Again we need to keep in mind that Paul is writing at a different time to a different culture. Though this is clear to most of us, we all need to be periodically reminded of that. There are many aspects of historical and cultural significance in ch.4. Yet, we do not have time and space to consider all of them in detail. We will, however, briefly look at some of the more important imageries.
The imagery of fatherhood is introduced in 4:14. This imagery was common in Roman society and such imager would indicate “hierarchical relationships” (Witherington, Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995] 138). Paul sees himself as apostle and father of the Corinthian church, yet this is not solely hierarchical (if at all!) but reason for him to talk in terms of servanthood (cf. especially ch.3) and “the image of the suffering sage” (idem.).
That Corinth was thriving in rhetorical prestige and power struggles in word and deed shows that “Roman Corinth was not dominated by old Greek democratic ideals” but rather “imbibed [by] the Roman imperial ideology” (idem.; emphasis original).
Paul further calls himself and Apollos stewards of the mysteries of God. Stewards (oikonomoi) are some kind of estate managers “who ran the house for the master” (idem.).
In verse 8 he writes that the Corinthians think of themselves as already reigning. This has two cultural aspects to it: First, the pax Romana as being the imperial blessing brought by the semi-divine emperor; and second, Spohist influence. In Sophist ideology it was believed that reigning in being full of wisdom was interconnected with ideal aspects of humanity. Referring to Seneca, Witherington writes that in Stoicism “true kingship is equivalent to wisdom” (142). Many more allusions can be seen (e.g. imitation as an aspect of Sophist teaching methods; reference to manual labor which was despised among the high standing in society; and war-victims lead in chains in a Roman procession) but time and space do not allow to go into all of these.
A note before we get into the survey of the passage at hand. As already stated this series on 1 and 2 Corinthians is just that – a survey. We cannot in detail look at all the verses with minute exegetical insights because then I would still write about such in years (which I might want to do, but the purpose of this series is really just to get the feel of the major arguments Paul is making in these epistles).
Let us now begin with the survey of 1 Cor 4:1-21. In fulfilling his responsibility before God, Paul has fulfilled his responsibility to people. He teaches the truth disregarding the outcomes (vv.1-3). He (and Apollos) are “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” A proper evaluation of a teacher in the church, according to Paul, is set by him as an example. In v. 4 Paul says “I think I am OK, but the Lord will judge me.” Since every man will receive what is due to him from God, Paul exhorts the believers to abstain from judging the teachers of the church (v.5).
In vv.6-13 Paul talks about true characteristics of an apostle. He sets himself and Apollos as examples. The Corinthian believers (maybe stemming from an over-realized eschatology) believed that they were already reigning. Paul uses three ironic statements concerning the perceived status of the Corinthians (v. 7).
Paul describes his life and that of other missionaries from v. 9 onwards. The apostles are like men sentenced to death. As mentioned above this has the triumphal procession with prisoners to be executed or sold into slavery as its background. The apostles are the scum of the world laboring with their own hands which is not of high esteem to the elite of the society. There is therefore no reason to get excited about particular apostles.
In vv.14-21 he exhorts them as a father exhorts his children. Note, that Paul is describing them as “beloved children” (tekna mou agapēta). His harsh words were to admonish them as a father. They are to imitate Paul (v.16). In v.17 he writes about the upcoming visit of Timothy and then (vv.18-21) announces his own plans to come visit the believers in Corinth.
One final note of observation in v.20 Paul mentions “the kingdom of God.” This phrase (hē basileia tou theou) is rarely mentioned in his letters in general; but he uses the term here without any explanation which implies that they are very much familiar with Paul’s teaching on such.
Again one wonders about the difference of the Corinthian church to the modern day congregation. There is, unfortunately, not too much difference between those two. We still use the same criteria for success and we need to pay close attention how Paul defines leadership and what it means to be “successful” in God’s eyes.