Chapter 4

This chapter examines spiritual ministers of the Gospel.

Verse 1, "us, as of the ministers of God"

The word "us" refers to official ministers and rulers of the church. The idea is, "If you really want to look at what a faithful, genuine minister of God is like, let me tell you." This happens to be the subject of the chapter. However, truth is truth at all times. Therefore, the principles of the chapter apply to all Christians.

"stewards of the mysteries"

The term "mystery" was discussed in Chapter 2, verse 7. Essentially, it refers to the Gospel. The focus is upon the fact that the gospel cannot be understood unless it is revealed to a man's heart by God. I Peter 4:10 uses the term "stewards of grace." By comparison we have this identity: "mysteries" is the same as "grace." This agrees with our previous understanding of "mystery."

Verse 2, "it is required"

There is one required characteristic of a steward of God. That characteristic is faithfulness. The requirement is automatically fulfilled in true believers. It is not that all believers are 100 percent faithful in all that they do or say, but that they have perfectly faithful hearts and largely are obedient. God does not require faithfulness as a prerequisite to joining the ranks of ministers. He is not looking for qualified people to be ministers. He first of all makes them faithful by grace and then gives them the job of ministers. Therefore, the requirement is really a characteristic common to all believers. In keeping with the first verse we can say, "One of your requirements in measuring or accepting a minister is that you find him faithful."


The word is a compound word from oiko, "house," and nomos, "law." The idea describes a person who is a keeper of the law of the house, an administrator of someone else's affairs on their behalf. The image is much like Joseph who handled Potiphar's and then Pharaoh's affairs.

Therefore, to the Corinthians was entrusted God's law, the mystery of grace or the Gospel (cf. Matt. 25:14-30). This means that as representatives of their Lord, they ought to be wise stewards, careful, faithful (II Cor. 5:20). This also means that, inasmuch as it is God's Gospel, and not their invention, they do not have to seek to present it in a way that makes it acceptable to men, nor should attacks on it be considered as personal affront. They should just administer it (II Tim. 2:15).


What does it mean to be faithful? Does it mean to be consistent or does it mean to conform to some standard such as God's Word? Actually both ideas are in view. The perfect illustration is God Himself (I Cor. 1:9; Rev. 1:5). God is true to His own Word and constantly abides by it. Our faithfulness is measured by how we conform to His Word, the whole Bible and only the Bible. Faithfulness is also a description of what we do with the Gospel. The idea of the verse is that faithfulness should be our guide to thinking about those who bring the Gospel. (Faithfulness is also connected to stewardship of the Word in the illustration introduced in Matt. 24:45,46 and developed in Matt. 25:14-30).

Verse 3, "But with me...small thing"

In other words, it does not really matter much to Paul...

"that I should be judged of you"

...that some in the congregation were making an assessment of him. The implication is that their assessment was not done correctly, in a spiritual way. So Paul is not troubled much by it.

"or of man's judgment"

The word "judgment" is hermes, or "day", as in I Corinthians 3:13. The idea of the phrase is a "day in man's court". The judgment of "you" (the Corinthians), which "you" dispensed, is linked to man's judgment, for that was the foolish basis of their judgment.

Paul comes to them with the truth faithfully. He is not trying to justify himself. He does not have a personal grudge against them for not giving him proper honor. Nor is he reacting in envy to some who prefer other men over himself. The problem is that they are exalting one faithful man and will not listen to another faithful man. They are trying to create divisions within the fellowship of true believers by putting the leadership of one faithful man against another faithful man.

So far the idea of this verse can be expressed in this way, "Since you do not seem to be able to properly evaluate and form an opinion of a minister, it does not matter to me if you judge me. In fact, it is no consequence if any of man's courts were to judge me. In fact..."

"yea, I judge not mine own self"

Paul continues with, "...I do not even accuse myself of anything." Certainly Paul has personal sin of which his conscience still accuses him. However, this phrase is not talking about personal sin. Rather, the idea in view is the fact that in his work as a minister his conscience is clear.

Verse 4, "for I know nothing by (against) myself"

Paul continues the final thought of verse 3, which can be expressed as, "I am not aware of any debt or guilt that can be laid against me." Oh yes, there were many men who had accusations against him (especially the Jewish leaders). But man's judgment does not count. It has no spiritual basis and no eternal value.

"Yet am I not hereby justified"

The idea is:

either 1. "It is not that I am guiltless just because no man has anything legitimate against me."

or 2. "It is not that I am guiltless just because I do not accuse myself."

"but...the Lord"

Paul's idea is, "The reason your evaluation is not important is that the Lord Himself is my judge. He knows more than you do, and He has declared me justified and faithful in Christ."

Sometimes we will listen to something terrible about another Christian worker (that in itself is a sin) and rest our opinion on that information (that attitude is judging, another sin) without even getting the facts firsthand or hearing the full story. That is a lazy and dangerous way live. Instead, we ought to evaluate a man according to his desire to be faithful and leave all judgements in the hand of God. That is, a man who really wants to do God's will but who is ignorant or who is struggling with a personal problem, ought to have our support, correction and encouragement (Acts 18:24-26).

There are special, formal procedures in dealing with faithless ministers (such as I Tim. 5:19), but we must always be careful when we criticize a Christian worker (Rom. 14:4).

Verse 5, "Therefore judge nothing"

The conclusion to the first four verses is that it is not our place now to judge a minister. Reflecting back on Chapter 3, one reason would be that the result of a man's ministry is in the hands of God. The results cannot always be related to a man's faithfulness. We cannot assess the quality of a man's work since the increase is God's. The important thing is that a minister look to himself that he remain faithful.

Also, we can look ahead to verse 6 and see "that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written." Another reason we must not judge ministers is that we easily make the wrong decision and form the wrong opinion (either for good or bad).

"before the time"

Which time? "Until the Lord comes," which is judgment day. This is the time set aside when judgment is appropriately made by Jesus Christ (John 5:22) and His people (I Cor. 6:3).

The reason why judgment must wait is because now "things of darkness are hidden," and only God knows "the counsel of the heart." Until God reveals those things, no judgment can be properly made.

"counsels of the heart"

A man is judged for what he does. What a man does is what his heart advises. The heart is the basic essence of what a man is. A man is ultimately judged for what he is, not just that he rebels, but that he is a rebellious person. But since the heart is a hidden matter, we cannot know what God knows now (I Sam. 16:7; Heb. 4:12,13). Therefore, we must reserve judgment and be busy with the affairs of our own heart. (Notice I Peter 2:19-23)

"then...of God"

At the appropriate time, the score will be evened. Every faithful man (for example, those faithful ministers) will receive the proper commendation, despite the fact that now some in the church put them down.

Verse 6, "these things...in a figure...to myself and Apollos"

He is able to illustrate all the principles he has just declared, not only in his own life, but in the life of Apollos as well. Therefore, they will see that Paul and Apollos are really the same ministers of Christ and not leaders of competing factions as some Corinthians made them out to be (I Cor. 1:12). This illustration is given "for your sake." It is important to Paul that they know the truth for their souls' sake. Paul does not want them to be in any spiritual danger.

"that ye...written"

Adding a few words will make the phrase clearer. "That ye...written by me here in this letter." Paul is just about to write about Apollos and himself as a picture of what a faithful minister is like. This phrase means that they can esteem ministers highly, but there is a limit. In the following verses it is written what that limit is. Notice that the phrase does not warn people that they might think "wrongly," but that they might think "above." This highlights the fact that people much to easily unreservedly trust a man who presents himself as a leader. People often would rather follow a persuasive man than go through the effort of comparing what he says with the Bible.

Verse 7

This verse reinforces the idea started in verse 6. All ministers, in fact all believers, are alike before God. Any differences of service are determined by God and are not indicative of any special value of a believer. Everything any believer has is received as a gift from God.

"For who...another?"

The answer to the question can be either:

1. "No one," if the sense of the question is that there are essentially no differences between God's people.


2. "God," if the sense of the question is that there are different roles God has given His people.

"and what...not receive?"

The answer is, "Nothing." By adding a few words to the end of the question, the intent is clearer. "And what...not receive as a gift but earned by your own efforts?" The answer is "Nothing of importance." All things spiritual, needed to serve God, are received as a gift (I Cor. 2:12).


"now if...not received it?"

The implication of the question is "Why do you boast as if your spiritual gifts were not received as a gift from God but earned by your own efforts? Since you did not earn it, but received it as a gift, there is no reason to boast. So why do you boast as if it was not a gift?" The question is rhetorical. The answer is obvious. They should stop this silly boasting. The principle is that whatever we receive from God must necessarily be a gift (2:12). Therefore, there is no point in boasting in men or in ourselves (John 3:27).

