Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

1 Corinthians 4:1-5



Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.

At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.

Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.

Among the problems that Paul has addressed are divisions in the Corinthian church based, in part, on allegiances to Paul or Apollos (3:4). He has also addressed the tendency of some of these Christians to trust in human wisdom rather than the cross of Christ (1:18 – 2:16).

Some Corinthian Christians have been critical of Paul, because they have not found in him the eloquence, wisdom, and charismatic presence that they treasured. We see that problem reflected throughout First and Second Corinthians.

• Paul stated earlier that Christ had sent him “to preach the Good News—not in wisdom of words” (1:17). He thus stands in stark contrast to Apollos, who was “an eloquent man, came to Ephesus. He was mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24).

• Paul said, “My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5).

• Later in this letter, Paul will defend his ministry “to those who examine me” (9:3; chapter 9 constitutes his defense).

• In his later letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will acknowledge that people are saying that his “letters, are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised” (2 Corinthians 10:10).

• He will also say, “But though I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not unskilled in knowledge” (2 Corinthians 11:6).

To people who treasure sophistication, wisdom, eloquence, and charisma, Paul’s lack of these qualities would constitute fatal flaws. That is why some of the Corinthian Christians have rejected Paul’s leadership, announcing, “I follow Apollos” (1:12).

In our text for today, Paul is writing, not only to defend the work that he has done with these Corinthian Christians, but also to refocus them FROM the strengths and weaknesses of those who have served as their pastors TO the cross of Christ. In part, this will require that they quit judging their pastors—and leave such judgments to God, who can be trusted to judge faithfully.


1Think of us in this way, as servants (Greek: hyperetes) of Christ and stewards (oikonomos) of God’s mysteries (mysterion)2Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy (pistos)3But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged (anakrino) by you or by any human court (hemera—day). I do not even judge myself.  4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted (dedikaiomai—from dikaioo). It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore do not pronounce judgment (krino) 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 commendation (ho epainos) from God.

“Think of us in this way” (v. 1a). In verse 6, Paul says, I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit,” so the “us” in this verse refers to Paul and Apollos.

“as servants (hyperetes) of Christ” (v. 1b). The words most often used in the New Testament for servant are diakonos (the word from which we get our word “deacon”) and doulos (a word closer to “slave” than “servant”). An hyperetes would be a servant who would be subordinate to the master. However, it matters not which word Paul uses. All three words portray a servant who must do the bidding of the master.

While a servant would be subordinate to his or her master, a servant could nevertheless be a significant person in his/her own right. For instance, the servants of a king would include military officers, counselors, administrators, and ambassadors. If a king were to send such a person to do something, the king would expect people to give that servant their full cooperation. In other words, the servant would carry in his/her person something of the authority of the king. The king would regard an insult to his servant as an insult to himself—and could be depended on to respond accordingly.

In this instance, Paul and Apollos are servants of Christ, “the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14), so they carry in their persons something of the authority of Christ. These Corinthian Christians need to render Paul and Apollos the courtesies associated with the royal household with which they are associated. Otherwise, they can expect to be held accountable for insulting the servants of the King of kings.

“and stewards (oikonomos) of God’s mysteries” (mysterion) (v. 1c). The word oikonomos combines oikos (house) and nemo (distribute, apportion), and would be the administrator of a home or business.

A steward (oikonomos), like a servant, is subordinate to a master, but there is a difference. A servant might be a person managing significant responsibilities, but some servants would do nothing more than wash dishes or sweep floors. However, a steward (oikonomos), by definition, has significant responsibilities. A steward is a person chosen by a master to exercise oversight over certain of the master’s affairs. A steward might be charged with oversight of the palace and its staff—or the treasury—or the master’s lands and livestock. The Old Testament tells us that Pharaoh appointed Joseph as steward over the financial affairs of Egypt. Joseph was responsible for managing the accumulated wealth of seven years of plenty so that Egypt might extend its prosperity through the coming seven years of famine. So a servant might or might not have significant responsibilities, but a steward would always have significant responsibilities.

