Study 6 – 1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Leading Believers

Discussion Question

Who would you say is or was the boss in your family growing up? Discuss your answer and reflect what that meant to you.

This question is set to bring out the link between relationship and authority. Our families are not perfect and yet they shape us so profoundly.


From Chapter 1 Paul has been talking to the church of God in Corinth who are called by God to be his holy people. They already have every spiritual blessing and have heard and received the grace of God through Jesus Christ. And yet, they were a church divided because they celebrated and boasted about particular church leaders. Paul has reminded his readers that there is no wisdom on earth that compares to the wisdom of God and that wisdom, although it looks weak and foolish, is the cross of Christ. Paul was resolved to know nothing except that message. Now, Paul gives his final words on the topic of wisdom and of Christian teachers and preachers.

Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-21

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

6 Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 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?

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

What did you see?


  • Judge me like this – as entrusted to pass on God’s wisdom (1)
  • Is the preacher/teacher trustworthy? (2-5)
  • Is it God’s message that they carry? (6-7)
  • It is not a glamorous job to be a slave to God’s message (8-13)
  • Not your warrior but your Father in Christ (14-21)

Judge me like this – as entrusted to pass on God’s wisdom (1)

“This, then, is how you ought to regard us…” I’ve placed Verse 1 on it’s own in the chapter as it appears to hold all the ingredients of what Paul wishes to expand on. He begins with instructing how they ought to regard or consider him and Apollos (the immediate context suggests Paul and Apollos (see Verse 6) but it could instead refer to Paul and Sosthenes who co-authored this letter) and will change his word to judge as the paragraph continues. We all judge things throughout our day and we judge people in the sense that we see them in certain ways. So, if we are not to regard Paul or Apollos as in competition with one another, how ought we regard them? Are they nothing? Are they nobodies? If we all have access to the Spirit of God and therefore the wisdom of God, what is the point of the apostles and of the church preachers and teachers?

“…as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” Paul will go on to expand on these three elements further: being entrusted by God, that it is God’s message that he carries and that of being a servant of Christ. The Greek word used for servant is that of an assistant and not the word for slave. That said, I find that the context Paul gives us introduces the whole concept of someone who works on behalf of someone else’s household or kingdom. Paul is not building his own church but working for Christ and his church. So, let’s hear Paul first of all talk about being entrusted with the mysteries of God before he returns to the topic of being a servant, steward and assistant in God’s work.

Is the preacher/teacher trustworthy? (2-5)

“Now it is required that those who have been give a trust must prove faithful.” This makes sense – common sense. If you are asked to do something then you need to prove yourself able to do it. The NIV seems to play with the english word entrust and so includes the word trust in Verse 2. Compare with other translations you’ll find the word steward which was used in Verse 1. So, if you are given a job to do, to take care of something, then you need to be able to take care of it!

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court…I do not even judge myself.” The weight of Paul’s duty is not to please, satisfy or be approved by people – not even himself! There is a higher responsibility. He is a servant of the gospel which does not mean that he is a servant to the body of Christ but to Christ himself. It takes a high level of maturity to be able to say in truth that you do not care what others think of you but you care very much what God thinks!

“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.” When Paul says that he doesn’t even judge himself, he knows that even he is not who he is serving in his ministry of preaching God’s word. We live in the age of justify yourself  and that is all that matters. As long as you are true to yourself then you go for it! But Paul is not satisfied with that. Being right in our own eyes only matters for earthly things. But being right in God’s eyes is another matter. What an amazing sentence in the bible that is probably rarely or ever a memory verse.

“It is the Lord who judges me.” A word of dread and joy. The former because who can stand before God and live? The latter because, in Jesus we can! But the context is about preaching and teaching. Paul wants to know whether God is pleased with his messages because it is God who has entrusted Paul with the message. Paul does not primarily want churches to love him (that would be a bonus) but for God to be pleased that he is carrying the gospel in truth.

“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes.” A person’s ministry may not be truly understood as valuable until we all reach glory and see what difference it made. Likewise, the damage a person does in their ministry may not be apparent until the last day. Either way, the end of times is the timeline we need to work towards. The ministry of preaching the word does not depend on each individual sermon but on the work overall that is being done. Note well that we are reminded of the Lord’s coming in this verse.

“He will bring to light…expose the motives of the heart.” Whether a preacher is trying to build up their kingdom or God’s will be plain to see at the last day. Teachers in the church will either be trustworthy servants of God or they will be teaching with a selfish motive.

