“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3–5, NASB95)
There are some things regarding judgment that some misread into Scripture that encourage one in a false arrogance. The whole issue of us not being judged by others or becoming the judge of another has in many ways in our culture and even in our churches been taken to the extreme of not speaking against anything that anyone believes or does. I use the word “anything” because we have seen that line move so much. It is changing so far and so fast that we should not be surprised in the future when that line moved so far that it does not even remotely resemble the line of obedience to the word of God that we have embraced for so long even in our cultures. What is right among many today would have never been imagined as broadly acceptable in the past. Tolerance and even acceptance of these views has even infiltrated church speak and practice to the point that not being judgmental has now embraced to such a point that many Christians are accepting the cultural line and not deeply looking to the God-breathed, trustworthy, inerrant and practical for all areas of life Word of God for its sound biblical judgment.
Paul recognized that His judge was God, and it was God who directed his thoughts and set his standard for obedience to the faith. It’s not that he walked with a blatant disregard for others or that he was arrogant in having arrived and was above those he walked beside. He knew that the standard setter for him and all other believers was God and His revealed Word. It was by Christ that he was made an apostle and through God that he penned much of what we know we as Christians and His church are to think, speak, and function.
Paul knew what it was to stand before the courts of men, and even as he would eventually wind up in Rome he would experience the reality of this even more. And, from his life recorded for us in 2 Corinthians we can see that he indeed did stand firmly on his testimony in Christ before the highest courts in the land.
Paul was not perfect, but he also wrote for us here that he believed that he kept a clear conscience before God. We see him encourage Timothy in this in writing to him about the ministry he left Timothy behind to accomplish. “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5, NASB95) He was all about loving from a pure heart and a good conscience and an outworking of faith in God. Subsequently, any judgment of man paled in comparison to that which he held himself to before God.
Since he was moved to live rightly, when he did stumble in some way it is fully reasonable to assume that he also dealt with it quickly and rightly. Though he was not aware of any unconfessed sin or pattern in his life, he also acknowledged that he was submissive to God shedding light on those areas and I would believe even accepting of other godly believers pointing them out should it become evident. But even in this, he recognized that God was the One to whom he ultimately answered for all that he said or did. It is God alone who is the ultimate judge.
There are many amazing things about this truth. For instance, when we believed in Jesus Christ for our salvation we were truly saved and fully forgiven. We will never stand before God waiting to find out if we meet his standard for heaven. Jesus is that standard of perfection, and it is because of His shed blood that we are assured to be accepted by God. Also, considering where Paul had been, I am sure that he realized the amazing mercy and grace of God to take a man who was persecuting Christians and in so doing Christ and show him that same mercy and grace. The murderer was made to be a minister of grace to call people to salvation and obedience in Christ. Seeing how God worked here cements the realization that as long as a person is taking breath that it is not too late for them to be saved without regard to how “bad” or “evil” from our perspective they may have been. We have all fallen short of His glory, and yet He sent His Son for us.
It is in light of this that Paul did not see the examination of man to be a very big thing. He walked to a higher and more perfect standard and answered to God as the ultimate and final authority. In this context he encouraged the Corinthian believers to focus on Christ and His return, as they also walked rightly before God. This letter to them was itself one of reproof and correction with the hope that they would be so trained in righteousness that they would walk with each other before God in the same way that Paul had learned.
Abandoning encouraging one another to live godly lives is not what these verses are all about. They are about us encouraging and not condemning of one another while we encourage each other to walk to the higher standard that God has set. The way we do this is to look to Christ, hide the Word of God in our hearts, and encourage others in doing likewise as we “make disciples” who are careful how we walk. This is what we read in passages such as Psalm 119:11; Matthew 28:18-20; and Ephesians chapter 5.
“Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.” (Psalm 119:11, NASB95)
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, NASB95)
“Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:15–21, NASB95)
Then when that day does come, Paul wrote, “each man’s praise will come to him from God.”