First Corinthians 4:6 says, “Now these things, brothers, I have applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to go beyond what has been written, that no one be puffed up on behalf of the one against the other.” By “these things” Paul refers to the things mentioned in the preceding passage, from chapter one to this chapter. The Greek word rendered “applied” literally means transfigured, transferred in a figure. It is a metaphoric term. What the apostle has written in the preceding passage, beginning with chapter one, gives a figure. Now he transfers that figure to himself and Apollos, that is, he applies it figuratively to himself and Apollos.
Some translators and expositors think that the expression “what has been written” refers to the writings of the Old Testament. We disagree. This phrase must refer to what has been written in the preceding chapters, such as: “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1:13), “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul?” They are simply ministers of Christ, a planter and a waterer (3:5-7). They are not Christ crucified for the believers. They are not God, who makes the believers grow. They should not be appraised beyond being ministers of Christ, planters and waterers. Otherwise, their appraisers, like the fleshly Corinthian believers, may be puffed up on behalf of the one against the other.
Verse 7 continues, “For who makes a distinction between you and others? And what do you have that you did not receive? And if indeed you received it, why do you boast as not receiving it?” It is God who makes a distinction between us and others. And what we have we received from God. Hence, all the glory should be ascribed to God, and we should boast in Him, not in ourselves or in any servants, such as Paul or Apollos, whom He has used. Here Paul seems to be saying, “Do you think that it is Peter, Paul, or Apollos who makes a distinction between you and others, or who makes you different from others? Don’t think like this. Furthermore, what you received you received not from Paul, Cephas, or Apollos—you received it all from God. Therefore, you should not boast as if you have not received it. If you have something which makes you different from others or distinct from others, that is something you have received from God. Since God has given it to you, you should boast in Him alone, not in any man.”
Verse 8 says, “Already you are filled; already you have become rich; you have reigned without us; and I would that you really did reign, that we also might reign with you.” The Corinthian believers, proud of what they obtained, became satisfied with what they had. They became self-sufficient and reigned independently of the apostles. This was altogether in themselves and in their flesh.
Once again Paul refers to the situation among those philosophical Greek believers at Corinth. They thought they were sufficient, that they were rich and full. They acted as if they were kings reigning without the apostles. Speaking very faithfully, Paul says to them, “I would that you really did reign, that we also might reign with you.” This word is not sweet, pleasant, or sugar-coated in any way. It is a word that shows Paul’s faithfulness.
In verse 9 Paul goes on to say, “For, I think, God has set forth us the apostles last of all, as doomed to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” Paul says that God has set forth the apostles last, because the Corinthians were acting as if they were already kings. Here Paul is telling them that they had become kings before the apostles did. This means that God has set forth the apostles last; they would be the last to become kings.
In Paul’s time, when criminals fought with wild beasts in the amphitheater for the entertainment of the populace, the criminals were exhibited last of all. The criminals were regarded as nothing, for they were the lowest of people, those who had committed crimes deserving the death penalty. The Roman government often would have them fight against wild beasts in the amphitheater as an exhibition. Whenever there was such an exhibition, the criminals were exhibited last of all. Paul uses this as a metaphor to illustrate that the apostles have been set forth by God to be the last show, the last exhibition. The Corinthians were not last; the apostles were those who were last. The apostles considered themselves as criminals doomed to death before the world, not as kings destined to reign like the Corinthians.
Paul also tells the Corinthians that the apostles had become “a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” This also is a metaphor, referring to fights between criminals and wild beasts in the Roman amphitheater. The apostles became such a spectacle to the world, seen not only by men but also by angels. Both men on earth and angels in the air were watching the exhibition of the apostles. Hence, they were a spectacle to the whole universe. As we shall see in the next message, this is related to their becoming “the offscouring of the world” and “the scum of all things” (v. 13).
