Evaluating from a False Perspective
It is well said that a little knowledge is dangerous. Some of the saints in Corinth had become arrogant as fairly new Christians, and assayed to evaluate the respective strengths and weaknesses of Paul and Apollos. This type of thinking led to comparison mentioned earlier in the epistle, dragging the names of Peter and even Jesus Himself into the discussion. The final result of all this counterproductive talk led to schisms in the body of Christ at Corinth, and the apostle Paul is working hard to put things back on track. "If any man destroys the temple of God," is his statement, in reference to the local congregation, "God will destroy him." And no one in Corinth is going to be smart enough to out-maneuver God, as it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness."
- Proper evaluation - How could an amateur really judge the work of a seasoned professional? How could a mere apprentice or novice in the church honestly evaluate the expertise of the "wise master builder" Paul? Or how could he properly assess the follow-up efforts of Apollos, who came to Corinth from Ephesus upon the recommendation of Priscilla and Aquila? "Let a man regard us in this manner," Paul instructs, backed by the Holy Spirit, "as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Corinthians 4:1). These two men were directly to be regarded as servants of Christ, and through that trust indirectly as servants of the church; thus their accountability was not to the church but to Christ. Similarly in their stewardship "of the mysteries of God," they were to answer to God in their manner of step-by-step revealing the All Wise’s secrets to the body of Christ.
- Import of stewardship - Stewardship is not a word to be thrown around to simply accomplish a visual effect. The entire responsibility for finances, projects, or people is delegated to the steward. Stewardship of, for example, 200 ounces of gold and associated investments would be a weighty responsibility. The oversight of the construction of a several million dollar building would not to be taken lightly. How about the guardianship of someone else’ minor children as a significant trust? How much more then, the "planting and watering" the crop of eternal souls in the congregation in Corinth. "In this case, moreover," is the intonation of the apostle, "it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy" (I Corinthians 4:2). Almost an understatement!
- Who will judge? - Will the church in Corinth really be able to evaluate properly the foundation that Paul laid, and the long-term effects of his work? Will the brethren truly be able to assess the positive impact of the teaching and preaching of Apollos? Regarding himself, the apostle remarked, "But to me it is a very small thing to be examined by you, or by any human court" (I Corinthians 4:3). Whatever talk there might be about Paul in the congregation, it was of no consequence to the apostle. "In fact," he noted, "I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the One who examines me is the Lord" (I Corinthians 4:4). When it is clearly understood that Paul was selected by Jesus to be an apostle to the Gentiles, that he was guided by the Holy Spirit into the locations where he preached and taught, and that he would be tried in the court of Christ regarding the quality of his work, then it is easy to understand why it would be "a small thing" to be questioned about his efforts by any sniveling brethren in the Corinthian congregation.
Paul, the wise master builder, laid the proper foundation of Christ for the church in Corinth. He was the one who was concerned about the quality of the work of those who followed him, and who was exhibiting concern over the Greek philosophy being subtly introduced into the teaching of the congregation. He could evaluate properly; apparently others were not yet capable.
No Premature Judgment
When Samuel the prophet interviewed the oldest son of Jesse for the position of king in Israel, he thought to himself, "Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him." But the prophet was mistaken. "God sees not as man sees," came the word of the All Knowing, "for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (I Samuel 16:6,7). "The word of God," says another scripture, "is living and active and sharper than a two edged sword … and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Saints, however, need to be cautious and conservative in their evaluations of mankind, especially of fellow saints, because the picture they have of their brethren may not be totally complete.
- Not so fast - The novice builder is not going to be able to properly evaluate the work and effectiveness of a master. The typical saint in Corinth is not going to be able to truly assess the work of either Apollos or Paul, or fully to comprehend their respective values to the general body of Christ. "Therefore," avers the apostle, "do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts" (I Corinthians 4:5). Withhold final judgment until Jesus pronounces His reward or sentencing at the great white throne in connection with His second coming!
- The Lord knows - The Lord knew the motives of Paul and Apollos. He knew what conversations they had behind closed doors; he knew what their plans were for the congregation in Corinth. But the blade of His sword cuts two ways: He also knows the motives of the membership and the leaders of the factions which have arisen in the congregation. He knows what conversations they have had behind closed doors, and He knows what their plans are for the congregation. And at His coming He will "bring to light" those things which the plotters thought were hidden in the darkness, and He will "disclose the motives" of their hearts. The brethren, then, and especially the leaders of the schisms, would be very wise indeed not to pass judgment upon Paul or Apollos, or to plant the seeds of such judgment in the minds of their fellow brethren.
