1 Corinthians 4:1–13
1 Corinthians 4:1–13
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. List the word pictures that Paul uses to describe the ministry of the apostles.
2. Give examples of the demands, costs, and sacrifices often required of faithful stewards.
3. Make a commitment to be a faithful steward in a specific ministry.
How to Say It
koinonia (Greek). koy-no-NEE-uh.
Sanhedrin. SAN-huh-drun or San-HEED-run.
Monday, June 19—Good Stewards of God’s Grace (1 Peter 4:1–11)
Tuesday, June 20—Jesus Washes Peter’s Feet (John 13:2–9)
Wednesday, June 21—Serve One Another (John 13:12–17)
Thursday, June 22—Become a Servant (Mark 10:41–45)
Friday, June 23—Stewards of God’s Mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1–7)
Saturday, June 24—We Are Fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:8–13)
Sunday, June 25—A Fatherly Admonition on Responsibility (1 Corinthians 4:14–21)
So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
—1 Corinthians 4:1
Why Teach This Lesson?
When the church talks of stewardship, many think automatically of money. Our stewardship campaigns are usually designed to teach church members how to be obedient to biblical principles of giving money for the work of the Lord. But stewardship is much larger than principles of giving money.
This week’s lesson helps us understand the concept that service should be considered from the perspective of stewardship. In this perspective we are not judged by salary, acclaim, or even by effectiveness. Rather, we are judged as wise stewards if we are faithful and committed to our ministries. Our rewards will not be measured by standards from the business world. If we serve God, we look to him for reward.
The church with many willing servants will find itself with ministries that make a difference. This lesson will challenge every student to commit himself or herself to a useful ministry and to remain faithful to this task.
A. Hard Lesson to Learn
The lesson of humble servanthood is hard to learn. It is a lesson that goes against human nature, against our inner drive to climb to the top of the ladder. That’s why the apostles still had not mastered it even after three years with Jesus. They were still competing with each other for the chief seats in the kingdom (see Mark 10:35–41). Even the beauty of the Last Supper was marred by their arguing over who should be regarded as the greatest (see Luke 22:24).
Fortunately, the apostles finally did learn the lesson of humble servanthood. They learned to honor Christ as the head of the church and to see themselves as his servants. As a result, they worked hard in those early years to spread the gospel and to plant churches. They did not waste time worrying over the roles assigned to anyone else. They understood that serving Christ faithfully was the most important thing.
B. Lesson Background
Paul had to teach the Corinthians the same lesson.
The believers in
Paul addressed this problem across four chapters in 1 Corinthians. As he moves to a conclusion, he shows how the Corinthians should regard Apollos and himself. More importantly, he insists that they adopt a new way of regarding themselves. Their pride and divisions had to be set aside before the church could go forward. They had to learn the lesson of serving faithfully as God’s stewards.
I. Faithful Stewards (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
A. Position of a Steward (v. 1)
1. So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
Paul insists that a person must regard Apollos and himself as nothing more than what they really are. These thoughts follow the stern “no more boasting about men” admonition of 1 Corinthians 3:21. It is no compliment to Paul for any of his supporters to try to put him on a pedestal. It is important for the Corinthians to recognize that men such as Paul and Apollos are servants of Christ.
Another word for those entrusted is
“steward.” In ancient times a steward has the responsibility of taking care of
something. For instance, it is typical for a trusted slave to be put in charge
of running a household. (See Genesis 39:2–19, where Joseph was given this role
in Potiphar’s household.) Paul and Apollos, as stewards, have been entrusted
with the task of proclaiming the secret things of God to the church at
B. Requirement of a Steward (v. 2)
2. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
To be given a trust by God does not mean that Paul and Apollos are men of unusual importance. Instead, it means that they have been given a job to do. As God’s stewards with a responsibility in the household of God, they answer to him for how they carry out their tasks. God requires above all that his servants be found faithful. This is an important point because to focus on being faithful is a bit different from a focus on being successful.
Since it is God who gives the increase (see 1 Corinthians 3:6), God’s servant must not assume credit or blame for success. The Lord warned the prophet Jeremiah that he would not be successful (Jeremiah 7:27). But the Lord expected him to be faithful nonetheless.
The servant who makes success the primary goal may rationalize that the end justifies the means. The faithful steward, however, obeys the instructions of the Lord. Unlike King Saul in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 15), the faithful steward does not yield to the temptation of thinking that he or she has a better idea than the master. See also Jesus’ extended remarks in Luke 12:42–48.
Visual for Lesson 4.
Point to this visual as you ask for specific examples of how one generation demonstrates its faithfulness to the next.
What Measure of Success?
