Thursday 13 January 2011

When leaders look like losers (1 Corinthians 4)

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.
1 Corinthians 4:9

“Well I think it is an absolutely magnificent achievement. I mean, to win the Ashes is one thing, but to win in Australia, and actually to do so, so comprehensively, is something the whole country can be proud of.”

Prime Minister David Cameron was glowing with praise for the English cricket team’s victory at the final Ashes Test in Sydney. In an interview with the BBC this morning, he added, “It made you very proud to be English.”

In case you’re like me, and you’re not at all familiar with cricket, Wikipedia explains that the Ashes is “a… cricket series played between England and Australia. It is the most celebrated rivalry in international cricket.” In other words, it’s a really big deal.

The BBC website has “Ashes triumph” splashed across its front page, alongside video clips, photos of the players in action, together with blow-by-blow news accounts of the “thrashing of Australia”.

Conversely, the headlines look very different in the land down under. “Awful Aussies” reads the report by the Sydney’s Herald Sun. The Daily Telegraph’s review has “Aussie BBQ: Cooked in our own backyard” with a reader’s poll rating the current Australian team “the worst to lose a… series on home soil.”

Peter Roebuck of the Sydney Morning Herald writes, "Despair has descended upon Australian cricket. Embarrassment has become an acquaintance. Humiliation has introduced itself. Calamity has piled upon calamity."

Winning is infectious. When you’re backing the winning team, you feel like a winner yourself. In the same interview, David Cameron contrasts the difficulties faced in the past year with the remarkable feeling of waking up to the news of the England team’s victory. That’s an amazing – and a true – sentiment. A major accomplishment of just a few individuals can so affect the attitude of an entire nation.

Yet the same can be said of losing. The shame and humiliation of defeat is echoed throughout Australia’s news channels and print media. There is disappointment, even hostile anger, as well as deep resentment expressed by fans towards the players and officials.

So much passion. So much emotion. Over a game of cricket!

But it isn’t just a game. As far as the die-hard Ashes fan is concerned, the two teams assembled on that pitch represent two nations locked in battle; Australia versus England in a war with the pride and honour of their countrymen at stake. The victors are crowned with praise and their feats recorded for all time in the history books. The losers hide their faces in shame and utter humiliation.

Shame and humiliation is the theme of the verse taken from 1 Corinthians 4. Yet notice: it is God who has caused this shame to be put on display. Furthermore, it is the shame of God’s servants: that of Paul and the apostles.

Paul writes…

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.
1 Corinthians 4:9

The Corinthian church was looking for winners. But when they looked at Paul, all they saw was a big-time loser. They wanted a leader who looked the part – wise, learned, articulate, charismatic and gifted. Yet Paul goes on to describe himself as foolish and weak (verse 10), hungry and homeless (verse 11), cursed and oppressed (verse 12). He even sums up his position calling himself the scumbag and rubbish of the world (verse 13)!

But the amazing thing is that Paul says all this is God’s doing. God “exhibited” the apostles and made them a “spectacle” for the entire universe to see – “to the world, to angels and to men” (verse 9). Near the end of the chapter, Paul will go on to urge the Corinthians to imitate him (verse 16)!

So today, as we look at 1 Corinthians 4, I invite you to be a fool. (Or if you like, an Australian!) To hang your heads in shame and take upon yourself the weight of scorn. For the world is looking for leaders who are winners. But the gospel calls for sinners in need of a Saviour.

Jesus Christ came in meekness and humility and died on the cross in shame. That in itself ought to transform our perception of greatness for the cross is the greatest display of God’s glory. Through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquered death (1 Corinthian 15:54), defeated sin (Romans 6:10), triumphed over evil (Colossians 2:15) and displayed the supreme righteousness of God to justify sinners by grace through faith (Romans 3:24-26). The highest degree of God’s love, grace, power, glory and righteousness is seen through the humble, submissive, sacrificial, obedient, determined, violent death of his Son on the cross!

