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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 Corinthians 4



Other Authors
Verse 1

(1) Man.—In a generic sense means “every one” (as in 1 Corinthians 11:28, and Galatians 6:1).

Us—i.e., Paul himself and Apollos.

As of the ministers of Christ.—Better, as ministers of Christ. The word used for “ministers” here expresses more strongly the idea of subordination than the word which occurs in 1 Corinthians 3:5. It implies not only those who are under one superior, but those who are in a still inferior position—the officer who has to obey orders, as in Matthew 5:25—a “servant” (Matthew 26:58). Though servants, their office is one of great trust; they are “stewards” to whom the owner of the house has entrusted the care of those sacred things—“mysteries”—which heretofore have been hidden, but are now made known to them, his faithful subordinates. It is to be remembered that even the steward in a Greek household was generally a slave.

Verses 1-5


(1-5) The first five verses of this chapter contain a further argument against party-spirit as it existed in the Corinthian Church—viz., that God alone can judge of any man’s work whether it be worthy, and that God, unlike man, who selects only some one for praise, will give to every worker his own proper share of approval.

Verse 2

(2) Moreover it is required . . .—Better, Moreover here (on earth) inquiry is made in the case of stewards in order that it may be found that one is faithful. The word “found” having the force of “discovered,” or “proved to be” (as in Matthew 1:18; Romans 7:10). The argument here is that, as in the case of an earthly steward, inquiry is made into his character as to whether he be trustworthy—so it will be with them who are stewards of the mysteries of God. That inquiry is, of course, made in regard to an earthly steward by his master in whose service he is; and so the Lord alone, whose stewards the Apostles were, shall be the inquirer into their faithfulness. If we take 1 Corinthians 4:2 as it is in our English version, it would seem to imply that on this point of faithfulness the Church might prefer one steward to another. This would be to suggest that to some extent, therefore, party-spirit might exist, which would be contrary to the whole argument from the commencement of the Epistle, and strikingly at variance with the remarks which immediately follow in 1 Corinthians 4:5. The rendering adopted above is a more literal translation of the best Greek texts, and also perfectly in harmony with the general sense of the passage.

Verse 3

(3) But with me it is a very small thing . . .—As, however, the Corinthians had actually “judged” various of their teachers, the Apostle assures them that their judgment—or the judgment of the world generally—is to him “a very small matter”—nay, no earthly judgment is of any concern to him. He does not even judge himself as worthy and faithful because he is not conscious of any unfaithfulness; yet that is no justification to him—his only judge is the Lord.

Man’s judgment.—The literal translation is man’s day. Some have thought they saw in it a provincialism or a Hebraism. Probably, however, the explanation is that St. Paul lived with the idea of the day of the Lord as the judgment day so constantly before him, that he uses the words as synonymous. (Comp. also 1 Corinthians 3:13, “the day shall declare it.”)

Verse 3-4

Our Three Judges

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.—1 Corinthians 4:3-4.

1. To understand this passage we must remember what the circumstances were which led St. Paul to write this first letter to the Corinthians. He had been absent from them for three years, during which time trouble and disorder of several kinds had been arising and spreading in the body of the Corinthian Christians. And the first of these troubles, to which he alludes in this letter, was the numberless divisions and parties into which they seemed to have broken. Full of intellectual restlessness, craving after new varieties of doctrine, they had formed at least three eager and violent parties: the party of Paul, the party of Apollos, the party of Cephas. We may gather that while St. Paul’s own partisans had raised him to a height of authority which he would not for one moment claim, his opponents had brought the charge of unfaithfulness against him.

And in this letter he tells them what he would have them think of his office and his relations to them. Not a leader, not a favourite of a party, but a servant doing work for God, a steward dispensing to them the riches of the revelation of Christ. And if a servant and a steward, then the one merit that he would claim, the one thing that makes his service and his stewardship real is faithfulness. But who is to judge whether he has been faithful or not? Men may judge, but he does not care for their verdict: “It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you or of man’s judgment.” His own conscience may judge, but he will not stand on its acquittal alone: “though I know nothing against myself, yet am I not hereby justified.” There is only one judgment to which he will submit, only one utterly true and infallible approbation or condemnation, which will be awarded to those who will wait for it: “He that judgeth me is the Lord.”

2. So here we have three tribunals, that of men, that of our own conscience, and that of Jesus Christ. An appeal lies from the first to the second, and from the second to the third. It is base to depend on men’s judgments; it is well to attend to the decisions of conscience, but it is not well to take for granted that, if conscience approve, we are absolved. The court of final appeal is Jesus Christ, and what He thinks about each of us.


Men’s Judgment of Us

Dr. Stalker says that in every man there are four men—the man the world sees, the man seen by the person who knows him best, the man seen by himself, and the man whom God sees. We can reduce the four to three by taking the first two together. Under “men’s” judgment we have (i) the judgment of the world, and (ii) the judgment of our friends.

i. The World

The world looks at each of us and sees a certain image of us. It observes single actions of ours and watches our courses of action, and gradually makes up its mind about our character and conduct as a whole. It takes in a general impression of what we are, and gives it expression in a brief judgment on us.

