From:  A Torah Commentary on First  Corinthians 1-6                   Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2011






Chapter 4                                                                                          [Page 151] 






            Arrogance overwhelmed many of the Corinthians.  They had forgotten that both them—and the apostle himself—faced only one definitive and conclusive judgment, that by Jesus Christ Himself.  Acting with the self-confidence that only that ultimate judge could rightly have, they had created their divisive cliques with the absolute assurance that they were right and the others wrong. 

Paul had attempted to show the folly of such foolishness by describing the cliques as if they were ones following Paul, Cephas, and Apollos—implying that their real loyalties were to local personalities who had far less legitimate claim to leadership.   Yet their self-conceit was so brazen that they acted as if they had rightful claims to authority greater than even these major church figures!

            Because of their special past relationship with Paul, Paul felt the natural right to give them his counseling and advice and to expect them to heed it.  If they doubted either his credentials or insight, they are warned that he is coming and they had better be prepared to demonstrate their “superiority” if things had not changed.  Idle words issued at a great distance would no longer provide them any  protection.






How the Themes Are Developed  






It was required of men like Paul to loyally

present God’s will.  Even though some of the

Corinthians challenged him,

they should be cautious in any criticism:

Final judgment was left to Christ

and to no one else (4:1-4:5)



            ATP text:  1Let each of you consider us to be servants of Christ and explainers of the sacred secrets of God.  2Moreover it is required of such stewards that one be found trustworthy.  3But with me it is a very small thing that I should be cross-examined by you or by a human court of law.  In fact, I do not even pass judgment on myself.  4For I am



[Page 152]  conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not acquitted by this, but the one who passes judgment on me is the Lord.  5Therefore make no more premature judgments, but wait until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in darkness and disclose the motives of the hearts. Then each one will receive from God the praise that is deserved.”

            Development of the argument:  Paul refers to “the mysteries of God” (NKJV) and his stewardship role in regard to it.  To us today “mysteries” implies either the mysterious or strange or things no one knows.  Yet for Paul to refer to himself as “steward” of them implies that the previously hidden was now available for sharing; otherwise there was no way he could possibly be steward and sharer of it with others.  It would have been totally beyond his capacity. 

As he words it in Ephesians 3:9, his responsibility was “to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ.”  Here is made explicit  the idea of hidden mysteries no longer being closeted from human eyes. 

As he goes on, he seems to clearly imply that the central mystery was “the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11).  He stressed these mysteries being mysteries only in the past even more emphatically in Ephesians 3:4-5 where he speaks of how by reading the apostolic writings we can share his “knowledge in the mystery of Christ” which “in other ages was not made known to the sons of men.”  He adds that, in his age, they are revealed by “the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.” Hence, from a practical standpoint, John R. W. Stott is correct when he sums up the practical thrust of the passage as being that “ ‘the mysteries of God’ are God’s open secrets, the sum total of His self-revelation which is now embodied in the Scriptures.”[1] 

Paul regards the responsibilities that flow from his role of steward as important, indeed.  A fundamental requirement of being “servants of Christ and stewards” of the revelation God has given (“explainers of the sacred secrets of God,” ATP) is that “one be found faithful (ATP:  trustworthy)” (4:2).  In short, it is a working position, not a mere titular one.[2] 

This is true not merely of what one believes, but also in regard to how one acts and how one behaves.  Paul hints at having received criticism from among the Corinthians (4:3)[3] perhaps aimed at “creat[ing] discord between himself and other preachers,”[4] but insists that he knows nothing legitimate that can be introduced against himself (4:4).  Be he right or wrong in that self-evaluation, it is “the Lord” who will ultimately judge Paul (4:4).  He will not escape unscathed if even he turns out to be in the wrong.

            Hand-in-hand with premature condemnation came premature praise--presumably of each other.  When “the Lord comes” He will both give censure where it is deserved and praise where it is deserved.  Hence they should avoid premature and undue reliance on either of these (4:5).  They might be wrong!  And for those so obsessed with pride of place and spiritual gifts in the church, how humiliating to have to admit that they had come to conclusions diametrically opposite those of their Lord!  If they wished to avoid that danger they had to cease the kind of inappropriate judgments that could lead to it and which could so easily aggravate tensions and divisions within their spiritual community.




[Page 153]


In rebuking their divisiveness, Paul had used

both his own name and that of Apollos, but he

was really describing their loyalty to

local factional leaders (4:6-4:7)


            ATP text:  6Now these things, comrades, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn by our examples not to think above what is demanded of you by God’s written will--that none of you will become arrogant on behalf of one against the other.  7For who makes you superior to one another?  What do you have that you were not given?  Now if it was given to you, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”

            Development of the argument:  Paul had applied to “myself and Apollos” the attitude they had in regard to factions so that they might realize the folly of it (4:6).  In other words, he was substituting the names of individuals who were so important that both the Corinthians and readers in other churches could easily grasp why a special relationship might be claimed. 

This way, he effectively “depersonalized” the issue from the level of what X, Y, and Z were doing to a level they could recognize as growing out of principle rather than mere annoyance at specific local individuals.  This was especially important if the text was to have much use in other places:  no matter how “important” the sect leaders seemed to be to the Corinthians, outsiders were unlikely to recognize any of the names!  Put it on a level of Paul, Apollos, and Peter and all would grasp the point.

            Paul stressed that their faction-producing pride was unjustified since anything that they had (presumably of a spiritual gift nature), they had received from God rather than obtained it by personal ability or merit (4:7).  In their conceit they had claimed a status of superiority that “justified” their excess pride.  And it was a superiority based not on things they had themselves done and which they could point to and describe.  Rather it was on the basis of spiritual gifts they would not even have possessed if it were not for the work and presence of others.  (Not to mention the intervention of God.)