Few see it that way. They look at the cross and all they see is foolishness. Shame. Weakness. Failure. I can almost understand why Muslims find the cross so insulting towards God. It is! How can Christians confess to worship Almighty God yet claim that this man who was tortured by Romans guards, hung naked on the cross, jeered and spit on by the crowds and suffocated to death is the very same Creator and Sustainer of the universe?

Yet that is the claim of the bible (Colossian 1:15-20). And the question we should be asking God is: why do it this way? Why does God choose the cross: a symbol of shame, weakness, oppression and pain to display the supreme weight of his glory and highest degree of his grace?

I think the apostle Paul would have answered with the words of 1 Corinthians Chapter 1, verse 29:

So that no one may boast before him.
1 Corinthians 1:29

The Corinthian Christians had much to boast about. There is every indication in this letter that this was a truly gifted church – or, if you like – a truly charismatic church. Here was a church blessed with visible and varied signs of God’s grace. Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul thanks God for enriching the Corinthian church with all manner of gifts – particularly gifts of speech and knowledge (1:5). He goes so far as to say, “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift (charismati) as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1:7).

There is nothing wrong with the gifts. Paul thanks God for the gifts as evidences of God’s grace. But the Corinthians saw things differently. They boasted in the gifts for they were boasting in themselves. But they did not boast in God. That is the charge in Chapter 4 verse 7.

For who makes you different from anyone else?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
1 Corinthians 4:7

I think this verse helps summarise the problems that Paul was addressing in Chapter 4. Paul poses three questions to the church in Corinth that deal with three important issues that still challenge the church today: (1) assessment, (2) acknowledgment and (3) attitude.

1. Assessment

First: assessment. Literally the first question reads: “For who distinguishes you?” Diakrinei which means to discern a difference or to make a distinction, has overtones of making a judgement call (anakrino = “to examine”; krino = “to judge”). Judgement is a major theme running through the entire chapter. The church in Corinth was making judgements about Paul – whether he was a worthy leader compared to the philosophers and orators of their day; compared to other apostles like Peter and Apollos; compared to themselves even.

Some in the church were branding themselves into camps and splitting themselves into factions. So there was Camp Paul, Camp Apollos, Camp Cephas and even Camp Christ (1:12). Often this becomes an illustration not to be too enamoured with big Christian personalities. Downloading podcasts by Mark Driscoll, reading books by John Piper or attending a big conference by Francis Chan.

While I do agree that Paul does put each in his place in light of God’s supreme role in redemption (“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” – 3:6) and hence we should not make too much of any one person or ministry, I also marvel at Paul’s ability to incorporate all these blessings to paint the bigger picture of God’s plan and purpose.

So let no one boast in men.
For all things are yours,
whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
or the world or life or death or the present or the future—
all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
1 Corinthians 3:21

Paul doesn’t just say “None of these belong to you – you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it! You might have listened to every John Piper sermon, but John Piper’s never heard of you!”

Instead he says everything is yours. Paul, Apollos, Cephas – all these people you take pride in and are so taken by. But there so, so much more! Life and death; the present the future - All are yours!

But here’s the kicker. You are Christ’s. This is not a promise to everyone. It is God’s inheritance for all who are in Christ – for all who belong to Jesus.

And Christ is God’s! Christians learn submission from a Saviour who submits himself to his heavenly Father. It’s talking again about the cross. In other words, all these blessings come through the obedience of Christ to his Father displayed through the cross. Jesus paid for your salvation, but also all the blessings the come through salvation – eternal life, fellowship with God, the renewed heavens and earth, the resurrected body, the indwelling of the Spirit, the growing work of sanctification in our daily walk with God – all through his death on the cross.

Now what issue is Paul dealing with again? The beginning of verse 21: Let no one boast in men.

I can understand why leaders may lovingly warn Christians of the dangers of mindlessly following personalities – that they shouldn’t compare their own pastor to Don Carson or Rick Warren. But the approach of minimising one blessing of God to maximise another can only do so much.

