Text: 1 Cor. 3:18-4:5
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.
One of the most well-known Bible verses in our day is also one of the least-understood. It’s a favorite line among non-Christians especially. I’m referring to Matthew 7:1, “Judge not lest you be judged.” This line is often quoted by unbelievers and critics of Biblical Christianity in order to say that Christians should refrain from making moral judgments upon others, even to the point that they shouldn’t say that certain behaviors or lifestyle choices are “right” or “wrong.” When I was in Jr. High the famous rapper Tupac Shakur popularized the expression, “Only God can judge me.” This was meant to justify his gangster lifestyle, and it quickly caught on as a favorite thing for all of the students to say when they found themselves in a tight spot. “Judge not”—everyone knows that this is Christian doctrine, but hardly anyone knows what it means.
The trouble with responding to the misuse of “judge not” is that we’re tempting to simply roll our eyes and dismiss the Biblical message as well as the misinterpretation of it. “Everyone judges. You had to make a judgment in order to tell me not to judge,” we say. And that’s true. The Bible also commands us to judge and to judge rightly, with justice. However, we need to be careful that we take the prohibition against judging seriously as well. We know what it doesn’t mean, but what does it mean?
Not judging is something that Jesus teaches, but it also appears in the Apostle Paul’s writings, and we see it here in 1 Corinthians. This morning we will look at this teaching in more detail and try to understand what Paul means. When we consider what he says in the end of chapter 3, along a few of his other teachings earlier in the book, we can see that his point is that our eschatological status is more important than our standing in the world’s eyes today. Our value and worth ultimately comes from God, and we will enjoy our “just desserts” on the Last Day. For the present, we shouldn’t worry ourselves by what others think of us, especially the ways in which they dismiss us and discount us as unimportant and illegitimate. We know what we are worth because we know who we really are, who we are in God’s eyes, in Christ. And we know that He is coming to judge us all in truth.
Become a Fool
The first thing to notice is that this section is not primarily about ethics and ethical judgment. Paul is not saying “don’t judge me” the way that many moderns do, as an attempt to be able to sin without apology. No, the context is about “wisdom” and respectability. He is willing to be considered a fool in the eyes of the community, even though he believes that the “foolishness” he is proclaiming is actually true wisdom. In fact, he says, “Let him become a fool that he may become wise” (1 Cor. 3:18). Christian doctrine is true wisdom, and the estimation of the world is actually false. But Christians will still be called fools in this life, and Paul says that we need to accept this reality and lean in. After all, you can’t embarrass or shame a fool. Peer pressure should be powerless before us.
We don’t want to be thought of as fools though. We want to be smart, and this is understandable. But it’s also dangerous. Being wise in your own eyes is a classic temptation. We all chase after it, even when we say that we’re not impressed by sophisticated learning and the opinion of the experts. Still we think we’re smarter. What we are usually saying is that we think we’ve found a better and more efficient path to knowledge. The Bible’s answer is not to simply find another, better wisdom—thought it does say we will possess that in time—but instead to be humble. We are taught to find our wisdom not so much in new explanations but in obedience to God:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and depart from evil. (Proverbs 3:5-7)
This is why Paul tells us not to “boast in men” (1 Cor. 3:21). All are alike made low in the sight of God when they oppose His teaching, and whenever we obey God we are wiser than the wisest men of this earth. Indeed, Paul reminds us that ungodly wisdom leads to destruction, “For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile’” (1 Cor. 3:19-20).
This is why we should become fools for Christ’s sake. In becoming a fool, we should know that we will be judged by the world. We will be treated like fools. That’s why Paul reminds us that the world’s judgment means nothing in this regard. And if the world’s judgment is actually foolish, then we must remember not to try to use it ourselves against others. That would be real foolishness. This leads to Paul’s next point.
Paul says that since we will be considered fools by the unbelieving world, our goal ought to be faithful stewardship of the gospel: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1-2). Faithfulness to God’s calling should be our highest priority, and a reputation of faithfulness is far greater than being known as wise and powerful in the world. Leaders in the church, especially, should disavow worldly prestige in favor of being found faithful.
But even this judgment of faithfulness can be misused. Paul says that the only judgment he is concerned about is God’s own judgment:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor. 4:3-4)
Neither the judgment of other men nor even Paul’s own judgment really matters. It is God’s judgment and only God’s judgment which defines us. This truth gives Paul the strength and motivation to continue in his ministry against all odds.
There’s a lesson for us in this as well. Christians in general, and pastors in particular, ought to be fearless in the face of worldly opposition. We cannot be defined by the evaluation of unbelief, and we should not allow mistaken notions of respectability to keep us from doing what’s right, and from doing it boldly. Paul holds all “human courts” in low esteem because he knows Whose judgment really counts.