Verse 8, "Now ye are full...rich...kings without us"

If the words "full," "rich," and "kings" refer to the spiritual blessings of grace which believers exhibit, then the statement is sarcastic. The idea then would be that some in the congregation seem to think they are full and rich, but they are self deluded. This view of the phrase is supported by verse 18. For the same people addressed in this verse are called "puffed up." This sentence can be looked at as a sarcastic observation of their behavior or as an answer to the previous question. The verse could be rendered as, "You think you are in control and are completely adequate to handle your affairs without any message or personal guidance from us. Ha! I wish you were because you are not."

"I would...reign"

Actually in Greek it is "an advantage really that ye reigned." The thought can be expressed like this, "It would be a real advantage to you if you really did reign, but you do not." The word "king" refers to the dominance a believer has over sin in his life because of the power of God (Rom. 5:17; Eph. 2:6; Rev. 1:5; 5:10). Relying on our own power, we are slaves of sin. Relying on God's power, we are slaves of righteousness and overcome sin (Rom. 6:12-19; 8:11-13). Again, the idea is, "I wish your spiritual part reigned in your life."

"that we also...you"

The point of the verse is summed up here. It can worded as, "You are not reigning. We are. I wish you were so we could reign together." Many in the congregation really acted as if they had no spiritual control or advantage over sin in their lives. It is as if they had only a carnal life and no dominating spiritual life. However, they should not be part of the problem. Like Paul and the other ministers, they should be part of the solution. They should be "with us," not an impediment. They should be carrying the Gospel to the city, but instead they are in need of evangelism. What a waste!

Verse 9

This verse begins a series of verses that provides another reason why they should not focus upon or glory in any minister. Anyone who exalts or magnifies a human minister must necessarily base his evaluation upon worldly thinking. Yet, that is really silly because faithful ministers rank very low by worldly measurement. So how could the Corinthians glory in them unless it is because of some sinful imagination of their hearts? In fact, the Corinthians were far more blessed materially and had much more of this world than the ministers. The faithful ministers were hated or were a joke to the world (II Cor. 4:7-18; 6:3-13). The only proper estimation of a faithful man is based upon his message because there is not anything a faithful minister has that is honorable by the world's standards.

"For I think...last"

This can mean the last ones in a series of men God uses, or last in time as in I Corinthians 15:8,52 or last in the sense of least esteemed as in Matthew 19:30; 20:16. No matter which case we consider, the lesson is the same. God's ministers are always reduced in the eyes of the world. The apostles are merely the last ones in a long line of those who are "the base things" which God has chosen (Heb. 11, I Cor. 1:26-29). There is little reason to prefer one man over another or champion a man over his message. Conversely a man who is attractive by worldly standards may not be a faithful minister (Gal. 1:10, James 4:4).

"appointed to death"

Actually, the phrase is "over death" or "extra death." Everything about them seems to attract the wrath of the world and seal them to their physical death (John 15:19; 16:2; 17:14; Rom. 8:36). We are not normally attracted to condemned men, at least not if we use worldly standards.

"made a spectacle"

Actually the noun "spectacle" is the word "theater." Their audience is the world. Their lives are always under inspection and scrutiny by the world (Eph. 3:10; I Pet. 2:9; Heb. 10:33). The Corinthians should not have some dreamy idea or imagination of what their favorite man is like. If he has some physical problem or deficiency, there it is for all to see.

Verse 10, "We are fools for Christ's sake ... we are weak ...but we are despised"

These phrases describe the ministers' reputations according to the world's assessment. But they are also statements of agreement. The ministers agree to be these things in the world because they have no stake in the world. They are foreigners and strangers in the world (Heb. 11).

"but ye are wise in Christ ... but ye are strong ... ye are honorable"

We can look at these phrases in two ways.

1. As a contrast to the above phrases, these phrases could refer to what some in the congregation believe themselves to be in their own eyes, but what they really are not. These are then sarcastic statements.

2. These phrases could refer to the actual situation of the members in the congregation. The implication then is that the Corinthians have things much better than the itinerant ministers who wander around the countryside. They are strong, while the ministers are worn out. They are honorable, while the ministers, at best, are unknown or unappreciated. Why then do they champion a particular minister?