- Reward from the Lord - "The Lord," adverted the apostle Paul, is "the righteous judge" (II Timothy 4:8). He will honor the faithful, and He will cast the unworthy into the lake of fire. The faithful brethren in Corinth’s congregation were therefore to let the Lord be the final judge, to wait for His coming, "and then each man’s praise will come to Him from God." That honor and that praise from the Lord Jesus Himself will be worth everything a faithful saint has to suffer during the years of his earthly sojourn. The accolades of the host of heaven will be poured out for the successful Christian when the Lord Jesus utters His words, "Well done, good and faithful slave" (Matthew 25:21).
What the apostle is working on here in this issue of "not passing judgment before the time" is to break down the walls of division that had arisen in the various segments of the congregation. The leading schismatics had effectively used the names of Paul, Apollos, Cephas [Peter], and Christ for their own purposes, and had used differences in the personalities and styles of these high profile individuals to split the congregation into different factions. By helping the brethren see that they were not capable of making a proper evaluation on Paul and Apollos, then the tools the schismatics were using to cause division would be effectively rendered useless.
The scripture teaches about God and His good angels, about Satan and his bad angels, and about good and evil men. And God wants His saints to learn the lessons about all three of these major categories very well!
Elimination of Arrogance
Greed, envy, pride, and arrogance are hard to prove. Because they are more in the realm of character issues than just the execution of a single act or series of acts, it can be difficult to lay the specifics before the miscreant and say, "See, this clearly establishes envy [for example] on your part." But these character issues are real, nonetheless, and they are extremely destructive to the wellbeing of God’s people as well as eternally destructive to the individual who still possesses these darkened character qualities. There seem to be "body language" indicators, however, which are tell-tale signs of these character deficiencies. "Grasping greediness" is an expression that is in our spoken terminology, and paints a clear picture of the body language of one so possessed. "Green with envy" is another expression, as well as "swell with pride." We can almost see the "green" in the corners of those slitted eyes of envy, and we can see the chest swell with false pride over aggrandized accomplishments or position. When it comes to arrogance, the scripture uses an interesting expression that the New American Standard Bible translators render arrogance and that expression is "puffed up." There is a clear visual image of the character issue, of the individual’s inflating his self-importance so that it is far larger in his mind and in his projection than it is in fact. The apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit will deal with this issue several times in this letter to the Corinthian brethren.
- Paul’s using himself and Apollos - People can be defensive about their character flaws, and when that character flaw is being exposed, their ability to listen often shuts down. So the apostle, here, having to deal with the issue of their being puffed up, approaches the subject indirectly. "Now these things, brethren," he notes, "I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes…" (I Corinthians 4:6). "What then is Apollos?" he had asked earlier. "And what is Paul?" The answer to those questions is what he wants to get at for the sake of the Corinthian brethren: "Servants through whom you believed." If the apostle Paul and the mighty-in-the-scriptures Apollos were merely servants, what puffed up, arrogant claim could any of these other brethren make?
- Lesson to learn - Paul remarks that his previous paragraphs were initially directed at Apollos and himself, so that the application of the points could be more easily absorbed by the brethren, "that in us," he asseverated, "you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against another." The apostle wants their assessment of themselves to be based on the information which came from the Holy Spirit, and written down by him, rather than on Greek philosophy or some other man-made source. Much like a dominant child who, in the game he and others are playing, makes up the rules as he goes and these rules naturally benefit him, those who would use man-made ways of assessment would naturally choose the standards which would benefit them. By using an artificial set of standards to elevate Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or even Christ, they could position themselves as dominant, and position the participants in their schism as superior.
The goal of God was to help the brethren understand that each saint was first of all to be a servant. Out of their gratitude to Christ for saving them, they were to serve God and serve each other. The apostle had reiterated, in his and Apollos’ case as examples, "Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ." If the individual Christian in Corinth were to approach his work in the church from the perspective of being a willing servant, there would be none of these schisms. The splintering the body resulted from people wanting visible positions rather than simply doing the work that needed to be done.
Kings Without Us?
