William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Corinthians 4:1 - 4:21

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Corinthians 4:1 - 4:21


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1 Corinthians Chapter 4

The apostle had now shown the solemn responsibility of the workman, and the impropriety of all boast in men, seeing that all things were theirs as truly as they were Christ's and Christ God's. It was needful however to draw out still more fully the relations of ministers, and this he does in the beginning of our chapter. "So let a man account of us, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's* mysteries." (Ver. 1.) The apostle is careful so to characterize himself as well as Apollos. They were Christ's official servants, not merely he and Cephas who were apostles, but he and Apollos, the latter of whom certainly had no such apostolic place.

* Only F inserts τοῦ before θεοῦ

Indeed nothing could be simpler than the manner in which this Alexandrian brother was led on in the work of the Lord, having begun it when possessed of the least possible light (the baptism of John) and afterwards indebted to no more formal instructors than the godly Priscilla and Aquila. But being an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures, he contributed much to those who believed through grace, particularly in the controversies which sprang up with the Jews. From Ephesus he went to Corinth soon afterwards. We can thus understand how readily so distinguished a person fell in with the taste of not a few Christians in that city, whose party-spirit raised him up (with not the least allowance of it on his part) against Paul or Peter. On the other hand the apostle in the holy liberty of grace would in no way lower Apollos - rather the contrary, classing him with himself, and this not merely as bondmen (δούλους but as servants of Christ. They were therefore responsible to Him only. Thus they were also ὑπήρεται (official servants) and stewards of God's mysteries. This was their duty to the household of God - to furnish meat in due season, specially that truth which is most distinctively characteristic of the New Testament.

It is scarcely needful to prove here that "mysteries" never mean the sacraments or standing institutions of Christianity. God's mysteries mean those secret things which are now revealed in contrast with what Israel had of old (Deu_29:29), not, as is vulgarly supposed, things unintelligible, but truths reserved by God in Old Testament times, now displayed in Christ on high and made known by the Spirit in the New Testament.

"Here* moreover it is sought in stewards that one be found faithful, but to me it amounts to very little that I be inquired into by you or by man's day. Nay, I do not inquire even into myself, for I am conscious to myself of nothing, yet I am not justified by this, but he that inquireth into me is the Lord. So then judge nothing prematurely until the Lord shall have come, who shall both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and shall make manifest the counsels of the hearts, and then shall each have his praise from God." (Ver. 2-5.)

* Ὧδε in A B C Dp.m. F, Vulg. It. Syr. Copt. Aeth. Arm. etc.; whereas ὃ δέ has only Dcorr L., many cursive) and some Greek Fathers.

Thus the apostle reasons from the figure of a steward where fidelity was especially required. The critical reading is ὧδε instead of the common ὅ δέ and there can be little doubt that the former, not the latter, is correct. Here (meaning on earth), he adds, it is required in the case of stewards, that one should be found faithful. Undoubtedly it is of still more consequence in the steward of heavenly things; but the apostle is careful to place the personal responsibility of the steward in direct relation to Christ; "but to me it is a very little thing [or, "amounteth to very little"] that I should be," not exactly, "judged" "by you." The word properly signifies the preliminary inquiry before the trial. Not that this was said in contempt of the Corinthian saints; man's day, or inquisition, was held equally cheap by him, whoever might essay to undertake a task which the Lord had never delegated to man. Not only is none competent, but the Spirit gives no sufficiency for this thing. It is reserved for the Lord whom alone it suits, even if the creature could conceivably be made fit for it. Here again it was no slight of others, nor self-complacency, for he particularly disclaims any pretension either to irresponsibility or to be his own judge.

Man is wholly incompetent for such an inquiry, were he even an apostle: yea, it would be an usurpation of the functions of the Lord. It is of the highest importance that this immediate sense of responsibility to Him be maintained always and everywhere. Whether it be a question of Paul or of Apollos, it is the same principle. Nor does it apply only to those whom God set first in the church, or in Christ's service, but to the last or least no less than to the first. To the Lord alone it belongs to inquire into their service.

Again, it is of the utmost importance to see that the church has no such authority or duty. Christ's servants according to their gift in His sovereign disposal may serve the church, or they may be debtors to all men in the gospel; but in their service, in all its details as well as in principle, they are accountable alone to Christ. For He, and not the church, gave them the gift, the possession and exercise of which constitutes them His servants. As they are called to love and honour the assembly, so the assembly is bound to respect their direct allegiance to Christ the Lord, not to interpose itself between Him and them.

