Sometimes we get so excited about various figures we respect today or in church history that we lose sight of the fact that they were just people like us. A true man or woman of God can say like Paul and Barnabas, “We are people just like you” (Acts 14:15). In our consumeristic society it seems effective for ministries and publishers to market the people who represent them; but we must not lose sight of the One who really matters, who really saves us. This reminder is especially important for the leaders who get marketed.
Students of rival teachers in Corinth often competed and sometimes came to blows; this broader societal problem spilled over into the church. Even though Paul and Apollos personally were on good terms, their respective followers divided over who was the more clever speaker. That is, they focused on their celebrities, just the way their wider culture focused on its celebrities.
Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, however, that their heroes were not as big as the Corinthians thought. Everything, after all, was a gift (4:7); we can’t boast in what was given to us, as if we earned it. Indeed, God had given the Corinthians Paul and Apollos and others for their sake, to build them up (3:21-22).
Like non-Christians in Corinth, the Christians there wanted to compare teachers, determining who was wisest. They used criteria such as speaking ability. Since they want to be wise, Paul adopts mock philosophic language. Many philosophers claimed that only the truly wise person had the wealth that mattered and was fit to reign as a king; Paul says, “You’ve become rich, you’ve become kings! Hey—I wish this were really true, so you could share some of that ‘royalty’ with us!” (4:8; cf. them being “wise” in 4:10). Even the Corinthians should have known that true sages, even in their culture, often demonstrated their commitment to their teachings by sufferings. Some even offered lists of what they had suffered—as Paul will now do (4:9-13).
Paul thus offers his own example (4:9-13). His orientation is not toward making himself a celebrity or acting for his own benefit, but rather working for Christ’s sake and for theirs. Although elsewhere Paul lists “apostles” as first among the gifts (12:28), he notes here that they are last (4:9). In this context, he means that they must suffer the most persecution and dishonor; the greatest—their founding apostle—is truly the least. Paul may also be saying that apostles are the “last act”—probably alluding figuratively to the closing act of criminals being executed in the arena (15:32). Thus, he says, “we have become a spectacle to the world” (4:9). Some argue that even the language of “scum” and “dregs” Paul that uses in 4:13 sometimes applied to people who were killed on behalf of others. In any case, Paul’s apostolic role is not the lifestyle of a carefree celebrity, but of a suffering servant. Like Jesus, Paul blesses when reviled (4:12).
Paul then invites the believers in Corinth to follow his example (4:14-21). His mock praise of them in 4:8 and 10, and his contrast of their attitude with his sacrifice, is not meant to humiliate them, he points out. Rather, he admonishes them as his dear children (4:14). He addresses them as his children because he is their father; teachers were sometimes called their disciples’ “fathers,” but Paul more than any other kind of teacher, for he brought them the message of Christ (4:15). So Paul, their father, invites them to do what children often do with their fathers: to imitate him (4:16). He offers Timothy, his son in the Lord, as an example of this behavior (4:17). If they choose not to receive his gentle, fatherly admonition, however, they would leave him no alternative but to come discipline them as a father must (4:18-21).
Sometimes today we are tempted to identify with people that we exalt, instead of exalting the Lord. But Paul’s example shows us that true servants of the Lord humble themselves; the greatest is the least. Paul was ready to offer any sacrifice in his life to serve God’s purposes. We must do the same. It’s not about being famous, but about being faithful; not about being praised, but about bringing praise to the One who merits it.