The American performer Frank Sinatra crooned a famous song, "I Did It my Way." Designed to be sung in upscale lounges where the "successful" loitered over their martinis, the tune gloried in the businessman or politician who climbed to the top, and — in his mind — did it all on his own. This is a tendency of mankind as a whole, to neglect their perception of the Father’s input. The man can clear the land and plant the crop, but unless God makes the seed sprout, there will be no harvest. In all of the activities of the human race, and especially within the church of the living God, each individual must do his part but also recognize that God’s part is far greater.
- Forgetting God - Factions had developed inside the congregation at Corinth, and, in order for that to have happened, the brethren had to forget the existence of God and the knowledge that He had been a participant in each conversation. So while strategy sessions occurred behind closed doors, and secret meetings took place in downtown businesses owned by the brethren, the schismatic saints in Corinth seemed unaware that the All Knowing isn’t barred by locked doors, or can’t find the location of the secret meeting. The men, then, who had orchestrated all this strife rode the waves of the resulting confusion to positions of high visibility and major influence. For those who were thusly singing, "I Did It my Way," the apostle Paul has some questions. "For who regards you as superior?" was his first query. "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?" (I Corinthians 4:7). They had forgotten God (other than giving lip-service to His name), and were conducting themselves as if they were climbing the corporate ladder.
- Some sarcasm - All the literary devices used by the human race in communicating are also used in the Bible. There are similes and metaphors; personification is used, as well as parables and hyperbole. Irony shows up occasionally, and, yes — sarcasm. "You are already filled," is the apostle’s sarcastic comment to these novices. These saints were still on milk rather than on meat, and they were claiming to be filled? "You have already become rich," he adds. They were too blinded by position-jockeying to recognize how spiritually poor they were. "You have become kings without us." They forged ahead, and jumped over the apostles to become no less than kings! Their arrogance was showing. "I would indeed that you had become kings," comments Paul, "so that we [the apostles] also might reign with you. For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death" (I Corinthians 4:8,9). If these arrogant leaders of factions, receiving that adulation of the lesser members of the congregation, had become kings, then of course the apostles could reign with them. As it was, the specially chosen apostles of Jesus Christ were, from the world’s standards, last of all, and even were condemned to die. So what standards were being used in the church at Corinth to evaluate their rising leadership — the world’s, or God’s?
The spiritual condition of the church at Corinth was in jeopardy. Because of their fleshly-mindedness, they were being split into factions, and the leaders of those factions were taking the congregation in the wrong direction. The apostle Paul, in thus resorting to sarcasm, is doing everything he can to right the listing congregation. In his cutting remarks, he shreds the claims of those wanting to lead "according to the wisdom of this age."
Men like the apostles were the true leaders. In following in the footsteps of Christ, they put themselves last, and were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. What a contrast between them and these pretenders who moved up the ladder of influence by their ability to play politics!
Fools for Christs Sake
The apostles of Jesus Christ were truly unique men. Whether they were chosen directly by the Lord during His sojourn on earth, or later in the case of Paul, they were representative of a cross section of the Jewish people as whole, and ultimately of the human race in general. Commoners they were, rather than earthly kings, and therefore fitted for the rigors that were to be theirs in living, traveling, teaching, and dying for Jesus. Tested they were, as well; in remarks directed to the eleven apostles who would remain faithful after Judas’ defection, the Lord stated: "You are those who have stood by Me in My trials" (Luke 22:28). They would need to stand by the Lord again and again.
- Apostles last of all - Man-made religions are set up so that the leaders of that religion benefit in some sort of earthly way. And why wouldn’t they? Since they are not really trusting in the only true God and in Jesus Christ whom He sent, they have no eternal hope. Therefore, those religious leaders have to receive wealth, special privileges, extra wives, adulation or magnification, or some other perk that appeals to them. So when God set up Christianity, the leaders — the apostles — were basically stripped of all earthly reward so that it might be clear that the reason they were committed to their belief system was because it was true. "For, I think," affirms Paul, "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" (I Corinthians 4:9). Instead of being exalted, they were "last of all"; when they became respected in the local congregations in the area they were working, it was time for them to move on. They were to be persecuted and hated in the world; James had already been put to death with the sword at the time Paul writes, and most of the others would be brutally executed, as "men condemned to death." While records of the apostles other than Paul are a little sketchy, it is easy to draw the conclusion that they were beaten, scourged, jailed, tortured, and in other ways made "a spectacle to the world." The reactions of mankind ranged from joy over the persecution and deaths of the apostles, to anguish and horror at the way they were treated. And the angels watched the spectacle, longing to look into the mysteries connected with God’s redemption of man, and seeing the manifold wisdom of God being made known through the church that was being put in motion by these men.
