WISE LIKE CHRIST (Research Paper Taught as Bible Study).


Literary Context and Form.

1 Corinthians 4:1-13 is the final phase of Paul’s first major argument in The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:10-4:21).[1]The most imperative issue that must be dealt with—before moving on to other topics—is the factionalism in the church and its causes. These main causes are: Corinthians over-valuing this carnal life; idolizing men (Sophists, other rhetoricians, and the like) and their intelligence; treating God’s apostles who share the gospel—as mere Sophists who share incomplete wisdom; trying to be associated with these men and not hoping in the greater glory—that comes from belonging to Christ in the coming resurrection.

The letter begins with the reproof of factionalism and explaining that divisions based on who they belong to is not logical, because Christ is incomparably superior to those they idolize. This argument is developed by showing how the wisdom and way of the Gospel is a paradigm and the utter opposite of the world’s way. Finally, in chapter 3, Paul openly reveals his, possibly offensive, point that the Corinthians misunderstand leadership—the topic causing the division amongst them,—and explains that the previous paradigm is the true foundation that produces growth into the maturity that makes a “trustworthy” leader (4:2).[2]The following passage (4:14-21) shows that Paul’s recounting of his and Apollos’ suffering and sacrifice—in vv. 11-13a—is a description of the Christian model of leadership that the Corinthians should follow.[3]Nonetheless, the first part of the letter is not just an example of Christian leadership in discouraging factionalism, but also an argument for the Corinthians to value the instructions and proofs in the rest of the letter.


Don’t Judge Apostles As You Do Sophists (Vv. 1-5).

Paul’s first goalin the passage is to establish the single criterion by which he may be judged.[4]Verse 1 refers back to his earlier symbolism in 3:5-9[5]in an attempt to show the Corinthians how his apostolic ministry points to Christ as his Master,[6]in light of its battle with them.[7]While v. 2 establishes the apostle is required by the Master to be found trustworthy in that individual’s service. The symbolism here stresses that it is not Paul’s initiative, much less his personal authority,that will be judged but rather his direct submission to the master’s will.[8]

The third verse argues for the Corinthians not to judge. “With me” comes first in the Greek and is contrasting Paul’s views with the Corinthians. The words rendered judgedand judgecome from anakrinō in Greek which has the connotation of vigorous examining, but not pronouncingjudgementas in v. 4.[9]This probably refers to the same kind of examination the Corinthians did when judging sophists.[10]“[A]ny human court” is actually “any human day” in a literal translation, and seems to be introducing “future eschatology”[11]in pointing to the dayGod will Judge us.[12];[13]

Although Paul, Apollos, and the other apostles are servingthe Corinthians, they are God’s servants.[14]Therefore, only God has the right to judge—or “acquit”—his servant, as we see in v. 4. Gordon D. Fee interprets v. 4 as Paul saying that he does not have any “hidden agendas,” but upon review of the text Fee cites, it seems, rather, that Paul is communicating that he does not have any other agenda apart fromsharing the gospel and that there is no higher priority for him.

Context is vital for verse five. By reading this verse in its cultural context we see that Paul is probably prohibiting the Corinthians from judging him as a common rhetor,[15]which exhibits their over-spiritualized eschatology.[16]By reading it in its literary context we see that the “time” Paul refers to is the final judgement that God will make.[17]Paul is obviously not prohibiting the Corinthians from making any judgements, as he exhorts them to think critically and judge other things later in the letter.[18]The darkness here is not a reference to evil or sin, but simply imagery to depict the hidden motive and desires of the heart.[19]In other words Paul is saying—in this verse: “Do not judge me as the supreme master will make the final judgement of all his servants on the last day. On that day, even the inner thoughts of the heart will be known, and I am not afraid.[20]Though maybe you (Corinthians) should be, as we have stopped talking about the less-important outward appearance, and begun to talk about what really matters, the heart.”[21]

Flipping the Paradigm (Vv. 6-7).

Verses 1-5 are the climax of the premises in chapter three, via the culmination of key ideas such as servantimagery and awaiting the final judgement.[22]Contrary to Witherington’s hypothesis that v. 6 should be included with the argument in vv. 1-5,[23]It appears fairly certain that v. 6 explains that Paul is applying these previously demonstrated concepts to himself and Apollos, as a transition to the following passage.[24]

Before continuing, it is prudent to observe some background information about Apollos. He was a well versedand eloquent manfrom Alexandria(Acts 18:24)[25]—educational center of the eastern roman empire.[26]The Greek in the preceding verse indicates Apollos was a “sophist.”[27]1 Cor. 1-4 demonstrates that the principal difference between Paul and Apollos was the manner in which they proclaimed the gospel.[28]Apollos did so with the beautiful words of a sophist, and Paul—while in person—with unimpressive bodily presence and contemptible speech (2 Cor. 10:10).[29]

What is written—in v. 6—most likely refers to OT Scripture. While the Greek appears to translate unclearly, Morris argues: “Paul is saying something like ‘that you may learn in us the “not beyond what is written.”’”[30]Fee sees that Paul’s use of the “[t]he neuter article to… reflects a standard usage: to introduce quoted material.”[31]Barrett goes a step further in noting: “Stands written (gegraptai) is a regular formula introducing Old Testament quotations.”[32]Finally, after considering the context (that “Paul is countering factiousness that included rivalry, quarrels, boasting, and other sorts of bad behavior all too common during the empire among students of rival Sophistic rhetoricians”[33]), and noting that the statement is not addressing a teaching rivaling Paul’s—on the level of sophist evaluation—I agree with all four authors cited in this paragraph that it is most probable that this citation is exhorting the Corinthians to judge their teachers according to the standard of the OT and not as Greco-Roman culture would judge rhetoricians.[34]

Diakrinei—in v. 7—may be a play on words from anakrinō (judged) and krinō (judge) in v. 3.[35]Surely Paul was at least aware of their lexical relation. The term diakrinei connotes a feeling superiority[36](cf; Acts 11:12; 15:9[37]).Thus, the first question of the verse is probably better rendered: “if people were to examine you in the same way that you so arrogantly examine others, who would judge anything superior in you?”[38]

Paul almost certainly means grace—from God—and not anything received from Sophists or teachers of the age, when referring to what the Corinthians received in the last two questions of the verse.[39]This verse is probably intended to expose the roots of the variety of the immoral behavior of the Corinthians—that Paul opposesthrough the rest of the letter—by hinting that the root is also the answer to the last question.[40]

Examine Yourselves, Be Humble, Await Eternity (Vv. 8-13).

Before proceeding to the last section of this passage it is important to note that Corinth was known for adoring the prideful Sophistic message of an over-spiritualized soteriology and contemplating the wisdom by which this message was proved (oratory).[41]They judged one person’s oratory against another’s. The strength of the rhetoric of the words of a person demonstrated that persons intelligence. The point of public oratory was not to support any position, but was an arena for mental battles, similar to the Roman Coliseum.[42]Oratorical contests were also held at these physical battles and other similar games.[43]Corinth held its own Isthmian,[44]Caesarian, and Quadrennial Imperial Games[45]where these same mind-battles would have taken place.

The point of these battles and the message of the sophists was atheistic in its praise of one’s self, and mankind in general. Influenced by Hellenistic philosophy,[46]rhetorician’s at Corinth probably strongly denied afterlife.[47]This evidently changed the gospel—in Corinth—by promoting a sense—if not a fully developed false doctrine altogether—that Christians had reached the culmination of their existence in the superior wisdom exhibited by the sophists and that there was no future resurrection (afterlife).[48]Supporting these suppositions is the fact that Paul spends the entirety of chapter fifteen of the letter arguing for the essentiality of belief in resurrection—and afterlife—to the gospel.[49]

It is likely that v. 8 betrays prominent Stoic beliefs in the church at Corinth.[50]The “already”s in this verse reflect the Corinthians false belief that Christ’s eschatological teaching had already been fulfilled in them.[51]The Stoa—with roots in this era and culture—also believed that spirit was material, and rejected ideas of afterlife.[52]

Therefore, it is most probable that Corinthian spirituality also reflected stoic beliefs that the Corinthians “had been transported into a whole new sphere of existence where they are ‘above’ the earthly, and especially ‘fleshly,’ existence of others.”[53]This context helps us see Paul’s attack of the Corinthians “hav[ing] all they want” and “becom[ing] kings” not only as an assault on their pride but also as denying their over-spiritualized perception of life on earth.[54]Paul’s inclusion of “that we might reign with you” shows—as with receive accommodation in v. 5—that Paul, Apollos, and the other apostles are filled kings looking forward to the true resurrection, and that—in contrast—he judges the Corinthian’s pride and over-realized eschatology to be contrary to the truth of the gospel.

Many observe the possibility that Paul’s use of “spectacle”—in v. 9—refers to making a show of criminals—or Roman captives—that were marched to their death.[55]Meanwhile, C. K. Barrett cites secular literature of the age in arguing that spectacle refers to the Stoic idea of making one’s self a spectacle before god.[56]Barrett claims that Paul contrasts Christ’s way of being a spectacle against the Stoic desire to be a spectacle of beauty and strength as being done in humility.[57]The first scenario seems more likely given the phrase: “sentenced to death” in the immediate context. In either case, the point is that mortals—judging carnal things—is only part of the proverbial picture the Corinthians see. However, they are wrong to be consumed with lust of carnal things and not to notice—or care—that the unseen things are also made a spectacle to unseen angels.[58]

In v. 10 Paul metaphorically contrasts his—and the other apostles’—humility and unrealized eschatology with the Corinthians’pride and over-realized eschatology[59]as he begins to unpack the meaning of being a spectacle.[60]All of the adjectives used to describe the church at Corinth are positive—like popular conceptions of rhetoricians, while God’s apostles are characterized—in sharp contrast—as being weak and shameful fools. The Corinthians themselves prove the latter to be false in their idolizing of one apostle over another. So, the only logical conclusion is for them to question the validity of the former. Thus, the humble and dimwitted message of the omniscient Christ’s salvation (1 Cor 1:18–25)—is placed in sharper contrast with the prideful pseudo-wise teaching of traveling rhetoricians.[61]

From v. 10 to 13a Paul abandons sophisticated rhetoric—no irony, no symbolism, no metaphors—to leave the Corinthians with a more tangible taste of his meek and simple-minded sufferings.[62]It is more probable that this recounting of apostolic reality is a general description of the daily life of an apostle than a narration of some specific trial that Paul had faced of which the Corinthians would have been aware.[63]Supporting this is the succeeding immediate context (vv. 14–17) that classifies these verses as a model for the church to follow.[64]

The wealthy of Roman society disdained physical labor in devoting their time to the virtue of the Sophists.[65]It is doubtless that the work of [Paul’s] own hands had borne strife between he and the Corinthians (see 9:4-18)[66]because manual labor was not viewed as fitting for the free, but for slaves[67]and his self-support also broke the social protocol of the rich providing for the visiting rhetor.[68]Therefore, even though Paul is aware that his socially unaccepted manual-labor-filled lifestyle is a point of dissension between himself and the church, he still mentions it—here—as weighty testimony that the gospel is not mere popular rhetoric, sophistic virtue, nor worldly wisdom.

Verse 13b reverts back to symbolism to put the incomprehensibility of Christ’s message into some type of focus. By taking this paradigm to the ends of its logic Paul actually paints a crystal-clear picture of the infinity to which love can be taken. The two words that either mean—or connotate—world in this verse are kosmos(universe; creation) and ta panta (the coming age; literally—all things).[69]Because there is no word in the OT commensurate to kosmos, it is sensible to suppose this idea to be relatively new and still stretching the minds of the most brilliant rhetoricians.[70]The first term is more specific—though referring to the infinite reaches of space—and yet the second invites the Corinthians to try to understand something even more grand. So, a more accurate—loose—translation—dedicated to contextualizing the message in postmodern Western culture—might be: “we are the trash of tangible reality—the refuse of everything within the borders of your imagination—even until this very moment.”


Synthesis and Theological Significance

Though the main purpose of the passage is to discourage factionalism in the church, Paul does this by confronting the Corinthians’ lack of faith in the glory to come after the resurrection. The Corinthians are trying to contextualize God’s apostles to their culture as rhetoricians so that they can place themselves under the name of an apostle and participate in the glory that that apostle might receive due to the way he preaches. So, Paul writes that their striving for honor in this age is contrary to striving for honor in the age to come. Nevertheless, Paul continues: “if you want to make us apostles sages to imitate, imitate our sufferings and see that we are not one against the other, but all together for the glory of Christ.”

Practical Application

The Corinthians were prioritizing this current age over the age to come and were idolizing men over God in fighting for the status of pertaing to them or to be recognized as associated with them. This idolizing and self-exhortation creates factionalism. Though this text surely offers more insights into varying aspects of theology, the main points to take away are that we are God’s slaves and the glory we will have in the resurrection will be incomparably greater than anything we could experience from belonging to—or being associated with—the greatest human. Also, the example that the apostles—and ultimately Jesus himself—have laid out for us is of sacrificial service; and this service is to promote the unity and spiritual growth of the church that are threatened by factionalism.


Barnett, Paul W. “Tentmaking.” Pages 979-82 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Barrett, C. K. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. BNTC 7. London: Continuum, 1968.

