First Corinthians 4--Getting an Early Inheritance?
Mar 13, 2017
In 1 Corinthians 4:6 Paul identifies pride as being the source of division and faction. Pride causes me to go beyond (or transgress) the commands of Scripture, when in reality we ought to walk strictly in accordance with the word. He then asks a few indignant questions in 1 Corinthians 4:7,
7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
Perhaps the thought is best expressed this way, if I may paraphrase it:
7 So what makes you so special? And what do you have that was not a gift? But if you received it as a gift, why do you boast as if you earned it?
Whatever revelation or spiritual gift that one has is not self-derived, nor even earned. God has gifted everyone with what they have, and the purpose of each gift is to edify the church. In other words, we are only stewards of God’s gifts, as verse 2 says. They are for the benefit of the body and not to be used for one’s personal benefit.
Those who lay claim to God’s gifts, as if they were distinguished and special, are not acting as stewards, but as owners. Pride has replaced the spirit of stewardship, and therefore, pride—not truth—is the root of division. It is very easy to become proud of one’s revelation of truth. Paul understood this well, for he too had received great revelation. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7,
7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me to keep me from exalting myself.
Many have speculated about the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” but our point here is to show that God used it to remind Paul that he was only a steward of revelation, not its owner. Hence also, he had no right to exalt himself above other leaders or any other believer.
Paul then engages in some biting sarcasm in 1 Corinthians 4:8,
8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.
Paul did not intend that his readers would take him seriously or literally. Whatever nameless person he had in mind was acting by presumption. But his sarcasm is revealed in his statement, “you have become kings without us,” that is, ahead of us. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says,
“The Messianic age, to begin after the judgment seat of Christ and his second coming to the earth, had begun for the Corinthians, Paul reproachfully wrote. ‘They (had) got a private millennium of their own’ (ICC, p. 84). The verse affords some evidence for Paul’s concept of the Kingdom” (p. 1236).
We could add to Paul’s list of sarcastic statements: “You have already been perfected; you now have the whole truth; you are a resurrected being who has now attained all the rewards to be given at the judgment seat of Christ.”
Those who think that they have now attained that which is to be given as a later reward are afflicted with spiritual pride, Paul says. Would to God that they had indeed begun to reign already, for then we would all be reigning with them as kings. John explains this, of course, at the end of Revelation 20:4, saying of the resurrected ones, “they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
Again, John says in Revelation 20:6, “they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”
There are those who spiritualize this in order to make it a present reality. However, Paul clearly refutes this teaching by his sarcasm in writing to the Corinthians. We might ask ourselves, however, how this wrong teaching got its start. Most incorrect teaching has at least a grain of truth. Many falsehoods are built upon a true principle that has been misunderstood or misapplied.
Christ’s death and resurrection secured us all things, including the salvation of the world. The salvation of all men is FACT (1 Timothy 4:10). But the TIMING has yet to be worked out in history. When one does not recognize the laws of time, he assumes that he has now been given all things. But God is not so irresponsible as to give immature people all of His authority, for they would inevitably misuse it, not knowing the difference between God’s will and God’s plan. In fact, they would work against the divine plan and even destroy the world.
Apparently, there was a faction within the Corinthian church that had laid claim to their full inheritance in Christ. They believed that they were now “kings,” and that believers only had to lay claim to this by faith in order to make it an actuality in the world. In many ways, this was an early Prosperity teaching, which Paul refuted with sarcasm.
Paul begins to contrast the false “Prosperity” belief in 1 Corinthians 4:9, saying,
9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.
In Paul’s time and thereafter, people could find entertainment in the stadiums, or theaters, where they could watch a show, or Spectacle. These shows became increasingly bloody and violent over the years. Gladiators fought with wild beasts and also with condemned criminals. When Christianity was outlawed, many Christians too were condemned to death and became spectacles for the people to watch as they were killed by gladiators or by wild animals.
Tertullian was a Roman lawyer in the early third century. He wrote a treatise called De Spectaculis, or “The Shows.” They were also called “The Circus.” He shows their pagan, idolatrous origins in that the term Circus is derived from Circe, the daughter of the Sun, best known for her supposed ability to turn men into animals by the wave of her wand. Tertullian thus writes,
“… the circus is chiefly consecrated to the Sun… Those who assert that the first spectacle was exhibited by Circe, and in honour of the Sun with her father, as they will have it, maintain also the name of circus was derived from her. (ch. viii)
Tertullian writes about the spectacles and how Christians were slaughtered in these circuses. Unfortunately, he then becomes quite vengeful (ch. xxx) by making the Great White Throne a spectacle for Christians to watch the pagans being executed and tortured in fire!
“But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! … How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? Which rouses me to exultation? As I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove [Jehovah] himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ.”
Tertullian was one of the Latin Church fathers who took the lake of fire as a literal place of torture, contrary to most of his Greek contemporaries. In the later shift of religious power to Rome, his view was adopted as “truth,” and from this came the practice of burning heretics at the stake.
But in the first century, Paul has no such vengeful attitude toward idolaters. He speaks only of the persecution against Christians, and especially against the apostles themselves. Some of the apostles had already been killed, though none (that we know of) at a circus. Paul seems to foresee the time that was soon to come, where such spectacles were commonplace.
The Reality Check
Paul then continues his sarcasm in 1 Corinthians 4:10,
10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor.
He again was addressing his critics who believed that the Great White Throne judgment had already occurred (probably spiritually) and that they had already become manifested sons of God. The apostles were yet “fools,” but these manifested sons of God were “prudent.” The apostles were yet “weak,” but these manifested sons of God were “strong.” The apostles were “without honor,” but these manifested sons of God were “distinguished.”
All of this was said to refute their claim, not to establish it. This was a rebuke, not an affirmation of their teaching. These claimed their inheritance even before the apostles had been rewarded, and in so doing, they had exceeded what is written in Scripture (4:6). 1 Corinthians 4:11-13 continues,
11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.
The implication is that Christ had not yet come to restore all things. The apostles were still carrying in their bodies the marks of Christ’s own persecution and martyrdom. They were still living in the wake of the first work of Christ. Christ had not done it all for them; the apostles were required to participate in the sufferings of Christ. Christ was their example, and they were called, not to avoid or escape the same treatment, but to follow Christ’s example of blessing, even as they were reviled.
Tertullian did not do such a good job in this, for his words show great vindictiveness, looking forward to the day when the idolaters would be treated in the same manner as they had done to the Christians. He should have sought to bless them, not revile them.
But Paul was speaking to certain Corinthian believers who had begun teaching that they were NOW the manifested sons of God who had received their full inheritance in Christ. It seems that they thought the apostles had fallen short by not apprehending all that Christ had won for them on the cross. In their spiritual pride, they had elevated themselves above the apostles, whose experience seemed to fall far short of their own expectations.
Paul then says in 1 Corinthians 4:14,
14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
Hence, his sarcasm was real, but it was not designed to shame them, but to admonish them. No doubt, however, his sarcasm hit home to them, for they would have recognized it immediately. And when we today realize that Paul was responding to Chloe’s letter about problems in the Corinthian church, then we can see more readily that Paul was using sarcasm.
Paul was not telling us that the condition of the Corinthian church was good. He was giving them a reality check.
This is part 19 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones