1 Corinthians 4:6-13
December 10, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:35 in the audio file.
Or, Who Died and Made You Kings?
Every sermon comes to an end…eventually. So does every letter, and each point in a letter. The apostle Paul is closing in on his final point concerning the quarreling among the brothers in Corinth (1:10). In 1 Corinthians 4:6-13 he’s not requesting permission to land, he’s coming in hard.
He has not yet asked them anything so rhetorically pointed as he does in verse 7. He has not bitten with such sharp sarcasm as he does in verse 8 or mocked with such dramatic irony as in verses 9-10. The Corinthians were acting like kings while Paul and the other apostles and preachers were considered to be scum.
By the end of this paragraph—and verses 6-13 are one long paragraph in the Greek New Testament, though divided into two in the ESV (verses 6-7 and verses 8-13)—Paul says that God has put His apostles on display as garbage. We’ll see that this “spectacle to the world” is connected to the “scum of the world and the refuse of all things.” Refuse is trash, waste, rubbish. The Corinthians, and the world of angels and men, have a front row seat to Rubbish Theater.
This paragraph asks some heart-humbling questions and frames some heart-humbling contrasts. Both by his teaching and by his example Paul pricks their pride.
Having clarified how preachers should be evaluated—as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (4:1-2), and having warned them of the difficulty in making evaluations—since God alone is the ultimate, inerrant judge (verses 3-5), Paul takes a step up in the overall discussion. He explains what he’s been trying to do, and he’s direct.
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.
In saying that he applied all these things to himself and Apollos he makes it clear that he and Apollos weren’t competing with one another for Corinthian loyalties. They weren’t rivals. They weren’t the ones using manipulative rhetoric or man-centered methods to increase their own followings. Both Paul and Apollos, along with Cephas/Peter and other preachers, were fellow-workers (3:9), servants assigned by God and accountable to God. But even though they were servants, they were still some of the Big Names to the Corinthians. And if the Star Preachers weren’t battling for brand supremacy, then none of the brothers should be.
Now he comes to the first purpose: that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written. What does he mean by what is written? The first three chapters? A church constitution in Corinth? Every other time Paul uses the phrase he’s referring to the Old Testament. And since the beginning of this letter he’s quoted six OT passages for sake of his argument (five of which are introduced with the phrase “is written”).
He’s been teaching them the Bible. He’s also been modeling the Bible; the Corinthians could learn by us. Like Ezra who had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD and to do it and to teach His statutes, so did Paul and his ministry partners.
And what was the purpose of his pattern and his use of these Scripture passages? that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. They were supposed to boast in the Lord (1:31) and not in men (3:21). To be puffed up is to have an exaggerated self-conception, to think you’re hot snot, big britches-eted, to be distended with your own importance. The sky is only big enough for so many hot air balloons, so inevitably there is a huffing and puffing fight for position. But these campaigns are not appropriate.
Such maneuvering doesn’t hold up against the strong wind of God’s providence. Three questions require no other reply than repentance from pride. 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? The NASB begins with, “Who regards you as superior?” These questions could be read with a positive tone or a negative one. If the tone from the previous paragraph spills over, it’s probably more positive. If the tone here is ramping up for the next paragraph, it’s not positive.
Either way, the Corinthians shared the common ground of Trinitarian Monotheism. They had repented from a worldview with many gods (Polytheism); no god was fully sovereign so god could be the giver as verse 7 implies. The Corinthians had not been instructed by 19th century German theologians, so they did not know enough to believe in the great Watchmaker in the Sky who had left His creation to fend for itself (Deism). No, they believed in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. They believed in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. They were incipient Calvinists before Calvin was born, and the argument from providential reality was air tight. In other words, who died and made you so special?
[T]here is no man that has anything of excellency from himself; therefore the man that extols himself is a fool and an idiot. (Calvin)
Important note: this does not mean that everyone has the same thing or things or the same of amount of said thing(s). God is not egalitarian, Himself a slave to the greater god, Equality. But whatever a man has, a lot of this and that, or a lot of this and not much that, or just this little, he got it from God, just like his neighbor got what he got from God. We are all derivatives and dependents, having value and things of value because of God’s sovereign generosity.
Taking the purpose of not going beyond what is written with the purpose of not being puffed up with the rhetorical questions means means that the point of the (whole) Old Testament could be summarized: treat one another like all of you have received everything you have from God. This is everything, and no quarter must be given to ungratefulness, envy, or conflict. Everything also means our salvation and spiritual giftedness, and these are not common grace gifts they are particular grace gifts purchased by a crucified Christ.
What kind of invitation are we waiting for to be humbled?
They had no business acting superior to one another, and sometimes the preacher ends the sermon without naming the toes he stepped on (“This little piggy was prideful”). Paul, however, is not done.
