1Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.a 2Now it is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; 4I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord.b 5Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.
Paul’s Life as Pattern.* 6I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, so that you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written,* so that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over against another. 7Who confers distinction upon you? What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it? 8You are already satisfied; you have already grown rich; you have become kings* without us! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you.
9* For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike.c 10We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute.d 11To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homelesse 12and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;f 13when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment.
14I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.* 15Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.g 16Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me.h 17For this reason I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord; he will remind you of my ways in Christ [Jesus], just as I teach them everywhere in every church.i
18* Some have become inflated with pride, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you soon, if the Lord is willing, and I shall ascertain not the talk of these inflated people but their power. 20For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.j 21Which do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit?k
* [4:6–21] This is an emotionally charged peroration to the discussion about divisions. It contains several exhortations and statements of Paul’s purpose in writing (cf. 1 Cor 4:6, 14–17, 21) that counterbalance the initial exhortation at 1 Cor 1:10.
* [4:6] That you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written: the words “to go” are not in the Greek, but have here been added as the minimum necessary to elicit sense from this difficult passage. It probably means that the Corinthians should avoid the false wisdom of vain speculation, contenting themselves with Paul’s proclamation of the cross, which is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament (what is written). Inflated with pride: literally, “puffed up,” i.e., arrogant, filled with a sense of self-importance. The term is particularly Pauline, found in the New Testament only in 1 Cor 4:6, 18–19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4; Col 2:18 (cf. the related noun at 2 Cor 12:20). It sometimes occurs in conjunction with the theme of “boasting,” as in 1 Cor 4:6–7 here.
* [4:8] Satisfied…rich…kings: these three statements could also be punctuated as questions continuing the series begun in v. 7. In any case these expressions reflect a tendency at Corinth toward an overrealized eschatology, a form of self-deception that draws Paul’s irony. The underlying attitude has implications for the Corinthians’ thinking about other issues, notably morality and the resurrection, that Paul will address later in the letter.
* [4:9–13] A rhetorically effective catalogue of the circumstances of apostolic existence, in the course of which Paul ironically contrasts his own sufferings with the Corinthians’ illusion that they have passed beyond the folly of the passion and have already reached the condition of glory. His language echoes that of the beatitudes and woes, which assert a future reversal of present conditions. Their present sufferings (“to this very hour,” v. 11) place the apostles in the class of those to whom the beatitudes promise future relief (Mt 5:3–11; Lk 6:20–23); whereas the Corinthians’ image of themselves as “already” filled, rich, ruling (1 Cor 4:8), as wise, strong, and honored (1 Cor 4:10) places them paradoxically in the position of those whom the woes threaten with future undoing (Lk 6:24–26). They have lost sight of the fact that the reversal is predicted for the future.
* [4:14–17] My beloved children: the close of the argument is dominated by the tender metaphor of the father who not only gives his children life but also educates them. Once he has begotten them through his preaching, Paul continues to present the gospel to them existentially, by his life as well as by his word, and they are to learn, as children do, by imitating their parents (1 Cor 4:16). The reference to the rod in 1 Cor 4:21 belongs to the same image-complex. So does the image of the ways in 1 Cor 4:17: the ways that Paul teaches everywhere, “his ways in Christ Jesus,” mean a behavior pattern quite different from the human ways along which the Corinthians are walking (1 Cor 3:3).
* [4:18–21] 1 Cor 4:20 picks up the contrast between a certain kind of talk (logos) and true power (dynamis) from 1 Cor 1:17–18 and 1 Cor 2:4–5. The kingdom, which many of them imagine to be fully present in their lives (1 Cor 4:8), will be rather unexpectedly disclosed in the strength of Paul’s encounter with them, if they make a powerful intervention on his part necessary. Compare the similar ending to an argument in 2 Cor 13:1–4, 10.