Talk or Power
4 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.
6 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. 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?
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! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
14 I do not write these things 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. 17 That is why I sent 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. 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?
1 Corinthians 4 ESV
Have you ever bought something online and found out it wasn’t exactly what you thought it was going to be?
A couple of years ago, Jami and I were trying to figure out what to do about all the kids stuffed animals. They needed a way to put them away when they weren’t being played with. So, there are these things called ‘stuffed animal hammocks.’
I know it seems ridiculous that your kids might need their stuffed animals to be able to relax in a hammock, but that’s what this is. It’s a piece of netting that you hang from the ceiling or the corner of the room so you can pile all of the stuffed animals into it and get them off the bed and the floor.
I didn’t want to try to buy one of these things at Target—where do you even look?—so I went on Amazon and was immediately overwhelmed by the different brands, colors, variants, and prices. Being frugal and decisive, I started clicking the ones that looked the least ridiculous and had the best price. It only took moments to find one that was dirt cheap and had great reviews.
I bought three. One for each of my kids.
Two days later—thank you Amazon Prime—we received a package in the mail.
Jami opened it before I got home from work and had no idea what it was that I had ordered because the packaging was completely unmarked. So, I get home, and she holds this thing up and asks me, ‘What did you order?’
She’s holding up a piece of black netting no bigger than a dinner napkin. And I’m baffled for about 90 seconds until I realize what it is. It’s not a hammock for storing a bunch of stuffed animals. It’s a hammock for one stuffed animal.
I felt so deceived that I jumped online to look at the description again and there was no indication as to the size. But, I found in one of the reviews, where someone noted that the product was ‘comically small, only suitable for one stuffed animal at a time.’ I guess you get what you pay for.
But, we have this problem in our society, where claims made are rarely the full reality. Nothing can be assumed to be true, only half-true.
We see this in politics. Candidates make promises that are impossible to keep. We get on the latest diet and exercise trend because it’s guaranteed to change our lives and it turns out to be harder than promised. Fast food companies put these huge burritos and burgers in their commercials that are double the size of the thing you get at the restaurant.
This is the way our world operates, and we accept it. It’s just the way things are. It doesn’t even bother most of us. In our culture, talk is cheap, and everyone knows it. We don’t even seem to care all that much that almost everything anyone says is a half-truth, at best.
Now words are important. Words can hurt, words can be scathing, but words have very little power because they mean nothing.
And that’s where Paul is at with the Corinthian church. There are teachers coming around that are fun to listen to. They’re enticing. They make promises that they can’t keep, but they allow people to dream, so they continue to listen and follow.
And Paul wants to come to Corinth to meet these guys and find out what they’re selling. He writes this,
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. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. (1 Corinthians 4:19–20, ESV)
You see, for Paul, the issue isn’t what these teachers say. Talk is cheap. The concern is, ‘What can they do?’ ‘What power do they have?’
Think about how we use the word talk. Talk often means, ‘empty speech,’ words with no real value or meaning. Empty promises are just talk.
“He didn’t mean that; he was just talking.”
But, power is different. Power is the ability to act or the capacity to accomplish something.
Talk and power are different because you can make promises all day long and it doesn’t matter because it’s just talk. But, power is the ability to actually accomplish what it is you claim.
So, Paul points out several characteristics of talk and power in the text, and I like how they correlate.
He paints this picture of the person who is all talk.
The person who is all talk sets himself up as a king. He doesn’t listen to the needs of people but rules over them. He lives like a selfish king, gathering wealth for himself while his kingdom suffers from poverty. And when challenged, the person who is all talk is arrogant, insisting that his ways are best.
We have these types people out there today. And I won’t name names, but if you want to know if a preacher or teacher falls into this camp, you can ask me. But, many of these people put on extravagant crusades where they claim to heal people, and they make promises of wealth and prosperity, and they really seem at times like they’re preaching from the Bible, but it’s just talk. They make promises that scripture ultimately doesn’t promise. They know how to say what they need to say to get you to buy into their gimmick.