Perhaps a good modern analogy would be a rich person bragging of how much money he has—when it had all come by inheritance and he has done nothing to enhance it or increase it.  True, he (like the Corinthians) possessed it, but they could take no credit for having obtained it.  Hence their pride was thoroughly misplaced and unjustified.






[Page 154] 

Their arrogance had resulted in them

claiming for themselves a superior

status that even men like Paul and Apollos

never asserted (4:8-4:14)



            ATP text:  8You are already full of everything you want!  You are already rich!  You have reigned as rulers without us--and indeed I wish you did reign, that we also might rule with you!  9I think that God has presented us last--the spiritual ambassadors—like men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world to stare at, both to angels and to humans.  10For Christ’s sake we are regarded as fools, but you are viewed as having shrewd intelligence in Christ!  We are “weak,” but you are strong! You are “honored,” but we are not respected!  11To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and roughly treated, and have no guaranteed home.  12We labor hard, working with our own hands.  When we are reviled, we wish them well; when we are persecuted, we endure it patiently; 13when we are slandered, we try to conciliate.  Even until now we have been treated like the trash of the world, the garbage of all things.  14I do not write these things to shame you, but to caution you as my beloved children.”

            Development of the argument:  As the result of ignoring how dependent they were on others, they had become full of unjustified pride.  They felt like they were already kings of the world (4:8).  They acted as if they were independent of anyone and everyone[5] and could do anything they pleased and couldn’t be called to account since they were so spiritually elite they “must” be right.  They probably rarely if ever expressed their arrogance this boldly but their confidence in brazenly going their own way manifested this kind of mind frame all too clearly. 

Getting the deluded to recognize such an unpleasant reality can be extraordinarily hard for they are going to take it as so absurd as not to be worth even discussing.  Ken Hemphill summed up Paul’s problem well, “He did not want to quench the spiritual enthusiasm . . . but he did want to direct it toward more mature purposes.  My dad, who was a country preacher, used to say that he wasn’t sure whether it was easier to warm up a spiritual corpse or cool down a zealot.  Paul faced both problems.”[6] 

In contrast to the Corinthians’ collective egotistic appraisal of their greatness, the apostles faced death and humiliation (4:9-10), not to mention physical pain and abuse (4:11-13).  They seemed little more than a “spectacle” (4:9) exhibited to the world for its grim amusement and pleasure.  Glen S. Holland seems right when he describes the image Paul paints in these verses as being “something like prisoners of war [being] paraded before the crowd at the end of a triumphal procession, on the way to torture and execution”—all to entertain and provide a literal “spectacle” to a blood-thirsty audience.[7] 

The Corinthians were content and pleased having done little; men like Paul were rejected and scorned though they had done much.  They were treated as if they were trash and refuse—things that were the byproducts of civilized society but which were more than a little embarrassing to the elite such as the Corinthians.

            He tries to cushion the sting of his criticism[8] lest they lapse into sullen mutiny or think the situation beyond repair.  Paul pleads with them that he is not trying to embarrass them, but that he has a warning they need to heed.  In a very real way they had been



[Page 155]  acting childish so he addresses them as if they were exactly that, children---his own children (4:14).[9]  

Cynicism and mockery can serve as useful tools of either rebuke or destruction.  Paul was going to harness them as means to make his point rather than as ways to vent his own angry frustration.  His personal annoyance mattered nothing when compared with the urgent need to right the unstable and potentially dangerous situation.       







Paul’s relationship to them was one

few shared and therefore they had special

reason to consider his teaching  (4:15-4:17)



            ATP text:  15Even if you were to have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for it is I who have begotten you in Christ Jesus through the good news about Him.  16Therefore I urge you to follow my example.  17For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and dependable son in the Lord.  He will remind you of my way of life in Christ—the way I teach everywhere in every congregation.”

            Development of the argument:  His relationship to them was unique or near so; though they had had many teachers he was in a very real sense one of their few “fathers” in the faith (4:15), one of the few who had planted the growth seed (the gospel) that caused them to mature through embryo stage and give birth to them as Christians.  For this reason, they should imitate Paul’s own single-minded loyalty to Christ rather than being needlessly divided (4:16).

            Inherent in having a “father” relationship with them was that he wished the best for them.  Our “teachers” have a “professional” responsibility toward us, but with our fathers there is an emotional bond as well.  He wishes you to succeed not out of a disinterested (or even passionate) desire for truth but also because he accepts and embraces you as family as well.  Only the most failed parent is happy when the offspring settles for less than the best they can be.[10]  And we find exactly this mind-frame in the “father” Paul who wishes the Corinthians to lay aside the hindrances that kept them from “growing up” into their greatest maturity.  

            To assure that the effort continued and to prepare the way for his own return, Timothy would be coming to “remind” them of what he had taught (4:17).  This would not embody some special teaching just for the Corinthians; it would consist of that body of doctrine that “I teach everywhere in every church” (4:18).  He would bind on them no more and nothing different from what he taught everywhere.[11]  This would ensure that other places did not have special privileges not extended to the Corinthians; the opposite side of the coin was that he was going to demand that they not claim special rights denied to others either.





[Page 156] 


If Paul fulfilled his hope of returning to them,

those whose conceited rhetoric made them act as

superior to everyone, would be challenged

to demonstrate whether there was any real power

behind their claims (4:18-4:21)



            ATP text:  18Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you.  19But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord permits.  Then I will know, not the words of those who are bragging, but their actual power.  20The kingdom of God does not consist of talk but of actual power!  21What do you desire?  Shall I arrive with a punishing rod or with love and a gentle spirit?”

