1. Corinthians 4. - What is Paul’s position?

Erkki Koskenniemi

In the first chapter, Paul raised the problem of the Corinthian church being divided into parties in keeping with the teachers. After that, he began to teach that the origin of the gospel was divine, not human. Because the gospel is God's wisdom and can not be understood by human reasoning, it is not a suitable subject to human disputes. After this, he pointed out in the third chapter that each preacher has their own duties and responsibilities before God. That is why there is no point in arguing about the preachers in congregations.

Only then, after those many twists, does Paul address the key issue, which is also the biggest problem to him: not all Corinthians recognized the authority of Paul. He wanted to address it only now, after some doctrinal teachings.

Only God will judge 4:1-5

Now Paul speaks of his own position. Paul was the founder of the church of Corinth. That did not prevent others to come and attract the parishioners with mighty speeches. Paul has no problem in allowing this to the Corinthians. The problems arise only when some groups in the church wanted to ignore Paul's authority. The church had factions which no longer wanted to listen to Paul. He was not acknowledged as one of the Apostles of the early church in Jerusalem, alongside the great Apostles.

Paul holds on to his position. By doing that, he was not being arrogant or self-important. He just wanted to be faithful to the task God had given to him. God had called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Therefore, it is not for the Corinthians to decide whether or not they should believe the Apostle's words.

Paul is a servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God. His status in Corinth is based on this. People's evaluations of him are irrelevant. He wants to be accountable only to God.

Now Paul warns the Corinthians against taking on the task that belongs to God. It is not their job to judge "the steward of the mysteries of God". The day will come when God will judge all of us, including His servants. Paul is waiting for the day with a humble mind. He entrusts himself to God's judgment, but the Corinthians have no authority to judge him or anyone else.

Apollos and Paul as examples 4:6-7

"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..." (ESV)

The idea is clear. Paul used himself and Apollos as examples to illustrate the task of being a preacher. Both Paul and Apollos are servants of God and can be judged only by Him. The problem was just that the Corinthians were eager to say their own opinion and to elevate themselves as judges. Paul sternly asks, from whom have they received such authority? Whatever they had was a gift from God. These God's gifts did not give them a right to raise themselves above others.

Kings and fools 4:8-13

Paul continues to lecture the Corinthians with biting irony. The Corinthians had already risen to the envied position of being God’s strong people. They had risen to be kings and judges. In the eyes of the world, the cross of Christ does not make them seem fools, and no one disputes their respected position. What had happened to the Apostles was something totally different. Now for the first time after the initial greeting, Paul uses this word about himself.

God had put the Apostles last of all beings, who had to suffer a lot. They were poor and homeless and earned their living by their own work. They were ridiculed, persecuted, and slandered. God had made his Apostles as a rubbish dump, or as a spittoon for everyone to spit on. Fortunately all was fine with the Corinthians and they had become great and powerful lords. Paul’s irony is slashing, and his style of writing is excellent.

However, he does not want to be joking. The gifts God had given to the Corinthians were great. The problem was that the Corinthians did not give honour to God.

The Apostle is already dealing with this issue, which is the most important issue in the second Corinthian letter, and very important to us, Lutherans. The power of God does not appear in this world as human ability and glory. In this time, God hides his strength in weakness.

That is what he did, first and foremost, in the life of Christ. Jesus was not born in a royal palace or in the midst of glory, but he was poor and rejected. And Christ's redemptive work was not a road of glory. He lowered himself as low as possible, even facing the shame of the cross.

When it was time to establish the church, the servants God chose were not top thinkers of the world but unlearned fishermen. When Paul got his mission from God, God promised a lot of suffering (Acts 9:16), and kept his promise.

"The theology of the cross" tells us that God hides his glory in this world and his strength is shown in weakness. "The theology of honour" loves the visible strength of God, strong Christians, and super missionaries. "The theology of honour" was an entirely alien doctrine to Paul.

Paul is the Apostle in Corinth 4:14-21

After describing the way God brings his missionaries low, to distress and misery, Paul again turned his face to the Corinthians. They had thought it was their right to despise the Apostles of the Lord, in this case, Paul. Many had challenged Paul's authority in the church of Corinth, because there were many other teachers in the congregation. Now Paul brings forth his final argument: Even if the Corinthians had ten thousand educators in Christ, they would have only one father in Christ.

Paul was the founder of their church. He had brought the Gospel to Corinth and, in view of this, he was an Apostle at least to the Corinthians. And it was not enough for Paul that he had been recognized as an Apostle among the other Apostles. To the Corinthians, he was the Apostle number one, who had responsibility for the whole church. He refuses to give away this responsibility. That's why he holds fast to his own obligations and authority.

The congregation had to bend to God's will. Since it was likely that not everyone would agree to it willingly, some of them would have a hard time before obeying.

When Paul comes to the Corinthian church, he is going to work things out thoroughly. It depends on the congregation itself, whether the reunion will be happy or whether it will be a time of severe discipline.

It is marvellous to see how Paul handles the Corinthians in his letter. His main problem was that his authority was contested, which made it impossible for him to take care of the church. Paul is wise enough not to say this at the beginning of his letter. First he speaks about the Gospel of Christ and the role and responsibilities of the preachers. After this, he appeals to the Corinthians, who now see the difficulties of the Apostles. In this way, Paul will convince those who are easily persuaded. With those who do not come on his side peacefully, he will use strict words.

Paul is a skilled counsellor and writer. He restrains himself for a long time and then unleashes his temper in an orderly manner. The Apostle has decided not to leave the church to be misled by false teachers. That is why he is struggling hard - not for his own glory but for the mission given to him by God.

The fourth chapter in the first Corinthian letter is not only an interesting description of how Paul restored order to the church of Corinth. For us it means above all that the Lord’s Apostle has authority to restore order to us, too. Stubborn fighting against the writings of the Apostles is not just a Corinthian sin. At all times there have been a lot of people, who have not listened to Paul or the other Apostles. Even now, there are a lot of people thinking that Paul was just a fallible human being and that the value of his opinion is the same as any other person’s opinion.

Of course, Paul was a sinner and incomplete. Still, he and the other Lord’s Apostles did not speak in their own name. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:

"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
(1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV).

God has spoken to us through people, and that is how he has given us his word. The word of the incomplete people is the word of their sender. It is God’s own, holy word. That is why it is wrong to put the words of Jesus and Paul against each other. They are both God’s word for us. God himself guarantees it, and as you can see from the quote above, that word also works in us.

In this we do not follow people’s opinions but the word of the Bible. The Book of Concord of our Church’s says:

"We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and norm according to which all teachings, together with all teachers, should be evaluated and judged (2 Timothy 3:15-17) are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testament alone. For it is written in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” St. Paul has written, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8, ESV)."

Many people believe that such a commitment to the Bible means chains and slavery. The reality is very different. We are sinners and on the way to eternal damnation if it depends on us. But the word of God promises us forgiveness and heaven because of the blood of Christ. Who would even dare to have faith in such a promise, if the infallible word of God did not convince us that it is true?

What God has promised, He will fulfil. Therefore, the weak and poor believers may put their trust in God and his word.