What Does “Do Not Go Beyond What is Written” Mean in 1 Corinthians 4:6?
Let’s read the verse in question along with the surrounding text:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 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 until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, 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 be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.
1 Corinthians 4:1-6
The phrase “Do not go beyond what is written” appears in the text in a curious manner and so a little confusion in interpretation is understandable. This explains the Quest Study Bible’s carefully worded commentary:
The meaning of this phrase has long been debated. It probably refers to Scripture… Paul saw that wisdom and inspiration came from God.
In The MacArthur Study Bible brother John is more certain concerning the meaning of “what is written”:
God’s faithful servants are to be treated with respect only within the bounds of what is scriptural.
“what is written” refers to the God-breathed Scriptures in view of the immediate context and the context of the New Testament. Let me explain…
In verse 1 Paul describes himself & his team (e.g. Apollos) as “servants of Christ… those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed,” which is a reference to the mystery of God detailed elsewhere in Scripture (Ephesians 3:1-12 & Colossians 1:27, 2:2-3). In short, the mystery of God is Jesus Christ and everything surrounding his awesome message, which is the gospel or “good news.” It’s “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
Paul shared this message with the Bereans and they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true,” which is one of the reasons they’re hailed as being “of more noble character” (Acts 17:10-12). This is a scriptural example of people following Paul & Apollos’ ministerial standard cited in 1 Corinthians 4:6—to not go beyond what is written. Scripture interprets Scripture.
Furthermore, the idea that “what is written” refers to the God-breathed Scriptures is the most obvious answer in light of other plain passages by Paul (2 Timothy 2:15 & 3:16-17). After all, what else could “what is written” legitimately refer to? If the plain sense makes sense don’t look for any other sense (lest you end up with nonsense).
Also, verse 2 says: “it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” Who is it that has “been given a trust”? Answer: Fivefold ministers in the body of Christ who are responsible for teaching & preaching God’s Word (Ephesians 4:11-13, James 3:1 & 1 Timothy 5:17). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul insists that such ministers “must prove faithful.” Faithful to what? Faithful to the Holy Scriptures—God’s blueprint for authentic Christianity!
Consider the set-up of 1 Corinthians 4:1-6: In chapter 3 Paul addresses the issue of the various teachers at the Corinth fellowship and how some believers were picking favorite minsters, which was causing division as believers were developing little sects based around their favorite teachers. This segues into chapter 4 and Paul & Apollos’ ministerial guideline: Whoever you’re receiving from in ministry the rule stands: “Do not go beyond what is written,” which includes people like Paul who claim to be entrusted with “the mysteries God has revealed.” Paul appropriately applied this wise guideline to his own ministry.
It’s imperative for believers to understand that it’s not the human vessel and the charismatic disposition thereof that matters, but rather that which they teach (and live) that corresponds to the rightly divided Word of God, which is why Paul concludes with “then you will not take pride in one man (teacher) over another” (which is how the original NIV phrases the end of verse 6). In short, we should be looking to the authentic Word of God being conveyed through the flawed human vessel in question and not the individual, who’s merely a servant of Christ.
No matter how great a minister/ministry/movement/sect is in the body of Christ, we must focus on the properly-handled Holy Scriptures to determine doctrine and practice. This is the principle of sola scriptura, which is Latin for “by Scripture alone”—the idea that the God-breathed Scriptures are the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice.
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