Centuries before Paul confronted the Corinthians, the prophet Nathan provided an excellent example of indirect confrontation. David had sinned greatly, taking Bathsheba in an adulterous act, then attempting to cover up his sin with the thinly-veiled murder of her husband. When Nathan confronted David, he did not immediately accuse him of his sins. Instead, he approached David with the story of a poor man whose only lamb was taken away by a very rich man. David was incensed and demanded that this “sinner” be brought to justice. Only then did Nathan disclose that this story was a parable, and that the guilty man was none other than King David. David confessed his sin and was forgiven, although serious consequences followed. The indirect approach of Nathan was effective as it committed David to a righteous course of action in principle when it did not appear to relate personally to him. Once David embraced the matter in principle, Nathan spelled it out to the king in very personal terms.
Paul did something very similar in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians had a problem of divisions in the church based upon undue attachment to a particular leader that led to the rejection (or at least disdain) of other leaders. The leader they followed was a great source of pride to these cultic cliques. They boasted of belonging to a particular person as their leader. Paul first dealt with the matter in principle, contrasting the gospel, weak and foolish in the eyes of the unbelieving world, with the false wisdom and power of those who are considered leaders in the secular world.
I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other. For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not? Already you are satisfied! Already you are rich! You have become kings without us! I wish you had become kings so that we could reign with you! For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, we are dishonored! To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads. We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’sdirt and scum, even now. (1 Corinthians 4:6-13)
The real problem at Corinth was not between any of the apostles or their alleged followers. The real problem was divisions and cliques which centered on others. Paul’s teaching to this point in the first Epistle to the Corinthians was intended to draw men’s attention and commitment to the Scriptures, to “what is written.” The Corinthians departed from the Scriptures, and in so doing, proudly boasted of their attachment to a certain leader and their disdain for others. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul exposed the carnality of the Corinthians. The evidence of their condition could be seen in their weakness in handling the Word and their attachment to men. In 1 Corinthians 4:6-13, Paul indicated that carnal Christians attach themselves to men because they have gone beyond the Scriptures to find truth and wisdom.
The Corinthians had become arrogant against the apostles. Verses 7-13 are a graphic description of how the Corinthians looked at themselves and, in contrast, how they looked at Paul and his fellow-apostles.
Paul raised three very crucial questions in verse 7 which will expose the seriousness of their self-deception and sin.
“Who regards you as superior?” Who was their judge? Who esteemed the Corinthians as so high and mighty? Was it the unbelieving community? God was their judge, not the corrupt Corinthians of that day.
“What do you have that you did not receive?” The Corinthians boasted in their abilities. Where did these abilities come from? If they were given (and they were), then they were given by God. If the Corinthians were boasting in their God-given gifts, then they were boasting in God’s place. They had the wrong judge and the wrong object of praise. Men have taken the place of God.
“If all that the Corinthians possess is a God-given gift, then how can they boast, as if it were not a gift?” The Corinthians thought themselves so wise, but they were arrogant and boastful. If they were so wise, how could they be so foolish as to take credit for something they were given, as though they were not the recipients of a gift? They had forgotten (or forsaken) grace. These all-wise Corinthians are self-deceived.
The minds of the Corinthians were not mysterious to Paul. He virtually read their minds and described the way they looked at themselves. They were “already” filled; they had “already” become rich. Indeed, they had become kings. These Corinthians were much like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked’” (Revelation 3:17).
The word “already” indicates that in their minds, the Corinthians had “already” arrived. It will soon be clear that Paul and the other apostles have not. How can this be? How can the carnal Corinthians think they had arrived when the apostles had not?
In effect, the Corinthians thought they have “already” entered into the kingdom; they had “already” entered into the full benefits and blessings of Christ’s work at Calvary. They were not unlike a number of professing Christians today, who argue that all of the blessings resulting from Christ’s work on the cross are our present possession, and that all we need do is have the faith to claim them. They claim to possess them and look down upon all who do not. They also claim that those who do not possess them suffer and are afflicted in this life and do not experience success and the good life here and now.
Such thinking contradicts the clear teaching of our Savior and of His apostles. Jesus clearly speaks of suffering and adversity in this life, and the glories of His kingdom in the next, as did all of the apostles (see John 15:18-19; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Philippians 1:27-30; Philippians 3:10-11; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12-13).
How ccould these Corinthians and modern-day prosperity gospel acolytes miss the fact that if we identify with Christ in this age, we will suffer rejection, persecution, and affliction, but with the assurance of entering into the blessings of His kingdom when He comes? Paul already told us that these Corinthians needed to learn not to “go beyond what is written.” They were wrong because they had forsaken the Scriptures as the only source of divine truth. Second, they had twisted the Scriptures pertaining to prophecy and future things. Like many others in New Testament times, including our own, they had distorted the doctrine of the resurrection, future judgment, and the blessings of Christ’s kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:18; 2 Peter 3:3-4).
If the Corinthians, boasting in their worldly wisdom, thought they had arrived, they were equally convinced the apostles had not. Judgmentally, they looked down upon the apostles in their suffering and humble service. Paul paints the picture of the Corinthians, sitting “on high” looking down from their lofty heights, disdaining the apostles who were a shame and a reproach to them. Paul said God has exhibited the apostles before the world as those condemned to die, as those being led to their execution. They were a spectacle to angels and to men. The apostles were fools; the Corinthians were wise. The apostles were weak; the Corinthians were strong. The Corinthians were distinguished; the apostles were without honor.
Paul’s description of the apostles in verse 11 sounds remarkably like a description of the lowest rung of our own social ladder today. It also sounds like the men and women Brad and I have seen in prisons and rescue missions. They are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, and homeless. It takes little imagination to picture the contrasting condition of the Corinthians. In today’s terms, the Corinthians were like many of the televangelists of our time. They were well fed, impeccably dressed, highly esteemed, often possessing several expensive mansions.
Rather than living like kings off of the saints, Paul labored with his own hands, not supported by those he served. He supported his ministry with his labor (Acts 18:3; 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). When the apostles were reviled, they gave a blessing in return. When persecuted, they endured. When slandered, they sought to conciliate. In spite of this (or perhaps, because of this), they were regarded as the scum of the world, the bottom of the social barrel.