            Development of the argument:  Some were convinced Paul would never return to their community (4:18).  Perhaps this may even have encouraged their divisiveness—a sense of non-answerability.  Even so, he assures them that, God willing, he would indeed be back (4:19).  Then they would be able to see for themselves who was guilty of self-inflating puffery and who had the true “power” of God behind them (4:19-20).  Their words had been bold and full of confidence—when he wasn’t present.  But would they be able to resist his determination to set things aright when it was a matter of being held accountable “face to face”?

It would really be up to them:  He could return in anger, as “with a rod” to chastise and discipline—the term “rod” rendering a Greek term used in the Septuagint (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13) of the instrument a father used to punish his disobedient child.[12]  Or he could return, as he preferred, “in love and a spirit of gentleness” (ATP:  or with love and a gentle spirit”) (4:21).  The choice was solely theirs.  “The clock was ticking” and he was fully determined to set local matters aright—with their cooperation if at all possible, but without it if that was the only alternative.          







Invoking of Explicit Old Testament

Quotations to Justify His Teaching:








[Page 157] 


How Old Testament Concepts Are

Repeatedly Introduced and Woven

into the Heart of His Argument







            4:2:  The need for “stewards” to be “faithful” (ATP:  “trustworthy”) in fulfilling the duties and obligations of their position as representatives of their superior.  Paul counted himself among those who were “stewards of the mysteries of God” (ATP:  explainers of the sacred secrets of God”) (4:1); hence his superior in this case is the personified message (“mysteries;” ATP:  “sacred secrets”) that he taught.  These teachings were not in conflict with Christ’s will for he simultaneously identifies himself as among the “servants of Christ” as well (4:1).  Hence he presents duties to God (and His will) and to Christ as going hand in hand; they are overlapping responsibilities with the identical intent and purpose.

            A “steward” is a form of servant and the various texts relating to the responsibility of such individuals to faithfully execute their duties form the conceptual background of this passage.  A reliable servant relieved the master’s mind of worry (Proverbs 25:13, of one functioning as a “faithful messenger”).  The one who did the job as it should be could even anticipate being “honored” for work well done (Proverbs 27:18).  On the other hand, the one who abused such a position of trust by “violence” (toward those who had to answer to them?) and by “deceit” (against those who were more powerful than they?) would be punished by Yahweh (Zephaniah 1:9-10).



            4:4:  The fact that our own personal judgment finds nothing wrong with us is fine, but it does not guarantee that the “Lord” will reach the same conclusion.  There is nothing improper with our being convinced that there is nothing legitimate that can be used against us--if the facts actually back up that conclusion.  Hence Job could rebuke his foes, “. . . Till I die I will not put away my integrity from me.  My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live” (Job 27:5a-6).  Or, as the LXX renders it in an even more direct parallel to Paul’s self-evaluation, “I am not conscious of having done outlandish things.”[13]

            But not every one lives up to that high a standard of either conduct or honest self-evaluation and some are willing to lie quite brazenly to deny admitting their failure to do so.  To them, a lie is a cheaper price than the work required to improve themselves. 



[Page 158]  Some despair of the effort because evil seems so easy, popular, and universal (cf. Job 15:14-16; 25:4-6). 

            Sometimes such subtle agents of self-destruction creep into our lives because we think we can keep them secret (Psalms 19:12-13) or because sin seems so “inevitable” why resist it?  (Cf. Psalms 130:3-4).  After all, who can possibly measure up to an integrity on Yahweh’s level (Psalms 143:2)?  Such rationalizations won’t work and will not alter the reality.  Self-approval is desirable, but no assurance that it has been truly earned.   



            4:4:  Our ultimate judgment by “the Lord.”  In the New Testament, this certainly refers to Christ (cf. 4:1).  In the Old Testament context it would refer to Yahweh Himself.  “Let the heavens declare His righteousness,” proclaims the Psalmist, “for God Himself is Judge” (50:6; cf. 75:7).  The fact that “God will bring you into judgment” is a reality utilized by Ecclesiastes 11:9 to warn against the potential excesses of youth:  “walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes,” he observes but then warns that this must be done in a responsible manner because of inescapable Divine judgment

            As in the previous section above, the reality that ultimate judgment is by God also points out that one’s positive self-evaluation can turn out to be inadequate. The thoroughness and justice of a human judgment of other people is inherently limited; this derives from the fact that, as mortals, we are limited to what we see or can find or to eyewitness.  All of these suffer severe limitations.  Our ability to fairly evaluate ourselves is also severely restricted by preference, prejudice, and self-interest. 

            In contrast, Deity can see into the inner person and determine not only facts but also reasons and motives.  Proverbs 21:2 expresses it this way, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts.”  Not to mention the secrets we hide from others, warns Ecclesiastes 12:14.

            One of the most prominent Old Testament texts on this matter relates to why physically unimpressive David was anointed king.  Yahweh, 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us, quietly rebuked Samuel for seeming to think that Eliab would be the choice.  God, Yahweh cautioned, was not bound by those limitations that distort human judgment, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him.  For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 



            4:6:  The danger of uncontrolled pride in others.   He wrote his censure, Paul insists, so “that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (ATP:  “that you may learn by our examples not to think above what is demanded of you by God’s written will—that none of you will become arrogant on behalf of one against the other”).  They inflated the importance of their local clique leaders (supposed surrogates for people like Paul, Apollos, and Cephas) into authority figures so important that factors of right and wrong were lost sight of. 

