Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 12 (KJV)
Judgment in the Kingdom
Devotional Reading: Isaiah 41:1–14
Background Scripture: 1 Corinthians 4:1–21
1 Corinthians 4:1–6, 17–21
1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
3 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.
4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.
6 And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.
17 For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.
18 Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you.
19 But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.
20 For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.
21 What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?
Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. —1 Corinthians 4:5
The Righteous Reign of God
Unit 3: God’s Eternal Reign
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to: 1. Identify why Paul sent Timothy to Corinth. 2. Compare and contrast the issue of judgment in this week’s lesson with last week’s lesson and 1 Corinthians 5. 3. Recruit an accountability partner for the mutual purpose of avoiding being “puffed up.”
How to Say It
Corinthians Ko-rin-thee-unz (th as in thin).
A. “You’re Not the Boss of Me” No one likes to be bossed around. We like to get our own way. We like to get credit for good outcomes. And we especially like others to do what we tell them. For some people, “You’re not the boss of me” has become a catchphrase, expressing their resistance to authority.
But a personal desire to be independent is paradoxical for Christians. As followers of Jesus, we are to submit to the Lord Jesus, who died and rose for us; to God the Father, who sent His Son for us; and to the Holy Spirit, who directs and empowers us. Christians do have a boss, the boss of bosses, the King of kings. We also have leaders in the church to whom we are to submit (Hebrews 13:17). At the same time, those leaders set an example of humility (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; compare John 13:12–17) that we emulate as we submit to one another in the church (see 1 Corinthians 16:15–16; Ephesians 5:21). We are to submit to the world’s governing authorities (Romans 13:5) even as we reject the world’s principles (2 Corinthians 10:3–4; Colossians 2:20–23).
An individual Christian may have a mistaken, distorted view of what it means to follow and submit to Jesus. We rely on the understanding and correction of others to help us overcome our mistakes and distortions. At the same time that the Lord is the ultimate judge of any human, we are called by our Lord to help one another overcome our misunderstandings and failings—and identifying such issues involves judgment (Matthew 12:33; 1 Corinthians 5; etc.). Our text today brings this paradox into focus. Paul writes to a church with a host of problems.
B. Lesson Context
The apostle Paul planted the church in the city of Corinth while on his second missionary journey of AD 52–54 (Acts 18:1–8). Indeed, he spent the majority of that time with this one church (18:11). But after Paul left town for Ephesus and locations farther east (18:18–23), problems in the Corinthian church became known to him.
The problems in Corinth had become many and serious. They included factionalism (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:1–9), gross sexual immorality (5:1–13; 6:12–20), lawsuits between believers (6:1–11), misunderstandings about marriage and singleness (7:1–16, 25–40), divisions over foods (8:1–13; 10:14–33), selfish behavior in the worship assembly (11:2–22), improper understanding and exercise of spiritual gifts (12:1–31; 14:1–25), a focus on self-glory to the exclusion of love (13:1–13), and false views of resurrection (15:1–58).
Paul spoke directly, eloquently, and with authority on these issues, leaving no doubt regarding the way forward on each one. As he did, a common thread that ran through all the Corinthians’ problems could be seen. The solution to that poisonous thread is the subject of today’s lesson.
I. Faithful Servants
(1 Corinthians 4:1–6)
The immediate foreword to today’s text establishes how the message of the gospel runs counter to what people generally understand as wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:18–20). And since Christian leaders are to take no personal credit for their message or their success, there is no place for factionalism in the church (3:21–23). Thus, as 1 Corinthians 4 opens, Paul has come full circle regarding his opening salvo addressing such “I am of …” divisions (see 1:10–17).
A. Divine Trust (vv. 1–2)
1. Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Paul’s difficult life as an apostle seems to have been hard for the believers in Corinth to comprehend (2 Corinthians 6:3–10; 11:22–33). They did not regard him as a fluent public speaker. Although they considered his letters to them to be “weighty and powerful,” his physical presence was “weak” and his speech was “contemptible” (10:10). But in light of the gospel, how should they have regarded Paul?
