1 Corinthians 4:1-21 – Leaders and the people

1 CORINTHIANS 4v1 – 21






In the preceeding chapter Paul was at pains to show that there was no difference in the status of leaders; they all are appointed by God to do different functions and there is no point comparing them.


This is a favourite past-time of some Christians. “Our Pastor is very entertaining!” “Our minister is good at visiting!” “Our pastor has a BD!” “Our Vicar is a Ph.D”

As someone wisely commented, “The Church is dying by degrees!!”

I am not against academic study. We need good Evangelical Theolgians. BUT academic cleverness does not make a man/woman of God.


Paul ended chapter 3 by stressing that everything we are and everthing we possess ultimately comes from God THEREFORE we have NOTHING to boast about.

SO all this talk about comparing Paul and Apollos and Peter is very silly as all belong to God.


SO THEN don’t put some people on pedastels. The most anyone can be [4v1] is a servant of Christ.




Paul is not one of those  who has an inflated opinion of himself. The world makes much of social position. Sadly that attitude creeps into the Church. If anyone desevred a high position in the church it was Paul and yet he describes himself as a servant of Christ.


The word he uses is a common one which was used to refer to the under-rowers in a galley slave ship.


ILLUST: There were different levels of rowers in the galleys. The lowest slaves were placed on the lowest level. It was hot, dark, smelly. Their work was hard and their punishment cruel.


The most we can be in terms of status is “servants” but even servants/ slaves were entrusted with great responsibility.

So then, men ought to regard us as slaves of Christ

and as those [stewards] entrusted with the

secret things of God. [4v1]


Paul now expands the picture of the kind of slave he is. We might all be just servants but that does not mean that we all have the same function. As with the picture of the building and the field in Ch.3 different people have differnt gifts and functions.


The same was true of slaves. Paul is a slave but is also an entrusted steward.

Oikonomos – The household manager – these stewards were still slaves but were given authority by the Master to run the household. They would control the food, finance, other servants etc. Their authority lay not in themselves but in the things with which they had been entrusted and ultimately in the one who had entrusted these things to them.


What are these secret things that Paul has been entrusted with? The revelation of the gospel. In his first letter Peter in speaking about salvation says that it was a mystery that the angels longed to see.

PAUL in Col. 1v26

… the mystery that has been kept hidden

for ages and generations, but is

now disclosed to the saints.


Those who are entrusted with the secret things of God will be judged by God as to whether or not they have been faithful.

On that Day when we all stand before God we will not be judged according to our popularity, our success [ in man’s eyes], the number of people in our Church. Faithfulness is what will count!!


In v4-6 Paul moves on to spell out what this means.

What you Corinthians think of me is inconsequential.

What human courts think doesn’t matter.

What I think of myself is also of no account.


It is only God’s judgement that is final and true.


OTHERS. Often too much of others opinions. Yes we need to encourage and a sincere word of appreciation is good. Helpful criticism is also good. But it is too easy to seek it and then to act with false modesty when we receive it. There is a fine line between encouragement and flattery.


SELF JUDGEMENT. Paul says here that “… my conscience is clear …”  Does that mean that if I think that I am alright then that’s okay!!? NO! Paul is quick to add that self judgement is as easily flawed as others’ judgement. We all have and inbuilt bias towards SELF.


It is good to have a clear conscience and to know that there is no conscious sin in our lives. BUT our very conscience was damaged by the fall. Our consciences are imperfect and THERFORE unreliable.


Can we ever judge? Well clearly as we will see in the following weeks [ch.5 ff] there are times when people sin is so obvious that we must discipline them as a church to protect the body from dishonour. BUT that is not the kind of thing Paul is talking about here.

Here Paul is talking about judging the worth and value of anothers’ ministry.

We are all servants of God. Judgement must wait till the LORD comes [v.5]. What does it matter what the other servants think? What does it matter what I think of myself? It is only when the MASTER and LORD of the house comes that judgement will be final.


Paul is saying to the Corinthians and to us, “Don’t reach a premature verdict?” Only God knows the true verdict and he will judge our work as to whether it is wood, hay and  straw OR gold, silver and precious stones.


It is good when Christians speak well of each other. It is good when we have a clear conscience BUT it will be wonderful to hear the master say, “WELL DONE GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT!”


On the Day of Judgement what other thought of us won’t matter! Our self-evaluation will be unimportant. Our success or popularity will be swept away. Only our faithfulness to the gospel itself will count for anything!




In this section vv.6-13 Paul contrasts the Corinthians pride with the humility of the apostles.


READ v. 6-7


Paul has shown in v.1-5 that no one Christians is superior to another. So What makes you Corinthians think that you are any better than the rest of us. If it were true that you did have special gifts that would not be cause for boasting because you did not deserve them  but God gave them to you!


There is nothing to be proud of. God does not have favourites.

The Corinthians were presumptuous and ungrateful. Their boasting is sure evidence that they have missed the grace of the gospel.


When we become proud and arrogant in our faith we discredit the gospel. The grace of God has a leveling effect. It brings humility and a right view of who we are. That is God’s wisdom – the wisdom of the cross.


Human wisdom puffs up [lit. for pride in v.6] It feeds self-sufficiency, self-esteem and self-exalting. The Corinthians boasting is proof of their preoccupation with human wisdom.


OVER-REALISED ESCHATOLOGY. One of the tensions that we as Christians have to live with is that while we have been saved and have eternal life we still live in this world with all its sinfulness and limitations.


ILLUST: This week Lloyds Bank announced the take over of the Cheltenham and Glouster Building Society. The C & G customer will receive bonuses of $500 plus. They won’t recieve them until next year BUT they know that the money is theirs.

