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.
Let’s continue: 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? Tough questions. Probably more than one reader was relieved that Paul was not asking them in person.
For who sees anything different in you? What makes you so special? What do you have that you did not receive? Do you think that you can credit yourself for your gifts apart from God? Are you ready to disavow God as being the giver? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? Then what are you boasting about as though God ought to be pleased that he got someone as naturally gifted as you in his church? Anybody dare to give a reply?
Paul is on the offensive and goes right after them. 8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!
You have arrived! You are so gifted, there is nothing more to give you. You are spiritually rich. You are already reigning in God’s kingdom. So much for servanthood! I wish you were reigning because that would mean that God’s kingdom has come and our hard service would be over as well.
Paul is addressing a theological issue here. He is not merely spouting off at the Corinthians, although he does seem to be getting heated. Their peculiar theology will become more evident later in the letter, especially in the fifteenth chapter when the subject of the resurrection is addressed. The issue had to do with how to understand the new age that had been ushered in by Christ, and particularly by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Considering that Christ had ushered in a new age by his redemption, and considering that the Holy Spirit had fallen on the church with power, is it not evident that the kingdom of God promised had arrived in its fullness? Are not they, the Corinthians believers, evidence of this?