Verse 11, 12a

On a worldly basis, there is nothing attractive about the ministers of the Gospel.

"Even unto this present hour we both hunger...our own hands"

There is a great material lack in their lives. They have no great resources in this world. They are not the financial or social pillars of the community. In fact, nothing in this world is important to them (Phil. 3:7,8), except the salvation of souls (I Cor. 9:22).

"no certain dwellingplace"

This is one word in Greek which means "no standing," that is, no place to stand. This emphasizes that there is no place they can rest or call home. They are pilgrims (Heb. 11:13-16). They are citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Phil. 3:20) and are really strangers in this world.

"working with our own hands"

This phrase means that Paul and his fellow ministers are humble, aware that they laborers, without great financial resources or positions of earthly responsibility. This phrase also is statement of justification. They are not debtors to the world. In worldly things they work, earning what they need so that they are not a burden to anyone. Finally, this phrase shows that they are resourceful, willing to do what is needed to bring the Gospel.

Verse 12b, 13, "being reviled...unto this day"

This, as above, is not a complaint, but a statement of fact. More than just enduring material lack, they are also the objects of attack. And yet they are not bitter due to loss or revenge. Rather than stand up and "fight like a man" as the world advises, they "bless" and "suffer it" and "entreat." Why?

1. They know God is working out His plan and that He will adjudicate matters in the end.

2. They know their Christian reaction to the unfair treatment can be a real witness.

3. They do not take things personally because they know that men act out their hatred as slaves of Satan and cannot do anything else. The battle is really between Christ and Satan. And the attack on Christ's servants is an attempt to get to Christ (I Pet. 2:19-25; Rev. 12). God Himself is really the object of the world's hatred.


They are not these things in themselves. This is the world's assessment of them.

Verses 14-16, "I write not...to shame...but as my beloved sons to warn."

Paul always had their spiritual best at heart. There is shame when the Word of God comes to a congregation and the people do not measure up. However, is was not Paul's intent to embarrass them. Rather, he wanted to tell them the truth. He is saying, "Look, there is no material advantage to being a faithful steward of God, not for the steward nor for those who hear and obey the word he brings. Do not follow earthly success stories. That will lead you away from the kingdom of God, and I do not want that for you." Paul had a spiritual goal for them (I Cor. 1:4-7) and was willing to sacrifice anything (time, comfort, convenience, money, pleasures, esteem) to make sure they attained that goal.

"beloved sons...fathers...I have begotten you."

This is not a violation of Matthew 23:9, but a statement or show of love. There is an expression here of the special, mature, sacrificial love a parent has for a child in trouble.

Paul realizes he, too, can struggle with sin (Titus 3:3; I Tim. 1:15). He struggle with it all the time (Romans 7, I Cor. 9:27). As a father who has greater wisdom and experience in walking with God, he wants to lead them back to a closer walk with God by his own example. Incidentally, the begetting process is through the Word of God brought faithfully (Rom. 10:17; I Cor. 4:15; I Peter 1:23).

"followers of me"

Actually the phrase is "mimickers of me." This is not a contradiction of all that he has said. He does not want to gather a doting army. The idea is as in I Corinthians 11:1. He mimics God, and he expects them to mimic God too (Eph. 5:1). Faithful ministers do what they say and what they expect their hearers to do. As always, a Christian's focus is on God and not on man. They look at man only as he is sent to them by God to help them see God better.

Verse 17

This verse has a phrase that supports the last idea. "For this cause...my ways which be in Christ." The focus is not on Paul, but on Paul's service to Christ.

"This cause"

This refers to the truth he has been sharing. God's Word alone will correct their thinking about God's ministers.

"I sent unto you Timotheus"

Timothy was a likely candidate to bring the message to them. He had been with Paul in Corinth and was also a minister of the Gospel (Acts 18:5; II Cor. 1:19).

"who is my beloved son"

Often teachers say that this refers to the fact that Paul had been the one to bring the Word to Timothy and see his conversion to Christ, as if Paul was sort of a midwife or parent as he saw Timothy come to salvation by means of the Word he preached. But there is good reason to think that Timothy was not Paul's convert, that he was saved before Paul met him. It would be safer to say that, as an older fellow missionary, Paul was Timothy's mentor and guide, as a father would be to a son.

There is an implication in this verse that Paul is saying, "Treat him as you would treat me. For how you treat him I take personally."

