Continuing on in 1 Corinthians 3:16-22 and 4:1-7,
In this passage we are confronted with a frequent hallmark of Paul’s writing. As is true throughout Romans with the word “law”, throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the same word “judge” to mean different things in different areas of the text, either good or bad. In the following passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul is clearly talking about a bad form of judging. To grasp the nature of this bad form of judging, one must look carefully at the immediate context.
16 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
Paul is talking about anyone who operates destructively in the lives and faith of the collective body of believers. In the context, Paul is talking about the ways in which the Corinthians are promoting strife and divisions amongst each other. It is this act of destroying the church that is antithetical the “house building” that will build the church (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-15).
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20 and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." 21 So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
“All things are yours”. In other words, all truth, eternity and goodness belong to the Corinthians through Christ and Christ alone. Therefore, a Corinthian need not try to treat truth, eternity and goodness as though they were only to found in his allegiance to one earthly leader verses his allegiance to another. Each Corinthian who was loyal to one earthly leader over another was operating out of the selfishness of trying to “corner the market” on all truth and goodness by ascribing all goodness and truth as belonging exclusively to his chosen leader. As a Corinthian operated this way, he was also vicariously elevating himself above those other Corinthians who were not following that leader. It is this clever concealed self-aggrandizing that Paul is criticizing as the “wisdom of the world”.
1 Corinthians 4
1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
Here, “us” would include Paul, Apollos or Cephas (Peter). The Corinthians were to treat the apostles merely as agents of Christ’s truth and goodness and not as sources of Christ’s truth and goodness. While the context for the Corinthians is specifically referring to the apostles, the principle could apply to any other spiritual man or mature believer who was operating with the “wisdom of the mature”. It is the “wisdom the mature” that is the “secret” that has been hitherto withheld (see 1 Corinthians 2:7).
2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore 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 motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
While it is true the Paul has been given a special “trust” as an apostle, the principle that “those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” applies to anyone. It is on the basis of the “trust” that each has been given, whether great or small, that all will be judged (See Luke 12:48). The question of whether one has been faithful to the “trust” that he has been given from God will be answered by only by God. At the “appointed time”, “when the Lord comes”, each person will given a judgment on how he has executed the trust that God has given him. When this judgment is made, all hidden things and hidden motives will be revealed and people will be given a final judgment in regard to their status before God and in regard to the relation to one another before God.
In the context of this passage, each Corinthian's act of elevating one leader above another was an improper act of “judging for finality”. As a Corinthian was determining the status of one leader over another in his mind in order to debate and quarrel about it, he was determining the status of one leader over another as though it were something that could be determined in a fixed and final way. In this way, a Corinthian was guilty of arguing over each leader’s ultimate status before God in relation to the other leaders. By doing so, a Corinthian was trespassing in judgment by usurping the timing and authority of God to “judge for finality” in regard to the "trust" that had been given any particular leader.
To confront this improper act judging among the Corinthians, Paul thoroughly dismisses any assessment of status or worth that any particular Corinthian has assigned to him, as he would reject any assessment of him that had been arrived at by a “human court”.
So what does it mean to “judge nothing”? It is on the basis of carefully analyzing the context that “judge nothing” in this passage means, “judge nothing whose judgment is reserved for the final day of judgment”. In other words a believer should not bring the judgment that will be rendered at the end of time back into the present pre-maturely. To mince it into something even more specific, “judge nothing”, means, “judge nothing about people for the particular purpose of making final judgments about them and how they have executed the trust that God has given each of them”.
This narrow interpretation may seem jarring due to Paul’s use of neuter “do not judge anything” is neutered in Greek, and “anything” is an awfully broad category. However, the immediate context of this passage, this interpretation is demanded by the context of Paul’s other writings that affirm other forms of temporally administered judgment by believers.
In the category of acceptable forms of judging, there are forms of judgement that Paul affirms that are not
A) tantamount to evaluating people’s ultimate standing before God
B) operating out of self-aggrandizing impulses and
C) not causing un-necessary strife and divisions in the church.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul has affirmed the spiritual man who is instructed by the “mind of Christ” and makes “judgments in all things”. As I elaborated on in my explanation of “house building” regarding 1 Corinthians 3:1-15, the act of building on the “foundation” involves the act of making careful judgments. Later in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Paul discusses judging those in the church who are passing themselves off as brothers while at the same time being openly unrepentant of their immorality. Paul affirms the practice of believers judging these men for the explicit purpose of avoiding them and expelling them from the church.
The common denominator of these acts of judgment that are affirmed by Paul is that they are applications of the truth of the Gospel wherein the Gospel being used as the plumb line to evaluate a person or situation or to understand something for the express benefit of building up and/or protecting the church.
6 Now, brothers, 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. 7 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?
Here “what is written” would refer most centrally, though not exclusively, to the Old Testament Scripture. For the purpose of application “what is written” can refer to any Old or New Testament Scripture, including what Paul “has written” to the Corinthians.
“Do not go beyond what is written” means “do not go beyond the boundaries of man’s true nature and the reality of his neediness and dependence on God and his ultimate judgment before God as these things are outlined in Scripture”. It is upon this understanding derived from “what is written” that God, and not any particular man, is the source of goodness. It is by using this truth that is contained in Scripture as the plumb line to evaluate men in this way that the Corinthians will understand that men are not sources of goodness, but are, rather, at best, only agents of God’s goodness who exist to serve God.
It is upon this understanding, derived from “what is written” (particularly what Paul has plainly written in 1 Corinthians) that the Corinthians will know the source of what they have “received” and will not boast about their allegiance to any particular man. By avoiding the false understanding that a particular leader is the source of goodness, a Corinthian will avoid the error of esteeming his own ability to make a judgment of that leader in that regard. By avoiding this error, a Corinthian will avoid living vicariously through that leader to self-aggrandize and will avoid the error of making himself, secondarily, into the source of goodness.