By using these metaphors Paul was telling the Corinthian believers that they should not act as if they were kings or as if they were rich and had everything. Paul seems to be saying, “Don’t behave like kings. God has made us, the apostles, last in the divine exhibition. We are as criminals doomed to death. This is our destiny. But you seem to be enjoying another kind of destiny. You are rich, you are full, and you are reigning. We, however, are a spectacle.”
Paul’s word to the Corinthians applies to us today in the Lord’s recovery. We also should be like the apostles in verse 9—criminals doomed to death and a spectacle both to angels and to men. We should not consider ourselves those who are full, rich, and powerful. This attitude is altogether wrong. We in the recovery must give others the impression that we are as criminals condemned to death and a spectacle to the whole universe.
In 4:9 Paul says, “For, I think, God has set forth us the apostles last of all, as doomed to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” It is significant that here Paul says “I think.” This means that Paul was not fully assured. This is not a matter of humility; it is a matter of speaking according to the principle of incarnation. Paul does not say here, “Thus saith the Lord.” Neither does he declare, “Brothers and sisters, don’t you know that I am speaking in the spirit?” In today’s Pentecostalism there is a practice of declaring, “Thus saith the Lord.” However, such a practice is not according to the New Testament principle.
In this chapter Paul speaks soberly, yet in a very intimate way. He was rebuking, instructing, correcting, adjusting, and disciplining the believers, but he was doing all this in a very intimate manner. Then at a certain point he inserted the words “I think.” I believe that Paul knew that his speaking was truly of God. Nevertheless, he said “I think” because he knew that the New Testament principle is the principle of incarnation. According to this principle, God speaks in our speaking. God and man become one. When man is mingled with God in doing a certain thing, that is simultaneously both God’s doing and man’s doing. Because the words “I think” illustrate this principle, I regard their insertion in verse 9 as very precious. How meaningful it is that God may speak in our speaking! The clause “I think” indicates that Paul was speaking. Nevertheless, in keeping with the principle of incarnation, Paul’s speaking was God’s speaking. Because Paul and God were one, when Paul spoke, God spoke also. This is the significance of the words “I think” used in this verse.
In verse 9 Paul uses the phrase “last of all.” This expression, commonly understood at the time, refers to the last part of the performance in the amphitheater. According to ancient custom, when criminals fought with wild beasts in the amphitheater for the entertainment of the populace, the criminals were exhibited last of all. The last act, the last show, was that of condemned criminals fighting with wild beasts for the entertainment of the people. The phrase “last of all” refers to this. In verse 9 Paul uses this expression metaphorically to convey the thought that God has set forth the apostles last of all, as if they were the lowest criminals condemned to death, to be entertainment for the people.
In Greek the word rendered “spectacle” is the word for theater. It refers to a show, a display, made in a theatrical way as entertainment. Thus, Paul was saying to the Corinthians, “You are already filled. You have become rich, and you have reigned without us. I would that you really did reign as kings so that we could reign with you. For, I think, God has set forth us the apostles last, as doomed to death.”
When Paul says, “I would that you really did reign,” he indicates that the Corinthian believers were not actually reigning as kings. On the contrary, they were in a dream. The fact that they were not yet kings is proved by Paul’s word about the apostles being set forth last of all. Paul seems to be saying, “God has not made us kings in this age. Rather, He has set us forth as if we were criminals doomed to death, to fight with beasts.” This metaphor presents a vivid picture of the apostles’ situation. Far from reigning as kings, they were as criminals doomed to fight with wild beasts for people’s entertainment. Today this is also our destiny in the sight of man. However, in the sight of God, our destiny is to enjoy Christ. We who enjoy Christ have become as criminals in the sight of man for their enjoyment. But in the sight of God Christ is our destiny for our enjoyment. Many have ridiculed us and mocked us. But while they mock us for their entertainment, we are enjoying Christ. This shows that we have two destinies. Our destiny in the sight of God is to have Christ for our enjoyment. Our destiny in the sight of man is to be regarded as criminals condemned to death for others’ entertainment. If we are faithful to the Lord, as Paul was, this will be our destiny before men. We shall be set forth last of all, and we shall be made a spectacle both to angels and to men.
