Humility is one of those lessons that we find neither easy nor enjoyable to learn. Pride is so insidious that today, at least in the United States, we have elevated the sin of pride to a high-level virtue. We say things like, Take pride in your work, or I’m proud to be an American, or They are a proud People. We still find genuine humility attractive, but for the most part, we’re not interested in practicing it. It’s hard on the flesh. It’s hard on our pride. The Corinthians probably felt a lot like we do about pride. At any rate, Paul feels the need to broach the subject with them in this passage.
Paul says he’s applied “these things” to himself and Apollos for the benefit of the Corinthian church. What things? Paul is using himself and Apollos (another apostle) as examples. 1 Corinthians 3 and 4:1-5 talk about ministers as servants of God–apostles as servants in authority, but whose duty it is to serve those under their authority. He acknowledges his position of authority, but does not erroneously see it as justification for being puffed up or oppressive. He is himself a servant and will answer for his performance in serving (or not) those entrusted to his leadership and care. Again he points out that one apostle is not better than another. They are all servants and God is the householder.
Neither are the Corinthians better than other churches, people, or than each other. They were proud of their gifts and perhaps of other things. Paul points out what we all need to keep in constant awareness of–that everything . . . Everything we have . . . has been given to us by God. Do you have a brilliant intellect? God gave you that. Are you physically powerful? Beautiful? That’s from God. If you say, “No–I did it by diligently exercising, eating right, working hard . . .”, well, that trait of diligence and determination? From God. Your mind, your body itself? From God. We have nothing to boast about. Everything good we have . . . Everything . . . came from God’s generous hand.
Paul indulges in a little sarcasm here, or maybe I should call it irony. The Corinthians feel they have arrived with regard to their spirituality. They’re not the only ones subject to this kind of delusion. I think that, however much we may seek God in this life, when we do arrive (if we manage not to fall), we’ll be dumbfounded at how far we were from achieving Jesus’ character in our lives. He will graciously complete that work and then, wonder of wonders, praise and reward us for the little we did accomplish. We accomplished even this small bit not because it was in ourselves to do it, but because of His Spirit working in us.
The apostles didn’t travel in private jets or even fly business class. They took the bus or walked where they needed to go. Isn’t it natural to us, even the very poor among us, to respect people in good clothes, new cars, clean, well-fed and polished? Don’t we wish we could be like them, or aren’t we proud that we are them and not like that rough-looking crew working on the road? Paul travelled around with a ragged group, getting day labor jobs when he could, sleeping at a friend’s house, eating at McDonald’s when he could afford it . . . probably conveniently showing up just as you were sitting down to eat?
Paul did not look or act like a powerful man. He endured slander, persecution, insults. He likened himself to garbage and filth in the world’s estimation. This is not to say that to be genuinely Christian you must still be wearing those jeans you bought five years ago, and not own a suit or a nice dress. I think the point here is that we are not to take pride in these things or suppose ourselves to be better than those who, for any reason, do not have them. The converse is also true. Pride is a sneaky enemy. It’s just as easy (though not as comfortable) to take pride in driving a junk car, living in a tiny trailer and wearing ragged old clothes. We humans have absolutely nothing to take pride in. We are a fallen race, helpless without God’s grace. Glory in the Lord.
Paul now turns to tenderness. To reject pride is not to embrace shame. Paul does not want to shame the Corinthians; their pride is, however, leading them in a direction that will end in shame.
Paul emphasizes his unique relationship to the Corinthian church as the one who first introduced them to the Way and birthed them into God’s kingdom. To become God’s children, we must be born spiritually into God’s kingdom. God has no “naturalization” process. We can’t get a temporary visa or sneak across the border. All the citizens of God’s kingdom are citizens by birth. The good news . . . we don’t have to wait years for approval just as a newborn baby doesn’t need to apply for citizenship in the US. When we died to Satan’s kingdom (in Jesus’ death), accepted and trusted in what Jesus did, we were immediately reborn into God’s kingdom with full rights and duties of citizenship and sonship.
Paul can say to his spiritual children, “Be imitators of me.” May God grant that we all will reach the point of being able, in good conscience, to urge others to follow us as we follow Christ. This is not something to be aspired to all our lives and never reached. While we will never fully assume the character of Jesus in this life, we should always be growing in maturity. Paul trusted Timothy to model Christ for the Corinthian church, and Timothy was a young man, not some ancient sage. Timothy knew Paul’s ways and God’s ways and was sufficiently mature to influence the Corinthians and not be influenced by some of their less desirable traits.
Some were boasting, puffing themselves up in Paul’s absence. Paul says, in essence, “Talk is cheap.” When he speaks of power, what does he mean? Obviously something that can be seen. I don’t think he means powerful oration or inspirational sermons. I don’t think he’s referring to his powerful presence or his dizzying intellect. I can only think Paul is talking about healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and casting out demons. (Matthew 10: 8 )
So where does this leave the western church? Sure, there are places where things like this do occasionally happen. I’ve seen them happen. On a couple of occasions, God has even used me (hey, you’ve gotta make do with what you’ve got) to heal people. I’m talking about the kind of healings that happen pretty much right away and you can see them and everything. Still, healings that look like miracles to the world at large (I’m not talking about God working through the doctors or a disease gradually going away, though God can work that way) are pretty rare even in churches that work hard on believing in them. Why is this? Are we so rich that we don’t really “need” God?
What if some of this lack of power has to do with our pride? That’s the only sin Paul mentions in connection with the men he’s talking about, whom he expects to find wanting in the power department. Is pride keeping us from seeing God move in miracles that would confirm His word to the world? Is pride, the sin of Lucifer, the sin of Adam, perhaps the foundation for all sin? Is it so loathsome as to cause God’s Spirit of power to step back from us? Is that why we don’t see many signs and wonders here in the west?
Is our pride perhaps responsible for our prayerlessness as well? And without prayer, how can we expect to have power? We don’t pray because we figure we can handle at least some of the things in our lives on our own, then God says, “Okay then . . . do it. Let’s see what you’ve got.” And what we’ve got is nothing without Him.
Paul sees the pride as a big problem. He says, “Get rid of it so I can come in gentleness and love, rather than with a rod to chastise you.” The chastisement would be a manifestation of love, of course, though not as pleasant. When we humble ourselves, God will honor us, but pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Pride has become one of the most pervasive sins in our culture. Has it done the same in our churches?
God, please work in our hearts and cleanse us from the pride that so easily creeps in. We long to be used mightily by you, to show You to the world and to bring you glory.