Paul has been writing to admonish the local church toward maturity, which leads to unity. To this end, the church body is to regard her elders as servants of Christ set apart for their labor in the Lord, and the elders are to regard the church body as holy and worthy of their service for her good. Denominational lines, pastor-worship, and puffed up knowledge do not honor God and cause unnecessary division in the local church. In today’s pericope, Paul explains why he has taken such a definite stance on the position of elders as holy men and slaves in the life of the local church.
1 Corinthians 4:6-13
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.
For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.
Sola Scriptura (v. 6-8)
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes…
Everything Paul has previously written, especially his admonishments to elders (pastors) not to destroy the local church by unsound teaching and to congregants not to judge the elders of the church before the time, he has figuratively applied (μετασχηματιζω, meaning to transfer by a fiction) to himself and Apollos. Application is making plain what the theological truth, Christ is not divided (1:13-17), means for all of life in ministry. In this case, Paul’s application concerns ecclesiological practice. He clarifies that he has figuratively made the application to himself and Apollos. Paul is not the primary recipient of his own message, but he has applied the admonishment to himself as a figure. He has done so for the sakes of the congregation and elders at Corinth.
I do the same thing when I am preaching. Instead of calling people out from the pulpit, “You know what you did,” and pointing my finger because I know the text applies directly to them, I figuratively apply the text to myself for the sake of those listening—to guard against humiliation because I care about all of those in my charge. Paul clarifies his method so that the Corinthian believers understand that they are to take what he has applied to himself and Apollos and apply it to their own lives. He is saving most from public humiliation and giving them the chance to repent and correct without having to publicly defend themselves. In most cases, then, it is not right or necessary for someone in sin to be called out publicly. We simply hope they are willing to privately repent to God and correct their priorities and relationships.
If we are all priests, our confession is to God and, perhaps, those we have wronged. We don’t make a big deal of others’ sins publicly. We show grace for the sakes of our brothers and sisters in Christ, that they may have the opportunity to not feel directly condemned. If they are in Christ, they are not condemned despite their current sin.
…so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.
Paul has made application to himself and Apollos so that in them, the congregation may learn not to exceed what is written. He has set an example for the congregation specifically concerning the application of Scripture. He desires that the congregation follow his example. The congregation is not to apply the Bible beyond its own plain application. To put it another way that I often have, we should not call sin what the Bible does not call sin. We should not draw dividing lines based on doctrines that are not defined clearly in Scripture.
Paul’s statement is not holistic. He is not instructing the congregation not to learn apologetics, philosophy, civics, trades, life skills, culture, or whatever else. He is promoting Scripture as entirely authoritative and sufficient for all of life and ministry and as regulative for church doctrine and practice. We major on the Bible’s teaching and minor on other things we might be interested in. This doctrine, Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), means that we do not exceed what is written in order to form divisions.
We do not divide, then, based on a millennial view of Christ’s kingdom, whether or not it is acceptable to baptize or dedicate children, the exactness of church polity, whether or not grape juice is an acceptable substitute for wine in communion, the use of communion crackers or bread, the genre of music, the color of the carpet, or whether or not some church leader is meeting our preferences.
An interesting question arises when we think about Sola Scriptura. If Scripture alone is authoritative and sufficient for all of life and ministry, why do we need teachers, commentaries, explanations of the Bible, or applications? Is it not sufficient to simply read what God has given? At this juncture, we simply realize the meaning of Paul’s statement deals with the drawing of dividing lines and is not a holistic statement. Sola Scriptura does not eliminate the need to understand what has been written more fully. If we are depraved, we are not able to sufficiently understand Scripture on our own—which is Paul’s point. Lone wolf Christianity is prideful. One must be humbled to be a part of Christian community and have his or her understanding of the Bible built up by others and build others up. Scripture is sufficient, we are not. Thus, we need all the tools available to increase our understanding. When we try to understand the Bible on our own and follow Christ without the church, we breed immaturity if we are in Christ at all. That is why, when someone comes into church after only every studying the Bible for him or herself, there is a great frustration and fear when he or she realizes that everything they figured out is probably wrong. That is why, in churches that are led by the teaching of a single man, people are often frustrated when they hear something different and learn that the man they have worshipped might have been wrong about something. We all need to be part of the church. We all need to be in a church with plural elders who hold one-another accountable not to exceed what is written according to Paul’s admonition here. Why? So that we will not get puffed up in our knowledge, become arrogant, and divide the local church—which happens often in the age of information.