While I wouldn’t say that too many of us are super sensitive, I will make the warning that we’re about ready to walk through hip-deep levels of irony, hyperbole, and sarcasm. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Christians shouldn’t talk like that, first, you probably aren’t a member since those are the only parts of speech I know. And second, you’ll have a hard time explaining what Paul’s doing here.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! Paul is landing his point without even a tap on the brakes. They have received all they’ve received from God and they’re acting as if they’ve been crowned, which is a result of their royal imagination. Every (true) discipler wants his disciples to go beyond him, but this is ridiculous. Like, really? “Who died and made you kings?” Paul wishes it was true. And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! “Oh, it will be so much easier now that you guys are in charge of everything!” As it turns out, it’s not true. It’s also out of tune with the Christian life as exhibited by the apostles.
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. The image fits with the Roman triumph parade. The generals and soldiers and spoil go first in the train, followed by the prisoners who would be led into the amphitheater to face the lions. The captives were the entertainment, the spectacle, from the Greek word θέατρον (theatron). Paul’s not saying that he’s in an actual arena but that the metaphorical cosmic theater seats are filled with sentient beings watching the show. And he’s no star.
He’s also no martyr diva. He knows who the Producer and Director of the show is God.
Next he makes three abrupt comparisons. 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. These are the same categories he’s been using from the beginning of his letter. The world wants the honor of being seen as strong and wise. The Christian wants the honor of Christ, who is true strength and true wisdom, but not as recognized by the world. The Corinthians had compromised with the culture and considered themselves to be a cut above.
But that is not the way of Christ or His representatives. Verse 11 is Paul’s “catalogue of afflictions,” a “catalog of cold facts” (Lenski). To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless. Even up to that moment Paul had not collected a pile of worldly assets. He regularly lacked resources on his missionary journeys, scanty food and shabby clothes. He was buffeted, knocked around, treated rough. He looked like a homeless person, because he often was. In addition to minimal possessions he said we labor, working with our own hands. This sort of employment was considered to be the worst.
Yet his attitude was different. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. This is Christian. This is supernatural. Jesus taught and modeled that any man can love someone who loves him. Love your enemy, now that’s something. This is your blessed life now, as in, bringing blessing to others by your surprisingly positive (to them) responses. Keep going when others lie about you instead of being agitated about it and complaining about the complainers. When things get hard, don’t get away. “Perseverance is an unspectacular but essential Christian virtue” (Ciampa & Rosner).
The final sentence of the paragraph is the low point. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. Scum translates a word that refers to cleaning all around, to clean on all sides, as you’d do with a dirty bowl. You have to scrub at the residue, maybe pick at the stuck-on parts with your fingernail. There’s nothing you want to keep, you’re just trying to get rid of it.
Refuse is a synonym, from a word that also refers to the results of scrubbing or sweeping. It’s the used coffee grounds that have been smeared under the garbage can for a couple weeks. It’s the pile of wood shavings or the pet hair caught in a corner of the room. It’s the good for nothing stuff that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe.
What’s very interesting is that both of these words were used to describe a sort of person. Both of them referred to the scum of society, and often, in certain places even annually, the scum became sacrificial scapegoats. Some ancient writers refer to a ritual of human sacrifice in order to cleanse a city or stop a plague. In a crisis, the ties of relationships are broken and people don’t blame themselves; the scapegoat took the blame, bore the wrath on behalf of others. These sacrificial victims were taken from those who didn’t have anything left to offer society.
As if the Apostle had said—We are as despicable and as odious in the sight of the people, as much loaded with the revilings and cursings of the multitude, as those condemned persons who were offered up by way of public expiation. (Budæus quoted by Calvin)
The word Greek word for “scum” is used in the Greek translation of Proverbs 21:18 in just this way.
The wicked is a ransom (the scum) for the righteous,
and the traitor for the upright.
Paul wasn’t a scapegoat, but he and the apostles were treated like they were the scum. No social strata was lower. Paul was as valuable as rubbish, and the rubbish was on display for the world to watch. This is Rubbish Theater.
How the Christians in Corinth wanted to be treated in the world affected how they treated one another. Demand for esteem cannot be sealed off by location; those who demand it in the church will compromise to get it in the world, those who demand it in the world will expect it in the church.
But the point of what “is written,” the point of the Book we love so much, is to recognize that we do not have anything that we have not received. All is gift, including our place on stage in Rubbish Theater. When the world mocks us for acting superior, that is either to be expected because they don’t share our standards, or it is deserved because we are living up to ours.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
What do you have that you have not received? What have you received that you do not have to use? Which of you, seeing a gift under the tree marked for you, would leave it unopened? Which of you, having opened the gift, would boast as if you were superior to the one who purchased the gift for you? Treat one another like you have received everything you have from God, because you have.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10–11)