1 Corinthians 4:1-21 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. How does Paul describe himself and his fellow laborers? See 1 Corinthians 4:1 (printed below) What is the primary attribute required of such men (see verse 2 printed below?)

So then, men ought to view us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (2) With regard to this matter of stewardship, it is required that a man be found trustworthy. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2)

In verse 1 the apostle Paul describes himself and his fellow laborers as “servants of Christ” (the Greek term used here means “a personal attendant.”) He further identifies himself and his fellow laborers as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Paul views himself and his fellow apostles as being those to whom the mysteries of God (the revelation of the plan of salvation and the purposes of God) have been entrusted for public proclamation and preservation. The primary attribute required of stewards is faithfulness (verse 2). By way of example, if you are looking for a financial planner to take care of your monetary investments, one of the most important concerns would be his trustworthiness: the attributes of reliability and responsibility would be essential—these traits are all the more essential for those who are entrusted with the sacred truth of God (note 1 Timothy 1:12).

2. Paul was aware that the Corinthian Christians were critical and judgmental of him. How does Paul handle such a spirit as that exhibited by the Corinthians? See verses 3-5 (printed below)

Now it is a very insignificant matter to me that I should be judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. (4) I know of no charge against me; but this does not justify me. The one who judges me is the Lord. (5) Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time, wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the things hidden in darkness and will reveal the intentions of the hearts, and then each one shall receive from God the praise he deserves. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

Paul does not allow himself to become distraught by human judgments that evaluate him by the standards of the world rather than by the Word of God. He does not concern himself with any human day of judgment (verse 3); rather, he lives in the expectation of the divine day of judgment (verse 4)—cp. 2 Corinthians 5:9-10. In verse 5 Paul gives to the church the exhortation, “Judge nothing before the appointed time, wait until the Lord comes.” That is to say, we are to refrain from exhibiting a judgmental spirit; we must recognize that the Lord Himself is the Judge and we must not usurp His role; we must especially be careful not to bring a condemning judgment against a servant of Christ (note Romans 14:4).

3. In verses 6-16 the apostle Paul addresses the spirit of conceit and arrogance that existed in the Corinthian church. To combat and correct this sinful attitude, what questions does he ask in verse 7 (printed below?) By asking these questions, what does Paul want the Corinthians to realize?

What makes you superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you received it, why do you boast as if it had not been given to you? (1 Corinthians 4:7)

In verse 7 Paul inquires, “What makes you superior?” Paul is asking what, or who, makes the Corinthians think that they are superior and distinct from other believers in Christ. It surely was not God, because God called them into the fellowship of His Son, a fellowship that He holds with every true Christian (1 Corinthians 1:9; 1:2). He further inquires, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Whatever spiritual experiences the Corinthians have enjoyed and whatever spiritual gifts they possess, have come from God by His grace and for His glory and for the welfare of His church.

4. Speaking facetiously with the intention of exposing the foolishness of the Corinthians’ sense of self-importance, Paul contrasts the Corinthians’ position with that of the apostles. How does he describe himself and his fellow apostles in comparison to the Corinthians (see verses 9-10 printed below?)

It seems that God has put us apostles at the end of the procession, like men sentenced to death—we have been made a spectacle to the whole world, both to angels and to men. (10) We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored. (1 Corinthians 4:9-10)

Paul facetiously declares that the Corinthians are leading the procession into glory, they are at the “head of the parade.” Indeed, they have already passed through the gates of glory, while the apostles are bringing up the rear (verse 9a). With a slight alteration in his imagery, Paul declares that the apostles are not only at the tail end of this procession into glory, they are in a completely different procession: while the Corinthians are parading in triumph, the apostles are being led as prisoners to the place of execution (verse 9b). Paul goes on to declare that he and his fellow apostles are fools for Christ’s sake, while the Corinthians are wise in Christ; the apostles are weak, while the Corinthians are strong; the Corinthians enjoy glory, while the apostles experience dishonor (verse 10).

5. What warning does the apostle Paul issue to those within the church who were arrogantly defying his apostolic authority? See 1 Corinthians 4:18-21 (printed below), note, especially, verse 21.

Now since I have not come to you, some of you are arrogant. (19) But I will come to you soon, if it be the Lord’s will. Then I will know, not merely the words of those who are arrogant, but their power; (20) for the kingdom of God is not a matter of words, but of power. (21) What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4:18-21)

As he indicates in verse 18, Paul is aware that there were some within the Corinthian church who were intent on defying the spiritual authority entrusted to him by Christ: “some of you are arrogant.” In verses 19-20 Paul warns that if those who are arrogant insist on maintaining a defiant attitude towards Christ’s servants they will be confronted with the power of God. There is a divine authority, a spiritual power, that Christ exercises over the church through the church’s appointed leaders: it is an authority intended for the building up of the body (2 Corinthians 13:10). But when necessary, it is an authority to confront, rebuke, and discipline those who live contrary to the commandments of Christ—as will become evident from the apostle’s counsel to the church in chapter 5 concerning the action they are to take on behalf of Christ to discipline a brother who was persistently living in sin.