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The Necessity of Humility (I Corinthians 4)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


From his book entitled 'Eating Problems for Breakfast' Tim Hansel gives this interesting illustration on humility. He writes:

Wakefield tells the story of the famous inventor Samuel Morse who was once asked if he ever encountered situations where he didn't know what to do. Morse responded, "More than once, and whenever I could not see my way clearly, I knelt down and prayed to God for light and understanding."

Morse received many honors from his invention of the telegraph but felt undeserving: "I have made a valuable application of electricity not because I was superior to other men but solely because God, who meant it for mankind, must reveal it to someone and He was pleased to reveal it to me."

This example of humility in the life of Morris is how every Christian should see him or herself. Humility should be one of the central characteristics of a person who knows Jesus Christ as their Savior. The fact is that a Christian is not one who thinks that they are better than everyone else. They are people who have come to realize that none of us measures up to God's standard of holiness. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. And we've placed our trust in Jesus Christ as our substitute for sin. He lived a life of righteousness that we could not live so that he could die on the cross to pay the penalty our sin which he did not owe, and we could not ourselves pay.

Indeed, we are all bought with a great price, the precious blood of Jesus, (I Corinthians 6:10), and we should live our lives solely to please Him and not for the applause of men.

The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 4, is finishing up his reprimands to these Christian's in Corinth because they were dividing themselves based on which of their Christian leaders that they were loyal to (1 Corinthians 1:10–13). In doing so, they had set themselves against some of the other leaders, such as Paul, Apollos, and Peter.

And they had made themselves judges in this way. Indeed, it had become a matter of pride, thinking that one leader was better than the other and that they, by association to that leader, were better as well. Paul, in this chapter, wants the Corinthians to stop judging one another and stop their prideful, holier than thou attitude. Rather, we must leave the judging to Christ, who will one day be the judge of us all. Instead, we need to live a life of humility, serving Him.

As we look at this chapter, it has much to teach us about our own church's that we attend and how we are to see one another as fellow members of the Body of Christ. Let's dig a little deeper into this chapter and find out what we can learn from it.

There are at least 3 things to remember if we are to avoid the sinful pride of the Corinthians and start acting more like the mature Christians that our Lord wants us to become. We must:

I. Know Who we are in Christ (4:1-5)

II. Follow the Examples of True Godly Humility (4:6-13)

III. Be Teachable When Admonished by our Leaders (4:14-21)

I. Know Who You Are in Christ (4:1-5)

Paul begins this chapter by once again pointing out that the leaders whom the Corinthians were following were no more than mere servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

The word stewardship or steward comes from a Greek word oikonomos (oi-ko-no-mos) and means housekeeper, estate manager, servant or slave. Therefore, a steward is someone who manages wisely the property of another. And it is the job of every steward that they remain trustworthy to the owner of the property and be obedient and loyal to him.

The leaders, including Paul, were God's stewards who faithfully proclaimed His mysteries. The term mysteries is used in the New Testament to refer to divine revelation previously hidden. Here the word is used in a broad sense to talk about God's full revealed truth in the New Testament.

It is hard to become arrogant and proud if we realize that we aren't the ones in charge. We represent someone who is greater than we are. So, we see that the problem which the Corinthians were having with humility was not because of the leaders that they were putting on a pedestal, but because of how they were wrongly viewing them.

Also, we see in this passage that a good steward isn't concerned about what others may think of them. They are concerned about what the master thinks and if He is pleased. That is why the apostle tells the people of Corinth:

"But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God." (4:3-5).

When we are not focused on ourselves but on God and realize that it is He who is in charge of everything, then we will not be arrogant or judgmental of others. We will, rather, allow the Lord to make the judgments in His time and seek to please Him with our own lives.

II. Follow the Examples of Truly Godly Humility (4:6-13)

Starting in verse 6, Paul begins to compare how he and Apollos had been acting with the actions of the arrogant people in Corinth. He says this:

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against another. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (4:6-7).

Truthfully, good Christian leaders can be followed and respected but only within the bounds of 'what is written.' By that Paul is talking about Scripture. The problem with the Corinthians is, not that they were following good leaders, but that they were putting them above, or in place of Christ and His Word.

The arrogance that the Corinthians were displaying was truly self-deception because everything they had was because of God's providential hand. They truly had nothing that they could boast about.

But, rather than looking to the good godly roll models that were right in front of them the Corinthians chose to be self satisfied as if they had already achieved spiritual greatness. Paul sarcastically said this about them:

"You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; And indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you." (8).