We have those people who try to get wealthy off of the Bible and Paul had those people too.
Now, Paul said,
…the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14, ESV)
So, when he talks about people who are all talk, he isn’t condemning making a living as a pastor, preacher, evangelist. He’s not even condemning a good wage. He’s condemning those who live like kings at the expense of the people who follow them.
So, then, Paul contrasts the person that’s all talk with the person who has true power. The person with true power doesn’t rule over the people but is a servant to them. When you have true power, God-given power, you don’t have to express that power in all situations. In fact, God’s power is always expressed for the betterment of the people of God. As a result, an expression of God’s power is usually going to look like service.
It’s a simple matter of perspective. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I want,’ you ask what is best for everyone.
Those of you who are parents understand how this works. Think about this.
You just cleaned up dessert after dinner, and your kid snarfed a whole bowl of ice-cream in like two seconds and has now melted into a puddle of sadness on the floor begging you for more ice-cream.
What do you do? How can you serve your child in this situation?
Does it serve your child well if you indulge them and give them more ice-cream? Or does it serve them better if you deny them the ice-cream in an effort to teach them self-control?
See, even if you are the kind of parent who will give in and give the kid more ice-cream, you know that’s not the best course of action. You know that you can serve them better by denying them what they want in this situation.
Paul dealt with that exact situation in this chapter—not over ice-cream, of course. He’s dealing with his spiritual children fighting over teachers and practices in the church. We know it’s an issue of teachers, because of the past few chapters, but here in chapter 4, it also becomes an issue of practices, presumably the practices that the teachers were teaching.
Look what Paul writes,
That is why I sent 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. (1 Corinthians 4:17, ESV)
Paul set up practices for the churches that accord with biblical standards, because, as a good Father, he knows that is best for them. He wants them to follow his ways.
So, what do you do when your spiritual children can’t get along? What do you do when they want something they shouldn’t have?
Paul deals with it this way. He writes,
What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4:21, ESV)
See, Paul’s solution is to love them in a spirit of gentleness. He sympathizes with the child when he melts into a puddle on the floor. He serves them, like a good father, not by catering to their every whim and desire, but by gently counseling them in the right direction.
But, notice, when gentle doesn’t work, even the servant leader, the gentle father, has to make sure the best is done for his spiritual children, even when that means firm discipline.
So, powerful people are first, servants. But, they are also poor in comparison to the rich. This is because truly powerful people empower others with any wealth they do have. We equate wealth with power, but there’s a power that is greater than the power of the wealthy. There’s a power that the wealthy cannot attain because it belongs to the people with no wealth.
And powerful people are in a sense poor because they serve others in a spirit of humility. To be humble is to make yourself low. You can look at it like a priority list.
Are you high on your priority list? Or are other people above you?
Powerful people don’t place themselves at the top of their priority list because they want more power than just control over themselves. Powerful people place others at the top of their list because they want to empower others. They exist for the betterment of the whole group, not just for their own betterment.
Powerful people aren’t just self-changes; they’re world changers.
So, which are you?
Are you the talker, the rich and arrogant king? Or do you have true power, the poor and humble servant of Christ?
Well, I think everyone wants to be powerful in some way. We all want to have control over our lives, and we all want our values to influence other people.
So, how do we get from empty talk to true power, God-given power?
There are three things we have to do.
The first is to transition from a king mentality to a servant mentality, from a ruling mentality to a serving mentality.
In our text, Paul is comparing himself and the other apostles and pastors to the people in the church at Corinth. He opens the chapter this way,
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ…(1 Corinthians 4:1, ESV)
Now, notice Paul doesn’t say servants of the church. He says servants of Christ. But, then he applies being a servant of Christ this way,
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit… (1 Corinthians 4:6, ESV)
Again, here, we see this paradigm of the good Father. Paul is a servant of Christ, and as a servant of Christ, he is going to do everything he can to please, to see Christ exalted by the Corinthian Church. He’s going to do everything he can to see the mission of Christ reign supreme in the Corinthian Church. He’s going to see Christ as his Lord even when that conflicts with the desires of the Corinthian Church.
Because, Jesus is Lord, first of all. But, not only that, Christ’s Lordship is always expressed in the benefit of His Church. ‘I have applied all these things to myself…for your benefit.’
See, the people in the Corinthian church saw themselves as King. They wanted to rule and be served, but Paul says ‘no.’ That’s not how the church operates. Real power comes from serving the true King, that is, Christ.
And you may think yourself a quiet person. You think to be king is or people who want to get up and speak and make a big fuss. But, if your desire to be served is greater than your desire to serve, then your ultimate desire is to rule. If you see church as a service offered to you rather than a service you offer to Christ and His church, then you desire to rule.
And make no mistake, we will rule. Paul even says he’d like to rule. He writes,
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! (1 Corinthians 4:8, ESV).
There is a day coming when we, as Christians will rule. It was the commission given to Adam in the Garden to the East of Eden, to have dominion and rule over the earth.
And it’s the fulfillment of what is coming in the future: 2 Timothy 2:12,
If we endure, we will also reign with him [Christ]. (2 Timothy 2:12, ESV)
So, Paul says, yeah, I wish it was over, I wish we were reigning with Christ now, I wish we had already entered into God’s eternal Kingdom where we will live forever in the glory of Christ and the Father.
But, our time to rule is not yet. Even Jesus, when he was on earth, said this:
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45, ESV)
Here on earth, our job is service. Like Jesus, we are called to serve not be served. But, just as Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father where He was seated on His throne and rules over His church—Philippians 2—we one day will rule with Him over the creation.
But not yet. Today, our job is service. Would that we did reign. But, we don’t. Not yet.
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ…(1 Corinthians 4:1, ESV)
So, how’s your service? How are you serving Jesus Christ in day-to-day life? How well are you carrying out the greatest commandment to love God by loving your neighbors, coworkers, family members around you? And how well are you carrying out the great commission, to bring the people around you—our inner circle—even those who are not like you, into the church to know Christ as Lord and Savior?
And this paradigm plays out further, because Paul tells them, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!”
And that’s great for them, that they should have all the comforts and blessings of life. But, look at the Apostle Paul.
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted [beaten] and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. (1 Corinthians 4:11–12, ESV)
I think there’s some hyperbole in this passage because we know from other texts that Paul was cared for by the churches and he was also a tentmaker and made his own living wherever he went. So, he wasn’t poor in the sense that he had nothing, although he was certainly not wealthy. And he was beaten and imprisoned for his faith. And he was nomadic; he had no home, but lived on the road, working his way from town to town.
Here’s what you have to realize about this contrast between rich and poor. Although poor, Paul was never without anything he needed. He may have felt hunger and thirst, but was never in danger of death because of his poverty. Paul had what he needed, although, he may have lacked the things that his flesh desired.
You could say, he had what he needed, just not what he wanted.
And that’s Paul’s accusation of the Corinthians:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! (1 Corinthians 4:8, ESV).
Again, the disconnect has to do with eternity. We are promised everything we need in Christ to live in this life. But, it is not until we enter into God’s eternal Kingdom, when Christ returns for His people, that we will also have everything we want.
If I’m honest, I think it’s good for us to be in want.
You’re like, what? I don’t want to be unsatisfied? I don’t want to be hungry? Nobody wants to be uncomfortable? That’s not good. Why would you say that, Anthony?
I say that, because the more uncomfortable we are in this life, the more we will yearn for the greater comforts of the life to come. You think you like the comforts of this world, but the Bible promises comfort beyond measure, satisfaction beyond measure, pleasure beyond measure. We strive for ground turkey, when God has promised New York strip.
Do you understand what I’m saying?
The more you find this world unsatisfactory, unsatiating, uncomfortable, the more you will yearn for the perfect satisfaction of the world to come—and the more you will want to bring other people with you to experience that satisfaction.
That’s where Paul’s at.
Do you want power, true power, godly power? Power like Christ?
I’m not saying that you give away what you need, but give up what you want in order for other people to have what they need.
Does that make sense?
And I want to be careful here. I’m not asking anyone to move out of their homes, quit their jobs, and cancel their retirement to willingly enter into poverty. I’m saying the opposite. Continue to thrive, continue to work, continue to be a part of today’s economy so that you will have a surplus and give it for the benefit of others. The difference is that, instead of spending our surplus on ourselves and our wants like a selfish King does, we give for the benefit of those who live in need like a servant of a righteous King.
Empty talkers spend on themselves, but true power is expressed in the blessing of those who are without.
I mean, isn’t that what Christ did for us on earth?
He took a people who were toiling away at meaningless lives, rot with death, and He gave his own life that we might live. He freely gave us what we needed more than anything else on the cross, because true life was never an option for us, not until He made it possible.
So, we serve, and we give and then we choose to change our disposition so that instead of boasting in ourselves, our accomplishments, our knowledge, our stuff, that we express self-control, again, for the betterment of others.
We’re on the third point now. Paul says,
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. 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? (1 Corinthians 4:6–7, ESV)
When we try to rule our own lives and rule the lives of others instead of being a servant of Christ it results in arrogance, we boast in our own accomplishments and our own wisdom. We boast as if we should receive credit for the things we’ve earned and the things we’ve accomplished, but Paul says, God did all that. Not us, so don’t boast as if you have done anything.
But, when we give our lives for the service of Christ, and we give our wealth for the blessing of others, we have self-control. We then have no desire to boast. Look how that plays out. Paul writes,
That is why I sent 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. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 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. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4:17–21, ESV)
It appears that there was this arrogance, like people were saying,
“If Paul’s ways are so great, then why doesn’t he come teach us? Where is he? He just abandoned us!”
So, Paul sent Timothy to try to talk some sense into them. But, they were still arrogant. So, Paul writes them this letter. He wants to be a picture of self-control. He wants them to be corrected in love and gentleness. He wants to encourage them to have self-control.
And notice that spiritual father paradigm play out. If they don’t have self-control, then they will have to undergo the discipline of the church when Paul shows up.
So, here’s the test of true power.
When you experience conflict in life—and everyone does—are you the kind of person who has to have all the right answers, the one who never admits fault, the one who insists on your own ways? Or are you the kind of person who listens patiently, the one who loves, the one who approaches the topic with a spirit of gentleness and self-control?
If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like Christians have no real influence over society, this is why. We like to look to the past, where Christianity influenced politics, society, and morality. And we pray for that time to come again. And then some of us like to blame it on the end times as if it’s God’s fault that the world is falling prey to the destruction of sin.
But, God’s plan is not the problem. We’ve lost our voice in society as the church. The church has lost its influence in our culture and if you want that back, here’s where it starts. True, God-given power starts by listening to the concerns of others, expressing self-control, even when the sins of the world stir a fire of outrage in your heart.
Power and influence belong to the givers, to those who have proven that the best interests of the people God created are just as important as their own interests. It’s no coincidence that orphanages and hospitals and homeless shelters and mental health facilities and all sorts of other benevolence organizations sprung up out of the church during, what’s often called, the golden age of Christianity, the past couple hundred years. The church had power because the church was a servant of the people, giving till it hurts, and humble before the people.
Power belongs to those who serve Christ as the supreme authority over the church and the entire creation. Power doesn’t belong to the arrogant, the lazy, the hypocrites, but to those who live as if Christ’s purposes as supreme in all things.
If we, as Christians, want to have real power, not just empty talk, this is where we start.
This is your NEXT STEP
This is like anything else. Most of you don’t fall cleanly into the empty talk category. And yet, we have a lot of work to do before we experience the fulness of God’s power. But, we’re in process. We’re on the journey, and we all have a step we can take towards power today.
Do you need to take a step away from controlling and ruling towards serving better? Do you need to take a step away from spending to giving? Do you need to take a step from boasting towards self-control? What’s the specific step you need to take today?
I encourage you to write down your next step toward God-given power on your Next Step card so we can pray for you as you take that step this week.
Let me pray for you now.
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