1 Corinthians 3:18 – 4:21

The Cure for Division: Get God’s Perspective on Things
1 Corinthians 3:18 – 4:21

Listen to what the Scriptures say about Worldly Wisdom (3:18-23)

Three reasons not to imbibe the world’s wisdom. Paul gives a word now to those who were using the world’s wisdom in their teaching and preaching. He gives three reasons not to do it:

  1. A word for the mind (v.18). The world’s wisdom isn’t true wisdom anyways.
  2. A word for the conscience (vv.19-20). The world’s wisdom is coming under judgment.
  3. A word for the heart (vv.21-23). We have all we could ever need as belonging to Christ, so we don’t need to borrow anything from the world.
18 Let no one deceive himself: if any one thinks himself to be wise among you in this world, let him become foolish, that he may be wise. v.18 The opening phrase is a word to the minds of those who are mistaken in their logic. It is so very easy to be deceived in this matter. We think we are wise to carry ourselves in a way that is acceptable before the world. We want our arguments, our speech, and methods of communication to be acceptable or even applauded by the world. But if we want to be truly wise, we must become foolish before the world. We must embrace the cross which is an offense to this world, and then God will open up to us His wisdom. It is counter-intuitive to the flesh.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, “He who takes the wise in their craftiness.” [Job 5:13]  20 And again, The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise that they are vain.” [Psalm 94:11] vv.19-20 Another reason not to go along with the wisdom of the world is that it is foolishness with God, and He will bring it under judgment. God won’t bless that method. Paul gives two Old Testament quotations to back this assertion up, in Job 5:13, and Psalm 94:11. So it will be at the end of this age; all the wisdom of man will find itself arrayed on the battlefield before the one who sits upon the horse. The wisest men of this world will be committing the ultimate stupidity by rejecting Christ. They will think it is wise to carry on in independence from God, but God will manifest in the end that it was vanity, and allow their own craftiness to be their undoing.
21 So that let no one boast in men; for all things are yours. 22 Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world [‘cosmos’], or life, or death, or things present, or things coming, all are yours; 23 and “ye” are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. vv.21-23 The final appeal is the most tender; it is to the heart. Why should we “boast in men” when we have “all things” through Christ? God has taken care to provide everything we need:
  1. Gifts. “Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas” – The greatest gifts belong to the church, and we can profit from their ministry and their writings.
  2. Things. “The world” – We are co-heirs with Christ and will share His inheritance, which is the entire ‘cosmos’ or created order!
  3. Conditions. “Life, or death” – Whether it be the trials of life in which we are more than conquerors, or death which brings us to heaven, it all works for our blessing.
  4. Circumstances. “Things present, or things coming” – The state of the world today and the state of the world tomorrow are all being worked out by God for our benefit!
The last verse tells us why we have all things: because we belong to Christ and are the objects of His love (“ye are Christ’s”), and because Christ is the object that fills and satisfies the heart of God (“and Christ is God’s”). Why then should we live according to the wisdom of this world?

Have God’s View of His Servants, not Man’s View (4:1-5)

