1 Corinthians 4:1–7
As I was walking recently, I had to cross a heavily trafficked street at an unmarked crosswalk. The law requires vehicles to stop for pedestrians at an intersection regardless of marking. Thankfully, I did not assume that everyone obeys that law, as I watched a big pickup truck zoom by while I waited at the edge of the intersection. But it got me to thinking about rights and privileges, gifts and entitlements. Imagine a child had been standing there instead of me. Surely the driver would have stopped, not wanting to endanger a youngster. Adults and children are equally entitled, but differently treated. Drivers tend to treat adults according to conventions of convenience, while treating children with grace. Now consider an alternate scenario of trying to cross in the middle of the street. Neither an adult nor a child is entitled to cross there. At the risk of being a too graphic, imagine a child assuming the same entitlement to cross in the middle of the street as at the intersection. If hit while trying to cross there, it would be the child’s fault.
It seems to me that a lot of life’s conflicts and difficulties arise out of confusion between rights and entitlements versus obligations and graciousness. Sometimes we insist on what we think are our rights, when in fact they only seem to be our rights because people have been generous toward us before. Conversely, tension arises when we act generously toward others but they are ungrateful because they believed they were entitled to our gift.
In today’s key verse (v. 7), Paul says, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (TNIV). Using three rhetorical questions, Paul points out to the Corinthian believers that they are acting like they have entitlements. But everything they have is the result of a gracious gift. The first of the questions begins with a who, not a what. Instead of “What makes you different from anyone else,” we find, “Who makes you different from anyone else?” Hint: it’s not Paul or Apollos! The writer for the New Bible Commentary rightly notes that this question “relates to 1:30 where God’s work in Christ is what makes them who they are.” In other words, it is God Himself who makes the Corinthian believers different from others—and yet they have been acting just like everyone else, with their one-upmanship, their boasting, and their factionalism.
Here v. 7 intersects with the wider context. Paul had used a set of analogies—builder and building in 3:9–17 and stewardship in 4:1–2—to illustrate the importance of suspending judgment for the sake of unity. Paul was making the point that unity depends on mutual respect, cooperation, and faithfulness; not on entitlements or judgment. In v. 3 Paul says that he doesn’t even judge himself, and he urges the Corinthians to adopt the same stance toward themselves (v. 7). They are not to judge themselves as better than others on the basis of their connection to this or that teacher. Instead, they are to recognize that they all owe everything to the work of Christ. As the commentator referenced earlier says, the three rhetorical questions in v. 7 “should effectively eliminate all boasting by Christians.”
Entitlement is a very subtle form of boasting. Boasting of the entitlement kind comes, not in loud swaggering or overt arrogance, but in a quite attitude that the world owes you. But it is boasting nonetheless. It is boasting because an entitlement attitude says I deserve more than the next person. Rather than adopting such a stance, let us remember all that God has done for us out of His gracious will, not because He owed it to us. The next time you cross a street, remember Paul’s words, “Who makes you different from anyone else?” Then whisper a thank you to Christ who gave all for our sake.