Summary: Here is what Paul wants the Corinthians to understand and what the Holy Spirit would have us understand. What matters is to follow Jesus Christ wherever that may lead us.
It has been three weeks since we have been in 1 Corinthians. You will recall that Paul has been admonishing the Corinth saints for division in the church and for their being enamored with worldly wisdom. The underlying issue, we noted, was the tension between the church and Paul, which came out in the open in our previous text, 4:1-5, when Paul makes clear what he thinks of their judgment about him. He becomes even more direct in today’s passage where he allows sarcasm to slip in and seems to get testy with his readers. This is just the kind of stuff that is popular today with our talk and “reality” shows. Jerry Springer would have loved getting Paul on stage with the Corinth Church as the audience after reading this passage.
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.
Paul is referring to the illustrations in chapter 3. He and Apollos are servants of the Lord; comparing the church to a field, Paul is the planter and Apollos the waterer. Moving to the image of the church being a building, Paul lays the foundation and Apollos builds on it. In either case, they are servants of the Lord for the benefit of the church. They both must answer to the Lord for the specific work and gifts he has given them.
“Learn from our example,” Paul is saying so that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. Even though we are apostles, and even though our work could cause us to be competitive, we have not fallen prey to petty competition and jealousy for the reasons already explained.”
That cannot be said of the Corinthians who evidently are getting “puffed up.” What are they becoming prideful and arrogant about? It is not quite clear from the phrase in favor of one against another. It could be that the Corinthians are taking sides with different leaders such as Paul, Apollos, and Peter (and perhaps others). Paul has admonished them for this very thing. In 1:11-12 he says, For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
On the other hand, the phrase could refer to members of the church favoring themselves over one another based on their “spiritual gifts.” Paul alluded to their high self-esteem in 1:5 when he noted that in every way you were enriched in [Christ] in all speech and all knowledge. Their love of wisdom that he so opposes is a symptom of their pride. I think this is the more likely interpretation because of what he admonishes them for in the next sentence.
By the way, it is also unclear what the phrase, not to go beyond what is written, means. Perhaps Paul simply means don’t go beyond the boundary of God’s written Word, which, considering that the Corinthians prided themselves in possessing special revelation, may very well be Paul’s point.