"who shall bring you into remembrance"

The Corinthians cannot dismiss Timothy as a lesser authority and ignore him. Paul and all of them know Timothy is faithful. They must trust what he says. He knows the Scriptures. He was taught by Paul himself (II Tim. 1:13).

Additionally, they cannot try to pull the wool over Timothy's eyes. Paul knows that they will not be able to plead ignorance because Timothy had been with them in the ministry of the Gospel to Corinth and knows what they heard previously (Acts 18:5).

"as I teach everywhere in every church"

The point of this phrase is that Paul does not modify the Gospel message for different people. He is not inventing rules to keep them in line, nor is he being particularly hard on them. The problems of all people are the same, and the Gospel message to meet those problems is the same.

There is a hint here that they are acting as a little child who is being reprimanded. They might want to point their finger, like children do, at other naughty children. In that case Paul is saying, "You think the church in the next city has problems? So what? I would tell them the things in this letter, so I can certainly say it to you." The principles which he has written and that will correct their thinking are the same principles that guide the conduct of the whole church. Everyone hears the same.

Verse 18, "some"

Not all of the Corinthians are puffed up, only some. Nevertheless, the whole congregation needs this letter because it is affected by the sin of some, and the whole congregation needs to deal with it.

"are puffed up"

This is an awful phrase. It applies to people who do not hold Jesus Christ as their Lord, who are rebellious, who are not saved (Col. 2:18,19). Some in the congregation are in a spiritually dangerous situation.

"as though I would not come to you"

Some took the occasion of Paul's absence to rebel and, in addition, did not expect Paul to come back. The idea is that they acted as if Paul "would not" return, as if he did not want to return, as if Paul did not have a case and could not face them personally. Their attitude is sad and ironic because his delay in appearing among them was actually based upon the fact that he cared so much for them (II Cor. 1:23; 2:1).

Verse 19, "But I will come to you shortly"

This is a bold statement, contradicting those who think otherwise (verse 18). It sounds like and probably is a threat. Except it is not an empty warning. He intended to return "if the Lord wills." If he does not show up, it is the Lord's will and not due to some supposed weakness on his part or that his rebukes to the Corinthians are unfounded. The idea reminds us of the coming of the Lord. He, too, will come "shortly" to evaluate men, and that will be the awful day of judgment (Matt. 12:36,37). The words of II Corinthians 13:5 and II Corinthians 6:2 are appropriate here.

"and will know...the power"

Paul is not troubled by their words. Talk is cheap. Paul is saying, "O.K. you guys, if you think you are really right in what you say, I am going to come over and check you out." The word "power" is dunamis and refers to the power a believer has to live a faithful and obedient life. The implication is that their lives do not really measure up. They do not demonstrate the power of God within themselves. Their power is their own efforts, which is no power at all. The power that is real, that enables people to be faithful, is given by God and reserved only for His own people, true born-again believers. Can those who are puffed up and focus upon this world deal with sin and trouble in their lives? No. They have no real power.

Verse 20, "For the kingdom of God is not in Word"

That is, the kingdom is not based upon man's words (2:4). It is founded on the Word of God.

"but in power"

The kingdom of God is not a poetic idea or a philosophy of men, but a real work of God. It is spiritual, but very real. In a way it is more real than the physical world. The material world will eventually end, but God's spiritual kingdom goes on forever. In fact, it is dominant in the universe. Being in the kingdom means you have power over your material body and it will show in your life. Not being in the kingdom means you do not have power and that will also show.

The issue is black and white. You are either in the kingdom and have power, or you are not in the kingdom and do not have power (Rom. 1:16; Col. 1:13).

Verse 21, "What will ye?"

That is, "Take your pick. If you repent when you receive this letter, then I can come later and have a loving fellowship with you. If you do not heed what I say now in this letter, I will have to come with stern words of warning and correction."

"shall I come...rod"

The rod is a picture of Christ's authority, especially for punishment (Rev. 2:27; 19:15). Paul is wondering if he has to pull rank. Does he have to bear the full weight of the authority of his apostleship upon them?

"or in love...meekness?"

This does not mean discipline is separated from love. Rather, the point is that the alternative to judgment is grace, and he wants to be able to talk to them about the love of God rather than concentrate on the reality of their awful destiny if they continue along their rebellious path.

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