Dr. Clarence Jordan began Koinonia Farms in
On one occasion following a
massive attack and destruction by opponents of Koinonia Farms, a local reporter
came to interview
Think about it: Jesus’ crucifixion did not seem like a success at the time. Yet it was the faithfulness of Jesus in going to the cross that paved the way for the ultimate success. So it was faithfulness that kept Koinonia Farms going, even to today (www.koinoniapartners.org).
God’s desire for his people is that they remain faithful. Human definitions of success, however, are often bound up in numbers or “metrics.” That can be a trap! Numbers of Scripture verses memorized, services attended, Sunday school pins earned, etc., are things that, at their best, result from faithfulness. At their worst, they become a basis for salvation by works (Luke 18:9–12).
C. Evaluation of a Steward (vv. 3-5)
3. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.
It is a very small thing to Paul whether the Corinthians praise him or condemn him. Paul has no interest in winning a popularity contest. It is God’s judgment that matters (v. 5, below).
In a sense not even Paul’s own judgment matters. Think about how important that is! If Paul were to judge himself highly, he could become arrogant (Romans 12:3). On the other hand, to judge himself too low may lead to despair; it may lead him to forget about the Spirit as his source of strength.
Thus it is irrelevant whether Paul holds himself in high esteem or in low. The only evaluation of Paul and his ministry that really counts will not come from any human. It will not even come from Paul himself.
4. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
Paul goes on to strengthen the argument of verse 3. His statement that his conscience is clear is the same kind of statement he made to the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:1. Paul thinks that a good conscience is important (see Acts 24:16; Romans 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12; etc.). However, a good conscience alone will not make him innocent or proved right. Paul’s self-assessment is not the evaluation that counts. The one to evaluate Paul is the Lord. Paul is a servant of God; therefore God must be the judge who rules on Paul’s case. God will do this through Jesus Christ, to whom he has assigned all judgment (see John 5:22).
5. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
The issue of human judgments is somewhat complicated in the New Testament. In the verse before us, Paul tells the Corinthians to judge nothing. But then in chapter 5 he will stress the importance of judging the immoral behavior of a church member. How shall we sort this out?
The solution is the context. Notice that the word therefore ties judge nothing to what was said in verses 1–3. Thus the Corinthians are not to try to evaluate anything about the ministries of Paul and Apollos before the time of the Lord’s return. At the proper time all servants will present their accounts. It is the Lord who will bring to light even the hidden things of darkness, the things that people think that no one else even knows about. The Lord, who knows the hearts of all, is the one who will make manifest their secret thoughts and counsels.
For the faithful servant this future time of judgment need not be feared. Everyone who has faithfully done his or her duty will have the praise of God. The faithful servant will be rewarded by the master.
II. Unworthy Judges (1 Corinthians 4:6-8)
A. Unwarranted Pride (v. 6)
6. Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.
This verse cements the idea of “judge nothing” in verse 5. Up to this point the Corinthians have been taking pride in one man over against another. This means that when the Corinthians started choosing sides—lining up behind Paul, Apollos, etc.—they naturally began to think “our group is more in the right than your group.” This kind of arrogance must come to an end.
By seeing that Paul does not desire to be glorified, the Corinthians will learn that no one among their number should seek such glory either. Their thinking should be controlled by what Scripture says (what is written). When that happens, they will refrain from giving mere men their allegiance. Thus there are two parts to the issue: mature leaders who wisely know not to accept undue praise and church members who learn not to give it.
B. Undeserved Glory (vv. 7, 8)
7. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
Next, Paul challenges his readers to give honest answers to three questions. First, who is it that makes any one of them any different from anyone else? The necessary answer is “God”; thus unless the Corinthians get out of the judging business they will find themselves judging God’s choices! The Corinthians must stop trying to set up a “pecking order” to assign the relative worth of each person (see also 2 Corinthians 10:12).
Second, what does anyone have that was not received as a gift from God? Paul has much more to say about spiritual gifts in Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; and Ephesians 4. The bottom line is that every person’s position is a stewardship that he or she has received from God.
Third, since it must be admitted that no one has anything that was not a gift from God, why should anyone boast? How can anyone try to pretend that he or she has any good thing that was not a gift? It is a dangerous thing to receive glory from other people, as Herod learned at his death (see Acts 12:23).
8. Already you have all you want! 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!
Up to this point the Corinthians apparently have responded incorrectly to the issues of verse 7. So Paul uses irony to rebuke his readers. In their spiritual immaturity they see themselves as satisfied and rich; since they reign as kings in their own minds, they think they do not need Paul and the apostles.
Generously, Paul says he wishes that the Corinthians actually were kings. If they really did hold positions of power and authority, then they could share the benefits with the church. Paul and the other apostles would then be kings with them. But surely the Corinthian Christians see that the lofty positions of their imaginations are false!
