1 Corinthians 4:1-21

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Week 4 – Submitting to the Word of God

1 Corinthians 4:1-21

By Garrett Pinkerton


            Division. If I were to write one word that describes our world today, I couldn’t use one that fits better than this. There are divisions in politics, races, whether or not to get a vaccination, households, families, and…the church. All these things are, for most of us, too hot to handle, so we just really try to stay out of it, sweep it under the rug, and act like it doesn’t affect us. We avoid difficult conversations so that we can try to avoid broken relationships, awkwardness, and confrontation. Sound familiar? I have seen these things in my family, friendships, and even marriage.

In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul does the thing no one wants to do and confronts the Corinthian church in their divisive spirits. And he does so in a graceful, confidence, loving, Christ-like manner. Paul beautifully tackles the idea of prideful divisiveness in the church, calling out its members for pride in their fictional belief that they are higher and better than others. He shows us two things. One, it isn’t Christ-like to cause division in the church out of pride and jealousy. Most of us can read that sentence and think, okay, I can get on board with that.

But the second thing he teaches us as the body of Christ is a bit more difficult for me to swallow. He teaches us that we are to be faithful stewards of Christ, which means continuing to call others to correct their handling of Scripture and their character. And not only this, but also doing so in a way that points them towards Jesus for his glorification and their good. I think this is real a challenge for us, church, but I believe that in step with the Spirit, we can and will carry ourselves in a way that preserves the true gospel in the minds and actions of our members.

Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-21 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. After reading this text, what are your thoughts on the church today in comparison to the Corinthian church?
  2. Think about your own heart’s purposes. How might this text help us to turn our heart towards Christ in the way we see our church body, our ministers, and ourselves?
  3. How might we hold each other accountable for such abstract things as our thoughts and mindsets? How can we encourage one another?


4:1-5 – The fourth chapter of this book begins with Paul explaining how the church should view the apostles. This comes after he recognizes division in the church based on prideful associations with the different apostles (Chapter 1), explains the wisdom of God that is the gift of the Spirit (Chapter 2), and exposes the discrepancy that exists between the wisdom of God in Christ and the worldly wisdom of man that is present in the church (Chapter 3). In Chapter 4, Paul calls the church to forsake worldly wisdom and follow the example of the apostles.

            In verses 1 and 2, Paul gives the church a description of how to correctly view the apostles as “servants of Christ” and as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” This is contrary to the views that have existed in the church causing the divisions mentioned in previous chapters. Rather than seeing apostles and ministers of the gospel as separate authoritative figures for following, the church should consider them all to be servants of Christ in submission to the Word of Christ. As stewards of the “mysteries of God,” apostles and teachers are given by the Spirit the things known by us as believers, which is hidden from those who persist in their unbelief (Hodge). These “mysteries” are not anything additional to Scripture. They are the simple gospel in itself – that Jesus gave up his sinless life to restore us to the Father. And servants of Christ must be faithful to proclaim this gospel.

            In verses 3-5, Paul emphasizes that only the Lord’s thoughts and judgments of him ultimately matter. He says that he is not even willing to judge himself and though he doesn’t know of any sin in himself, that he is “not thereby acquitted.” I believe the reason that we can’t judge ourselves is because we are not God. We don’t fully know his law or character, so any judgment we make is warped and inaccurate (Hodge). God’s perfect holiness is a standard of judgment that we cannot totally comprehend or apply in judging ourselves, and certainly not others. God, the righteous Judge, will “bring to light” the hidden sins and motives of the heart and give praise accordingly. Thankfully, Jesus has given us new life and freedom in him to walk in the light, not held captive by our sin, but set free by the assurance that Jesus has paid for our past, present, and future sins.

4:6-7 – Paul states in these two verses that he has applied this very principle to himself and Apollos so that there is unity in the church. He is not attempting to add to the Scriptures the wisdom of man but is submitting fully to Christ. Paul is basically sayingto those in the divided church that in Christ, there is no division or boasting, for all Scripture and justification is from Christ, so that no one may boast. When there is boasting in one group following one apostle over another, it is either senseless because they are preaching Christ, or their boasting is in man, which is sin.

4:8-13 – In verses 8-13, Paul is almost sarcastic in his descriptions of the Corinthians and the contrast between them and himself (Hodge). He tells them they already have all the things they desire, therefore they have attained authority and reign like kings. He says he wishes they were in this very position of being exalted by Christ so that he himself might be exalted likewise, but that it simply isn’t yet the case. I think this is meant to indirectly call out the leaders of the Corinthian church for their hypocrisy, contrasting this high position with their call as ministers to be servants of Christ and faithful stewards of the gospel (verses 1-2).

