The letter of Paul to the church at...I came across 1 Corinthians 4 yesterday while working on research for my thesis on reading the Bible and couldn't help but feel as though Paul was writing to our church today. Writing on how the followers of Christ should be servants 0f Christ, anticipating and concerned only with the forthcoming judgment of Christ upon his people, Paul begins to judge this community. Asking how the believers in Corinth may be different than himself, he begins to turn into sarcastic Paul again. "For who sees anything different in you?" Surely these Christians must be following in the way modeled for them, right?
"8Already 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!"
This is, in part, the point I was trying to make through the Psalms passage on Sunday. When you have everything you need, you are not in a position of need. Earlier Paul points out that everything that the Apostle has, the Apostle has received from Christ. But these Christians have put them in a position of Kings, where what they have they have secured for themselves. Paul gets sarcastic by pointing out that he only wishes these Christians were kings because then Paul could be a king as well. Instead, "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."
Paul goes on to make the contrast between he and Apollos and the Christians he is writing. 10We 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 in disrepute. 11To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
One time I had some friends in a sorry hardcore band called Scumboy, inspired by this verse. I'm not sure we all realized the gravity of this verse. Paul has layed out that the model of the Christian faith is the life of Jesus Christ. He has lived the same sort of life and has called the church at Corinth to faithfully follow in his footsteps. This is a life that leaves one hungry and thirsty, poorly dressed, buffeted, and homeless. It is a life of labor, persecution, and slander. It is a life of weakness, as valued by the world as trash.
Paul asserts himself in a remarkable place of authority, taking seriously his call to be like Christ. "15For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16I urge you, then, be imitators of me." Are we not to be imitators of Christ? Surely Paul can only make such a demand because he knows that he himself is an imitator of Christ. For this reason Paul sends Timothy, "to remind you of my ways in Christ," thus the model of Christian leadership continues as the Corinthians are to model Timothy who models Paul who models Christ. Finally, Paul puts the future vision of judgment before the people, as he promises his forthcoming arrival and the judgment to follow. Again, Paul posits himself in the authority of Christ, an authority that is gained through modelling the life of Christ. Now, as it will be in the end, the servant judges the king.
18Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
This passage is an example of what James McClendon calls the foreshortened sense of time. Here both the past (the life of Christ) and the future (coming judgment of Christ) are compressed and felt in the present moment. The necessary lifestyle of the Christian, a life of fools, homeless, and rejected, is available because the past life of Christ is felt through the model of the faithful followers Paul, Apollos and Timothy. At the same time, the future reign and judgment of Christ is present in the promised timely return of Paul who represents Christ to this church in a tangible way because of his faithful following.
No doubt, the message of Paul is timely for our church in North America. Surely we have secured for ourselves all we need and we live like kings. Not many of us are homeless, buffetted, and reviled as fools. There are those who have modeled the life of Christ, and they have been sent for us to follow. The ultimate, future judge is Christ, the servant of all. When Paul says the Lord will bring to light the hearts of people and judge accordingly, he means this to be directly connected to the lifestyle lived; are they kings or servants? Are we weak or strong? Are we the rulers or scum of the world?