vv.1-5 The Corinthians had gotten a very skewed view of the servants of God. First of all, they were judging the Apostle Paul on human standards, and they had written him off. That needed to be corrected. Also, they had exalted certain leaders among them into a place that only belongs to Christ. That too needed to be corrected.
 Let a man so account of us as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. v.1 Paul did not want the people of God to see Christ’s official servants in any other light than servants. Notice that Paul is referring to himself and Apollos (v.6), not himself and Peter, or another apostle. Apollos was not an apostle. All laborers in the Lord’s harvest are servants of Christ, not just the apostles. Neither servants nor stewards hold an exalted position. It is a privileged position, but there is no room for pride in either. In the words of our blessed Lord, “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman” (Matt. 20:26, 27). However, the Corinthians had begun to rank and compare “great men” among them. We are never to do this. They are servants “of Christ”, not of men or of parties. They are not accountable to anyone but Christ. Not only are they servants of Christ, but stewards – or caretakers and dispensers – of the “mysteries of God”. These mysteries are the secret things of God previously unknown in the Old Testament, but now revealed in the New Testament, such as the truth of the assembly, etc.
2 Here, further, it is sought in stewards, that a man be found faithful. v.2 A steward is not necessarily someone with much gift, and usually someone without a pedigree. The chief characteristic that is sought after in stewards is faithfulness (Luke 12:42; 2 Tim. 2:2). Knowledge and gift are not the most prized characteristics. The Corinthians were elevating gifted men, but gift is not godliness. Am I faithfully holding, walking in, and discharging the truth that God has committed to my trust? In Ezra 8:30-34 the priests and Levites (every Christian is both) were entrusted with vessels of gold and silver to safely bring across the desert to Jerusalem. Before they left, the vessels were weighed and measured, and all was written down. When they arrived, everything was measured and weighted again to ensure nothing was lost. This is what it means to be faithful. Paul had done this! He did not keep back anything of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
3 But for me it is the very smallest matter that I be examined [‘anakrino’] of you or of man’s day. Nor do I even examine [‘anakrino’] myself. v.3 The word “examine” here is equivalent to a modern pre-trial hearing; a period of questioning before the trial begins. In v.5 the word is “judge” with refers to the actual trial; the final determination. Paul’s point here is that even the preliminary assessment of the Lord’s servants is something that was never committed to man.
  1. “Of you” – Whether it be the Corinthians assessing him, Paul discounted it as cheap. 
  2. “Of man’s day” – Whether it be the general opinion of the world during the time of Christ’s rejection, Paul thought it unworthy of credulity. 
  3. “Nor myself” – Whether it be his own self-assessment, Paul wouldn’t do it, because assessment of the Lord’s servants is the Lord’s prerogative.
Dispensational Days. There are three time periods referred to in scripture as “days”. They provide a simple yet helpful way to organize world history: not only past and present, but future as well. “The day of man” (1 Cor. 4:3) is when man has his way. “The day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2) is when the Lord has His way. (See also “the day of Christ”; 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:10; Phil. 2:16.) “The day of God” is when God has His way, in the eternal state. It is also called “the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Read more…
4 For I am conscious of nothing in myself; but I am not justified by this: but he that examines [‘anakrino’] me is the Lord. v.4 It wasn’t that Paul was living recklessly, because there was “nothing” in himself to his knowledge that the Lord wouldn’t approve of. But he knew that while a good conscience is vital, the ultimate examination or assessment is from the Lord. The servant of Christ is immediately responsible to the Lord; this is an extremely important priority to understand. After all, Christ gave the gifts (Eph. 4), they were not handed out by the church! The church is not to get between Christ and His servants, but to help them and encourage them. It was the church arrogating to itself authority to regulate ministry that led to Catholicism and Popery. Now, to be clear, as members of the Church of God every believer is accountable to the administration of their local assembly. If a minister of Christ gets off on practice or doctrine they are answerable to their brethren (1 Cor. 5:12; 6;1). But as regards their service they answer to Christ alone.
5 So that do not judge [‘krinete’] anything before the time, until the Lord shall come, who shall also both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and shall make manifest the counsels of hearts; and then shall each have his praise from God. v.5 We are not to make any judgments about the servants of Christ before the time of the judgment seat of Christ. The word here is “judge”, not “examine” as in vv.3-4. It is a categorical judgment like when a jury issues a verdict. This is precisely what the Corinthians were presuming to do. The result of examining the servants of Christ is that we might end up passing judgment on them, and writing them off. They were judging a person’s entire service, both actions and motives. The only one competent to give a final judgment is the Lord, and He will judge two things: (1) “the hidden things of darkness” which are actions that no one else saw, and (2) “the counsels of hearts” which are the secret motives. Neither of those things can a mere human judge take into account. But when the Lord exposes those things (particularly the motives), “then shall every man have praise of God. The point is, in the end the praise will be from God, not man. How foolish to labor now for man’s applause and suffer loss in that day. How much better to labor now for Christ’s approval and be rewarded with praise of God! As a side note (not the main point), it does say every man will receive praise. Even if a person’s life may appear to be in shambles, yet if there is divine life, there will be something for God; if not an action then at least a right motive of the heart. God is gracious! He will praise whatever is of Him, even if it be a needle in a haystack.
The Judgment Seat of Christ. 

In John 5, the Lord Jesus explained that God the Father has chosen to give up His right to judge men, so that the Son of man will have that place exclusively. Judgment as a whole, and in all its forms, is committed to the Son; "that man whom he hath ordained" (Acts 17:31). The reason for the Son's being invested solely with this authority is given in John 5:27; because He is the Son of man. Read more... As the judge of all men, the Lord Jesus Christ will hold a solemn tribunal, or judgment seat. The Greek word is 'bema' (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10), which means ‘raised platform’, or ‘dais’. The same word is used in Matt. 27:19 and John 19:13 for the raised platform that Jesus stood on accused before the Jews, called Pavement, or in Hebrew, Gabbatha. It is the same word for the platform Herod sat on in Acts 12:21 on that fateful day when he refused to give God the glory. Every bema-seat of worldly monarchs has been corrupt. One day, Christ will have His true bema-seat, and He will judge righteous judgment (Isa. 32:1). Who will stand before that judgment seat? All men, believers and unbelievers, will appear before the judgment seat, and their lives will be reviewed.

Read more…
The Ins and Outs of Judging. In Matthew 7:1 the Lord said “Judge not, that ye may not be judged”. He was addressing a hypercritical spirit, which is the habit or tendency to impute evil motives in that which we do not know and which does not meet the eye. This applies to judging what is concealed (1 Sam. 2:3). We have clear commands to judge what is open. We are to judge doctrine (1 Cor. 10:15), open sin (1 Cor. 5:12), disputes among brethren (1 Cor. 6:2), and the character of ministry (1 Cor. 14:29). All these things are open. What do we not judge? We are not to judge technicalities of a person’s actions merely by the appearance (John 7:24), someone’s personal convictions (Rom. 14:3), and someone’s service for the Lord (1 Cor. 4:3).

Learn from the Apostles’ Humility: a Contrast to Corinthian Pride (4:6-16)

vv.6-21 Paul does not close out the subject of division without speaking to the leaders. Up to this point he has been primarily dealing with the “followers”. Beginning in v.6, he addresses
  • vv.6-7, their spirit of pride;
  • vv.8-13, their lifestyle that was worldly and contradictory; 
  • vv.14-16, their ministry that was man-centered and lacked fatherly care.
 6 Now these things, brethren, I have transferred, in their application, to myself and Apollos, for your sakes, that ye may learn in us the lesson of not letting your thoughts go above what is written, that ye may not be puffed up one for such a one against another. v.6 Paul had wisely “transferred” these things to himself and Apollos “in a figure” so as to conceal the real names of their party leaders. This makes sense too because Paul is the last person that the Corinthians would be following (1 Cor. 9:1-14). The fault lay primarily with the followers, and the omission of the actual names allowed Paul to focus on the principles at the root of division instead of lending notoriety to the conspicuous leaders. It takes special discernment from God when dealing with divisive issues in the assembly. Naming names is a serious move, and Paul only did so when writing to individuals (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2:17; 4:10, 14) except in the case of Euodias and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). However, Paul had a positive reason for transferring the names; that the Corinthians might learn a lesson “in” Paul and Apollos, by seeing the humility displayed in their service. There was no rivalry between them. How is a believer preserved from getting into competition with fellow-believers? By not letting your thoughts go above what is written”. That is, by taking our thoughts only from the Word of God, and not from the wisdom of this world. The Word of God makes much of Christ, and nothing of man. This verse shows that there is a direct connection between carnality and worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 3:1). Immersion of our mind into the God’s Word is a “lesson” we all need to learn to escape the ravaging effects of competition and strife.
7 For who makes thee to differ? and what hast thou which thou hast not received? but if also thou hast received, why boastest thou as not receiving? v.7 If you have a gift that makes you somehow different from your brethren, it is not something to glory in. The gift came from the Lord, not from you! They were thinking that they had somehow merited their gifts, rather than received them from God. If you could have merited it, worked for it, paid tuition for it, or been born with it then it wouldn’t be a gift. Paul is addressing the root of their difficulties: pride. They took glory for themselves that belonged to God. The gifted ones knew they were different, but they didn’t think much about who makes” each one different… it is God. Man’s pride stems from ignorance of God. We have nothing that we did not receive from God. See notes on spiritual gifts.