“At that time each will receive their praise from God.” There’s almost a double meaning here. Once the true motives are revealed, judgment will fall and if a preacher is to be praised, then let God sing praises on the last day. If a preacher/teacher is seeking praises now, then their motives are skewed.

So, Paul firstly teaches us that people in teaching positions in the church must take their role seriously and know that this is a task given to them by God and so they are to treat God as their boss and not the church whom they teach. A good and faithful servant will get this balance right and will not abuse their power or place but humbly pass on the message that one day they will be judged for.

Is it God’s message that they carry? (6-7)

“I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit…” It sounds like Verses 1-5 are aimed at warning the teachers but Paul says this is for the hearer’s benefit that he says this. Paul and Apollos were both responsible for the planting and growing of the message of the gospel in Corinth. Paul is saying that he and Apollos both see themselves as servants of Christ entrusted with God’s message.

“…so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.”” Paul and Apollos shaped their message to not go beyond what is written (in Scripture). This must mean going beyond the meaning of what is written rather than the exact words that are written otherwise they would stop being teachers and be simply bible readers. Paul is not quoting Scripture here but using a well known saying – this is either very ironic or it expands on what he means when he says don’t go beyond what is written. There is a message of God which Paul refers to as the mysteries of God. This is the message that he teaches to us and the church in Corinth. But he is not going off-book to bring in more to the gospel or another gospel or a greater wisdom etc. God has given him a message to preach and that is what he will preach. Using all the language at his disposal without modifying the message.

“…a follower of one of us over against the other.” This traces Paul’s discussion back to Chapter One when he talked about division in the church because each followed a different teacher. They are both preaching the same message from God.

“…puffed up…what makes you different…what do you have that you did not receive…why do you boast…” A person can boast about being muscly but they can’t boast about being big and muscly as if they had anything to do with their height. A person can’t boast about the music of their favourite artist as if they wrote the music and performed it themselves. A Christian cannot boast about their knowledge about Jesus and the gospel as though they invented it or forged it or whatever. An amazing preacher may have been able to formulate a brilliant phrase or illustration that encapsulates the gospel, but they cannot claim to have invented the gospel. The church in Corinth is the church of God because God called them and saved them and sent his message to them and put his Spirit in them. It is God who grows and saves. No church on earth can boast as if they have a monopoly on the gospel.

So, Paul says that this message that he teaches is not from himself but he is sticking to the gospel that God has passed on to him and he encourages the church in Corinth to think the same way. Their faith is no greater than any of the other churches scattered around the globe.

It is not a glamorous job to be a slave to God’s message (8-13)

“How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!” Paul’s sarcasm in Verse 8a is popped by the reality that if the church was really a shining light of wisdom in this world (instead of holders of the foolishness of the cross) then Paul would be able to walk tall and without fear in this world too. But instead, he carries the mystery of God to preach and teach which is the foolishness of the cross. He has to hold back his glory for a later date.

“…God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession…” There are a few ways to interpret this verse but I believe it refers to the unique and called apostles of God who saw the risen Jesus and declare him to the world to be the living word of God, Lord and Saviour. The word apostle simply means ‘sent one’ and can be used in many contexts. The NT points to the living disciples plus Paul and perhaps Matthias as the apostles who were specifically called to testify to the world about Jesus. They have come on the world stage at the end of the line of prophets and wise men and Paul paints a picture of them trailing at the back as if they are not important at all. Rather than thinking of them as influential or of noble birth (1:26) or wise in the world’s eyes, the apostles, like Paul and Peter and John, are a laughing stock to the world and even sometimes in the churches.

“…a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.” On the scale of great things, angels seem more impressive and important that Paul feels. It seems to Paul that when he took on the gig of being an apostle – sent by God to proclaim the great mysteries of God – he didn’t get an impressive car or private jet or endless financial support from around the world, nor even an angelic security team to guard and watch over him – he gets the same sandals and all sorts of receptions from towns. His job is to proclaim a message that most people perceive as foolish.

“We are…but you are…” In the list of examples in Verses 10-13, Paul illustrates what it is like to be an apostle. His job is humiliating and his strength and response to everything thrown at him is to love and grow in the power of the gospel. He is trying to shame the Corinthians for thinking that their church and faith ought to look impressive because the apostles have not shown them or taught them to think like that! The world wants flashy buildings and awesome speeches that influence and make change – we preach Christ crucified.

I will not step through Verses 10-13 as there is nothing difficult to understand but putting these things into practice and learning from Paul’s attitude is hard and worth time to consider. Although I do not take space talking about it here, it would be worthwhile talking about them and fleshing them out in any Growth Group study. What does your heart desire? To live comfortably and be important? Or to serve the message of the gospel and live for the kingdom of God?

