1 Corinthians 4
Tim Keller makes this inciteful observation. He says, up until the twentieth century, traditional cultures always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil in the world.
What is the reason for most of the crime and violence in the world? Why are people abused? Why are people cruel? Why do people do the bad things they do? Traditionally, the answer was pride or what Paul calls here in v6, being puffed up (physio). That is, having too high a view of yourself. Being full of yourself, we might say today. Traditionally, that was the reason given for why people misbehave and can’t get along.
In our modern western culture, we have developed an utterly opposite consensus. Our belief today – and it is deeply rooted in everything – is that people misbehave, or can’t get along, because of lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves.
People used to think it was because they had too high a view of themselves and had too much self-esteem. Now we say it’s because we have too little self-esteem, and so, the antidote to most of the world’s problems is to think more highly of ourselves.
Which means humility is not at all on our radars. Which means hearing what God has to say to us in 1 Cor 4 is not going to be easy.
However, it is going to be important.
When Paul says the root cause why there are destructive divisions among you is because your opinions of yourself are too high, and you need to stop being like that because there’s no room for pride and boasting in God’s kingdom, and I’m coming back to you, and what do you wish, that I come with a rod or with gentleness? He’s saying this is not take it or leave it stuff.
This is crucial to being the church of God.
I think Paul knew it was going to be hard for these people to hear it too.
Which is why, in v7, Paul masterfully deploys a series of questions in order to deflate a puffed up church. Rhetorical questions, that pack a theological punch.
In v7 we discover that the right question can make all the difference.
Question 1:For who sees anything different in you?
Or, I think what it’s really saying is ‘Who makes you different from anyone else?’ That’s what Paul’s asking.
He’s writing to people who are different. He’s writing to people who, as Paul said in Ch1:
have been sanctified in Christ Jesus (v2)
have been enriched in all speech and knowledge (v5)
are not lacking in any gift (v7).
Not everybody can say those things are true about them. So why are they true of this bunch? Why are they true of you?
One fellow here was telling me last week that out of the 11 people in his family, he’s the only Christian.
Now, why? Why is that?
Is it because he was smarter than the others, because he had the ability to work it out and the others didn’t? Well, if you knew who I was talking about you’d know that they weren’t the reasons.
If you are a Christian here today:
What explanation is there for your conversion, when others around you have heard the same message and not been converted?
What explanation is there this morning for your love of Jesus, when others in your family or workplace or street don’t?
What explanation is there for the presence of godly character in your life?
From the very beginning of this letter Paul has been making the point (as he does in all his letters) that any and all differences that exist in the Corinthians are attributable to ... God and to God alone.
1:18– it is God, by his power, who saved them.
1:27, 28 – Paul repeatedly mentions it was God who chose them.
2:10ff – it is God who reveals and illuminates the truth about himself.
3:7 – any growth is due to God alone.
In the first paragraph of the letter (after the introduction): It is God who calls. It is God who sustains. It is God who is faithful.
When you think about it, that’s what you deserve. When you think about it, God is pretty lucky to have you in his kingdom.
When you actually think about it, it is the exact opposite of what you deserve.
1:4, I give thanks to my God always for you because … by your own efforts you are so different from everyone else.
No, of course not. Because of the grace of God, and the grace of God alone.
Your answer, my answer is exactly the same as for the Corinthians. Who has made you different? The answer is the same.
God graciously chose me. God graciously revealed himself to me. God graciously saved me. That is the only accurate and appropriate answer to the question: who made you different?
As we think about this question, our answer is intended to have a humbling effect. It is intended to deflate a puffed up heart so don’t look around comparing yourself to others, “At least I made the right decision to follow Jesus. At least I know how to get it right.”
Who made you different? Why are you different? What explanation is there for your conversion and transformation? As John Bradford remarked when he witnessed a group of prisoners being led to their execution, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”
If it wasn’t for the grace of God, there would be nothing good about you.
Paul continues with a second question.
Question 2:What do you have that you did not receive?
Do you have any skill in a certain area? If so, God gave you that skill.
Are you knowledgeable in a particular area? If so, God gave you a mind with a capacity for that knowledge.