I say this because you don’t need to have big personalities for these big problems to surface even in a small church. The issue isn’t the giftedness of the leader or the overpowering personality of bible teacher. I doubt Paul was having a punch-up with Apollos or Peter over this.

The heart of the issue was the assessment of the individual Christians and wider church. They invested these individuals with the regard and misplaced honour they didn’t ask for or desire. Furthermore, the followers were in conflict with one another, not the leaders themselves. Even in a small church, as long as there’s more than one person in a visible role of leadership – let me assure you, this will happen. You don’t need to be charismatic, or preach like John Piper or tell jokes like Mark Driscoll. If you’re in a bible study group and two of you take turns to lead – you might be the best of pals, the closest of friends – yet others are going to compare and contrast you to one another.

That’s the heart of the issue. Assessing one person in relation to another. The Corinthians did this with their leaders. They did this with themselves.

For who makes you different from anyone else?
1 Corinthians 4:7a

When I first read this, I thought it sounded like Paul was saying, “You guys are all the same, and no-one should discriminate against one another.”

But when I looked back at the chapter as a whole, I found that the basis of this sentiment was completely off. That’s because Paul does frame his whole argument in terms of judgement – the judgement of the Lord Jesus Christ. What he is warning against is instead pre-judgement. That is, making a judgement that belongs to Jesus alone. Or making a judgement before the proper time of God’s judgement – a pre-judgement. To be clear: this doesn’t mean that God won’t judge our sins. Rather, it affirms the reality that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Also, it doesn’t mean that we’re not guilty. God will expose all the motives of hearts and all will be laid bare.

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
1 Corinthians 4:5

Now this is a very different approach to an anti-discrimination social message which says no-one has the right to judge because we’re essentially all the same. We’re all not perfect, some might say, or we’re all equally well-meaning, others will say. Either way, you don’t judge me; I won’t judge you. The basic premise being: judgement itself is bad and discriminatory.

That isn’t what Paul is saying. There is a judgement because there is a Judge of the universe. Jesus will expose the deepest motives and all hidden thoughts and agendas. And all of it will come under his judgement.

This is why Paul can pronounce clear judgement and condemnation upon sin in the very next chapter. He criticizes the entire church for not exercising their responsibility of judging sin in the midst of God’s people.

Yet at the same time, Paul can claim...

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.
In fact, I do not even judge myself.

1 Corinthians 4:3

Is the apostle displaying double-mindedness? With others he is ready to pronounce condemnation but Paul himself is off-limits?

I struggled with this quite a bit this week as this passage made me realise just how fickle my own values are. I make judgements on all sorts of things every moment of each day. What to do with my money, how to approach my work in the office, how to spend my free time. And it’s not even stuff as abstract as these. It includes things like what to have for lunch, whether to watch this or that TV show, or read my bible or surf the internet. From the big to the small decisions, we all have internal measures to help guide us in our decision-making process. For me, so much of it is based on what is familiar, what is convenient, which is cheapest, which is the fastest, what is the most profitable...

And yet when I see Paul deciding how to lead his life and ministry there is just one clear purpose, one single passion in his heart and on his mind – the revealed will of God through Jesus Christ.

Paul has one standard. It is the gospel. As a servant of God his job is to stay faithful and true to the gospel.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 4:1

By “mysteries of God”, Paul is referring to gospel revealed to him by the Spirit and through God’s wisdom in Jesus Christ (2:7, 1:30). It is faithfulness and trustworthiness to this message that Paul will required of as a servant of God and steward of the gospel.

The judgement that Paul speaks about here is therefore, God’s assessment of his servants. The Corinthians have taken it upon themselves to do something that only God ought to do. To judge and assess the servants of God – the apostles, in general and Paul in particular – by comparing them to the popular standards of the day. So, in this letter, we find them criticising his unsophisticated manner of speech (2:1). Paul simply wasn’t confident or bold (2:3); not like their debaters and philosophers (1:20).

