I’ve never been up in a balloon. But it’s amazing how high you can fly on a bunch of hot air.
For nearly three chapters in 1 Corinthians, Paul has tackled the problem of division in the church. He’s tried to set their theology straight, countering their love of worldly wisdom with the “foolish” gospel of a crucified Savior. He will also need to deal with some difficult moral and spiritual matters that have arisen in the congregation. But there’s a problem: that same love of worldly wisdom has led some of the believers to be harshly critical of Paul’s leadership, creating a credibility gap. Thus, in chapter 4, he addresses their arrogance directly:
Brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit. I’ve done this so that you can learn what it means not to go beyond what has been written and so none of you will become arrogant by supporting one of us against the other. Who says that you are better than anyone else? What do you have that you didn’t receive? And if you received it, then why are you bragging as if you didn’t receive it? You’ve been filled already! You’ve become rich already! You rule like kings without us! I wish you did rule so that we could be kings with you! (1 Cor 4:6-8, CEB)
“Arrogant”: the word picture Paul uses is actually of something being inflated with a bellows, being “puffed up.” Today, we might say some of the Corinthians had become “full of themselves,” certain of their spiritual superiority. Indeed, Paul says sarcastically, “You’ve been filled already!” The image is of one who has eaten more than enough, which is deeply ironic given the debate over Paul’s teaching not being “solid food” (3:2). “You’ve become rich already!” is also an ironic thing to say to a congregation of people who are mostly of humble origin (1:26). But these, of course, are metaphors for the ways they have taken pride in their vaunted wisdom, layering Christian spirituality on top for an added reason to boast.
“You rule like kings without us!” he also says, emphasizing the last two words, suggesting that they have become arrogant enough to think they’ve surpassed even the apostles themselves. It’s as if the kingdom of God were already complete, and the saints had already begun their triumphant reign–while the apostles still suffered for the gospel. But beneath the sarcasm is a hint of longing: if only it were true! If only Jesus had already returned!
Thus Paul’s words are double-edged. At the end of chapter 3, he told them to stop boasting, because everything already belongs to them in Christ. The problem is not that the metaphors of being filled, rich, or even reigning don’t apply: it’s that they’ve become symbols of social status in a way that thrusts grace completely aside.
What do have that you did not receive? Paul asks rhetorically. The answer he expects is a somewhat sheepish “Well…nothing I guess.” All right, then, he continues, why are you going around bragging as if you deserve all the credit?
As Paul has already confirmed (1:4-9), the Corinthians do possess wondrous spiritual gifts. But they’ve lost perspective: giftedness has become a game of one-upmanship in a way that undermines the church’s unity (cf. chapter 12). And all this, presumably, because they’ve let their spirituality be absorbed into their me-first cultural values instead of being turned inside-out by a gospel of grace.
Who among us has an issue with pride? We can try harder to be humble. But we probably won’t get far if gratitude doesn’t come first.
After all, what do we have that we did not receive?