Beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:1-21)

As he writes to challenge the church in Corinth, Paul urges the church not ‘to go beyond what is written’. But what does he mean by that and how is he challenging them?

Sermon by Colin Gale.

Last time I visited my sister, which was just before Easter, I noticed that the walls and table-tops of her house were covered with framed and decorated inspirational sayings, life mottos and uplifting quotations. If I could, I would tell you what some of these sayings were, but unfortunately, I can’t remember a single one of them, even though I last visited her house less than four weeks ago. This tells you that I have a terrible memory, or that I don’t pay enough attention to the things that are all around me, or at least that my imagination was not captured by these sayings quite enough for me to commit any of them to memory, let alone to live my life by them.

Did you spot that in our reading from I Corinthians chapter 4, the apostle Paul invites the church in Corinth into a knowledge and appreciation of a quotation of unknown origin – one which we will see is not only worth remembering, but also worthy of shaping our lives by. In chapter 4, verse 6, he writes ‘I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying Do not go beyond what is written. Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.’ This saying can help open up for us the whole of I Corinthians chapter 4, and it can help sum up for us the essence of Christian living.

In order to grasp what Paul means by adopting this saying, Do not go beyond what is written, we need to understand what he is talking about when he refers to what is written. In the overall context of Paul’s thinking, what is written must refer to the Bible as a whole – he writes elsewhere that ‘everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4). In the context of his letter to the Corinthians in particular, what is written means: the things written in the Old Testament which appear as quotations in the first three chapters of I Corinthians, things such as

  • I will destroy the wisdom of the wise (I Cor. 1:19), which is a quotation from Isaiah (29:14);
  • no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (I Cor 2:9), which is another quotation from Isaiah (64:4); and
  • who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? (I Cor 2:16), yet another quotation from Isaiah (40:13).

These and other quotations from the Old Testament which appear in the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians promote three things.

The first thing is humility as far as our capacities are concerned, and trust in God as far as his capacities are concerned. The wisdom of the wisest person, and intelligence of the most intelligent person, pales by comparison with the wisdom and intelligence of God, so whoever who is inclined to boast about their own abilities should stop, think about it a bit, and instead boast not in themselves but in the Lord, as it says in Jeremiah chapter 9, quoted at the end of I Corinthians chapter 1. That would express humility and trust in God.

The second thing promoted by the Old Testament quotations contained in the first three chapters of I Corinthians is a holy expectation and hope, which is again centred on God. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him. We have not yet arrived at our end of the journey we are on; this is what is written. There is more to come, of which we presently know nothing, in the demonstration of God’s love for us. And so, as well as living humbly, we live expectantly, patiently, and with confident hope.

The third thing embedded within those Old Testament quotations in the first three chapters of I Corinthians is the compassion of God, and his preparedness to make reasonable adjustment for us. He catches the wise in their craftiness (Job 5:13) and The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile (Psalm 34:11) are lines from the book of Job and the Psalms, quoted in I Corinthians chapter 3 not to be unkind, but simply to express the difference between the Creator, God, and the creature, you and me. The Psalms also say that ‘as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust’ (Psalm 103:13-14). If we think about it, compassion and reasonable adjustment are hardwired into the Christian gospel of God becoming incarnate as a human being, stooping so low as to suffer death on a cross, in order to raise sinners heavenward.

So the apostle Paul’s answer to the question concerning what is written is first, humility and second, expectation on our part; and third, compassion and reasonable adjustment on the part of God. These three things help to sum up the essence of the Christian life, and they are what makes the saying Do not go beyond what is written worthy of shaping our lives.

Yet of course the apostle Paul was writing to a real church made up of flesh-and-blood members who, just like us, were sinful and imperfect in all kinds of ways. He says in verse 6 of I Corinthians chapter 4 that he has applied the saying Do not go beyond what is written not to them but to himself and Apollos, so that they may learn from their examples, but if we read on through chapter 4, we can pretty easily work out how it did apply to the them in Corinth.

The Corinthian church was in no way a model of humility, hope and compassion. In place of humility and trust in God, there was pride and arrogance. In place of expectation and hope, there was a presumption of having already arrived. In place of compassion and reasonable adjustment, there was inflexibility and abuse of power. In each of these three ways, they had gone far beyond what had been written.

The pride and arrogance is mentioned by the apostle Paul in verse 6 of I Corinthians chapter 4. Once the Corinthians have learned the meaning of the saying, Do not go beyond what is written, ‘they will not take pride in one man over another’, says Paul. The reason for this is that they will have learned from what is written that they are no different from anyone else, and that they have nothing that they did not receive. That lesson is appropriate not just for the start of the Christian life, but for every single day of the Christian life, until its end.

