powerful intellect and a mover and shaker in the kingdom of God?  What is there that is the equivalent of the deprivation and the forsaking of worldly pleasure that Paul said was so characteristic of his life as Christ’s servant and steward?  How have I been exposed to ridicule and become a fool for Christ?  Paul says to imitate his way of life.  How have I done so?  How may I do so?

But, there is another question that comes first.  Do I want to imitate Paul’s way of life?  Do I want to be like him?  Do I want to be a “fool” for Christ?  I have made a fool of myself on any number of occasions in my life, and there is nothing to like.  To know that you have acted or spoken foolishly, that you have exposed your pettiness or selfishness or unwisdom to others.   It is an extraordinarily painful thing to be a fool in front of other human beings.

Brothers and sisters, I saw that this past week.  I watched a man who had made a fool of himself have to admit what he had done.  I watched him stand in the midst of a company of men and be revealed for what he was and for what he had done.  It was a terrible thing.  It was almost impossible to watch.  Most of the men had their eyes on the floor it was so painful to see another man covered with shame.  Yet Paul uses that terrible, that horrible image to describe his life of service for Christ:  he had become a fool for the Lord Jesus.  And now I am to become the same?

No!  Don’t hurry by these verses, brothers and sisters.  Stop and face them squarely.  It is so easy for us to assume that because we, of course, agree with Paul in his contest with those worldly Corinthian church-members, that we are actually like Paul and are really imitating his way of life.  But are we?

Think for a moment.  Suppose you were on a pulpit committee and were looking for a new minister.  Whose criteria would you be most likely to employ in your search:  Paul’s or the Corinthians?  How carefully would you inspect the details of the resume and consider the candidacy of a man who told you up front that he wasn’t much as a public speaker, didn’t have a powerful delivery, had often been accused by those who heard him of being a poor speaker and, what is more, acknowledged candidly that he was a ‘weak’ person in a variety of ways.  What is more, financially speaking, he was only able to pay his bills because he had no bills.  But, at the bottom of his application form he mentioned in all seriousness that he had a trade and if push came to shove, he could work and minister in the church part-time.  Does not that resume sound to us much as it must have sounded to the Corinthian Christians?  And all the more in comparison with such a man as Apollos, a polished speaker, a learned philosopher, everyone’s ideal of a gifted and an influential preacher and church leader.  I have spoken to a great many representatives of pulpit committees through the years and it is not to much to say that they find it much more natural to think like the Corinthians than to think like Paul!

So do we want to imitate Christ’s life and, if so, how do we do that?

Well the answer to those questions, as to all questions in the Christian life, is found in the indicatives in Paul’s argument, his descriptions of the nature of things.  Did you get them, one by one.

  • First, there is the Judgment Day.

It is the Lord who will judge you and your life, Paul says.  At that time, on the great day, “each will receive his praise from God.”  Paul is quite willing to admit that things look very different if you leave the judgment day out of account.  Things look very different indeed! But, once accept the reality of a coming judgment – as that reality is taught everywhere in the Bible – accept that this judgment will bring your life and living into comprehensive account – as the Bible always and everywhere says it will – and immediately things look profoundly different.  What is impressive and attractive in a worldly way suddenly loses its luster.  And what we know would be pleasing to Jesus Christ, who was, after all, himself a man who forsook the pleasures and the approval of the world, suddenly those things appear attractive and admirable to us, even if we know they may prove difficult and painful for us..

The Apostle Paul was a man who lived under the specter of the Judgment Day.  He was a happy man, a cheerful man, a gracious and friendly man, he lived a fruitful, full, and satisfying life, but he never forgot the Judgment Day.  He never forgot that he would have to give an account of his life, of the deeds done while he was in the body, whether good or evil.  He was a man always looking for his reward.  Later in this same letter he will say that he knows that if he preaches the gospel voluntarily, he will have a reward.  But, also, “Woe to me,” he says, “if I do not preach the gospel.”  There is a seriousness about the judgment and the judgment day in Paul that surprises us and takes us aback.

We shudder when we hear the great man say, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  We know that we don’t think that way very often.  We are not focused on the judgment day in the way Paul was.  We don’t reckon with the certainty that our lives will be brought to account the way he was always reckoning with it.

Tertullian said, in his day, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that [Christ] will one day judge the world.”  No doubt Paul got himself laughed at for proclaiming the same thing.  But Paul knew it was true and he not only proclaimed that truth to others, he embraced it for himself.

He knew that his actions, his choices every day, physically considered were transient, but morally considered they were permanent.  [Flavel, Works, i, 306]  They would be brought up again and considered again and then evaluated and we would be judged accordingly.  And for ever and ever we will live in some way according to how we have lived here.

Doesn’t it suddenly change the way you think about things, Christian brother or sister?  Now being a fool for Christ’s sake seems altogether reasonable, right, and noble.  Suffering deprivation and persecution, so long as we can suffer it for Christ’s sake, seems a pure privilege.  All because we know that the judge of all the earth will bring our lives into his scales and mete out his rewards accordingly.  Believe the judgment day and see Christ on his great white throne, and suddenly no loss we suffer for his sake, no trial we undergo for his sake, no ignominy we endure for his sake seems a sacrifice at all.  The more of it, the better.  We are tempted to think this and that about our lives and our happiness, but the looming specter of the judgment day forces us to think more wisely:  what will He think and what will He say about my life?

How can we imitate Paul’s way of life?  Well we can ponder and believe the judgment day until, like Jerome, we can say of ourselves, “Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I think I still hear the sound of those words in my ear:  Arise you dead, and come to judgment.”

  • Second, there is the life between times,  the pilgrimage to glory.

The Corinthians were acting as if they had already reached the destination.  Paul knew he had not.  He was still on the way.  He did not suppose that this world would ever be his home or that he could make his peace with it.  He was traveling through it to another world altogether.  It is hard to be a pilgrim.  We all want to stop and settle down.  But we cannot for there is no place for a Christian to make a home in this world.  In technical terms, the Corinthian problem was one of  an over-realized eschatology.  They were acting as if the end of the age had already come and as if this world were the new heavens and new earth.  They were making their permanent home – spiritually and mentally and physically – in this world.  Whenever Christians begin to evaluate their own lives or the lives of other men according to how much of this world’s goods they have-health, wealth, success, and the like – this error is at work.  They are making this world a home as if it was the world to come.

But this world is passing away.  It is ruled by an anti-Christian spirit.  Even at its best it bears everywhere the mark of death.  It was natural for Paul, who saw all of this so clearly, not to be enamored of those things that so impressed the worldly mind.  It was the world and its ways that crucified the Lord of Glory.  It was this world that offered no welcome to the Prince of Life.  But the Corinthian Christians had forgotten this.  They were no longer lifting their eyes to see the vast gulf that separates this world from the kingdom of God. And so they were no longer content to live as pilgrim’s, traveling through this world to another.  They looked at the philosophers in Corinth and were very impressed.  They wanted their church to have people like that!  Paul could see those philosophers and their philosophy for what it was: very temporary foolishness.  So he had no difficulty passing it by on his way to the heavenly country.

When you know yourself a pilgrim, and when you have your heart fixed on your destination, you don’t expect that the people of this world will regard you as a fellow-citizen.  You will even understand their tendency to despise you as someone who doesn’t think their world is good enough and has to go to another.  And that is Paul’s powerful point:  if this world were right and true, if this world would really help me on to God, then why does Christ call us to forsake it, why does it oppose him at every turn, and why, why does it despise the very things that Jesus himself did and said?

No, see this world for what it is, compare it in your mind and heart with the world to come, and its attractions immediately begin to wither.  And suddenly it seems absolutely right to be thought little of by this world if only we might obtain the world to come.  How do we imitate Paul’s way of life:  we take to heart that we are not yet where we are going and this world is no home for us Seen that way, everything looks so different.

  • Third, and finally, there is the grace of God from which all our blessings flow.

What do we have that we have not received?  Everything is of God’s grace.  That we live at all; that we have eternal life; that our sins are forgiven; the gifts by which we may serve the Lord and one another; everything necessary for life and godliness, it is all the gift of God.  We earned nothing, we obtained nothing ourselves, we deserve nothing, but we have had indescribable benefits lavished on us and been given the promise of still more wonderful things.

It is this principle of grace, this realization that extraordinary gifts have been given to us, that explains Paul’s passion for a life of self-denial.  He wanted to embody in himself and his daily living the grace God had given him; he wanted to display in his words and actions that same selfless devotion to others, that Christ had shown to him.  That is why he worked as a leather-worker so that he could give the gospel free of charge to the Corinthians and that is also why he blessed those who cursed him and answered kindly those who slandered him.  Only in that way could he imitate the grace, the kindness, the selfless generosity that God and Christ had shown him.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this imitation of Christ in Paul’s life, this astonishing humility – for that is what it was – was the noblest of all the most sincere forms of flattery and praise.  Paul urges us to imitate his way of life; but he only does that because he is himself imitating Christ’s way of life.  As he will say in 11:1:  “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.”

Here is the ax that is to be laid to the root of our pride, which is the source of all our sins and our troubles.  It was in Corinth.  Paul speaks of their pride in v. 6, their boasting in v. 7, their self-satisfaction and sense of superiority in vv. 8-10, and of the arrogance of some of them in vv. 18-19.  These people thought so highly of themselves, were so enamored of themselves, that, if you can believe it, they found it natural to look down on the Apostle Paul!  And why?  Because they had forgotten the grace of God.  They had lost sight of the fact that they had nothing that they had not received as a gift.

My grandfather had an evangelist friend who would send his front man into a town ahead of the crusade and soon over the streets of that town would hang banners proclaiming the imminent arrival of The World’s Greatest Evangelist!  We cringe for that man who could not see how ridiculous it is for a Christian minister to praise himself as a preacher of Jesus Christ, the Man of Sorrows who had no place to lay his head, the man who was rejected by the world, who humbled himself and made himself nothing for others.  But we do the same, with our comments and our opinions about others, with our exalted view of ourselves, with our resentment toward those who do not serve us as we feel we deserve.

No, lay v. 7 at the root of that ugly pride of yours and then you will live as Paul lived and imitate him as he imitated Christ – blessing those who curse you and answering kindly to those who slander you, and suffering deprivation willingly for Christ’s sake, whether of time or money or energy or reputation – simply because it is how someone always wants to live, craves to live who has felt the force of God’s grace to him or her.  Everything I have, God’s gift.  He might not have given it to me.  He has not given it to multitudes of others, but he gave it to me.  Let me live like that!  Let me be like that!  Let me honor him by treating others as he treated me!  Let me suffer for someone else’s sake.  Let me keep my mouth shut when unjustly accused.  Let me do despised work for the sake of others.  Let me be Christ’s fool before the world as he was the world’s fool for me.  Let God’s grace to me be the public and evident and central principle of my living day by day.

Years ago I told those of you who were here then what St. Bonaventure tells us about how St. Francis of Assisi kept his heart humble before God and man, how he imitated the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ.  Tempted by worldly approval as he was, once he gained fame and celebrity, and once it became common for people to fawn over him and pay compliments to him and praise him, he would appoint one of his friars to do the opposite.  As the compliments and the praises were going in one ear, the friar would be saying unkind and uncomplimentary things in the other ear.  When his friar would remind him that he was boorish and mercenary, unskilled and useless, he would reply, ‘May the Lord bless you my son, for it is you that speak the very truth and what the son of Peter Bernadone should hear.’  [Life, 229]  What was that friar saying to St. Francis except, “what do you have that you did not receive, and if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?”

Well, we haven’t friars that we can appoint for the purpose – though perhaps if we asked we might have a surplus of volunteers! – but perhaps we can all perform this service for one another.  And when the world is singing in one ear, as it was singing gaily in the ears of the Corinthian Christians, let someone else whisper in the other:  what will Christ say on the day of judgment; and, what is the value of the approval of a world we are only passing through and are so soon to leave; and, finally, what do you have that you have not received?

Hearing that you will know what to think, and say, and do.