Blue, Bradley Byron. “Apollos.” Pages 37-9 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Clarke, Andrew D. “Alexandria.” Pages 23-5 in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Revised Edition. NICNT 7. Edited by Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee, and Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version.Nashville: Nelson, 1989.

Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary.TNTD 7. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985.

Painter, John. “World, Cosmology.” Pages 979-82 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology.Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Williams, Drake. “Corinthians, First Letter to the.” N.P. The Lexham Bible Dictionary.Edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, eds. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Winter, Bruce W. “Rhetoric.” Pages 820-2 in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Witherington, Ben, III. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. S-RCS 7. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.


[1]Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians,S-RCS 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).

[2]The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989; All further references will be from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.

[3]Witherington, Conflict and Community,136.

[4]Fee, Corinthians,175.

[5]Fee, Corinthians,172.

[6]Barrett,First … Corinthians,99.

[7]Fee, Corinthians,172.

[8]Barrett, First … Corinthians,101.

[9]Morris, 1 Corinthians,76; Fee, Corinthians,175.

[10]Witherington, Conflict and Community,137.

[11]Witherington, Conflict and Community,139.

[12]Barrett,First … Corinthians,101.

[13]Morris, 1 Corinthians,76.

[14]Morris, 1 Corinthians,76.

[15]Witherington, Conflict and Community,137.

[16]Fee, Corinthians,178.

[17]Barrett,First … Corinthians,103.

[18]Fee, Corinthians,177.

[19]Morris, 1 Corinthians,77; Barrett,First … Corinthians,103-104; Fee, Corinthians,178.

[20]Fee, Corinthians,178.

[21]Fee, Corinthians,178.

[22]Fee, Corinthians,171; Witherington, Conflict and Community,136.

45 Witherington, Conflict and Community,136.

[24]Morris, 1 Corinthians,75; Fee, Corinthians,171.

[25]C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, BNTC 7 (London: Continuum, 1968), 40.

[26]Andrew D. Clarke, “Alexandria.” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship,ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 23.

[27]Blue, “Apollos,”, 38.

[28]Blue, “Apollos,”, 38.

[29]Blue, “Apollos,”, 38.

[30]Morris, 1 Corinthians,78.

[31]Fee, Corinthians,183.

[32]Barrett, First … Corinthians,106.

[33]Witherington, Conflict and Community,141.

[34]Morris, 1 Corinthians,78; Fee, Corinthians,183; Barrett,First … Corinthians,106; Witherington, Conflict and Community,141

[35]Fee, Corinthians,186.

[36]Morris, 1 Corinthians,79.

[37]Barrett,First … Corinthians,107.

[38]Barrett,First … Corinthians,107; Morris, 1 Corinthians,79; Fee, Corinthians,186.

[39]Barrett,First … Corinthians, 108.

[40]Witherington, Conflict and Community,141.

[41]Bruce W. Winter, “Rhetoric,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 821.

[42]Winter, “Rhetoric,” 821.

[43]Witherington, Conflict and Community,12.

[44]Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 7 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 75.

[45]Witherington, Conflict and Community,12.

[46]Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians,NICNT 7, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, et al., eds., Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 4.

[47]Witherington, Conflict and Community,8.

[48]Witherington, Conflict and Community,8.

[49]Fee, Corinthians,4.

[50]Barrett,First … Corinthians, 109; Terence P. Paige, “Philosophy,” 717.

[51]Barrett,First … Corinthians, 109.

[52]Terence P. Paige, “Philosophy,” 717.

[53]Fee, Corinthians,188.

[54]Fee, Corinthians,187.

[55]Witherington, Conflict and Community,143; Morris, 1 Corinthians,80; Fee, Corinthians,190.

[56]Barrett, First … Corinthians,110.

[57]Barrett, First … Corinthians,110.

[58]Fee, Corinthians,191.

[59]Witherington, Conflict and Community,142; Barrett, First … Corinthians,110.

[60]Morris, 1 Corinthians,80.

[61]Schreiner, Paul,115.

[62]Barrett, First … Corinthians,111.

[63]Barrett, First … Corinthians,111.

[64]Fee, Corinthians,194.

[65]Watson, “Social Classes,” 1000.

[66]Fee, Corinthians,195.

[67]Paul W. Barnett, “Tentmaking,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 927.

[68]Barnett, “Tentmaking,” 927.

[69]John Painter, “World, Cosmology,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 979-80.

[70]Painter, “World,” 979.

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