Text: 1 Cor. 4:6-13
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you! For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We areweak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.
What is humility? Most of us probably define humility as the opposite of being proud. Being proud is to think highly of yourself, to be arrogant, and puffed up. Humility then, must be the opposite of that. But we need to be careful here because humility is actually more difficult to define than this. Simply thinking that you are dumb, weak, or poor is not necessarily being humble. There are forms of pride which look superficially like humility. As C. S. Lewis is often summarized as saying, “True humility not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Humility is seeing that all humans are equally dependent upon God, that all are equal recipients of gifts from God, and that all have a common duty to love God and one another.
Now what’s all this got to do with our text today? Well, in this passage of 1 Corinthians 4, Paul is teaching humility as the cure for church splits. He wants the Corinthians to humble themselves so that they can work together, and Paul even gets a little bit feisty along the way. We’ll see that he uses sarcasm and a bit of biting criticism to make his point—tactics that some might say are not very humble. But they are humble because Paul is trying to grab the Corinthians’ attention away from themselves and towards the common mission of the Church.
So this morning we’ll be looking at humility. I’d like to show that Paul approaches this in two ways. He begins by explaining humility as a concept. He wants the Corinthians to understand humility. He then explains humility by illustrating the way humble people must live. He wants the Corinthians to experience humility. In both ways the message is the same. We should be willing to be made low so that we can serve others and equally worship God.
This section is an immediate application of the preceding verses. Paul has just warned the Corinthians about judging, and now he adds this:
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Cor. 4:6-7)
We see some familiar points here. Paul says that the favoritism which is causing church splits is itself coming from pride, being puffed up, and from not understanding that whatever we have is a gift. The end of verse 7 is states this emphatically, “If you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” If your Christian talents are graces from God, why are you acting like you earned them through your own notoriety and ability? Accept what God gives, be humble, be grateful, and be content.
There’s also an important tie-in to the topic of knowledge or wisdom. Remember that Paul has already devoted about two chapters to criticizing the “wisdom of the world,” and now he says this, “have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written” (vs. 6). Not to think beyond what is written—just what does that mean?
This is a verse that baffles the commentators. It is famously tricky to translate. Sometimes you will hear it quoted out of context in order to argue against adding books to the canon of Scripture. While a good point to make, this verse does not actually teach that, and we know this simply because the canon of Scripture had not been completed yet. It’s also not what the immediate context is talking about. There are a few other opinions out there, but the best one, and the one that makes the most sense out of Paul’s argument here, is that he is warning the Corinthians against appealing to special charismatic knowledge or supposedly wise personalities in the world. Instead, they should stick to the content of the gospels and the Scriptures which they have been taught. This lines up with Paul’s criticism of “wisdom,” and it also supports his point about humility. We all have the same “knowledge” at our disposal, since we have all been given the same teaching, and so we should be humble and content with it.
Now, to not think “beyond what is written” does not mean that extra-biblical information is irrelevant. We can and should make use of appropriate and helpful knowledge if it supports the teaching of the Scriptures and makes the gospel easier to understand and apply. But what this does mean is that those “extra” things can never supplant biblical teaching nor take priority in your thinking. They can’t be what you are most interested in talking about, and they cannot be where you place your trust. If you think that you have some special angle, marketing approach, or political tactic, which will make the gospel succeed, then you come under Paul’s condemnation.
This has some immediate applications for us today. First, you need to actually read your Bible. That might sound like a “duh” sort of point to make, but I have found that a lot of folks who ought to know better don’t actually know their Bibles. When I was a Southern Baptist in rural Mississippi, I didn’t know very much theology. But I did know every book of the Bible in order. I knew about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I participated in “Bible drills” where we had to memorize verses and be able to turn to passages on the spot. Bible was something that my little Baptist church did pretty well. Then I grew up and made my theological pilgrimage. I became “Reformed” and learned about a Christian “world and life view.” I began to read theology books. And this was all for the good. But one piece of collateral damage that I’ve noticed over the years is that Reformed churches can actually forget those basics of learning their Bible because they get so interested in all of the second and third-level advancements. This is very human, but it is actually quite dangerous. If we as a church spend all of or time talking about a Christian view of politics or a Christian view of culture, but we don’t actually know our Bibles, then we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. Our “worldview” won’t have much actual Christian content, and, if we’re not careful, what we will actually be doing is slapping the label “Christian” on to worldly wisdom that is actually coming from a different source.
We need to put the Bible first in our religious life. Listen to David’s words in Psalm 119:
Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients,
Because I keep Your precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
That I may keep Your word.
