1 Corinthians 4
Now as I always do, I want to give a little bit of a brief as to how we got to here from the beginning of the book. You must always keep in the back of your mind that this letter is the second of four corrective letters to the church at Corinth, clearly the one that had the most issues that we read about in the new Testament. We must not initiate the building of theology from this letter without understanding the greater context of the Scriptures as a whole before using 1 Corinthians to draw any theological conclusions. You’ll see what I mean when we talk about our second paragraph this study.
In chapter 1, we learned that basically, everyone is some kind of fool, and concluded from our study that if we have to play the fool anyway, we should play the part of God’s fool, because the so-called “foolishness” of our sovereign God will put any of the logic or wisdom of the world to shame. Come, give your life for a carpenter’s son – for “a madman who died for a dream,” according to Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But only the foolish can tell of the wonderful grace of God in their own salvation and the wisdom found in His word through His Spirit.
That brought us to chapter 2, where we had opportunity to examine the nature of this heavenly wisdom, that the world calls foolish. We learned that not only was that true wisdom a spiritual, and nor earthly wisdom, but also that such wisdom could only be revealed to those who are aiming at maturity in Christ by walking “in the Spirit,” where for lack of better words, we obey what the Holy Spirit informs us through the Word of God and the New Nature that Christ gave us to walk in instead of the old nature that we are still very capable of falling into no matter how long you have been a real Christian.
Then in chapter 3, we considered that God’s reality is the reality to which attention must be paid. We like to manufacture our own at times to avoid responsibility toward God, but believers cannot afford that luxury – all believers are doing a great work, and Paul speaks to the details of that. Our conclusion is that because we are actually collectively building the naos of God, that is the Sanctuary, where God sits and lives and speaks and works, we must take great care with the construction in terms of the material we use. There are good and bad choices, and we want to make the best possible choices, because if we are careless, then we will suffer loss. And that loss is unimaginable, though we will still be saved – “yet so as through the fire, according to Paul.
That brings us to chapter 4, which is under consideration in this study, and here is how I broke down the chapter.
KV: Choose the Messenger – Disciplinarian or Humble and Meek?
1-4: The One who examines is the Lord
7-13: The messenger seems without honour
14-17: Imitate the messenger of God
18-21: The Kingdom exists in Power, not mere words
KV: Choose the Messenger-Disciplinarian or Humble and Meek?
This seems to me at least to be a chapter where the Apostle is offering a CLEAR choice in how he will arrive in Corinth for his next visit. He could be the fire-breathing, wrath-dispensing Disciplinarian come to correct all error, or he could be the humble and meek example we know him to be from his other writings. I have no doubt he could engage on both levels, because we have examples. Consider, for sake of the subject, the difference between Galatians, who no one disputes Paul wrote, and Philippians, who no one really disputes that Paul wrote. It’s like two different man wrote the different letters – but we know factually and historically that he wrote both letters.
Because all the letters Paul wrote to Corinth were corrective, it is easy to imagine he was probably used to being the disciplinarian at points, and the gentle and humble man at other times. I am certain at times and over key issues, one of which we will see next week, and one of which we looked at last week, Paul was tell-it-like-it-is and no-nonsense Paul. The issue last week was the building up of you as a part of God’s house, something we don’t take seriously enough today, and apparently neither did Corinth. Some got it. Some did not, and Paul took them to task for it.
We must remember that Paul was an Apostle, and that was his JOB to do things like that, and it is not ours unless the Lord clearly leads you to do so. I have been so led in the past, and I trust the Lord to keep leading me the way He led Paul, though I will never claim to be an Apostle – there were only 13 of them. (Judas Iscariot was replaced by Matthias you will recall, and Paul came late to the party because Jesus Christ Himself appeared to him on the road to Damascus and personally made that invitation, making him the 13th Apostle, and I believe the last to be given the powers that went with that office.)
Whatever you may want to believe at this point, however, is irrelevant. Paul was in mid letter now, and he was on a roll about how important it was to be disciplined about our walks in the Spirit, and our need to take care to NOT walk after the flesh as many in Corinth seemed to be doing. Let’s pick it up here.
1-4: The One who examines is the Lord
Paul at this point is defending his own right to speak to the Corinthians about such matters, no doubt anticipating some of the criticism that came back to him in the form of “Who do you think you are, Paul?” After all, this seems to be the same kind of things that these parties of Apollos, Paul, Cephas, and even Jesus, were asking at that moment of each other. This is part of Paul’s logic, which points out to all parties that ALL of the afore-mentioned teachers were all one in Christ, and all of them had the same job. In fact, you will recall Paul saying in the text last time, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) Here is the continuation of that line of argumentation. Let’s hop into the text here.
1: Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
- In other words, Paul is resuming the line of reasoning we pointed out a moment ago by stating, “Look, since we are all God’s fellow labourers and we are all engaged in this work of cultivating YOU, that is God’s field, or God’s building while you are working on yourselves, you can think of us like this.” “Let a man regard us in this manner,” he says here.
- First he identifies as “servants of Christ.” This is not his normal word doulos, but is rather the word huperetes or hyperetes, which is a derivation of “an under-rower,” the galley slaves that were on the lowest tier of the galley and most likely to go down with the ship if it sank. Anyone seen the movie Ben Hur? Charleton Heston played Judah ben Hur, the main character, who at one point was a galley slave. There is a great deal of drama in a sea battle, and the ship he is in is rammed, and miraculously, he escapes the chains that held him in that galley, and ends up saving the life of an important Roman general that adopts him as his son. Now I’m not here to discuss the movie, but that’s a good look at what life was like for a galley slave, and everyone in Paul’s day kind of knew it but didn’t talk about it. The word later just came to mean someone who is under someone else’s authority.
- Then Paul says that they are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Now a “steward” back in those days was a slave, but an important one as a household manager. Someone had to make sure the house had enough food, was clean to receive what visitors might come, that the valuables were stored safely against robbery, like that. Paul, and Apollos, and all the other Apostles at that moment were in fact the managers of the “mysteries” of God, which we have come to mean at least the Gospel.
2: In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.
- Because of the importance of the job, the steward’s most important characteristic should be trustworthiness. Can you imagine a dishonest steward? The things that he could make off with if the master didn’t know?
- In just a verse or two, Paul is going to close the door on the argument of dishonest stewardship for Christians, by the way. Our Master, the Messiah Himself, sees EVERYTHING.
3: But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.
- This verse kind of confirms what I just said. Paul is telling the Corinthians that what THEY think about his trustworthiness doesn’t matter. “…it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court…” Paul understood that they were NOT his master.
- He also understood that he was NOT his own master. “…in fact, I do not even examine myself,” he says. There is a salient point to make here. It doesn’t matter what you think you can get away with, friend. You might in fact be able to rob me blind without my ability to stop you, or even know it was you. But GOD knows. You’re not getting away with anything. But that’s not Paul’s point, so I’ll move on.
4: For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.
- Paul goes so far to tell us that he’s not aware of anything against himself. I think this is because he’s actually tried to think of that first. I’m learning that too, and to do it before I speak. It’s not easy. But not Paul’s point either. He points out that even he himself is NOT the final judge of his own actions, thoughts, or motives.
- No, it is the Lord that examines him, and by extension, all of us. Selah. That is, Pause and calmly think about that for a moment. Do it with me if you will. The Lord here is the Kurios Iesous Christos! The Son of God, or more preferably for my point, GOD the SON, the second person of the tri-unity of God. Like God the Father, God the Son is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful! You cannot HIDE what you do, why you’re doing it, or even what you think from Him! He KNOWS! And sinner, that should strike a holy FEAR into your heart!
- I think here again of Isaiah. In his book, in the sixth chapter, in verse 5, Isaiah finds himself standing in the very presence of Almighty God Himself. He SEES Him! And in that moment, he knows that having seen God in the flesh, that he is about to die, probably horribly. He says, “Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.'” Not even the holiest prophet of them all, Moses, had been allowed to see God. And there stood Isaiah!
- What did Isaiah realize about himself? He knew that he was unworthy as a sinful man (“unclean lips,” remember) to see what he saw. He expected instant, and likely painful, death! But that is not what happened, by the mercy of God. The next two verses tell us what happened – “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.'” (vv.6-7)
- Do you know what it means to have your sin forgiven? I do, and you can too. About 2000 years ago in our history, the Scriptures that we’re studying this evening tell us that God Himself, that is God the Son, became human by the power of the Holy Spirit within a willing servant of God’s named Mary. Mary isn’t really important to the story, contrary to what folks in the Catholic Cult will tell you, other than that she was the mother of the man Jesus. The important part of the story was that God became a man. That man led a sacrificial life under the law of Moses, and willingly and knowingly laid that life down for us, so that He could buy us for Himself, having paid in full the debt we incurred because of sin in our lives. God the Father was so pleased at that sacrifice that He raised God the Son Jesus from the dead to show that the price had in fact been paid in full, and that His people were fully redeemed to God. Those same scriptures tell us that if you will believe that God raised Him from the dead to the point that it causes your mouth to speak out in your own words that Jesus is YOUR Lord, then You will be His! That’s the gospel, beloved! It isn’t complicated, or even difficult! Moving on.