Paul answers this unstated question with two phrases. First, we notice the phrase the ministers of Christ to be similar to the wording of Acts 26:16, where Paul (as Saul) received his apostolic commission from Jesus himself. The Greek word translated “ministers” is also translated “servants” in John 18:36, and that is the sense here.
Second, the phrase stewards of the mysteries of God challenges Paul’s audience to recognize the sacredness of his task (see also 1 Corinthians 3:5; 9:17; compare Galatians 2:7; Colossians 1:25). A steward manages the possessions of another (compare Luke 12:42; 16:1–12). When Paul went on to write his letter to the Romans a few years later, he explained that his gospel preaching was “according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest” (Romans 16:25–26).
One could say much about the importance of someone like the apostle Paul. But Paul saw his role as lowly. That lowly role must be respected, though, for it is lowly service that imitates Christ himself.
2. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. Jesus told stories about masters leaving servants in charge of wealth while the master was away (Matthew 24:45–51; 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). As Paul penned this letter more than two decades after Jesus’ resurrection, such teaching almost certainly undergirds Paul’s statement. His faithfulness to his stewardship role should have been a model for the Corinthians.
What Do You Think?
What new steps will you take to be a faithful steward of the gospel message?
How does 1 Peter 4:1–11 inform the actions and attitudes of such stewards of the gospel message?
To Be Entrusted
I once received a phone call from a man who was going to spend the summer helping with mission work overseas. The reason for the call was that he needed someone to leave his car with for the summer. We had a large driveway, so I said, “Sure, we’ll be glad to help.”
Soon he and his wife arrived at our house. He tossed me the keys and said, “Feel free to drive my car while we’re gone”—and the car was a shiny new Lincoln Continental! It was quite a contrast with my own car, a worn-out Ford Fiesta.
I did drive the Lincoln several times that summer, but I was very careful how I drove it and where I parked it. I wouldn’t let my kids eat in the back seat. I was more careful with my friends’ car than I would have been if I had owned it myself. I felt a keen responsibility to be a faithful steward and take good care of property that belonged to someone else. What level of care should we give to things that belong to God, which He has entrusted to us? D. F.
B. Clear Conscience (vv. 3–5)
3–4. 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 by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
Paul recognized that he was indeed being wrongly judged by some or many in the Corinthian church. But he was committed to living only to please the Lord. Paul needed no one else’s approval. He didn’t even trust his self-evaluation!
The phrase I know nothing by myself may be confusing. The word being translated as “know” is related to the word translated “conscience” in 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25, 27–29. So Paul was acknowledging that nothing was bothering his conscience regarding the issue of being judged.
But having a clear conscience didn’t mean that Paul was therefore automatically without fault before God. And so he said, yet am I not hereby justified. After all, there are evil people whose consciences don’t bother them at all when they do wrong. Such people have “given themselves over” to their evil actions (Ephesians 4:19) because they have a “conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). Paul was confident that the Lord knew his heart and actions better than Paul himself or the Corinthians did.
5. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.
The phrase judge nothing may seem to conflict with the judgment that 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 prescribes. The key is context. Judge nothing in the context at hand refers to things that can’t be seen, such as the hidden things of darkness and the counsels of the hearts—whether Paul’s or anyone else’s. By contrast, the case in chapter 5 involves an obvious and flagrant sin that was visible to all. To fail to exercise proper judgment in that case would be to allow a cancerous sin to grow in the church.
Again Paul echoed the teaching of Jesus, who spoke of the judgment at His return as revealing (making manifest) what had been hidden before (Matthew 25:31–46; Luke 12:2–3). As all of humanity is assembled before God in judgment when Christ returns, all will hear and know the rightness of His judgment (Psalm 9:8; Acts 17:31). So Paul entrusted himself entirely to God’s evaluation.
