1 Corinthians 4:1-21: Arrogance

Sun, 20/05/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Arrogance is ugly. We don’t like it when people get above their station.

We hate it in our political leaders. We hate it the world of work. One office I worked in, middle managers were the most annoying people to work there. Promoted one step above the rest of us, they then thought they owned the place. And we should hate it in the church, hate it in ourselves.

Because, yes, arrogance exists among Christians, in churches, too.

It’s what I thinks is being referred to in verse 6. Paul seems to quote a local proverb: “Do not go beyond what is written.” We don’t know anything about this staying other than it occurs here. But it seems to mean something like: “Don’t be above your station. Stay within your bounds.”

This chapter is all about the damage that occurs when arrogance is found within a church.

Just to remind us where we are. We’re working our way through 1 Corinthians. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the ancient city of Corinth, in about the year 55 AD. He’d started the church, 5 years earlier. But then he’s been gone a while and various problems have begun to creep in. So he writes first a letter we don’t have, and then the one we’re holding in our hands.

And the first problem was that divisions were beginning to appear. People were aligning themselves to particular leaders in the church, or particular preachers who had a role in the past. And the church is fracturing. The problem was so serious that Paul spends the first 4 chapters addressing it. Which means that, once again, this issue is in the background in the portion we’re looking at today. But then next week, we move onto something new.

At root, these divisions are being caused by arrogance. Arrogance can cause other damage too, but it’s what lies behind the factions at Corinth, and it’s the root cause of much division in churches today. We need to hate arrogance in ourselves, and in our churches. And this chapter will put its finger on where this arrogance comes from.

Let me take us through three reasons we Christians can become arrogant

We think we are the judges

Number 1: We become arrogant when we think we are the judges. We think we are the judges. This is verses 1-7.

Paul starts by talking about himself, and the other apostles. The apostles like Paul are servants.

He uses two words: servants of Christ, and those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.

Both are household pictures. It’s the picture of the butler, or the housekeeper, a picture familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed period dramas like Downton Abbey. The wealthy owner places a particular individual in charge of their possessions, their household, their staff.

Here, the owner is Christ. He’s a servant of Christ. And Paul has been left in charge of the mysteries God has revealed. There are things we wouldn’t know about God unless he told us. But God has told us, and Paul’s job is to take care of those things. To make sure they’re preserved faithfully, and then passed on.

And the steward, the butler, the servant, has one job. Verse 2: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” His job is to be faithful to the one who left him in charge.

Which means the one thing that matters is what Jesus Christ thinks of his work. Here are verses 3 and 4. Jesus is the one who left him in charge. His job is to be faithful to Jesus. So it doesn’t matter one bit what the Corinthians think about how Paul’s doing. Or any human court. Paul does not answer to a committee. It doesn’t even matter whether he thinks he’s doing a good job. “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.”

The one person who matters is the lord Jesus. Verse 5: “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”

Jesus will come back. The home owner will return, and the butler will have to give an account of his stewardship. Paul will be held accountable for his work. It will happen on the day Jesus comes back, and Jesus is the one he will answer to.

Well that’s all very well and good if you’re Paul. And there are lessons for those of us in Christina leadership. What does this mean for ordinary Christians like us? Verse 6: “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else?”

He’s used himself as an example to show how this works out, but actually it applies to all of us. All of us need to stay within our limits, not get above our station. All of us answer to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not your job to judge the faithfulness of any Christian. Not even yourself.

In the next couple of chapters we’ll meet a thing called church discipline, which will complicate this picture a little. Let’s leave that until we get to it.

The problem in Corinth was that they were playing the judges. They were deciding whether Paul was someone they wanted to listen to. They were deciding which of their teachers were flavour of the month. Individual Christians were deciding that they were better Christians than others, and looking down their noses. That’s what I think is going on in verse 7: “For who makes you different from anyone else?”

At work you have an appraisal, review. It’s your chance to find out how your boss thinks things are going. You probably also fill in a form to help you think through how you think things are going.

As a Christian, it’s good to review how things are, and it’s good to ask the opinion of Christian friends and others. But ultimately, it’s not their view, or our own view, that matters.

