There are so many things in fourth chapter of First Corinthians it’s hard to know what to write about. So when in doubt, start with the first sentence:
1* This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
The Apostles are the, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” This had a specific meaning in antiquity. Stewards ran the masters house and affairs. They were responsible for everything from purchasing supplies, to running the staff, seeing to the education of children, etc. Paul says this is the role of the Apostles in the Church. But notice! He had sent Timothy to Corinth with the same purpose:
17* Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
Timothy’s job is to ‘remind’ the Corinthians of Paul’s “ways in Christ”. I.e., to teach – in effect to give a refresher course. So we see here the Apostles send out others they have trained and given them a share in the teaching ministry. And these emissaries from the Apostles have authority. We know that b/c Paul is upset that Timothy has not been given the respect he deserves upon his arrival in Corinth:
18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21* What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
Paul is really throwing down the gauntlet here. He says that Timothy’s coming was the same as if Paul himself came but some were arrogant and did not treat Timothy with the respect he deserved and more importantly did not take to heart his message. Paul is saying that when he returns to Corinth he will see how tough these people are if this is not corrected by the time he gets there. Thus, we see here the roots of the principle of Apostolic Succession. The Apostles did not work alone. As they traveled and evangelized they raised up (through the power of God of course) helpers, who learned the Gospel well enough to become teachers and the Apostles sent them out, as they themselves had been sent out, to preach and teach.
Two other important points:
1. Paul calls himself “Father”.
Remember, we read in Matthew 23:9, the “call no man Father” verse but here Paul explicitly calls himself the Father of the Corinthians:
14 I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15* For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
Thus, we see clearly it is not the use of the term “Father” that is prohibited by Matthew 23:9. In fact, here we see very directly that we have spiritual Fathers. The “call no man father” prohibition of Matthew is not a prohibition of the use of the word father, rather it is an admonition to give no human man the lover and adoration reserved for God alone.
2. Going beyond what is written.
Verse 6 is sometimes used to defend the idea that we should rely on the Bible alone as the source of authority.
6* I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, 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.
But reading the passage as an endorsement of the Bible alone as authority takes it too far. In the first place, when Paul wrote this almost none (if any) of the New Testament had been written. Thus, in effect, the original meaning of the passage would have to be “…not to go beyond what is written IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.” I don’t think anyone would be able to justify a reading of the passage that in part carried that implication.
Second, we know that Paul has said in other places that the scripture must be interpreted in light of the Apostles teaching.
1 Thess 2:13* And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
2 Thess 2:15* So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
2 Thes 3:6* Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
So what does the passage mean? Paul is simply referring the Corinthians back to the OT verses he quoted previously in this letter.
1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”
1:31 therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”
3:19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20* and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”
Notice, all the verses Paul had previously quoted in the letter deal with the same overall theme Paul has been talking about in the letter. That the arrogance and the bickering Corinthians is inconsistent with the Gospel. A Christian is to be humble and loving. Paul is telling them that he lives up to the very advice that he has given them. That is why the verse starts with “I have applied all this to myself…” and ends with “…that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.”