Chapter four of 1 Corinthians is very intimate. Here we see a father rebuking, instructing, correcting, and even disciplining his mistaken children in an intimate way. As we read this chapter, we can sense the intimacy between the writer and the believers at Corinth.
After pointing out that the apostles have become a spectacle to the world, Paul goes on to say in verse 10, “We are fools because of Christ, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are glorious, but we are dishonored.” The apostles were willing to be foolish by forsaking their human wisdom for the sake of Christ. But the fleshly Corinthian believers remained prudent in their natural wisdom, while claiming they were in Christ. Paul did not say that they were philosophers because of Christ; he declares that they were fools because of Christ. In a sense, every believer in Christ must become a fool. Many who were wise in this world have become fools of Christ. But although the apostles had become fools because of Christ, the Corinthians sought to remain prudent.
In verse 10 Paul also says, “We are weak, but you are strong.” The apostles while ministering Christ appeared to be weak, for they used no strength or power of their natural being (2:3). But the fleshly Corinthian believers were strong, claiming prominence among the believers by exercising their natural ability.
In verse 10 Paul also tells the Corinthians, “You are glorious, but we are dishonored.” The Corinthian believers were glorious, or honorable, in a display of splendor. But the apostles were dishonored and despised by the glory-seeking Corinthians. By this we can see that the Corinthians were altogether wrong in their way of running the Christian course.
In verses 11 through 13 Paul continues, “Until the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and beaten and wander without a home; and we labor, working with our own hands; being reviled we bless, being persecuted we bear it, being defamed we appeal.” Defamed means insulted, spoken of injuriously. To appeal here is to entreat with exhortation, consolation, and encouragement in order to appease.
In verse 13 Paul says, “We have become as the offscouring of the world, as the scum of all things until now.” Offscouring and scum are synonyms. Offscouring denotes that which is thrown away in cleansing; hence, refuse, filth. Scum denotes that which is wiped off; hence, rubbish, refuse. Both synonyms are metaphorically used, especially of condemned criminals of the lowest class, who were cast into the sea or to the wild beasts in the amphitheater. Here Paul likens himself to the lowest criminals, to offscouring, scum, rubbish, refuse. Compared to many of my friends from the past, I also am scum and offscouring. They have become very successful and have acquired much wealth. They regard me as a fool and wonder what I have been doing with my life. Occasionally I meet friends from many years ago. When they ask me what I have been doing, I am not sure how to answer. They have become extremely successful, but we have become the offscouring of the world and the scum of all things. We are qualified only to be cast aside as waste. This was Paul’s estimation of himself with respect to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
Verses 14 through 21 are the most intimate portion of this chapter. Here we see that Paul was a begetting father. He seems to be saying to the Corinthians, “Yes, I am scum and offscouring. But I am a father who has begotten many children. In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
In verse 14 Paul says, “Not as shaming you am I writing these things, but as my beloved children I admonish you.” If I had been one of the believers receiving this Epistle at Corinth, I would have been ashamed after reading the first thirteen verses of this chapter. I would have said to myself, “My spiritual father says that we are exalting ourselves, but he considers himself as offscouring and scum. This makes me feel ashamed.” However, Paul says that he wrote these things not to shame them, but to admonish them as his beloved children.
In verse 15 Paul goes on to say, “For though you have ten thousand guides in Christ, yet not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” The Greek word rendered guides literally means child-conductors, as in Galatians 3:24 and 25. Guides, child-conductors, give instructions and directions to the children under their guardianship; fathers impart life to their children whom they beget. The apostle was such a father. He had begotten the Corinthian believers in Christ through the gospel, imparting the divine life into them so that they became children of God and members of Christ.