Here’s one way arrogance creeps in. “It’s my job to take a view on how I’m doing as a Christian. It’s my job to decide how others are doing. I can form a kind of mental pecking order, to work out who’s a better Christian than me, and who I’ve overtaken. It’s my job to assess whether a particular teacher or leader is along the right lines.”

Do that, and divisions creep in for sure. And other problems. It’s the arrogance of thinking we are the judges.

There’s the first way Christians can become arrogant.

We think we’ve arrived in glory

Number 2: We become arrogant when we think we’ve arrived in glory. We think we’ve arrived in glory. Verses 8 to 13.

The Corinthians thought they have arrived. Verse 8: “Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign”. There’s a grain of truth here. God has got a wonderful future promised for his people. We’ll get to that in chapter 15. And Jesus has begun to reign, even now. He’s ascended into heaven, where he’s seated at the right hand of the Father. But the day when we reign, when we are rich, when we enjoy all the good things God has planned – that day is still future.

If glory had arrived, somehow it had passed the apostle Paul by. “You have begun to reign – and that without us!” He wishes the future was here, because that would mean his life would be a lot better than it is.

Verse 9 describes a very cruel part of life in ancient Rome. The conquering army parades back to Rome their prisoners of war. Various dignitaries come first. But at the back of the procession are the slaves. They’ve been brought back for sport. They’ll be put into the arena, the Colosseum maybe, where they’ll fight to the death as entertainment, watched by vast crowds.

Back in chapter 1, we said that the message about Jesus sounds weak and foolish to the unbelieving world. For the messenger who brings that message, it’s humiliating and degrading. If people don’t want to know the Jesus we speak about, they might just politely ignore us. Or they might mistreat us. We might even be killed.

Paul laboured and toiled to get the good news of Jesus out to anyone who would listen. He went without food and drink to do so. He had to work hard with his own hands. He made tents, out of hard leather, which was tough. And in return, he received little thanks, and much mistreatment.

Verse 13 contains a vivid picture of what it’s like to be in Christian ministry. Cast your eyes around the natural world. Find an object that represents the minister of the gospel. What would you pick?

Back in the day, in Britain, it was a hugely respectable thing to be a Christian minister. If a respectable family had three sons, they hoped one would become a lawyer, one a doctor, and one a reverend.

That is not the picture Paul paints. The object he’d pick to represent a Christian minister like him is not something dignified – a grand mountain, a tall tree, a stately lion or elephant. It’s this, verse 13: “We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.”

It’s either the rubbish you sweep up, or the muck you scrape off. Sweep up: The film has finished, and in go the stewards. Popcorn, drinks containers, all kinds of other rubbish, litter the floors and the seats. In they go, to sweep it all up and into black sacks. “That junk, that’s us,” says Paul. Or scrape off: You’ve been for a country walk in the wet clay you get around here. You’ve walked through a few fields with cows in, and you’re not quite sure what you stepped in. Before you go back into the house, you scrape the worst off your boots. It doesn’t bear to think too hard about what you’re scraping off. You just don’t want it in your house. “That’s us,” says Paul.

That’s what it’s like to be the messenger of Jesus Christ in a world that doesn’t want to know. But it’s also what it’s like to be his children in a world that doesn’t want to know. There’s so much suffering in the world as it is. And yet when we identify with the Lord Jesus, there are additional hardships because we identify with him.

The day will come when all those hardships will be gone. The day will come when all suffering and pain will end. The day will come when it is nothing but joy to identify with the Lord Jesus.

But it hasn’t come yet. The Christian life is marked by suffering, not glory.

It’s so easy to get discouraged when we get the knocks and setbacks in life. If God was really on my side, I wouldn’t have to handle this illness, this bereavement, this difficult neighbour. If God was really on my side, surely life would be less of a battle. Well, … yes – but not yet!

All of which means they started to look down on those who didn’t appear to be quite so successful. Paul’s job, his frequent stints inside prison – he was a bit of an embarrassment. Other speakers, who were well-dressed, didn’t have to do menial work, were loved by the crowds – they were much more in vogue.