From morning till night we are all of us passing judgment: we are passing judgment on the dead and the living, on those the most remote and the most unknown to us, and on those who are close to us, on the things we know best, and on the things of which we know nothing. Men, and classes, and nations throw back their judgments one at another, as if they were the most real and unquestionable certainties, about which no one could doubt. West judges east, and east judges west—each with equal confidence, each on grounds which are held to be clear and strong. Rich judge poor, and poor judge rich, family judges family, and neighbourhood judges neighbourhood, and party judges party. The learned judge the practical and the busy, the busy and practical the learned. Nothing escapes, nothing daunts criticism, that is, the passing of judgment about which the judges do not doubt. Judgment means the pronouncing on what a thing really is, and the application to it of a rule, and standard, and law, which we assume to be beyond dispute. To this rule and standard we are for ever bringing not only actions and opinions, but whole courses of conduct, with all their intricate train of accompanying events, and what we call dispositions and characters, with their endless lights and shades, their perplexing contradictions, their terrible or pathetic mysteries. All comes naturally within our range of judgment: on all, we seriously or lightly, conscientiously or carelessly, wisely or stupidly, fairly or unfairly, exercise our judgment. We cannot help it. It is a part of our lives.

These judgments swell into what is called public opinion—the great force which has to do with the changes of society and institutions, which settles what shall stand and what shall fall. They accumulate into the traditions, the moral standards of a society or a generation, its governing beliefs, its tyrannical usages. And in private life and affairs this unceasing and universal habit of judging appears in all the manifold incidents of our relations and intercourse, as members of a family or a body, as friends, or acquaintances, as working with or working against others, as indifferent lookers-on, as in accidental contact with them. From morning to night we are judging what they do, and what they are; and they are judging us. Out of it grow our preferences, our admirations, our likings and dislikings, our lifelong friendships; it expresses itself in our strong words of approval and condemnation, it hardens into our bitter animosities, our unconquerable antipathies. A case of conduct comes before us, and whether it is our duty to judge it, or only our amusement and our pastime, we judge it. A person with all those things which make one man different from another—his special qualities, his habits and purposes and ways—comes before us and we judge him. And this is not here and there, or now and then, but all day long and everywhere, as a matter of course, with every one. It is part of the necessary system of the world: we see clearly that without this exercise of human judgment, in its many forms, the world could not go on.

And a great deal of it is righteous, wise, salutary judgment; judgment which supports what is good, which directs what is just and right, which brands and confounds evil. The quality of human judgment is as various as the objects on which it is exercised. There is responsible judgment and irresponsible, there is deliberate and well-informed judgment, and there is off-hand and cruelly ignorant judgment. But besides what is reasonable and deliberate in judgment, there is a vast mass of judging with no purpose, with no control, of which nothing is meant to come or can come, except perhaps mischief. And what judging! What amazing and easy generalizations from the slenderest facts! What recklessness of evidence! What ingenious constructions put on the simplest and the most imaginary appearances! What defiant confidence and certainty, coupled with the grossest indifference to the actual truth, and the grossest negligence to ascertain it! What superb facility in penetrating and divining hidden corruption of motives for unavowed ends!

Nice distinctions are troublesome. It is so much easier to say that a thing is black, than to discriminate the particular shade of brown, blue, or green to which it really belongs. It is so much easier to make up your mind that your neighbour is good for nothing, than to enter into all the circumstances that would oblige you to modify that opinion.1 [Note: George Eliot, Amos Barton.]

Part of the fascination of Principal Rainy for those who knew him was that this man, compelled to assume leadership, had no ambition to do “eminent service” but only to be “eminently spiritual”; that, forced into the forefront of battle after battle, he had set his hopes on the refinement and quiet of the life of a scholar; that, often appearing to be, or at least charged with being, a wily ecclesiastic, he was really one with a child’s heart of trust and love and obedience towards God. It was this subtle paradox of character and career that, in part, made him so interesting alike to friend and opponent.2 [Note: Life of Principal Rainy, i. 147.]

To your judgments give ye not the reins

With too much eagerness, like him who ere

The corn be ripe, is fain to count the grains:

For I have seen the briar through winter snows

Look sharp and stiff—yet on a future day

High on its summit bear the tender rose:

And ship I’ve seen, that through the storm hath past,

Securely bounding o’er the watery way,

At entrance of the harbour wrecked at last.3 [Note: Dante, Paradiso, xiii. 130–38, tr. by Wright.]

1. Now, for one to say, “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgement,” is not a conclusive proof of apostolic mission or apostolic life. Defiance of man’s judgment, indifference to public opinion, cannot ordinarily be considered a symptom of moral health, and it may be the finishing stroke in the education of a scoundrel. Indeed, a man can hardly be said to have thoroughly accomplished the curriculum of the school of vice, and to have fairly earned his diploma in crime, till he has beaten out of his nature all respect for the moral judgments of his fellows, and bred in himself a scorn for the verdict of public opinion. Even the pretence of goodness, with an eye to the demands of public opinion, is a moral crutch to a man. When he flings it away he loses the last support of decency. A regard for the favourable judgment of our fellows is usually the surviving grace which attends the death-bed of the virtues; and when she, the nurse, is discharged, the man surrenders himself to a moral collapse.

