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1 Corinthians 4:1-21 Sermon Notes

By January 31, 2021Sermon Notes

I’ve spoken recently of Booker Washington, a former slave…who as a young man found himself head of a new training institute for former slaves and their children. 

Now named Tuskegee University in Alabama.

A couple of years ago I attended a ceremony there at Tuskegee for a friend

My friend is an African American aviator himself so he held the ceremony there at the home of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.

A group of primarily African American pilots who showed great skill and courage in WWII.

But Booker, a Christian, desired to form the school in order to teach men and women to use knowledge to become skillful in order to become successful in life.

But the mentality he continually encountered was:

The belief that education(information) without any application to an actual life was enough.

He wrote “One of the saddest things I saw during my travel was a young man who had attended some high school, sitting down in one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.”

Booker wrote

“The students who came at first seemed to be fond of memorizing long and complicated “rules” in grammar and mathematics, but had little thought or knowledge of applying these rules to the everyday affairs of their life.”

So Booker taught them, showed them, how to turn knowledge into real life application…character, work, faith.

He wrote “We found the chief ambition among a large proportion of them (the first students at Tuskegee) was to get an education so that they would not have to work any longer with their hands.”

That is okay and understandable to a point…But Booker was concerned with the larger character problem…gaining information without no end goal of life transformation.

Booker and his wife were able to purchase a large property for a good price…to start the school.

They were able to secure the funds…but they had to clear the fields themselves to plant crops for food and funds.

The students however thought the field work was now beneath them.

They saw no correlation between the work and education. (even though the work was preparing the way for the college)

They thought this until they saw Booker go out into the fields himself and began to work long days clearing them off…quickly the students followed him there.

And that first group of students learned how to integrate knowledge, and character, work…they went on to become influencers in the larger society.

Let’s read God’s word…1 Cor. 4

4:1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 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 till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

The Church at Corinth was full of spiritual children who thought they were all grown up.

Proud of the “knowledge” they believed made them spiritual…they lacked the character and the actions of a truly spiritually mature person.

They picked their factions and took sides against one another…and called this wisdom.

They were like children on a playground but it was not child’s play…because life, death, eternity was at stake…this was no game.

Paul has already made it clear that he, Peter, Apollos were nothing…just servants and that Christ is everything…the factions were silly.

Now he again states the fact that they are just servants.

He uses the word for an “under rower” a slave in the lower part of a large ship…that’s not a cool job by the way.

And he again emphasizes that what they teach is not because they are so smart…they didn’t sit around like the other philosophers and dream up new cool stuff.

What they teach, came from God…none of it was original to them.

They have been entrusted with this precious truth and now it is required that they be found faithful with their stewardship…the stewardship of living and telling the truth of the gospel.

What difference does the information/philosophy you are so enamored with make…if it doesn’t show up in changed lives?

*The Corinthians were enamored with their surrounding culture…they, like contemporary Americans…were always “chasing the current cool”

Cool was for them: “Superstar philosophers and their brilliant philosophies”

Which when they became Christians they just merged this thinking with some biblical ideas…now their heroes were Christian leaders versus Greek philosophers.

Paul responds with:

-I’m a lowly servant

-I didn’t think any of this up…God revealed it to me 

Same with Apollos or Peter…or anyone else you form your factions around.

God is the hero and if you follow him…you won’t take pride in who knows who or what…but you will seek to put others first.

So when he says “I care little if I am judged by people…I don’t even judge myself…my conscience is clear, but that doesn’t make me innocent.”

He is not saying he is above self-reflection or that he has reached a place of perfection where no one can judge his thoughts or actions.

He is also not saying their criticism of him does not hurt him…of course it did…he was a man.

He is saying he is not going to live as a people pleaser.

He feels things, like anyone else does…but he doesn’t live by what he feels or by what others might think of him but by what he knows.

He knows…God alone is the judge

The Corinthians highly valued human judgements…it set the course of their lives.

