In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 4:1-7 in which Paul spoke about the role of apostles and other ministers in the churches. In this essay we are studying verses 8-21 in which Paul continues his explanation of his role and his attack on the Corinthians’ lack of gratitude and humility. The questions he asks in verse seven suggest that they were neither thankful nor humble. Now in verses eight and following Paul accuses them of already having everything they want. And he uses sarcasm to make his point.
First, he declares that they already are rich, meaning spiritually rich. At least that was their opinion. Second, they already have become kings, with no help from Paul or Apollos. Again that was their opinion. Then Paul sarcastically declares that he wishes they were kings so that he and Apollos could be kings with them.
The term “already” is important here. Paul places it in an emphatic position each time he uses it in verse eight. Both Fee and C.K. Barrett take the position that the term suggests the Corinthian believers were interpreting their possession of the gifts of the Spirit as proof that the end-time kingdom had come. In other words, they were forgetting the difference between the present and future kingdoms. The present kingdom began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But the future, end-time kingdom will not begin until the second coming of Christ. Therefore in our day we still are living in the present kingdom, and the future kingdom has not yet begun.
The last sentence of verse eight sets up the rest of the paragraph. Paul knows with certainty that he and the other apostles are not reigning as kings. So he sets forth evidence from their experience that the end has not yet come. He declares that he and the other apostles are like men sentenced to death, men who have become a spectacle to the world, including both angels and men. Fee and Barrett both believe that this analogy is a reference to death in the arena, where death was a huge spectacle. In other words, the apostles were like those facing death on the arena floor rather than like kings sitting in the box seats watching.
In verse 10 Paul continues his sarcastic contrast between the apostles and the Corinthians. Paul declares that the apostles are fools for the sake of Christ, but the Corinthians are wise. The apostles are weak, but the Corinthians strong. The Corinthians believe themselves held in honor, but the apostles are held in disrepute. Of course Paul’s tongue was firmly in his cheek when he made these sarcastic statements. The truth of the matter is that the Corinthians were neither wise nor strong. And they were not held in honor except in their own minds. At the time Christians in general, including those in Corinth, were looked down upon. The fact that they were in Christ gave them a certain amount of honor in God’s sight, but they were hugely overvaluing their place in the sight of the world.
Beginning at verse 11 Paul drops the sarcasm and explains plainly in some detail what the “disrepute” that comes to those who carry the message of the cross to the world means. In verses 11-12 Paul lists for them the physical hardships of apostles. He says, “to the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed [literally naked], beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands.” If you look at 2 Cor. 11:23-33, you will find a longer list that includes specific examples of Paul’s personal sufferings as an apostle. But even the list seen here shows that Paul experienced both a lack of resources and persecution, because of his decision to follow the call of God to apostleship.
Paul also lists his responses to the hardships. “When reviled we bless; when persecuted we endure; when slandered we speak kindly.” I’m sure you recognize the similarity to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermons on the Mount and the Plain (Mt. 5:5, 10ff, 44; Lk. 6:21ff, 35). It was as if Paul was answering the question “What would Jesus do?”
Paul ends the section by characterizing the treatment that the apostles’ received from the world with a very powerful and unflattering simile: “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things to this very day.” This statement shows how nasty and serious the opposition to the gospel was. Therefore the Corinthians had no business acting like they were enjoying the fruits of the end-time kingdom when it simply was not true. Fee reminds us that as we study these verses, we ought to identify more with the Corinthians than with Paul, because our lives and ministries are entirely different from Paul’s. And if we are honest, we often think of ourselves as rich, strong, and held in honor. In addition we tend to be blind to our “desperate needs.
In verses 14-21, we see the long opening section of the letter about divisions in the Corinthian church come to a close. In these verses Paul lays out his intended role as an apostle among the Corinthians. He begins by clarifying the fact that his purpose in attacking them was not to shame them. Rather his intention was to admonish them as a father admonishes a beloved child. Then he emphasizes his role as a father figure by comparing fathers to guardians. And he basically says that there is no comparison. Ten thousand guardians cannot equal the love and care of a father, especially a spiritual father.
The role of guardians was an important one in Paul’s culture. Guardians were people, sometimes slaves, who were given the heavy responsibility of raising the sons of wealthy men. They took them to school, kept them safe, tutored them in their studies, and taught them manners. But notice that Paul clearly does not consider himself a guardian. He sees himself as a father, a spiritual father.
Paul makes three points regarding his relationship with the Corinthians. First, he is the father of the Corinthian Christian community (v. 15). Second, he is the model for the community (v. 16). And third, he is the disciplinarian of the community
Paul considers his personal presence among the churches to be very important, especially during a crisis. In cases where circumstances did not permit him to visit them himself (as was the case here) he did the next best thing. He sent someone like Timothy in his place, or he wrote a letter, or both. The main crisis at Corinth was the breaking up of the Corinthian community into factions, as revealed by Chloe’s people (1:11). In addition some of them had become arrogant (4:18).
In verse 19 Paul tells the Corinthians that he is planning a trip to Corinth (cf. 16:5-9), but he just cannot manage it at the moment. However, he promises that when he can come, he will see whether the arrogant ones have real power, or are all talk.
Finally, in verse 21 Paul indicates that he can come to them in one of two ways. He can come with a rod or with love in a spirit of gentleness. The choice between the rod and love is up to the arrogant, prideful Corinthians. They can continue their arrogance and refuse to heed Timothy and this letter, which would result in Paul’s coming as a harsh disciplinarian. Or they can repent of their arrogance, and he can come as a loving father.