For an introduction to this series, click here.
This is a very personal chapter for Paul. It is actually one of the hardest chapters to interpret that I have run across in the epistles. I guess many of the Corinthian believers were putting down Paul and criticizing his ministry, since they were so caught up in following leaders. I guess those who followed Apollos specifically tried to argue that Apollos was better than Paul: "Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 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?" (4:5-7)
We did not do God any favors when we got saved. The gift of salvation is an amazing free gift, and we did nothing to earn it. God did not save us because He needed us. He saved us because He loved us. These Corinthians were apparently proud of the fact that they were better than some of the other believers in their own church. Now don't look down on these folks too much, because that is an easy trap to fall into.
At times Paul is very sarcastic, and this next passage is a prime example of that: "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, 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 held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children." (4:8-14)
What a scathing rebuke! Paul is saying that to listen to the Corinthians, they must be such better Christians that Paul is. Just look at how God is blessing! They have peace, they have lots of money, they have a very successful church. Meanwhile Paul is stuck out there and he is the laughingstock of the world. God is obviously punishing Paul because look at how badly things are going for him! Paul says these people need to wake up. I think we rarely recognize God's blessings for what they are. We look at somebody with a great job and a nice family and say God is really blessing them. And we look at a church with amazing facilities and a huge roll of members and say God is doing great things at that church. But God rarely brings a lot of things that we consider good things in our lives. Of course God always rewards service to Him, but most of those rewards come in the life that is to come. Nearly everyone in the Bible who was a genuine servant of God suffered most of their earthly lives. God's definition of a blessing and ours are often very different.