C. Leaders’ Examples (v. 6)
6. And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.
Paul proceeded to explain further his responsibility to trust God’s judgment alone. The intent was to provoke his readers to ponder their own trust in that regard. As they did so, they would refrain from judging the motives not only of apostles such as Paul but also of other leaders such as Apollos (see Acts 18:24–19:1). Members of the church had taken sides as to who they followed, exalting their favorites as something like heroes (1 Corinthians 1:10–17). But when the Corinthians exalted their favorite leaders, they were in fact exalting themselves. The Corinthians were acting as if their choices were better and that approval in this regard was important. In this they were being puffed up with pride one against another.
The issue of pride was central to the other problems that the Corinthian church was experiencing. Such pride inevitably produces conflict, as each proud person tries to rise above all others. The conflict at Corinth may have seemed as if it were about the popularity of preachers, but in fact it was about the pride of church members. Ironically, when pride is behind an attempt to rise above others, the result is the opposite. In that case, “destruction” and “a fall” are unavoidable (Proverbs 16:18).
What Do You Think?
How can a church congregation oppose prideful attitudes through their love for one another (see Romans 12:9–21)?
What steps will you take to avoid a prideful attitude that will eventually lead to destruction (see Proverbs 16:18)?
II. Faithful Correction
(1 Corinthians 4:17–21)
In the intervening verses of 1 Corinthians 4:7–16 (not in today’s lesson), Paul addressed the Corinthians with sharp sarcasm and exaggerated language. He pointed out that they exalted themselves while disparaging Paul and the others who brought them the Christian message. While the Corinthians imagined themselves to be wise and strong, Paul was living in lowliness and suffering, reflecting the attitude of Christ. As Paul finished this section, he changed his tone, addressing his readers as a father speaks to his children (4:14–16). He wanted what was best for them. Like obedient children, they were to follow his example.
A. Timothy’s Instructive Example (v. 17)
17. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. Paul could not be at Corinth personally to set things straight; his letters were substitutes for his personal presence. He sent these letters with trusted associates, who could listen, observe, explain, encourage, and then report back to Paul. For this letter, Paul sent Timothy as his representative.
The person Timotheus is referred to by that name 17 times in the King James Version but also 7 times as “Timothy.” His name is most familiar to us by means of the two letters Paul wrote to him, namely those we call 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. Those letters reveal that the relationship between them was that of mentor and protégé. The phrase who is my beloved son is to be taken not in a physical, biological sense, but in a spiritual sense (see Acts 16:1; 1 Timothy 1:2). Paul speaks of Timothy’s faithfulness not just to commend him as reliable but to put him forward as an example of Christlikeness, like Paul himself.
What Do You Think?
What steps will you take to prepare to be a mentor to a spiritual “child” regarding his or her spiritual growth and formation?
How does Paul’s relationship with Timothy (see 2 Timothy 3:10–4:8; etc.) help inform this mentoring relationship?
B. Paul’s Stern Warning (vv. 18–21)
18. Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. Puffed up is Paul’s expression for arrogant pride (compare 1 Corinthians 4:6 [above], 19 [below]; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4). Every Christian should be committed not to live with pride but to be filled with edification: the building up of one another’s faith for a true life of witness to the reign of God (10:23; 14:3–5, 12, 17, 26).
In their puffed-up state, some of the Corinthians believed that Paul, whom they perceived as “base” and “weak” (2 Corinthians 10:1, 10), would not return. Thus they would have free reign to do as they pleased. This assumption was not merely a denial of Paul’s strength but of Christ’s. Would their Lord forever let them rebel against His rule of humility and justice? Would there be no consequences? Paul could bring warning and correction under the Lord’s direction, but eventually the moment comes when all stand before the Lord to give an account (see 5:10).
What Do You Think?
How is the judgment that a person might receive different from or similar to the consequences that a person might receive for their actions?
What Scriptures come to mind regarding temporary and eternal consequences?
The Smartest Guy in the World?
When I graduated from high school in 1973, I thought I was just about the smartest guy in the world. Anticipating college, I told myself, When I get to that college, I’m going to teach them a thing or two! But when I graduated from college four years later, I realized that I was not as smart as I thought I was. Over the course of those four years, it gradually dawned on me that for every new thing I learned, there were dozens or hundreds of other things I didn’t know.