Yet Paul submits himself to the one Judge alone – Jesus Christ, his master and lord. And this judgement is unique. It is an assessment of the faithfulness of the minister of the gospel. Notice at the end of verse 5 that it involves receiving “commendation from God”. Meaning: the outcome of this judgement may include rebuke should the servant prove unfaithful, but it also includes reward if the servant has been trustworthy.

Paul is therefore not merely refuting the judgement of the Corinthians over his authority as an apostle and ability as God’s servant. He is even refusing to accept acclaim from man. He rejects both condemnation and commendation from man. His true reward comes from God alone.

Should Paul fall short, it will be against the measure of the gospel. His job is to proclaim the gospel in its fullness with all integrity and faithfulness.

For Christians, Jesus has taken all punishment for sin upon the cross. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The judgement spoken of here is unique to Christians especially entrusted with proclaiming the gospel. It is vitally important that ministers take seriously the call to faithfulness and integrity with regards to the message of Christ. This passage, together with the illustration of the building work that is tested by fire on the final Day, is directed particularly at church leaders. How will you build? And using what materials? The foundation must be Jesus Christ (3:11).

Like Paul, leaders will always be challenged and tempted to redefine their roles and responsibilities according to the performance indicators of the world. Through accomplishment. Through acclaim. Through regard and popularity. Ministry success. Numbers. Skills and talents.

All are good. And all are godly. And all are certainly useful. But the worker of the gospel will be assessed not by the world nor by worldly standards. A day will come when Christ will call us to account for our faithfulness. Have we been trustworthy as stewards of the mysteries of God?

For Paul and for all who labour in serving the God of the bible, the words we ought to long to hear from our Master on that last day is, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23)

2. Acknowledgement

Secondly, it is acknowledgement. Paul challenges the Corinthians – and us – with the following question.

What do you have that you did not receive?
1 Corinthians 4:7b

And then Paul goes on to list an extraordinary array of blessings – riches, wisdom and honour! Yet, the irony is: these very blessings have blinded the Corinthians to their pride and ingratitude.

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!

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute.
1 Corinthians 4:8,10

One of the grandest days to be in Cambridge is graduation day. Held each year the end of June, proud parents gather at the Senate House where sons and daughters receive their degrees in all pomp and splendour. It really is quite a sight. Students dress up in formal wear and black college gowns, like a scene out of a Harry Potter movie, then process from their colleges down the streets up to this building located right in the centre of town. Inside, the master of a college sits in the middle of the hall as students approach one-by-one to kneel before him as the degree is conferred in Latin.

For me, the real action takes place just after – outside on the small patch in front of the Senate House. Hundreds of excited new graduates buzzing about congratulating one another, friends gathered to say their final goodbyes and making plans to meet up over summer, the photos with mum and dad with the hood up, the hood down, facing sideways, facing front, Great St Mary’s church in the background, next to the giant green cup... etc.

Each time I’m there, I like to just take a brief scan round the lawn – a quick look at everyone’s faces. There is joy. Lots of laughter. And pride. Oh, so much wonderful pride and love from the parents, especially. “My son, he made it!” “That’s my girl with a PhD!”

But ever so often I catch a glimpse of disappointment. An unhappy parent. A disgruntled aunt. But what really breaks my heart is seeing it in a student. Seeing pride. Not the kind that finds joy in another’s success. The kind that distances oneself from another’s circumstance.

Three or four years in Cambridge can change you. Suddenly, you’re ashamed your dad’s a taxi driver. “Why does Mum have to fuss over me, can’t she see I’m all grown up already? This is just soooo embarrassing!”

Paul says:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!
Without us you have become kings!

Paul was responsible for planting the church in Corinth. He was their father through the gospel (4:15). But now the church had turned its back on its founding pastor. From their perspective, they were simply advancing in wisdom and insight. From Paul’s point of view, these young Christians were being forgetful, ungrateful and resentful.

Yet the issue isn’t so much ingratitude as it is impatience. Already, he says, you have all you want. Already, you’ve made it! Remembering that the previous issue was pre-judgement, that is, judging before the appointed time. So here, the Corinthians have jumped the gun yet again in their expectation of blessings before the coming age.

