Starting in v8, Paul juxtaposes the theology of self-glory and the theology of the cross so that we can see how diametrically they are opposed one from the other. Obviously, he is placing the Corinthian leadership in the wisdom of the world/theology of self-glory camp and he is placing himself as well as the rest of the apostles in the wisdom of God/theology of the cross camp.
Paul uses some harsh words in v8-13. Two styles of leadership are seen here. Let’s look at the leaders operating by the wisdom of the world or the theology of self-glory.
v8 -you have all you want, you’re rich, you are like kings
v10 – you think you are so wise in Christ, you are strong
And if you look at v11-13, although Paul is not explicit here, we can probably guess that the things that are mentioned in those verses are completely foreign for the Corinthian leadership. Meaning, the Corinthian leaders didn’t know hunger, they didn’t know thirst, they were well-clothed, they were well-treated, they were not homeless, they didn’t work with their own hands. When they were cursed, like everyone else in the world, they cursed back. They were probably not persecuted, but if they had been, they would be the type to fight back. Likewise, if someone slandered them, they would slander in return. It’s doubtful if they can identify with being considered as the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world, or better translated the dregs of society, the bottom of the barrel.
Now let’s look at Paul, a leader who operates by the wisdom of God or the theology of the cross. It’s everything we just read in complete reverse.
v8 – Paul knew lack. He knew poverty. He was closer to being a beggar than a king materially speaking.
v9 – Paul describes his life as an apostle with the metaphor of a captive or prisoner of war in a military defeat where the losing army was paraded around a Roman coliseum. And they’d be eventually ripped to shreds in the gladiatorial arena for entertainment. And Paul says, that tragic, humiliating fate aptly describes his life as an apostle.
v10 – Paul calls himself a fool for Christ, he is weak, he is dishonored.
v11 – he is hungry, he is thirsty, he is in rags, he is brutally treated because of his faith, he is homeless.
v12 – Paul was entitled to receiving financial support from the churches, but he did not want to be a financial burden to any of his churches. Instead, he was a tentmaker who supplied his own needs. He was cursed, but in return, he blessed. He was persecuted and he endured it.
v13 – Paul was slandered, but he answered kindly. In the eyes of the world, he was like scum, the refuse of the world, the dregs of society, the bottom of the barrel.
Quite a contrast. Why does Paul write this? He gives the reason in the next verse, v14.
14 I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.
I want to spend the remainder of the message unpacking the particulars about Paul that we ought to imitate. But before we do, I need to mention one thing about Paul that I don’t believe we can imitate, that is, his particular calling as the chief apostle who penned the bulk of the New Testament. If you think about it, if anyone should have been the chief apostle after Jesus left, it should have been Peter. Peter was numero uno disciple during the 3 years that Jesus discipled the 12. Why did this mantle of leadership in the early church shift from Apostle Peter to Apostle Paul?
Paul was a murderer and persecutor of Christians, he was much younger in the faith than Peter. Why did Paul become the chief tool in God’s hand to spread the gospel to the Gentiles? Nobody knows, but I think it just goes to show that God’s wisdom doesn’t follow our conventional wisdom. God’s choice of Paul was not determined by seniority, or who spent more time with Jesus prior to the resurrection. Maybe God wanted to use Peter, but he couldn’t because Peter had too much bias against Gentiles because he was Jewish. Nobody knows, but God’s sovereignty trumps all of our human wisdom and he took someone who was not even a disciple during Jesus’ earthly ministry and a murderer of Christians and God in his perfect wisdom made him, that man, the world’s greatest evangelist and apostle.
Among the apostles, Paul stands in a category all by himself. The first century was indeed a special one in God’s history. After Paul and his contemporaries, the canon of the Bible was closed. Each letter, each book was either included in the canon or rejected and the early church fathers said, this collection is the inspired Word of God, this is the Bible and we are not going to remove a page or add a page.
That’s why the email I sent to Peter a few days ago might be solid Biblical counsel, but it’s not like my email is ever going to be appended to the end of your Bible when I pass away. There will never be a new edition, RIV, Ray’s international version. The Bible was canonized, it was closed, this is it and none will be subtracted from it, none will be added to it.
So before we say, let’s imitate Paul, we have to recognize that he stands in a category by himself. Meaning, I might play the role of a Paul at this church, I might have some leadership, but you can’t take what I say at face value. Anything I preach from this pulpit, it’s your job to look at Scripture and determine, is what Ray preaching biblical? And as a preacher, I may have certain preferences or I might be wired a certain way, but I can’t project my personality and let my personality shape this church. That happens at many churches. The church becomes merely a reflection of the pastor. I don’t want that to be the case here. I pray that we would always submit to THIS BOOK, the Word of God, and allow God to shape us and guide us. And we might stray here and there, but we trust that God will speak through His Word and get us back on track.
That’s why Paul writes in v6 —
6 Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.
Don’t go beyond what is written. He is referring to the Old Testament and perhaps even some of the letters that were circulating from the other apostles. Don’t go beyond what is written. Let the written word dictate your doctrine. If you don’t have God’s Word, then you are left with man. And it’s one person’s opinion over another. And the result is pride and jealousies and quarreling, which is what happened at this church. God’s Word is so practical. The more you dig into it, it’s like a treasure. There’s gold in there, if only we treated His Word as more precious than gold. Let’s fall in love with His Word.
