Fools for Christ


We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong.You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst,we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. (1 Cor 4:10–12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What are you willing to suffer for? What is your passion? (Matt 6:21)

Apostle Paul’s passion was the Gospel and he lived the life of an itinerant evangelist. Paul never married nor had any children and, in spite of being highly educated, gave up a priestly or academic life. When Paul described himself as a fool for Christ (2 Cor 12:10–11), his Jewish parents probably agreed.

Imagine attending your thirtieth doctoral reunion and rising to address your fellow graduates, saying:

I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:23–28)

Unlikely to have been church leaders, Paul’s classmates were more likely to have been synagogue leaders, high priests, government officials, and college professors. Unlike many of these, Paul hungered and thirsted for righteousness, treated his suffering like a resume, and refused a salary at one point to maintain the integrity of his Gospel message (1 Cor 9:4; 2 Cor 11:7). Like the one who sent him, Paul strived to live life righteously.

No doubt, Paul’s life of integrity also put him in tension with God. For example, God’s answer to his prayer over a thorn in the flesh—“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9)—likely caused Paul much anguish before he developed the serenity to boast about God’s object lesson.

Another such object lesson is the Eucharist which reminds us of Christ by focusing on objects of hunger (bread) and thirst (water/wine), much like several of Jesus’ miracles. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine (John 2:1–10) while others involved multiplying bread and fish (John 4:32, 6:11). The transformation of simple things like food and water into sacred objects must have perplexed the Greeks who looked down on the physical world (earth), but looked up to the spiritual world (heaven).

The sacraments and Jesus’ miracles point to a simple but important spiritual reality: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4; Deut 8:3) Just as a sacrament is an outward sign with an inward meaning, physical things and circumstances have both outward and inner meanings associated with them, which, for example, leads Paul to describe the body as the temple of God (1 Cor 6:19). If the physical body can become the temple of God and mere food and drink can be sacraments, then food and drink stand at an important boundary between the physical and spiritual realms where spiritual transformation can take place and God’s love can be expressed as care for the poor and hungry.

For example, God identifies himself directly with the poor and hungry in the final judgment, as we read: Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Matt 25:37) Here, attitude and actions regarding the poor and hungry directly identify Christ’s followers, modeled on the charity of Christ himself: “And he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” (Rev 21:6)If Jesus practices charity, then we should too because our charitable obligation depends, not on the good behavior of the recipients, but on our own identity in Christ:

if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Matt 5:43–46, Rom 12:20–21)

Our identity in Christ leads us, not to judge the sinful, but to help the needy, as we read: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Living in a wealthy nation, our charitable obligation—providing for the physical needs of those less fortunate—is bigger than most.

If the first sin of the Bible was to lust after a tree fruit (Gen 6), then the mark of the disciple would be to model Christ’s abundant provision (Rev 21:6) and to defeat the urge to sin.

Fools for Christ

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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1 Corinthians 4: Fools for Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Ship of Fools, 1494
Albrecht Dürer, Ship of Fools, 1494

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23 ESV).

Are you a good example?

When I finished my doctorate in 1985, a friend gave me a reprint of a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer called, Ship of Fools (1494), which hangs in my home office. At the time, I worked for the government and the woodcut seemed to be a parody of my office life. Later, in reading a book written on the history of insanity[1], I found reference to my woodcut. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the insane were set adrift on ships—presumably for their own good! Today, we let them wander the streets (and, periodically lock them up for a few days if they misbehave)—presumably to enjoy their legal rights!

The Apostle Paul writes: We are fools for Christ’s sake…To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless … (vv 10-11).  Which of us have been homeless for the Gospel?  Which of us, fools for Christ?

Paul applies different titles to the Christian:  helpers and trustees (v 1); apostles, death-row inmates, and spectacles (in other words, gladiators; v 9); fools, weaklings, fashion-challenged, disreputable, and street people (vv 10-11); blue-collar types, the reviled, the persecuted, the slandered, human garbage, and scum (vv 12-13); and beloved children (v 14).  Do you suppose that Paul was having a bad-hair day?

Paul was making the point that the behavior of the Corinthians was inconsistent with the evangelists, especially Paul, who had brought them to Christ.  He writes, for example: We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute (v 10).  Jesus himself said:  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27 ESV).  Clearly, the Corinthians were out of sync with Gospel teaching.  Are we any different?

One of the hardest admonitions is simply to be a good example.  Without even defining what it means to be good, people run away.  How many athletes and other celebrities haven’t uttered the words:  I am no role model—as if they could wish being a role model away!

What does Jesus say to the disciples?  Follow me! (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:27; John 1:43).  Consequently, when Paul (v 16) writes—imitate me—he is not bragging; he is simply reframing Christ’s own words.

Are you a good example?  Am I?


[1]The premise of the book was that the treatment of the insane is a mirror on society.  Michael Foucault. 1988.  Madness and Civilization:  A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.  New York:  Vintage Books.


  1. How was your week?Did anything special happen?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 3?
  3. How does Paul describe the company of the apostles? (v 1)
  4. What is required? (v 2)
  5. What is the nature and significance of judgment according to Paul? What does he call it? (vv 3-5)
  6. What is the limit that Paul imposes on himself and those he is teaching and why? (v 6)
  7. What limits boasting? What is the source of our gifts? (v 7)
  8. Does Paul seem ironic?Sarcastic? Depressed? (v 8)
  9. What is the problem with apostle? Why last of all?  What is a spectacle? To whom? (v 9)
  10. What comparison pairs does Paul offer? (vv 10-13)
  11. Why does Paul write?(v 14)
  12. What is the difference between a guide and a parent? (v 15)
  13. In what way are we to imitate Paul? (v 16)
  14. Who is Timothy and why did Paul send him? (v 17)
  15. What is Paul’s point about talk and power? What is the point of his planned trip? (vv 18-21)

1 Corinthians 4: Fools for Christ

First Corinthians 3

First Corinthians 5

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