Almost all English translations (eg. NIV and ESV) translate the phrase “without us you have become kings” – emphasizing the change in status. But the sentence could just as rightly be rendered, “You have begun to rule” (ebasiluesate). Taken together, these blessings constitute the anticipated fulfilment of the coming Kingdom of God – riches and rule, wisdom and honour.

I remember my pastor back in Singapore saying that the biggest difference between expectation and reality is disappointment. When someone lives with unreal expectations and is suddenly confronted with stark reality – the bigger his or her expectations, the bigger the disappointment he or she faces in life.

As Christians this side of the cross, we live in an overlap between two ages – the beginning of one and the end of another.

It is the beginning of God’s reign. John the Baptist announced the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, proclaiming “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” It is just round the corner. Jesus begins his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading the words of Isaiah the prophet, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18,21). Because of God’s power displayed at the cross and resurrection of Jesus, Paul himself writes that Christians are seated with Christ “at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority” (Ephesians 1:21). This new beginning is the breaking in of a new age of blessing and renewal under the reign of Christ establishing the rule of God.

Yet at the same time, the bible speaks candidly of the end of this age. These are the “last days” (Acts 2:17; see also the “last hour” in 1 John 2:18). It is an age marked by both salvation and suffering; triumph and trials. Jesus says, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:21-22)”. Do you hear these words? He who stands firm will be saved. Salvation is framed not simply as deliverance from suffering, but perseverance through suffering and faithfulness in spite of suffering.

The bible holds a tension between the already and the not yet. And the cord that holds these two truths together is hope. Many equate hope with wishful thinking. Yet hope, for Paul, is grounded in the certain theological and historical truth of Christ’s justifying work on the cross and borne out of endurance, patience and perseverance. Hope enables Christians to long for Christ’s appearing, yet rejoice in the face of suffering through the ministering work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Christians who do not learn to hope well get disappointed often and devastated easily. Paul says “hope does not put us to shame (ESV)”. The NIV says this “hope does not disappoint us”. It doesn’t let us down.

Such is the case with the prosperity gospel, which really isn’t a gospel at all. It simply isn’t good news. It promises wealth, health and happiness, which are fantastic and fabulous; but fails to recognise their fulfilment as future blessings of the coming age while at the very same time, ignores the reality of suffering in this age. The prosperity gospel lets us down. It produces wimpy Christians who know nothing of enduring faith and sovereign grace (Romans 5:1, 21).

But, worst of all? The prosperity gospel denies God where it denies suffering. Chapter 4 verse 9 makes absolutely no sense to the gospel of wealth and health and happiness alone.

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.
1 Corinthians 4:9

Paul doesn’t just describe suffering. He gives a reason for it. “For I think,” Paul says, that God did this. God means for our hardship and humility to be put up on display for all to see.

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted (knocked about) and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands.
1 Corinthians 4:11-12

This is ongoing, continual and ever-present suffering. “To the present hour,” Paul writes, we encounter all these hardships – hunger, poverty, abuse, homelessness. The Corinthians on the other hand are living the good life. Or are they?

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak, but you are strong.
You are held in honour, but we in disrepute.

1 Corinthians 4:10

Does this mean Christians should feel guilty if they are well-off? That believers should shun blessing? The opposite of the prosperity gospel is the equally misguided poverty gospel that says the true Christian life is the miserable life; the only godly life is a poor life. But poverty theology is just another form of false pride. It glories not in the sufferings of the cross but in its own self-pity. Poverty theology preaches the cross as tragedy but not as treasure.

No, Paul isn’t advocating another form of poverty theology. Far from it. He even expresses a longing that all promises of God’s kingdom had already reached its fulfilment in terms of spiritual and material blessing.