Do you hold a certain position at work or have a certain title? Do you have a job? If so, God gave you your opportunities and abilities to work.
Do you have family or friends or material possessions you enjoy? If so, God gave them all to you.
Do you have a certain character that is good and right – “Resolve, generosity, trustworthiness, patience”? If so, it’s a gift from the Lord.
Do we at Trinity Church enjoy good fellowship and unity and sound doctrine and worthwhile ministries? Well, if so, then they’re all from the gracious hand of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now, you might be thinking, “Just hold on a minute. I will concede. I will concede some of my skill, and some of what I know, and some of the things that have happened in my life to get me where I am now are gifts from God. Furthermore, I admit that, but what you seem to be overlooking, Warwick, is the fact that I have worked very hard.”
Well, actually no, that hasn’t been overlooked because here’s what, if that’s you, you need to be reminded of this morning: I’m sure you have worked hard, no doubts about that, but if you’ve worked hard it’s because God gave you the strength to work hard, and God gave you the health to work hard, and even the very motivation to work hard is a gift from God.
So whatever your gifting, whatever your skill, whatever your ability, it’s all from the gracious hand of Jesus.
Whether it’s intellectual, relational, athletic, mechanical, artistic, whatever it might be, you just fill in the blank, whatever abilities or possessions are present in your life, it has been given to you by God – not because you deserved it, but because of his grace.
Gordon Fee, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, says this about this question, “This is an invitation to experience one of those rare, unguarded moments of total honesty. In the presence of the eternal God, one recognises that everything, absolutely everything that one has, is a gift... all is of grace, nothing is deserved, nothing is earned.”
That is true for everybody who has ever lived.
For those who belong to Jesus, that’s only the beginning.
We haven’t even begun to mention the particular gifts that God gives only to those who are united to Jesus.
There are gifts of grace, purchased by Christ’s blood, that are the greatest of gifts, which ought to produce the humblest of hearts.
Charles Spurgeon said:
“If you must have a little list of what he has given you, ponder the following: he has given you a name and a place among his people. He has given you the rights and nature of his sons. He has given you the complete forgiveness of all your sins, and you have it now. He has given you a robe of righteousness which you are wearing now. He has given you a superlative loveliness in Christ Jesus. He has given you access to Him and acceptance at the mercy seat. He has also given you this world and the worlds to come. He has given you all that he has and He has given you his own Son, and how shall he now refuse you anything? Oh, he has given as only God could.”
“What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks. Show me, show me just one thing.
Well, there we have it, probably the two most difficult things for the human heart to admit: 1) if it wasn’t for the grace of God there would be nothing good about us, 2) if it wasn’t for the grace of God we wouldn’t have anything that is good.
If that’s true then, what is the next logical question? If everything you have has been received, what comes next?
Question 3: Why do you boast? Why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
Why do you boast as if somehow you discovered it or worked it out or you achieved it or you earned it or deserved it? Whatever it might be?
This is what Spurgeon says on this verse (it is a little confronting, but I’m sure it won’t do us any harm to hear these words): “Oh believer, learn to reject pride seeing that you have no ground for it. Whatever you are, you have nothing to make you proud. The more you have, the more you are in debt to God and you should not be proud of that which renders you a debtor. Oh, strange infatuation that you who have borrowed everything should think of exalting yourself.”
Once you answer “absolutely nothing” to the second question, and “God alone” to the first question it just shows what proud fools we are when we boast.
As I said a few weeks ago, “We were all made to boast in something”, so why don’t we boast in something worthy of our exultation? The giver, not the receiver.
For who sees anything different in you, who made you different? 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?
How do you know if you’re humble?
Let me suggest two outcomes of humility you could use as a test.
Humility produces self-forgetfulness
C.S. Lewis made this helpful observation about humility: If we were to meet a truly humble person, Lewis says, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us because the essence of humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
It’s what Paul says in v3, But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.
The word “judge” means verdict or stamp of approval. I don’t need your stamp of approval to tell me I’m a somebody.
Now so far that sounds exactly like most modern counsellors today. Don’t let yourself be judged by anybody else’s standards.
