For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

4:1.  “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

So, far from wishing that he or Apollos might be heads of parties, Paul wanted the Corinthians to realize that they were but two of Christ’s servants, and it is interesting to note that the word for servant is that which denotes an under-rower.  The figure is particularly apt, reminding us that the Church is like a ship sailing through the great sea of humanity on her way home to heaven.  (In Isa 57:20 the sea is used as a figure of the unconverted masses of humanity).  But in the course of her journey, she is responsible to make every effort to draw men and women out of that great sea by being God’s fishermen using the net of the Gospel to win men for Christ, as declared by the Lord Himself to the first disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

In those days ships were propelled by the wind, rowing being used only when it wasn’t practical to use the sails, and we should note that the wind is one of the Biblical symbols of the Holy Spirit.  It is He, and He alone, Who is to direct the course of the Church, local as well as universal.  Paul’s being an under-rower reminds us that the one who directed his “rowing” was also the Holy Spirit.  Paul didn’t act at the direction of men, nor should any believer.  No believer, not even an elder, is authorized to direct the service of another saint.  That is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit.  In verse 16 the Apostle exhorts the Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me.”  That exhortation applies also to us.  As Paul was submissive to the Holy Spirit’s control, so are we also to be.

“... and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  Here another figure is used to demonstrate the position of Paul and Apollos.  The word for steward denotes here a confidential slave who was entrusted with the care of the household.  He and Apollos were such servants, entrusted by the Lord with the care of the household of faith.  While the emphasis is still upon their being servants, the position is different from that of an under-rower in a ship.  There, the emphasis is upon their absolute submission to the Master; here, there is also the implication that though they were servants, they had authority to enforce the Master’s wishes relative to the running of the household.  Paul and Apollos were servants, but they were servants with authority, a reminder that while no man is to direct the service of another believer, elders are to be obeyed relative to the preservation of Scriptural order in the household of faith.  These two areas of authority should not be confused.

“... of the mysteries of God.”  These mysteries were simply the truths which had not been disclosed in previous ages (Eph 3:5), but were now being revealed, not to every man, but to believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt ungrieved and unquenched.  Those mysteries are still kept hidden from the unbeliever, see 2:14; and in large measure also from the carnal believer.

4:2.  “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.”

The necessity of a steward’s faithfulness is introduced here because some in Corinth were questioning Paul’s authority as a steward of Christ, their implication being that he was an unfaithful servant, and as such was not to be obeyed.  He wishes to establish the fact that it is not man, but the Lord alone Who has the right to pronounce judgment on his or any man’s service.

4:3.  “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self.”

This may not be construed as disparagement of them or their judgment.  Paul was merely pointing out that no man is capable of judging another’s service, for the simple reason that no man is able to discern the motives impelling that service.  Even he himself was incapable of rightly judging the worth of his service, for he realized that all men have an inherent tendency to judge themselves in a favorable light.

Others have pointed out that the underlying thoug­ht here seems to be that of the contrast between this the day of human judgment, and that soon-coming day of Christ’s.  How much of human judgment will then be revealed to have been wrong simply because those who judged lacked the ability to discern the hidden motives impelling the service of the one judged!

It should be noted that the emphasis here is upon the need to refrain from judging a man’s service, but the prohibition doesn’t embrace all judgment.  There are things which we are to judge, see, for example, Mt 7:15-23; 1 Co 6:1-6; 11:31, etc.

4:4.  “For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.”

“I know nothing by myself” is literally “I know nothing against myself.”  Paul was unaware of any delinquency in his stewardship, yet he willingly acknowledged that that didn’t justify him.  There might well have been failure of which he himself was unaware.  The proper appraisal of his service (and of every man’s) must await the judgment seat of Christ, for only He is capable of rendering a right judgment.  This attitude will preserve us from complacency regarding our own service, and from censure relative to that of others.

If we were more conscious of that inevitable examination of our lives at the judgment seat of Christ we would be more careful of our conduct.  It would deliver us from much careless living if we stopped to realize that the activity of every minute will come under the scrutiny of those eyes from which nothing can be hidden, the motives being as clear to Him as the deeds themselves.

4:5.  “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then will every man have praise of God.”

Again, this is to be understood in context.  It relates only to the matter of service, and does not preclude our judging things outside that particular sphere.

“The hidden things of darkness” mentioned here are generally taken to refer to what cannot now be fully discerned, and while that thought is certainly admissible it doesn’t exclude the fact that the reference may include also the things that belong to the realm of spiritual darkness.  It is to be feared that some at least of what passes today for service to the Lord, will be revealed on that day to have been simply the activity of the old nature, and therefore a work of darkness in its worst sense.