Not your warrior but your Father in Christ (14-21)

“I am writing this not to shame you…” Paul’s sarcasm in Verse 10 has the potential to offend his readers and ignite anger in their hearts toward him.

“…but to warn you as my dear children.” Despite being disappointed in their division and quarrelling and misguided love, Paul really cares for this church and this is the reason he writes to them. If he didn’t care he would not have written the letter. The key here is to observe the relationship at work and not apply this as “tough love is always fine”. We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

“…ten thousand guardians in Christ…I became your father through the gospel.” Remember that Chapters 1-4 is about WISDOM and is addressing the issue of division over whose leader is best. Even, says Paul, if there were a billion legends to listen to out there, not many return the love and affection. It’s one thing to have gurus who you listen to but quite another to have a relationship with a father in the faith. Paul reminds them that he has a heart for them.

“…imitate me.” How can Paul say on the one hand “who is Paul” but now say “imitate me”? These are not contradictory statements, they are simply two different things to say for two different reasons. The reason to imitate Paul is because Paul is for them and points them to the cross and to God the Father. He does not say imitate me because I am the Messiah!

“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.” Again, the application of Paul’s argument in these chapters is not for us to go it alone in the faith but to see the relationships that are made and that are forged on the gospel. We do not build a church so that the church be great. Jesus has established the church and brought together sinners redeemed by his blood and created a church family. Paul calls them brothers and sisters and dear children and he has a son in the faith named Timothy and he can commend that young man to them and say, listen to him because he has the same heart for the gospel as should be evident in Christian men.

“He will remind you…” Timothy will testify that what Paul preaches in his letter is exactly how he lives.

“Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you…how these arrogant people are talking…” Paul has been hearing reports about the happenings in the church (1:11). With Paul absent, people have stepped up and perhaps leading others away from the teachings of Paul. The letter has told us about the quarreling over which leader is better and of the importance in Corinth for influential and noble leaders.  It’s like the dominant leader has left and there’s a vacuum that needs filling.

“…but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” This refers to the powerful message of the gospel and not of some supernatural power. The gospel changes lives so that we stop behaving and thinking like mere humans (3:3) and we learn to think like a person who has the Spirit of God within them and like someone who has the mind of Christ (2:16).

“Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” This is a rhetorical question because the answer is obvious. I think this speaks a little into the area of accountability though. Sometimes Christians want some sort of accountability and, often young men, want to have a space where they can be forced to air their sins and temptations and have someone be stern with them. Although accountability is a good thing (the scriptures tell us to spur one another on and to lead one another away from sin) but the style and approach seems immature. A gentle word is good and helpful. A strong arm only makes sense when we speak of a parent guiding a very young child in the world. But we are meant to grow up and learn to distinguish the difference between right and wrong. Our church family are for the support of gentle spirits to guide us, support us and grow us (and mutually the other way too!) and we don’t cultivate a culture of strong arming people to do what is right.

What did we learn?

The work of the preacher/teacher is not nothing. Rather than being superior and the reason we go to church, our leaders are gifted by God to teach the message of God and not depart from what is written. They ought not to be leaders who we only relate with via Podcast but to have a vested interest in the church community that it speaks into. They are workers for Christ, entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ and labouring for his glory and not their own. Church leaders did not die for the church but they are given to the church for the benefit of its people. We see a love from Paul to the church and a desire from Paul that the church regard him with love and respect also – as one worth imitating.

Now what?

Topic A: Being entrusted with the mysteries of God. By now, we should be aware that the power of God is not seen in great preaching or supernatural gifts or huge emotional experiences but in the message of the gospel being revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. That is, if you understand the gospel and truly understand the grace of God then you have the Spirit living in you and you hold the key to eternal life! As part of a bible believing, Christ centred church, this can get treated like common sense. We ought to stop and praise God for showing himself to us and also ask God to help us to be trustworthy with the gospel.

Topic B: The message comes with a messenger. We see the message at work when we know the messenger. Paul is able to say “imitate me” and he is able to say “find out not only how […] people are talking, but what power they have.” It’s not just in a message but it is in what the message is doing in the messenger. What is the message of the gospel doing in your life? Would people frown at you when you tell them that you are a Christian?

Topic C: Fools for Christ. Go through the list in Verses 10-13. This list is a description of Paul’s experience and so not everything will apply to every reader. That said, how does the list challenge you?