1 Corinthians 4:1-8

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 4:1-8

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 faithful. 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. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 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.

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!


Paul continues his instruction, on how the Church should view the Apostles, picking up in verse 1 with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 4:1

Let a man so account of us. Since it is inevitable that Christians should form some estimate of the position of their ministers, he proceeds to tell them what that estimate should be. Ministers are not to be unduly magnified, for their position is subordinate; they are not to be unduly depreciated, for if they are faithful they may appeal from frivolous human prejudices and careless depreciations to that only Judge and Master before whom they stand or fall. Ministers; here huperetas; in 1 Corinthians 3:5 diakonous. They are huperetai (in its derivation “under rowers”) in their relation to Christ; diakonoi in their relation to men. Of Christ; and therefore responsible to Him. Stewards; dispensers, subordinate distributors. These “agents” were higher slaves (Luke 16:1-8). Of the mysteries of God. The word “mysteries” means truths once hidden but now revealed; as in Luke 8:10, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” In later patristic usage the word means “sacraments;” but St. Paul has expressly said (1 Corinthians 1:17) that his mission was to preach the gospel, not primarily to administer the sacraments. (For descriptions of the work of a minister according to St. Paul’s lofty ideal, see the pastoral Epistles, and 1 Thessalonians 2:7-11Colossians 1:25-29Acts 20:18-21Acts 20:24-28. St. Peter’s is given in 1 Peter 4:101 Peter 4:111 Peter 5:2-4.) A minister is not to be estimated as a supernatural teacher, or a civil autocrat, or an infallible critic, but as an ambassador from Christ, who reveals to the “initiated” that which they could not otherwise know.

mysteries = μυστήριον mystḗrion, moos-tay’-ree-on; from a derivative of μύω mýō (to shut the mouth); a secret or “mystery” (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):—mystery.

My initial inclination was to do a deep dive into what Paul means by “mysteries of God.” However, after not finding a lot of consensus – or even clear camps – I think I will leave that point to just mean “things about God that you [the reader of 1 Corinthians] does not know.” The broader point with this verse is to illustrate that the Apostles are mere stewards of that knowledge, not creators of it. They should not be magnified above their station, or as more than they really are. Continuing to verse 2 with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(2) Moreover it is required . . .—Better, Moreover here (on earth) inquiry is made in the case of stewards in order that it may be found that one is faithful. The word “found” having the force of “discovered,” or “proved to be” (as in Matthew 1:18Romans 7:10). The argument here is that, as in the case of an earthly steward, inquiry is made into his character as to whether he be trustworthy—so it will be with them who are stewards of the mysteries of God. That inquiry is, of course, made in regard to an earthly steward by his master in whose service he is; and so the Lord alone, whose stewards the Apostles were, shall be the inquirer into their faithfulness. If we take 1 Corinthians 4:2 as it is in our English version, it would seem to imply that on this point of faithfulness the Church might prefer one steward to another. This would be to suggest that to some extent, therefore, party-spirit might exist, which would be contrary to the whole argument from the commencement of the Epistle, and strikingly at variance with the remarks which immediately follow in 1 Corinthians 4:5. The rendering adopted above is a more literal translation of the best Greek texts, and also perfectly in harmony with the general sense of the passage.

Here Paul indicates that mere stewards are subject to inquiry, not standing above it. The note from Ellicott is helpful in clarifying the intent of the verse, since it is possible to read it in a way that is outside of harmony with the surrounding arguments. It makes more sense to render an interpretation that is in harmony with the rest of the argument. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 4:3