8 Already ye are filled; already ye have been enriched; ye have reigned without us; and I would that ye reigned, that “we” also might reign with you. v.8 Paul then delivers a withering rebuke. The Corinthians had conducted themselves in a spirit of pride, and they had lost their pilgrim character. They were “filled” with fine foods and wines while the apostles were hungry; they were “enriched” with material riches while the apostles were poor; they “reigned” in high secular places while the apostles suffered reproach. Truly, bad doctrine (worldly wisdom) had led to bad practice (worldliness). There is a reigning time, but it is future – in the Millennial kingdom of Christ. Paul wasn’t looking for the Corinthians to be losers; he wanted them to reign, only he wanted them to reign at the appointed time. The word “now” or “already” in v.8 is contrasted with the “then” in v.5. When the appointed time came, “then” the apostles would reign with them, all together as the co-heirs of Christ! At that time we will be full; for the Lord’s desire is that we “may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30). This was spoken to the apostles, but it can be applied to us. But presently Christ is rejected, and we are to suffer with Him now if we want to reign with Him then (2 Tim. 2:12)!
The full blown results of human wisdom in the things of God are seen in the false church. She “hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow” (Rev. 18:7).
9 For I think that God has set us the apostles for the last, as appointed to death. For we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men. v.9 The word “spectacle” is literally the word “theater”. It is an allusion to the amphitheater, where chariot races, plays, and circus acts were performed for the pleasure of the crowds. By saying “God has set us… for the last, as appointed to death” Paul refers to the way the Romans would reserve the greatest entertainment in the Circus Maximus for the very end of the show. They would end the show with bloodshed; enemies of the state were beaten, butchered by gladiators, and torn by wild animals, etc. It was ultimate humiliation. This is the life and character of the true servants of Christ; willingness to suffer and die for Him. But that spectacle is seen, not only by “men” who mock the lowly path of a Christian, but also by “angels” who wonder with great admiration at the devotedness of those servants who will follow the footsteps of their Master! How different from the Corinthians who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. They had grown worldly under the influence of human wisdom.
10 “We” are fools for Christ’s sake, but “ye” prudent in Christ: “we” weak, but “ye” strong: “ye” glorious, but “we” in dishonour. v.10 The Corinthians had tried to make Christianity prudent, strong, and glorious in their world. But for the apostles, Christianity meant appearing as fools, as weak, and as dishonorable before the world. In a masterful way, the Apostle pulls at the strings of both heart and conscience. With a mixture of sarcasm and sadness, the Apostle juxtaposes the Corinthians’ place with their own. “Our blood is being split upon the sands of the arena, but you are reclining in the grandstands. We are living on bread and water, but you are eating steak. People look down on us as less than dirt, but you have maintained your social class. How did you manage to do that?” All this was said with deep feeling and real love for the Corinthians. It should speak to our consciences as well, especially because we live in North America where we have every invention and resource to shield us from suffering.
11 To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are in nakedness, and buffeted, and wander without a home, 12 and labour, working with our own hands. Railed at, we bless; persecuted, we suffer it13 insulted, we entreat: we are become as the offscouring of the world, the refuse of all, until now. vv.11-13 The continual state of the apostles’ was one of suffering and reproach. It was their portion “to the present hour” or “until now”. In ch.15 Paul says “we endanger ourselves every hour”. He says “I die daily”. Paul was writing from Ephesus where he had been attacked by “beasts” who hated the name of Christ and what Christianity would do to their trade (1 Cor. 15:30-32). Did all this persecution and reproach bring out the flesh? No, they responded to “railing” (abusive language) with “blessing”. Neither did they shrink from it, but rejoiced to suffer for Christ (Acts 5:41). What a contrast to the Corinthians!

