In our study of 1 Corinthians chapter four, we look at the power and responsibility that each of us has because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. We will also look at the judgement of believers as well as what it means to be an apostle.
"So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God." NIV translation
In chapter 3, Paul talked about our position in Christ and the fact that we, along with Him, own everything. Now, he tells us that, because we own all things, we should be known as good servants (stewards) of God. The word servants here means ministers or stewards and each of them describe a person that has been put in a position to give out the things of the master. Paul goes on to say that we are stewards over not only the physical things but also of the great spiritual truths of God. The "secret things" refers to the mysteries of God which are things that had not been revealed before and cannot be understood by the flesh but only through the Spirit.
"Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful." NIV translation
A servant answers to the master in how he takes care of the things that are put under his control. A very good example of this is the Parable of the Talents as told by Jesus (see Matthew 25). We, as Christians, have been given control over everything from food to clothing to money as well as the very Word of God. We must prove faithful in that trust not for our salvation but because of what Jesus has done for us.
"I care very little if I am judged by you or any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me." NIV translation
Paul introduces us to the three "courts" that we answer to. The first is the court of public opinion and for many people the most important thing to them is how others see them and their opinion about what is right. The thing about this court is that it is always changing and is not based on facts but on feelings. Paul tells us that, although he heard the opinions of others, their feelings about him meant very little to him. The second court is the conscience and each of us is given this from birth by our Creator. Although we can become good at ignoring it, we all have this voice inside that lets us know the basics of right and wrong. Paul tells us that our own assessment of our actions is not the final court. The final court is the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and Paul tells us that this is the court that truly matters. We are all (even Christians) going to answer to God for our actions.
"Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God." NIV translation
We, as people, do not have all of the facts as we cannot see into the minds and hearts of others but God can and does. Paul reminds the believers (and us as well) to reserve judgment until all is revealed by Jesus Christ. For example, we may see a man doing drugs and want to condemn him for doing them but we do not see that the desire of his heart is to be free from the bondage of drug addiction. God knows his heart and therefore shows him compassion. We are to do the same and to tell him how he can overcome the addiction and be set free.
"Now, brothers, 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 take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" NIV translation
Paul was a humble man and lets the people know that he is not just talk but applies the word to his life as well. He had been proud of his knowledge of Jewish law but, he had received the revelation of Christ, not through any teaching of man but directly from Jesus. What do you have that you take pride in? A house or car or family or job? Those, too, are from God and He is watching to see if you give Him the credit and how you use them for His kingdom.
"Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings - and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!" NIV translation
The people that Paul is talking to have gained earthly wealth and power but have forgotten that God gave it to them. They also forgot that He gave it to them for a purpose and that purpose is not building up their own personal earthly kingdom. To really be kings (as seen in Revelation 20), we must remember that Jesus is the head of the kingdom.
"For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men." NIV translation
This verse refers to the shows that the Romans had put on at the coliseum where Christians were killed for sport. Likewise, most of the apostles were killed in public spectacles that were put on in an attempt to keep people from accepting Jesus Christ. This is the same type of thing that will happen to those that refuse to worship the beast as we see in Revelation 13. We also see that Paul made a distinction between himself (as an apostle) and the other believers. There are many, today, that are giving themselves the title of apostle but they forget that Jesus made a distinction and personally chose these men.
"We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!" NIV translation
Paul continues to show us the difference between himself and the other leaders. We see that the apostles were not raised up while they walked this earth but they will be rewarded in heaven. They will each have a throne in heaven as we see in Revelation 4. Many who are claiming this "title" for themselves are not walking in the same way as they have fancy cars, fancy homes, etc. and are not being persecuted for Christ.
"To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." NIV translation
Paul continues to describe what the apostles went through and we see that they did not have a bunch of earthly possessions. They worked with their hands and were not lifted up like royalty. Instead, they were treated in much the same way that Jesus was as He walked this earth.
"I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel." NIV translation
Paul had brought these people to faith in Jesus Christ and a new birth. Because of that new birth and his part in bringing them to that point, he was considered to be their new father. He reminds the believers that there may be thousands of Christians who help to grow and protect you in your faith but they did not have a part in your new birth as Christians. With that relationship, comes responsibility and that is why Paul is warning them about false apostles and others.
"Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church." NIV translation
Like any father, Paul wanted his spiritual children to be like him as he followed Jesus Christ. It seems that the believers in Corinth had forgotten how Paul lived and served the Lord and, so, Paul was sending Timothy to remind them. Paul reminds them that his actions matched what he taught everywhere he traveled. He was not some "rock star" preacher coming up with another catchy sermon everywhere. In fact, many accused Paul of being an unimpressive speaker but he faithfully shared the gospel and backed it up with his life.
"Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power." NIV translation
"What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" NIV translation
Paul gives the Corinthian believers the choice about which method he will use to get them to see the error of their ways.