Sermon Discussion Questions:
Read 1 Cor 3:18-4:5 together
1. What is Paul trying to do in 1 Cor 3:18-4:5?
2. What does the "wisdom of this age" look like? Why is it so appealing? How does the cross and the way of Jesus run contrary to it?
3. How can you know if you are living by the "wisdom of the this age"? Is there any aspect of the way of Jesus that currently feels foolish to you?
4. If there was someone else's opinion besides Jesus that weighed heavily on you, whose would it be?
5. What gave Paul the freedom to not consider the Corinthians' opinion, even his own opinion, too seriously?
6. How do we live free from others' opinions--even our own--without becoming arrogant? What would change in your life if you lived like that all the time?
Vincent Van Gogh, the renown Dutch painter, was one of the most prolific artists of all time. In only a short nine years of painting, Vincent created 860 oil paintings and 1,240 sketches, watercolors, and prints over his life, on top of his 900 letters he wrote. He averaged nearly a hundred paintings a year, whereas the other famed Dutch painter, Rembrandt, only 15. He became such a landmark figure in the history of art that in 1914, his letters were published in a three-volume set. In 1934, a bestselling biography of Van Gogh (based on those letters) was written, and in 1956, a movie based on the biography was made—very few artists have received this kind of attention. Of course, the reason why movies were made, books were written, and private letters were published was because Van Gogh was an incredible artist. His postimpressionist style shaped an entire movement and his works are now displayed in museums around the world and frequently sell for tens of millions of dollars.
But Van Gogh, for all his celebrity and renown today, was virtually unknown while he painted. And of the 860 oil paintings he completed, he sold only one, and even that only to a sister of a friend for the modest amount of 400 francs (about $2,000 today). Vincent’s obscurity despite his incredible pace discouraged him deeply, as it would anyone. Van Gogh was prone to mental illness and depression, famously cutting off his own ear and spending a year in a mental asylum. When one sees the voluminous output of Van Gogh, compared with his virtually barren commercial success, you get the sense that he was both a genius and one who had a burning thirst to prove himself so. Vincent said, “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke.”
C.S. Lewis wrote of the “inconsolable secret” of all mankind in his essay The Weight of Glory. It is the sense “that in this universe we are treated as strangers…longing to be acknowledged…to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside.” This is what we all want—recognition, acceptance, glory. We want those in the “inner ring” to see us and welcome us. For Van Gogh, that was the highbrow world of art, for us it is likely different, but we all know of the desire for the “important” people to welcome us inside. Lewis says, “To be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 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 the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
- 1 Cor 3:18-4:5
The Foolish Path to Freedom
Paul has had much to say about the wisdom of this age and the foolishness of God—this has been his subtheme woven throughout the whole letter thus far. What is the “wisdom of the age”? It is the exact opposite of the wisdom Paul has to offer (1:17; 2:1)—it is the wisdom of the flesh, while Paul gives the wisdom of the Spirit (2:14-3:4). It is a wisdom that the big shots and power brokers and PhD’s of the day live by. It is a perspective that goes something like this: What will ensure that life will go the way I want? And usually that looks like money, power, beauty, intellect, impressiveness—those are the keys to a wise life, in the world’s eyes. And it is that very “wisdom” that blinded the rulers of the day from seeing the wisdom of the cross (1:18-25; 2:8). What is the cross but a display of weakness and destitution and need?
The cross isn’t only a disclosure of who God is, but who we are. It was my sin that held him there. You are the kind of person who needed the sacrifice of the cross. Those things just do not make sense to the wise of the world.
When you go into a work interview, and someone asks you what your greatest weakness is, no one ever actually starts talking about their weaknesses. You just look for a clever way to talk about your strengths: I work too hard, I care too much, I am too loyal…But the cross is a rather gruesome and jarring display that your “weaknesses” are actually sins. They are sins against a holy God who—because He is so good—must not let sin go unpunished. When you lie, when you gossip, when you lust, when you use anger to get what you want—you have a vague sense that you have done something wrong, a hazy sense that you shouldn’t and maybe even should hang your tail between your legs in dutiful shame for a bit to atone for what you did. The cross is a hyper-realistic corrective lens to show you in vivid clarity just how wrong that sin is. Pouting for fifteen minutes isn’t enough. The cross is a searing display of just how heinous your sin is and just how loved you are. The cross testifies both to the depth of your sin and the heights of God’s surpassing love because He atones for your sin, if you have faith in Christ. And the wisdom of the world says: No, no way, not my sin—maybe someone else’s, but certainly not me. Look at all my strengths!