The counsels of the heart are literally the motives which prompted the activity.  As noted already, the motive is more important than the service, for if the motive isn’t pure the work is worthless; and relative to what constitutes a pure motive, it is Paul himself who reminds us that the motive must be love - love for the Lord, expressing itself in love for others (1 Co 13:1-3).

In this connection it is necessary to note that love is not the sentiment which is generally equated with love, but rather that willingness to act towards others as we would towards those we do love sentimentally.  This makes it possible for us to indeed love all men, and incidentally it will be easier to act towards them in love if we remember that the Lord loved us enough to die for us when we were unlovable.

“... then will every man have praise of God.”  This doesn’t mean that the Lord will indiscriminately praise every believer, but rather that everyone will get the praise he deserves.

4:6.  “And these things, brethren, I have transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above what is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one again­st another.”

Rather than naming those who were taking the place of teachers in the Corinthian assembly and fostering party spirit for their own advancement, Paul wisely used himself and Apollos as examples of what godly teachers ought to be, thus providing opportunity for the unnamed offenders to heed his words and take their proper place without the embarrassment of public censure which would only have compounded the problem. 

As is made clear in verse 19 however, those refusing to obey would be censured publicly during his purposed visit to Corinth.  The lesson shouldn’t be missed.  In maintaining Scriptural order in the assembly, every effort ought to be made to save offenders unnecessary embarrassment, but where they despise that gracious consideration and refuse to submit to God’s Word they are not to be spared.  God’s honor is not to be made subservient to human feelings.

His using himself and Apollos as examples of what a true servant ought to be, was to teach the believers the folly of going beyond what Scripture permitted in their judgment of God’s servants: as another rendering gives it, “That none of you may speak boastfully of one teacher to the disparagement of another.”

4:7.  “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?”

He further rebukes their unscriptural discrimination by reminding them that whatever they had, had been given them by God, and was not the result of anything for which they themselves could claim credit.  It may well be, as many believe, that the pride the Apostle had to censure was in relation to their spiritual gifts, with which they had indeed been richly endowed, see 1:5-7, and if this is so it behooves every believer, but particularly those who have been given a gift that brings them into prominence, to beware that that which God has given to be used for His glory and the good of others, doesn’t become the source of the same pride as Paul here censures.

4:8.  “Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.”

This is sarcastic irony designed to impress upon them the fact that their conduct was akin to what might have been expected of believers in the Millennium.  Their complacency indicated unconsciousness of any lack, and was remarkably similar to the attitude of the Laodicean church rebuked by the Lord through John in a later day.  Since the Millennium will be the time when the Church will reign with Christ, the sarcastic allusion to it as having already come, would indicate that the Corinthians had abandoned their God-given work of seeking the lost, for until the moment of her rapture to heaven, the Church’s work is to preach the Gospel.

Paul’s heartfelt wish was that the Millennium had indeed come, for then he and his fellow Apostles would also be reigning with Christ.  But it hadn’t come.  Far from it!   And the folly of the Corinthians was disclosed in that their lifestyles were so drastically different from those of the apostles, the very men whom God had given to all the churches as examples of what Christians ought to be while awaiting the Lord’s return.

4:9.  “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.”

Paul uses the figure of a victor’s parade in which the prisoners appointed to die in the arena, brought up the rear.  As those prisoners furnished sport for the crowds who thronged the arena, so, Paul felt, did he and his fellow apostles provide entertainment for a world that had crucified Christ, and that hated His servants with the same murderous malice, the degree of hate being proportionate to the faithfulness of the testimony borne for Christ.

As for the angels, it is clear that those who were holy would look with compassion; the unholy, with malevolent glee.

Nothing has changed.  The world still hates the Lord and those who are His, so that our faithfulness is still measured by the degree in which we enjoy the world’s approval, or endure its malice.  He is a wise man who lives his life in view of the judgment seat of Christ, valuing the Lord’s commendation above all else.

4:10.  “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised.”

It was only in the eyes of an unbelieving world that the apostles were fools.  In the eyes of Christ they were wise above many. 

Since the apostles were also wise in Christ, it may be that Paul’s allusion to the wisdom of the Corinthians was purely ironic; or it may be, as some have concluded, that they were wise in the eyes of the world only because they had ceased to preach the Gospel, and were instead misusing the Scriptures to display their ability as orators and debaters.  There is great need for care that our own increased knowledge of Scripture doesn’t result in its being similarly prostituted.

The references to weakness and strength are also relative.  It was only in the view of an unbelieving world that the apostles were weak, and the Corinthians strong.  In the sight of Christ it was just the reverse.  We ought not to forget what is written concerning weakness and strength, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Co 12:9-10).