5: Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.
- I have to tell you, this verse made me hesitate. When I first started these studies in Galatians a little over 2 years ago now, I made a promise to myself and to the Lord. That I would tell you the truth every time. I’ve kept that. This verse made me think about that, because I have to tell you that I like the praise and the nice things that people say when I do a good job on these studies. It isn’t THE reason I keep going, but it is a nice motivator. This is not a good verse for everyone. I will explain.
- If you didn’t already know it, the visible church is what I would call a divided house. What I mean is that it has both believers, and unbelievers that are pretending to be believers for whatever reason. Not everyone that names the name of Christ is actually His. Case in point, Judas Iscariot. Jesus chose him as a disciple fully knowing that he was a false believer that would betray Him. The Lord Himself tells the story of the “Wheat and the Tares” in Matt. 13:24-30. He tells the story of the “Sheep and the Goats” in Matt. 25:31-46. There are His sheep who hear His voice, and others that are planted there by the enemy for whatever reason, but whatever the reason is, whether it is to attempt to lead His real children astray, or to suck up resources that His people need, the enemy will not succeed. Paul here is saying to God’s true children at Corinth, regardless of what we see, let GOD do the judging. I’m still learning that.
- This verse is very reminiscent of a verse in the last chapter of the Bible, Rev. 22:11-13 – “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus sometimes has us let these false brothers or sisters continue in our fellowship. All we have to do is avoid them most of the time. Next week, we will se an occasion where the collective Body of Christ must do something.” Why wait? Well, because there are things that have been hidden from us in the darkness that the Lord wishes to shed light on for His own glory. This light will disclose the things themselves and the motives of those doing them – and if anyone’s work results in praise, then that praise will be directly from God, and a reward to the hearer. If it is not, the God will deal with it decisively, and once and for all.
- My point here is that I have met people I consider to be tares among the wheat. There are some that I love as people and try to warn about the impending judgement that they will not escape. However, it is something that really is useless, because for all my warning, I cannot make a tare to be wheat, or a goat to be a sheep. I have to let the Lord sort that out, because I lack both the knowledge and the power. Either way, the glory will be His. Is that sad? Maybe now – it won’t be then.
6: Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.
- Paul here is now explaining that in his instructions for us to follow, he is teaching us rather to avoid arrogance against another. Apollos likely would have applauded the effort Paul just made here in writing. The danger in arrogance is that we humans can get it wrong. What are we getting wrong? Well, simply that we don’t know everything about a situation. And as a result, we may try to “remove the tare” or “drive away the goat” from the church. When we do that, we will disturb the fragile wheat or sheep and that will just not end well for anyone involved.
- An interesting phrase here is “…that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written.” Paul had figuratively applied all of the stuff we studied last week to himself and Apollos as a figurative, perhaps even fanciful, “what if.” Paul with that phrase brings everyone back to the Word of God. Though he doesn’t share chapter and verse, one can see that Paul is using himself and Apollos as figureheads, much in the same way Moses was a figurehead in Egypt. In that day, if was Moses who was the chief instigator at God’s behest. Moses stood before Pharaoh. Moses demanded the release of the Israelites. Moses threatened and then delivered the plagues that affected only the Egyptians. And Moses parted the Red (or Reed if you like) Sea. (Just don’t tell me that the entire Egyptian army and Pharaoh droned in about 6 inches of water.) When Moses was leading the people in the desert, again it was clear he was the leader. God’s Spirit rested on him, and he gave food and water, and he judged the people. That job was too much for him, so there was a special granting of the Spirit of God to 70 elders in Israel that helped Moses with the workload. At a certain point, 68 of 70 of the elders took a break from prophesying, but two men called Eldad and Medad did not. Joshua, Moses’ young protégé, was offended by that, asd asked Moses to restrain them. What was Moses’ answer? We can find it in Numbers 11:28-29. “Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!'” You see, Joshua’s loyalty to Moses was misplaced. When loyalty is misplaced, then hostility towards other teachers that are just as gifted, just as accurate, just as much Christian and inspired by the Holy Spirit, can reign free. But Moses wouldn’t let Joshua do that. Moses wouldn’t exalt himself, and he wouldn’t let others exalt him. Neither would Paul. If you want an example using Paul himself, try Acts 14:8-18, when Barnabas was mistaken for Zeus and Paul for Apollo, all for healing a lame man in public.
Look, beloved, the church clearly has problems today, some of which are reminiscent of Corinth. I see it in the so-called Reformed community all the time. Oh, I once heard John MacArthur say something that Steven Lawson disagrees with. We shouldn’t listen to John MacArthur anymore. Oh, we can’t listen to R. C. Sproul (senior OR junior) because he’s not a Baptist, AND he’s an Amillennial.
All I can say is that there is a missing ingredient that Paul is going to great lengths to point out to the Corinthians – that missing ingredient is humility. Look, we don’t always know. And even if we do know, do we know EVERYTHING? Probably not. I’m obviously NOT speaking of false teachers here, and neither was Paul, or this would have been a much different letter. Actually it was. See the Letter to the Galatians. We sometimes need to take a humility pill and calm the heck down, and just let God be God. Can we do that? Well, we have to, so get at that walking in the Spirit thing.
7-13: The messenger seems without honour
You know that way of humility we were just talking about? Sometimes (okay on most occasions) it has a cost – and that cost is that you will either be humbled or you will have to walk humbly. At times, humility can be that awkward place that you must be because you don’t know and have to give the benefit of the doubt. Usually I find myself there just after I didn’t know everything and didn’t give the benefit of the doubt and now I have that proverbial egg on my face. And that can make a person look stupid, and I confess I hate that. But it is how the Lord teaches me at times. To my credit I think, I do learn that way. I am also learning there are better ways to learn than banging my head on the wall repeatedly and then stopping and discovering how good that feels (to have stopped I mean). Sometimes, to coin a phrase, the one with the message seems to get no respect. Complete with tie-yank. Thanks so much for that, Rodney Dangerfield. On with the text.
7: For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
- Paul’s invective here is to point out one very simple truth. You have no real talent (or anything else for that matter) that God did not give you. And if God gave it to you, and you know that, how is it that you go around thinking and acting like you learned it yourself and are using it to your own benefit?
- I’m not saying that God doesn’t let us make a living using the talents He gave us. I’ve had a more-or-less successful career in sales of some variety over the last 30 years or so. I learned how to apply skills that the Lord gifted me with, and then I learned that if I didn’t honour God first before other things like success in my career, He could take away the benefits of the skills. That’s what Paul is saying to Corinth here.
8: You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.
- Paul begins here to speak in a facetious manner about the Corinthians, and then reveals his own sarcasm. It’s like he’s saying, “Look guys, you’re on your way! You’ve really got it going on! Without any help from any of us, you’ve reached the top of your game!” And then he says, “Oh how I wish that were true, so we could know that we did OUR jobs right.” Apparently they had not. Paul explains.
9: For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.
- What I hear is something like this. Paul speaking, starts out last verse in a soft voice with, “You think you know. But you don’t. So I’m going to explain. Pay attention.” The He starts in on his own life as an apostle, and I’m going to ask you to put a bookmark here. This is important. We have seen this material before, and we will see it again!
- “It’s like this,” says Paul. “God, in His infinite wisdom, has brought out and shown the universe that we Apostles, His personal messengers, are all of us condemned men. Our calling will chew us up, and eventually swallow us all,” he continued as he narrowed his eyes. “He has made us to be like a theatrical phenomenon. We are actors on a stage before both men and angels – yes, our heavenly counterparts the angels.” Verse 10.
10: We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor.
- He continued, “Because of Christ, the world considers me and all my Apostle brethren a moron.” (That’s the actual Greek word there.) “Yet, for all of the issues that you have, that we are at this moment addressing, the world considers you to be both practical and prudent.” He chuckled a bit at the irony, and then continued, “We are the ones who according to the world have no strength of any kind – no physical strength, though I am a tent maker and need it to BE a tent maker, no mental strength because they consider us all either moronic or mentally disturbed – but you – the world tells you how strong and mighty you are. You are so glorious that they hold you in high esteem,” he grinned wryly. “But us, we are held as those who are altogether without honour,” he said as he paused a moment to form more thoughts. But wait, there is more.
11: To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless;
- Paul turned his gaze from the ground up to lock eyes with you. “You have NO idea what we go through for you. Right now, AS WE SPEAK, me and my brothers are going without food and water for the honour of bringing you this message,” he said firmly. His voice began to rise a little. “Our clothes are coming apart at the seams, and some of our dear sisters work overtime to make sure we don’t go naked in public,” he said, his voice becoming louder. “Some places where we share this message of salvation in Christ, we are beaten up,” he said as his head tilted a little to the left. “You know, it has been so long since I have had a place to hang up my coat, you can actually say I have no fixed address,” he added with a wry chuckle.
12: and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure;
- “In fact,” he added, “I support myself in ministry when I am in Corinth. I work hard. Did I mention I am a tent maker? It isn’t easy, and if the smell of the tanning doesn’t get you, the weight of those Roman field tents will,” he said, his head straightening up. “In fact, when we are abused, which happens a lot, we make it a point not to respond in kind, but bless them instead, honestly wishing them well,” he said as his eyes started to feel like they were staring into your very soul itself. “Sometimes,” he continued, “they mistreat us so badly that we have to leave town. That happens a fair bit, actually,” he said as the left corner of his mouth tugged upward in a sort of momentary smirk. “But we bear with it,” he added nonchalantly with a slight shrug and a wince, indicating some of the beatings you know he took were beginning to affect him.
13: when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.
- “Our opponents say all kinds of falsehoods about us, trying to hinder our work for Christ,” said looking back down to the ground. “When that happens, we try to do as the Holy Spirit does with us – we try to reason, and be conciliatory, and to generally and genuinely build them up. It’s all for a testimony to the Lord Christ Jesus anyway,” he said as he sat down on the log near the fire. “In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to know that as far as the world goes, we are like the dirt you will scrub from that pot where dinner is cooking,” he laughed. “They try to wipe us off of themselves, and it happens everywhere we go,” he said.
Now in my dramatis interpretatio, I have taken the time to be accurate and as realistic as possible. I could actually hear Paul speaking, albeit he spoke in English in my mind. He is in his logic here trying to use irony to slap the Corinthian listener to the letter that would be being read aloud in their gathering into waking up and seeing that reality that we cannot see but that is yet so evident as cannot be missed by those with any spiritual discernment at all. And he is doing it purposefully, so that he can get them to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. Why? So that they will imitate the messenger of God in his own behaviour.
14-17: Imitate the messenger of God
This is not a new idea with Paul, and it is something he has written in his ministry in two other occasions, and both occasions are in this epistle. The first of THOSE is in verse 16, which is part of this very paragraph. (The other is in 1 Cor. 11:1.) In both cases, Paul is using the power of memory to help the Corinthian church correct its course. “Look,” says Paul, “I was there! You saw how I behaved! Act like I did, insofar as I imitated Christ!” Let’s see what he meant.
14: I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
- His very first statement in this thought unit is filled with mercy and grace. He is telling the Corinthians there that they don’t need to be ashamed because of the comparisons he’s just laid down. There are those in your midst that KNOW you’re doing it wrong – I’m trying to help you correct yourselves.
15: For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
- Here Paul is making very specific reference to all the teachers that were the focus of that “party spirit” that had caused all the problems. You can have all those tutors. But none of them are like your father. I became your father in Christ through the gospel! Listen to your father!
- I want to make a distinction here, as well. This has nothing to do with the Catholic Cult’s idea of calling one of their priests “father.” That has to do with a very specific kind of heresy called Sacerdotalism, and maybe we can get into that another time. I’m not really prepared this evening to look at it in depth.
- I should remind you all here that Paul was the church planter that planted the original church in Corinth. He was it’s first pastor for about 18 months. If anyone could be called the father of the church in Corinth it was Paul. See what I mean in the next verse.
16: Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.
- Paul’s care for the church can be seen in his choice of words. I “exhort” you. Exhort means to encourage strongly. It does NOT mean to adjure, which is to seriously charge someone with an oath to tell the truth. That’s how the High Priest in Jerusalem spoke with Jesus. “I adjure you,” he said, “to tell us whether you are the Messiah!” It does not mean to rebuke. That is to strongly reprove, or express strong disapproval. Paul has just told them to be imitators of him. I don’t think he could mean that here. It does not mean to reprove, that is to gently criticize or correct, although it has been that kind of letter in some ways. Paul’s goal here is not to create negativity, but rather to encourage the saints in that place to follow his own pattern of behaviour!