Yet if the Corinthians were ever in that place of humility, by the time Paul wrote to them, they weren’t any more. They had gone beyond what is written, beyond humility and trust in God alone, to take pride in who they were, and pride in what they had. They wrongly believed themselves to be, or else they wrongly acted as if they were, self-made people. Whatever success they had, they attributed it to themselves, and whatever social markers they observed, they used them to distinguish themselves from other people, on whom they looked down.

Their pride was fuelled by a presumption of having already arrived. They had indeed arrived, according to one commentary on I Corinthians, “but in all the wrong ways”[1] and to all the wrong places. They had gone beyond expectation, patience and hope in God to presumption.

‘Already you have all you want!’ writes the apostle Paul sadly in verse 8. ‘Already you have become rich!’ In their own eyes, and in contrast to the apostles, he writes that they had ‘become kings – and that without [help from any apostle]. How I wish you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!’.

The contrast between the ‘now’ of the Corinthians and the ‘not yet’ of the apostles is then drawn starkly by Paul. ‘God has put us apostles on display … like men condemned to die in the arena … We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! … We go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless … we have become the scum of the earth”. And then he adds, in verse 14, ‘I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you as my dear children’.

The warning is this: those who have swapped out expectation, patience and hope in God for presumption have already received their reward in full. No more remains in wait for them. Do not go beyond what is written. Do not give up on hope, by pretending that you already have it all. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.

And then in place of compassion and reasonable adjustment, the Corinthians, or some of those who were leaders in the Corinthian church anyway, had begun to believe that they were accountable to no-one, and had begun to misuse their power. ‘Some of you have become arrogant’, writes the apostle, ‘as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon … and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. …’ When those with power in society or in the church lack compassion and refuse to make reasonable adjustment for those that need it, that is an abuse of power. And when those exercising power are accountable to no-one, abuses of power can run unchecked for years, far beyond what is written of God’s condescension and mercy.

‘What do you prefer?’ asks Paul at the end of chapter 4. ‘Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?’ Such a question might seem to answer itself. It is obvious even in his asking of this question that Paul intends to come in love and a gentle spirit, and does not intend to abuse his power in the control of others by fear. Yet, throughout history, strong-armed, red-blooded bullies, who use the power they have over others to big themselves up in society and in the church, have survived and thrived on blind loyalty, the blind loyalty and support of those who stay near the exercise of brute force because somehow they find it attractive – although it is in fact ugly.

Having been reminded of the beauty of what is written, and having surveyed the ugliness of those things which are beyond what is written, it is time to consider what is involved in living what is written. To do so, we return to three points that are by now familiar: humility, hope and compassion.

In our reading, Paul speaks of the humble way of life adopted by the apostles. ‘We work hard with our hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.’ (I Cor 4:12-13). These are examples of him and others walking the talk, practising what they preach, living out in flesh and blood what is written down on the sacred pages of Holy Scripture for our instruction. It’s hard to argue against kindness, generosity, endurance and perseverance. They shine with authenticity, in a world – and, may I say, a church – which is contaminated, it seems to me, with too much by way of falsehood, insincerity and showmanship.

Again in our reading, Paul speaks of expectation and hope in God. ‘Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the secrets of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.’ (I Cor 4:5). If God is the judge, then we need not – in fact we must not – rush to judgement. If God is our judge, then we may wait patiently for him to incline and hear our cry, and rescue us. This too is a way of living what is written.

Then in I Corinthians chapter 5, which will be the subject of a future sermon when we pick up our series on I Corinthians later in the year, the apostle Paul recommends compassion – a strange sort of compassion, a tough love it may seem to us, when we come to read chapter 5 – but a compassion which is nevertheless aimed at saving the skin of a flagrant, unrepentant offender in the last ditch, and a compassion which accommodates us to living in an imperfect world. This is the compassion of God himself, who hates nothing that he has made, who forgives the sins of all who are penitent, and does all this through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  • imitating the examples left for us by Paul, Timothy and all the men and women who throughout our lives have led us time and again back to God;
  • following them as we see them to have followed Christ;
  • and by the leading of the Holy Spirit;

we will live what has been written by the inspiration of that same Spirit. By the grace of God, we will live up to what we have already attained, and we will never seek to go beyond what is written, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we may always keep hold of humility, hope and compassion. We can, and we may do this, only in union with Jesus Christ, who endured the cross – there is his humiliation – and scorned its shame for the joy set before him – there is his expectation – and suffered death to bring many sons and daughters to glory – there is his mercy and his compassion. (cf. Hebrews 2:9,10; 12:2).

Though for the life of me, I still can’t remember any of the motivational phrases and life mottos on display in my sister’s house, I do remember thinking last month that they captured many admirable and worthwhile sentiments. But here in I Corinthians chapter 4 we have a saying that is really worthy of being taken to heart, not only memorable but also capable of shaping our lives – for the better, and for the sake of Christ. Do not go beyond what is written, because what is written is to us life, and health, and peace. And may this peace guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, now and forevermore.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1987), page 157.

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