Each time I read through 1 Corinthians, I can’t help but draw a parallel between the issues in the Corinthian church and the contemporary church. The culture may have been different, but the self-focused attitudes and actions are not. One theme that emerges pretty quickly in the book is that of pride and superiority. The Corinthians are puffed up by their own accomplishments, which they are measuring against the standards of the Roman-greco society and not the wisdom of the kingdom. Jesus introduced an upside paradigm that flies in the face of what society said was successful. This is true as much today and in the early church. And because of this, they’re even turning their nose down at Paul because he’s not measuring up to their standard.
After giving the Corinthians the smack down in 1 Corinthians 3 about how their divisiveness and self-importance are disrupting the foundation that he has built on Christ, in chapter 4 he gets to the heart of it.
I have applied all these things to myself and to Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against the other. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If you then received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
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 are 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 retreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Corinthians 4:6-13)
Ouch! You gotta love the sarcasm he uses to illustrate his point that their paradigm is all messed up. I love what Gordon Fee says in his commentary;
What do you have that you did not receive? This is an invitation to experience one of those rare, unguarded moments of total honesty, where in the presence of the eternal God – one recognizes that everything – absolutely everything – that one has is a gift. All is of grace; nothing is deserved, nothing earned. Those who so experience grace also live from a posture of unbounded gratitude. Those, such as the Corinthians, who think themselves as especially gifted with the Spirit and wisdom, thereby enabling them to judge one another, reflect a total misunderstanding of grace, and quite miss the ‘humility of God’ expressed in the crucified One.
In case they miss the point, Paul drives the second question home with a third, which assumes the answer ‘nothing to the second: ‘And since you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?’ Here is the telling word. Their ‘boasting’ is sure evidence that they have missed the gospel of grace. Instead of recognizing everything as a gift and being filled with gratitude, they possessed their gifts – saw them as their own – and looked down on the apostle who seemed to lack so much. Grace leads to gratitude; ‘wisdom’ and self-sufficiency lead to boasting and judging. Grace has a leveling effect; self-esteem has a self-exalting effect. Grace means humility; boasting means that one has arrived. Precisely because their boasting reflects such an attitude, Paul turns to irony to help them see the folly of their boasting.
I don’t know about you, but I have encountered so many “leaders” who exalt in their own abilities. Now, they will now come out and say that’s what they’re doing but the actions are telling – praising themselves as an example, applauding their accomplishments and suggesting that people are missing out if they don’t listen to them. Fee rightly points out that this attitude promotes dismissal of others who don’t “measure up”. You can tell this by reactions of lashing out as if to say “how dare you not see how great I am”. Sadly, the internet has only facilitated this kind of chest-thumping. When we shine the spotlight on how great we are, that’s what happens.
I don’t want to sound like I’m immune from this. I am not and neither are you. Being made in the image of God, we were made for significance. But it’s not significance for our own pomp and glory. Rather, its for the purpose of placing our gifts and accomplishments in perspective, pointing to the giver. Shine the spotlight on him.