Authority is a tricky word in our modern western world. We have this bi-polar relationship with it. On the one hand we reject almost all authority except our own, because so many authorities we put our trust in have let us down. On the other hand we love to feel like we are connected to the “leading authority” in a field or area.
Today in our letter Paul addresses this issue of authority. The Corinthian believers struggled with outside authorities telling them what to do unless they are “experts” in their fields. They even arguing about who is truly the “leading expect”—READ I Cor 1.11-12. On the surface it can look like they truly respect authority, but the problem is the central part of their authority is themselves and not the Gospel. We live like the world, like our first parents, and want to be our own authority. We don’t have a problem with authority, no, we have a problem with authority outside of ourselves.
Theme: We evaluate leaders through an upside-down identity and imitate those who regularly model it to us.
1. Evaluating authorities as a Christian—I Cor 4.1-7.
One of the first things we do with “authorities” is evaluate them. Whether it is a person or concept we immediately begin evaluating or judging it. There is nothing wrong with that. Paul tells us, “This is how one should regard us” (I Cor 4.1). The challenge is how do we do that. Paul says it is ok to evaluate and judge, but will give us things to consider in our evaluations.
The first principle is all authorities are servants and stewards. You can evaluate people or ideas with this principle. According to Romans 13 and I Peter 2 all authorities are placed in our life by God. Therefore, when we come across them we are to consider these people or ideas servants and stewards. Both servants and stewards work for a Master. Both roles require them to be “faithful”. This is what Paul tells us right here (I Cor 4.1-2).
Whenever we have people who understand they are servants and stewards this allows them to boldly lead in humility. They are bold because their authority is not their own, but they are also humble because their authority is not their own. This is why Paul can say things like—I Cor 4.3-4. Paul is not ultimately concerned about what humans think of him. He loves them, and wants them to enjoy what he enjoys in Jesus, but people cannot ruin his joy in Jesus. Paul understands he is not perfect and can be criticized. But he also knows God has ultimately judged him in Jesus, therefore, he is a free man. Paul is striving to be faithful, and wants to us all to evaluate our authorities on their faithfulness. And what are they to be faithful to? GOD! Whether it is a person or an idea, we need to evaluate the person or idea by their faithfulness to God’s Word. We learn from the Bible that the Bible is about Jesus. So the next layer to their faithfulness is whether they are trying to help understand Jesus on every page of the Bible.
The second principle Paul gives us in evaluating authorities is illuminated humility—I Cor 4.5-7. The first principle encourages us to evaluate the humility of the authority, but the second encourages us to evaluate the humility of ourselves.
Paul tells us there is a proper and improper time to pronounce judgment. What the judgments Paul is talking about here? If you look back at I Cor 4.3 Paul gives the scope the judgment. When are judging or evaluating we must remember are NOT the Divine Judge. We are fallible in our judgments.
Therefore, we are encouraged to wait until God brings “light” into our judgments. We are to wait until things that are in the darkness are brought to the light. Where do we receive Divine judgment—God’s Word. Listen to what Paul says in I Cor 4.6. We are not go “beyond what is written”. If we do we may become puffed up. This is why Paul asks the questions he does in I Cor 4.7. We are not to think to highly of ourselves—especially our judgments or evaluations. Every thing we have in this world we received. Everything is a gift, which means everything we have is grace. If you are handy it is grace, if you are knowledgeable it is grace, if you are a great musician it is grace. We should not make much of people or things, but the God who gives them. We are judge everything in the light of who God is and what He does. We have no grounds to boast. This is how we evaluate everything as a Christian.
2. The Christian has an upside-down identity—I Cor 4.8-13.
In this next paragraph Paul drives this point home even further. Paul gives us a new paradigm to regularly evaluate ourselves and we work through these authorities asking for our allegiances. This is what I like to call the upside-down identity.
When come to faith in Christ you are being made into a new creation according to II Cor 5. There are many new parts of this identity I could go into, but a gifted counselor named Mike Emlet gives us 3 good categories that are here in our text—Saint, Sinner, and Sufferer.
In I Cor 4.8 we see the Corinthian Christians having a confused eschatology. They believe they “arrived” as Christians. The reason I say this is “confused eschatology” is because they know sainthood is theirs in Christ, but they think the fullness of their sanctification has already happened. They believe they have received their full inheritance. Paul wants them to understand that the kingdom has not come yet, and the way they think they will arrive into that kingdom is not the way their own Savior did.
In I Cor 4.9-13 Paul uses several linguistic devices to show them the “Apostles” (those hand picked by Jesus Himself) are suffering all over the world. They are being publically put on display to look like fools, shown they are weak, and be disrespected. They are constantly hungry, thirsty, poor, stressed, homeless, persecuted, reviled, slandered, and so on. Why can they endure all of this? Because they realized eschatology is that Jesus suffered like this His whole life, faithfully went to the Cross, and was rewarded a resurrected life. Jesus promises that all who follow in His footsteps will be rewarded—not with earthly rewards that will be recognized by the authorities of this world—but our heavenly Father.
If you want to be an authority in the Kingdom of God then you must embrace this upside-down identity—this Cross-centered identity. The way up is down. According to James 1 those who attempt to exalt themselves will be brought down, but those who humble themselves before God will be exalted. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. If you want to be an authority in the Kingdom then you need to be willing to look like a fool, weak, and dishonored. But this is not a waste friends because we do this in CHRIST—“...each one will receive his commendation from God” (I Cor 4.5).
3. Imitate Christians who model an upside down identity—I Cor 4.14-21.
Paul’s final encouragement is to imitate those who consistently model this upside-identity. Paul has been very hard on these Corinthian Christians. He has called them “spiritual infants”, “foolish”, “arrogant”, and etc. But he has not done this because he doesn’t love them, but quite the opposite.
In I Cor 4.15 Paul says they have had many “guides” among them. This word in the Greek is those who take care of the children on behalf of the parents. These people are like spiritual nannies. But the problem is they are not very good nannies because they have not been doing what the spiritual parent asked. Paul very wisely does not even name these people off, but uses this board word. But he also reinforces that he is their spiritual father. According to Hebrews 12 the LORD disciplines those whom he loves—spiritual fathers do this too. Depending on how respond to the correction determines what kind of discipline we will receive—I Cor 4.21. Paul wants to come to them with love and gentleness, but if they will not turn from their arrogance he will bring the rod. As we lead our children, in places of work, neighborhoods, or wherever else we are to lead like this. We lead with love and gentleness, but we cannot be afraid to be hard if we are dealing with arrogant rebellious children.
No one likes to be disciplined, because it makes feel like a child. But a part of being in the kingdom is recognizing that God will put people in our lives that are spiritual more mature than we are. This is not a value claim, but a role. They are not worth more than you, but have a different role. When we find these mature spiritual people we are encouraged to imitate their faith (I Cor 4.16). You will be made fun of in this. You will be called a puppet. You will have people think you are weak, a fool, someone who can’t think for themselves.