- The "fools" - The apostles were exhibited as last of all; the would-be leaders of the congregation in Corinth were chasing after comfortable positions of visibility and adulation. "We are fools for Christ’s sake," was the apostle’s exposè, "but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor" (I Corinthians 4:10). The apostles were absolute fools; with just a little bit of compromise on their doctrine, they wouldn’t have had to suffer and die. These "prudent" leaders of schisms in Corinth knew just how much Greek philosophy to incorporate into their teaching in order to be acceptable to the world around them. The apostles were "weak" in that they depended on the teachings of Jesus to transform the brethren; the schismatics formed power coalitions in the back rooms in order to "strongly" take control of the congregation. The apostles were looked down on as "fringe fanatics" and therefore "without honor" in the first century world; the leaders of Corinth’s factions had positioned themselves as "distinguished" members of the community, and therefore to be looked up to inside the congregation.
Those with spiritual eyes could see that the apostles were anything but "fools." They were willing to give all of themselves in order to, along with the New Testament prophets, lay the foundation of the church of the living God. Today’s Christians are beneficiaries of the "foolish" legacy of the apostles, and we give thanks to the Lord for these men of sacrifice.
Treatment of the Apostles
In Old Testament times, God generally blessed His people with earthly blessings. Abraham was blessed by God with riches, and refused to take any spoils of Sodom and Gomorrah lest, as the patriarch put it, the king of Sodom should say, "I have made you rich" (Genesis 14:23). Abraham wanted to be sure that God received the credit, so that the message was clear: God blessed His physical people with physical blessings. To Israel, the Lord promised — if they would keep all His commandments — "that He shall set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, for fame, and honor, and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken" (Deuteronomy 26:19). Visible, physical blessings for a visible, physical people!
But it is different for the people of the new covenant, the children of faith. They are promised only to be minimally provided for, as Paul reminded Timothy, "And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (I Timothy 6:8). To the Jewish Christians at Ephesus, the apostle Paul wrote, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3). These spiritual blessings are extended also the Gentile Christians; note then that the saints are promised spiritual blessings under the terms of the new covenant rather than physical blessings. The real blessings for the saints are such things as forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the great peace that surpasses comprehension. These are invisible. Invisible, spiritual blessings for an invisible (in a sense), spiritual people!
- A look at the apostles - The apostles were to be blessed the maximum in the spiritual realm. "Truly I say to you," Jesus commented to those apostles, "that — you who have followed Me — in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28). But in the material realm, the blessed state of the apostles would not be seen. "God has exhibited us apostles last of all," Paul noted. "To this present hour," he affirmed, "we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our hands" (I Corinthians 4:11,12). These men, commended by none other than Jesus Christ, were certainly not examples of the "health, wealth, and happiness" fake gospel.
- The apostles’ response - How then did the apostles respond to their privations? How did they exhibit the character of Christ in a hostile and foreign world? "When we are reviled," adverted the apostle Paul, "we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate …" (I Corinthians 4:12,13). These are powerful spiritual responses to the vicissitudes the world has to offer (just try it!). To bless when being "cussed out"; to endure and endure and endure persecution with a great attitude; to try to conciliate when someone is spreading slander all over — these responses require great restraint, great love, and great fortitude and forward focus of character.
When James and John, during the years of Jesus’ earthly sojourn, asked to sit at His right and left hands in the kingdom, the Lord commented, "You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" (Matthew 20:22). Their blithe rejoinder was that they were able. Jesus then let them know, "My cup you shall drink" (Matthew 20:23). As Jesus drank the cup of suffering in sacrificing Himself for the rescue of mankind, so the apostles would drink of that same cup in doing their part likewise to rescue mankind through the gospel. "We have become as the scum of the world," observed Paul, "the dregs of all things, even until now." But they were the most blessed of men, spiritually!