- See? “Be imitators of ME.” Paul was there as their pastor for 18 months. Sometimes, it is the pastor’s job to project a good model of behaviour for the congregation. That’s why the top quality for church leadership is moral character. Or do you care if a car thief looks after the church treasury? I know I do! When high moral character is present for any length of time, people will remember, and Paul here is counting on it.
17: For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.
- Paul isn’t just relying on the memory of the saints in Corinth, however, because Paul is most decidedly NOT a moronic fool as he claimed earlier in the chapter. In fact, Paul’s pragmatism can be clearly seen in his choice of personnel – he’s sending Timothy, his number one disciple, and “son in the faith.” We looked at the relationship between Paul and Timothy when we went through 1 and 2 Timothy, particularly 2 Timothy, Paul’s last recorded letter before his execution in Rome.
- Timothy was a pastor in his own right, and also knew how the Corinthians needed to behave to walk in the Spirit. He would no doubt be able to remind them of what Paul had said and done when he was there as pastor, just as Paul taught everywhere. And when you read other letters like Ephesians, and Philippians, you get the impression that there were a lot of saints in those places that really loved Paul.
Much can be said about the living out of Christian example. This is something that I believe Francis of Assisi was trying to hit at when he uttered his famous line, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Maybe in his day, it wasn’t always necessary to use words, and living a clean lifestyle was enough. Not today, however, words are always necessary. In our weekly prayer meetings, I keep introducing the need for a burden for personal holiness. This is why. We can talk the talk all we like – but if people don’t personally see our rubber meeting our roads personally, we’ll be relegated to the fellowship of the hypocrites. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite – they have their part in the lake that burns with fire, and I want NO part of that place.
But why is any of this even possible? Yes, Jesus died for our sins, yes, the Apostles and other church fathers set examples for us, yes, we have modern-day people that can teach us what the Scriptures mean and encourage us on the way, but why? It’s like we’re missing something.
18-21: The Kingdom exists in Power, not mere words
We are missing the power of the kingdom. This is what I was getting at with my “words are always necessary” line. That’s true today. If we aren’t using our words, no one will listen. But you know what else we have to use all the time? We have to use the power of a changed life, and that power is NOT OUR power. Nonetheless, out deeds must back up and lend strength to our words, or our words will have no effect. James says it like this, referencing a so-called life of “faith” without the accompanying evidence – “Faith, if it has no works, is dead.” That concept is so important to James that he says it twice – Jas. 2:17, 26.
The bottom line for Paul and James here, who are not arguing different views of salvation, but rather are saying the same thing, but usually from different points on the curve, is that we can talk, talk, talk until our mouths fall off and the cows come home (you will remember I grew up on a farm that had both beef and dairy cows) – but if our life doesn’t back up what we say, we have no power to speak of God’s kingdom. Only the power of God can change a life, and only the power of a changed life can give an effective witness for Christ. Why? Because the kingdom of God exists in POWER, and not simply talks. As the saying goes, “Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy a farm.” And when someone has to commit their life and resources to something, THAT’s the litmus test to sort out the real Christians from the false converts. Let’s see.
18: Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.
- I find it kind of interesting that Paul has noticed the same thing I have over time. The ones that are the fake believers are always the ones making the loudest stink. Some of you know what I mean when I say that, but I’m asking you now to remain silent about that. Call it confidentiality if you must.
- What happens to the unbeliever when confronted about the lack of fruit or reality with God in his life? Well, arrogance comes out – usually coupled with belligerence these days. They will fight with you, at least verbally. They will call you names! I’ve been called names. You know what? The names didn’t make any changes to my status or hurt me physically. I am able to forgive that, and Jesus even demands that we show mercy like this in his parables, specifically in the parable of the unforgiving servant. Look that one up on your own and think about what it says.
- Why can I take that attitude? Well, first, the Lord Jesus commands it. Second, if the situation requires some form of repayment, God will eventually redress it. I don’t care when, He will do it. Woe to the one that needs that redress. The gap of time between the name-calling and the redress is to allow ample opportunity for said individual to repent. Finally, everyone in the church knows me, and has for more than a decade. They know what was said wasn’t true. So I say, “Who cares what a bitter person said in anger?” But Gerry! They won’t repent! They don’t need to, I forgave the offence like my master instructed me to do.
- But make no mistake, beloved. The Lord Jesus IS returning. He DOES remember it. And HE WILL bring it up again. Lord please, allow the man to repent before that.
19: But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power.
- Paul here says, “But I AM coming, assuming that the Lord allows that. And when I come, there will be a kind of reckoning, and we will see who is the fake.” Paul here is telling us straight up that their “words” aren’t going to be what is measured, but rather their power. We’re not talking about the idea of power levels like Dragonball-Z, here. We already know that Son Goku Kai-o Ken get it done, because his power levels are over 8000 (if you understand that over 9000 was a translation error by the voice-over folks). That’s a Japanese anime, and we’re talking about reality. The power that will be measured is how changed their lives are – and the first test (and I’m setting up for next week here) is how willing they will be to repent of their foolish sin and receive instruction. Next study, we will see the consequences of NOT being willing to do so.
20: For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.
- This is exactly where Paul say it. It’s like our modern phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is.” You say you believe? Let’s examine that, because the Lord Jesus says that can be known by the fruit of your life. Is it love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering, kindness, self-control, like that? Or is it division, argumentation, anger (yours and your victim’s), short temper, and out-of-control rage, and over the top behaviour? I bet we can tell from that. Talk whatever game you like, but you can’t fake a changed life, no matter how hard you try. And beloved, I know, because I’ve tried! It’s too hard for the natural man to be good all the time! We have to walk in the Spirit, which is where our power to live the Christian life comes from. If you know what to look for, you can always tell the members of the kingdom of God. How about you? Are your power levels over 8000? Or are you actually walking in the Spirit and letting God change your life and sanctify you? It’s a fair question, saints.
21: What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
- So that’s your choice, “saint.” Paul is telling his Corinthian friends that they have a choice. Smarten up and tone down the arrogance, and the clique-y behaviour, and the argumentation, and all the divisive behaviour, and repent and ask forgiveness form God for the misdeeds, or face the reckoning that is coming. And for some, that reckoning will arrive sooner than Paul will, as we will find out in the very next verse – but that’s for next week, because it’s in chapter 5!
- You know, I don’t think I’d like to face a reckoning with Paul. He strikes me as the kind of person that could sit there in complete calm while presenting to you all the reasons for your imposed punishment and have YOU agree that it was appropriate. I don’t think I would enjoy that. Actually I didn’t enjoy that. I know a few itinerant brethren that I would view as the equivalent to me of the Apostle here. I’ve had one of them do that with me, and I deserved it. It was not an enjoyable thing. I had restrictions put on me, and they weren’t hard to keep, but the fact that for a period of time it was necessary was embarrassing, though if I told you what it was, you might chuckle at me, and I don’t think I’d enjoy that either. Everyone at some point will require discipline.
Before we close, I think a few closing remarks are in order. What we see in this chapter is almost an apologetic for how an Apostle is actually supposed to operate, as opposed to those morons that put it in front of their name on Facebook. The easiest way to tell a false apostle is that they are announcing to everyone that they are an apostle. Real Apostles with a capital A in the word aren’t around anymore, 20 centuries later. Anyone claiming the office needs to read and take seriously everything Paul ever says about the subject, because HE was the REAL DEAL, and had the power to show it.
Because Paul was not King here, and none of us may claim that rightfully even now, he understood that it was the King Jesus that does the real examination and analysis of one’s life before God. Being God Himself, He is the only one that can actually see all of the evidence in real time. We need to analyze and search, and some things will still remain hidden from us. But God knows, and He IS looking. And it is God that holds the power for change in a life, not Paul, and not us.
That can make us look weak to the casual observer, and it shouldn’t bother us to admit that. We need constant power to be constantly changing into the image of the Son of God anyway, so this is hardly news to us. The people that it will be news for are those professed “Christians” that really don’t have that faith relationship with the King of the Universe. They can either receive that news now and experience God’s power to change for themselves, or they can live their life and die and then find out that they were in the wrong line. But by then, it will be too late, and THAT is a tragedy of eternal proportions.
My friends, keep that in the back of your minds. The Kingdom of God exists in POWER, not in mere words or personal confessions of faith because “we decided to follow Jesus.” I mean, praise the Lord for that decision, but you have nothing to do with it, friend. God can and does use such professions of faith to save people, but I get the impression when I look around for true Christians that such an individual is rare to find.
Talk is cheap. It takes being really convinced for real to become a Christian, and that is something only God can do when he makes you to be born from above.
And that’s chapter 4!