And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!
1 Corinthians 4:8b

The misapplication of these verses can be easily avoided by clearly identifying who Paul is talking about. Who are the “we” described here? Who is Paul identifying with?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
1 Corinthians 4:1

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers...
1 Corinthians 4:6

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all...
1 Corinthians 4:9

Paul is obviously talking about the apostles – the leaders of the church. As leaders, God has so ordained their lives and ministry that they not only display faithfulness in preaching Christ, but also integrity in identifying with Christ in their response to suffering.

And we labour, 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 4:12-13

For Paul and the apostles, suffering is the very context for their service. They bless a world which responds with curses. As they are oppressed they patiently endure. Words of insult are exchanged with words of kindness. “We entreat,” says Paul, meaning he is pleading with his hearers to turn to God in repentance.

Yet the insults in this case are not coming from the world. They are coming from within the church. Hence the labour he talks about at the beginning of verse 12 is the work he is doing in service of the church with his “own hands”. It is an indication of Paul’s decision to support his own gospel ministry, though it benefits these Christian believers, refusing support from the church though he deserves it. He expands on this later in Chapter 9.

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
1 Corinthians 9:12

His goal and final reward is the gospel. And he willing sets aside other treasures so that the true treasure of God’s salvation can be seen for what it is: valuable, precious and yet, free. This is the bible’s theology of grace. Unlike prosperity theology, grace is able to celebrate in God’s blessing even in want. Unlike poverty theology, grace speaks of God’s abundant and overflowing blessing that comes through the cross. Grace means we do not deserve God’s mercy and goodness, yet he lavishes his forgiveness and love on sinners at the great cost of his Son.

The apostles are demonstrating grace. Faced with suffering and rejection, they respond in love with patience. This is what makes the gospel good news. Christians are saved purely through God’s grace in freely giving us his Son, Jesus on the cross.

Yet we must not miss how grace is most powerfully displayed. Paul wants the Corinthians to acknowledge the blessing of God. “What did you have that you did not receive?” he asks. Everything is from God. Your health, your wealth, your gifts, your intellect, your loved ones, your very life comes from God. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Corinthians had forgotten God’s goodness and grace. Instead the very grace-gifts of God have become the very reason for their pride and jealousy.

I want you to think about this for while: how would you deal with such persons? Let’s be honest: Here in Cambridge, everyone has amazing gifts. From the students to their professors; to the humble street performers, many of whom put professional entertainers to shame with their talents.

One approach is to cut them down to size. Show them that they aren’t really as smart as they think they are. Give the proud student a really tough problem to solve during supervision and watch him squirm. Challenge the professor in front of the entire class and tear down his methodology. Make them eat humble pie.

Another approach might be to impress them with your own gifts and talents. Show them that you’re on the same team; that if we worked together we would achieve so much more. The MBA programme starts one week earlier than all the others, to let their students bond and get to know one another. That’s because these leaders of industry have come to Cambridge not simply to gain knowledge, but to form partnerships and make business contacts that will affect the rest of their careers.

Cut them down. Or build them up. Yet Paul doesn’t use either of these strategies. He wants these Christians to acknowledge God’s blessing in their lives. And the way he does this is by acknowledging God’s goodness in his suffering. Do you see that?

Paul is saying that we need to see God’s hand in all things – in good things as well as bad things. That is because God’s purpose in plenty or in want, in comfort as well as suffering – is one and the same. It is to display the supreme glory of his grace through Jesus Christ.

And while we still live in a world that only values blessing; that only acknowledges wealth; that only treasure comfort and security, often times the clearest way to display the glory of God’s grace is not through blessing, wealth or comfort, but in the midst of suffering, poverty and death. Because Christians who continue to speak of the good God in the face of evils done against them, who rejoice in the hope of eternal life as they stare at the prospect of harm and death – these are the Christians the world sits up and takes notice of. These are the believers who stand out as different from the world. These are the disciples of Jesus Christ who take up their cross daily to follow the footsteps of their Saviour.

These are the apostles. Who lead this church to recognise the hand of God, to acknowledge the goodness of God in all blessings he bestows upon the church, and all sufferings of Christ he grants for us as Christians to participate in (Philippians 1:29), all to display supreme glory of God in his grace through Jesus Christ.

What would it take for you to recognise God’s hand in your life? It is tempting to just recount those moments we were happiest and most joyful; to list the most extravagant and lavish gifts we have been blessed with. Here the bible challenges to look at the most difficult moments we’ve encountered. Paul is giving us the license and the courage to dig up painful memories and take a hard look at even the things we are most ashamed of – maybe these things are not past but present realities – and look to God for his grace to deal with them, to stay faithful in the midst of them, even to speak God’s blessing through the gospel into them.

Could it be that God is calling you minister to others in your weakness? That’s the amazing thing about the gospel: it actually puts the weak in the position to help the strong. Paul has become a fool for Christ and here he writes to address the wise. In fact, that’s the very position he needs to be in, in order to be effective in his ministry.

We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
1 Corinthians 4:13

There is no indication that things will change. “God has put us in this situation, and he has kept us here,” Paul is saying. To the world, they are seen as rubbish, drop-outs, failures and has-beens. Yet, how does God see them? Faithful. That is what God is looking for and calling us to be. To be faithful and trustworthy in speaking the gospel and living the gospel no matter the circumstances.

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.
1 Corinthians 4:11-12

3. Attitude

Thirdly, Paul addresses their attitude.

If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
1 Corinthians 4:7c

Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.
1 Corinthians 4:18-19

The Corinthians were being arrogant (some versions have “puffed up”) and this attitude was strongly reflected in their “talk” which Paul says is indicative of certain “arrogant people”. Yet what Paul will deal with is not their “talk” but their “power”.

For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
1 Corinthians 4:20

All talk and no power – it makes it sound like these arrogant individuals are making boastful yet empty claims. They have no real authority or ability to back these claims up. But what are these arrogant people claiming to do? And what is the power that Paul says they lack?

There is no need to guess the answers to these questions as we have encountered the unique pairings of “talk” and “power” before; on several occasions in the previous chapters. The “talk” of these arrogant people translates the Greek word “logos”, elsewhere rendered as “speech” or “word”.

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech (logos) and my message were not in plausible words(logois) of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:3-5

Paul has previously expanded on the dangers of trusting in wise-sounding words – in eloquent wisdom and impressive oratory – as the basis of our faith in God and our judgement over the things of God. The true wisdom of God appears foolish to the wise of the world. This is not an accident. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak to shame the strong. Why? So that no-one can boast in themselves before God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Here in Chapter 4, the proud “words” of certain arrogant individuals in Corinth are likely to be accusations against Paul himself. They seek to challenge his authority as an apostle. But Paul recognises their empty boasts not simply as a personal insult, but a dangerous influence that threatens to undermine the foundation of the Corinthians’ faith in God’s salvation.

According to Paul, the kingdom of God is really about “power”. I wonder what you would substitute in place of that word “power”. God’s kingdom isn’t about talk, it is really about... Well, what word comes to mind?

I think most of us would naturally think of the word “action”. After all, that is what we are looking for in our leaders – Not simply individuals who make big promises, but those who deliver real results. Actions speak louder than words, we usually say. Conversely, we hate hypocrites – those who say one thing, yet do another. We want honesty, consistency, authenticity – in our government, in our banks, in our newspapers and in our law-courts.

And yes, it is right to expect the same level of authenticity of our leaders in the church. Paul can write to the believers, “I urge you then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Not just his doctrine, but even his life displays the integrity of what he teaches.

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 4:17

His life mirrors his teaching. It sounds like an ideal but this is merely the same faithfulness that Paul says is required of all servants of the gospel (4:1-2). These “ways in Christ” – which are interestingly plural (ways) – meaning both his life and doctrine are the same things he teaches “everywhere in every church”. This is consistency and transparency in preaching and living the gospel.

Yet, having said all this, I do not think this is what Paul means by the word “power”. The Kingdom of God, says Paul, does not consist in talk but in power. That power is not something that Paul did. Instead Paul is pointing to something that God has done. This is God’s power to save. The key verse is found in 1 Corinthians 1:18.

