Study Notes

1Corinthians 4:1-21

4:1-2 Underrowers

Remember that the Corinthian church was divided into groups that followed after this teacher or that teacher. And we saw in chapter three that Paul has just made the case that teachers in the church are not men to be idolized and followed after. They're just servants of God, workers in his field.

Now he's telling them plainly how they should view their teachers: as servants and stewards. These are two interesting words here.

The word for servants here comes from galley ships. Remember that back then boats didn't have massive engines, merely servants sitting on the bottom deck pulling the oars. The captain would give an order... faster, slower, stop... and they would carry out his order by doing the appropriate action with their oar — pulling harder, lifting it out of the water, sinking it deep and holding it... That is the word "servants" that Paul uses for ministers: "underrowers." Guys at the bottom level, pulling their oars the way Christ gives them command. Their only duty, their only responsibility is to obey him. He is "one who acts under direction, and asks no questions, one who does the thing he is appointed to do without hesitation, and one who reports only to the One Who is over him" (Morgan)


The other word that Paul uses is "stewards." This word literally means "administrator" or "keeper of the house." You've no doubt heard of wealthy people who are away from home so much that they hire a household administrator — he makes sure the bills are paid, the cupboards are stocked, the house is kept up and clean, that everything is taken care of. He orders the affairs of the house.

This was the job description that Joseph had in Potiphar's house.

Gen. 39:5-6 And it came about that from the time (Potiphar) made him overseer in his house, and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD'S blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. So he left everything he owned in Joseph's charge; and with him there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate...

A trustworthy keeper of the house. In charge of all that Potiphar owned.

At first glance, these two terms seem contradictory. How can you be both an underrower and the administrator of the house? Ah, but notice that the ministers in the church are underrowers of Christ, but administrators of the mysteries of God.

In relation to Christ, I'm just a servant that needs to listen and obey. What I've been left in charge of is the administration of the mysteries of God. While the Master of the house is away, He's left me to oversee the administration of the mysteries of God. I'm the one who is making sure that you are edified, encouraged, built up, growing and maturing in the mysteries of God.

You might ask, "What are the mysteries of God?" They cover every important aspect of the teaching and preaching ministry. Grabbing a concordance reveals the multitude of mysteries of God: The mystery of the Kingdom of God (Mk 4:11); the mystery of God's plan for Israel and the Church (Rom 11:25); the mystery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (lots of refs); the mystery of the rapture (1Cor 15:51-52); the mystery of the end times (Eph 1:8-10); the mystery of a Godly marriage (Eph 5:31-32); the mystery of lawlessness at work in the world (2Thes 2:7); the mystery of the faith (1Tim 3:9); and the mystery of godliness (1Tim 3:16).

I have been appointed as an administrator, as a housekeeper, of these mysteries. It is my job to both understand them and to teach them to you. Now, does that make me someone to be adored or idolized? Absolutely not. I'm just a servant, I'm just a steward. I'm just at the bottom deck, rowing the boat. I'm just a farm worker, working in God's field. I'm just a construction worker, helping to build God's building. I'm just a housekeeper, trying to keep the mysteries of God clear in your minds and hearts.

The church would do well not to have celebrities, just servants and stewards.

4:3-5 Judging Ourselves and Others

Now Paul was happy to be a rower and a housekeeper, but in choosing to follow after other teachers, instead of just following after God, there were those in Corinth who felt the need to judge and tear down Paul, that their favorite minster would be exalted. They judged him harshly — judging his motives, his method, and his ministry.

Paul told them "I don't really care what you or anybody else thinks about me. As a matter of fact, it really doesn't even matter what I think about me. The only person's opinion that really matters at all is the Lord's."

So he tells them to knock of all of this condemning judgment of the ministers of Christ. God will take care of it all. He'll disclose the motives of men's hearts — whether a man's motives have been pure or corrupt, God knows, and He'll deal with it. Whether a man's ministry has been a blessing or a sham, God knows, and He'll deal with it.

Now don't let that prevent you from having discernment. There are plenty of ministers out there who have been entrusted with the mysteries of God, but who present lies and heresy instead. We are absolutely to compare what we're being taught with Scripture. Judge the message, but don't judge the man. That's God's job, and He's not asking for volunteers to help Him with it.

