In 1 Corinthians 4:9 the believers are symbolized by the unusual figure of a spectacle, a public gazingstock: “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.” In the New Testament all the overcoming believers, not only the apostles, are likened to such a spectacle, such a gazingstock for the public.
In 1 Corinthians 4:9 Paul uses the phrase “last of all.” This expression, commonly understood at the time, refers to the last part of the performance in the Roman amphitheater. According to ancient custom, when the criminals fought with wild animals in the amphitheater for the entertainment of the populace, the criminals, who were regarded as nothing, the lowest of people, 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 had set forth the apostles, and all the overcoming believers, last of all, as if they were the lowest criminals condemned to death, to be entertainment for the people. The apostles, therefore, considered themselves criminals doomed to death before the world.
Paul also says in 4:9 that the apostles had become “a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” The Greek word rendered “spectacle” is the word for theater. It refers to a show, a display, made in a theatrical way as entertainment. This also is a metaphor, referring to fights between criminals and wild beasts in the amphitheater.
The apostles became 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. This is related to their becoming “the offscouring of the world” and “the scum of all things” (v. 13).
The metaphors in 4:9 present a vivid picture of the situation of the apostles and the overcoming believers they were criminals condemned 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. While others mock us and ridicule 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 men 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.
Hebrews 10:33a speaks of our “being made a spectacle both in reproaches and in afflictions.” This is to become a show exposed to the public, a gazingstock.
Hebrews 10:33b speaks of the apostles and the overcoming believers “having become partakers with those who experienced the same.” On the one hand, we are made a spectacle; on the other hand, we become partakers with those who have experienced the same thing. Many of the overcoming ones in the Old Testament had the experience of being a spectacle. Now the apostles and the overcoming believers are partakers with them, being the continuation of such a gazingstock. Therefore, we are a spectacle to the world. We in the Lord’s recovery should be like the apostles—criminals doomed to death and a spectacle both to angels and to men. We should give others the impression that we are as criminals condemned to death and a spectacle to the whole universe.
In 1 Corinthians 4:13 Paul says, “We have become as the offscouring of the world, as the scum of all things until now.” Offscouring and scum are synonymous. 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. This was Paul’s estimation of himself with respect to both the Jews and the Gentiles. In the eyes of certain worldly people our situation is the same. Compared to them, we are scum and offscouring. They may be extremely successful and wealthy, but we have become the offscouring of the world and the scum of all things. We are qualified only to become cast aside as waste.
The believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:16-20). In 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” In 6:19 he inquires, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” The temple of God in 3:16 refers to the church corporately, not to the believers individually, whereas the temple of the Holy Spirit in 6:19 does refer to individual believers. In particular, 6:19 reveals that a believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:16 tells us that the Holy Spirit is with the believers’ spirit. According to 1 Corinthians 6:19, the Holy Spirit from God is also in the believers’ body as His dwelling. The Holy Spirit is in our spirit, and our spirit is within our body. Hence, our body becomes a temple, a dwelling, of the Holy Spirit.
The believers are not their own, for they were bought by God with a price. In 6:19b and 20a Paul indicates that the believers are not their own because they were bought with a price. This price is the precious blood of Christ (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9).
In 1 Corinthians 6:20b Paul concludes his word concerning the believers being a temple of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore glorify God in your body.” As the dwelling of the Spirit, the believers should glorify, that is, express, God in their body. To glorify God in our body means to let God, who dwells in us (1 John 4:13), occupy and saturate our body and express Himself through our body as His temple, especially in the matters of eating and marriage, according to the context of the section of 1 Corinthians from 6:13 through 11:1. For this, we need to exercise a severe and strict control over our body, bringing it into subjection (1 Cor. 9:27) and presenting it to God as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).
In 1 Corinthians 6:15, 17, and 19 Paul covers three crucial matters: that our bodies are the members of Christ (v. 15), that we are joined to the Lord as one spirit (v. 17), and that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (v. 19). In actuality and practicality these three are one. The key to all three is in verse 17. Apart from being joined to the Lord in our spirit, it is impossible for our bodies, which are sinful and lustful, to become the members of Christ. Another crucial matter related to this is Paul’s word in verse 14 that the Lord “will raise up us through His power.” Even now the Spirit of the resurrected Christ who dwells in our spirit gives life to our body. This impartation of life makes our bodies the members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the key to our being the temple of the Holy Spirit is that the indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ imparts life to our mortal bodies. Because this is the key, we must exercise and practice to experience the Lord as the life-giving Spirit dwelling in our spirit. This is to practice being one spirit with the Lord. If we exercise ourselves to experience and enjoy this, we shall open the way for the Lord to impart life to our physical bodies. Then our bodies will be full of the resurrection life of Christ and will become the members of Christ. When our body becomes a member of the indwelling Christ, it automatically becomes the temple, the dwelling place, of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in our experience the three matters of our bodies being members of Christ, of being one spirit with the Lord, and of our body being the temple of the Holy Spirit are three aspects of one reality.
In this message we shall cover more symbols of the believers: threshing oxen, runners in a race and contenders in a game, workman in carpentry, nursing mother, father, wise master builder, ambassadors, stewards, captives of Christ in His triumphal procession, and incense-bearers.
We come now to another unusual symbol of the believers—threshing oxen. In 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 10a the believers are likened to laboring oxen that thresh the harvest: “In the law of Moses it is written: You shall not muzzle a threshing ox. Is it for the oxen that God cares? Or does He say it assuredly for our sake? For our sake.” Here Paul quotes the Old Testament in a wonderful way and applies it to the present situation, in particular, to the situation of those who labor in serving the Lord.
In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, saying, “You shall not muzzle a threshing ox.” According to the context, those who labor in word and teaching (v. 17) may be fully occupied, devoting all their time to this. Therefore, the church and the saints should care for their living. For this reason, in verse 18 Paul refers to what the Scripture says about not muzzling a threshing ox.
In 1 Corinthians 9:9 Paul likened himself to an ox laboring for Christ. However, the Corinthians wanted to muzzle him; that is, they wanted him to work without being fed. This is the reason Paul pointed out that while threshing oxen are laboring to thresh the harvest, their mouths should not be muzzled.
Instead of being muzzled, threshing oxen should eat what is under their threshing. This means that while they are laboring to thresh the harvest, they should be free to eat what they are threshing.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race-course all run, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may lay hold. And everyone who contends exercises self-control in all things; those, therefore, that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:24-25). These verses reveal that the believers are runners in a race and contenders in a game. The Christian life is a race that we must run successfully and a game in which we must contend. The prize is a reward as an incentive; to “lay hold” is to obtain the prize.
If we consider verse 24 in relation to verse 23, we shall see that to run in a race-course is to labor, but to receive the prize is to have enjoyment. As we preach the gospel today, we are running the course. But to receive a reward, a prize, at the coming of the Lord Jesus is to have a particular enjoyment.
In 9:17 Paul speaks of a reward, and in Acts 20:24 he refers to the course: “I consider my life of no account as if it were precious to myself, in order that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus to solemnly testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Paul regarded his preaching of the gospel as the running of the Christian race. First Corinthians 9:24 indicates that all believers are running a race. Paul exhorts us to run so that we may obtain, lay hold of, the prize.
First Corinthians 9 reveals that the Christian course involves the preaching of the gospel. To preach the gospel is to dispense Christ into others. By dispensing Christ into those who are receptive to our preaching we run the Christian course. However, because many believers today are not running the race, we need Paul’s word, “So run, that you may lay hold.”