Verse 16 continues, “I appeal therefore to you, become imitators of me.” The Greek word for appeal is the same as that used in verse 13. In appealing to the Corinthians to imitate him, Paul seems to be saying, “My children, don’t be kings, but be willing to be despised as criminals in the sight of men. Don’t be philosophers, but be offscouring and scum. Turn from what you were in the past and become imitators of me. Today we, the apostles, are despised before man for the sake of Christ. We have become fools because of Christ. We have been made a spectacle to angels and to men, we are like criminals sentenced to death, and we are scum and offscouring. But to you I am a begetting father.”
In verse 17 Paul says, “Because of this I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church.” The ways here refer to the ways in which the apostle conducted himself as he taught the saints in every church. The expression “everywhere in every church” indicates two things: first, that the apostle’s teaching is the same universally, not varying from place to place; second, that everywhere equals every church and that every church equals everywhere.
This Epistle was brought to the Corinthians by Timothy. Thus, Paul not only wrote an Epistle; he also sent a co-worker to visit the Corinthians with this Epistle. By this we see that Paul had intimate and personal contact with the believers at Corinth.
In verses 18 and 19 Paul tells the Corinthians, “Now some have been puffed up as though I were not coming to you; but I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills.” This was Paul’s answer to those Corinthians who were asking why Paul himself did not come to them. Some were puffed up, thinking that he would not visit them. But Paul says that if the Lord wills, he will come to Corinth shortly. If it were up to him, he would definitely come. But, according to the New Testament way of speaking, Paul inserted the words “if the Lord wills” to indicate that the Lord may not send him there. Thus, if the Lord wills, he will come. But if the Lord does not will that he visit the Corinthians, there is nothing Paul can do about it.
In verses 19 and 20 Paul says, “I will know not the speech of those who have been puffed up, but the power; for the kingdom of God is not in speech, but in power.” Paul’s word about the kingdom of God refers to the church life. This implies that in the sense of authority the church in this age is the kingdom of God. Paul knew that the kingdom of God is not in speech, but in power. For this reason, he wanted to know the power of those who were puffed up.
Verse 21 is the conclusion of this chapter: “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of meekness?” This word is spoken to the Corinthian believers based upon the consideration that the apostle is their spiritual father. As such, he has the position and responsibility to chastise his children.
A spirit of meekness here refers to the apostle’s regenerated spirit indwelt by and mingled with the Holy Spirit. The spirit of meekness is one that is saturated with the meekness of Christ (2 Cor. 10:1) to express the virtue of Christ.
According to Paul’s word in verse 21, was he happy or unhappy, angry or meek? I would say that in this chapter he is unhappy and happy as well, angry and meek as well. This definitely does not mean, however, that Paul is two-faced. Rather, it reveals that a genuinely spiritual person can be meek and then immediately become angry. In fact, a spiritual person can be meek even while he is angry.
If you are not spiritual, it may take a few days for your anger to subside. But the anger of a spiritual person can vanish instantly. Suppose a brother offends you, and you become angry. If it takes a long time for your anger to go away, this proves that you are not a spiritual person. The faster your anger disappears, the more spiritual you are. Sisters, if you cannot be angry with your husband one minute and meek toward him the next, your spirituality is not genuine. If you need several hours to turn from your anger and become happy with your husband, you have only a man-made spirituality.
Paul was a person who could be angry one moment and happy the next. This shows that he was truly a spiritual person. Thus, it is correct to say that in this chapter he was both angry with the Corinthians and meek toward them.
Sisters, once you have become angry with your husband, how long does it take before your anger goes away? Will it be days before you speak to him again and are happy with him? Elders, if you are offended by another elder, how long will it take for you to get over this offense? Will it take a week before you can have pleasant fellowship with the one who offended you? The elders may give messages on spirituality, but they may not know how to be genuinely spiritual with one another. It certainly is not true spirituality for a brother to take several days to get over an offense.
In 1 Corinthians 4 we see that Paul was quite unhappy with the Greek believers at Corinth. However, his unhappiness could suddenly vanish. He could ask in verse 21 whether they wanted him to come to them with a rod, or in love and a spirit of meekness. Is this a word of anger or of meekness? It is rather difficult to say, for Paul was actually angry and meek at the same time.