I have not departed from Your judgments,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Ps. 119:97-103)
Now, how can we say anything close to what David is saying if we aren’t reading our Bibles? How can we obey Paul’s instruction to not go “beyond what is written” if we aren’t sure that we even know what is written? We’ve got to get passionate about knowing our Bibles. The Bible should set our basic curriculum. It should rank our priorities. It should instruct us on how to think and live as Christians
And then to get us back to our primary theme this morning, if we put our Bibles first and refuse to think beyond what is written, then we will also be able to avoid pride in human wisdom. Indeed, this is exactly what Paul highlights, “learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:6). Putting the Bible first helps us avoid creating parties within the church which rally around their favorite topics and interests. It keeps us humble. This happens because we didn’t write the Scriptures. We didn’t even discover them on our own. They are common to all of the people of God, and they humble us just by reading them and attempting to do what they teach.
Having explained the importance of humility, Paul then emphasizes the experience of it, and he does so in two ways. First he criticizes the Corinthians for not living in a humble way, and secondly he shows the example of his own life, how he has been abused and despised for the sake of Christ. We see some of Paul’s more critical rhetoric in this section, and you’ll notice that he uses satire and irony to make his point. He writes:
You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you! For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! (1 Cor. 4:8-10)
Paul says that the Corinthians are “already full” and “already rich.” They have “reigned as kings.” What’s going on here?
The obvious thing is that they have not been humble. They are probably motivated by a particular theological teaching about the kingdom. Throughout 1 Corinthians, we get the sense that the Corinthians believe that the kingdom is already here and that this gives them all sorts of special privileges. They use the doctrine of “kingdom” to empower themselves and claim superiority over others. And Paul is telling them that they’ve got it all wrong because the kingdom of Jesus Christ is not a kingdom of worldly power but of humility.
In fact, real kingdom living is very different. Paul says that while the Corinthians have been living high on the hog, he and other disciples of Christ have been living like they are “condemned to death.” They have been made a “spectacle.” They have gone hungry, been beaten, despised, and spoken of as filth. Paul even says that he and his fellow ministers have “been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.” That’s pretty strong stuff.
If you want to know how to live humbly in the kingdom, you ought to look at the example of Christ and at the example of His ministers. Service, suffering, and an all-around bad public image—those are the marks of humble kingdom living. Does that sound appealing to you? Is that the kind of thing you were looking for when you joined the church? If not, then perhaps you should take a moment to consider again what it is that you are really after. And if it is something you have acknowledged, my challenge is to simply ask you if you are consistently living that way. Are you?
This again teaches us about humility. Humility isn’t just not thinking highly of yourself. It is also a willingness to be made “low.” You’re going to need to be humble to put up with the kind of life Paul promises the faithful. To endure slander, exclusion, and unpopularity—to be thought of as a fool or worse!—you’re going to first have to be humble.
And so how can we do this? How can we have this kind of supernatural humility? Only by God’s grace, of course. It always starts with a proper understanding. We have to see ourselves as recipients of grace, confessing that all the good things we have are things we have been given, just like all the rest of the faithful. We need to be content with God’s providence, His teaching, and what He has shown us in His Scriptures. We ought not to think beyond what is written.
And then there are some practical things to train us towards humility. Paul gives them in vs. 12 and 13: “we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.” Those are the regular practices that Paul and his companions engaged in to show their humility and to model it to other Christians. We should labor, learning to work hard and to appreciate how much it takes to do anything in this world. Work is good training for the rest of life, and work is never something Christians outgrow. We also need to bless, especially when we are reviled. We need to endure. Endurance is very important—it’s essential actually—but we will never endure in the Christian walk if we are not humble.
And then finally, we need to entreat those who defame us. This is a very difficult thing to do. It means that when people speak evil against us and say slanderous falsehood, we should not return evil for evil. Don’t get mad. Don’t even spend a lot of energy trying to prove your innocence. Instead, entreat. To entreat is to speak kindly. The Greek word in the original text actually means to comfort or encourage. Basically, we should be really nice and kind in the face of evil gossip and slander.
Does that sound crazy to you? It certainly flies against the wisdom of the world. But it’s exactly what Jesus teaches as well:
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
We can only obey Jesus if we are first humble enough to give up worldly power and esteem. We have to believe that God will indeed take care of us and reward us, and we have to understand that this is the pattern of Christian discipleship. Jesus calls us to follow Him, but He calls us to do this while bearing a cross.
Let us pray.