In the previous post, we saw how Paul painted a rather uninviting portrait of the life of an apostle. Here is the passage again, this time in the NIV:
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 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. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. (1 Cor 4:9-13, NIV)
The Corinthians’ attitude toward Paul suggested that they viewed the Christian life as one more potential source of pride, as if being a Christian–or the right kind of Christian, following the right leader–entitled one to honor and prestige. To make a point, Paul countered with a starkly unprestigious picture, one designed to make his hearers sit up and take notice.
He seems to fall back on his earlier observation that most of them came from humble backgrounds; they are people without wealth, influence, or social pedigree (1:26). But that’s God’s plan: God chose to build his church from the foolish, weak, and lowly of the world in order to shame those who think they have wisdom, strength, and honor to spare, so that there would be no cause for arrogant boasting among his people (1:27-29).
Thus the sarcastic tone of Paul’s words: Look at us, the apostles! We are seen as fools; we are weak; we are treated with dishonor. But you–you crave honor; you think yourself so wise, so strong! (There may even have been a problem around Paul’s commitment to being a tentmaker–“We work hard with our own hands”–since it would have deprived some of the Corinthian upper class of the opportunity for a highly visible bit of patronage.) Paul is confronting them with the terrible irony of their attitude and behavior: You were social nobodies, remember? You heard the gospel and received it by grace. And now, here you are, turning the Christian life into a graceless game of status-chasing, of inflating your sense of self-importance.
His point is not that all Christians will or must suffer the same way. He wants to cultivate in them a new attitude, grounded in grace, and new behavior to go with it. Again, he uses himself and the apostles as an example. The issue is not suffering in itself, but the demonstration of Christlikeness in the face of opposition: patiently enduring persecution, returning blessing for cursing and kindness for slander.
One assumes that patience, blessing, and kindness weren’t exactly the norm in Corinth. Paul’s mission there had always been to preach the gospel of a crucified Christ (2:2); here, he tries to push the Corinthians–none too gently–to abandon their social-climbing ways for a theology of the cross.
Would we need the same kind of push?