Since those days in college, I have gone on to earn three more degrees, each experience more humbling than the one before. I have come to realize that although a person’s growth in knowledge is important, how that knowledge—real or claimed—is wielded is no less vital. As Paul will say a bit later in his letter, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
In what ways can you ensure that your self-image of “I know better” gives way to “I am no better”? R. L. N.
19. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.
Timothy’s visit and Paul’s letter were but the first steps in Paul’s plan to correct the problems in the Corinthian church. Paul himself planned to visit. Yet even with the confidence that Paul had—both in his calling as an apostle and in the necessity of this plan—he deferred ultimately to the Lord. His plan would come to pass only if God allowed it, only if it was in accord with God’s will (compare James 4:13–15).
Paul was aware that in this situation he could end up being as arrogant as his opponents, but he avoided being so. So the confrontation to come would not be a test of who had the most persuasive words, but of who had the legitimate power. When Paul confronts his opponents with the triumph of Christ’s resurrection and the truth of His present and eternal rule, will they be as puffed up then as they were in Paul’s absence? Will their power rival that of the risen Christ? When we see the real issue, we know the answer to the question.
20. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.
Human talk cannot compete with the power of the kingdom of God. This power does not operate as does the world’s power, which derives from human talk. Kingdom power is expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, who surrendered to death for the sake of His unworthy people. Kingdom power comes through the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). And that power was the antidote to the pride that infected the Corinthian church.
21. What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?
The Corinthian Christians faced a choice. If they would acknowledge their pride and its inconsistency with the gospel, Paul could come to them expressing fully the love of Christ that they shared. Such a visit would be in a spirit of the meekness, or gentleness, that should characterize Jesus’ followers (Matthew 5:5). It is an attitude that does not assert its own supposed rights, privileges, or entitlements.
But if Paul’s opponents persisted in the path they were on, he would have to come with a rod. This is a stark metaphor (compare Revelation 2:27). When contrasted with a visit in love, a visit with a rod refers to retributive correction. Taken together, these possibilities imply three possible outcomes:
1.The Corinthians would have successfully corrected their attitudes and actions before Paul’s return visit.
2.Paul himself would successfully correct those attitudes and actions when he returned.
3.Paul would be unsuccessful in correcting those attitudes and actions when he returned, resulting in his disfellowshipping the rebels (compare 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Timothy 1:20).
Which of the three possible outcomes would come to pass was up to the Corinthians. As we say, the ball was in their court. Unlike many New Testament letters, we have a glimpse of how the readers of 1 Corinthians responded to the letter. In another letter to the church, Paul mentioned that he did not want to make another painful visit (2 Corinthians 2:1). It appeared that when Paul visited the church, as he said in our text he would, he was met with considerable resistance, perhaps even hostility.
But that experience was not the end of the story. As time went on and as other influences came to bear, many in the church repented of their behavior (2 Corinthians 2:5–11). As Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he reflected on the pain of their relationship but also on the joy he had that the Corinthian Christians were indeed still growing and maturing in their faith and expressing it with greater consistency. The love of Christ, even if expressed with a corrective “rod,” bore fruit in greater humility and love.
What Do You Think?
How should believers decide whether a situation should be addressed through a corrective “rod” or with a “spirit of meekness”?
What steps can believers take to restore a relationship after a necessary but unpleasant confrontation?
A. A Difficult Calling
Paul’s language toward the Corinthians is sharply and appropriately judgmental. This helps us understand why Paul wrote as he did, helping us understand what it means to live in God’s kingdom.
God is our ultimate judge. But God calls us into a kingdom in which His subjects, answering only to Him, nevertheless humbly and lovingly nurture one another toward greater Christlikeness. This happens even as we acknowledge our own weaknesses and submit to those who help us to grow. It is a calling that is as difficult as it is rewarding.
God, we come to You in repentance of the arrogance that we all have been guilty of at times. May we abandon our focus on our supposed entitlements and focus instead on the entitlements Jesus voluntarily gave up so that we might live with Him eternally. In His name we pray. Amen!
C. Thought to Remember
With God as our judge, the church lives in humble fellowship.