1 Corinthians 4:6-17 - Suffering or Prosperity?
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?The Apostle Paul has written the above Scriptural passage to the church in Corinth. Now what do we know about the Corinthians from the first epistle to the Corinthians? Well, here is a brief list that I have compiled:
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! 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. 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! 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.
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. 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.1 Corinthians 4:6-17
- They were followers of men (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).
- They do not lack any spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:7).
- They were once the lowly things of this world; unwise, not influential and not of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
- They were still worldly – mere infants in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). They do not display the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); there was jealousy and quarreling among themselves (1 Corinthians 3:3).
- They did not give glory to God for their material blessings (1 Corinthians 4:7).
- They were rich and honored by men (1 Corinthians 4:8).
- There was sexual immorality among them; and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1).
- There were lawsuits among them (1 Corinthians 6:7).
- There were cheating and wrongdoings among them (1 Corinthians 6:8).
- They were like men condemned to die; a spectacle to the whole universe (1 Corinthians 4:9).
- They were fools for Christ and dishonored among men (1 Corinthians 4:10).
- They were hungry and thirsty. They were in rags. They were brutally treated. They were homeless. All in all, they were poor. (1 Corinthians 4:11)
- They were cursed and persecuted by men (1 Corinthians 4:12).
- They were regarded as scum of the earth; the refuse of the world (1 Corinthians 4:13).
However, does the exhibition of spiritual gifts and material blessings prove that the church is right with God? Of course not, as we can see from the apostle’s warning found in 1 Corinthians 4:14.
Let us consider the following verse:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:19-21The church in Corinth was obviously not heeding this biblical injunction. Their hearts were fixed on the treasures on earth, not on the treasures in heaven. And as a result, the Apostle Paul had to warn them that they were disobeying the Word of God (1 Corinthians 4:14).
What would be the remedy to the problems in the church then? The Apostle Paul wrote,
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. – 1 Corinthians 4:16-17The apostle urged the church in Corinth to imitate him in his way of life; to suffer for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is written:
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him. – Philippians 1:29From the look of it, it appears that the church in Corinth was not really putting any effort into evangelism. Perhaps the church was conducting “seeker-sensitive” services to appeal to the worldly pagans. Perhaps many people were drawn to the church because of promises of health and wealth. In any case, it is clear the church in Corinth was not suffering.
It is also likely possible that after reading the epistle, the church in Corinth would not be too happy with the Apostle Paul upsetting their way of life. If the church is like the megachurches, its proponents might be writing a letter back to the apostle, warning him not to judge them. They were probably having a very good time with their material riches, eating and drinking while the apostles suffer for the sake of the gospel.
For I believe if the church was really preaching the gospel among the pagans, I highly doubt that the Corinthians would be honored among men. Instead they would be reviled everywhere. The church in Corinth would have been like the church in Philippi, going through the same struggle like the Apostle Paul (Philippians 1:30).
Take for instance, imagine trying to preach the gospel to the unbelieving Arabs in Saudi Arabia. Or how about somewhere closer to home, like the Malay Muslims in Malaysia. Would you expect health and material blessings to be showering all over you? Or would you expect to be persecuted and your possessions taken away from you? The answer is pretty obvious. I believe the apostles were facing a similar sort of situation. And as the Apostle Paul has shown, material blessings and bearing the cross does not go hand in hand.
Faith healers and prosperity teachers would say that if you do not experience material blessings and good health, it is because you are not right with God. On the contrary, I would say to them: if you do not suffer persecutions for the sake of the gospel, your lives are clearly not reflecting the teachings of the Word of God. For it is written:
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. – John 15:19I do not believe evangelism is about inviting your friend or colleague to go to church. I do not call that evangelism. To me, that is a cop-out. I would term it as “invitationalism.” In the very end, it is the church that does the evangelizing, not you. I believe the biblical method of evangelism is found in Acts 8:26-40, where the Apostle Philip preached the gospel one-on-one to the eunuch, explaining in detail the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Not that the gospel being preached in churches is not evangelism or the gospel preached in crowd-filled stadiums is not evangelism. But to leave evangelism to the church and to church-designated missionaries while you enjoy your worldly possessions and look forward to a healthy long life is clearly not fulfilling your divinely ordained responsibility.
When we take up the cross and follow Jesus, the responsibility of evangelism comes along with the burden of the cross. And with evangelism, we will experience persecution. And with persecution, we may have to forsake our worldly possessions and our health.
In fact, I do not like the separation of an artificial distinct class of people called missionaries. The Word of God calls all of us to preach the gospel, and therefore every Christian are to be missionaries wherever we are, be it at work, at home or abroad. And that is not simply to unbelievers but to believers too.
Did the Apostle Paul preach the gospel in his epistle to the Christians in Rome? Yes he did. Did he preach the gospel to the Galatians to put to a halt the teachings of the false gospel? Yes he also did. I believe the gospel, the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ, has to be preached to unbelievers and believers alike. The gospel has to be preached, and at the same time, be defended from false teachings and unsound doctrines. This is supported by the Great Commission, which commands us to "make disciples of all nations... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)
In conclusion, God has never promised that earthly blessings and health would be automatically granted to us during our temporal lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ demands that we must take up the cross and follow Jesus. We must be willing to deny ourselves the pleasures and profits of this world. We must be willing to forgo the comforts of life and be subjected to poverty and distress. For it is written:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? – Matthew 16:24-26