1 Corinthians 4 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
4 So, you should regard us as the Messiah’s servants, as trustees of God’s secret truths. 2 Now the one thing that is asked of a trustee is that he be found trustworthy. 3 And it matters very little to me how I am evaluated by you or by any human court; in fact, I don’t even evaluate myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against me, but this does not make me innocent. The one who is evaluating me is the Lord. 5 So don’t pronounce judgment prematurely, before the Lord comes; for he will bring to light what is now hidden in darkness; he will expose the motives of people’s hearts; and then each will receive from God whatever praise he deserves.
6 Now in what I have said here, brothers, I have used myself and Apollos as examples to teach you not to go beyond what the Bible says, proudly taking the side of one leader against another. 7 After all, what makes you so special? What do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if in fact it was a gift, why do you boast as if it weren’t? 8 You are glutted already? You are rich already? You have become kings, even though we are not? Well, I wish you really were kings, so that we might share your majesty! 9 For I think God has been placing us emissaries on display at the tail of the victory parade, like men condemned to die in the public arena: we have become a spectacle before the whole universe, angels as well as men. 10 For the Messiah’s sake we are morons, but you are such rational Messiah-people! We are weak, but you are strong; you are honored, but we are dishonored. 11 Till this very moment we go hungry and thirsty, we are dressed in rags, we are treated roughly, we wander from place to place, 12 we exhaust ourselves working with our own hands for our living. When we are cursed, we keep on blessing; when we are persecuted, we go on putting up with it; 13 when we are slandered, we continue making our appeal. We are the world’s garbage, the scum of the earth — yes, to this moment!
14 I am not writing you this to make you feel ashamed, but, as my dear children, to confront you and get you to change. 15 For even if you have ten thousand trainers in connection with the Messiah, you do not have many fathers; for through Messiah Jesus, by means of the Good News, I fathered you.
I’ve tried at points to improve the CJB translation, which is worthy but fails to give any hint of the snap and crackle of Paul’s diatribe in this passage. It’s a spirited and sarcastic demolition of a certain kind of self-satisfaction. In this case it’s religious, but it might be academic or political. Whenever people proclaim themselves as self-made successes, for example as wealth- creators, Paul’s critique is relevant. His devastating question strips away all self-serving propaganda: “What do you have that you were not given?” The current philosophy which applauds all individual achievement and denigrates all communal provision, should be exposed to this question. Did all these entrepreneurial wizards make their dollars without sewers, roads and the rule of law? Or, for that matter, without their own intelligence? ‘What do you have that you were not given’ is destructive of all unbalanced individualism whether it’s engaged in self-applause or self-interested whingeing.
For Paul, who is after all not lacking in self-esteem, neither the opinion of others nor his own self-appraisal is of any importance. Only the judgement of the returning Messiah Jesus matters: he’ll give everyone their appropriate “praise”.
Paul’s attack on the “knowledge party” in Corinth, centres on their arrogance. Their religious knowledge has given them superior status, they think. Paul mocks them as plutocrats ad monarchs and contrasts them with the emissaries of Jesus who have no power at all. He imagines that the emissaries are at the back of a Roman victory parade like the captured enemies who will shortly be executed. His language sharpens as his diatribe commences. “We are theatre for the cosmos”, he says literally, then embarks on a series of devastating contrasts between the emissaries of Messiah and the troublemakers in Corinth: morons for Messiah v rational Messiah people; weak v strong; despised v distinguished. And now that his rhetoric is in flow he describes the condition of the emissaries in phrases simply linked by “and”: hungry, AND thirsty, AND half-naked, AND beaten up, AND of no fixed abode, AND scraping a living by manual labour.(My translation here is nearer the blunt original than the polite version of the CJB.) Finally Paul describes the behaviour of the emissaries in a few proud antitheses: cursed/ we bless; persecuted/ we bear it; slandered/ we give a soft answer. He sums up the condition of the emissaries of Messiah Jesus, as the world’s garbage, the scum of the earth.
Of course he’s trying to shame them into humility, so he instantly denies it, but admits he is trying to bring them to their senses as his dear children; and once he says ‘children’, he claims they don’t need a paternity test to establish his true relationship with them: ‘I fathered you.”
Clearly Paul thinks that emissaries/ apostles,/ missionaries, are essential to the life of the messianic assemblies, and he probably doesn’t exaggerate the deprivations of their calling. Anyone journeying outside their own land, moving from place to place, spreading the story of a divine leader might find themselves in trouble from imperial officials as well as local populations. We should not underestimate what they achieved. I guess I am a believer because of Paul and his fellow emissaries. Most mainstream Christian denominations today have abandoned the calling of emissaries, although it’s clear that in all developed, democratic societies there are many people who have never heard the story of Jesus. They may say that programmes of compassion and justice are better ways of announcing the good news. I agree that these are essential but they do not put the truth of Jesus in the arena to challenge the truths of other faiths and philosophies, not to mention widespread prejudice and gobbledygook. Paul’s savage defence of the authority of the emissaries challenges modern churches to come out from behind the pews and share their secrets..