The servants no doubt are saints, and as such their conduct, if apparently so wrong, comes under discipline, and, if really evil, under holy censure. No person or office enjoys or ought to enjoy immunity. Nay, the doctrine of teachers if false, would expose them to the assembly's judgment, and more severely than in the case of others, because of their position, perhaps even to putting away. A clearly improper use of their gift for selfish purposes might bring them under similar dealing, were the doctrine ever so sound. Still in their service as such, apart from such evil, Christ's ministers are directly and exclusively accountable to Himself. They have not a lady over them in the church, but are subject only to the Lord. The abandonment of this truth, the assertion of the assembly's instead of Christ's authority over ministry, brought in catholicism and finally popery, though other and still more deadly ingredients might mingle with both and the last especially. But the substitution of the church for Christ in regulating ministry, as well as claiming to be its source, is assuredly an evil of the gravest nature; and Protestantism has by no means succeeded in exorcising completely this evil spirit. Do we not see it active in Presbyterianism, flourishing in Wesleyanism, gross and unblushing in Congregationalism? Truly we may say this kind goeth not forth but by prayer and fasting; for as the energy and self-importance not of ecclesiastics but of men dearly loves it, it is only faith that can walk in constant dependence on the Lord, so as to dispense with it and make it an intrusion and offence.

It is of deep interest also to observe the apostle's choice of expression. Even in speaking of the Lord he does not say κρίνων but ἀνακρίνων με The truth is that the believer never comes into judgment (κρίσιν as our Lord Himself laid down in John 5; if he did, he must be lost. Life and judgment are incompatible. He that refuses Christ and life in Him will assuredly be judged. He is lost, and it will be manifest then.

Thus is the honour of Christ vindicated by God on such as have spurned His Son. Those who believe in Him are called to no such compulsory and ruinous homage; they gladly bow even now to Him their Lord and life. They will give account to God; they will receive according to the things done in the body, as they will be manifested before the judgment-seat of Christ; but they will never come into judgment, having already faith and eternal life in Him. They exercise themselves, therefore, to have a good conscience now.

So the apostle says here (not speaking of his past life, though even there he had walked conscientiously, however blinded and so sinning with a high hand), "I am conscious to myself of nothing," yet, he adds, "I am not justified by this." A good conscience is a good thing; but it does not clear the person who may in this or that be blinded by self-love or other feelings. The Lord will decide at His coming; it is He who makes the only adequate inquiry. "Wherefore judge nothing prematurely [which the Corinthians were presuming to do], until the Lord shall have come, who will [not judge us but] both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each have his praise from God." At that epoch all that sought the dark to avoid detection will be exposed in the light of God, which will even manifest the counsels which the hearts themselves failed to see through. How fallacious often is the praise of men now where shams and shadows reign for most! Then shall each have the praise that is due and enduring and precious from God. Of this alone the apostle speaks here. He had already spoken of perdition, and of salvation where the work of the careless workman is burnt up.

The apostle had thus established both the dependence of the. servant on the Lord, and his independence of human scrutiny. Not, of course, that the church is denied its responsibility to judge conduct. Here it is a question of the counsels of the heart, which no man can scan duly, but the Lord will at His coming. "And then," he adds solemnly, "shall the praise be to each from God." He could thus speak freely and happily himself. It ought to have searched the conscience of many a Corinthian.

"And these things, brethren, I transferred to myself and Apollos on your account, that ye may in our case learn nothing above what is written,* in order that ye be not puffed up one for one against another. For who distinguisheth thee? and what hast thou which thou didst not receive? But if thou didst even receive, why boastest thou as not having received? Already ye are filled, already ye have been enriched, apart from us ye reigned; and I would that ye did reign, that we also might reign with you" (ver. 6-8). The apostle explains here what he has also done elsewhere - his applying a principle to himself, and, in this case, to Apollos also, which he meant for others, in order that the saints might be profited. The misleaders at Corinth were really in his view, as the apostle here implies; but he lays down a standard, by which he does not hesitate to measure himself and Apollos, which the saints could easily use for others whose pretensions were as high and unfounded as the services of Paul and Apollos were real and of God. Of Him some had lost sight entirely; and each, choosing his leader, was puffed up with party feeling. What is written makes God everything, man at best an instrument, as he is alone rightly a servant. God only makes the difference between one and another, and this especially in divine things. And as it is He who makes a difference, what has anyone that he has not received? and if received, why boast as if it were not so? The folly of Corinthian vanity was evident in being puffed up for those they exalted as their respective chiefs.

* The MSS differ in trifles or slips, which do not affect a version of verve 6, save here, where p.m. B Dp.m. Ep.m. F G, old Latin, Vulg., etc., add nothing to γεγρ But the Text. R. adds φρονεῖν "to think," supported not only by the later correctors of some of the older copies, but by L P, and most cursives, versions, and fathers.