4:6-7 Don't Exceed What Is Written

As we pointed out last week, it wasn't really a "Paul, Apollos, and Cephas" division. There were other teachers, other ministers in the church who had been drawing away disciples after themselves. The question seems rather obvious — if they're all teaching God's pure truth, how were they dividing the body. The answer is that they weren't.

You see, division happens when man's philosophies and extra-Biblical teachings invade God's pure truth in the church. Paul is giving them a simple solution to division: Do not exceed what is written!

Oh, if the church today could only grasp this verse — do not exceed what is written!

What if "do not exceed what is written" became the motto of every conservative and liturgical church in America? Think of it — the legalistic rules and regulations that have been added by men who wanted to control the behavior of others would be cast aside! People would be released from the bondage of dead religion that they can't possibly measure up to! They would finally find the life, grace, and freedom that can be found only in Christ alone!

What if "do not exceed what is written" became the motto of every charismatic and pentecostal church in America? No more rolling and running in the aisles! No more barking! Suddenly, things become decent and in order! People not drawing the attention of others to their "superior spirituality," but exercising their spiritual gifts to the benefit the Body of Christ!

What a beautiful place the church would be if we would only stop exceeding what is written in the Scriptures! But instead, we, just like the Corinthian church, have become arrogant over one another: "We have a more enlightened view of the Holy Spirit." "We have an anointed prophet in our group." "We have access to God's secret wisdom." "We live much holier than you." Garbage! "Who regards you as superior?" Paul asked. "You're legends in your own minds — you're the only ones who think you're on the top of the heap. Besides, even if you did have everything you claimed to, is that to your glory? What spiritual thing can you take credit for? Didn't you get all of it from God? Isn't it true that,

James 1:17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...

And if you did get it from God, why are you boasting, bragging, and acting superior as if you got it yourself?"

4:8-13 The Apostles' Tribulation

Paul gets even further into their faces by saying, Okay, you're superior to everyone else in the church, right? Well, Jesus said that the greatest is actually the least. So the fact that you've made yourselves highest on the totem pole actually means you're on the bottom.

Certainly there was no one greater in the church than the apostles — the were the earthly founders of the whole thing, the ones that Jesus entrusted to spread the gospel and build the church. They were really the greatest, the most solid in doctrine, the closest to the Lord. And look at where they were: martyred, jailed, hungry, mistreated, homeless, slandered, the scum of the world.

When the ones who are truly great in the kingdom of God are treated in this manner, living this lifestyle, it should make us ashamed to have an attitude of superiority, claiming that we are the highest holders of divine truth.

This also blows the doors off the Word of Faith Movement. The preachers on television who proclaim that if you only have enough faith, if you walk in enough holiness, God will grant you health and wealth. If it didn't work for the apostles, I sure don't know how it could possibly work for us! Quite the opposite is often true,

2Tim. 3:12 ...All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Matt. 19:23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

4:14-16 Imitators of Me

After going at them full bore, Paul now, like a gentle father who's just had to spank his child, explains,

1Cor. 4:14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.

He's not writing this letter to win a debate, or prove he's right and they're wrong — he's trying to convince them to change their way of thinking, to have the mind of Christ in these issues. So he tells them, "imitate me — see how I've tried to be like Jesus to you. I've loved you, even when you hated me. Do that with one another. I taught you richly, yet never exceeded what is written in the Scriptures. Imitate me in that. I'm your father in the faith, the one who led most of you to Christ. It hurts me to see you straying away from the pure faith and pure truth found in Christ. Come back."

What a good lesson for us who desire to be godly parents. Notice the mixture — the severity and the tenderness. God is this way with his children. Paul was this way with his. So too, we should be this way with ours. Strict discipline, followed by unconditional love.

4:17-21 I Will Come Soon

Paul had sent Timothy, who apparently hadn't arrived yet, to bring them back to a place of sound doctrine and Christ-like behavior. And if they don't change this attitude, Paul will come himself and publicly expose these false teachers. They had eloquent words, but the kingdom of God isn't in man's words. It is in the power of the Word of God. And Paul will deal with this. He'll expose it. So they can repent now, and he can pay them a friendly, gentle visit, or they can continue in this immature nonsense and he'll come with a rod of correction.

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