And so, ironically, it is ultimately doomed to pass away (1 Cor 2:6) because God is going to destroy the wisdom of the wise (1:19). So, our passage likewise repeats God’s estimation of the wisdom of this world: “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile,” (1 Cor 3:19-20).
Now, why is Paul bringing this up to the Corinthians? Because their divisions in the church over Paul and Apollos is, in Paul’s mind, a species of this kind of worldly wisdom. We follow Paul…We follow Apollos smells like the wisdom of this age, to Paul. Notice what Paul says directly following his condemnation of the wisdom of this world: “So let no one boast in men,” (1 Cor 3:21a)—the “so” shows us that Paul thinks that the futility of worldly wisdom should undermine boasting in men. Making factions and parties around your favorite teacher makes sense according to worldly wisdom—this one is the best because I like him most, he is the best teacher, he will make us more influential in society.
To help the Corinthians, Paul gives them a warning and an encouragement.
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise,” (1 Cor 3:18).
Don’t be deceived—there is an appearance of wisdom that can trick you. “If anyone thinks he is wise in this age” he is in danger. How do you know if you are doing this? One sign could be an overinflated ego, a high estimation of yourself (Rom 12:3), but a more common symptom is this: the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, starts to look foolish to you. Here’s what I mean: you start looking for a more reasonable, measured approach to Christianity. We don’t want to be “one of those Christians.” All things in moderation. Anything in the Christian life that would compromise our identity as a respectable, normal person to those around us begins to drop away: confession of sin, love of enemy, a seriousness about holiness, prayerful dependence, etc.
Whether you culturally/politically lean to the left or culturally/politically lean to the right, Jesus is going to offend the wisdom of that world at some point. At some point, the cross you are carrying on your back will make you stand out like a weirdo. At some point the Bible’s teaching on the dignity of human life, care for the poor and immigrant, sexual morality is going to make you feel like a fool to those around you. Or it may not be something big and political, it more likely will look like simply telling the soccer coach that your child cannot play games on the Lord’s Day because it will make you miss church, or having to be the awkward person to interrupt a conversation that has turned into gossip, or just being the first one to say “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?”—at some point, we all will have to play the fool. One author once said that “the most powerful force in American culture,” is “the fear that somewhere, someone is looking down their nose at you.” We must let that die, if we are to be faithful to Christ.
Here is the simple maxim: to be wise in God’s eyes is to be foolish in the world’s, and to be wise in the world’s eyes is to be foolish in God’s. So, the question for us all then, is: whose eyes matter most? At the final conclusion, who do you want to think highly of you: God, or this world? The world is passing away, its wisdom is futile. Living for its applause is like a fifty-year-old still trying to earn the approval of the “cool kids” in high school. Who cares? What is ephemeral, fickle human praise in comparison with the approval of the eternal, holy God?
What’s the benefit of following God’s wisdom? “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s,” (1 Cor 3:21-23). Paul doesn’t only warn of the futility of worldly wisdom, but of the blessings of God’s wisdom. Paul, Apollos, and Peter are yours. The Corinthians were dividing the church because they thought that they had to have one teacher at the exclusion over the other. Their preferences for the teaching style led them to exclude teachers that they could have benefitted from—worldly wisdom doesn’t expand your life, but it actually narrows it, reduces it; you become blind and don’t even know it. Whereas godly wisdom expands your life. Paul goes on that stating that the world, life, death, the present and things to come are all ours. What does that mean? This is similar to Paul’s argument in Romans 8:37-39 where he makes a very similar list as here, that in “all these things we are more than conquerors.” Meaning, that all of these things—life, death, the world, the present, the future—all of these things now work together for our good, they serve us: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom 8:28). Because that is true, the future is your servant, life, the world, the present, even death, is your servant for your good.
How can you be so certain? Because of verse 23, “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s,”(1 Cor 3:23). You belong to Jesus, Christian. And what does He think of you? Do you matter to Him? Does He care about you? Will He take you to Himself, and then cast you out? Abandon one of His own? Jesus could no more neglect you than He could cut off one of His limbs, for you are the body of Christ and individually His members (1 Cor 12:27). And not only are you Christ’s, but Christ’s is God’s. When God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, God did not abandon Himself, or split His being. Jesus Christ is the son of God, fully divine, and so here Paul speaks of Jesus both in His human nature (Christ) and demonstrates that this has not excluded His divine relationship with the Father (He is God’s). But, for the argument, this means that if you are Christ’s, you also are God’s. Jesus doesn’t only relate to you in His humanity, but also in His divinity—meaning, all His divine power and holiness and beauty are available to you. So do not live for the approval of men! Live for God who gives you every blessing you need!
The Humble Path to Freedom
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (1 Cor 4:1-2). Paul, still wanting to undermine the worldly wisdom in the Corinthians that have created this factions, takes himself and all the other apostles and ministers down a few pegs. All we are, says Paul, are servants and stewards. A servant is only really known to the degree of who they serve; a steward is only famous to the degree of what they are stewarding. This is all a minister of the gospel is: a mirror of the true treasure. But, Paul cautions, it is important that stewards be found faithful. Remember his words of warning back in chapter three about the teachers who build on the foundation of Jesus, how they must do so carefully. So, there is an appropriate element of scrutiny, of testing a teacher to ensure they are faithful. But Paul keeps his eye on the ball here:
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself,” (1 Cor 4:3). This has always struck me as one of the most surprising things Paul ever said. I don’t really care too much what you think of me or what anyone thinks of me. How could Paul not care what the Corinthians thought of him? One way people try to do that today is by hating people or looking down on them—that’s an easy way to not care what someone thinks. But is that what Paul does to the Corinthians? No. Look at his second letter to them:
I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. 4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor 7:3-4)
Paul loves the Corinthians. They are dear to him. Paul isn’t a scorched cynic who thinks everyone else is an idiot. That’s a simple way to guard your heart from ever being hurt—assume everyone else you talk to is beneath you. But do that, and you’ll part ways with Jesus and Paul. Paul’s freedom from human evaluation did not come at the cost of sincere love and even admiration for them. In fact, Paul’s freedom goes so deep that he can say: I don’t even really care that much of what I think of me!
For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor 4:4-5).
Paul states that while he doesn’t judge himself, that doesn’t mean he is a libertine who gallivants into sin. He isn’t aware of anything he is currently doing that is wrong, He doesn’t have a guilty conscience. But that isn’t the source of Paul’s freedom. Notice the legal term he uses: I am not thereby acquitted (or justified). It is the Lord who judges me. Paul begins using a courtroom kind of analogy. The question being settled is whether or not Paul is a faithful steward (4:1-2), and before the judge stands Paul’s life and work—the question is: who is the judge? The reason why the Corinthians’ evaluation of Paul, or anyone’s, even Paul’s own self-evaluation holds so little weight in his own mind is because he knows that none of them sit in the judges chair—only God does.
So, Paul censors the Corinthians from making judgments about his ministry before the last day. If you are curious how this passage relates to Paul’s command to the Corinthians to judge in 1 Cor 5:12-13, feel free to ask me after the service. But Paul warns the Corinthians of prejudging his ministry before the Last Day when God will reveal the secret motives of his heart and prove that Paul is genuine and sincere. Then each one will receive his commendation from God—this is likely the reward Paul spoke of back in 3:14 for faithful ministers, the commendation from God for faithful work. But here is the puzzling question. If Paul’s view is: I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what I think, I only care what God thinks. How can he be sure that God is happy with his work?
The Source of Our Pain and How to Be Free
What is the source of workaholism? What makes someone give themselves over to a career or cause or degree to the point where it consumes their life? For many of us, it is what Lewis described as that inconsolable secret, our deep, deep longing to be acknowledged, recognized, brought in to some inner ring of belonging and importance. We want to know that our lives matter, that our work matters, that we matter. And it feels like the clearest way to do that is for someone else to tell us. That may look like your boss finally recognizing your hard work, getting in to the right social circle, your post going viral, your body looking a certain way, the right people finally take notice of you—it can be almost anything that serves as a badge of belonging, that you finally made it. You are on the inside.
But friends, this is worldly wisdom that ends in futility. If you do “make it” then this results in a deeply fragile sense of self. Your security and peace now rest on the evaluation of others, which is incredibly fickle, and while you have it you feel great, but it is a high that is increasingly difficult to keep up. And if it is taken away? You’ll feel like nothing matters.
In the Spring of 1890, Van Gogh spent three manic months of creating a new painting nearly every day. One author writes: “The longer he went without commercial success, the more feverishly he painted. The more canvases he amassed, the more objectively measurable his failure appeared.” Van Gogh, genius though he was, felt like a failure. And so, one afternoon in July, Van Gogh, the man who in a few short years would become a sensation around the world, walked out into a wheat field with a pistol in his hand, and shot himself in the chest.
Put the evaluation of the world in the seat of judge over your life, and you’ll swing from the heights to the depths, your behavior will become erratic as you become ever more dependent on the likes, approvals, and smiles of those around you, and so you’ll become less and less capable of ever actually doing anything creative and unique or even able to tell the truth.
Try to ignore the rest of the world and only judge yourself? Friend, that never works. Your own self-evaluation is never enough, which is why, to be frank, the people who speak the most about loving themselves and not caring what others think, talk and post so publicly about it—they are just as needy of the affirmation of others, even as they say they aren’t.
Put yourself or put anyone else in the judge’s seat over your life, and you’ll be plagued by anxiety, fear of man, worry over being finally found out, fear of looking stupid, or tempted to a bleak despair and self-righteousness. Paul says, it isn’t your thoughts or my thoughts that bring me justification, that acquit me, that validate my work and my life.
Tim Keller often said that underneath our normal work, there is another kind of work. From our careers to our families to our friendships, we are constantly trying to prove something, to earn our place. So, our careers aren’t just about our careers, they are about us. That’s why Van Gogh shot himself and didn’t just try another career—his seeming failure in the world of art felt like an indictment on who he was. Paul’s comments here in 1 Corinthians 4 aren’t necessarily about salvation, they are about whether or not Paul’s labor as minister is faithful, but there is an inextricable connection between what Paul believes saves him and what makes his work meaningful.
And to this, Paul says: I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what I think, I only care what God thinks—He is the one who judges me, He is the one who justifies me. So, what does He think? Well, just go back to the little comment Paul made in 1 Cor 3:23: You are Christ’s. Paul knows that God thinks enough of him to make him His own. And while he looks off to that final day when all his work will be vindicated, and even though he does not take his own self-evaluation too seriously, he is confident enough to hope in that final evaluation, he knows he will be acquitted. He knows that what we all have been desperate to receive in the approval of others will be one day give to Him in Jesus Christ or, to use the words of Lewis: “The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:1) Paul knows that it isn’t his work as a minister that justify him, but only his faith in Jesus. He simply has trusted in Jesus and that is what vindicates him. The doctrine of justification by faith states that a sinner can be made righteous before God, not by any good thing they do, but only by their trust in Christ and His work. And this is what makes Christianity distinct from every other world religion: in every other religion you are working for a verdict, in Christianity you are working from a verdict. You have already been declared righteous, you are justified, long before you do anything that matters or counts or is considered a good work. Which means that you identity is entirely secure.
And this, ironically, makes you more productive, more faithful, more creative. You are not constantly gauging the success of your parenting, career, hobbies, relationships on the approval and recognition of the world. You aren’t even depending on your own evaluation. You are simply striving to be faithful to God—it is His opinion that matters the most. And because He has already given you the great commendation, your status as a child in the family, you are not working to earn a spot, but to please a Father.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)
So, if the student in the English class is writing a poem and thinks its no good, and shows it to the other students and they don’t think its much either, the student may despair. But if the teacher, who knows far, far more about poetry sees it and says, “Wow, well done.” Then suddenly the class’s opinion, and even the student herself, doesn’t matter anymore.
 Russ Ramsey, Rembrandt Is in the Wind, pgs. 125-145