But he proceeds to deal a further blow, and this of the keenest irony, as Isaiah scrupled not to do in exposing the folly of idol-worship. Trashy, if not corrupting, doctrine always lowers practice; and the Corinthians had insensibly relinquished or lost the place of sufferers with Christ. This the apostle notices witheringly. When Christ reigns, we shall indeed be at ease, and in the fullest satisfaction; and He will drink the wine new with us in the kingdom of His Father - yea, He will gird Himself, and make us recline at table, and come and serve us as He in His grace deigned to assure us, when He will also set the faithful servant over all that He has, But now is the time to deny self, to take up one's cross, and follow Him, who suffered many, all, things here below. But all was confusion for the Corinthians; their eye was not single, and their body therefore anything but full of light. "Already [that is, before the time] ye are filled, already ye have become rich, apart from us ye reigned, and I would that ye did reign." For they were deceiving themselves: the time was not yet come. False doctrine had made them false practically to the present object of God. Satan had succeeded in severing them, in walk at least and aims, from the Lord, who nevertheless waits for the time of glory, when He and they shall really reign together. The apostle proceeds to draw out the contrast seen in those to whom, if God had set them "first in the church," He had given grace to become the greatest and most patient sufferers in the world.

"For, I think,* God set us the apostles last as devoted to death, because we became a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men, we fools for Christ, but ye wise in Christ; we weak, but ye strong; ye illustrious, but we disgraced. Until the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and buffeted and homeless wanderers, and we toil, working with our own hands; reviled, we bless; persecuted, we suffer; slandered," we beseech. We became as the world's scum, offscouring of all, until now" (ver. 9-13). It is evident that those who misled the Corinthians, as well as the saints misled by them, had made the church their world, and that fleshly principles had supplanted the grace of Christ for their souls. They had schools and spectacles of their own, as well as the Greeks outside. In a burst of the finest feeling, not without sarcasm but with real love, which could use it for good, the apostle sets out the true path of Christ as one of suffering but victory over the world. Faith working by love can alone secure such victory. This was apostolic ambition, if ambition there can be of a saintly kind; and this God had given the apostles in appointing them last, nearest to Christ, who had gone down into depths of suffering where none could follow. But there were sufferings of Christ which grace does share with the Christian, and these the apostles knew best, and of the apostles, we may perhaps add, none so much as Paul. Well could he then say, "God set us, the apostles, last, as devoted to death, a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men." Did the Corinthians wish and claim to be prudent in Christ? The apostles at least were content to be fools for His sake. Were the Corinthians strong and glorious in their own desire and estimate? The apostles gloried in weakness and disgrace; even as Peter and John, on a well-known occasion, went their way rejoicing from before the Sanhedrim, because they had been counted worthy to be dishonoured in behalf of the name. Nor was it only the fervour of early zeal. "To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked and buffeted and homeless wanderers, and labour working with our own hands." Had not the Corinthians, or their misleaders, counted all this low and eccentric, ascetic and enthusiastic, in Paul? "Railed on, we bless; persecuted, we endure; slandered, we beseech: we became as the world's scum, offscouring of all, until now:" an utter impossibility, of course, not in this or that particular which superstition can readily imitate, but as a whole, save through the constraining and assimilating love of Christ, who cheers those who set out and go on in such a path as this with the bright comfort of reigning along with Him. For I reckon, as the apostle says in Romans 8, that the sufferings of this present time are of no account in comparison of the glory that is to be revealed in regard to us. If there is a more energetic sketch of the suffering here, it is because apostles are in view rather than the saints at large; but the principle is the same, and the Corinthians had slipped out of it to present ease and dignity, which they thought due to the truth of Christianity - an error which soon culminated, as it still does, in Christendom. Where are those that can expose it, not only in word but in deed and in truth?

* T. R.* here inserts ὅτι "that," supported by the corr. of and D E L P, most cursives and versions and fathers, as against p.m. A B C D p.m. F G, 46, 116, some of the best and oldest Latin copies, and of the earliest fathers, Greek and Latin.

† For blasf. ( corr. B D E F G L, most cursives, and perhaps It. Vulg. etc. as in T. R.), p.m. A C P 17, 46, etc. give δυσφημούμενοι "defamed."

The apostle, in accepting, yea, claiming, a place of present contempt in the world's eyes for the chief emissaries of the Lord, in contrast with the ease and honour which the Corinthians lived in and valued, the fruit of the false teaching in their midst, had put the case in such a form as could not fail to appeal, and deeply, to every heart that loved Christ. He now, with the quick sensibility of genuine affection, seeks to reassure them. If he had wounded any, were not his wounds those of a friend? "Not to abash you do I write these things, but as my beloved children I admonish [you]; for if you should have ten thousand child-guides in Christ, yet not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus through the gospel I begot you. I beseech you then, become imitators of me." (Ver. 14-16.) A false teacher flatters his party, and abuses those who oppose his aims. He who is faithful to the Lord loves the saints; but this very love makes him vigilant, and gives moral courage to deal with what is offensive to Him. Yet his reproof is for those ears who need it, not for others to lower in their eyes such as may be censured.