“of God’s mysteries” (mysterion).  Paul and Apollos are “stewards of God’s mysteries.” Paul uses this word, “mystery” (or “mysteries”) frequently (Romans 11:25; 16:25; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-5, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Colossians 1:26-27; 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Timothy 3:9, 16).

• In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about “the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret through long ages, but now is revealed” (Romans 14:24-25).

• Later in this epistle, he will say, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

• In Ephesians, he says, “the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words, by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:3-5).

• In Colossians, he talks about “the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations. But now it has been revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26).

We might say then that, for Paul, a mysterion is spiritual knowledge that God has revealed—at least to some people. We might go another step to say that, for Paul, being entrust with a mysterion revealed implies responsibility—stewardship.

God has entrusted certain mysteries to Paul and Apollos—has made them stewards of these mysteries. In his next letter to the Corinthians, he will say, “we have this treasure in clay vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7)—the treasure being the Gospel and the clay jars being Paul and his co-workers.

Paul and Apollos can expect to be held accountable by God for their stewardship, so we should expect that God will also hold those accountable who help or hinder them in their ministries.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy (pistos) (v. 2). Note that God requires stewards to be pistos—trustworthy or faithful—but not necessarily successful as the world counts success. Paul was responsible for planting the church at Corinth, and Apollos was responsible for watering it—but only God could give the growth (3:7).

So also, God requires Paul to be pistos—faithful—but does not require him to be eloquent or wise or charismatic, which is what these Corinthian Christians want. In fact, Paul has already said, “My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5).

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged (anakrino) by you or by any human court (hemera—day) (v. 3a). Krino is the usual word for judging. The ana prefix adds emphasis.  An anakrino judgment would involve especially intense or careful examination.

Paul understands that he can expect God to hold him accountable for his stewardship of the mysteries that God has entrusted to him. He understands that God expects him to be faithful—trustworthy—in this stewardship. By comparison, the investigation (anakrino) of these Corinthian Christians seems of little consequence. What does he care that they are rummaging through his affairs, trying to find fault? Who are they in comparison to God? How does their opinion stack up to God’s opinion? If God approves of Paul, what does it matter whether these Corinthian Christians approve or disapprove?

This doesn’t mean that these Corinthian Christians have not hurt Paul by their fault-finding. Nor does it mean that the work of the Gospel has not suffered as a result of their criticism. It means only that Paul, who is accountable to God, cannot bring himself to think too highly of their human opinions.

I do not even judge myself (v. 3b). Some pastors torture themselves with self-doubt. They worry about their competence and sensitivity. They wonder whether they might have made a difference in someone’s life if they had only said or done something differently. They spend their days second-guessing themselves.

Paul refuses to torment himself in this way. He has tried to be faithful in his words and actions, and that is all that he can do—and all that God expects him to do. The people to whom his ministry is directed have responsibilities too. They are responsible for accepting or rejecting the Gospel that he presents to them. They are responsible for listening or failing to listen to his counsel. Ultimately, God reserves to himself the responsibility for bringing the growth (3:7). Therefore, Paul simply tries to do what is right—and refuses to spend his days in torturous self-assessment.

I am not aware of anything against myself(v. 4a). Paul can’t think of anything that he has done wrong in his relationship with the Corinthian church. He has delivered the Gospel to them faithfully. He has taught them faithfully. His conscience is clear.

but I am not thereby acquitted(dedikaiomai—from dikaioojustified) (v. 4b). The word dikaioo means to be found just or righteous—not guilty.

While Paul is “not aware of anything against (himself)” (v. 3), a clear conscience is no assurance that he is innocent of sin. A great deal depends on how the person has trained his/her conscience. Some people can do terrible things and suffer no pangs of conscience. The more frequently we do something wrong, the less likely we are to suffer pangs of conscience.

Furthermore, most of us engage in a good deal of rationalization. If we work at it hard enough, we can make ourselves believe that almost anything that we might choose to do is justified.

So Paul understands that a clear conscience is not the same as a clean slate.

It is the Lord who judges (anakrino) me (v. 4c). As noted above, krino is the usual word for judging. As noted above, anakrino refers to an especially intense examination.  No matter how the Corinthian Christians might investigate or criticize Paul, it is the Lord who will pronounce final judgment on him. It is the Lord’s judgment that counts.

As verse 5 makes clear, when Paul says, “the Lord,” he is talking about Christ. Elsewhere, he says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Paul understands that Christ knows everything about him and will do any necessary investigation and pronounce any necessary judgment. However, he also understands that he has been “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). That is what counts.

Therefore do not pronounce judgment (krino) before the time, before the Lord comes (v. 5a). Any judgments that we pronounce are premature, because we cannot see the whole of a person’s life—and don’t know people’s hearts—and don’t know what God has in store for them in the future. When the Lord comes, he will make the final judgment.

who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (v. 5b). When Christ comes again, he will judge “the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). At that time, he will shine light into the dark cracks and crevasses of our lives, so that our darkest secrets will be revealed. Jesus himself has given us a picture of this in his discourse on the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46). “He will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31b-32). He will reward the sheep for giving food to the hungry, etc.—and he will punish the goats for failing to do so—explaining that the way we treat vulnerable people is tantamount to treating him (Jesus) in the same way.

Christ will reveal our deepest secrets—not only our secret actions, but also our motives—the secret purposes of our hearts. Christ not only knows whether we have been good or bad, he knows whether we did good deeds for selfish reasons—or whether our curmudgeonly appearance is simply a heart of gold in disguise.

Then each one will receive commendation (ho epainos) from God (v. 5c).  The Greek word epainos means commendation or praise.

This is a surprising ending for this passage. Paul makes it sound as if everyone will hear praise from God on Judgment Day—which we know not to be true (Matthew 25:31-46). Nevertheless, Paul clearly expects to receive praise from God on that day. He has served faithfully and at considerable personal cost, so he expects to hear words of commendation. Any judgments prior to that are so tentative as to be useless. It is God’s judgment that counts.

Paul doesn’t mention God’s grace in this verse, but perhaps we should. As Paul says elsewhere, “for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23).

Apart from God’s grace, no one can expect to hear words of praise in the final judgment. Even the best of us—the most self-sacrificial saints—have nothing in their hands to offer God in return for their salvation. When Christ brings his bright light to bear on our lives, we will cringe at the things that he will reveal. We can do nothing more than cry, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)—but that will be sufficient.


6 Now these things, brothers, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to think beyond the things which are written, that none of you be puffed up against one another. 7 For who makes you different? And what do you have that you didn’t receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled. You have already become rich. You have come to reign without us. Yes, and I wish that you did reign, that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last of all, like men sentenced to death. For we are made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You have honor, but we have dishonor. 11 Even to this present hour we hunger, thirst, are naked, are beaten, and have no certain dwelling place. 12 We toil, working with our own hands. When people curse us, we bless. Being persecuted, we endure. 13 Being defamed, we entreat. We are made as the filth of the world, the dirt wiped off by all, even until now.

14 I don’t write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the Good News. 16 I beg you therefore, be imitators of me. 17 Because of this I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every assembly. 18 Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord is willing. And I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. 20 For the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.  21 What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?

 While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, the preacher will do well to understand them. Paul makes sure that these Corinthians understand that what he has said applies to Apollos as well as to himself (v. 6). He is trying to help them so that “none of you be puffed up against one another” (v. 6). He reminds them that they have already become rich, so that they have no reason for further conflict (v. 8). He says (perhaps with a note of sarcasm) that the apostles are fools and weak, but the Corinthian Christians are wise and strong (v. 10)—and he goes on to recount how he and the other Christian pastors persevere in their work, remaining faithful even when reviled and persecuted (vv. 11-13).

Then he addresses these Corinthian Christians as a father would address his children, advising them to imitate him (v. 16). He hopes to visit them again (which will come as a shock to the arrogant people who thought they would never see him again) (vv. 18-20). He asks, “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (v. 21).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan