I began last week by mentioning how thorough the Apostle Paul was when writing to the church in Corinth about this problem of divisions in the church. He began to deal with this problem back in verse 10 of chapter 1; and, here we are now, in chapter 4, and he still hasn’t finished with it. He’s dealing with this problem in the most thorough and comprehensive way he knows how in order to persuade the believers in Corinth to agree with one another so that there might be no more divisions among them and that they might be perfectly united in mind and thought.
And since they were dividing themselves over their commitment to this preacher and to that preacher — I follow Paul; I follow Apollos; I follow Cephas; and so on — Paul wanted to persuade them that preachers are nothing at all. Preachers are nothing at all.
And do you remember? He used three metaphors or comparisons to convince his readers that they shouldn’t boast about preachers. First of all, he compared preachers to hired hands or labourers who are sent out by the landlord to work in the fields. One preacher sows the seed by preaching the gospel; and another preacher waters the seed by preaching the gospel; but only God can produce spiritual life and spiritual growth in those who hear the gospel. So, instead of boasting in the preacher, boast in the Lord who alone is able to cause the seed of his word to produce life in the hearts of sinners.
What else? Well, secondly, a preacher is like a builder who is building up the church of Jesus Christ by his preaching. But only when Jesus Christ returns — and not before — only when Jesus Christ returns will the quality of a preacher’s work be revealed. In other words, it’s too early to boast about any preacher today, because we must wait for Christ to return before we can see whether the preacher was relying on the right things when he conducted his ministry. Only then will it become apparent whether he was relying all along on human wisdom instead of relying as he should on the Holy Spirit. It’s too early to boast now; and we must wait for the Lord’s verdict on his ministry.
And what else? Well, thirdly, the preacher is to be regarded like the household steward. The household steward was the servant who was responsible for making sure that the members of household had everything they needed each day. So, when they came in at the end of a busy day, they were expecting the steward to have their evening meal ready for them so that they wouldn’t go to bed hungry. The steward was responsible for providing them with what they needed. And the only thing that mattered was whether or not the steward was faithful and whether the master could trust him to do what he was supposed to do. And preachers should make it their aim to be faithful stewards. But instead of bringing out food to feed your body, the preacher brings out the gospel to feed your soul. Sunday by Sunday the faithful preacher should bring out the gospel and distribute it to the members of the church, so that every member of the church is strengthened and refreshed and equipped to go back out into the world to serve our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. We come to church tired and weary; and the preacher’s calling is to serve each one of us with the gospel message which we need to hear so that we will persevere in the faith and not give up or give in. And all that the master expects of his preacher is that he is faithful in distributing God’s gospel, which alone is able to save.
Paul’s method has been to explain to the members of the church in Corinth that they’re not to boast about preachers; instead they’re to boast in the Lord who works through his preachers to give life to those who hear and believe. However, from verse 6 of chapter 4, Paul begins to take a slightly different approach. What he’s writing about in today’s passage is the way the members of the church ought to regard themselves. What he’s saying is: The way you view preachers is all wrong. And the way you view one another is all wrong too.
So, let’s look at today’s passage. In verse 6 he tells his readers that the reason he’s been talking in the previous verses about Apollos and himself and about preachers and preaching is for their own benefit. He wants them to think about what he’s been saying about preachers and preaching and to apply it to themselves and to the situation in Corinth. And he wants to ensure that they will ‘not go beyond what is written’. Do you see that at the end of verse 6? He’s referring to what is written in the Old Testament; and if you glance back over the previous chapters, you’ll see how he’s quoted from the Old Testament in several places to warn his readers about the folly of human wisdom and to remind them that instead of boasting about ourselves, we should boast only in the Lord.
So, in chapter 1 and verse 19 he quoted from Isaiah where the Lord said he will destroy the wisdom of the wise. In chapter 1 and verse 31 he quoted from Jeremiah where we’re told to boast only in the Lord. In chapter 2 and verse 9 he quoted from Isaiah again where it talks about the things God has prepared for those who love him which the unbelieving world — relying on its own wisdom — cannot know. In chapter 3 and verse 19 he quoted from Job and how the Lord will catch the wise in the cunning. And in chapter 3 and verse 20 he quoted from the Psalms and how the Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are only futile.
So, Paul has been writing about preachers and preaching to warn his readers not to go beyond what the Old Testament Scriptures have said about taking pride in humans and relying on human wisdom. He’s saying to them — and to us — that if you pay attention to what the Scriptures teach, then you won’t take pride in one person over another person. That’s what they were doing in Corinth and they must learn to stop it now.
Another translation puts the end of verse 6 like this:
Then none of you may be puffed up against one another.
And that translation helps us to see clearly what the heart of the problem was in Corinth. The heart of the problem was pride. The members of the church in Corinth were puffed up with pride. They regarded themselves too highly; and the one who belonged to one group in the church thought he was better than those who belonged to another group in the church. So, those who claimed to follow Paul thought they were better than those who claimed to follow Apollos. And those who claimed to follow Apollos thought they were better than those who claimed to follow Paul. And, of course, not only did they think they were better than the others, but they were also hostile towards the others. They weren’t just puffed up, they were puffed up against one another. They exalted themselves over one another, boasting about themselves while tearing the others down.
And isn’t that what pride does to us? When we’re proud, we compare ourselves to others and we decide they’re not as good as me. And so we look down on them and we despise them and we disregard them and we treat them as nothing. Pride turns us against other people. And since the people in Corinth were puffed up with pride against one another the result was that these divisions had been created in the church so that instead of loving and serving one another humbly, they were boasting about themselves and putting the others down. And the fellowship of the church, and the unity of God’s people, had been destroyed.
So Paul puts his finger on the heart of the problem in Corinth. And the heart of the problem in Corinth was their pride. They were boasting not only about this preacher and about that preacher, but they were boasting about themselves and they were puffed up against one another, exalting themselves against one another. And the unity of the church had been destroyed because of their pride.
Well, it’s a terrible thing, isn’t it? Have you come across people like that? People who are so full of themselves and who like to boast about themselves and what they’ve done and what they’ve said and what they’ve achieved. They tell these little stories and, of course, they’re the hero of the story because of what they did and what they said. And they’re quick to point out the faults of others. We meet people like that in our daily lives — don’t we? — and it’s bad enough. But we meet them in the church as well and it’s worse, because by the things they say and by the things they do, they spoil the peace and unity of Christ’s church.
Paul’s Response 1
Well, Paul responds to the problem in Corinth in two ways. First of all, he points out to them in verse 7 that everything they have, they have received. So, think about it: Everything natural or material gift which we possess or enjoy, has come to us from God. And every spiritual gift we have as Christians, has come to us from God. So, do you have faith? Well, God is the one who enabled you to believe in Christ and to trust in him for salvation. Have you repented? God was the one who enabled you to turn from your sin and to turn to the Saviour with faith. Have you grown in your obedience to him? God is the one who works in you by his Spirit to sanctify you and to teach you to say ‘no’ to sin. Have you some talent to use for God’s glory and for the good of his people? Well, God is the one who made you and who equipped you with those talents so that you might serve your fellow believers. Have your grown in your knowledge of the faith? Well, if you have, it’s because God has sent you preachers and teachers and he’s opened your heart by his Spirit to pay attention to their message. All that we have — whatever spiritual blessings we enjoy and whatever natural or material blessings we enjoy — all that we have, we have received from our loving heavenly Father.
In that case, why do we boast about ourselves as if we got these things by our own ability or wisdom? Why do we boast about ourselves as if we’re responsible for what we have? Why do we take credit for our faith? Why do we take credit for our repentance? Why do we take credit for any progress we’ve made in sanctification? Why do we take credit for any talent we have? Why do we boast about what we know? Why do we take credit for what we have and despise and look down on those who don’t have what we have? Why do we do it? Well, says Paul: you need to remember that everything you have has come to you from God. So, don’t boast about yourself; boast in the Lord, because he’s the source of every good gift we possess; and without him, we would have nothing. So, to him belongs all the glory and the praise.
Paul’s Response 2
That’s the first way Paul responded to their pride: he reminded them that they have nothing to boast about, because whatever they have has come to them from God. He’s the one who deserves our praise.
The second way he responded to their pride was by calling on them to imitate him. Do you see that in verse 16? He urged them to imitate him. Why should they imitate Paul? Well, because he was their father in the gospel, or their father in the faith. That’s what he tells them in verse 15. He means that they came to faith because of his ministry. He was the first Christian preacher to go to Corinth; and when he arrived at that city, he preached the gospel to them; and some of them repented and believed and a little church was formed. You can read about it in Acts 18. The point is that they came to faith because of him, which makes him their father in the gospel, or their father in the faith. And just as a son or daughter will often imitate their father and mother, so Paul urges his children in the faith to imitate him and to follow his example.
But what in him are they to imitate? Well, they’re to imitate his life. Isn’t that it? They’re to imitate his life, which was a life of suffering and humiliation rather than a life of proud boasting. And that’s what verses 8 to 13 are all about. He begins in verse 8 to use sarcasm to show them that their perspective was all wrong. You see, as far as they were concerned, now, in this life, they had all they could want. Now, in this life, they were rich. Now, in this life, they were kings. It’s as if all the blessings which we believe we’ll receive when Jesus Christ returns were available to them now, in this life. So, when Jesus Christ returns, we’ll not lack anything at all, but will receive from him fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore; and we will reign with him for ever and for ever in the new creation. That’s what we will experience when the Lord Jesus Christ comes again. But the Corinthians seemed to believe that that was available to them now, in this life. They expected a life of glory now. And they’re not the only ones who think like this, because in every generation you’ll find there are believers who expect a life of glory and power and prestige now.
But Paul’s life and the life of the other apostles was very different, wasn’t it? Their life was not a life of glory and honour and praise; it was a life of sorrow and suffering and deep humiliation. Look how he describes his life in these verses. Look at verse 9, for instance. He says that God has put the apostles on display at the end of the procession. In other words, instead of being given a place of prominence, they’ve been put at the back of the parade. And Paul probably has in mind the procession that took place in those days whenever a conquering king and his army returned from doing battle against his enemies. And the king and his men were put on the first-century equivalent of an open-topped double-decker bus and they were driven through the capital city with everyone cheering them. And at the tail end of the procession were the condemned captives, the defeated enemies, who were in chains and who were on their way to the place where they would be executed. The believers in Corinth thought they were kings. They thought they should be at the front of the parade, getting all the praise and glory. But Paul knew he was at the back of the parade, in the place of humiliation and weakness and suffering.