On down in verses 10-13, Paul contrasts the positions of himself and those of the Corinthians. Paul and those suffering for Christ are described as fools; weak, hungry, poor, and labored, while those he is writing to see themselves as wise, strong, and rich like kings. This reveals a dilemma, as they both claim common purposes, but their actions have led to different ends—one of weakness and being treated “like men sentenced to death” and the other of strength and prosperity and who have “become kings.” The Corinthians’ views of themselves and their view of Paul and his brothers show that their outlook is not informed by the wisdom of Christ, but the wisdom of man (Hodge). It seems as if they are deceived by themselves.

Let’s take a moment and consider these two characters who both proclaim Christ. After reading this, I ask myself questions. Where do I fall on this issue? Am I more like Paul or the Corinthians? Which category does the church fall into today? Is this based on actual circumstances or is it based on our hearts and minds? I think that a person’s position and possessions can be many, yet that same person could be weak, humble, hungry, and full of labor so that they are true and faithful servants of Christ. This is an issue of the heart, and the Lord “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. (1 Cor. 4:5)” Yet in Philippians 3:8-10, Paul writes that he counts all things loss so that he may be found in Christ through a righteousness that is by grace through faith from God. I think this is an important point of discussion and time for us to examine our hearts against the Word of the Lord.

4:14-21 – I believe that Paul writes in this fashion not to “shame” the church, but to wake them up from their blindness to their own pride and deception. In verse 15, Paul establishes his authority to correct them. Christ used him to draw them to himself with the true gospel, which they are straying from in their divisions. Now, if you’re like me, this seems to be a bit contradictory, as Paul claims his right to admonish them based on his past proclamation of the gospel that led to their conversion. It seems as if Paul is getting “a little too big for his britches,” to put it into Alabama terms. This seems even more so after verse 16 where Paul urges them to imitate him.

However, I believe that Paul is not in sin nor is he like the people he is admonishing because Paul is imitating Christ and is being a faithful steward of the gospel. He is not using his position for his own gain and glory, but for the good of the Corinthian church and the glory of Christ. As he has mentioned earlier in the text, he is weak, poor, hungry, and full of labor – all for Christ. The willingness to suffer for Christ shows his commitment to remaining faithful to Christ in all things and to not wavering from the one true gospel.

As the chapter ends in verses 18-21, Paul addresses the idea that he is afraid to come to them, as some have thought beforehand, by explaining again his commitment to God’s will over his own, and by committing to come to them in accordance with just that.

            I am thankful to the Lord for his Word and that it stands the tests of time. I am thankful for its power to pierce our hearts and bring us to the knowledge of our savior. And finally, I am thankful for our church body remaining faithful to the true gospel. My prayer is that each one of our members will remain in Christ as he remains in us, that our hearts and minds will be sanctified according to his Word, and that Christ will be glorified and magnified in all that we do.

The Main Point

Paul leverages his fatherly position with the Corinthians and his commitment to serving Christ to expose the pride and sin in the Corinthian church, revealing to them their reliance on man and their puffed up view of themselves that is contrary to the servant-hearted life Christ has called us to live. He does so not to shame them, but to gently restore them to the true gospel through which they came to the knowledge of their savior, Jesus Christ.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • 1 Corinthians 1:10-30 – Paul writes to the church to identify one of their problems, which is division amongst people based on their preferred apostle.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:10-12 – No one knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit, so no one can judge another’s heart, except the Lord. Likewise, one can only know the mysteries of God through the Spirit of God.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 – Paul again calls out the Corinthians’ hypocrisy in having divisions amongst the church, explaining that none of them are anything in and of themselves. It is God, who gives faith and growth.
  • Philippians 3:8-10 – Paul writes here that he counts all as loss so that he may gain Christ, sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death.
  • Matthew 7:1-2 – The measure by which you judge will be the standard by which you are judged. We should not look on others condescendingly. The standard by which we are judged is that decided by our perfectly Holy God.
  • Romans 12:3 – As in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul writes that we cannot boast in anything because we were given our faith, and anything else we boast about is the wisdom of man that is sin. He also says to be sober in our self judgment, only thinking of ourselves as highly as the faith God has given us.
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