In a high sense, and to most men, it is a great and momentous thing to be “judged of man’s judgement.” Very few of us are aware of the reinforcements which our virtue receives from the pressure of our neighbour’s opinion, and the persistent impact of the moral sense that is diffused in the social atmosphere in which we move. A man generally lives up to what is expected of him. The organized life of which he is a part presses him into place, and keeps his feet in the routine of duty. The habit of the community finds him, holds him, becomes to him law, breeds in him a personal habit which he no more thinks of breaking than a planet thinks of leaping from the clutch of the law of gravitation. Hence the peril, when a boy goes out from the shelter of his home, and the familiar faces of his native town, and plunges a lone swimmer, unnoted and unrecognized, in the turbid torrent of life that surges in some vast metropolis. The faiths, the principles, the moral habits with which his nature is stocked, these he takes with him; and if they be of the right sort, they will bear him up, and he will breast the tide with a strong, manful stroke. But all the more he will need them, because he leaves behind him the safeguards of loving, watchful eyes.

The more closely we study the ways of men, the more clearly we recognize that the heavier weights we can pile on the cage in which we pen our hungry passions, the less danger there is that those passions will upset the cage, and break loose in our life. The judgments of our fellow-men—the men whom we meet in the streets, in business, in social contact—serve as weights for this purpose. If we defy those judgments, not only do we suffer smart and loss in our outward life, but generally—which is far worse—we suffer impairment of moral power in our inward life. For a man to live under the perpetual challenge of the violated conscience of his fellows hardens him, embitters him, gives a morbid and distorted action to his own conscience. He is apt to yield to the restless push of whim and passion. Even if he honestly engages in the fight with sin, he is like a soldier who has been driven from behind the breastworks, and is compelled to face his foe alone in the open field with his naked sword.

The public opinion fostered by a Tiberius or a Nero was of little worth to a man like St. Paul. But the public opinion of to-day bears the imprint of the Divine Christ. Something from that peerless, spotless Soul who brought God to this earth has flowed into the great thought of the world. Men have caught, in fragments at least, His interpretation of life, His ideal of life, His law of life. Very imperfectly do the actual lives of men reflect all these; but His image lies in broken lines on the turbid pool of our modern life, and the strange Divine light in His soul has shot through the conscience of Christendom. The civilization in which we live is a civilization that bears the finger-marks of Christ. What we call public opinion is the invisible breath, the subtle aroma, of a Christian civilization.

Habitually to ignore and set at naught what other people think may be as foolish and as fatal as habitually to consult and wait upon it. Athanasius contra mundum—it is a magnificent phrase, and it stands for a great truth; but I fear it has to answer for a good deal of stupid and obstinate wrong-headedness which is not always called by its proper name.1 [Note: G. Jackson.]

Christian public opinion, the expression of the Spirit of Christ in the united will, emotion, and intellect of human societies, has wrought, and is working miracles. It has raised the standard of purity, of honesty, of loving-kindness; and above all, and including all, it has established the sense of brotherhood, of mutual obligation and responsibility. But it has not had its perfect work. It has been paralysed by timidity, the fear of persecution and ridicule, the fear of plain speaking; it has been seduced by temptation, the personal desire for ease and pleasure, the corporate desire for power and wealth. But more than all, it has been weakened by division, and obscured by controversy and by an exaggerated sense of the paramount duty of withstanding erring brethren to the face because they are to be blamed.1 [Note: J. H. F. Peile, The Reproach of the Gospel, 194.]

2. But for most of us the peril does not lie that way, but rather in a tame subservience, a too ready compliance with the ways and thoughts of the world about us. Is there anything that we need more in every department of life to-day than the spirit of sturdy, uncompromising independence which breathes through these words of the Apostle: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgement; he that judgeth me is the Lord”? We want men, like him, who fear God and have no other fear.

The mischief which arises from habitual anxiety about the good opinion of men is more than can be told. It is speaking strongly, but truly, to say that it makes the whole of our life unchristian; that it dethrones our Maker from His lawful authority, and sets up an idol in His place; that it makes us heathens as completely, for all purposes of our souls’ danger, as if we were to bow down and offer sacrifice to a graven image.2 [Note: T. Arnold.]

Take the case of the famous Francis Bacon. Bacon’s greatness on its intellectual side it is almost impossible to exaggerate. It was his proud, and by no means empty, boast that he had taken all knowledge to be his province. Such a vision of truth, such power to comprehend and to speak it, have rarely been granted to any man. In sheer intellectual might he stands, in our nation at least, with the one exception of Shakespeare, without a peer. And yet, notwithstanding all his magnificent gifts, we see him stooping to almost incredible meanness and perfidy, suffering himself to become the abject tool of a wretch like Buckingham, a mere “chessman,” as he himself put it, in the hand of a monarch so weak and contemptibles a James I. What is the explanation? Why this strange mingling of mud and marble, of meanness and magnificence? Let Dean Church, who of all Bacon’s critics has, perhaps, understood him best, answer: “There was,” he says, “in Bacon’s ‘self’ a deep and fatal flaw. He was a pleaser of men. There was in him that subtle fault, noted and named, both by religion and philosophy, in the ἄρεσκος of Aristotle, the ἀνθρωπάρεσκος of St. Paul, which is more common than it is pleasant to think even in good people, but which, if it becomes dominant in a character, is ruinous to truth and power.” In all history is there any warning so tragic of the shipwreck that men suffer when they trim their sails to catch the favour of the many or the great?1 [Note: G. Jackson.]

It is clear from Bishop Wilkinson’s recorded words that no man was ever more intensely sensitive to the least breath of opposition or hostility; he instinctively desired and valued the good opinion of the world. But he valued his conscience and his message more, and never modified the truths he had to tell; while his very sensitiveness kept him from ever presuming or dictating, and gave him an instinct for conciliation which was never blunted.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, The Leaves of the Tree, 119.]

Let not thy peace depend on the tongues of men, for whether they judge well of thee or ill, thou art not on that account other than thyself.3 [Note: Thomas à Kempis.]

ii. Our Friends

1. The man seen by the persons who know him best may be quite a different man from the man the world sees; for every man has two sides—one to face the world with, and one to show to the friend of his heart.

I once had a friend. The popular opinion about him was that he was very quiet and rather dull, without ideas, or experience, or character of his own. Such was the man the world saw. But the man I saw was quite a different being—a man of the most genial humour, who could break into conversation the most lively and discursive or the most serious and profound, with a mind richly stored with unusual knowledge, a fertile imagination, and a moral nature which had passed through all the great experiences of the human soul and all the peculiar experience of our new time.4 [Note: J. Stalker.]

Ah, but that’s the world’s side, there’s the wonder,

Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you.

There, in turn, I stand with them and praise you,

But the best is when I glide from out them,

Cross a step or two of dubious twilight,

Come out on the other side, the novel

Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of,

Where I hush and bless myself with silence.

2. But if the too severe judgments of others are hard for us to bear, their too favourable judgments are far more perilous to us. We are so apt to assume that all the pleasant things said about us are true, to be satisfied with approbation which we know to be nothing but superficial. We each, no doubt, if we choose, know our own weaknesses and our own sins; perhaps they are unknown to every one else, perhaps they are known only to some few of our friends. Yet if we seem to be accepted by those who do not know them, with favourable judgment and trusting affection—perhaps respected and loved for our external pleasantness, treated as we know we should not be treated if they knew our real inner selves—is it not a dangerous temptation to us to accept the affection and the approbation as our true merit, and to forget the weakness or the sin that is not known?

Greatly his foes he dreads, but more his friends;

He hurts me most who lavishly commends.1 [Note: Churchill, The Apology.]


Our Judgment of Ourselves

We pass from the judgment of others to our own. “I judge not mine own self.”

1. The Apostle is not to be taken here as contradicting what he says in other places. In one of these same letters to the Corinthians he says, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” So he does not mean here that he is entirely without any estimate of his own character or actions. That he did in some sense judge himself is evident from the next clause, because he goes on to say, “I know nothing against myself.” If he acquitted himself, he must previously have been judging himself. His acquittal of himself, however, is not to be understood as if it covered the whole ground of his life and character; it is to be confined to the subject in hand—his faithfulness as a steward of the mysteries of God. But though there is nothing in that region of his life which he can charge against himself as unfaithfulness, he goes on to say, “Yet am I not hereby justified.”

All of us who have read the life of St. Paul will admit not only that he was sincere after his conversion to Christ, but that also as a Pharisee of the Pharisees he was a man of integrity even when he persecuted the Church of Christ, because he did it ignorantly in unbelief. St. Paul was a Pharisee, but never a hypocrite; he never desired to live under false pretences, but was always faithful to his convictions, even when they were mistaken. He therefore could say especially now as an Apostle, “I know nothing against myself”; in other words, “As far as I know, I am not guilty of any unfaithfulness in my office; I desire to be faithful, but I do not put up my judgment against yours, or against the judgment of the world. I was sadly mistaken when I was a Pharisee; and therefore I have learned not to fall back upon my own opinion as a court of final appeal—“I judge not mine own self.” The strength of my life is not in my personal opinion, though I am not conscious of having been guilty of any insincerity. My conscious integrity doubtless adds individuality to my convictions, and strength to my life; but that is not the sustaining force of my life, it is not that from which I draw my strength. Though I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified.

Grant that you acquit yourself at the bar of conscience, that the acquittal is impartial, is sincere. Are you competent as a judge? Have you before you all the data on which the verdict must be founded? How much do you know of yourself? At this very moment your friends, your neighbours, even casual strangers, discern faults in you which you do not actually and perhaps may not ever suspect. They see one side of you; you yourself another. Yours is the larger fraction, but it is only a fraction still. There are intricate complications in the heart of every man, which far transcend his powers to unravel. At times we may almost realize, not indeed the knowledge of ourselves, but the knowledge of our ignorance of self. A shock is given to the moral system by some unwonted occurrence—a disappointment, a loss, a sickness, a bereavement, a desertion, a surprise of temptation, a victory of sin. A momentary light is flashed in upon the man’s heart, and reveals to him his inability, his meanness, his inconsistency, his degradation. Then he begins to suspect how little he has known of his true self. But the flash is gone, and the old darkness gathers about him. What do you remember now of the eventful history of some one sin which has long become a habit—the warnings, the compunctions, the counteracting influences, the growing attractions, the faint resistance, becoming feebler and feebler, as the allurement became stronger and stronger? How little do you scrutinize, record, realize the motives which urge you to the conduct of to-day or to-morrow, too absorbed in the energy of the processes, and too eager about the success of the results! Yet just here, in this past history, here, in these directing motives, are the main elements in which your responsibility consists, the chief data on which your final sentence must be based.1 [Note: J. B. Lightfoot.]

It is not permitted to the most equitable of men to be a judge in his own cause.2 [Note: Pascal, Thoughts.]

The seas that shake and thunder will close our mouths one day,

The storms that shriek and whistle will blow our breaths away.

The dust that flies and whitens will mark not where we trod.

What matters then our judging? we are face to face with God.3 [Note: Dora Sigerson Shorter.]

2. The man as seen by himself is a very different one from the man seen by the world or even by his closest friend. Is he better or worse? He is both.

(1) In some respects we all, perhaps, know ourselves to be better than we are supposed to be. There are bright visitations in the mind which we could not communicate to another if we tried. Then there are some of the best things which we dare not speak of; humility, for example, spoken of is humility no more. What religious man can fully describe the tragic moments when his soul lies prostrate and penitent before God, or the golden moments when he is closest to the Saviour? Such things are soiled by fingering. Besides, in all highly toned minds there is a modesty about explanations; and even in the frankest friendship there is many a word, many an act, which we know is misinterpreted to our disadvantage, but which we cannot explain.

“Where have you been, my brother?

For I missed you from the street?”

“I have been away for a night and a day

At the great God’s judgment-seat.”

“And what did you find, my brother,

When your judging there was done?”

“Weeds in my garden, dust in my doors,

And my roses dead in the sun:

“And the lesson I brought back with me,

Like silence, from above—

On the Judgment-Throne there is room alone

For the Lord whose name is Love.”1 [Note: L. Maclean Watt.]

(2) All men know themselves to be, in some respects, better than they are supposed to be. But do we not also know ourselves to be worse? What do we say—not with the tongue with which we would speak to another, but with that voice with which the soul speaks to itself? Have we never said to ourselves, “If people only knew me as I know myself, they would scorn me; if my friend knew me as I really am, he would be my friend no more”? Away back in our life, are there not hours about which we neither could, would, nor should speak? Is there ever a day that there do not pass through our mind thoughts of pettiness and vanity, movements of covetousness, envy and pride, perhaps dark doubts and blasphemies? Have we no secret habits and sinful inclinations and desires which dare not see the light?

Great were the wrath and consternation of the pirates when they saw their dilemma; for, having no provisions, they must either starve or seek succour at the fort. They chose the latter course, and bore away for the St. John’s. A few casks of Spanish wine yet remained, and nobles and soldiers, fraternizing in the common peril of a halter, joined in a last carouse. As the wine mounted to their heads, in the mirth of drink and desperation, they enacted their own trial. One personated the judge, another the commandant; witnesses were called, with arguments and speeches on either side. “Say what you like,” said one of them, after hearing the counsel for the defence; “but if Laudonnière does not hang us all, I will never call him an honest man.”2 [Note: Parkman, Pionees of France in the New World, i. 76.]

You constantly hear a great many people saying I am very bad, and perhaps you have been yourself disposed lately to think me very good. I am neither the one nor the other. I am very self-indulgent, very proud, very obstinate, and very resentful; on the other side, I am very upright—nearly as just as I suppose it is possible for man to be in this world—exceedingly fond of making people happy, and devotedly reverent to all true mental or moral power. I never betrayed a trust—never wilfully did an unkind thing—and never, in little or large matters, depreciated another that I might raise myself. I believe I once had affections as warm as most people; but partly from evil chance, and partly from foolish misplacing of them, they have got tumbled down and broken to pieces. It is a very great, in the long-run the greatest, misfortune of my life that, on the whole, my relations, cousins and so forth, are persons with whom I can have no sympathy, and that circumstances have always somehow or another kept me out of the way of the people of whom I could have made friends. So that I have no friendships, and no loves.

Now you know the best and worst of me; and you may rely upon it it is the truth. If you hear people say I am utterly hard and cold, depend upon it it is untrue. Though I have no friendships and no loves, I cannot read the epitaph of the Spartans at Thermopylæ with a steady voice to the end; and there is an old glove in one of my drawers that has lain there these eighteen years, which is worth something to me yet. If, on the other hand, you ever feel disposed to think me particularly good, you will be just as wrong as most people are on the other side. My pleasures are in seeing, thinking, reading, and making people happy (if I can, consistently with my own comfort). And I take these pleasures. And I suppose, if my pleasures were in smoking, betting, dicing, and giving pain, I should take those pleasures. It seems to me that one man is made one way, and one another—the measure of effort and self-denial can never be known, except by each conscience to itself. Mine is small enough.1 [Note: Ruskin, in E. T. Cook’s Life of Ruskin, i. 490.]

More than your schoolmen teach, within

Myself, alas! I know;

Too dark ye cannot pain the sin,

Too small the merit show.

I bow my forehead to the dust,

I veil my eyes for shame,

And urge, in trembling self-distrust,

A prayer without a claim.2 [Note: Whittier, “The Eternal Goodness.”]


Christ’s Judgment of Us

The final judgment to which St. Paul appealed was his Master’s. “He that judgeth me is the Lord”; in other words, I am His steward, and to Him am I ultimately responsible. I do not come to you for your approval to sustain me in my work; I do not go to men in general for their approval as the one confidence upon which I shall lean; I do not come to my own soul, to my own sense of integrity and fidelity, as the one thing that is to support me; I must go back to my Master: the one who has sent me forth to the world in His service, and I must stand or fall by what He shall say.

He who judges us is God. From this judgment there is no escape, and no hiding-place. The testimony of our fellows will as little avail us in the day of judgment, as the help of our fellows will avail us in the hour of death. We may as well think of seeking a refuge in the applause of men from the condemnation of God, as we may think of seeking a refuge in the power or the skill of men from the mandate of God, that our breath shall depart from us.1 [Note: Chalmers.]

O Lord and Master of us all!

Whate’er our name or sign,

We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,

We test our lives by Thine.

Thou judgest us; Thy purity

Doth all our lusts condemn;

The love that draws us nearer Thee

Is hot with wrath to them.

Our thoughts lie open to Thy sight;

And, naked to thy glance,

Our secret sins are in the light

Of Thy pure countenance.

Thy healing pains, a keen distress

Thy tender light shines in;

Thy sweetness is the bitterness,

Thy grace the pang of sin.

Yet, weak and blinded though we be,

Thou dost our service own;

We bring our varying gifts to thee,

And thou rejectest none.2 [Note: Whittier, “Our Master.”]

1. The great truth of the judgment of God, the perfect all-knowing judgment to which all other judgments are as nothing, sweeps away all the sham and self-deception of double lives. “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” Can we, on our knees before our heavenly Father, for one moment be satisfied with the undeserved approbation of those who do not know us as we are? When we understand and remember that all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do, we can no longer rest satisfied with any successful concealment of part of our character from human eyes. It is as though a searching flood of pure light were thrown upon our inmost lives, forcing us to purge them of all that is unworthy, bracing us to attain to a life lived in the realization of the pure presence of God. For the power of the truth of the judgment of God is found in this—that it is the supreme declaration that there lies before us all a goal to be attained, an ideal to be realized, a high standard by which to live. We need it all our lives, in youth and in older life. It is so natural to acquiesce in all sorts of conventional standards of goodness and duty, standards which we know to be unworthy of our Christian calling, yet which satisfy the demands of the conscience of our society. But to each single soul face to face with the eternal Father, these lower standards must fade into their true worthlessness. The Divine ideal of goodness—purity and truth and love—does not change with the shifting ideals of society, does not make exceptions to suit the weaknesses of human nature. That is the ideal which we have vowed to keep before us; that is the ideal by which God will judge us.

The one principle which governs the entire vision of Jesus is that Love judges, and that it is by Love that men are tested. The men and women of loving disposition, who have wrought many little acts of kindness which were to them so natural and simple that they do not so much as recollect them, find themselves mysteriously selected for infinite rewards. The men and women of opposite disposition, in spite of all their outward rectitude of behaviour, find themselves numbered with the goats. A cup of cold water given to a child, a meal bestowed upon a beggar, a garment shared with the naked—these things purchase heaven. One who Himself had been thirsty, hungry, and naked, judges their worth, and He judges by His own remembered need. It is love alone that is Divine, love alone that prepares the soul for Divine felicity.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson, The Empire of Love, 76.]

2. “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” Mark the tense of the verb—present, not future; “judgeth,” not “shall judge.” Side by side, concurrently with the imperfect and fallible judgment of man, there goes on unerring and unresting the perfect judgment of God. There is in the Acts of the Apostles a very striking picture of a little scene in a court of justice in Palestine. The prisoner is St. Paul; standing round him like wild beasts hungry for their prey are his accusers, “bringing against him many and grievous charges.” With one word he silences them all—“Cæsarem appello!” “I appeal unto Cæsar.” After that they have no more that they can do. And for us too our Cæsar sits upon the throne, and to Him may the daily appeal for judgment be made: “He that judgeth us is the Lord.”

I have read somewhere of a young musician listening to the first rendering of his first great composition. He stood up above the orchestra, and as he watched how the music which was the child of his own soul stirred and swayed the hearts of the listening multitude, a strange new emotion swept over his own heart: and yet through all he kept his eye fixed on one who sat there amidst the throng, the face of one who was a past master in the art in which he himself was but a beginner; and every change in the master’s face meant more to him than the thunders and plaudits of the crowd.1 [Note: G. Jackson.]

The governor of a Crown Colony may attach some importance to colonial opinion, but he reports home; and it is what the people in Downing Street will say that he thinks about. We have to report home; and it is the King whom we serve to whom we have to give an account.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

Our Three Judges


Arnold (T.), Sermons, i. 155.

Bramston (J. T.), Fratribus, 156.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, iv. 489.

Greenhough (J. G.), The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 284.

Hoyle (A.), The Depth and Power of the Christian Faith, 89.

Jackson (G.), Judgment Human and Divine, 1.

Liddon (H. P.), Advent in St. Paul’s, 195, 295.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 74.

Maclaren (A.), Triumphant Certainties, 152.

Neale (J. M.), Sermons Preached in a Religious House, 2nd Ser., i. 190.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, iv. 155.

Pusey (E. B.), Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, 1.

Stalker (J.), The Four Men, 2.

Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 34.

Vaughan (C. J.) Family Prayer and Sermon Book, ii. 576.

Christian World Pulpit, xxxvii. 225 (Stalker).

Church of England Pulpit, lxii. 71 (Barnes).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Third Sunday in Advent: i:469 (Hobhouse), 472 (Battershall), 474 (Arnold), 477 (Gurney), 479 (Temple).

Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., ix. 161 (Liddon).

