“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5, NKJV).
The eye of man exerts a pressure without touch. We all know the feeling of being watched–sized up by our actions and our words, categorized and ranked by what we do and how we do it. Beneath this pressure, we are careful to avoid doing or saying certain things in the presence of certain individuals; or if we must, we add comments that explain or clarify our behavior, in hopes of averting the penetrating gaze. Is this not so? Do we not feel forced to vindicate ourselves in the presence of critical humanity?
In this passage, Paul exhibits an amazing freedom. He was a very public man, and had more than his fair share of critics; therefore, his freedom from present vindication does not come from any lack of scrutiny. In fact, his second letter to this same church reveals the depth of his critics’ accusations, touching on his motives, his manners, and even his spirituality. Even so, in the spotlight, Paul testifies to his sense of freedom. What were his insights? What truth did he possess that can liberate us (as Kent and Barbara Hughes put it) from the necessity of present vindication?
First, our problem is not necessarily the desire for vindication. God Himself is jealous for His honor. This same apostle tells us elsewhere that Jesus was crucified publicly in order to vindicate God’s status as a God of justice (Romans 3:25-26). For centuries, God has been pardoning sinners. If He were a human judge, such action would make Him utterly detestable (Proverbs 17:15). Therefore, to show that He truly is a just God and punishes every sin, God publicly punished all the sins of His people in the body of His beloved Son on the Cross (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Now we see how seriously God really does take even the casual sin we commit.
Second, our problem is not necessarily the desire for vindication, but the timing of vindication. God Himself waited centuries before sending Christ, often letting Himself be misunderstood by sinful men (e.g. Psalm 50:21). Similarly, God here commands that we “judge nothing before the time” (verse 5). Only the final exam counts–when Christ returns, when both our actions and our motives are brought to full light.
Third, our problem is not necessarily the desire for vindication, but the source of vindication. Two common sources mattered little to Paul–what others thought about him, and what he thought about himself. Neither justification by men nor self-justification mattered, but only receiving praise from God. Remember: True success is often not public. True success is a measure of the heart more than the hands. While men are prone to quantify, and to measure us with statistics, God weighs our heart. Do we truly love God? Do we truly love each other? God knows all these things, and only His evaluation of us counts. The Great Day will reveal all.
As individuals, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about whom we aim to please. Why are we so consumed with what others think about us? True, I should care what others think about Christ because of me, but that is far different than caring what others think about me. Why do we care? Whose glory are we concerned about after all?
Truly, we need an audience of One (as Steve Camp puts it). If His gaze feels threatening, perhaps we have yet to understand the Cross, and approach Him rightly. Too many trivialize their sin and presume on God’s graces, but such assumptions can never explain the Cross. God is serious about sin. It must be punished. Either my life is given completely to Christ, along with all my feelings of self-justification, or I perish. If this fits you, you need Christ!
Even if you have Christ, the question remains: Are you seeking to please the Lord alone (2 Corinthians 5:9)? As Richard Foster once pointed out, your silence will show it. Peter wrote of Christ: “When He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Believer, this same Christ now lives in you. Be free from the bondage of present vindication, and wait for The Time.
*NKJV stands for “The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.” All quotations in this post are from this version of the Bible.