On the other hand, Paul and the other leaders were willing to suffer and be put down by the world in order to be a good servant of Jesus Christ. He begins, in verse 9 to tell the Corinthians:

"For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men."

The imagery he is using is of condemned prisoners brought into a Roman arena to fight and to die. The last prisoners brought out for slaughter were considered the grand finale. Figuratively, God chose the apostles as these condemned men to be seen by the world and by the angels as appearing to be this same type of spectacle. And like the doomed gladiators, they were treated poorly by their captors. They were ridiculed, spat upon, imprisoned and martyred. Yet God chose to build His eternal Kingdom through these men, who seemed to the world to be nothings.

In the next 4 verses, Paul continues this comparison and shows to the church of Corinth that the conduct of their leaders was anything but arrogant. It was humble, allowing of the Lord to do whatever He wanted in order to serve Him and be good stewards of the mysteries of God and examples for the Corinthians to follow.

He writes to them:

"We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless. And we toil, working with our hands. When we are reviled, we bless. When we are persecuted, we endure. When we are slandered, we try to conciliate. We have become the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now." (10-13).

The 'dregs' is the filth scraped from a dirty dish or garbage pot. Figuratively, this is used of the lowest and most degraded criminals. These were the people often offered in pagan sacrifices. This is what the apostles looked like to the world that they were living in. However, not to God.

Paul was giving a scathing rebuke to the Corinthians here because they saw themselves at the very top of society and the church. While, at the same time, the humble apostle saw himself at the very bottom.

All of us can follow the example of Paul and the other leaders here who are just the opposite of arrogant and prideful. And there are also those in our day as well that we can look at and see what we should be doing, by observing what is modeled in their lives. If we follow their example and allow God to increase in our lives, and allow ourselves to decrease, then the world will be a better place and others will be drawn to the message of the gospel that we proclaim. Also, unity will reign within the church and not the disunity found in the church of Corinth.

III. Be Teachable When Admonished by Our Leaders (4:14-21)

Besides knowing who we are in Christ and following the examples of truly godly and humble role models, we can also remember to allow ourselves to be teachable when admonished by our leaders. It is easy to have a blind-side and not see the arrogance that may be in our lives. It helps to have a godly person who can tell us the truth about ourselves. Not to harm us, but because they love us, and they want to help us become more like Jesus Christ.

Paul was being that admonisher for those whom he considered his spiritual children in Christ. He tells them:

"I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the gospel. Therefore, I exhort you, be imitators of me." (14-16).

Paul was both demonstrating with his life and admonishing with his words in order to correct the Corinthians. And to further show his desire for their change, he sent Timothy to them to remind them of his ways in Christ and what he taught in the churches. (16-17).

And he goes farther in his role as spiritual father, mentor, and the one who admonishes them. He himself promised to come to Corinth to help set things straight. Some arrogantly said that he wouldn't come and that he was merely bluffing.

However, Paul took his role as spiritual father very seriously and was indeed coming to them and was going to confront those who were causing all the trouble. And he promised not just to find out what they were talking about but also if their life was backing it up. Spiritual character is measured, not by the impressiveness of the words, but by the power of the life. Or, as Paul would say:

"For the Kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power." (20).

He ends this chapter by telling the Corinthians that he will do what he has to do in order to make sure that the people change, even if it means using the rod of correction. Spiritual leaders should be willing to correct those under their care who persist in sin. But they should also come in gentleness if the situation calls for it.

As Christians, we should be willing to listen to the correction of those who are our spiritual leaders. Obviously, we shouldn't listen if that correction isn't based upon Scripture. But if they can show us in the Bible the error of our ways, we should be able to see it as God speaking to us through them to move us to be more like Jesus Christ. And the ability to allow ourselves to be corrected demonstrates our humility and our awareness of our need to continually improve.


The bottom line is that we become more humble as we remember who we are; that we are servants of the living God, That is also true as we follow the examples of those who are put in our lives who are leading godly lives that are worth imitating. And finally, as we allow ourselves to be teachable by those leaders who are seeking to correct us, it makes us grow into the type of people that God saved us to become. People who show forth his glory to this lost world in which we are living.

As it did in Corinth, a lack of humility will destroy the unity of the Body of Christ and will cause us to be working against each other rather than with each other to spread the good news of the gospel throughout this world.

This divided world needs to see that Jesus makes a difference in our lives. And nothing is more enticing than to witness a group of people living a life of love and commitment to God and to one another.

May the Lord give us the ability to live our lives without arrogance and to humbly serve Him and one another as we grow together as members of the people of God known as the Church, the Body of Christ. And, in the end, may Christ be glorified through our efforts, as we serve Him!

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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