Home > Bible Topics > Bible Studies   > 1 Corinthians > Lesson 4     previous lesson < > next lesson
Site Contents
Daily Readings
Bible Topics
Worship Topics
Ministry Topics
Church Year
Theology Topics
New Additions

1 Corinthians 4:1-5:13

Roger Hahn

Paul began dealing with the problem of division in the church at Corinth in chapter 1. By the end of chapter 3 he had made the case that division over leadership undercuts the Christian understanding of the church and of ministry. He also argued that a merely human understanding of wisdom is an inadequate basis for faith in Christ.

Theoretically, Paul's explanation should have been sufficient. Practically, however, he must also deal with the people in Corinth who had no use for him personally, nor for his understanding of the gospel. Chapter 4 presents Paul's attempts to regain his apostolic authority with the whole Corinthian church.

Paul's Apostolic Authority: 1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Verses 1-5 form the first paragraph of Paul's argument. He will further develop the idea of ministers as servant-slaves and as stewards. The conclusion is that ministry must be accountable to the Lord rather than to the listeners. Neither disapproval from the Corinthians nor a "clear conscience" on Paul's part really matters. God's approval is the bottom line for Paul.

Paul begins by asserting that people must consider him and Apollos ("us" in verse 1) as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." The word "servants" is different from the word used in 1 Corinthians 3:5. This word, hyperetas, originally was used for the rowers in the bottom tier of the Roman galley ships. By New Testament times the word hyperetas had come to simply refer to anyone in a subservient position. The word focused on the superiority of the master. Paul's point is that he and Apollos were under orders from God and that God is the one that mattered in the relationship.

The word "stewards" also had a special meaning within the New Testament era. The roots of the word suggest a meaning of "ruler of the household." In fact, the word was widely used for the managers of large estates. These estates were owned by absentee landlords who hired managers to care for the daily operation of the estate. Rather than emphasizing the subservient role reflected in the word "servants" the word "stewards" suggests a high degree of responsibility. The following verses show Paul shifting the subject from himself and Apollos to himself alone. Paul's real point here is that God had entrusted him with the responsibility for "managing" the church in "God's absence."

The importance of this stewardship can be seen in the fact that it is "mysteries" or "secret things of God" that Paul "manages." These mysteries are the secret plans for salvation that God had made from the beginning of history. In Christ these secret plans have been revealed. As a preacher of the gospel Paul's main "management" responsibility was the distribution of the message of Christ. Verse 2 points out that the most important part of being a steward is reliability.

Verse 3 turns the subject directly to the question of Paul and his relationship with the Corinthians. He states that it is "a very small matter" that they are judging him. The verb "judged" refers to being examined or discerned and is the same word that appeared in 1 Corinthians 2:15. Since Paul had been called to be steward he would answer to his own Lord - not to the Corinthians or to any other human judgment (whether legal or informal). Paul states that being judged by the Corinthians is a "small matter" to him. Compared with the judgment and evaluation of Christ the opinion of the Corinthians mattered very little.

As part of his argument he states that he did not even judge himself. This is an exaggeration also. Paul's defense of his ministry found in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 1:15-2:4 is based on self-analysis. His point is more clearly stated in verse 4. He is not aware of any evidence that would portray his ministry negatively. This is a way of saying that he does not regard any Corinthian accusation against him as a serious charge. However, his not being aware of any problems in his ministry is not proof that none exist (the Corinthians would agree). It is only Christ's analysis, not his nor the Corinthians' (they would not agree), that matters.

Paul concludes the first paragraph of his defense by urging the Corinthians to judge nothing (he means to not judge him) before the time of the Lord's coming. Logically this follows the statement of verse 4 that the Lord will perform the judging (analysis) that needs to be done on his Paul's ministry. In terms of the emotional impact of his argument focusing on Christ's second coming and the judgment should lead the Corinthians to self-examination rather than judging Paul. Part of what will happen at the final judgment is the exposure of all the hidden thoughts, desires, and intentions of people's hearts. This theme appears in Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 14:25; and 1 Thessalonians 2:4.

This problem is still difficult for churches and ministers to deal with. Especially churches influenced by the modern American consumer mentality find it too easy to analyze, evaluate, and evict ministers who do not measure up to some standard of marketability. Those in ministry stand or fall by their accountability to God rather than by performance evaluation. We must never forget that. On the other hand, a minister must never conclude that popularity with a congregation is proof of the blessing of God. People-pleasers are not always God-pleasers and the ministry must struggle not to substitute human approval for obedience to God.

First Corinthians 4:6-13 forms the next paragraph in which Paul states that he is applying these concepts to himself and Apollos. In reality he is applying them to the Corinthians also. Their pride and his weakness are the two main themes that he discusses in these verses.

In verse 6 Paul states that he has "applied" the various illustrations and comments since 1 Corinthians 3:5 to explain the role of himself and of Apollos. This strategy had two purposes that are mentioned in verse 6.

The first was that the Corinthians learn the meaning of the saying, "Not beyond what is written." These words have proven very difficult for interpreters to understand. Many people believe that Paul was referring to Scripture by the words "what is written." They conclude he was saying, "Live according to the Scriptures." This is an appropriate piece of advice, but it is not clear what Scriptures we should think that Paul had in mind if this interpretation is correct. Other scholars believe that Paul was referring to a popular proverb that meant something like, "stay within the rules." The point of this interpretation is that Paul was accusing the Corinthians of failing to live up to fair play in their treatment of himself and Apollos. A variation of this proposal is the suggestion that "not beyond what is written" corresponds to advice to young students learning to write, "Stay within the lines." The point of this interpretation is that the Corinthians should follow the pattern set by Paul and Apollos and not go beyond them in attempting to define the Christian life.

Witherington (p. 141) suggests that Paul wanted the Corinthians to use Old Testament models of leadership (such as Moses) as patterns for evaluating leaders. They (the Corinthians) should not go beyond a biblical view of what a leader should be and do. Since Moses was highly respected by Israel and used by God even though he had speech problems the Corinthians should not disregard Paul's authority just because he did not measure up to their expectations of speech-making skills.

The phrase, "Not beyond what is written," is so difficult that it is not wise to be dogmatic about its correct interpretation. However, if Witherington is right we have a valuable reminder that human imperfection does not keep God from effectively using a leader. We need a renewal of appreciation for the unique contributions that God can make to us from each leader coming our way.

The second purpose that verse 6 mentions is that the Corinthians will not be "puffed up in favor of one against another." It is very likely that the one against the other refers to the Corinthians setting Apollos and Paul up against each other. The Greek word for "puffed up" suggests the idea of being "over-inflated." When human standards rather than God's goals become the basis for evaluating leaders the result will be a flow of pride and arrogance rather than love.

Verse 7 asks the basis upon which the Corinthians were authorized to make their standards the basis of evaluating God's servants. These questions begin a section of sarcasm. The Corinthians are not only presumptuous (what makes you different?); they are also ungrateful (what do you have that you did not receive?). Fee (p. 171) aptly describes this as "an invitation to experience one of those rare, unguarded moments of total honesty, where in the presence of the eternal God one recognizes that everything - absolutely everything - that one 'has' is a gift." The Christian life must always recognize that it is by grace and grace alone that we have received every good and perfect gift. For a Christian boasting about human achievement is as out of place as blowing a plastic harmonica during the Philharmonic Orchestra's concept in symphony hall.

Verse 8 nails the Corinthians with sarcasm. They already have achieved every spiritual goal and climbed every spiritual mountain. There is nothing left to which they can aspire if their arrogant attitude is correct. In fact, Paul can almost wish that they were right so he could ride their coattails into glory without the painful price of obedience that all other mere mortals must pay.

However, verses 9-13 point to the reality Paul had to face. God has treated him (and the other apostles) like prisoners condemned to die in the Roman amphitheater. Though the Corinthians suffer none of these indignities Paul is treated as a fool, as weak. He is slandered and reviled even when he works with his own hands so as not to be a burden to the church. His painful litany of mistreatment comes to a climax in verse 13 where he, in effect, states that he has been trashed in fulfillment of his ministry. One might be tempted to toss Paul's comments off as the ramblings of an overly sensitive failure, but these words find a stabbing echo throughout church history in the mouths of countless dedicated servants of Christ. Unfortunately, the problem of a church's disregard for a God-called minister has been replayed in every generation and every culture that the Christian gospel has reached.

The final paragraph of the opening section of the body, 1 Corinthians 4:14-21, attempts to bring the matter to pastoral resolution. At first glance, verse 14 claims that these words were not intended to shame the Corinthians seems incredible. However, the tone shifts significantly in this paragraph. Addressing the Corinthians as "my beloved children," describing himself as their father, urging them to imitate him, and the offer to come to them in a spirit of gentleness all reflect the change in tone. Sarcasm gives way to tenderness. Paul states in verse 14 that his preceding words were designed to "admonish" the Corinthians. The NIV translation "warn" is a little bit too harsh. The Greek word has been described as an admonition to correct while not provoking or embittering. It includes the idea of warning, but does so in the context of counsel and appeal. It was common for Jewish rabbis to shift from harsh rebuke to this kind of admonition in their attempts to motivate their students. Though Paul calls the Corinthians his children rather than his students we can see him using the technique he experienced when he was a student.

Verse 15 defines the relationship Paul considers himself to have with the Corinthians. He is their spiritual father, not their guardian. The word translated "guardians" here was used of slaves whose job it was to take the master's children to and from school. This person was responsible to protect the child from evil influences and associates and from physical and moral harm. He was to see to it that the child arrived at school and later at home on time. These responsibilities are all concerns of a father, but for the guardian it was a job. Guardians could come and go. A person could have dozens of them while growing up. To make his point Paul exaggerated - a person could have myriads (the Greek word for ten thousand) of guardians. In contrast, however, a person has only one father. There is one for whom care, protection, and nurture are not a job, but the heartbeat. We could easily consider either father or mother or both fulfilling the description, but since Paul was referring to his own relationship to the Corinthians he used the term, father.

Verse 16 introduces a common Pauline appeal, "be imitators of me." Many modern people have been offended by this theme in Paul's thought. They see it as arrogant. However, it represents a very realistic view of Paul's perception of being the Corinthians' spiritual father. Spiritual and moral life is not taught in the classroom; it is learned in the laboratory of life. It is taught by modeling the desired behavior. Parents teach children how to be married and how to parent by modeling. People who are married understand very well the problems that arose early in their marriage. Most of those problems came as they imitated their parents and expected their spouse to imitate their parent. However, the spouse was imitating her or his own parent and expecting imitation of his or her own other parent.

We pay coaches to model correct athletic and musical techniques. We never think of them as arrogant when they say, "Do it like I am showing you." We must expect Christian leaders to call for others to imitate them. In fact, if we are growing spiritually we should be prepared to model our faith and invite new believers to imitate us as we imitate Christ.

The sending of Timothy is carefully explained in verse 17. If the Corinthians had judged and rejected Paul what treatment might they give Timothy? Paul carefully presents Timothy as his personal representative to give him as much apostolic authority as can be transferred from master to pupil. Timothy's task is to remind the Corinthians of what Paul had already taught them. What Paul had taught them was not something punitive to single them out. Rather, Timothy's reminder would call to their attention what Paul taught in every church. Thus the Corinthians are not to reject Timothy. His message is the common Christian ethic accepted by all believers and his authority is the authority of Paul himself.

Verses 18-21 reveal the touchy nature of Paul's relationship with the Corinthians. The apostle pointedly declares that some are arrogant in the mistaken notion that he would not be back. However, if the Lord is willing Paul will return to Corinth soon and he will confront his opponents and discover whether they have any clout or are just blowhards. Verse 21 ends this section with an appeal. Whether Paul comes harshly or gently will depend on how they respond to his letter. He puts the ball in their court. Their choice about how to respond to him and his letter will determine the spirit in which he comes to them.

The Problem of Sexual Immorality: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

After the lengthy response to the problem of division in the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21 Paul turns the subject to a new problem in chapter 5. The problem of sexual immorality in the life of the church will be treated in both chapters 5 and 6:12-20. Chapter 5 begins with a specific case and Paul's response includes a general appeal for sexual purity. Chapter 6 will begin with interpersonal relationship problems within the Corinthian church and return to the problem of sexual immorality.

Chapter 5 opens this section by responding to a specific problem that had been reported to Paul. Commentaries generally describe it as a case of incest though Paul's language is little less precise. The problem is identified in verse 1 as a man "having his father's wife." In such a context Judaism used the expression "having" to describe an on-going sexual relationship. The phrase "father's wife" indicates that this is not the man's mother but a later wife of his father. Whether the father is now dead or divorced or also living with the woman is not mentioned. It is almost certain that only the man was a member of the Corinthian congregation. The woman involved is not condemned by Paul. The evenhanded method of chapter 7 suggests that she was not a part of the church and so Paul did not address her directly.

Paul's horror over this situation is revealed in several ways. His language in verse 1, "It is actually reported that there is immorality among you . . . " sounds as if he can hardly believe the report. The implication is that if he had not received the information from such a reliable source (unmentioned here) he could not have believed it. He also describes this sexual immorality as being not even acceptable among the Gentiles. This is a telling criticism. The first century of the Greco-Roman world and especially Corinth had a reputation for all kinds of sexual impropriety. Except for the pornography made possible by technology all forms of sexual deviance that plague our society were widely accepted and practiced in Paul's time. For him to describe this sin as unacceptable to the Gentiles is a devastating criticism. Further, though Paul does not mention it directly, the relationship he described was strictly forbidden in Leviticus 18:7-8.

Worse than the sin itself was the Corinthian response described in verse 2. They were "puffed up." Apparently the Corinthian church not only saw no problem in the sin but also actually found it a point of pride. We can only surmise that they felt this provided them an opportunity to show how free they were from legalism. Paul's shock is clear. Grief, not arrogance, is the appropriate response. Contemporary Christianity often finds it too easy to fall into a similar error. In our efforts not to be judgmental or legalistic we too often have ignored the horror and devastation of sin in our midst.

Paul's basic response is clear. The man must be removed from the church. Four times (verses 2, 4-5, 7, and 13) this central command is repeated. Some details of the Greek text of verse 3-5 are difficult to understand but the overall message is clear. Paul calls for a meeting of the church to deal with this issue. Further, he announces the results of that meeting - the expulsion of the sinning member.

Verse 5 is the most difficult part of this section to understand. There Paul demands that the man be "delivered to Satan." Several meanings of possible but it is likely that the apostle intended these words to simply mean "expel from the church." Paul and presumably the Corinthians lived in a world that believed that Satan and demonic spirits controlled the world. One's life and destiny were under the whims of these evil beings. The early Christian church confidently proclaimed that Christ had defeated Satan and the evil spiritual beings through the death and resurrection. Thus the church was a protected territory free from demonic influence and power. Part of the attraction of early Christian evangelism was the promise of the peace and security of living without fear of evil spiritual beings.

To turn the man out of the church would be to remove him from the safety of the church and send him back to the onslaughts of Satanic beings. Paul further describes the results of being "delivered to Satan" as the "destruction of his flesh." It is not clear whether the apostle envisioned death or simply physical difficulties as the result of the man's return to the realm of Satan. In either case the longer term goal is that his "spirit may be saved." Some have argued that death or physical torment would represent the penance that this man would have to pay for ultimate salvation. It is more likely that Paul hoped his difficulties outside the church would motivate a change in behavior, repentance, and the possibility of being reclaimed prior to the second coming of Christ.

Verses 6-8 provide an illustration to support Paul's contention that the incestuous man must be removed from the church. Only a little bit of leaven is necessary to leaven the whole batch of dough. Judaism understood leaven as a symbol of sin and its insidious ability to penetrate a community. There is no amount of sin that can safely be tolerated in a community of faith for sin tolerated spreads. As early as Deuteronomy 21:18-21 Israel understood this principle. The Feast of Unleavened Bread provided an annual occasion in which old leaven was thrown out and a new batch of dough begun. Paul alludes to this in verse 7 with his call to cleanse out the old leaven.

The illustration captured Paul's thought so much that by the end of verse 7 he was thinking in terms of the Christian application of the Jewish festivals. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread began with Passover in Judaism. Paul saw Christ's death as comparable to the death of the Passover lamb and so he is able to declare that Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed. This leads him to think in terms of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The church must be a new batch of dough. Therefore the old leaven of malice and evil must be removed. The new leaven of sincerity and truth must penetrate the loaf that is the church. By means of this illustration Paul has again called for the incestuous man to be expelled from the church.

The final paragraph in chapter 5, verses 9-13, attempts to clear up a misunderstanding and continues Paul's call for sexual purity in the Corinthian church. Verse 9 refers to a previous letter in which Paul had instructed the Corinthians not to associate with people involved in a variety of sins (mostly sexual). Verse 10 implies that the Corinthians twisted those instructions so that they claimed Paul was forbidding any kind contact with any sinful person. Given the structure of society in Corinth that would have meant withdrawal into a monastery. Sarcastically rejecting that option the Corinthians had arrogantly rejoiced in their Christian liberty that allowed incest in the church.

Verse 11 clarifies Paul's original instructions. Normal social and economic encounters with sinners are an expected part of the Christian life. What Paul was forbidding was fellowship with people involved in out and out sin while they claim to be Christians. Such fellowship would clearly be an example of the old leaven of sin penetrating and influencing the church. The real issue is still the incestuous man. Paul climaxes his response to this issue in verse 13 with a quotation of an expression found several times in Deuteronomy (17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:24; and 24:7), ""

It is possible that a generation ago the church needed to guard against legalism, intolerance, and harshness in its attitude toward sin. However, today's church stands in need of the same kind of admonition Paul gave to the Corinthians. Easy tolerance of sin will destroy our Christian identity. Without being judgmental or condemning of the sinner it is high time that evil influence was removed from our midst. The future of the church and of our children depends upon it.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.

First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 4:1-5:13. Look up the Scripture references.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant to you.

2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to give you wisdom in your response to the looseness in sexual attitudes that seems to be penetrating the church in these days.

Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 6:1-20. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.

1. What do you think is the basic problem addressed in verses 1-8? Is the thought of Christians taking Christians to court a strange thought to you? Why? or why not?

2. Paul argues that since Christians will someday judge the world they should be competent to solve their own relational problems. Do you agree? Why? or why not? What assumptions may be necessary for Paul's "solution" to work?

3. Is Paul's advice to be defrauded and wronged rather than to mistreat another reasonable advice? Why? or why not? What would have to change in your life for you to be willing to follow such advice?

Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 6:1-20. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 6:7-11 .

1. Based on 1 Corinthians 3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; and 9:13 what do we know that Paul had previously taught the Corinthians? Should he have expected the Corinthians to have remembered all this? Why? or why not?

2. If the Kingdom of God means God's complete rule on earth in what way(s) are the sins listed in verses 9-10 incompatible with the Kingdom?

3. What thing(s) strike you as important about verse 11? Why are these points important for the Christian faith?

Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 6:1-20. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

1. In what ways do the focus verses argue against sexual immorality?

2. Are Paul's references to the "body" in these verses only applicable in a sexual context? Or would his words be equally applicable to other "sins" against the body? Give an example. What does this say about the importance of one's "body" in the Christian life?

3. List some ways in which you can glorify God in your body. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you practice several of those means of glorifying God.

Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 7:1-24. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.

1. In light of these focus verses is it more likely that "it is good for a man not to touch a woman," is Paul's own teaching or a quotation of a Corinthian opinion? How would you support your answer?

2. To what degree to you think Paul attempts to be even handed toward both men and women in these focus verses? What evidence shows his evenhandedness?

3. Summarize in your own words Paul's view of sexuality in Christian marriage according to these focus verses. How does it differ from the view of sexuality in contemporary culture?

Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 7:1-24. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 7:8-16.

1. How does Paul's teaching in verse 10-11 compare with Jesus' teaching in Mark 10:2-9?

2. Summarize in your own words Paul's instructions to Christians married to unbelievers. How often have you seen an unbelieving spouse won to Christ? What additional insight comes from 1 Peter 3:1-7?

3. Write a prayer for the marriages in your church in which one partner is not a believer. Ask God to guide you in how you can best be used to help win the unbelieving spouse.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright 2013, Roger Hahn and CRI/Voice, Institute
All Rights Reserved  See Copyright and User Information Notice

Related pages