I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. – 1 Corinthians 4:6-13 ESV
While some may have preferred the rhetoric of Apollos over that of Paul, there is little doubt that Paul had a way with words. He could craft a sentence with the best of them, choosing his words carefully and cleverly, to see that his point was clearly received. He was adept at using sarcasm if he deemed it necessary to get his message across. And in this passage, he wield his words like a sword to cut his audience down to size, because they had a formidable pride problem. Multiple times in this letter, he uses the Greek word, φυσιόω (physioō), which means “to be puffed up, to bear one’s self loftily, be proud” (“G5448 – physioō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). The problem within the church in Corinth wasn’t just that they were taking sides by preferring one spiritual leader over another, it was that their motivation was based on pride. It was an inherent desire to see themselves as somehow better or spiritually superior to one another. The very moment they chose to follow a particular leader, deeming him somehow better than the other, they were guilty of judging one another. If a fellow member of the church didn’t side with them in their choice of spiritual leader, they would deem him as less enlightened. We already know that their factionalism was causing quarrels within the church. So Paul boldly and bluntly confronts their pride problem.
Paul says, with tongue planted firmly in his cheek, “You think you already have everything you need. You think you are already rich. You have begun to reign in God’s kingdom without us!” (1 Corinthians 4:8 NLT). They were acting as if they had already arrived. They had nothing more to learn. Nothing to gain. Rather than acting as humble servants and stewards, they were pridefully posturing themselves as spiritually superior over their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s words remind me of those spoken by Jesus against the church in Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17 ESV). Jesus went on to tell them, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Revelation 3:18 ESV). Like the church in Corinth, they had a pride problem as well
Paul goes on to contrast the attitude of the Corinthians with that of the men who had been ministering the gospel to them.
Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ!
We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed.
Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm.
We are often beaten and have no home.
We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living.
We bless those who curse us.
We are patient with those who abuse us.
We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 NLT
In a way, the Corinthians were living as if their future reward was to be experienced in this life. They were acting as if they had already arrived spiritually. They saw themselves as wise and powerful. They put a high value in honor and esteem. Material things were important to them. And yet Paul paints a very different picture of what the life of a believer should look like. Our time on this earth should be marked by humility, service, and even suffering, as we follow Christ. Our relationship with Christ will lead to us being despised, rejected, and ridiculed. We will be misunderstood and misrepresented. Paul displays a high degree of transparency when he states, “ I sometimes think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor’s parade, condemned to die. We have become a spectacle to the entire world—to people and angels alike” (1 Corinthians 4:9 NLT). He didn’t seen himself at the head of the parade, marching in triumph and being lauded as a victorious general, but as a captive prisoner, being dragged in chains and humiliation before the cheers and jeers of the enemy.
Following Christ is not about pride and prominence. It should not lead to arrogance and a sense of having arrived. Our journey to heaven will be marked by pain and suffering, even loss. Like Jesus, our glorification must be preceded by humiliation. Suffering must come before glory. But the Corinthians had chosen to reverse the order. They wanted to lead the parade. They desired to be recognized and rewarded now, not later. They were choosing honor over humility, present recognition over future reward, the praise of men over the praise of God. Which brings us back to the words of Jesus spoken against the church in Laodicea:
“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” – Revelation 3:15-16 NLT
Their love for God was lukewarm. Their attitude toward their call as followers of Christ was apathetic. Like the Corinthian believers, they had become dangerously satisfied with who they were and how far they had come. But Paul, like Jesus, was not willing to allow them to remain in a state of spiritual complacency marked by misplaced pride. He desired more for them. He demanded more of them. Because God was not done with them.