For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.
After sharing the secret of godly humility, Sola Scriptura, Paul asks a few rhetorical questions that address the superiority complex of the wretched human heart. Who actually regards anyone else a superior? What is it that anyone has that he did not receive? Referring to sound doctrine and biblical teaching, no sound teaching is original to any person. God revealed it. Why then do people boast in their teaching? It is not theirs to boast about as if it was not provided by God. If any teaching is original, then it was not revealed by God and is false teaching.
The congregation is already filled and has become rich like kings. God has given the fullness of His revelation. God has done this so no person can boast because of his or her own prophecy. We simply teach what God has given, hoping to improve our own understanding and the understanding of those who are part of the local church with us.
Paul shares his desire to reign with the congregation, not above them. It is good when people grow in their understanding together. The elders should desire to be the church and reign with the congregation on this earth with Christ alone as their head. I hope that we all grow into maturity because I, too, desire to reign with you and not over you.
Pastor as Public Theologian (v. 9-13)
For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.
Because of Sola Scriptura and because the Holy Spirit actually does the work of salvation, Paul shares his own thoughts as to why the ministry of the apostles, and consequently local church elders, is so public. He thinks that God has exhibited the apostles last of all, or after their ministries are established, as men condemned to death. The public nature of their ministries demands a certain outcome so that they are not exalted. The same is true for any preaching elder. If any sound teacher becomes public and at all popular, he must be humbled either through moral failure, the loss of sound doctrine, suffering, tribulation, or death. In Paul’s case, he sensed he and the other apostles would be martyrs. God makes popular people, especially if they are sound teachers, spectacles to the worlds of angels and men because they are not to be praised above Christ. When preaching elders get into ministry, they must understand that it is not glorious. They will be made a spectacle of for the sake of Christ’s name. Christ alone is to be praised. That is why the soundest public theologians seem to miss the simplest truths. That is why popular sound teachers often fall for some version of the serpent’s gospel or become apostate. It is why we see so many people revered as public teachers fall into moral failure. The higher the personality, the further his fall because only Christ is to be exalted. I hope that, when the time comes for my own fall, it is through suffering and death rather than moral or doctrinal failure. No matter what, may God alone be glorified.
The pastor is a public theologian. If you can be dissuaded from such a calling, don’t do it. The cost is unbearable if you are not really called and empowered by the Holy Spirit for such suffering. For parents and grandparents and teachers and world leaders, there will come a day when our children recognize us as the mere human beings we are. They will see our mistakes and missteps. The Lord God will be the only one to reign supreme in their lives. The Lordship of Christ means humility and equality for all people under His federal headship.
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.
As public spectacles, Paul and the other apostles are fools for Christ’s sake. Quiet Christians have an advantage because they are seen as prudent in Christ. As public spectacles, the apostles are weak and without honor, but quiet Christians are strong and distinguished. As public spectacles, the apostles are hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless, and toilsome. When they are reviled, persecuted, and slandered, because they are public spectacles, they respond with blessing, endurance, and conciliation. They have become the scum of the world and dregs of all things—outliers. They are content as such because they have been given the measure of faith to have joy and be faithful despite the cost, having counted all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.
Applied to the church body, since Paul desires we apply to ourselves what He has applied figuratively to himself and Apollos, pastors are public spectacles in two ways. 1) They are the examples of doctrine and practice to the local church. 2) They are public suffering servants. We are all called to honor God with our beliefs and lives. We are all called to be suffering servants. Only elders are necessarily called to be such in the public eye. Those who are not elders and who do not qualify as elders subject themselves to unnecessary ridicule when they are puffed up in their knowledge or presume to be teachers even though they do not understand the things upon which they insist. For the average Christian, it is important to sit at Christ’s feet and learn with quietness. Most do not have to be public spectacles, though for some reason worldly people love to make public spectacles of themselves. Different preacher-theologians will be spectacles to varying degrees and in different ways depending on God’s plan for them. One way or another, God will humble us all. If we are humble at heart, He will humble us in the eyes of others. He does so for the good of His church and His glory. Soli Deo Gloria.
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