There were divisive parties in the Corinthian church based on teachers that different groups were following. Two of those teachers were Paul himself, and Apollos. Since the 5th verse of chapter 3, Paul has been talking about himself and Apollos – what their roles in ministry were, how they were different, how they were alike, how neither of them were worthy of glory because it is God that produces the results in ministry, and how no one is really qualified to judge His ministers except for God. Now Paul assures the Corinthians that he has been going through all this because there is something he wants them to “get”…
There is a sense in which growing up is growing down. Our kids are around their teenage years. Something that tends to happen with teenagers is that we recognize we aren’t little kids anymore. We’ve learned a lot, can do a lot. But often we can take that too far, and think and act as if we know and can do about anything. As long as we think that way, no matter how old we are, we are not going to tend to grow and mature, because we won’t think there is much of anything we need to learn or change. One way or another, we have to humble ourselves and admit our need for knowledge and growth in order to grow. Then we find that the more we know, the more we realize what we don’t know. We realize that the more we grow as a person, the more we realize that we need to grow.
These things are true spiritually as well, in our relationship with God. Paul has rebuked the Corinthians for their immaturity in being divisive. Now he seeks to move them to the path of maturity, growing up in Christ. He explains to them and to us: In order to grow up in Christ, we must grow in humility.
This path of humility is according to the Word of God, and the example of Christ.
1. According to the Word of God (6-7)
In 1 Cor. 4:6, Paul says he has applied “all these things” (that he has been talking about) to himself and Apollos for the benefit (good) of the Corinthians. He appeals to them by the tender term “brothers” (which includes the close family relationship of “sisters” as well), to learn from them and the things he has presented “not to go beyond what is written.” He is no doubt referring here to what is written in God’s Word – specifically, “that none of you be puffed up in favor of one against another.” That’s not a direct quotation from the Old Testament, but a saying that is consistent with what God’s Word teaches.
To be “puffed up” is to be proud or arrogant. Leon Morris notes that the word for being “puffed up” occurs six times in this letter, once in Colossians, and nowhere else in the NT. “Evidently, Paul regarded it as particularly appropriate in the case of the Corinthians. They, more than others, were addicted to the sin of pride.” It showed itself in their parties they divided into over their different teachers. 1 Cor. 4:6 says they were puffed up “in favor of one against the other.”
The wisdom of the world says you need to “puff yourself up” in order to succeed and have an advantage over the next person. Often in sports, athletes will “puff themselves up” for a game or an event. They will talk to themselves, and to others, perhaps even the media, about how talented they are, how they are going to dominate and how the other team or the other athlete does not have a chance. They are psyching themselves up and attempting to psych their opponents out. Perhaps no one did this more than the great boxer, Muhammad Ali. Ali would sit around and talk for hours about himself. He would talk about how fast his punches were, reminisce about the men he had defeated and knocked out. He would describe how he was going to defeat his next opponent and praise his own ability, even with poetry. All of his talk was summed up by his claim: “I am the greatest!”
Later in his life he developed Parkinson’s disease. When you see him now, you see a man who has difficulty walking and controlling his movements. Once, in talking about the disease, he said that God was teaching him that he was not really the greatest, but that God is. God had humbled him that far, at least, according to the truth of His Word.
Paul goes on to challenge the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 4:7: “For who sees anything different in you?” Here the difference in mind is something superior. The question is: “who sees you as superior?” Morris notes: Paul’s “you” is singular. He is addressing his remarks to an imaginary Corinthian who has become puffed up. For some reason, perhaps because of his knowledge or ability, he thinks he is superior to his fellow believers. So Paul asks next about his knowledge and abilities and all that he has: “What do you have that you did not receive?” The answer, of course is, “nothing.” Whatever knowledge or ability he possesses has been given to him by God, perhaps some of it through God’s servants. God’s Word tells us that. Now Paul “has them” when he asks: “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” In their boasting in their knowledge and ability, they are not acting according to the truth of God’s Word. Instead, they need to humble themselves.
Is there something you are “puffed up” about today? We have all been given different, generous gifts by God. But we have not all been given the same gifts. Some have been given greater physical strength and stature. Some have been given greater beauty. Some have been given greater intellect. Some have been given greater athletic ability. We have different personalities. Are we puffed up with pride about any of this? Even about our knowledge of God or spiritual abilities? Are we following the wisdom of the world too much, with its selfish pride? Do we think and act according to the truth of God’s Word – that all we are and have is a gift from Him, and nothing to boast about? One of the ways we can humble ourselves in this area is to more regularly thank God for the gifts and knowledge and all that He has given us. This not only returns rightful praise and worship to Him, but reminds us of the truth of His Word about ourselves. Let us humble ourselves, according to the Word of God, and…
2. According to the example of Christ (8-13)
In vv. 8-13, Paul uses sarcasm to challenge the Corinthians’ smugness in their Christian walk. Apparently, they think they have arrived at the end of their Christian journey, and are already experiencing glory. In 1 Cor. 4:8, Paul exclaims: “Already you have all you want!” The idea is that they are “full.” The word in the original language is normally used in connection with being full of food. But, Paul isn’t talking about physical food. He’s talking about spiritual food, which their teachers were supposed to feed them. They think they already have all the spiritual food they need. Paul goes on to say “Already you have become rich!” They do not need the spiritual riches that Paul has to offer them from God’s word. They are convinced that they have it all in the particular teacher they have chosen to follow. They have need of nothing.
Paul takes his sarcasm further in 1 Cor. 4:8: “Without us you have become kings!” The “us” here, we will see, is the apostles – those sent by Jesus to found His Church. The Corinthians have apparently left them behind and are enjoying the fullness of redemption in the glorious eternal state! Their thinking is too much in line with the Stoic philosopher Diogenes, who taught the catch phrase: “I alone am rich, I alone reign as king.” Rather than maturing in the Christian faith, they were following Stoic self-sufficiency.
This was exactly the problem with the church at Laodicea when Jesus gave His Revelation to the apostle John. He said to tell the church there that they were neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm, and that He would vomit them out of His mouth, because they say “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” Like the church at Laodicea, the Corinthians have become deceived into thinking that they have arrived, and have no sense of spiritual need.
The fact that Paul is being sarcastic is revealed when he says in 1 Cor. 4:8 he wishes they did reign, so he and the other apostles could reign with them, because his experience is far from that of a king. Paul says he and the other apostles have been exhibited, or put on display by God, as “last of all” – that is – the lowest and most afflicted people, “like men sentenced to death” – condemned criminals. They have been made “a spectacle to the world (kosmos is the whole universe); “to angels and to men” sums up the whole of personal beings. The word for “spectacle” is Theatron in Greek, from which we get “theater.” The imagery here is taken from the arena, where doomed gladiators entered to put on a show with their death. While the Corinthians imagine they are kings, the apostles are living as if on death row.
Paul goes on to give specifics beginning in 1 Cor. 4:10. The apostles preach the gospel, which is foolishness to the unbelieving Greek world, so they are considered fools for Christ’s sake. But the Corinthians are interested in the popular Greek rhetoric, and so are considered wise by their neighbors and themselves. The apostles are considered weak because of their sufferings, while the Corinthians are considered strong because of their ease. The Corinthians are distinguished and honored by the unbelieving world and by one another, while the apostles are treated with dishonor.
Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 4:11. Though the Corinthians act as if they are “full,” the apostles often lack enough food to eat or water to drink. Though the Corinthians act as if they are rich, the apostles are poorly dressed and homeless. Paul says they are “buffeted” (beaten). The book of Acts documents how the apostles were often beaten by mobs who were angered by their message. Paul himself was beaten numerous times, imprisoned, and even stoned and left for dead.
In 1 Cor. 4:12 Paul says he and the other apostles labor (the word used is for hard, tiresome manual labor). Paul adds “working with our own hands”. Paul himself was a tentmaker. This manual labor was not only hard, but looked down upon by the Greeks, who tended to think that manual labor was fit only for slaves.
Though the apostles are poor and mistreated, they love their enemies, as Jesus commanded. When they are reviled, or abused, they respond with blessing. When they are persecuted, they endure it. When they are defamed, or slandered, they entreat, or answer kindly. Though this was pleasing to God, for this they would have been considered “wimps” by the unbelieving Greek world. Paul’s summary in 1 Cor. 4:13 is that they have become, and are still “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
Think of what you empty out of the canister of one of those bag-less vacuum cleaners when it is full, or what is on the rag after cleaning a dirty kitchen or bathroom. That’s the idea of these words “scum” and “refuse.” Paul’s point is that the apostles were seen as the lowest of all people. It is a rebuke to the pride of the Corinthians. Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 4:14 to say…
All this was to shake the Corinthians out of their smugness and complacency. Pride had stunted their spiritual growth. But Paul says we must practice humility according to the example of Christ.
When Jesus talked about His mission to die in Jerusalem, His own disciples didn’t understand Him or believe Him. Peter even rebuked Him. He ministered as a homeless wanderer, completely dependent upon others for his food and drink and shelter. He was opposed and slandered by the religious leaders. Eventually, He was falsely accused and convicted, beaten, mocked, and crucified as a condemned criminal – the lowest of the low.
God’s Word teaches us that we, as His servants, cannot expect to be treated any different by the world than our master. For this and other reasons, it teaches us that the path of Jesus’ followers also leads through suffering. We can avoid some of that suffering from the world by compromising our faith, but that would leave us immature like the Corinthians rather than growing. In order to follow Christ, we must take the humble path of suffering that He took.
In the Lord’s Supper today, we celebrate the fact that this path of humble sacrifice has led to victory and salvation and life. In the bread and wine, we recognize Christ’s humility and humiliation in becoming one of us and suffering and dying on the cross – His body and blood. In feeding upon these things (by faith), we recognize that this path of humble sacrifice has led to resurrection, salvation, and eternal life. In this, we identify ourselves with our humble savior and His sacrifice, humbling ourselves to say that we continue to need Him and His sacrificial work to save us. By humbling ourselves and following Him, we continue to grow in Him.
Heavenly Father, Thank You for all of Your gifts, especially for Jesus, who humbled Himself to save us. Enable us to walk more deeply in the path of humility, that we may grow.