If Social Media had existed in the first Century…they would have been all over it…trying to figure out how others thought they should live….what was cool today….how to look cool and wise tomorrow.

Paul is saying “I am your servant but you are not my master…Christ is…I serve him by serving you.”

“I care about you, but I don’t care what you think of me…I do, but I don’t…I can’t let what you or even what I think of me…dictate the course of my life.”

He will not let their opinions of him determine his choices…he doesn’t even let his own opinion of himself determine his choices.

Think about that for a minute…how much of what we do(or what we feel) is determined by whether we are currently thinking much or little of ourselves?

Or what we think others are thinking of us. (we don’t actually know)

God himself is the final judge…he will determine the real truth of our lives.

Paul concludes… “I’ll leave the judgment to God…and I’ll pursue faithfulness.”

6 Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over against another. 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?

Paul uses the affectionate term “brothers”…it’s equivalent to “my friends”

So he is saying…”Hey guys, listen up…I’m with you, not against you”

“I’m using these examples of me and Apollos to illustrate what is clear in Scripture…God is the only superstar…learn from others…but let God alone set the course of your life.”

Verse 7 is one we should pay especially close attention to:

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?

They were proud of their acquired wisdom, and their connections to certain purveyors of this wisdom.

But he takes them from from their “ants view” to a view from “heaven”

So, how are you different from anyone else…what does anyone have that had not been given by God?

Name one person who has one thing…that is not all gift?

“No…I earned this. I learned this. I worked for this.”

Okay…but who gave you life, breath, brain cells, and everything else?

So…why do you boast about what you have simply received.

**Okay, now it’s time to pick on Nietzsche again…this from his autobiography “Ecce Homo”

“In my lifework(speaking of another book he wrote)…I gave my fellow-men the greatest gift that has ever been bestowed upon them. The book, the voice of which speaks out across the ages, is not only the loftiest book on earth, literally the book of mountain air…mankind, lies at an incalculable distance beneath it.”

Such is the madness of men…believing they are wise.

He believed he lived beyond all normal categories of “good and evil”

I could choose on any number of “wise humans” to pick on.

But Nietzsche despised weakness…though he died in utter physical, mental, spiritual and relational weakness.

Paul, however, in his letters to the Corinthians…magnifies weakness…to show the folly (the madness) of thinking too highly of ourselves.

Which is what the Corinthians often did.

In fact it is likely that they had fallen prey to an idea that it was possible to reach a state of human perfection this side of heaven.

And since it was possible…of course…they had, in fact reached this state

As I read the next passage…understand that Paul is using the literary device of “irony” to make his point.

Irony is close to sarcasm…but irony is meant to point out the absurdity of something, sarcasm is meant to wound someone…or to win a verbal battle.

We will see soon that Paul has no intent to wound or to win…but rather to warn out of his love for them.

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 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. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.

The Corinthians, in line with a prominent local philosophy of the time (and like Nietzsche) thought they had reached a state where they were above instruction, beyond the need to grow…they were “rich, kings”…fully wise, fully mature.

Listen to what Jesus said to another church who felt this way in Revelation 3

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” 3:17

OUCH…that means that actual reality was the exact, 180-degree opposite of what they believed to be true about themselves.

Paul says “I wish this were true, that you guys were perfectly grown up…then we’d be fully mature in our faith as well…but, of course it is not true…no one has arrived.” 

So Paul contrasts their self-perception of perfection with the actual lives of true faith leaders…himself, Peter, and others.

It’s Ironic…because the leaders who were far beyond them in actual Spiritual maturity… were suffering…they were not living as perfected “kings”

Paul is not complaining he is explaining…God’s fact vs their fiction.

He says “While you are rich Kings…we, the ones who actually brought you the gospel truth…are like condemned criminals paraded before everyone to die in the arena.”

Criminals were often made to walk down the public streets on the way to their death (of course this happened to Christ himself).

It would happen to Peter, and to Paul one day as well…as they were killed for their faith.

Paul said…we are thought to be fools…paraded like criminals before the entire Cosmos…yet you are so wise.

We are weak…you are so strong.

We are dishonored…you seek only honor.

Then he describes how the Apostles (A word used of the men who encountered the risen Christ and took the gospel to the world)…were totally different than their elevated view of themselves.

“We are” he writes “The scum of the earth, the refuse of the world”

Scum and refuse are words that meant “the things removed as a result of cleaning all around”.

Like, for instance, the stuff left on the toilet scrubber.

They are, as opposed to the brilliant and grand Corinthians…toilet scum.

Strong comparison.

Again…this is irony…irony means to show absurdity.

It was absurd…that the petty, petulant, in-fighting and immature believers…thought themselves to be perfected in their faith.

Paul doesn’t think too lowly of himself, neither does he think too high of himself.

He leaves judgment of himself to God…he just tries to pay attention to what faithfulness looks like today.

He wants them to do the same.

14 I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15 Even though you have 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 am sending 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.

Here we see that this was irony and not sarcasm…he meant to warn not to shame.

And he addresses them now as “dear children”…they are not his spiritual superiors or even his equals…he is their spiritual father (humanly speaking).

This is not a statement of pride or an attempt to control them.

This is exactly how a Father or Mother treats their sometime foolish children.

The wise parent lovingly shows the child how foolish they are in their thinking and behaving…in order to help the child grow up, and avoid the terrible consequences of staying a fool…this is love.

A guardian was a word that described a slave who had responsibility to watch over a child…take him to school, help with homework, help him learn manners, etc.

These guardians were entitled to respect…and normally they received it…but they could be replaced…they were, after all, still just servants, slaves.

But there is a big difference between them and the father…they only have one father…lots of these guardians.

Again…Paul is speaking this way for their good not his own glory.

He is their Spiritual Father…what he has to say to them matters. His love for them is real.

He wants them to “imitate him”

Clearly this doesn’t mean he wants them to make him their hero.

This would go against everything he has just said about forming factions around himself, Apollos, or Peter.

He wants them to imitate him in his imitation of Christ…what did that look like…humility, suffering, sacrifice…not their petty posturing and infighting.

He will clarify this later in this letter (chapter 11)… “Follow me as I follow Christ”

So…stop trying to chase current cool…join me in chasing after Christ.

That will mean…follow Christ to the Cross…die to self for God’s glory and the good of others…this is the path to life.

Don’t think so highly of your own wisdom, or goodness, or strength…in fact don’t so much of yourself at all.

Put the interests of others first…think much of them and what they need.

To help you with this, Paul wrote, I’m sending Timothy

He will serve as an living example of what it means to live life chasing after Jesus.

Paul was out to reshape the church culture there

Culture is shaped by what is “communicated, demonstrated, and celebrated”

Paul was sending Timothy to them to teach the truth and live the truth in front of them.

And Paul celebrated Timothy as life worthy of their emulation…an up close example.

Timothy was the perfect person to send to them…his mom was Jewish and his dad was a Greek.

These Greeks at Corinth would be able to see “one of their own” who was also a fully devoted follower of Christ.

He then gives a warning to those who will hear this letter read and might respond with…

“Paul ain’t nothing…that lying chicken is not coming back…he is all blow and no go.”

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 whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?

The kingdom of God is the reign of Christ in the hearts of his people…expanding out from life to life.

It is, Paul said, back in chapter two…not just about wise and persuasive words…but God’s power.

Greek philosophers and all the philosophies that originate solely in the minds of humans are, ultimately, just “talk” and not power.

The gospel is not something some thinker sat on a rock or in a library in a University and “thought up”

It is the actions of God in human history.

It is Christ born of a virgin…as was foretold in ages past

It is Christ living among humans…teaching, acting, living…like no human before or since has.

It is Christ dying on a cross…as was foretold in ages past…and by Christ himself.

It is Christ resurrecting from the death…as was foretold by the prophets of old and by Christ himself.

His resurrection is a factual, historically verifiable event.

It is the death and resurrection of Christ that continues to change the lives of actual people.