Verse 4

(4) For I know nothing by myself.—The general meaning of this passage is given in the previous Note. The Greek of the words rendered, “I know nothing of myself,” is clearly “I am not conscious in myself” of having been unfaithful; the word being almost invariably used in classical Greek in a bad sense. In the English version the word “by” is used in a sense now nearly obsolete. To an English reader the passage at first sight seems to assert that St. Paul of his own power possessed no knowledge. In old English, however, the word “by” meant (not necessarily the instrument by which) frequently “in connection with” or “concerning.” In this sense it is found in Deuteronomy 27:16; Ezekiel 22:7. In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs a woman under examination is accused of having “spoken evil words by the queen.” It is still common to speak of our place being “by” (i.e., in close contiguity to) another, and a “bye- lane” is a passage connected with a thoroughfare. The word “by” does not seem to have had necessarily the meaning of “against” which some have attributed to it; the sense of “concerning” would suit all the passages given above better than “against.”

Verse 5

(5) Before the time.—This is explained by the following words to be “the day of the Lord.” When this arrives the truth will be ascertainable, for God will bring into light all the things at present hidden in the darkness, and will show forth the inner motives of each heart. Then every man (and not only one party leader, as at Corinth) shall have his due and proper praise from God—not from man.

Verse 6

(6) These things—i.e., all that he has written about the factions. He only mentioned himself and Apollos (and not the other heads of parties), so that his motive in rebuking this schismatic spirit may not be misunderstood—which possibly it might have been had he written strongly and directly regarding Cephas and his admirers—and that those who read the Epistle might learn a lesson of humility. All that was said in condemnation of the spirit which exalted the Apostle and Apollos into party leaders, would apply with equal or greater force to all others; for they, as the planter and the waterer of the Corinthian vineyard, the layer of the foundation and the builder up of the Corinthian spiritual temple, were certainly the two whose exaltation by their followers might have seemed most pardonable.

That ye might learn in us . . .—i.e., “by our examples” you should learn not to go beyond what is written in the Scriptures—not to be found in any one particular passage, but in the general tone and scope of the Old Testament writings, which ever ascribe glory to God alone (as found in the passages referred to in 1 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Corinthians 1:31; 1 Corinthians 3:19)—that none of you be puffed up on behalf of one (i.e., Apollos) against another (i.e., Paul), and vice versâ. The Apostle here touches on the fact that this exaltation of teachers was really a gratification of their own pride. It was not that they “puffed up” the teacher, but themselves.

Verse 7

(7) For . . .—This is the explanation of why such “puffing up” is absurd. Even if one possess some gift or power, he has not attained it by his own excellence or power; it is the free gift of God.

Verse 8

(8) Now ye are full.—These three following sentences are ironical. The emphasis is on the word “now.” Ye are already (as distinct from us Apostles) full, rich, kings. You act as if you had already attained the crowning point in the Christian course. “Piety is an insatiable thing,” says Chrysostom on this passage, “and it argues a childish mind to imagine from just the beginnings that you have attained the whole; and for men who are not even yet in the prelude of a matter to be highminded, as if they had laid hold of the end.”

Without us.—The Apostle would have his converts be to him as his crown of rejoicing; but they now assume to have “come into the kingdom” without any connection with him who had won them to God.

And I would to God.—Here the irony is dropped, and these words are written with intense feeling and humility. The Apostle, reminded, as it were, by the word “reign,” that the time will come when the war and controversies of the Church militant shall end, expresses his deep longing for that blessed change. (See 1 Corinthians 3:22; 1 Corinthians 9:23, where similarly the Apostle shows that in rebuking the folly of the Corinthian Church he does not under-estimate their privileges.)

Verse 9

(9) For . . .—This introduces the reason why he may well express the devout wish which he has just uttered for the coming of the kingdom of his Lord. The imagery of this passage would be easily understood by the Corinthians, familiar as they were with the arena. The writer, in a few striking phrases, pictures himself and his apostolic brethren forming the “last and most worthless” band brought forth to struggle and die in the great arena, where the whole world, including men and angels, sit, spectators of the fight. There is, perhaps, a slight contrast intended here between the Corinthians sitting by criticising, and the Apostles engaging actually in the struggle against evil—a contrast which is brought out more strikingly in the brief and emphatic sentence forming 1 Corinthians 4:10.

Verse 10

(10) We are fools.—This verse is charged with irony. Our connection with Christ, as His Apostles and preachers, may make us fools; you are, on the contrary, “wise Christians; we are weak Christians, ye strong; ye are glorified, made leaders of factions and churches, we are despised.”

Verse 11

(11) We both hunger.—From the strong irony of the last verse, the Apostle here passes, in the pathethic and sad description which occupies 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, to show how intensely true that last word “despised” was, as expressing his own position, not only in time past, but at the very hour of his writing. Here still there is an implied contrast between their condition (“full,” “rich,” “kings,” of 1 Corinthians 4:8) and that of St. Paul himself.

Are naked.—The better reading is, we are in need of sufficient clothing (as 2 Corinthians 11:27).

Are buffeted—i.e., are treated like slaves, and not like “kings,” as you are.

Have no certain dwellingplace.—To be without a fixed home was a peculiar sign of want and degradation. (See Matthew 8:20; Matthew 10:23.)

Verse 12

(12) And labour.—While at Ephesus, whence this letter was written, the Apostle supported himself by working with Aquila and Priscilla at tent-making. This labour was no recreation or pastime with St. Paul, it was hard and earnest work. (See 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8.) That this labour was rendered more excessive from the Apostle’s characteristic generosity to others, we may conclude from the expression used in his farewell to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38), “Ye yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.”