Be willing to Take Correction: Timothy Sent, Paul to Follow (4:17-21)

vv.14-21 These verses address the need for the Corinthians to take the correction Paul was administering. In the process, we get a beautiful treatise on spiritual fathers. See the summary at the end of this section!
14 Not as chiding do I write these things to you, but as my beloved children I admonish youv.14 Paul was motivated by concern for them. It was not merely “chiding”, which is complaining out of discontentedness. It was with the same care that a loving father “admonishes” his children. In principle, this is similar to “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). Paul knew that his words would shock and hurt them, but he spoke so strongly out of love. A father is willing to discipline his child because he loves them and knows that it is for their good and blessing.
15 For if ye should have ten thousand instructors [‘paidagogous’in Christ, yet not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus “I” have begotten you through the glad tidings. v.15 It is one thing to have public gift, it is another thing to have a fatherly character in our ministry. If there is going to be power in our ministry, there has to be care in it. The ministry in Corinth was empty of care. They really didn’t have 10,000 instructors in Christ, but even if they did, it wouldn’t meet their true need. Mr. Kelly translates the word ‘paidagogous’ as “child-guides”, or it could be “boy-leaders” or “escorts”. Notice that the Spirit carefully avoids the word “teachers”, which is a different Greek word (‘didaskalous’). Teaching is a gift, and not one to be despised. The point here is that the leaders in Corinth were “guiding” or “escorting” the saints after their own persons, instead of into the truth. They pointed to themselves instead of Christ. A child-guide would lose his job when the child grew up. By contrast, a father desires to see growth. Yet Corinth did have one father figure… Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15), but they were not acknowledging him or his house. Now Stephanas had joined Paul, and would have personally been absent when this was read. Fathers are willing to speak against evil, and they are willing to put themselves out to encourage the weak. Also, fathers have a way of diffusing strife among children, rather than encouraging a party spirit or competition. A father doesn’t go off in the corner with his favorite brethren. A father will fight to the death for the sake of the gospel, but will be as gentle as a nurse with a young believer (1 Thess. 2:7). Paul is here offering to be their spiritual father! He had “begotten them through the gospel” and was well qualified, but they had snubbed him for better orators, etc.
16 I entreat you therefore, be my imitators. v.16 The Corinthians could benefit tremendously from taking the place as Paul’s children. Paul wanted them to imitate himself, but not blindly. He goes on in v.17 to say “of my ways in Christ”. In 1 Cor. 11:1 Paul again says “Be my imitators” and adds “even as I also am of Christ”. Paul wasn’t looking for a following, but for the saints to join him in the path of faith and service, in spite of reproach and shame. This is another thing about fathers; they lead by example.
 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timotheus, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who shall put you in mind of my ways as they are in Christ, according as I teach everywhere in every assembly. v.17 He had sent Timotheus with this epistle to see that it was received, but here we find another reason. Timothy was intimately acquainted with Paul’s ways, having traveled with him, and being himself a faithful child of Paul in the Lord. Timothy was not Paul’s natural relative, but Paul had adopted him in a spiritual way. As such, Timothy was well suited to show them what Christianity was supposed to look like. Paul taught the same doctrine “everywhere in every assembly”. The idea of ecclesiastical independency is deeply unscriptural. Paul did not have one standard for the Corinthians and another for the Ephesians, etc. This is one of many occasions in his epistles where Paul explicitly declares that the doctrines contained herein are for the whole Church, at all times; see 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Cor. 7:17; 1 Cor. 11:16; 1 Cor. 14:36-37; 1 Cor. 16:1. This is remarkable because the teachings of 1 Corinthians are some of the most hotly detested among Christians as being “for Corinth only” (e.g. head coverings). Paul was consistent in his doctrine and walk wherever he went or wrote. Consistency is another characteristic of fathers.
18 But some have been puffed up, as if I were not coming to you; 19 but I will come quickly to you, if the Lord will; and I will know, not the word of those that are puffed up, but the power. vv.18-19 Paul anticipates the response to sending Timothy instead of coming himself. Some would say “we told you, he’s not coming… let’s carry on as before”. They would think that he was afraid to visit Corinth. He sharply corrects that thought, assuring them that he would come, if the Lord was willing, and when he did, those who were puffed up would be set straight. When he came, he would “know” or “set the facts straight” about the “power” of these proud leaders. Not “the word” of these ones, that is, he would not debate with them or compare oratory skills. Rather, he would manifest “the power” of them; i.e. show that they did not have the power of God in their ministry.
20 For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. v.20 The “kingdom of God” is the moral kingdom that God is forming in the hearts of His people. Loosely speaking, we can think of the kingdom of God as “the things of God”. We are told in Rom. 14:17 that the kingdom of God is not in external things like eating and drinking, but in moral principles such as “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”. Here we find that in Christian ministry, God is not looking for showmanship, or great oratory skills. He is looking for “the power”, that is, the reality or substance. A brother might have a smooth way of speaking, but if he is not walking with the Lord there will be no moral power, and eventually it will be manifest.
21 What will ye? that I come to you with a rod; or in love, and in a spirit of meekness? v.21 Paul had said he was coming (whether ☑), and coming soon (when ☑), but he leaves the manner of his coming (how □) up to them as a choice. Paul was a father also in that he did not want to use the rod. He was taking the proper steps to train them via letter, sending Timothy, etc. that he might not have to use the rod. In 2 Cor. 1:23 we find that Paul wanted to spare them, not only because the rod hurts, but because he didn’t want to have dominion over their faith. There is a real benefit to learning something on our own without being forced. That way the conscience is engaged, and spiritual growth occurs. It is certainly the happier path to learn that way.
Spiritual Fathers. Let’s review a few of the characteristics of spiritual fathers in vv.14-21. 
  • Love and concern for the children; care enough to discipline (v.14) 
  • Ministry that is Christ-centered and encourages unity instead of party-making (v.15) 
  • Leading by example (v.16) 
  • Consistency in doctrine and walk (v.17) 
  • Willingness to take a stand against evil (vv.18-19) 
  • Moral power in one’s life and ministry (v.20) 
  • A preference for gentle, patient instruction rather than force (v.21)