Exposition of 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Accountability to Christ alone

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

1 This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 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.

Ben Witherington has an excellent summary of what Paul is trying to do in chapter 4:

Paul is seeking to do for the Corinthians what Plutarch [a Roman biographer] advises in another context: It is your duty to reduce this man’s swollen pride and restore him to conformity with his best interests . . . . So Paul’s point is to change the overinflated rhetoric and self-congratulation in Corinth by holding up the example of a suffering sage [Paul] and his coworker [Apollos] so that the Corinthians will come to their senses and see what is truly to their benefit.[1]

Beyond question, some Christians in Corinth have been critical of Paul in relation to both his message (foolish) and his style of leadership (weak). Since Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is not surprising — except to the Corinthians — that Paul teaches the exact type of leadership within the church that Jesus commanded in Mark 10:42-45, where Jesus said whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. He has just been discussing that idea by calling himself and Apollos servants (1 Cor. 3:5) and co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9) who belong to the church (1 Cor. 3:22).

David Garland says that Paul’s leadership model is radically different from the world’s perception of leaders as free, high-status dons bestowing benevolences on those of lesser status.[2] That belief was certainly held in Roman Corinth, where so many aspired to fame and honor.

Paul has changed metaphors. Previously he was talking about the servant nature of their task under God, but starting in 1 Cor. 4:1 the metaphor changes to that of a household.[3] The phrase “those entrusted with” translates a Greek noun that denotes a steward (often a slave) who has been entrusted with managing a household.[4] The church is Christ’s household. Here is the point: even though Paul belongs to the Corinthians as Christ’s servant to them, he is not accountable to them. He must instead be faithful to the duties given him by Christ, and that is revealing the mystery of God, Christ crucified (1 Cor. 4:1-2).

Some forms of postmodernism in our day tend to make the individual the master of all meaning and opinion. Paul, however, discounts the opinion or judgment of the Corinthians, that of any human court or even his own opinion (1 Cor. 4:3). The only opinion that matters is the Lord’s (1 Cor. 4:4).

Paul goes so far as to command that no judgments about him and his ministry be considered final until Jesus returns (1 Cor. 4:5), because only then will secrets be brought to light and the motives of many hearts will be disclosed. The existence of secrets and hidden purposes are critical factors in rendering final human judgments suspect. But God will have everything before him in deciding what praise is awarded to each one by his grace.

Note that in 1 Cor. 5:12 and 6:5 the Corinthians will be responsible to make judgments about conduct within the church, but since Paul was sent by Christ, he is answerable only to Christ.

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)136.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)126.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 159.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 159.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!