That’s where the similarities end. Paul takes that thought and keeps going, whereas modern psychology takes that thought and falls into the ditch.
Don’t let yourself be judged by anybody else’s standard. Why? It is because that will result in low self-esteem, and we certainly don’t want that. What you need to do is be true to yourself, set your own standards, and judge yourself.
It’s now the very opposite of what Paul says. 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.
I don’t care about your opinion of me and I don’t care about my opinion of me.
A truly humble person is not a self-loving person or a self-hating person. The truly humble person is a self-forgetful person.
True humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself; stop comparing everything with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself altogether.
I can do that when I know, v4, It is the Lord who judges me. His verdict on me is, in Christ, chosen, called, saved, sustained to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:9).
If that’s true, I can probably stop thinking about myself don’t you think?
Humility prepares us for suffering
Humility prepares us for suffering, but I don’t think the Corinthians were prepared for this paragraph.
If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, then call Paul a half-wit.
The Corinthians think they have made it as Christians – they’ve arrived spiritually.
Therefore, Paul says in v8, Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!
Already, already! In their estimation they already have all they want. They’re rich. They’ve become kings.
“Your Best Life Now” was their book. Or was that Joel Osteen? Hard to tell the difference sometimes.
The Corinthians think their prosperity in Corinth was compelling confirmation of God’s approval of them and they think their status in Corinth was compelling confirmation of their superiority.
So what does Paul do?
He says in vv8-13, “Isn’t it interesting how you guys have all this prosperity and position, yet we apostles have poverty and persecution. Funny about that.”
They were kings – he was sentenced to death.
They were wise – he was a fool.
They were strong – he was weak.
They were prosperous and held in honour by the world – he was persecuted and suffered.
Amazing isn’t it, because you’d think the people in the church would be similar to God’s apostles wouldn’t you?
Of course, you would. That’s Paul’s point. There’s no room for this puffed up, boasting, prosperity rubbish in the church of Jesus.
Paul is not glorifying suffering in this passage, he’s saying without humble hearts you’re not going to be prepared. When hardship and disappointment you’re going to be in for a rude shock.
Here’s where I think grace producing humility and suffering come together. In my limited observation, here is what I have observed, and you might be able to think of people to whom this applies as well.
The genuinely humble are not surprised when they suffer. Actually, the genuinely humble are surprised they do not suffer more. The genuinely humble individual knows that whatever suffering they are experiencing is less than they deserve. The genuinely humble usually have some understanding of the purpose of suffering and so, by God’s grace they glorify God in the midst of suffering.
If you apply the questions and appropriate answers of v7 to your life, this will make all the difference when you inevitably encounter the sufferings described in vv8-13.
Sadly, and to my shame, here is how I all too often react when I encounter, not even hardship or suffering but just when things don’t go my way, or not even when things don’t go my way but just when some else gets something that I want. I complain, I grumble, I compare. Mostly on the inside or at home. I get angry, because in my arrogance I assume that some injustice is being done.
Why is that? Whenever you encounter trials or suffering and your response is complaint, it reveals a puffed up heart, a too high view of myself that hasn’t considered the realities of v7.
On the other hand, a heart that has considered the realities of v7 responds like this: (v12) When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.
V7is preparation so that you might glorify God as you encounter vv8-13. Grace produces humility and humility prepares us for suffering so that we’re not surprised by hardship and suffering, and so that we might bring glory to God even when we suffer.
Let me suggest something to you: Why don’t you take these questions with you into your week, because these questions will guard you against pride and deflate a puffed up heart, these questions will guard you against complaint and grumbling when things don’t go your way, and these questions will help you to do as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31).
Our Heavenly Father, we acknowledge and confess now that everything we have comes from you, you are the one who makes us different in any good way. We confess that we have no grounds to be proud, and therefore it ought to be so unnatural to us. Yet it comes so easily. How strange, indeed, it is of us to exalt ourselves when we have borrowed everything. So Lord we pray, for the honour of your Son’s sake, deflate our puffed up hearts and replace them with hearts that long to see and love to magnify the power and grace of Jesus even in our sufferings we ask, in his name. Amen.
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