Being reviled, we bless.—A striking contrast to the way in which the Corinthians would act under similar circumstances, and yet a literal obedience to the teaching of the Master (Matthew 5:39; Matthew 5:44). Thus the Apostle became in the eyes of the world, “a fool” for Christ’s sake.

Verse 13

(13) The filth of the world.—The word here used for “filth” occurs only in one other passage in the LXX. Proverbs 21:18, where it has the idea of an additional expiatory sacrifice. Perhaps the word is used here by the Apostle to include that idea in the sufferings, the description of which here reaches a climax. It is not only that we are the filth and off scouring of all men, but we are so for the sake of others.

Verse 14

(14) I write not these things to shame you.—Better, I write these things not as one making you ashamed, but I am warning you as beloved children. The mingled irony and reproach of the preceding verses here ceases, and from indignant expostulation the writer now turns to make a tender and touching appeal to their better nature and their sympathy. This abrupt and sudden change in style is characteristic of the writings of St. Paul. Similar passages are nowhere to be found in the writings of the other Apostles. The following verses to the end of this chapter soften the severity of this early part of the Epistle by explaining in what spirit he has written, and the right which he has as their “father in the faith” to so address them.

Verse 15

(15) For.—The reason why he has a right to address them as a father would his children. They may have had since their conversion a host of instructors, but they could have only one father who begot them in Jesus Christ. That father was Paul. “I have begotten you.” I, emphatic as opposed to “many.” The word rendered “instructors” originally signified the slave who led the child to school, but subsequently had the larger meaning, which we attach to the word pedagogue. (See Galatians 3:24-25.) There is a contrast implied between the harsh severity of a pedagogue and the loving tenderness of a father.

Verse 16

(16) Wherefore.—Because I stand in this relation I call you to preserve, as it were, in a moral sense, that family likeness which would naturally accompany such a relationship (Galatians 4:12; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians 3:17).

Verse 17

(17) For this cause.—When St. Paul contemplated a visit to the churches in Macedonia and Achaia he sent Timothy and Erastus in advance (Acts 19:21-22). It is to this fact allusion is here made—from 1 Corinthians 16:10, we see that the Apostle did not calculate on Timothy’s arrival in Corinth until after this letter had reached them. The rumours of the existence of factions in Corinth had reached St. Paul before Timothy had departed, and were the cause of his desire that before himself visiting Corinth Timothy should do so, and bring the Corinthians to a better frame of mind before the Apostle’s arrival. After Timothy’s departure from Ephesus the Apostle heard from the household of Chloe how very much worse than he had imagined from the previous rumours was the state of affairs at Corinth. It would not do to let such a condition of things continue to grow and intensify until Timothy should arrive there, delayed as he would be in visiting other places in Macedonia and Achaia en route. Nor, indeed, would it be safe to leave one of Timothy’s nervous (1 Corinthians 16:10) and gentle temperament (perhaps the result of his having been brought up and educated entirely by women, 2 Timothy 1:5) to deal with such a state of anarchy as the Apostle now knew to exist in Corinth. Further, the letter from Corinth had arrived since Timothy had left, and it required an immediate answer. Such reason, doubtless, influenced St. Paul in sending this letter to Corinth at once so as to anticipate the arrival of Timothy there. That you might return to the dutiful position of sons, I sent you one who is a son—a beloved and a faithful spiritual child—who will not be an addition to the too numerous instructors already at Corinth, but will, by what he says, and by his own example, remind you of my teaching (see 2 Timothy 3:10), which he fully understands, and which never varies, being the same to every church. The emphatic use of the word “my son” here in reference to Timothy, taken in connection with the clear expression in 1 Corinthians 4:15 of what was involved in that spiritual relationship, shows that St. Paul had converted Timothy to the faith (Acts 16:1). In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul speaks of Timothy as his “brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1).

Verse 18

(18) Now some are puffed up.—Some of those in Corinth who were puffed up were in the habit of saying that the Apostle would not come and visit the Corinthian Church. The moment they heard the announcement that he was sending Timothy, they would naturally say, That is a proof of the truth of our assertion. He is afraid to come himself, so he sends Timothy in his stead. “But,” says St. Paul, “I will come to you shortly, God willing”—his intention was to remain at Ephesus until after Pentecost (see 1 Corinthians 16:8)—“and then I shall take cognisance of spiritual power, and not of empty and boastful words; for that kingdom which Christ founded, and which we, his ambassadors, are establishing, does not consist in mere words, but in spiritual might.”

Verse 21

(21) What will ye?—I give you a choice. I am coming to you as a father in any case. But shall I come as a father comes with a rod (Isaiah 11:4), and going to inflict punishment with it (such is the force of the Greek, “in a rod”); or as a father would come when no faults on the child’s part need interfere with the perfect and unrestricted outflowing of his gentleness and love. The pathos of these last few words sufficiently indicate what the Apostle would himself prefer. The choice, however, rested with them. His love would be no love, if without any change on their part, it led him to show no displeasure where correction was for their sake absolutely needed. This is a great and striking example of St. Paul having the “mind of God.” He treats the Corinthians as God ever treats His children.

This verse at once concludes this first part of the Epistle, in which the party-spirit and the evils resulting from it in Corinth are treated of, and naturally introduces the second topic to be discussed, viz., the case of incest which had occurred, it being one of the things which would compel the Apostle to visit Corinth, not “in love and in the spirit of meekness,” but “with a rod.”


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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