Now, we have to hold this in tandem with the other New Testament teachings about upright conduct and a general good reputation. The same Apostle Paul says that pastors “must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). He also says that young widows should remarry so that they “give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully: (1 Tim. 5:14). In Romans 14 we are also taught to bear with the weaker brother and his scruples so that our good will not be “spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). Thus there is a general rule to have a good name among the world and with those whom we might have religious disagreements. We can’t appeal to “judge not” in order to simply be unruly or obnoxious.
And so, putting these two rules together, we see that while we should be concerned about a good ethical reputation, not every criticism that the world makes of us should be taken to heart. The world should never sway us from our convictions. In fact, not even self-criticisms should be allowed to make us freeze in our tracks and cease from following out God’s calling. Remember the words of John, “if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:20). As Christians, we need to have true conviction, and we need to resist self-doubt that comes from unbelief and the accusations of the world.
This is what “judge not” is all about. It doesn’t mean that ethics don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to worry about customs, etiquette, or being polite. Ethics do matter, and we should do our best to be kind and to respect other people. But what “judge not” means is that all of our judgments about someone’s personal worth and faithfulness need to be held in check. This is true whether we’re talking about the faith of others or of ourselves. We actually cannot judge the heart, not even our own, and that’s why faith always goes back to believing in God’s promise to overcome all things.
“Judge not” is also about keeping our judgments limited in this life. We do our best and make judgment calls and use discernment, but ultimately we leave the eschatological verdict to God. We know that He is the judge of the quick and the dead, and we trust in His judgment and in the Word He has given us.
This is why Paul says that he does not regard the judgment of others and then immediately tells us not to judge. Giving value and rendering the last word is not our business. It isn’t the business of the world’s, and it isn’t the business of individual Christians. Paul writes:
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God. (1 Cor. 4:5)
This parallels what we are told at the end of Romans 12. We are not to “avenge ourselves” because “vengeance is the Lord’s” (Rom. 12:19). So too, we should “judge nothing before the time” because the Lord will come and “bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5). God’s judgment is what matters. This is true for those times when people judge us, and it is true for those times when we judge others. Ultimate condemnation and ultimate praise come only from God.
Paul’s point in all of this is to drive home the teaching that earthly judgments of every sort must be subordinated to and relativized by God’s judgment. We must hold fast to what we have received through the gospel and not be swayed by contrary opinions. This is a message of empowerment to the faithful and to the church. And so, let me leave you with four charges this morning.
First, resolve to be faithful, no matter what. While you should be careful in forging all of your plans, and you should always be willing to examine what it is you believe, subjecting it to reasonable scrutiny, you should never abandon your faith because of the judgment of others. Once you know what you believe and truly believe it, you must be willing to hold on to it and defend it against all odds. Even against unpopularity.
Secondly, this means that you cannot let the judgment of others cause you to doubt yourself and your faithfulness. Don’t listen to them. Shake ‘em off. You know what really matters because God Himself has told you. He has given you His judgment.
Third, don’t let your own anxiety and insecurities cause you to doubt. Some of us are very good at tuning out the world but we nevertheless allow our own self-criticism and doubt to stop our progress in the faith. Our deepest fears overwhelm us or our improperly-ordered desires take us off-track. Learn when you shouldn’t listen to yourself. Just like you know that the judgment of others doesn’t matter, you should know that your own judgment doesn’t matter. God’s judgment is all that matters.
And then finally, and this might be the hardest part of all, give up your judgment of others. Don’t condemn anyone, and don’t discredit them to the point that you could never accept them again or allow them to be welcome in the church. You are not their judge. You can tell them what is right, and you might have to enforce certain sanctions at times, but you should never personally condemn them. Leave that to God and know that true justice will only finally come at the 2nd Coming. He is the one that will straighten out what’s crooked and bring light to the darkness. You can’t fix people, and so you shouldn’t spend all our energy trying. But take heart because true justice will come, and you can count on that. And also, keep believing that God changes people in this life. The gospel is the power of salvation unto all that believe, and we should always keep that hope before ourselves and the world. Don’t write people off. You don’t know the end of their story, not yet. Things aren’t over, and you don’t know what God might already be doing. Trust God’s judgment, and leave it to Him.
Faith is trusting in God. Do you believe? If so, then you can’t let any contrary judgment get you down, and you can’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of trying to give those kinds of judgments on others. Give it all to God, trust in His word, and keep the faith boldly. This is the courage and the conviction that Paul calls us to, and this is the courage and conviction that it will take to persevere and overcome a hostile world. We can only do this through the grace of God, but we can take heart in the knowledge that He has given us exactly that in Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.