It effectively became a matter of “they have the authority; that settles the matter.”  By being their supposed followers, this increased their own self-evaluation as well:  the



[Page 159]  psychology of such people seems to be that some of the “greatness” will, so to speak, “rub off” on them through their allegiance.  Following them blindly they were assured to be in the right. 

            The expression “not to think beyond what is written” (ATP:  “God’s written will”) is a phrase typically utilized of something said in the Old Testament.[14]  There is no such explicit command not to think overly highly of others, but we do not find the principle  In Number 11 we read of a young person who ran to Moses and Joshua, to report that two Israelites other than Moses “are prophesying in the camp” (11:27). 

            Burning with indignation, Joshua insisted, “Moses my Lord, forbid them!”  Rather than accept this elevation of himself into being the sole individual rightly possessing the gift, Moses responded that he wished “all the Lord’s people were prophets” (11:28).  He refused to accept the puffery of another and, doubtless, thereby, poked a hole in their own balloon of puffery-by-association with greatness. (Also see our discussion in the “Problem Texts” section.)

            The idea of “not to think beyond what is written”—in light of the construction of his sentence—might well refer to what is written in the Corinthian epistle itself, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that one of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (4:6).  The closing words “that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” hits hard on the theme that Paul is (at least primarily) dealing with, internal cliques; by transferring “to myself and Apollos” his arguments against division, he put his instructions in the fashion they could least easily challenge—for the argument is here over party loyalty and not over specific teaching (where they might well feel like making a challenge).  With the argument beginning and ending with the danger of party loyalty, then “what is written” might easily apply to what Paul had written on this very topic.  It certainly fits well with what both comes before and after the assertion.   

            Others take the approach of linking the expression “what is written” as referring to the broader, earlier context rather than the immediate one.  Richard B. Hays argues that,[15]


Paul has prominently spotlighted six Scripture quotations in the first three chapters of the letter (1:19, 31; 2:9, 16; 3:19, 20).  In the case of the first two and the last two, the application of the texts is explicitly spelled out:  No boasting in human beings.  First Corinthians 3:21a links the two quotations in chapter 3 back to the quotations in chapter 1. . . .  Furthermore the two quotations in chapter 2, though they are not explicit admonitions against boasting, reinforce the same theme by juxtaposing God’s gracious ways to all human understanding.

The cumulative force of these citations is unmistakable:  the witness of Scripture places a strict limit on human pride and calls for trust in God alone.  What would it mean to go ‘beyond’ this witness of Scripture?  It would mean, quite simply, to boast in human wisdom by supposing that we are, as it were, smarter than God.  The last clause of 1 Corinthians 4:5 confirms this interpretation.  




[Page 160]       4:8:  The Corinthian delusion of greatness as an accomplished reality.  Paul mocks the Corinthians as convinced that they were “already rich” and that they were virtually “reign[ing] as kings.”  So far as he was concerned, he immediately adds, he wishes this were the truth.  Of course the mockery lay in the fact that they both knew this was far from the reality. 

            Yet the Corinthians were unquestionably puffed up on behalf of their factional leaders (4:6).  They took pride in tolerating incest (5:1) and did not even worry about how their blatant dishonesty would appear when taken before pagan law courts (6:1).  Such fully justified the portrait:  they were acting like they were, to use the modern phrase, “on top of the world” and were answerable to no one.

            The Old Testament warns against self-delusion, whether of this type or any sort.  The prince of ancient Tyre is rebuked “because your heart is lifted up, and you say, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of gods, in the midst of the seas,’ yet you are a man, and not a god, though you set your heart as the heart of a god” (28:2).  This was not to deny his very real accomplishments:  he was resourceful and had made himself and his kingdom quite wealthy (28:4-5), but he wasn’t that astute nor smart enough to be a true god.

            The following chapter of that same prophet denounces “Pharaoh king of Egypt” who suffered from the delusion that the Nile was uniquely “my own; I have made it for myself” (29:3).  But that delusion was still not going to spare him or his people from massive military defeat (29:4-5).  When reality collided with delusion, reality trumps the myth.  A sobering reality to give the Corinthians pause.



            4:10:  Mockery as a teaching tool.  Paul vividly contrasts himself with the puffed up image many Corinthians had of themselves, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong!  You are distinguished, but we are dishonored.”  (ATP:  For Christ’s sake we are regarded as fools, but you are viewed as having shrewd intelligence in Christ!  We are ‘weak,’ but you are strong! You are ‘honored,’ but we are not respected!”) 

            The Old Testament does not go in for mockery as a major tool any more than Paul does.  Yet there are places where no other word quite describes the kind of rhetoric being utilized.  For example, the description of the king of Tyre and Pharaoh of Egypt, discussed in 4:8 above.

            The element of mockery is brought out at great length in the battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal as to whose god was the true one (1 Kings 18).  There the Baal prophets erected their altar and put their sacrifice on it and prayed for fire to come down to light it.  Their many prayers and “leap[ing] about the altar” (in ritual dance?  in ecstatic trance?) did no good (18:26). 

            “And so it was at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened’ “(18:27).  They were not amused, so they “cried aloud” even more and ritually “cut themselves” so that their blood flowed out over them (18:28).  Such things continued until the evening but still nothing happened at all (18:29).

            At that point Elijah rebuilt the altar of Yahweh (18:30) and put on it his offering (18:32).  To add visual mockery to verbal, he ordered four waterpots of water to be poured over it in order to make it even harder to light (18:33).  Then he ordered it to be



[Page 161]  done a second time--and a third (18:34). And even for the surrounding trench to be filled with water (18:35).  And then he prayed for fire to come down from heaven and light the altar and it did (18:36-37).  Elijah was not merely making a spiritual point as to who should be the true God of Israel; the text presents Elijah as driving it home with vigorous and vehement verbal and visual mockery.



4:14:  Paul was not attempting to “shame” his readers but to “warn” (ATP:  “caution”) them of conduct dangerous to their spiritual welfare.   Paul was not out to embarrass or humiliate the Corinthians; because of the seriousness of their problems they were in danger of a bad situation deteriorating into something even worse.  Hence the need to “warn” them in clear-cut terms of their mistakes in reasoning and behavior.

            Paul was functioning, in Old Testament terms, as a community’s “watchman” who was supposed to be on the alert at all times to dangers to his people.  Indeed, Ezekiel quotes God as describing his prophetic ministry in terms of being a spiritual “watchman for the house of Israel” (3:16).  Just as Paul felt the moral obligation to share the truth he had been given, likewise this prophetic watchman was to “give them warning from Me” with the “word” that had been received from God. 

            If the people did not heed the warning, their guilt was strictly on themselves (3:18).  On the other hand, if they individual did heed the admonition, then “he shall surely live because he took warning” (3:21).  This was obviously the reaction Paul was striving toward, but human nature being what it is, neither Ezekiel nor Paul could be sure whether the goal would be accomplished.

            “Warn” carries the overtones of grave seriousness, of rebuke, and of admonishing.  Nor was Paul about to give up and stop talking this way if no positive change occurred.  Hence his challenge in the concluding verse of the chapter, “What do you want?  Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21)

            We live in an era of “feel good” optimistic preaching and much of that is highly appropriate.  On the other hand, Paul’s example carries with it the admonition that there will be times and places where nothing but pointed and unmistakably clear advocacy will do the job.  Paul’s various writings manifest a variety of both forms of teaching and it varied according to the needs of the particular audience being addressed.  If all we can do is “preach positively” have we not betrayed our listeners?  If they are on the Titantic, it is hardly the time and place to make them feel comfortable!



            4:15:  The idea of spiritual parentage.  Moses realized that he had responsibility for the people of Israel but their behavior drove him to utter distraction and one day he growled of them, “Did I conceive all these people?  Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12).  He simply did not want to have the responsibility for his people (verse 11), who had proven so rebellious and discontented.  As Torah giver, Moses inherently functioned as spiritual father, but he also functioned as de facto political head of the nation at the same time and it was these responsibilities that primarily had led him to such frustration—everything was being passed onto his shoulders and the people rebelled at doing their part.



[Page 162]       The idea of spiritual parentage was looked upon more optimistically in the accounts of certain prophets.  In the days of Elijah there were at least two groups called “the sons of the prophets” who professed loyalty to Elijah and then Elisha:  one group resided at Bethel (2 Kings 2:3) and another at Jericho (2 Kings 2:5).  A number of these were married, probably the bulk of them (2 Kings 4:1).  Presumably these “sons” served as helpers to Elijah and Elisha both physically and in promoting their message.  Whether other prophets attracted such adherents is unknown but it would certainly go far to explain the preservation of the writings of unpopular prophets in a time when their teachings were generally rejected.

            The Babylonian Talmud speaks glowingly of the concept of spiritual parentage.  For example, “If a man teaches the Torah to his neighbor’s son, Scripture puts it to his account, as if he had begotten him.”[16]


4:21:  The punishing rod.  Since Paul had referred to himself as their father in the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:15:  though there were many teachers, only a limited number had actually led others to the Lord), when the alternative is then presented only a few verses later of his coming “with a rod or in love and a spirit of gentleness” (4:21) the idea is surely between his arriving as a punishing parent or as a parent who feels there is no need for anything behind loving encouragement. 

            “Rods” were typically made of some type of wood (cf. the example of Jacob utilizing “green poplar and . . . almond and chestnut trees” in Genesis 30:37).  How elaborate it was would surely have been determined by who made it (the individual or a craftsman who could polish it and perhaps engrave it with ornamental markings), which in turn would be determined by both utilitarian needs and personal financial status.  It would be as hard to imagine an even mediocrely well off ancient walking around with a mere tree branch as it would be to imagine a prosperous middle class merchant in colonial America traveling with anything short of the best walking cane he could reasonably afford. 

As in the ancient world, to lose or break such an object was an embarrassing loss.  The symbolic application of this principle seems the point in Jeremiah 48:17, “Bemoan him, all you who are around him; and all you who know his name, say, ‘How the strong staff is broken, the beautiful rod!’ ”

            This of course leads us to the most obvious use of the wooden rod, as an assist to walking.  Although established trade routes existed, these were not the well maintained roadways of today and even when the Romans got around to building such, these would have been useful to most people only part of the time.  Falling flat on your face on the roads—not to mention the hills and mountains and unevenly maintained city streets –was a constant danger and it would be hard to imagine many traveling any great distance without a rod to use as assistance and protection. 

            Hence the challenge of God to Moses, “What is that in your hand?” and the inevitable response, “A rod” (Exodus 4:2).  Every male had one.  And it was with this rod that Moses worked several of the various miracles that ultimately forced Pharaoh to let the people leave.

It was also a readily available tool to fend off wild animals or human danger.  It is in this sense of a protective rod that we have the famous prayer in Psalms 23:4, “Though



[Page 163]  I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4).

