Know Your Role, Know the Goal (1 Cor. 3:16-4:21)
Having established that the divisions within the Corinthian church were the result of worldly wisdom and that such “wisdom” is incompatible with godly wisdom, Paul now brings this first major section of the letter to a close by reminding his readers how they are to view him as an apostle and as their “father”.
Christians should not boast about what God has freely given to them.
It’s easy to love a gift more than the giver of that gift, isn’t it? As Israel prepared to enter the land of Canaan for example, Moses warned the people to remember the God who was giving that land to them, lest they begin to attribute their prosperity to their own strength (Deut. 8:11-20).
This tendency was responsible for much of the Corinthian church’s divisions. By boasting about having gifts like knowledge, the Corinthians were treating what God had freely given them as if they were personal achievements. In doing so, they were taking the very tools God had given them for building up the church and were using them to tear it down.
The Corinthians didn’t see things this way, of course. In their minds, they had “arrived”. They were wise, mature, and the very pinnacle of what Christians should be. They were self-satisfied and saw themselves as having outgrown Paul. To them, God’s gifts were a means of looking good to the world around them.
The contrasts Paul draws between how the Corinthians viewed themselves and the personal experience of the apostles (4:8-13) couldn’t be greater. The Corinthians had all they wanted, but the apostles were hungry and thirsty; the Corinthians were rich, the apostles “poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless”; the Corinthians had become kings, but the apostles labored with their hands like slaves.
Paul’s contrasts reinforce Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38. Following Jesus means self-denial, not self-promotion; sacrifice, not indulgence. Jesus’ self-denial for our good is the ultimate expression of love (1 John 3:16), love that Paul has imitated for the good of this church, and which he now implores them to imitate (4:16). Selfishness was tearing this church apart, and the solution was for them to deny themselves and use the gifts they had received to serve one another.
• Have you ever been given something you didn’t deserve? How did you respond?
• What is a “steward” (v. 1)? Why do you think Paul describes himself in this way? How does it reinforce what he is saying in this chapter?
• What kinds of sacrifices or personal inconveniences are involved in demonstrating Christ’s love to a) your family, b) your community group, c) unbelievers in your life?
1 Corinthians 4:7 – “For who sees anything different in you? 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?”
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