It is not mere words…it is power.

As Paul told the Romans. “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.”


Combine them in a single verse for our focus

1 Cor. 4:2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

Believe you have been given a trust and all that God requires of you is faithfulness

Value in your heart of hearts…being found faithful

Do today what faithfulness requires of you.

Believe you have been given a trust

-Here, in this passage, the trust is the gospel.

-But from a biblical-whole life perspective…all of our living, thinking, speaking should be gospel-centric

-So if God has you working in a factory, changing diapers, doing a spreadsheet, sharing the gospel with a friend, or suffering on a sick bed…

Believe that your purpose, your stewardship is to be found faithful.

Not to produce stuff…or ministry…or impact…or legacy

Faithfulness will produce stuff…lots of good “stuff” from our lives.

But faithfulness is not fixed on producing…it is fixed on stewardship.

I don’t determine my “legacy” God does…I determine to be found faithful.

I don’t measure the outcome of my life…God does…I simply seek to be found faithful.

Value: Wrap your heart around the applause of God

I want to teach my heart to value…God’s approval.

If others think less of me or more of me…it will impact me, I’m just a human…but it cannot drive the direction of my life.

I cannot even live at the whims of my own conscience.

This doesn’t mean I should not pay attention to my conscience…God speaks through conviction in our conscience.

But if I am outside God’s will and “feel okay”…I am not okay.

Neitsche wrote “I have never known what it is to feel sinful. In the same way I completely lack any reliable criterion for ascertaining what constitutes a prick of conscience.”

*His conscience was clear…but it should not have been.

His life was under the judgment of God…yet he felt no pain in his conscience.

On the other hand I can feel guiltly…maybe I can’t conceived of God’s forgiveness…but be “guilt-free” because I have taken my sin to Christ.

What I “feel” is not the point…what is real…what God knows to be true…is the point.

My focus must be on faithfulness to God’s revealed will for my life.

Let’s go back, briefly to the principle of the “well-differentiated person”

This is the person who is connected to others…but independent of what others think of them in terms of how they live their lives.

Connected…means they are relational, teachable, open

Independent…means they do not let what others think of them dictate how they will live their lives.

Living for the approval of others is like a strong drug…easily addictive and powerfully controlling and ultimately life destroying.

We must and we can be people who are growing in joy and impact…because in our hearts we are learning to desire the approval of God above all else.

This is, practically speaking, what Paul means by his statement “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

  1. Do

What you know and love must show up in how you live.

Students: I’m old but I remember, it is not easy to live your faith as a young person but you can.

It doesn’t automatically get easier when you are old.

*I shied away from my faith for years…then I decided at age 19…to try and live it out in classrooms, locker rooms, oil rigs…I didn’t die…it went okay.

You probably won’t die either.

I didn’t do it perfectly…you won’t either.

But it can be done…it must be done.

*”But Terry we know more stuff since you were young(back in the middle ages)…there is more science, more evidence against faith…there are more challenges to our faith now.

*That’s actually not true…it’s been about 40 or so years since I was teen… 

It’s been 2000 years since Paul was in Corinth…you, me, Paul…encounter essentially the same ideas recycled over and over.

And living for the approval of others…or to avoid the disapproval of others.

How is that working out for you? Do you feel free? Is there joy in it? Do you like it?

*It wasn’t good in Paul’s day….it isn’t good now…that hasn’t changed.

If we are chasing Christ…we are going to live as “Servants of others, who don’t live to please others. We live for God’s pleasure by loving people.”

Not caring what anyone thinks is not a sign of maturity…it can just mean you are selfish and hard to get along with.

The goal is not to stop caring…to goal is to care the most about what God thinks…and to seek to bless not to impress others.

The goal is to align our thinking, loving, and living…with faithfulness to God…which will always lead to putting the needs of others ahead of our own in practical, actionable ways.

Jesus…for the joy set before him, endured the cross…scorning its shame.

Jesus is inviting into his joy and his freedom.

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