A rod also became a tool for punishment though one can’t help but suspect the size and fervor with which it was used would vary from case to case and the person being dealt with.  It is used symbolically as the embodiment of God’s punitive power, “If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men” (2 Samuel 7:14; cf. Job 21:9; Psalms 89:32).  In an extreme case it would no longer be a rod of wood but of metal and utilized not to merely punish or correct, but to destroy (Psalms 2:9; cf. Revelation 12:5, 19:15).  It was used as an emblem of the ability for God’s anointed to “rule in the midst of Your enemies” through the “rod of Your strength” sent out of Zion (Psalms 110:2).

            In Proverbs the punishment is presented as the natural response for those who lack the common sense to act in a reasonable and responsible manner.  Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has understanding, but a rod is for the back of him who is devoid of understanding” (10:13).  “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the fool's back” (Proverbs 26:3).  The contrast between “whip” and “rod” would seem to carry the idea that the punishing was not intended to be as severe as using a “whip” would have been—serious but not as potentially injurious.

A safeguard, if you will, against excessive punishment.  It could, of course, be misused as to target or amount of pain inflicted (the case of Paul in Acts 16:22 and 2 Corinthians 11:25).

            In Proverbs’ references to parental punishment, it is corrective not vengeful punitiveness that is the motive.  The rod is to drive “foolishness” (i.e., foolish, unwise, and, perhaps, outright dangerous) behavior out of “the heart of a child” so it will not become his or her future standard of normal behavior.  It is to “deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:14).  We naturally think of eternal punishment because of the New Testament emphasis on the painful afterlife of the reprobate, but the Hebrew word “Sheol” that is used could refer to the grave (i.e., extreme behavior can and does routinely get minors killed) or simply “the unseen world” (perhaps simply that vast world of unknown consequences and pain that extreme behavior can lead one into without warning). 

            Such punishment is designed to keep the child from bringing “shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15).  The uncontrolled, self-centered individual is going to bring embarrassment and maybe even disgrace—the only question is how, where, when, and how much backlash will come on the family because of it.

            There are at least four guidelines for such punishment that Proverbs presents.  The first is to “give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15); it is not designed merely to make the parent feel better by unleashing resentments. 

Secondly, it is to show “love” toward him (Proverbs 13:24).  Love does not mean “You’re okay, I’m okay” when you are actually acting like a brutal brat.  Thirdly, the punishment is to be given “promptly” (13:24), not when the parent has “taken all I can take.”  Then it becomes a tool for your emotional release and not the child’s good. 

Finally, “if you beat him with a rod, he will not die” (23:13).  The thrust is, of course, that the minor will learn to avoid behavior that will get him killed, but it also carried the weight that you will not cross that line between punishment and dangerous abuse.  Then you merely become an adult delinquent to go along with his or her youthful   delinquency.






[Page 164] 


Historical Allusions to the

                                   Old Testament:  None






Problem Texts






            4:5:  “Judge nothing . . . until the Lord comes” (ATP:  “make no more premature judgments, but wait until the Lord comes”).  No judgments on anything at all?

            There are two religious extremes:  in one, tests of fellowship are made on virtually anything and everything.  Finer and finer lines of spiritual “faithfulness” are drawn until (to take an old adage), “it is only thee and me and sometimes I have doubts about thee.”  The other extreme is the “anything goes” philosophy in which everything becomes acceptable.  (The “postmodern” mentality on such matters is actually quite ancient and, in many ways, was the norm in cities like Corinth.) 

            In their own strange way the Corinthians seem to have combined both extremes within their congregation.  They divided into several factions (making finer lines of distinction), yet simultaneously tolerated an amazing variety of conduct (incest and blatantly self-serving lawsuits) that would have been regarded as excessive even in their anything-goes city.

            They were using one excuse or another to “judge” each other, i.e., to condemn one another on a wide variety of subjects.  Quite possibly this was often tied in with their faction-making:  they needed to brand others as somehow so uniquely in the “wrong” that it was a positive obligation to divide into cliques, separate, and exist apart from their other coreligionists.  Paul does not deny that some of those they were upset about were in the wrong.  But instead of handling the matter with restraint and in a loving manner (cf. the forbearance and assuming-the-best, required in 13:5-7), they had acted without need or just provocation in far too many cases. 

            Vital to right judgment is knowledge of the “counsels of the hearts” of those we condemn (4:5) and these are known fully only to them.  Sometimes, truth be told, not



[Page 165]  even to them:  a dozen things may be interacting with their conscious thoughts and intents and reshaping the final behavior into something far different than would have occurred without the presence of those additional factors.  Hence the only person with the insight to make a full and just judgment is “the Lord” Himself when He returns (4:5).  Until then forbearance was to be the rule.  Forbearance was not meant to be taken as either credulity or a blank check for any and all deviant behavior, as Paul makes plain in the remainder of the epistle.        

            Part of Paul’s admonition grows out of the fact that there are things that we can’t judge with any guarantee of accuracy:  motives, intents, and purposes.  What we see will provide some indication as to these, but nothing foolproof.  There are also things we shouldn’t judge, those things that are the root of destructive ego-trips:  who is “really” the better person (name your preferred skin color), who is the most academically qualified (name your preferred college degree), who is the most successful in business (name your preferred level of advancement).[17] 

            Each of these is subject to distortion, misunderstanding, the unjust elevation of ourselves over others, and their disparagement both as Christians and even as human beings.   Hence, relatively speaking, they judged everything they should not have “judged” and avoided “judging” everything that should have been critically considered. In that atmosphere a blanket condemnation of “judging” is hardly surprising.

            Interesting, Paul puts the emphasis on the praise that is in the future and not the condemnation:  “Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1:5).  We think we are doing God’s will.  We think we are even excelling at it.  Others share your evaluation.  Then—and only then—will be have it verified from the Ultimate Source of truth.  Isn’t the delay worth the increased certainty?--such is Paul’s implicit argument.  