But. The Corinthians might have expected that the conclusion of St. Paul’s remarks would be a recognition of their right to sit in judgment on his faithfulness; but it is, on the contrary, an expression of his complete indifference to their shallow and unfair estimate, and an appeal to the approval of his own conscience and to the judgment of the Lord. It is a very small thing; literally, it is for the least. That I should be judged of you; rather, that I should be examined by you (anakritho)Technically the word anakrisis means “an examination preliminary to trial.” Or of man’s judgment; literally, of man’s day. The brief day of human life is bounded by too narrow an horizon for accurate judgments. Many of the greatest and best men have felt, like Lord Bacon, that they must leave to other generations the right estimate of their characters, views, and actions. St. Jerome reckons the expression “day” for “judgment” among the “Cilicisms” of St. Paul (Jeremiah, ‘Ad Algas.,’ 10), i.e. the expressions due to his early training in Cilicia. More probably (as Grotius thinks) there is a reference to the “day” fixed for earthly trials (diem dicere, equivalent to “to impeach”), and to the phrase “the day of judgment”—”the woeful day” of Jeremiah 17:16. The word “day” in all languages and idioms signifies “judgment” (Hammond). From dies, a day, comes the phrase “a diet.” A “daysman” means an arbitrator. Yea, I judge not mine own self. Here, as in the previous clause and in 1 Corinthians 6:4, the verb is not krino, I judge, but anakrino, I examine. Thus the verse discourages all morbid self introspection. It also shows that St. Paul is not arrogantly proclaiming himself superior to the opinion of the Corinthians, but is pointing out the necessary inadequacy of all human judgments. The heart is too liable to self deceit (Jeremiah 17:9Jeremiah 17:10) to enable it to pronounce a judgment with unerring accuracy. Hence neither a man’s contemporaries nor the man himself can form any final estimate of him or of his fitting position, because their knowledge is too imperfect. History often reverses the decision of contemporaries.

Paul then shares that his primary concern is not man’s judgment of him, but God’s judgment. It is important that the Church not over-value its stewards, but it is also important that they not read into Paul’s teaching that he endorses the idea that they should sit in judgment of their teachers, form factions, etc. This faction-forming is the very thing he has been arguing against since chapter 1. Continuing on, Paul explains his own position, relative to God. From Ellicott:

(4) For I know nothing by myself.—The general meaning of this passage is given in the previous Note. The Greek of the words rendered, “I know nothing of myself,” is clearly “I am not conscious in myself” of having been unfaithful; the word being almost invariably used in classical Greek in a bad sense. In the English version the word “by” is used in a sense now nearly obsolete. To an English reader the passage at first sight seems to assert that St. Paul of his own power possessed no knowledge. In old English, however, the word “by” meant (not necessarily the instrument by which) frequently “in connection with” or “concerning.” In this sense it is found in Deuteronomy 27:16Ezekiel 22:7. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs a woman under examination is accused of having “spoken evil words by the queen.” It is still common to speak of our place being “by” (i.e., in close contiguity to) another, and a “bye- lane” is a passage connected with a thoroughfare. The word “by” does not seem to have had necessarily the meaning of “against” which some have attributed to it; the sense of “concerning” would suit all the passages given above better than “against.”

Paul concludes the point in verse 6 with an instruction that the Church should “judge nothing.” More on what that means from The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 4:5

Judge nothing. St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, insists with some indignation on this duty of checking the tendency to vain depreciation, both because we have not the capacity for forming adequate judgments, and because censoriousness is a very common though thoroughly unchristian vice (Romans 14:4Romans 14:10Romans 14:13). Before the time. The time is when God shall “judge the secrets of men” (Romans 2:16), and when “the day shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Corinthians 3:13). Until the Lord come. The advent is called in the New Testament sometimes the “epiphany,” and sometimes the parousia of Christ. The word used for “until” (heōs an) points to a time entirely indefinite. Both; rather, also; i.e. among other things. The hidden things of darkness. “All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13; comp. Ecclesiastes 12:14). God “shall illuminate the crypts of the darkness which naturally fills the self deceiving heart.” The counsels of the hearts. These may bear no scrutiny, even when the actions of the life have been made to look plausible enough. And then. God only “seeth in secret” (Matthew 6:4), and therefore the praise and blame of men may in this life be equally unjust. Shall every man have praise of God; rather, each one shall then have his praise (i.e. such praise as he deserves) from God. Some of the Greek Fathers (e.g. Theophylact) here make “praise” a “word of intermediate sense,” involving either praise or blame. But St. Paul says “praise” for two reasons—partly because he is thinking of faithful teachers like Cephas, Apollos, and himself, who were depreciated by rival factions; and partly because he, like other apostles, shows an invariable tendency to allude to the bright rather than to the dark side of judgment. The “praise from God”—the “Well done, good and faithful servant”—is so infinitely precious that it reduces to insignificance the comparative value of human praise or blame.

From the note:


PAROUSIA pə rōō’ zhĭ ə (παρουσία, G4242, presence, then coming or arrival). This term is transliterated from the Gr., to denote in recent theology the eschatological coming of Christ. This use of the term is based upon its NT meaning when related to Christ.

I. The usage of the term

1. In the NT. The noun parousia (παρουσία, G4242), which occurs twenty-four times in the NT, is a compound form composed of the preposition παρά, G4123, “alongside, beside” and the substantival form of the verb εἰμί, G1639, “to be.” It basically means “being alongside of” and conveys the sense of the Eng. word “presence.” It is used in the NT of a person’s presence as contrasted to his absence (ἀπουσία, G707, Phil 2:12). It contains the thought of the “coming” or “arrival” of a person as the first stage of his presence that is to follow.

Six of the NT occurrences of the term have this simple meaning, of the arrival or presence of some individual or individuals. In 1 Corinthians 16:17 Paul wrote, “I rejoice at the coming (παρουσία, G4242) of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus” (see also 2 Cor 7:6710:10Phil 1:262:12).

The remaining eighteen NT occurrences of the term have an eschatological connotation. In all of these passages the term is used with a genitive to identify the person whose “coming” or “presence” is in view. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9 it is used of “the lawless one” (the Antichrist) whose parousia is a satanic parody of Christ’s parousia. The remaining occurrences all relate to Christ and are eschatological in connotation (the eschatological meaning in 2 Pet 1:16, however, is not beyond dispute).

The term parousia does not in itself denote a return. The exact phrase “the Second Coming” is not used in the NT and does not occur in Christian lit. until the time of Justin Martyr (c. a.d. 150). The entire teaching of the NT makes it clear that Christ’s eschatological parousia is His Second Coming. This fact is expressly asserted in Hebrews 9:26-28.

Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 6:

1 Corinthians 4:6

Brethren. The occasional use of this and similar expressions (“beloved,” etc.) often serves to strengthen an appeal, or, as here, to soften the sternness of a rebuke. I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos. The meaning seems to be that St. Paul has prominently transferred to himself and to Apollos, or rather to the parties who chose their names as watchwords, the proof as to the sin and futility of partisanship which applied equally well to the parties which ranged themselves under other names. (For the verb “transfer”—more often “transform” see 2Co 11:13, 2 Corinthians 11:142 Corinthians 11:15; Philippians 3:21.) He abstains purposely and generously from publicly naming the fuglemen of the antagonistic factions. For your sakes. By rebuking party spirit in his own partisans and those of the teacher who was most closely allied to himself, he robbed his remarks of all semblance of personality or bitterness. It showed his generous delicacy not to allude rather to the adherents of Cephas and the Judaean emissary. Than ye might learn in us. I made Apollos and myself instances of the undesirability of over exalting human teachers, that by our case you might learn the general principle. Not to think of men above that which is written. The true reading is merely, not above the things which have been written, as though the words were a sort of proverb, like Ne quid nimis or Milton’s “The rule of not too much” (μηδὲν ἆγαν). The word “to think” is omitted in the best manuscripts. The phrase, “which have been written,” is of very uncertain meaning. It may refer generally to “the scriptural rule” that all boasting is wrong (Jeremiah 9:23), or to the humble estimate of teachers which he has just been writing down for them. All his Old Testament quotations so far (1 Corinthians 1:191 Corinthians 1:311 Corinthians 3:19) have referred to humility. Some see in it a reference to Matthew 23:1-39Matthew 23:8 “Be not ye called Babbi;” but it is uncertain whether St. Matthew’s Gospel was yet written; and St. Paul never refers so directly to any written Gospel. Perhaps it is a sort of proverb,” Keep always to strict evidence;” “Say nothing which cannot be proved in black and white.” The text, like so many others, has only a very remote connection with the sense in which it is usually quoted. That no one of you he puffed up. St. Paul was painfully impressed by this inflation of the Corinthians, and he often recurs to this word as a description of their vain conceit (1 Corinthians 4:18, 1Co 4:19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1Co 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13:42 Corinthians 12:20). In other Epistles the word is only found once (in Colossians 2:18). For one against another. The expression is a profound one. The glorying in men (1 Corinthians 3:21), undesirable in any circumstances, becomes the more pernicious because the exaltation of one set of teachers is almost invariably accompanied by mean and unjust depreciation of any who could be supposed to be their rivals. The Corinthian who was “for Cephas” would be almost certain to be, to some extent, “against Paul.”

