“The Time for Judgment” (1 Corinthians 3:18 – 4:5)

There were divisions in the Corinthian church because people were claiming loyalty to certain teachers against others instead of being united in Christ. The Corinthians prized the worldly wisdom of the philosophers over the simple preaching of the cross, which was foolishness to the world. Paul rebukes their immaturity in Chapter 3 and emphasizes that he and the other teachers God has used are only instruments in God’s hands.  He compares the church in which they work to God’s field or God’s building.  They are a temple in which God dwells.  Now he continues with these themes of wisdom and judgment and becomes more direct in asking them to act… 

In the ancient world, one could bind oneself to another as a bondservant.  You actually belonged to your master. He provided for you, and you served him and your service was judged by him.  This institution was filled with human imperfection, yet used to describe our relationship with God through Christ. Through faith, we willingly bind ourselves to the Lord (a perfect, loving master), not only as His servant, but as His child. In all of the best ways, we belong to Him. In this passage we are called to live for Christ since we belong to Him.  We see that Christ is our Provider and our Judge. 

1. He is our Provider (18-23)
Having reminded the Corinthians that in Christ they are the holy Temple of God, Paul now returns to his comparison of God’s Wisdom, with which His Temple is built, and worldly wisdom, which the Corinthians have been following.  He warns them not to deceive themselves by thinking they are wise because they possess the wisdom of the world.  He characterizes it as being “wise in this age” in 1 Cor. 3:18, underlining the fact that this age will pass away, along with much of its so-called wisdom, and another will come.

He reminds them in 1 Cor. 3:19 that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.  In 1 Cor. 1:21, Paul supported this claim by explaining that “the world through its wisdom did not know God.”  Man is not able, through his own wisdom, to find salvation, or to reach God and enter into a relationship with Him.  Paul said in chapter 1 Cor. 1:21 that the message of the cross (Jesus’ saving work, centered upon His death on the cross for sinners) is foolishness to those who are perishing; but because the world did not come to know God in its wisdom, God was pleased through the foolishness of the message preached (the gospel) to save those who believed.  So he urges those who think they are wise according to the wisdom of the world to forsake that so-called wisdom, and become fools – that is fools in the eyes of the world.  Paul is urging them first of all to trust in the simple, but saving message of the cross, rather than the complex, but empty and powerless ideas of worldly wisdom.  He is also urging these believers in Corinth to boast (give their wholehearted loyalty and praise) to Christ rather than His human servants.

Paul quotes two OT passages which reinforce the fact that man’s wisdom is no wisdom at all in God’s eyes.  The first is in 1 Cor. 3:19 and is from Job 5:13, as Eliphaz reminds Job that though the wise think they are clever, God uses their own cleverness to undo them, because they rely on their own, faulty wisdom, rather than His – “He catches the wise in their craftiness.”

The second quotation is in 1 Cor. 3:20 and is from Ps 94:11 – The Psalmist asks for God to judge the proud and wicked who afflict God’s people.  The senseless and foolish are warned that God sees them.  Paul refers to them as “the wise” (in their own eyes) – “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” All of the prideful wisdom of this world will come to nothing. 

I’m sure Noah was thought to be a fool by the people of his day.  Here he was building a huge boat.  What was it for?  I’m sure those around thought he was an eccentric, foolish old man – a cook who thought the end of the world had come.  But each man’s wisdom was judged when the flood came.  Noah’s wisdom was from God, and he was able to put his trust in the means of God’s salvation.  Those who trusted in their own wisdom perished in judgment.


Those who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation and seek to follow Him are often considered foolish by the world. Are we willing to “become fools” (in the eyes of the world) to trust and follow Christ.  We can’t look wise to God and the world.  Which will we choose when the choice must be made?


Since the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, Paul’s conclusion in 1 Cor. 3:21 is: “let no one boast in men.”  They were not to put their confidence in men, as if men were the source of their blessing.  But this is exactly what the Corinthians did when they broke into their different camps, saying “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas…”  In following the wisdom of the world, the Corinthians had become followers of men.  But Paul appeals to them to wake up to the riches that are theirs in Christ:   He says in 1 Cor. 3:21 “all things are yours” and specifically names “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas.”  Paul says there is no need to divide over these teachers, because the Church does not belong to these teachers.  It is the other way around.  These teachers belong to the Church.  In 2 Cor. 4:5 – Paul said “we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bondservants for Jesus’ sake.”  Jesus has provided teachers for His Church.


Paul goes on to say in 1 Cor. 3:22 that the “world” is theirs.  This is the Greek word kosmos that refers to the physical universe. Everything in the cosmos belongs to God’s people.  In Christ we will inherit it all.  Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 3:22 to say that life and death belong to God’s people as well.  Christ has brought true life to His people and conquered death through His resurrection.  So, Paul could say to the Philippians in Philippians 1:21 – “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He keeps expanding it in v. 22 – the present or the future.  They belong to God’s people in the sense that God will constantly be faithful to provide for them and work for their good, always.  “all are yours” Paul concludes at the end of 1 Cor. 3:22.


“and” at the beginning of v. 23 could also be translated “but,” and that may be better, because there is a contrast.  Christ has provided all good things for His Church.  They belong to them.  But the Church belongs to Christ.  This is why we have all these things – because we belong to Him.  And, Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 3:23, Christ belongs to God (the Father would be meant).  There is a unity and intimacy and submission between God the Father and Jesus Christ, His Son, that is reflected in the relationship between Jesus and His people, the Church.  Just as God the Father provides all good things for His Son, Jesus Christ provides all good things for His people, His Church.

It takes a great deal of faith to believe that in Jesus we have all things.  Investment advisors tell you to diversify your portfolio, unless something goes south.  Faith in Christ means putting it all on Him, and trusting that it will pay off not only now, but for all eternity.  Let us put our confidence in Him and give Him our ultimate loyalty and praise, being thankful for the servants He uses, but following Him, not them. He is our Provider. 

2. He is our Judge (1-5)
In 1 Cor. 4:1 Paul explains how he wants himself and the other ministers/teachers to be perceived…
Paul uses this word for “servant” only here; it originally meant an “under-rower” – one who rowed in the bottom of the ship; it came to mean lowly service, subject to direction. Paul and the other teachers were not to be treated as masters, but servants of Christ. But they carried a tremendous responsibility and privilege.  Paul also calls them “stewards of the mysteries of God.”  A “steward” was one who managed an estate for his master.  Here, God is the master and His ministers in the church manage his “mysteries.”  The word “mystery” was a technical term used by the mystery religions for the secret knowledge one had to learn to be initiated into their religion.  Paul uses it to refer to the Truth God has revealed which is not discoverable by human reason, into which men must be initiated to be Christians – namely, the gospel.  So Paul and his fellow ministers are stewards of the truth/wisdom of God in the gospelThey have been entrusted with imparting God’s Word, His message to His people.   1 Peter 4:10 – believers are called to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” in using their spiritual gifts.

Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 4:2 to say that when one has the position of a steward, it is required for him to be trustworthy.  The master doesn’t take time to check up on everything the steward is doing, otherwise he may as well do it himself.  The steward must be trustworthy to carry out the master’s will.  For ministers: they must be faithful to the message, and to God, who entrusted it to them.

In light of this great responsibility toward God, Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:3a…
If we stopped here, Paul might seem to be against all authority, except that of himself.  “It doesn’t mean much to me if you (the Church) judge me, or any human court, because my judgment is all that matters.”  But Paul goes on to say at the end of 1 Cor. 4:3 “In fact, I do not even judge myself.” Paul uses a word for “judge” in v. 3 that refers to a preliminary judicial investigation, not a final judgment.

Paul is not saying here that he considers Himself above the judicial decisions of the Church, but that he is not primarily concerned with their opinion of his ministry.  The Corinthians had been critical of him.  But he is not mainly concerned about their judgment of his ministry, or that of any human court (lit. of any human “day”).  If we go back to the last chapter – 1 Cor. 3:13 – Paul was mindful of a Day which would reveal the true nature of every man’s work – the Day of the Judgment of God.  In vv. 4-5 it is clear that this is the judgment upon which Paul is focused.


He says in 1 Cor. 4:4 that he knew of nothing against himself – that is, in his ministry.  But just because he had a clear conscience didn’t mean he was justified.  “It is the Lord who judges me” he says.  The Lord Jesus is his master, whom he serves, who has entrusted him with his message.

His urging to the Corinthians in v. 5 is “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes.”  This is the “Day” that Paul is awaiting – the Day of Jesus’ glorious return to judge the earth.

When Jesus comes in glory to judge, he will be able (v. 5) to “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and disclose the purposes of the heart.”  Man’s judgment is imperfect because he can only see so much and so far.  But Jesus sees everything, even what is in our hearts.  No one will be able to fool Him or slip something past Him. No false charges will stick. His judgment will be right.

“Then each one will receive his commendation from God,” Paul concludes in v.1 Cor. 4:5.  In 1 Cor. 3:14, Paul wrote that if the work that anyone had built on the foundation (of Jesus Christ) survived, he would receive a reward.  God will commend and reward those who serve Him.  Even if their good works are hidden from many others, or they are misjudged by men, God will see them and the purposes of their hearts and say to them “well done, my good and faithful servant.”

A lot of workplaces now have employee evaluations.  On a regular basis, maybe once/year, the work of an employee will be evaluated by a supervisor or employer.  As the employee works alongside his fellow employees, they may have an opinion of his work.  They may think he needs to make some changes in the way he does things.  But an employee recognizes that he is not there to serve his fellow employees, but his employer.  The employer is the one who is in a position to judge his work.  It is his approval that the employee must seek.

Wherever we are seeking approval – that is where our focus will be – either on men, or on God.  Paul here gives us the key to two kinds of freedom.  First, the freedom from bondage to people-pleasing.  It’s not that we are to act as if the opinions of others are worthless.  There can be great value in getting feedback from others.  We are not to be above the law and all authority.  But we are free from the private judgments of others. It is God who will judge us and He is the one we are to seek to please.  If we love Him well, we will love others well also.

We can also be free from the morbid introspection of constantly judging ourselves.  This does not mean that we should never take a look at our hearts and lives and seek to change.  That can be healthy and must be done.  But not even we are able to pronounce a judgment on ourselves as God’s servants.  That is God’s job, and we must leave it to Him and seek to focus on serving Him to the best of our ability.  

So, it is not our job to judge others. That is also God’s job.  We may be able to help them.   We may have a responsibility to rebuke or correct them if they are in sin.  Officers of the church may even have to participate in judging them in a court of the church.  But, as individuals, we must not pronounce judgment before the time, when the Lord comes.  He will judge His people.

Jesus’ wisdom and work were both misunderstood by His disciples and the people of His day.  People wanted Him to be a military hero, conquering king.  When He was teaching with authority and performing miracles, He gathered a great following.  Crowds thronged to see Him.  His approval rating was through the roof.  But throughout the gospels, we see Jesus trying to get away from the crowds, because they misunderstood His mission and sought to distract Him from His purpose.  When He was finally arrested and tried, and did not start the military uprising that people were looking for, He went from being a hero, to being a scoundrel.  They became disillusioned with Him, and asked Pilate for a revolutionary named Barabbas to be released to them instead of Jesus.  The closer Jesus got to His mission, the lower His approval rating got.  But Jesus was not living for the approval of men.  He was living for the approval of His Father.

As we follow our Savior, we can expect no more acceptance from the world than what He received.  Following Him will not tend to boost our approval rating among men.  But it is not men who will judge us.  Jesus will return to judge us.  Let us live for His approval.  He died for us and bought us to save us.  We belong to Him. 

Heavenly Father, we thank You that in Christ You have given us all things – that through faith in Him we can expect to receive the fullness of our salvation on the judgment day.  Help us to live in such a way that we would seek your approval, not the approval of men, and would live lives that are worthy of a reward from You, and which bring You much glory.