Why does Paul urge the Corinthians so strongly to imitate him?
15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.
We have to remember what was going on and what was at stake? They had rejected Paul’s leadership, but Paul being rejected wasn’t so important. They were not rejecting Paul, the messenger, but they were rejecting the message itself, the gospel. That’s why Paul was so concerned about them. It was not like his ego was bruised because they rejected him as leader. He was probably hurt by their rejection, but that’s not the main reason he is so writing to them. The gospel was at stake and they were in danger of departing from the gospel and chasing after other peripheral teachings and putting leaders ahead of Jesus. That’s why he was so burdened by this church.
How do we know that Paul was not injured personally by their rejection? Recall what Paul said in an earlier chapter–Paul refers to himself as a mere servant. One servant plants, another waters, but neither servant is anything because God is the one who makes things grow. It’s all about God. He takes center stage. Without God in the picture, our efforts are meaningless. Nothing will grow unless God acts.
Paul knows this. He’s just a servant. Everything depends on God. And he expands upon that idea in v1.
1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
The word for servant here is different from the word he used for servant in 1 Cor 3:5.
1 Cor 3 – 5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
The word for servant here is “diakonoi” from which we get the word deacon. This usage emphasizes the servant nature of their task under God. Also, there is a secondary emphasis on the division of labor–Paul plants while Apollos waters, they have different tasks assigned to them.
In this chapter, the metaphor changes to that of a household.
1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
In chapter 3, Paul uses a Greek word for servant which reminds Christian leaders that they are to be regarded as servants of Christ. This reemphasizes their humble position and their belonging to Christ. In chapter 4, there is a shift. Paul’s uses a different Greek word for servant, which connotes stewardship. A master wouldn’t entrust his household affairs to any guy off the street. A master would only entrust those important matters to someone whom he knows and trusts.
The latter half of v1 ends with the stewards being entrusted with the “secret things of God.” It can also be translated as “mysteries.” Entrusted with the mysteries of God. The phrase “secret thing of God” or “mystery” comes up a few times in Scripture. And whenever it comes up, we have to see that Paul is talking about the same thing each time–the gospel.
The gospel is the mystery unveiled. That Jesus, the Son of God, would become a man and he would walk among us and he would preach about how we have sinned against our Heavenly Father and that he, Jesus, is the only way to be reconciled to this God. And when we heard this message, this gospel, we couldn’t stand it so we hung the messenger on a tree.
But God in his great mercy, took the murder of His one and only begotten Son and didn’t allow death to have the last word. Even the most unthinkable act–the killing of His Son–God used as part of His sovereign plan to redeem the world. We rejected God, we murdered Jesus, and therefore, we deserved to die, but Jesus took our place. Jesus voluntarily gave up his life to die the death we deserved. And God raised him 3 days later and whoever repents and believes in this Jesus can be saved. This is the great mystery. The Israelites in the OT had glimpses into this mystery, but they didn’t have the full picture. Even Satan had no idea what God was up to so he became an unknowing participant in God’s sovereign will to redeem humanity.
To the world, the gospel remains hidden. It is a secret thing, a mystery. Jesus can be right in front of you, but if your eyes have not been opened to spiritual reality, you can’t see Jesus for who he is. Instead of embracing him as their Lord and Savior, the people in Jesus’ day wanted to kill him. Because their eyes were blinded. But the moment you become a child of God, the moment you are saved, your eyes are opened. God brings you into His house and entrusts you with this most precious truth, the gospel.
To the world, the gospel remains a mystery. But for the believer, it is a life-changing message that God forgives me for my sin, God loves me and He has entrusted me with this gospel so that I may live it out in this fallen world. This is the imagery that Paul is employing in chapter 4.
Christian life is not this complicated mystery, or puzzle or riddle where you have to piece together clues and suddenly, if you’re lucky enough, you may have an “Aha” moment. You don’t need a PhD in neuroscience to understand the gospel. Little children can understand the gospel. The gospel is not reserved for the well-educated intellectuals. The homeless guy off the streets can understand the gospel and perhaps he gets it more than people like us who are more well-to-do and who have their act together.
2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
For me, this is a liberating verse. What is the trust, the secret thing, the mystery? It’s the gospel. What responsibility does God give to his stewards? He doesn’t say, with this gospel, I want you to be successful. I want you to write 10 books and lead thousands to Christ. No, as one who has been entrusted with the gospel, the only requirement is faithfulness. Nothing flashy, but faithfully meditating on the gospel, faithfully dispensing it to others. Not successfully running programs and events and growing our church. But being faithful to the gospel. Planting seeds of the gospel. Watering with the gospel and watching God make things grow.
For the leaders and teachers here, this means fidelity to the gospel. Keeping the gospel as the central core of what we are about here. Being careful not to subtract from it, or to add to it or to embellish it or to highlight other truths and put them on the same level as the gospel. I think if we are mindful of the gospel always and we guard it and we keep it at the forefront, my conviction is that all other truths about God, church, leadership fall into their proper places.