It is well to observe that there is no depreciation of christian teaching or teachers in comparison with gospel work, such as the common version naturally insinuates. It is an appeal to the love which ought to bind specially the converted souls to him who was the means of bringing them to God; and not in any way a formal comparison of the relative value of this gift with that. Hence there is the avoidance of the word διδασκάλους or teacher, and the use of the somewhat slighting term, παιδαγωγούς as applied to those at Corinth who had done too much to occupy and turn away the saints there. Some of these might affect the law, others philosophy; but all Bought to keep the brethren who listened to them in their leading-strings. They had little enjoyment of, or confidence in, the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and hence sought to direct the thoughts and ways of their admirers, as do guardians, or παιδαγωγοί with the young entrusted to their charge. But this savours more of Jewish or Gentile modes, than of the gospel or its liberty; and the apostle could not but remind them that he it was who begot them through the gospel. Only one could feel for them as a parent - himself; yet was it against him especially that these leaders of cliques had sought to alienate his "beloved children." It is the interest of such a guardian to retain his charge in subjection as long-as possible; while a father's joy is to see his children grow up intelligent as well as affectionate, maintaining the family character. Hence he adds, "I beseech you then, become imitators of me," a word which he urges again at the beginning of 1 Cor. 11, with the beautiful proviso, "even as I also [am] of Christ." Disinterested love is bold, and can speak freely. Certainly he sought not theirs but them, and the cross in practice, not earthly ease or honour or gain. Had they not lost their sense of what becomes the Christian? Let them follow him in self-renunciation for Christ.

"For this cause I sent to you Timotheus, who is my beloved and faithful child in [the] Lord, who will remind you of my ways that are in Christ [Jesus],* even as everywhere in every assembly I teach." (Ver. 17.) This young servant of the Lord was one who could speak the more intimately of the apostle's ways in Christ; inasmuch as, on the one hand, he himself was his beloved and faithful child (which the apostle could not say of the Corinthians); on the other, the apostle never accommodated his doctrine to the assemblies, so as to falsify the testimony of the Lord. Whatever might be the elasticity of grace which dealt with individuals, seeking their blessing in Christ, he taught in every assembly just as he wrote to Corinth. The ways that are in Christ do not waver; they are straight, if painful to the flesh. Yet this was the man whom the perverse eyes of detractors charged with inconsistency and untrustworthiness! It is utterly false that a differing doctrine in discipline prevailed in the different assemblies. The apostle taught the same everywhere, and his writings insist on it where he did not go personally. It is the assembly of God, and His mind varies not. He had demanded nothing of the assembly in Corinth that he had not laid down elsewhere.

* C Db, some fifteen cursives, some good Latin copies, Cop. later Syr. Arm. (Aeth. invertedly), etc., give Χ Ἰ but the latter is not in A B Dc E L P, most cursives, other good Latins, Pesch. Syr., etc. D F G (Gr. and Lat.) have Κυρίῳ Χ

But some had drawn from the apostle's not going to Corinth, and sending Timothy, that he shrank from visiting the assembly there. So had the false apostles insinuated in their own pride to his depreciation. "Now some were puffed up as though I were not coming unto you; but I shall come shortly unto you, if the Lord will, and will know not the word of those that are puffed up but the power; for the kingdom of God [is] not in word but in power. What will ye? that I come unto you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of meekness?" (Ver. 18-21.) Indeed he was coming, and for this dependent on the Lord's will. But subjection to the Lord in no way enfeebles the conduct of His servants. So on coming the apostle tells them he will know, not pretentious talk, but reality - "the power." For this in truth is the essential characteristic of "the kingdom of God," in contradistinction from "the word," to which Greek ears had been ever used, and alas! the Jews for the most part. And this* leads the apostle to remind the Corinthian saints that, if he had reminded them of the peculiar bond between them and him, as their father through the gospel, he had power and authority from God, however slow he might be to enforce it. It was for them indeed, as he puts it, to decide how he was to come, for this was the real question, not whether, nor when, but how: with a rod, or with love and a spirit of meekness? What he desired himself, as he says elsewhere, was their edification, not their destruction. In Acts 5 we see Peter using the rod; and the apostle Paul could do as much according to the Lord. But his heart sought other things for his beloved children: what did they wish?

* It seems to me, therefore, that Calvin did not duly see the connection with what the apostle had just pressed, or he would not have said that the person who divided the epistle into chapters ought to have made 4: 21 the beginning of chapter 5. These chapters appear to be better divided as they are.