            4:6:  Did the Corinthians have literal Pauline, Cephian, Apollonian, and Christian sects or are they substitute names for the guilty parties?  

            In our discussion in chapter one we acted as if the issue were clear-cut--that various sectarian movements existed within Corinth that named themselves after these prominent individuals.  In 4:6, however, Paul seems to suggest that he had utilized the labels primarily or exclusively to make them see the point that otherwise might have been missed if the actual names of the local factionalists had been utilized:  “these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written. . . .” 

            In the broadest reading, this would refer to the entire preceding discussion of divisiveness, that began in chapter one.[18]  In a more narrow limitation it could refer to the preceding chapter 3:5-4:5,[19] thereby sectioning off the “transferred” reference to the matter of who was responsible for their conversion rather than the earlier material on their internal factions.  An even narrower limitation would restrict it to the immediately preceding verses of chapter 4,[20] making the subject matter proper and improper “judging.”

            Strongly arguing against such limitations is that in chapter 1 itself, Paul’s role in converting them is also put front and center (1:14-18) and the matter of his own preaching is heavily emphasized in 2:1-5.  Furthermore, the issue of proper and improper “judging” of others (and its fruit of needless division) is also dealt with in the earlier



[Page 166]  chapters.

            Hence the “transfer” reference is best read as indicating that the sectarian names in chapter one are pseudonyms for individuals whose names would probably not be recognizable outside the congregation.[21]   This, in itself, would justify broadening the rhetoric by utilizing references to recognized personalities in the church world-wide, thereby better adapting the argument to where ever the epistle might be read. 

            To the extent that there were a self-identified “Pauline,” “Apollian,” and “Cephaian” groups in Corinth (if any) these were transparently “flags of convenience” utilized by group leaders to exert a psychological influence above and beyond their own local prominence.  These external individuals were not the real problem; the personalities causing the problem (and possibly invoking their names as well) are a different set of individuals.[22]  The local “church politics” had dragged in the names of influential outsiders to justify their own internal games of influence and control.[23] 

            As tactics, Paul’s name shifting made sense.  If he had utilized their actual identities, it could easily have been misread as a personality feud, with Paul “unjustly” targeting certain local church leaders.[24]  By utilizing his own name as well as that of Apollos and Peter, it would have been easier to keep attention focused on the underlying principles rather than the specific local individuals involved.  It worked for calming the situation, rather than inflaming it.[25]  Especially if there were a strong “personal opposition to Paul” above and beyond the explicitly religious issues that are discussed.[26] 



            4:6:  Where is it “written” that we are not to think too highly of ourselves?         Since “it is written” is a classic verbal formula to denote the Old Testament, the text can be read as an admonition to respect its teaching and adhere to it.[27]  (Hence in the ATP we have rendered it as “demanded of you by God’s written will”.) Paul obviously put a number of limitations upon such a generalization; otherwise Christianity would have become the sect of Judaism that the “Judaizers” wanted it to be.[28]  Yet Paul, in chapter 10 in particular, firmly asserts a continuity of moral and ethical teaching.  Different at times yet with an amazing amount of overlap, as we have seen in this work. 

            On the other hand, Paul may not be asserting the general authoritativeness of the Torah and Old Testament prophets.  It can reasonably be argued that he is asserting its supremacy only in the area he specifically states, “that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”  Old Testament admonitions against pride and contempt of others are numerous and it would be an argument especially powerful against any that might be inclined to “Judazing” tendencies (i.e., as sometimes attributed to the “Cephas” faction).

            Hence he might well have in particular mind accepting/obeying the very Old Testament inhibitions against pride that he had earlier quoted in this epistle,[29] “For it is written:  ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent’ ” (1:19).  And, again, 3:19-20, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness;’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ ”

            On the other hand, Paul considered himself an apostle.  He considered himself authoritative.  He considered his written message obligatory.  Hence he might well be referring to what he is currently writting.  Approached this way, it becomes another



[Page 167]  means to urge them to keep their pride in control and to accept the teaching he has provided.     

            Either way the written revelation becomes the norm to rein in the fancies and ego-trips of power seeking individuals.[30]



            4:15:  The difference between “fathers” and “instructors.”  Paul speaks of himself as their father in that “I have begotten you through the gospel.”  Hence “fathers” in this context, refers to those that have led others to Christ.  In contrast there may be “ten thousand instructors” who benefit them.  Even so the unique relationship between converter and converted is special and has no parallel.  

            The term rendered “instructors” could equally well be rendered as “guides” or “teachers.”[31]  The Greek term originally meant the slave who was responsible for escorting a child to its instructor.   The slave was also responsible for keeping an eye on the child’s behavior when not in school as well.[32] He listened to his memorization assignments.  He instructed him in good manners and decorum and corrected him for violations.[33]  Hence the slave became a de facto educator in his own right.  He was, if you will, a secondary teacher, the “support personnel” of the teaching process.

            There is an over-tone of humor,[34] if not outright sarcasm in Paul’s remark.  It certainly was not feasible for them to have “ten thousand” such instructors, but even if it were possible they would never compensate for what was owed to Paul and a few key people like him.  There may also be a hint of their spiritual instability:  they were seeking out new teachers so enthusiastically that--if it had been possible--they would have listened and followed ten thousand different ones![35]  Even then there would be a special relationship between a father and a child (in this context equivalent to between a preacher and his converts) that could never exist in those lacking such a unique tie.[36]  

            The idea of the person one especially counted on in regard to spiritual matters representing a “fatherly” figure rather than a mere teaching relationship was one recognized in contemporary circles of Paul’s day.  At least some rabbis were granted that courtesy description out of recognition of their importance.[37]  In Cynic and Pythagorean philosophic circles a similar special relationship was recognized through the use of the expression.[38]

            Irenaeus explained the concept late during the second century, “He who has received the teaching from another’s mouth is called the son of his instructor, and he is called his father.”[39]  Clement of Alexandria later elaborated on the concept this way, “Words are the progeny of the soul.  Hence we call those that instructed us fathers . . . and every one who is instructed is in respect of subjection the son of his instructor.”[40]

            Slowly was chipped away the important distinction between a mere teacher of us and the one whose message effectively led us to faith.  A spiritual “father” begins to take on the overtone of our authoritative superior rather than such a specially important and even unique teacher.  This evolution began in the second century when “father” became an automatic description of a bishop[41] whether that individual had led an individual to Christ or not. 

From there it expanded to a description of orthodox leaders (i.e., the defenders of the Nicene Creedal formulation of truth) and to respected theologians (such as Jerome) who defended elements of that system.[42]  Hence what began to indicate a special and



[Page 168]  cherished relationship, slowly became expropriated into verification of the validity of the current religious status quo.  Somehow it is hard to imagine the apostle Paul being pleased with such spiritual self-elevation.    








[1] John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), 22.


[2] Implied by Ibid., 23.


[3] Dahl, 48.     


[4] Jean Galot, Theology of the Priesthood, translated from the Italian by Roger Balducelli (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1985), 98.


[5] Cf. George M. Lamsa, Idioms in the Bible and A Key to the Original Gospels (New York:  HarpersCollins Publishers, 1931, 1971, 1985), 63.


[6] Ken Hemphill, You Are Gifted:  Your Spiritual Gifts and the Kingdom of God (Nashville, Tennessee:  B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 28.


[7] Glen S. Holland, Divine Irony (Cranbury, New Jersey:  Associated University Presses, 2000), 135.


[8] Ellis, 58.   


[9] Hemphill, 28.


[10] Cf. Sonya T. Anderson, Inner Strength:  Five Individual Studies to Strengthen Your Walk with Yeshua (Millmont, Pennsylvania:  [N.p.], 2005), 76-77. 


[11] Thiselton, 375.  


[12] Joseph H. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2001), 103.   


[13] Fitzmyer, Corinthians, 213.



[Page 169]  [14] Dahl, 54-55, observes that the phrase “is widely assumed to be the quotation of a slogan used in Corinth.”  In other words, the Corinthians were claiming that they were doing as the scriptures demanded.  Paul, Dahl, argues, throws the phrase back at them, pointing out that if they wanted to know what it meant by faithful scripture/law abidance they should look at the example of Paul and Apollos instead of themselves.     


[15] Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven:  Yale

University Press, 1989), 69.  Many thanks to Ciampa and Rosner, 705, for bringing this to my attention.  I missed this when originally utilizing Hays. 


[16] As quoted by Hering, 31.   


[17] Along this general line, E. M. Zerr, 1 Corinthians-Revelation, in Zerr’s Bible Commentary series (Marion, Indiana:  Cogdill Foundation Publications, 1954), 7.


[18] Lenski, 174; Metz, 340.


[19] Lambrecht, “1 Corinthians,” 1608, is divided between interpreting it in this narrower sense or as a reference to all of “1:10-4:5,” though his following remarks indicate a preference for the broader reading.  Kistemaker, 134, does not provide a chapter and verse reference, but speaks of how Paul is applying to Himself and Apollo the preceding images about being builders and gardeners, which takes us back to 3:5.  David W. Kuck, Judgment and Community Conflict:  Paul’s Use of Apocalyptic Judgment Language in 1 Corinthians 3:5-4:5 (Leiden, Netherlands:  E. J. Brill, 1992), 210, argues that Paul is “stop[ping] to clarify the intent of what he has been saying and begins to drive home his admonition in a new way.”  The argument may have used the name of Apollo but the real recipient of rebuke is the Corinthians themselves (210).   


[20] Grosheide, 102. 


[21] Cf. Coffman, 63; Harris, 46; and Robertson and Plummer, 80-81.      


[22] Parry, 43-44.        


[23] For a study of the Corinthian problems as primarily internal “political” ones (and as a reflection of a contentious frame of mind in the entire community) see L. L. Welborn’s chapter, “Discord in Corinth:  First Corinthians 1-4 and Ancient Politics,” in his Politics and Rhetoric in the Corinthian Epistles (Macon, Georgia:  Mercer University Press, 1997), 1-42, especially 7-12.


[24] Zerr, 8.


[25] Kugelman, 260.  Cf. Gromacki, Called, 12, “Paul wanted to solve the problem on the basis of principle, rather than personality. . . .”


[26] Knox, 136-137. 



[Page 170]  [27] Mare, 212. 


[28] For other objections to identification of it with the Old Testament, see Parry, 44.        


[29] A possibility suggested by Kuck, 213.


[30] For a detailed consideration of these and other options, see Thiselton, 351-356.  


[31] Bratcher, Guide, 39.  


[32] Ibid.  


[33] Bruce, Corinthians, 51.  


[34] Coffman, 68. 


[35] Cf. McGarvey and Pendleton, 70. 


[36] Metz, 344. 


[37] Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downer’s Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1998), 50.


[38] Ibid.


[39] As quoted by Ibid. 


[40] As quoted by Ibid.


[41] Ibid.


[42] Ibid.



Roland H. Worth, Jr.

A Torah Commentary on First Corinthians 1-6:

Interpreting the Text in Light of

Its Old Testament Roots


© 2011