They are living between the already and the not yet. As Christians we have received salvation but we are not yet perfect and there is still much more to receive.


The Problem with the Corithian Christains was that they thought they had already arrived. Some early Christians were called the Telios – “The having already arrived ones


They considered themselves to be wise and strong and honoured. They put all the emphasis on the ALREADY and no emphasis on the NOT YET.


Paul uses biting irony and rhetoric in verses 8-9.

Already you have all you want!

Already you have become rich!

You have begun to reign [become kings]

{we are kings but not yet reigning}

You have begun to reign –

and that without us.
How I wish that you really

had begun to reign that

we might reign with you!


If they were reigning then the end for which all Christains wait would have already come but clearly it had not!


This same error that the Corinthians Christians were guilty of is still around today.

Those who say that Christians should never be sick, or poor or unhappy. Jesus never promised his followers health, wealth and prosperity IN THIS LIFE. One day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ and we will reign with him BUT that is NOT YET.

If the Gospel is Health, wealth and prosperity then HOW do you preach that kind of gospel in Africa and Bosnia and the shanty-towns of Manila and on the streets of Bombay.


The Corinthians had the gospel upside down and we in our comfortable, self-sufficient western lif style need to be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap.


Paul now goes on to show how much he and the other Apostles have suffered and are suffering while these Corinthians Christians bask in their false glory!



In contrast Paul give the true marks of Apostleship in v.9-13.


READ v.9-13.


In the Roman arenas the lowest prisoners were brought in last, at the rear of the procession, and thrown to wild beasts. It is in this position that Paul places himself and others.




Fools                }

Weak               } for Christ

Dishonoured     }



Wise              }

Strong            } in own eyes

Honoured      }



In contrast to these “Filled, rich already reigning” Corithians the apostles were hungry and thirsty, dressed in rags, brutally treated and homeless. Hardly a desciption of those who had already arrived.


We have not arrived, this world is not our home.

All these people [THE GREAT SAINTS]

were still living by faith when they died.

They did not receive the things promised;

they only saw them and welcomed them

from a distance. And they admitted that

they were strangers and aliens on earth.

… they were longing for a better country,

a heavenly one. Therefore God is not

ashamed to be called their God,

for he has prepared a city for them. [Heb 11v13&16]


Jesus calls us to follow him. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering …” He was considered as nothing before men.


Paul ends this section by using some degrading discriptions “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world”  Words that refer to the sweepings off the floor or the dirt removed from the body.

Not a pretty picture. Paul identifies himself with that. What a contratst to the “filled, rich reigning, wise, strong and honoured Corinthians.


How do we in 20th Century comfortable England respond to a passage like this. I know nothing of the kind of suffering that Paul is talking about here.

FEE  [p.182] “..we try desparately to indentify with Paul when in fact we are probably much more like the Corinthians than we dare to admit”


It is easy to feel guilty on the one hand or on the other hand to devlop a martyr complex because we love to suffer and we do it so well.


Maybe we would know more of what Paul meant if we were more willing to stand in oppostion to the status quo of worldly wisdom. How often do we really stick out our necks for the truth of the Gospel.


More than anything we need to have a right perspective of the already and the not yet. We need lose roots in this world. One of biggest hindrance to Christian growth in the Western World is materialism.





READ V.14-16.


Paul concern is not to glory in his suffering and to show them up. His over riding desire is that the follow Christ as he does.


A change of metaphor FATHER – CHILD.


Paul was the one who intially brought them the gospel and in that sense is their spiritual father.

He is not trying to take the place of God as their father.


Like any loving father he is deeply concerned for his children.
ILLUST: Parents go through tremendous anguish when they have wayward children.


Paul is in anguish over his spiritual children. They are going astray. He can foresee disaster and he wants to prevent it.


He wants to bring them back gently but if neceesary he will be harsh to saved them from catastrophe.


ILLUST: Child play with electric socket. Move away. Focus in another direction. Warn. Smack if neceesary to avoid disaster.


There is a great challenge for father [and mothers]. IMITATE ME. Can we say that to our own children. Can we say that to younger Christians.

All too often our message is, “Do what I say, not what I do”


Paul is not bragging when he say “Imitate me” but there is a quiet confidence. In our society the focus in teaching is on verbalizing. But that is not the best way. How are we to make disciples??

By modelling the gospel. Follow – do what I do. Isn’t that how children learn the most. They do what they see their parent doing!


Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians Christians get back on track with the gospel. They where so caught up in the wisdom of the world that they were missing the power of the Kingdom of God working in their lives.



The Corinthians were living as if the future had come, they were above the weaknesses of the apostles. But Paul lived in the kinds of weaknesses that were characteristic of Christ AND it was through his weakness that the power and grace of God was at work bring people salvation in Christ.

God said [ to PAul] “… My strength is made perfect in weakness”

Therefore [says Paul] I will boast all the more gladly about my

weaknesses, so that Christ’s power[dunamos] may

rest on me [2 Co.12v9]


In ourselves we have nothing to boast about. The most we can be is a SLAVE. BUT not just any slave  – Christ’s. That is the high status anyone can have. This is foolishness to the world which seeks honour and wisdom and riches and position.  BUT it is only through weakness and the foolishness of the cross of Christ that we can know the power of the kingdom of God.


Paul urged the Corinthians to imitate him only as he imitated Christ.

Let us imitate Christ in our lives.

So let us learn how to serve

and in our lives enthrone him,

each others needs to prefer –

for it is Christ we are  serving.


This is our God the servant King….


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