Bible Commentaries

Hamilton Smith's Writings

1 Corinthians 4

Verses 1-21

1 Corinthians 4.

The instruction in 1 Corinthians 3 has service, or "work", more especially in view. (See verses8, 13, 14,15.) The teaching in 1 Corinthians 4 refers more definitely to the servant. The Corinthian believers were walking as men ( 1 Corinthians 3:3), and thus making much of man"s day and man"s world. Being accustomed in the world around them to schools of opinion under the leadership of different philosophers, they were tempted, in like manner, to form different parties under the leadership of gifted men in the assembly of God. To correct these worldly ideas and wrong practices, the apostle sets before us the truth as to the servants of Christ in relation to Christ and to the world.

(V:1). The Corinthian assembly had sought to make gifted brothers the leaders of parties. The apostle reminds them that, so far from being centres of gathering for God"s people, these gifted men were actually "servants", thus reminding us of our Lord"s own words, "Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman" ( Matthew 20:26-27). Further, though taking the place of servants, they were not the servants of parties, but "the servants of Christ". The word used for "minister", or "servant", in this passage implies, we are told, "an appointed servant". Paul and his fellow-labourers were servants by the appointment of Christ. This is of importance, for the One Who appoints is the One Who is feared and to Whom the servant will have to answer. In Christianity, as set forth in Scripture, the true servant, being "the servant of Christ", is delivered from the fear of man and is thus able to set forth the full truth with great plainness of speech.

Furthermore, the servants of Christ are "stewards of the mysteries of God", not the unholy mysteries connected with the heathen world by which the Corinthians were surrounded, but the precious truths of God, kept secret in Old Testament days, displayed in connection with Christ in glory, revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and received by believers. As the servants of Christ they were the servants of One Whom the world had rejected, and as stewards of the mysteries of God they were stewards of things that the world, as such, could not possibly comprehend. Hence neither the ministers of Christ nor the stewards of God"s mysteries could possibly be popular with the world.

(V:2). The apostle proceeds to show that the great characteristic required in a steward is not cleverness, nor eloquence, nor popularity, but "faithfulness". This is in accord with the Lord"s own teaching, when He spoke of the "faithful and wise steward" ( Luke 12:42). Later, when near his end, the apostle can write to Timothy, "The things that thou hast heard of me . . . the same commit thou to faithful men" ( 2 Timothy 2:2). Moreover, in this chapter he speaks of Timothy as being "faithful in the Lord" (verse17). We, like the Corinthian saints, may at times value servants by their knowledge or their gifts; but their spiritual value in God"s sight is measured by their faithfulness.

(Vv3-5). Moreover, the faithfulness is in relation to the One Who appoints. Hence the apostle can say, "It is the very smallest matter that I be examined of you or of man"s day" (N.Tn.). He does not say that their judgment of him is no matter, but is of the least importance. Nor does he trust in his own examination of himself. He is not conscious of any wrong motive in himself, but this will not justify him from all unfaithfulness before the Lord, Who knows the secret counsels of the heart, and therefore can alone estimate the measure of faithfulness in each of His servants. This will not be known "until the Lord come". Hence the true servant does not look for, or set great value upon, the approval of men. How often in the very things in which the saints praise us we may find the working of the flesh in some selfish motive for which we have to judge ourselves before the Lord. We are therefore to judge nothing before the time. Both the condemnation and praise of men may be equally at fault. At the coming of the Lord the stewardship of the servant will be appraised at its true value. "Then shall every man have praise of God". This hardly implies that every man will be praised, but that every man that is praised will be praised "of God". Men judge by the outward appearance; the Lord takes into account "the hidden things of darkness" and "the counsels of the heart". How many an act that now has the appearance of great faithfulness may then be found to have been prompted by some unworthy motive!

It is well to note that, when the apostle exhorts us to "judge nothing before the time", he is not speaking of the words or actions of the servants, but of their hidden motives. The apostle, in this very Epistle, very definitely Judges, and condemns, many things that these Corinthian believers were both saying and doing. Other Scriptures clearly show that in the matter of fellowship, conduct and doctrine, the gifted servants, in common with all saints, are amenable to the discipline of the assembly, and that the assembly is responsible to judge in such matters.

Alas, have we not to admit that these exhortations have been entirely set aside in the great Prayer of Manasseh -made systems of Christendom wherein the servants, instead of being appointed by Christ, are appointed by men or chosen by a congregation? The result has been that the mysteries of God have been almost wholly neglected, and the majority of servants has been more careful to retain popularity with men rather than maintain faithfulness to Christ.

(V:6). These principles as to service and faithfulness the apostle had applied to himself and to Apollos to expose the abuse of gifted brothers in their midst without actually mentioning any names, thus avoiding all personalities. He would have us not to think of men above that which is written in the word of God, and thus avoid exalting one man above another.

(V:7). Of those who might be seeking an undue position amongst the saints, he asks, "Who maketh thee to differ from another?". If, by reason of a gift, the servant did in anywise differ from others, he had nothing but that which he had received. If a gift, it was given and not acquired by any merit. Where, then, was there ground for boasting? Unless near to the Lord and strong in His grace, how weak is the most gifted servant! Unless the flesh is judged by the Cross, and the Spirit ungrieved, according to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 1 and 1 Corinthians 2, the servant, instead of using his gift in faithfulness to the Lord and for the blessing of His people, is in constant danger of seeking to use it to exalt himself.

(V:8). To expose the folly of those who were seeking to exalt themselves by their gifts, the apostle draws a contrast between the present portion of the Corinthian assembly and the future portion of the faithful servant in the day of the Lord, of which he has been speaking. The "now" of verse8 is in contrast to the "then" of verse5. The Corinthian believers were seeking the praise of men "now" in the time and place of Christ"s rejection. The faithful servant will have the praise of God "then" in the day of Christ"s glory. They had sought to use Christianity to enrich themselves and reign as kings; but, says the apostle, it is "without us". He would that the reigning time had come, but we are still in the world from which Christ has been rejected, and by which He was nailed to a Cross; evidently, then, it is neither the time nor the place for the followers of Christ to reign as kings. Christendom has fallen into this Corinthian snare, for on every hand professing Christians seek the favour of the world, attempt to direct its course and gain its applause.

(V:9). The faithful follower of Christ will neither seek nor obtain power or praise in this world. His portion will be one of suffering and reproach "for Christ"s sake", as exemplified in the life of the apostles, so touchingly set before us in the verses that follow. As far as this world is concerned, the portion of the apostles was much like that of the unhappy creatures which were appointed to death and kept for the last scene in the great Roman spectacles. The onlookers are not simply the holiday audience of an amphitheatre but the world, the angels and men. Well, indeed, for us to remember that the church is the lesson-book of "the principalities and powers in heavenly places" ( Ephesians 3:10).

As we read these verses, we learn how the world viewed these faithful followers of Christ, the trying circumstances through which they passed, and the way in which the world treated them.

(V:10). The world viewed them as "fools" and "weak", and consequently "despised" them. But they were content to be thought fools "for Christ"s sake". Alas, too often, like the believers at Corinth, we may be tempted to use our knowledge of Christ to appear wise in the eyes of the world, and to obtain power and honour in the world.

(Vv11-13). As to circumstances, the Corinthians were "full" and "rich" (verse8), but these devoted apostles had to face "hunger and thirst". At times they were naked and buffeted by the storms of life. They had to "wander without a home" (N.Tn.), and labour, working with their own hands to meet their necessities. As to the treatment they received from the world, they were "reviled", "persecuted" and "insulted". Nevertheless, the treatment they received only served to draw out from them a witness to Christ, for, when reviled, they blessed, when persecuted, they patiently submitted, and when insulted, they entreated.

As far as this world is concerned, the apostle treated all its glories as loss and filth ( Philippians 3:8), while the world, on its side, treated the apostles as filth and the off-scouring of all things. How blessedly these servants followed in the steps of their Master, and, in their measure, shared in His sufferings from the hands of men. According to His perfect estimate of their faithfulness they will have His praise and share in His glories in the day to come.

(Vv14-16). This marvellous description of the power of Christianity, as set forth in the apostles, must have shamed the Corinthians, as, indeed, it shames us all. Nevertheless, the apostle does not write to shame them as enemies, but to warn them as beloved sons in the faith. They may have ten thousand instructors, but one father in Christ, so he beseeches them to be imitators of their father.

(V:17). In order that they may be his imitators, the apostle has sent Timothy to remind them of his "ways which be in Christ". If he desires us to imitate himself, it is only in as far as his ways are in Christ, so blessedly brought before us in the account he has just given of the life of faithful servants. Of Timothy he can also say that he has proved himself to be "faithful in the Lord". Further, Timothy would witness that the apostle"s "ways which be in Christ" were the same in every assembly. Men have introduced into their self-constituted systems ways according to their own ideas. For the one who bows to Scripture there are no other ways than those which the apostle taught "everywhere in every assembly".

(Vv18-21). Alas, then as now "some are puffed up" and entirely indifferent to the inspired teaching of the apostle. As to such the apostle indicates that the real test of spirituality is not in the speech, but in the power of life. As far as speech is concerned, the apostle has to warn us a little later that we can speak like an angel and yet be nothing. The kingdom of God is not set forth by our words merely, but in what we are as manifested by spiritual power ( 1 Corinthians 2:4-5). The apostle asks, how shall he come to them? Will it be with a rod to chasten, or in love and the spirit of meekness to edify? We may well ask, how would he come to Christendom today; how would he come to us?

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4". "Hamilton Smith's Writings". https://pro.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/1-corinthians-4.html. 1832.