1 Corinthians 4:1-21 (On Arrogance and Humility)


(1 Cor 4:1-5 ESV) This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

Paul will explain in v. 6 that he is using himself as an example of how the Corinthians should perceive themselves. And, first, they should think of themselves as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” A steward is a business manager or trustee — someone who manages someone else’s property. The mysteries belong to God, but he has given them to the Christians in Corinth to be invested for the benefit of God.

Second, they should not worry about the judgments of others — even refusing to judge themselves. It’s not that they shouldn’t be self-aware, but that they should not measure themselves by competing groups. We are all judged by God alone, and shouldn’t be worried about whether we’re approved by the Peter clique or the Apollos clique. And make no mistake, cliques and sects are often all about coping with the judgments of others.

Paul concludes the paragraph with “Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” That is, even if some group looks down on you for following the wrong human leader, and even if you struggle to feel good about yourself, realize that God will judge you and will approve and even commend you in the end. Do not seek the approval of men, but only God.

(1Cor. 4:6-7 ESV)   I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

Paul then makes the point that we should not be “puffed up” — have pride or feelings of superiority — against other Christians. Everything that we have that matters is a gift from God. Paul may be looking ahead to chapter 12 and his discussion of spiritual gifts, or the conflict over spiritual gifts may be but one example of Corinthian Christians using God’s gifts to feel superior to others.

V. 6 is one of the most abused passages in the Churches of Christ (which says a lot). The usual interpretation, ripped horribly out of context, is that “go beyond what is written” means that the silences of the Scriptures are prohibitions. And this obviously has nothing to do with the context. It what happens when you do your research with a concordance, not bothering to exegete the surrounding text.

In reality, Paul is referring to the written text — Scriptures — quoted a few verses earlier.

(1 Cor 3:19-20 ESV) 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

To go beyond these texts is to imagine that you’re above these warnings.

Significantly, prior to this verse, the verb “to write” appears four times in 1 Corinthians, introducing five of the six Old Testament quotations. With this in mind, v. 6a is best understood as instructing the Corinthians not to transgress the exhortations found in and constructed from the Scriptures to boast exclusively in the Lord (not in human leaders) and to recognize the unity of the people of God.

Hays defends this interpretation convincingly: “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.” Paul’s point is that to go beyond this witness of Scripture would be to boast in human wisdom, unwittingly supposing that the Corinthians are smarter and stronger than God.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 176.

(1Cor. 4:8-13 ESV)  Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

V. 8 is a sarcastic rebuke. The Corinthians are so full of themselves they must think of themselves as kings! But Paul points out that Kingdom doesn’t work this way. Even the apostles, with all their miraculous powers and firsthand acquaintance with Jesus, live lives of persecution — fools, weak, in disrepute, and suffering. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In v. 13, “refuse” literally means “wipings.” Yep, the primary reference would be to wiping dirty dishes. Dregs. Scourings.

Suidas and other Greek lexicographers under the word relate that the Athenians, in order to avert public calamities, yearly threw a criminal into the sea as an offering to Poseidon; hence, argurion … peripsēma tou paidiou hēmōn genoito (as if to say) let it become an expiatory offering, a ransom, for our child, i.e. in comparison with the saving of our son’s life let it be to us a despicable and worthless thing

“περίψημα,” Thayer’s  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

It’s incredibly strong language. And Paul’s point is that if he, an apostle, is the world’s filth, then the Corinthians are even lower — in the eyes of world. So stop treating each other the way the world treats you!

(1Cor. 4:14-21 ESV)   I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ,as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

In verses 14-15, Paul radically changes his tone, calling himself their spiritual “father” and them his “beloved children.” It’s the same way any parent would talk after giving a child a severe scolding.

In v. 17, he prepares the way for Timothy to arrive and perhaps set things right. He then assures them what he asks of them he asks of every church. He’s not picking on them.

He then warns them that he might come with a “rod” and “in power.” This sounds truly ominous. Paul surely had miraculous powers. But we really don’t mind what he had in mind, but like many parents, he may have been more interested in the effect of the threat than how he’d fulfill it if he had to.

This ends the section dealing directly with unity — and notice how Paul diagnoses division as a symptom of arrogance. He says to us today, if we had the same humility as the apostles, unity would not be a problem.

So it’s not really about apostolic succession and sacraments and soteriology. It’s about our hearts.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to 1 Corinthians 4:1-21 (On Arrogance and Humility)

  1. Dan says:

    I’ve read and even taught this material many times. But when place in the context of the divisions among us church ‘o christers it becomes so damning and so embarrassing. God forgive us.

  2. Rose Marie says:

    To not go beyond these texts is to not imagine that you’re above these warnings.

    I had to read this sentence three times to get exactly what you were saying, Jay. Sorry about my thick-headedness. When I finally got it, I think I wanted your statement to be ever so much more forceful, since to exclude yourself by not imagining your own faults is actually very serious. Sometimes, Brother, you just gotta preach!!

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Rose Marie,

    You are not wrong. I haven’t left the sentence the same.


  4. laymond says:

    (1 Cor 4:1-5 ESV) This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

    If this is not warning against proclaiming your self salvation “I know I am saved” I don’t know what would be.

  5. I can tell you, Laymond. Paul is speaking of his own works and against judging one another and even ourselves on that basis. Since we are not saved by our works, it is not salvation he is speaking of here at all. WE are free from condemnation already. Paul speaks of being commended by God, not being condemned by God. That is an important distinction. Those of us who have believed already have eternal life and will not be condemned. If Jesus can say it about us– and he did– then WE can say it about us.

    Now you know. Glad to be of service.

  6. No, Laymond, this is not such a warning. It is an encouragement not to judge the works of others or take credit for your own works. Just be faithful. We are not saved by our works, but because we believe, we have crossed over from death to life and will not be condemned. (per Jesus) Notice that Paul here speaks of God’s commendation, not condemnation. The former is for good works. We can readily claim that we know we are saved, because of what Jesus has done. Glad to be of help.

  7. Dwight says:

    I think that God puts things in more of a positive spin than we want to. We many times rush to judgment because we think it is helpful, but usually it is because we think we are so good as to judge and of course we wish not to be. Do unto other as you would have them do unto you comes into play here. Even when Paul writes scathing letters to the Corinthians he sandwiches it between words of comfort and inspiration still including them in the kingdom of God. We would start and end with the scathing words.

  8. laymond says:

    1Co 4:4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
    NLT: My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.
    NIV : My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

    1Co 4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.
    NLT : So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.
    NIV : Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

    I believe Paul is saying “Don’t take anything for granted ” Paul in my opinion said “I believe I am right with God, but I am not the judge” If Paul is not sure, how can you be?

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    Paul says that his conscience is clear. But for him to say that he is innocent would be declaring that he was sinless upon his own ability. Summation; he has been forgiven and his conscience is clear. He is not suggesting that he is going to be condemned, he is saved and will remain that way because of the grace of God. Just as any other human will be saved, not of works performed.

  10. Dwight says:

    Every once in a while in the scriptures Paul would relay his past and his anguish over what he done and do it humbly to show that while he worked harder than anyone else he was still under grace. Of course Paul thought his works accounted for something because he says so as He boasted of them or rather the results of them. Paul was the hardest believing and hardest working saint, but then again he was at one time the hardest beleiving and hardest working Jew who persecuted the saints. He had much to live down and up to in his eyes. Paul probably couldn’t judge anyone because he had at one time falsely judged everyone, but he did make judgments on sin. He withstood Peter face to face, but this wasn’t posted on the walls of the internet or village square for broadcast.

  11. R.J. says:

    “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me”.

    So does this mean that ignorance is no excuse for the law?

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