The honor accorded the Corinthians, and the contempt with which the apostles were viewed, were also relative.  Since the Lord’s evaluation was just the reverse, the lesson being taught is that it is folly to be courting the favor of a world whose sin-blinded eyes cause its judgment to contradict Christ’s.

4:11.  “Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;”

It is apparent that the state of the Corinthians was the direct opposite of that of the apostles, reminding us again that outward circumstances are not the barometer by which to measure the Lord’s attitude towards us.  Some of His choicest saints are those whose outward circumstances belie their spiritual state, their earthly riches being in inverse proportion to their spiritual wealth.

We do well to note also that their penury was in regard to basic necessities: food, drink, clothing, and shelter.  How often our own complaint is in regard to lack of luxuries!  What revelations there will be at the judgment seat of Christ!

4:12.  “And labor, working with our hands: being reviled, we bless: being persecuted, we suffer it:”

The apostles, who had every right to have their temporal needs met by those to whom they ministered so unstintingly in spiritual things (see, for example, 9:6-14), nevertheless did manual labor to support themselves, “lest,” as he says in 9:12 “we should hinder the gospel of Christ.”  There are many today who not only have no such compunction, but who, when questioned as to their indolence, or extravagant lifestyles, reject all such questions with haughty disdain.  There is need for discernment today relative to our giving.  It is poor stewardship that responds unquestioningly to every plea presented.

Their response to revilement was to bless, and while the exact form of the blessing isn’t disclosed, one obvious one comes to mind: we can always pray for those who similarly abuse us.  Likewise in regard to persecution: we can emulate the apostles and endure it patiently, remembering what is written in Heb 12:3, “For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.”

4:13.  “Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.”

What form their entreaty took isn’t stated, but there can be little question that it would have included a plea to those who maligned them, to give heed to the Gospel.

It is believed by some that their being looked upon as filth and offscouring, goes beyond their being regarded as worthless, Vine, for example, declaring that “Among the Greeks the term was applied to victims sacrificed to make expiation.  They also used it of criminals kept at the public expense, to be thrown into the sea, or otherwise killed, at the outbreak of a pestilence, etc., so as to cleanse away the defilement of the nation.”  The thought appears to be that these servants of God were viewed as being unfit to cumber the earth.  They should be put to death, and thus removed from the world as men would remove rubbish from their sight.

4:14.  “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.”

Paul wished them to know that his anger at their conduct was prompted by love, for he knew what evil results would follow their continuing in such folly as he had had to expose.  Nor does it mean that they shouldn’t have been ashamed: they should.  It was that shaming them wasn’t his ultimate objective.  It was a necessary step towards their recovery, for their being ashamed would have been the proof that his words had had the proper effect of enabling them to see the full extent of their folly.  As a sinner must see his lost state before he looks for a Savior, so must an erring saint see his sin before he can be expected to repent and forsake it.

Nor could any appeal have been more likely to produce the necessary effect.  He addressed them as children whose spiritual father he was, having begotten them through the Gospel.

4:15.  “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

Whether it be in the temporal or the spiritual realm, there is a world of difference between an instructor and a father, for no matter how caring the teacher, his concern for the pupil can never equal that of the father.  There might be many to instruct the Corinthians, but none could care for their spiritual welfare with the love that motivated Paul in all his dealings with them.  He rebuked them because he loved them as a father loves his children; and though it might incur their anger and rejection, he was willing to pay that price if it resulted in their being restored to the path of obedience and blessing.  He was concerned about their welfare, not his own.

Paul’s agony for his converts is likened to birth pangs in Ga 4:19, where he writes, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you....”  That which pertains to the Gospel, and the care of those led to Christ, is no light matter.  It is to be our primary concern, and it is largely lack of that concern that accounts for so little effort in the Gospel today.

Faithful teachers who are willing to sacrifice personal popularity for the well-being of their pupils, are not to be despised.  Nor should the teacher ever forget that his work is not to win popularity for himself, but to build up the saints.

4:16.  “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers (imitators) of me.”

The word “followers” is better rendered “imitators.”  The would-be party leaders were looking for followers, but Paul wanted none of that.  He simply wanted all of them to imitate him, because he sought to imitate Christ.  It is doubtful if there has ever been another (except the Lord), who could extend such an invitation, and it is to be noted that Paul could offer it only because he himself walked in the steps of Christ, “Be followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (11:1).  That such a walk is possible for every believer, is declared in the fact that Paul was just a man subject to the same testings as beset all others; and that it is a reasonable expec­tation, is further assured in that he ex­horted the Ephes­ian and Philippian saints also to walk in the same fashion, “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children” (Eph 5:1); “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Php 3:17).

As children tend to imitate their natural fathers, so, Paul reminded his Corinthian children, should they imitate him, their spiritual father.

4:17.  “For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.”

This is not to be construed merely as that Timothy would remind them verbally of how Paul lived.  The Apostle’s unqualified commendation of his “beloved son” in the faith, carries also the clear implication that it would be by his own lifestyle, as well as his words, that Timothy would remind them of the Apostle’s manner of living, for clearly, he himself walked in Paul’s footsteps.  It would be well if our spiritual mentors could repose the same confidence in us. 

It is to be noted, incidentally, that Timotheus means honoring God, and it is to be noted also that Paul uses the term Lord, which implies the lordship of Christ over every believer’s life.

“... as I teach every where in every church” assures us that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are not, as some insist, unique to that assembly, and without relevance to the present day.  God’s commands may not be thus easily circumvented.  The teaching given the Corinthians was the same as that given “in every church,” and is as applicable today as then. 

4:18.  “Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you.”

Those “puffed up” with arrogant self-importance were undoubtedly the false teachers, and there may have been included also some of the congregation.  They erroneously mistook his sending Timothy as assurance that Paul himself was afraid to come and face them.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  He fully intended coming, but, as the next verse makes clear, he would not come until it was the Lord’s time for him to do so. 

The fact that such a wrong construction had been put upon his sending Timothy, must have presented great temptation to Paul to construe that as ample reason for going to Corinth immediately, but perfect submission to his Lord’s will, and not the expediency of the moment, governed Paul’s life, hence the power that marked his ministry.  The lesson God would teach is that the same power will be seen in our own lives in direct proportion to our submission to His will, for obedience is the prerequisite of power.

4:19.  “But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.”

An obvious question is, In what way is this Divine power to be seen in a believer’s life today? and immediately we must dismiss what is generally called “miraculous manifestation” such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and prophecy (in the sense of receiving revelation other than that already contained in Scripture), for, as is declared in chapter 13, these gifts were for the Apostolic age only, and ceased with the completion of the canon of Scripture.  (The prophet has given place to the teacher, see 2 Pe 2:1, the work of the latter being to explain, not to add to, what has been revealed to the prophets, that revelation having been completed when John penned the last word of Revelation).

Part of the answer is found in 2:4.  It was displayed in the effect produced by the Gospel as Paul preached it.  It was attended by conviction that produced repentance, and resulted in conversions.  The Corinthians themselves were the living proof of that power.  It had turned them from idolatry to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Another proof is suggested in Gal 5:22 which lists the fruit of the Spirit.  The same power in the Gospel which changes sinners into saints, also works in their lives to produce the fruits of the Spirit.

And yet another is suggested in 2:14.  It is only by the power of the Spirit that a man can understand the Scriptures.  This is not to say that every saint understands the meaning of everything written in Scripture.  Such an idea is negated by the fact that teaching, as noted already, is a spiritual gift.  What it does mean is that every believer, because he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, has the capacity to understand what godly teachers point out from the Scriptures; the ability of teacher and student alike being governed by the degree to which the Holy Spirit is unquenched and ungrieved in each.  The disobedient teacher’s ability to understand what is written, is no less diminished than is the ability of a disobedient saint to understand what he reads or hears.  Hence the need for implicit obedience on the part of teachers and hearers alike.

4:20.  “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.”

Though often used synonymously, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are not exactly the same, the broad distinction being that generally speaking the kingdom of God refers to the absolute rule of God over all creation, while the kingdom of heaven generally refers to the sphere of profession, false profession obviously not being subject to His rule.  The aptness of “the kingdom of God” here is apparent, for there is power only where God does rule.

We should note also that the power associated with the kingdom of God, i.e., with God’s rule, is not exactly the same thing as the good works upon which James dwells.  The works are the evidence of submission, but not necessarily of power, e.g., submission may lead a man to die for Christ’s sake, without there being any manifestation of Divine power connected with that death.  The works might be described as the negative evidence; the power, as the positive evidence of obedience.  The same obedience is needed for the courage to die for Christ, as is needed to preach so that souls are saved, but men for the most part will see the power manifested only in connection with the latter.

4:21.  “What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?”

Paul speaks here with Apostolic authority.  Their choice is in regard to the manner, not the matter of his coming.  His coming is certain.  Whether it would be a pleasant visit was up to them, and depended on their response to his letter, and to the words of Timothy.

There is remarkable similarity to our own position relative to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, and His review of our lives at the Bema.  That meeting is inevitable, “For me must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Co 5:10), see also Ro 14:10.  Our response to His Word and the exhortations of godly men, will determine whether we will hear His commendation on that day.

[1 Corinthians 5]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough