In 1 Corinthians 4:8-9, Paul paints a portrait of himself and the Corinthians that is a study in bold contrasts.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings — and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.
Paul portrays the Corinthians as rulers. More specifically, he depicts them with three verbal images. The first image is of a gourmand who has satisfied himself at the table but has food to spare. The second image is of an entrepreneur who has become wealthy beyond daily need. And the third image is of a king who has begun to exercise royal authority.
Paul locates the timeframe of these three images in the present moment. The word already makes this explicit for the first two images. But it is implicit for the third also.
In many ways, Paul’s portrait of the Corinthians is their self-portrait as well, a canvas painted from a personal photograph. And in some ways, Paul agreed that it was an accurate self-portrait. The Corinthians were satisfied gourmands. Paul agreed that they “were all given the one Spirit to drink” (12:13). They were wealthy beyond daily need. Paul agreed that they had been “enriched in every way” (1:5). They were kings exercising royal authority. Paul agreed that when Jesus Christ returned, they would “reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12).
The difference between Paul’s portrait and the Corinthians’ self-portrait centers on degree and timeframe. The Corinthians had begun to experience the benefits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, but they had not experienced them to full degree. That fullness lay in the future, when Jesus Christ returns and completes the work of the kingdom of God. The Corinthians had an overrealized eschatology because their already swamped the kingdom’s not yet.
Their overrealized eschatology made them proud of themselves and embarrassed of Paul, who was in perpetual trouble because of his evangelistic work. By contrast with them, Paul portrayed himself as ruined, and the Corinthians no doubt agreed with his self-portrait. He painted himself into the picture of a Roman triumphal procession, where a conquering general led his city’s enemies into the arena for their execution in front of his fellow citizens. For the Corinthians, Paul’s troubles – deprivation, persecution, prison – were evidence of his distance from God. For Paul, it was “God [who] has put us apostles on display.”
American Christianity is largely Corinthian. We believe our comfort is evidence of God’s blessing; other’s discomfort is evidence of their spiritual immaturity. If Paul is right, however, our comfort is evidence of spiritual self-indulgence. Paul suffered because he was “in the arena,” fighting for others’ spiritual destiny.
Where are we?