The battle for the souls and the future of the congregation at Corinth was intense. Certain people were splitting the congregation up into competing factions to benefit their own egos; Greek philosophy or wisdom was being subtly introduced into the teaching of the congregation; there was blatant immorality that was tolerated; and they were drifting from the practices established by Paul in starting the church. To correct these problems, the apostle has to lay the groundwork re-establishing his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He has pointed out that the congregation was to regard him and Apollos as "stewards of the mysteries of God," and therefore accountable to God for their teaching. He even goes to the lengths of pointing out the privations that he and the other apostles have suffered for the sake of the gospel, contrasting that to the comparative well-being of the safely ensconced comfort of the leaders of the factions in Corinth. "We have become as the scum of the world," states Paul of himself and the other apostles, "the dregs of all things, even until now." Would the congregation then listen to his appeal?
- Admonishment - In listing the sacrifices he made for the gospel, the apostle is not trying to exalt himself and put down the brethren in Corinth. "I do not write these things to shame you," he averred, "but to admonish you as my beloved children" (I Corinthians 4:14). The privations he had checked off were his credentials in establishing that his advice and wisdom were not motivated by any personal gain. When "jealousy and selfish ambition" are present, the advice and direction given are perverted. The apostles were hungry, thirsty, reviled, and persecuted; this is how God established to the satisfaction of any serious questioner that their only motives in preaching the gospel had to do with the truthfulness of the testimony concerning Jesus Christ and the salvation of the hearers’ souls. Thus Paul could point out that his desire was to admonish the brethren rather than shame them.
- Reminder of foundation - If any Christian seriously contemplates what his eternity would be like without the redemption of Christ, he is truly grateful for those who brought the gospel to him. He recognizes that the gap between heaven and hell is almost incomprehensible. Therefore he appreciates the individual who sacrificed his time, energy, and money to bring the gospel to him. On this basis Paul makes his appeal to the congregation: "For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ," he posits, "yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel" (I Corinthians 4:15). Properly understood, the relationship between a father and his children is a tender one, but one which includes measures of instruction coming from the dad to his offspring; no tutor could match that. He appeals to the fact that he founded the congregation in order to get them to listen to what he has to say because he knows their eternity is at stake.
- Exhortation - Having set the stage, the apostle makes his appeal: "I exhort you therefore," he says in elevated tones, "be imitators of me" (I Corinthians 4:16). His motives were pure, his doctrine was sound, his love for them was sincere, and his conduct exemplary. His desire was for them to come up to his level in all these areas. But they need more than just this letter. "For this reason," the apostle informs them, "I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church" (I Timothy 4:17). Timothy will accomplish the all important follow up!
The forces of darkness were working on many fronts to subvert the work of Paul and Apollos in Corinth. Paul, aware that the eternities of the brethren was at stake, was — under inspiration of the Holy Spirit — making his appeal in written form, and sending Timothy to follow up the exhortations in this epistle. Modern saints must keep in mind the severity of the conflict and the intensity of the battle for their own souls.
Everywhere in Every Church
In the free religious atmosphere which resulted from the 1787 Constitution of these United States, truth and confusion both abounded. Without the sword of the state hanging over the heads of those who would pursue truth, it was possible to peel back the veneer of tradition that had covered the sound doctrines and practices of the New Testament church. At the same time, the opportunity for charlatans abounded, and the number of denominations exploded into the thousands. This, of course, was in contravention of the prayer of Jesus lifted to heaven on the west bank of the Kidron, that His disciples might all be "one." The Lord had stated that He would build what He called "My church" upon the bedrock truth that He was the Christ, the son of the living God. He did build it from Acts chapter two onward, and it is our responsibility to cut through the confusion and get back to that one church that Jesus started.
- The principle of Paul - The church in Corinth started down the same route of splintering and confusion that in modern times has resulted in the plethora of denominations. Since Paul could not readily be on the scene in Corinth, he explained that he was sending Timothy to correct the problems and practices in the congregation. Timothy, the apostle explained, "is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord." The point of Timothy’s commendation before the church was that Timothy would have exactly the same teachings and ways of doing things that Paul would have; his presence would just the same as if Paul himself were to come. "And he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ," asseverated the apostle, "just as I teach everywhere in every church." This is hugely significant for the modern student of the scriptures because he can peruse any of Paul’s epistles and the record of the book of Acts to see what examples of doctrine and procedure the apostle inculcated. What was taught and practiced in Corinth was what was taught and practiced in Troas, for example, and these can be put together to give a picture of the congregations begun by Paul.
- The principle of the apostles - In the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus informed the eleven apostles that stood with Him at the moment, "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). This Spirit of truth came upon the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, and what was revealed through them was known as "the apostles’ doctrine" or "the apostles’ teaching." Hence it was one body of doctrine, and the practices and teachings of the eleven plus Matthias were universally the same. Paul, having come upon the scene later, explained, "For I would have you know, brethren," stated he to the churches in Galatia, "that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11,12). The test of his teaching came sometime later. In Acts chapter fifteen a meeting in Jerusalem is recorded wherein Paul and Barnabas came from Antioch of Syria to Jerusalem to discuss whether the circumcision of the Gentile Christians was necessary. Paul discusses some of that meeting in his epistle to the Galatians. He knew that his teaching was correct because he had received it by revelation; he was not certain whether the others — such as Peter and John — was going to be correct. But the result was that "James [elder in the church in Jerusalem] and Cephas and John … gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9). The point was that all the apostles — Paul and the twelve — all preached the same doctrine and encouraged the same practices.
The early church, under the tutelage of the apostles, universally had the same doctrine and the same basic practices. It is possible for us today to become like that first century church if we sincerely and honestly reason correctly from the scriptures and implement those teachings in our congregations.
The Power of Paul
"When the cat’s away, the mice will play," is the old proverb. When Paul left Corinth, and Apollos came and went, then the "mice" of the membership in the congregation began to show what they wanted to do when they "played." And what they wanted to do was neither nice nor moral. Hence they were covering their tracks, setting their defenses, and positioning unspiritual leadership. As part of their strategy, they spread the rumor that Paul was not coming back. This would leave them room to continue to carry out their lawless activities, and to continue their moral and doctrinal degradation of the congregation at Corinth.
- Paul will return - The apostle Paul had opened this epistle with the thought that the grace of God had supplied the congregation with everything it needed to function in Paul’s absence. "In everything," he had stated, "you were enriched in all speech and all knowledge … so that you are not lacking in any gift" (I Corinthians 1:5,7). The moral excellence and love necessary to use the gifts properly was apparently lacking, so it was going to be incumbent upon Paul to return. "Now some have become arrogant," he noted, "as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills …" (I Corinthians 4:18,19). The apostle was always conscious that, while men may plan their ways, it is the Lord who directs their steps. His plan was definitely to come to Corinth soon, but experience and the Spirit had taught him that he needed to give God room in his plans.
- Finding out the power - The "big talkers" are always around. They bluster about past accomplishments, and blow about what they are going to do in the future. These were called "arrogant" by the Holy Spirit, and in Paul’s absence they were making their brags. Paul was ready to call their bluff, stating, "I will come to you soon … and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power." The face-to-face confrontation between Paul and his antagonists would tell the story quickly as to who was on target with God’s teaching and those who were twisting the teaching for personal benefit.
- The kingdom of God - Another name for the kingdom of God is the church. The church, Biblically speaking, is not a physical building at all, but is spiritual in nature, consisting of all those who have obeyed the gospel. Because the kingdom is spiritual, none of its characteristics are particularly noticeable in the physical realm. But their lack of notice does not render them nonexistent; Jesus, the spiritual King, was clearly the One in control in the presence of the physical power of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The apostle thus emphasizes this point to the Corinthian brethren: "For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power" (I Corinthians 4:20).
- Their choice - Paul, when he comes, is coming with the backing of God; his opposition would be facing him with guilty consciences and lame excuses. "What do you desire?" the apostle then asked. "Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and spirit of gentleness?" (I Corinthians 1:21). They could face the spiritual rod of Paul’s discipline, or they could repent before he arrived and be accepted with the warmth and gentleness of God’s love.
The wording of this epistle — though carefully and positively addressed to the saints at Corinth — indicates how dire their spiritual situation was. There was a spiritual and doctrinal crisis with major implications, so serious that the apostle Paul was willing to meet them on a "power against power" basis if necessary. He was confident in Christ, because he knew that he was backed by the Holy Spirit, that he would win in such a confrontation. But he would rather that they would repent so that he could come to share with them on positive footing. Either way, he would come, as soon as the Lord wills!