For the word (logos) of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18

Look carefully at what Paul says here. What is the power of God? It is the power to save – yes. But what is this power? It is the word of the cross. This word which looks foolish “to those who are perishing”. But this same word, which to the Christian who has been saved (and is being saved), “is the power of God.” The message of cross is displays the supreme power of God.

You see, the contrast is not so much between word and power. It is between man and God. Man’s logos is to boast in himself. Man’s power is self-sufficiency. God’s word and God’s power is the cross. It is the shame, the suffering and the death of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus displays the wisdom of God and the power of God.

Notice, it is the power of God “to those who are being saved”. This is a matter of life and death. The cross isn’t just a point of view. It is the difference between everlasting life with God and eternal damnation under the judgement of God.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
1 Corinthians 4:14

This is the whole reason why Paul addresses their attitude of pride and arrogance. Not to shame but to warn. They think they are merely judging Paul in his weakness. Paul says they are foolishly standing in judgement over the cross. Still the apostle will address their improper attitude not by demanding accountability, but by expressing affection. He loves them and appeals to the Corinthians as a father does his own children.

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.
For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

1 Corinthians 4:15

This bit of the letter is intensely personal. No longer “we” and the “apostles” but “I” – “I write these things”(4:14), “I became your father”(4:15), “I urge you”(4:16) and “I will come to you soon” (4:19).

Few of us reading this letter will feel the full force of Paul’s argument, if you have never had someone in your life who cares deeply for your well-being, your conduct and your faith, as Paul did for these Corinthians. The arrogance of these believers didn’t merely offend him as a Christian leader. Their actions broke his heart as a father who had brought them to faith in Christ and nurtured them in the gospel. Still he appeals to them, even sending Timothy, his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord” to remind them of Christ, while he makes plans for his own personal visit to Corinth (4:19).

But as I said earlier, unless you have had a similar experience of accountability as well as affection in the gospel, we will miss the tension in these words. And I suspect you will find Paul’s closing words all the more deeply offensive.

What do you wish?
Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

1 Corinthians 4:21

Paul ends on the rather unsavoury note of discipline. It is a threat of discipline, but a real threat nonetheless – as evidenced in the next two chapters dealing with sin and the responsibility of the entire community in judging sin within the church. This is important to note as church discipline is an activity of the whole gathering (1 Corinthians 5:4-5) – not just the leaders themselves. In those instances of sin, Paul does condemn the sinner, yet reserves even harsher condemnation on the church for failing to exercise discipline over that sin.

Still what we must not miss in these strong words is Paul display of affection. He would rather deal with the Corinthians in “a spirit of gentleness”. But he will not spare the “rod” either. Both are expressions of his love for the believers. Both show that Paul cares for this church.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” In it author Amy Chua contrasts the different parenting practices of Asian and Western families while reflecting on her own personal challenges raising her two daughters in the modern Western world. She writes,

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Amy Chua, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2011

The article doesn’t denigrate Western parents, but sets out to clarify the sincere intentions of Chinese parents seeking the very best for and from their kids.

The apostle Paul is seeking the very best for and from the church. He is their father in the gospel and he cares for their conduct in the faith. Out of all the churches in the New Testament, the church in Corinth is possibly the most gifted and talented. 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 are the chapters we often turn to learn about spiritual gifts and their place in the church and life of the Christian. Yet out of the all the churches in the New Testament, the church in Corinth was the one which possibly caused Paul the most grief and anguish. These Christians were a source of pain and anguish to Paul because of their pride and sinfulness. But also because of the apostle’s sincere love for them. He never gave up on them.

Instead right at the beginning of the letter Paul writes,

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:4-9

These gifts were causing the Corinthians to puff themselves up. Yet Paul thanks God for the gifts. They are given as visible signs of God’s grace for the good of the church.

But more importantly, Paul reminds them that even though the Corinthians have proved faithless in using these gifts, God is still faithful to sustain them to very end.

The Corinthians might be messed up but God has not given up. And neither does Paul.

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