If we do not know how to be angry in a proper way, we cannot be genuinely spiritual. In fact, we cannot be truly human either. Instead, we shall be like statues, lacking human feeling. The more spiritual we are, the easier it will be for us to become angry. If you never get angry quickly, that is an indication that you are not truly spiritual.
Some may consider such a thought about spirituality as very mistaken. However, from experience I know that it is a fact that the more spiritual we are, the easier it will be to become angry. The reason for this is that when we are truly spiritual, we are genuine. We do not hide, and we do not pretend. If you live with me for a long period of time and are never angry with me, I will not have any confidence in you. Probably you are a good politician. I cannot believe that you could live with me for many months without being offended by me. I fully realize that certain things I do are offensive to others. If someone can stay with me and not be offended by me, it must be because his spirituality is not genuine. He must be a person without flesh and blood. But since we all are persons of flesh and blood, we all know what it is to be angry. However, if we are political with one another, we shall conceal our anger. But a truly spiritual person will not hide his anger. On the one hand, he may be quick to become angry; on the other hand, he will be just as quick to turn from his anger.
Consider again what Paul says in verse 21. He asks, “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of meekness?” Does this sound like a verse from the holy Scriptures? If this word were not in the Bible, none of us would accept such a statement as worthy of being in the Scriptures. It may appear scriptural for someone to say, “The time is short, My people. I come quickly. I love you, and you must love Me. Thus saith the Lord.” But does it sound biblical or spiritual to ask whether we should come with a rod or in love and a spirit of meekness? Verse 21 sounds like the writing of someone who is angry. Nevertheless, these words are recorded in the Bible. Once again we see that the Bible is different from any other book.
Suppose I am angry with a certain brother one minute and then, very soon afterwards, I am quite happy with him. He may be offended and criticize me for not being spiritual. However, his spirituality may not be genuine, whereas my spirituality may be real. To repeat, a person who is truly spiritual can quickly go from meekness to anger or from anger to meekness.
I have a deep appreciation for chapter four of 1 Corinthians. In this chapter we see a humanity which is very genuine, a humanity without pretense. Yet, this humanity is full of life. If we read Paul’s words again and again, especially if we pray-read them, we shall touch life. Although verse 21 may not sound like a very scriptural way of speaking, it is a verse full of the weight of life. On the contrary, to utter certain words followed by, “Thus saith the Lord,” may be completely lacking in life. Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 4 is full of the weight of life.
We all need to learn from Paul to have a genuine spirituality. If we are truly spiritual, we shall not hide, we shall not pretend, and we shall not play politics. Rather, we shall have a genuine humanity and simply be what we are in Christ. This is the kind of life which can dispense the unsearchable riches of Christ into the believers. Those who possess this kind of humanity are qualified to be stewards in God’s family.
All the elders need to have the kind of humanity illustrated in this chapter. Only those elders with a genuine humanity can build up the church. Those who are clever, political, and who never offend others and never make mistakes cannot build up the church. However, I do not mean that those who are careless can be useful in building up the church. My point here is that elders with a true humanity, a humanity without pretense, can build up the church. All the saints need to have this kind of humanity. Both in the church life and in married life, we need to be genuine. We should not hide or pretend, but, like Paul, have a genuine humanity and a true spirituality.
On the one hand, we need to be as offscouring and scum; on the other hand we need to be begetting fathers. If we are not offscouring and scum and also begetting fathers, our work will have little impact. We may preach the right things doctrinally, but with little result. A begetting father, one who imparts life to others, must be as a criminal condemned to death in the sight of man. He must be regarded as useless, as a fool, as offscouring and scum. If we live such a life before man, then we shall be fathers able to beget many children. This means that if we would impart life to others, we must be despised in the eyes of man. This is especially true today in the Lord’s recovery. In order to be a life-imparter, you must be despised by religion. The worldly Christians should say that you are an offscouring, scum. Then you will become a life-imparting and begetting father.