If we forget that the majority of God’s blessings are still future, we too could become arrogant. We could think we’re entitled to things that we still need to wait for. We could start to assess other Christians by standards that assume external success is what counts.

It was the second way the Corinthians were becoming arrogant, and we might too. We think we’ve arrived in glory.

We think the Bible doesn’t apply to us

Then number 3: We become arrogant when we think the Bible doesn’t apply to us. We think the Bible doesn’t apply to us. Verses 14-21.

Why does Paul persevere with this church with all its difficulties? Because he loves them dearly. He’s their father. Many people may have taught the Corinthians, but he’s the one who introduced them to Jesus Christ, he’s the one who brought the church into being. He’s their founder. He’s their father. And he loves them.

But there are some in Corinth who want to cut the church loose from Paul. Verse 18: “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.” There’s that word, “arrogant” again.

You can almost hear them: “Paul’s never coming back to Corinth. He’s lost interest and gone away. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. We certainly don’t have to do what he says. We can cut the apron strings, and do things our own way.”

The trouble is, Paul isn’t just their founder. In fact there’s something wrong with each of those two words.

He’s not just their founder. He’s an apostle of Jesus Christ. It’s how the letter opened, if you remember back in chapter 1, verse 1: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” If you were here when we looked at those words, we said that an apostle is a bit like an ambassador. He’s sent by Jesus Christ with all the authority of Jesus himself. What Paul says is to be treated as if Jesus himself has said it.

That’s how the letter opened. And he’s reminded them of it since. Verse 9, it’s “us apostles” who are particularly mistreated. They’re not just turning their back on their founder. Their turning their back on an apostle of Jesus Christ.

But the other word is also wrong. He’s not just their founder. Timothy will come to the Corinthians. Second half of verse 16: “He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”

Now we’re getting to the heart of the arrogance of the Corinthian church. They think they’re different. They’re special. Something different applies to them than applies to other churches.

But actually, what Paul is teaching them is no different from what he teaches in every church. He’s not just their apostle. The apostles of Jesus Christ have authority over every church.

Here’s the heart of the problem. Some in Corinth were trying to cut Paul loose. But they weren’t just cutting loose their founder who happened to care deeply about them. That’s bad enough. They were cutting loose the apostle that Jesus Christ had sent to speak on his behalf to churches all over the world. Ultimately, they were cutting loose Jesus himself. They didn’t need to listen to what Jesus wanted to say to them through Paul. They were different.

It is the same today. In our hands we hold a Bible that contains God’s words to God’s people. Believe it or not, some Christians try to cut us loose from it. To say that this bit or that bit doesn’t apply to us. We don’t need to live by what it says.

Actually, it’s not hard to believe this happens. Not if you know your own sinful heart, that deep attitude that hates being told what to think or do. And finds it hard even if it’s Jesus himself telling you.

Now, of course we need to work hard at how it applies. We need to listen properly. But our task is to decide how it applies, not whether it applies. If we read the Bible and decide it doesn’t apply to us, because we’re special, because we’re different, because we know better:– to do that is extremely arrogant.

And it causes divisions within the church.

If we’re all willing to listen to Jesus, then we’ll unite around him, unite around his leadership. As soon as someone decides that what Jesus says does not apply to them, we’ve got nothing to agree on. It becomes about what I think, not what Jesus wants me to think.

So there’s the third way the Corinthians were becoming arrogant. We think the Bible doesn’t apply to us.


Here then is how the Corinthians have become arrogant. They think they are the judges. They think they’ve arrived in glory. They think the Bible doesn’t apply to them. And their arrogance is causing division.

What’s the alternative to this kind of arrogance? It’s the Christian gospel. We don’t live for the approval of others, or even to be satisfied with ourselves. Jesus is the one who matters. We live for him. And one day he will return. All who have known and trusted him will experience a future when all pain and suffering will finally end forever. And in the meantime, we’re not on our own. Jesus wants to speak to us, to lead us through life. He does so through the Bible, and we humbly listen to him and follow his lead.

Website Section: 
Sermon Series: 
Additional Terms