Paul is working to rebuke the idea of partisanship but without publicly rebuking the instigators of it and softly enough that the entire congregation can come back together again in harmony after learning from the rebuke. Finishing this section of verses with Ellicott:

(7) For . . .—This is the explanation of why such “puffing up” is absurd. Even if one possess some gift or power, he has not attained it by his own excellence or power; it is the free gift of God.

(8) Now ye are full.—These three following sentences are ironical. The emphasis is on the word “now.” Ye are already (as distinct from us Apostles) full, rich, kings. You act as if you had already attained the crowning point in the Christian course. “Piety is an insatiable thing,” says Chrysostom on this passage, “and it argues a childish mind to imagine from just the beginnings that you have attained the whole; and for men who are not even yet in the prelude of a matter to be highminded, as if they had laid hold of the end.”

Without us.—The Apostle would have his converts be to him as his crown of rejoicing; but they now assume to have “come into the kingdom” without any connection with him who had won them to God.

And I would to God.—Here the irony is dropped, and these words are written with intense feeling and humility. The Apostle, reminded, as it were, by the word “reign,” that the time will come when the war and controversies of the Church militant shall end, expresses his deep longing for that blessed change. (See 1 Corinthians 3:221 Corinthians 9:23, where similarly the Apostle shows that in rebuking the folly of the Corinthian Church he does not under-estimate their privileges.)

The message here is that there is a need for increased humility. Since verse 8 is satire, I will also look at the note from The Pulpit Commentaries for a complete understanding of Paul’s meaning:

1 Corinthians 4:8

Now ye are full, now ye are rich; rather, already ye have been sated, already ye grew rich. There is a strong but healing irony in these expressions, and in the entire contrast between the comfortable, full fed, regal self satisfaction of the Corinthians, and the depression and scorn in the midst of which the apostles lived. The loving delicate irony is, in a different way, as effective as the stern denunciation of St. John: “Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). St. Paul’s satire is always akin to charity; it is never satire with no pity in it. Ye have reigned as kings. The word simply means “ye reigned.” Like the Stoics, so each little Corinthian sectarian regarded himself as a king. “To reign” was, however, a proverbial phrase (like the Latin vivo et regno) for being “happy as a king.” Without us (comp. Hebrews 11:40). The Corinthians were cultivated enough to appreciate the deep irony of the phrase, “We poor apostles have become quite needless to you in your lordly independence.” And I would to God ye did reign. The words “to God” should be omitted. The loving heart of St. Paul could never long keep up a strain of irony. He drops the satire, and passes on to impassioned and affectionate appeal. That we also might reign with you. If the exalted eminence which you now only enjoy in your own conceits had been but real, then we, whose “hope, and joy, and crown of exultation you are in the presence of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 2:19), should share the grandeur with you.

Paul continues with his gentle satire as the chapter continues in the next section.

5 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 4:1-8

    1. You’re welcome! And thank you for the verse as well. I think understanding that the suffering servant idea comes from the Old Testament is really important to having a good handle on Christian apologetics.

    1. You’re welcome! I find that the commentaries are very useful. They fill you in on translation context, historical context, references to other text, and other things that aren’t necessarily obvious in a direct reading of the text alone.