And then he continues to describe his life in verse 10. The Corinthians thought they were wise; but Paul and the other apostles had become fools for Christ. In other words, an unbelieving world regarded them as foolish for believing in Christ crucified. And the Corinthians thought they were so strong; but Paul and the other apostles were weak. The Corinthians expected glory and honour and praise for themselves; but Paul and the other apostles received only dishonour and shame from those who hated and despised them for what they preached about Christ. That’s what Paul’s life was like,
Look now at verses 11 and 12. To this very hour, he says, this has been our experience: instead of feasting on the food of kings, we go about hungry and thirsty; instead of wearing royal robes, we’re dressed in rags; instead of being surrounded in luxury, we’re treated brutally; instead of living in a royal palace, we’re homeless; instead of having servants to serve us, we have to work hard with our own hands. That’s our life here and now.
Nevertheless, despite all that they suffered, despite all the humiliation they went through, they were always careful to love their neighbour and to treat them with kindness. So, when people cursed them, they responded with a blessing. When people persecuted them, they endured it patiently. When people slandered them, they answered kindly. Unlike the Corinthians who quarrelled with one another and who were jealous of one another., Paul was careful to love even his enemies.
So, this was Paul’s life. In this life, he was treated as the scum of the earth and as the refuse of the world. It was a life of sorrow and suffering and a life of deep humiliation. Now, one day the sorrow and suffering and humiliation will pass away; it will be gone for good; and in its place, there will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore in the presence of the Lord in the new creation. One day, Paul and all of the Lord’s faithful people will reign with Christ over the new heaven and the new earth. That will happen one day. But not now. Not now. Right now, in this life, Paul expected sorrow and suffering and humiliation.
And having described his life, he said to his children in the faith: Imitate me. Be like me. So, instead of expecting glory and praise and honour now, be ready for suffering and humiliation now. And instead of fighting with one another now, and instead of quarrelling with one another, bless one another and answer each other kindly. And instead of going around, being puffed up with pride, walk humbly before the Lord and love and serve one another.
That’s how you should live your life, Paul was saying to his readers. And that’s how we should live our life. And if we ever think the Christian life is one of glory now, we need to realise that the Christian life is one of sorrow and suffering and humiliation now; and so it will remain until he comes again. Instead of glorifying ourselves and boasting about ourselves and promoting ourselves — the way the believers in Corinth were doing — we’re to wait for Christ to come, because when he comes, he will lift up and will glorify the humble in his presence forever.
At the end of this chapter, Paul warns his readers that he’s coming to see them. And so, he hopes that when he comes he’ll discover that they’ve listened to him and they’ve put right what had gone wrong in the church. He didn’t want to have to come to them with a whip to punish them. He was hoping he could come to them with a gentle spirit and see that the divisions he had heard about had been healed and the pride which was the heart of the problem had been removed from their hearts. He hoped they would listen to what he had been saying to them since verse 10 of chapter 1 and that they would learn to be humble.
And if ever you become guilty of the same kind of pride, so that instead of boasting in the Lord and what he has done for you, you boast about yourself, and what you have done; if ever you exalt yourself over others, so that instead of serving them humbly, you look down on everyone else; then you need to repent and believe. You need to turn from your sin in repentance; and you need to turn again to God, trusting that he will do what he has promised and that he will pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And you need to pray that he will give you the help of his Spirit so that you will die to self and love and serve the people around you; and all for the glory of God.
And, of course — and with this I finish — what Paul is saying here shouldn’t seem strange to us. It’s strange to people outside the church. Outside the church, everyone pushes themselves forward and wants to be regarded as better than everyone else. In work, someone wants the boss to notice that I’m better than the others. In relationships, someone wants to appear more attractive and interesting than the competition. On the sports field, people compete to be the best. Outside the church, it seems normal to push ourselves forward; and it seems foolish to be humble. But in the church it shouldn’t seem strange that we should humble ourselves and put other first and love and serve one another. It shouldn’t seem strange, because in the church we hear the gospel message proclaimed again and again that the Eternal Son of God humbled himself and made himself nothing in order to make peace between God and sinners. Instead of demanding honour and glory for himself, the Lord Jesus was prepared to be mocked and rejected and crucified in order to make a lasting peace between God and us. He didn’t come to be served by us, but instead he came to serve us and to lay down his life in order to pay for our sins by his death. Though he was rich, he made himself poor for our sake, so that we might be reconciled to God and become members of God’s family and receive eternal life. It shouldn’t seem strange for us to hear that we must live a humble life now and love one another, because in the gospel Jesus Christ humbled himself and gave up his life so that we might be reconciled to God forever. And he now gives us his Spirit so that we might become like him and die to self and live to love and serve one another and to bring glory and honour to our Saviour.