1 Corinthians 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.

(1-5) The first five verses of this chapter contain a further argument against party-spirit as it existed in the Corinthian Church—viz., that God alone can judge of any man’s work whether it be worthy, and that God, unlike man, who selects only some one for praise, will give to every worker his own proper share of approval.

(1) Man.—In a generic sense means “every one” (as in 1Corinthians 11:28, and Galatians 6:1).

Usi.e., Paul himself and Apollos.

As of the ministers of Christ.—Better, as ministers of Christ. The word used for “ministers” here expresses more strongly the idea of subordination than the word which occurs in 1Corinthians 3:5. It implies not only those who are under one superior, but those who are in a still inferior position—the officer who has to obey orders, as in Matthew 5:25—a “servant” (Matthew 26:58). Though servants, their office is one of great trust; they are “stewards” to whom the owner of the house has entrusted the care of those sacred things—“mysteries”—which heretofore have been hidden, but are now made known to them, his faithful subordinates. It is to be remembered that even the steward in a Greek household was generally a slave.

Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
(2) Moreover it is required . . .—Better, Moreover here (on earth) inquiry is made in the case of stewards in order that it may be found that one is faithful. The word “found” having the force of “discovered,” or “proved to be” (as in Matthew 1:18; Romans 7:10). The argument here is that, as in the case of an earthly steward, inquiry is made into his character as to whether he be trustworthy—so it will be with them who are stewards of the mysteries of God. That inquiry is, of course, made in regard to an earthly steward by his master in whose service he is; and so the Lord alone, whose stewards the Apostles were, shall be the inquirer into their faithfulness. If we take 1Corinthians 4:2 as it is in our English version, it would seem to imply that on this point of faithfulness the Church might prefer one steward to another. This would be to suggest that to some extent, therefore, party-spirit might exist, which would be contrary to the whole argument from the commencement of the Epistle, and strikingly at variance with the remarks which immediately follow in 1Corinthians 4:5. The rendering adopted above is a more literal translation of the best Greek texts, and also perfectly in harmony with the general sense of the passage.

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.
(3) But with me it is a very small thing . . .—As, however, the Corinthians had actually “judged” various of their teachers, the Apostle assures them that their judgment—or the judgment of the world generally—is to him “a very small matter”—nay, no earthly judgment is of any concern to him. He does not even judge himself as worthy and faithful because he is not conscious of any unfaithfulness; yet that is no justification to him—his only judge is the Lord.

Man’s judgment.—The literal translation is man’s day. Some have thought they saw in it a provincialism or a Hebraism. Probably, however, the explanation is that St. Paul lived with the idea of the day of the Lord as the judgment day so constantly before him, that he uses the words as synonymous. (Comp. also 1Corinthians 3:13, “the day shall declare it.”)

For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
(4) For I know nothing by myself.—The general meaning of this passage is given in the previous Note. The Greek of the words rendered, “I know nothing of myself,” is clearly “I am not conscious in myself” of having been unfaithful; the word being almost invariably used in classical Greek in a bad sense. In the English version the word “by” is used in a sense now nearly obsolete. To an English reader the passage at first sight seems to assert that St. Paul of his own power possessed no knowledge. In old English, however, the word “by” meant (not necessarily the instrument by which) frequently “in connection with” or “concerning.” In this sense it is found in Deuteronomy 27:16; Ezekiel 22:7. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs a woman under examination is accused of having “spoken evil words by the queen.” It is still common to speak of our place being “by” (i.e., in close contiguity to) another, and a “bye- lane” is a passage connected with a thoroughfare. The word “by” does not seem to have had necessarily the meaning of “against” which some have attributed to it; the sense of “concerning” would suit all the passages given above better than “against.”

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 shall every man have praise of God.
(5) Before the time.—This is explained by the following words to be “the day of the Lord.” When this arrives the truth will be ascertainable, for God will bring into light all the things at present hidden in the darkness, and will show forth the inner motives of each heart. Then every man (and not only one party leader, as at Corinth) shall have his due and proper praise from God—not from man.

And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.
(6) These thingsi.e., all that he has written about the factions. He only mentioned himself and Apollos (and not the other heads of parties), so that his motive in rebuking this schismatic spirit may not be misunderstood—which possibly it might have been had he written strongly and directly regarding Cephas and his admirers—and that those who read the Epistle might learn a lesson of humility. All that was said in condemnation of the spirit which exalted the Apostle and Apollos into party leaders, would apply with equal or greater force to all others; for they, as the planter and the waterer of the Corinthian vineyard, the layer of the foundation and the builder up of the Corinthian spiritual temple, were certainly the two whose exaltation by their followers might have seemed most pardonable.

That ye might learn in us . . .—i.e., “by our examples” you should learn not to go beyond what is written in the Scriptures—not to be found in any one particular passage, but in the general tone and scope of the Old Testament writings, which ever ascribe glory to God alone (as found in the passages referred to in 1Corinthians 1:19; 1Corinthians 1:31; 1Corinthians 3:19)—that none of you be puffed up on behalf of one (i.e., Apollos) against another (i.e., Paul), and vice versâ. The Apostle here touches on the fact that this exaltation of teachers was really a gratification of their own pride. It was not that they “puffed up” the teacher, but themselves.

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?
(7) For . . .—This is the explanation of why such “puffing up” is absurd. Even if one possess some gift or power, he has not attained it by his own excellence or power; it is the free gift of God.

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.
(8) Now ye are full.—These three following sentences are ironical. The emphasis is on the word “now.” Ye are already (as distinct from us Apostles) full, rich, kings. You act as if you had already attained the crowning point in the Christian course. “Piety is an insatiable thing,” says Chrysostom on this passage, “and it argues a childish mind to imagine from just the beginnings that you have attained the whole; and for men who are not even yet in the prelude of a matter to be highminded, as if they had laid hold of the end.”

Without us.—The Apostle would have his converts be to him as his crown of rejoicing; but they now assume to have “come into the kingdom” without any connection with him who had won them to God.

And I would to God.—Here the irony is dropped, and these words are written with intense feeling and humility. The Apostle, reminded, as it were, by the word “reign,” that the time will come when the war and controversies of the Church militant shall end, expresses his deep longing for that blessed change. (See 1Corinthians 3:22; 1Corinthians 9:23, where similarly the Apostle shows that in rebuking the folly of the Corinthian Church he does not under-estimate their privileges.)

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.
(9) For . . .—This introduces the reason why he may well express the devout wish which he has just uttered for the coming of the kingdom of his Lord. The imagery of this passage would be easily understood by the Corinthians, familiar as they were with the arena. The writer, in a few striking phrases, pictures himself and his apostolic brethren forming the “last and most worthless” band brought forth to struggle and die in the great arena, where the whole world, including men and angels, sit, spectators of the fight. There is, perhaps, a slight contrast intended here between the Corinthians sitting by criticising, and the Apostles engaging actually in the struggle against evil—a contrast which is brought out more strikingly in the brief and emphatic sentence forming 1Corinthians 4:10.

We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.
(10) We are fools.—This verse is charged with irony. Our connection with Christ, as His Apostles and preachers, may make us fools; you are, on the contrary, “wise Christians; we are weak Christians, ye strong; ye are glorified, made leaders of factions and churches, we are despised.”

Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;
(11) We both hunger.—From the strong irony of the last verse, the Apostle here passes, in the pathethic and sad description which occupies 1Corinthians 4:11-13, to show how intensely true that last word “despised” was, as expressing his own position, not only in time past, but at the very hour of his writing. Here still there is an implied contrast between their condition (“full,” “rich,” “kings,” of 1Corinthians 4:8) and that of St. Paul himself.

Are naked.—The better reading is, we are in need of sufficient clothing (as 2Corinthians 11:27).

Are buffetedi.e., are treated like slaves, and not like “kings,” as you are.

Have no certain dwellingplace.—To be without a fixed home was a peculiar sign of want and degradation. (See Matthew 8:20; Matthew 10:23.)

And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:
(12) And labour.—While at Ephesus, whence this letter was written, the Apostle supported himself by working with Aquila and Priscilla at tent-making. This labour was no recreation or pastime with St. Paul, it was hard and earnest work. (See 1Thessalonians 2:8-9; 2Thessalonians 3:8.) That this labour was rendered more excessive from the Apostle’s characteristic generosity to others, we may conclude from the expression used in his farewell to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38), “Ye yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.”

Being reviled, we bless.—A striking contrast to the way in which the Corinthians would act under similar circumstances, and yet a literal obedience to the teaching of the Master (Matthew 5:39; Matthew 5:44). Thus the Apostle became in the eyes of the world, “a fool” for Christ’s sake.

Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.
(13) The filth of the world.—The word here used for “filth” occurs only in one other passage in the LXX. Proverbs 21:18, where it has the idea of an additional expiatory sacrifice. Perhaps the word is used here by the Apostle to include that idea in the sufferings, the description of which here reaches a climax. It is not only that we are the filth and off scouring of all men, but we are so for the sake of others.

I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.
(14) I write not these things to shame you.—Better, I write these things not as one making you ashamed, but I am warning you as beloved children. The mingled irony and reproach of the preceding verses here ceases, and from indignant expostulation the writer now turns to make a tender and touching appeal to their better nature and their sympathy. This abrupt and sudden change in style is characteristic of the writings of St. Paul. Similar passages are nowhere to be found in the writings of the other Apostles. The following verses to the end of this chapter soften the severity of this early part of the Epistle by explaining in what spirit he has written, and the right which he has as their “father in the faith” to so address them.

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.
(15) For.—The reason why he has a right to address them as a father would his children. They may have had since their conversion a host of instructors, but they could have only one father who begot them in Jesus Christ. That father was Paul. “I have begotten you.” I, emphatic as opposed to “many.” The word rendered “instructors” originally signified the slave who led the child to school, but subsequently had the larger meaning, which we attach to the word pedagogue. (See Galatians 3:24-25.) There is a contrast implied between the harsh severity of a pedagogue and the loving tenderness of a father.

Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.
(16) Wherefore.—Because I stand in this relation I call you to preserve, as it were, in a moral sense, that family likeness which would naturally accompany such a relationship (Galatians 4:12; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians 3:17).

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.
(17) For this cause.—When St. Paul contemplated a visit to the churches in Macedonia and Achaia he sent Timothy and Erastus in advance (Acts 19:21-22). It is to this fact allusion is here made—from 1Corinthians 16:10, we see that the Apostle did not calculate on Timothy’s arrival in Corinth until after this letter had reached them. The rumours of the existence of factions in Corinth had reached St. Paul before Timothy had departed, and were the cause of his desire that before himself visiting Corinth Timothy should do so, and bring the Corinthians to a better frame of mind before the Apostle’s arrival. After Timothy’s departure from Ephesus the Apostle heard from the household of Chloe how very much worse than he had imagined from the previous rumours was the state of affairs at Corinth. It would not do to let such a condition of things continue to grow and intensify until Timothy should arrive there, delayed as he would be in visiting other places in Macedonia and Achaia en route. Nor, indeed, would it be safe to leave one of Timothy’s nervous (1Corinthians 16:10) and gentle temperament (perhaps the result of his having been brought up and educated entirely by women, 2Timothy 1:5) to deal with such a state of anarchy as the Apostle now knew to exist in Corinth. Further, the letter from Corinth had arrived since Timothy had left, and it required an immediate answer. Such reason, doubtless, influenced St. Paul in sending this letter to Corinth at once so as to anticipate the arrival of Timothy there. That you might return to the dutiful position of sons, I sent you one who is a son—a beloved and a faithful spiritual child—who will not be an addition to the too numerous instructors already at Corinth, but will, by what he says, and by his own example, remind you of my teaching (see 2Timothy 3:10), which he fully understands, and which never varies, being the same to every church. The emphatic use of the word “my son” here in reference to Timothy, taken in connection with the clear expression in 1Corinthians 4:15 of what was involved in that spiritual relationship, shows that St. Paul had converted Timothy to the faith (Acts 16:1). In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul speaks of Timothy as his “brother” (2Corinthians 1:1).

Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you.
(18) Now some are puffed up.—Some of those in Corinth who were puffed up were in the habit of saying that the Apostle would not come and visit the Corinthian Church. The moment they heard the announcement that he was sending Timothy, they would naturally say, That is a proof of the truth of our assertion. He is afraid to come himself, so he sends Timothy in his stead. “But,” says St. Paul, “I will come to you shortly, God willing”—his intention was to remain at Ephesus until after Pentecost (see 1Corinthians 16:8)—“and then I shall take cognisance of spiritual power, and not of empty and boastful words; for that kingdom which Christ founded, and which we, his ambassadors, are establishing, does not consist in mere words, but in spiritual might.”

What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?
(21) What will ye?—I give you a choice. I am coming to you as a father in any case. But shall I come as a father comes with a rod (Isaiah 11:4), and going to inflict punishment with it (such is the force of the Greek, “in a rod”); or as a father would come when no faults on the child’s part need interfere with the perfect and unrestricted outflowing of his gentleness and love. The pathos of these last few words sufficiently indicate what the Apostle would himself prefer. The choice, however, rested with them. His love would be no love, if without any change on their part, it led him to show no displeasure where correction was for their sake absolutely needed. This is a great and striking example of St. Paul having the “mind of God.” He treats the Corinthians as God ever treats His children.

This verse at once concludes this first part of the Epistle, in which the party-spirit and the evils resulting from it in Corinth are treated of, and naturally introduces the second topic to be discussed, viz., the case of incest which had occurred, it being one of the things which would compel the Apostle to visit Corinth, not “in love and in the spirit of meekness,” but “with a rod.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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