III. Suffering Apostles (1 Corinthians 4:9-13)
A. Spectacle to the World (v. 9)
9. For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.
As an antidote to the sickness of the Corinthians’ pride, Paul shows them what God has done with the apostles themselves. God has not put them on “church thrones” with special glory and privileges. Rather, he has set forth the apostles as men appointed to death. In contrast to the self-importance of the Corinthians, Christ’s own apostles are treated as though they are condemned criminals. The world gawks at them in derision. The apostles suffer and are put on display while angels above and men below look on. (See also Romans 8:36; Hebrews 10:32–34.)
B. Fools for Christ (v. 10)
10. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!
The irony continues. Paul and the apostles are regarded by the world as fools, and they willingly accept that role for Christ’s sake. By contrast, the proud Corinthians see themselves as wise in Christ. Although they are really just babies in their spiritual understanding, they proudly exalt themselves above their teachers. If they are really wise, they would not need this harsh lesson!
Pushing the irony yet further, Paul shows how the apostles are willing to be weak, but the Corinthians see themselves as strong. The Corinthians claim to be honorable, even though their original leaders are despised. They do not understand the principle of a steward caring only for the approval of the master and disregarding human judgments.
Students in the second year of college or high school are called sophomores. This label actually is not very flattering! It’s a combination of two Greek words: sophos, meaning “wise,” and moros, meaning “foolish.” Thus a sophomore is a wise fool, a seeming contradiction in terms. Perhaps the idea is that a little knowledge can be dangerous. Some Christians, wise in their own eyes, are rightly called fools by the world because of their immaturity and self-promotion.
Other Christians (like the apostle Paul) are indeed very wise in the knowledge of God, yet they too are called fools by the world. The reason for this is that the world, in its “wisdom,” does not understand the things of God (Romans 1:22). True Christian wisdom appears to be foolishness to this world. Sometimes true Christian wisdom even appears to be foolishness to some spiritually immature Christians.
A mark of spiritual maturity is
the willingness to be considered foolish by all others, knowing that you are
wise toward God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–31). We could say that the idea is to
be a permanent sophomore—a permanent wise fool—in the
—A. E. A.
C. Mistreated by All (vv. 11-13)
11. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.
When Paul lists these sufferings, he is not asking for pity. Rather, he is hoping that the Corinthians can see the folly of their pride. The apostles are not treated like princes of the church; instead, they hunger and thirst. See a more graphic list in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28.
Although bringing the message of salvation to all, the apostles are mistreated. They accept this as part of the role that God has assigned to them. Living as they do, they show what things are important and what things really are not. Jesus had warned the apostles that it would be like this. He had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58); he was despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3). The apostles are not surprised when they don’t receive any better treatment than he did (see John 15:20).
12. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it;
Rather than living off of the offerings of the people, Paul and the others often labor and work with their own hands (Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Corinthians 9:14, 15; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). This is not the pattern of traveling pagan teachers of the day. Do the Corinthians now look down on Paul for lowering himself to manual labor? (See 2 Corinthians 11:7.)
When the apostles are cursed, they bless and encourage in return. In so doing the apostles are only doing what Jesus himself taught (see Matthew 5:44). When the apostles are persecuted, they endure it. They ask for no special treatment.
13.… when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
This sounds like Lamentations 3:45, which speaks of the condition of the Jews in exile. The apostles serve Christ in unique positions, yet they are treated like refuse and the scum of the earth. They have been made to be no better than the mud people scrape off their feet. But when the apostles are defamed, they respond with kindness.
If the apostles are willing to be treated like
garbage, why should the Christians in
A. Help Wanted: Inquire Above
God is hanging out the “Help Wanted” sign in every congregation. He is not looking for more people to serve as critics; there are already too many people who have taken that job. God does not need any self-inflated people who waste their time trying to establish the order of importance of all the members of his family.
The job openings that God has available are for servants. The people who apply for this position do not need to be highly skilled; neither do they have to have a history of great success. What they really need is a commitment to be faithful. God will place certain job responsibilities in the hands of his servants, with each job suited to the worker. God will work side by side with his servants. There always will be an opening for the person who is sincerely interested.
B. Anticipated Salary?
The reward for self-appointed critics is minimal. They are making no real contribution to the kingdom; they are not doing anything God has asked them to do. But the reward for servants is great, even more than they can imagine.
The reward may not be immediate. Like the apostles in the first century, faithful servants of God may face persecution and suffering. They may endure hunger and thirst; they may be dishonored and homeless. In the eyes of the world they may be as worthless as the garbage scraped from dirty pots and pans. The world may think they are fools.
If the steward is a fool to work for this kind of wage (in the eyes of the world), then he or she is a fool for Christ’s sake. This steward is faithful to a heavenly calling, obedient to a worthy Lord. This kind of servant knows of those things that have lasting significance. Most of all, he or she puts all trust in God, believing that God will reward.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New
International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard