Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
“And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!” 1 Cor. 4:8
This is one of the very few passages in which the apostle lets out his feelings as a suffering and injured man. Through no less than six verses here (8-13), we find an expression of his solemn sorrow—we might almost call it depression—as he contemplates his present circumstances as an apostle of the Lord.
His life had many bitter episodes. Danger, weariness, contempt, persecution, hunger, thirst, nakedness, being beaten, reviling, stoning, being in shackles—these were its main earthly ingredients; and had there not been something heavenly, compensating for all these, he would have been, of all men, the most miserable.
He felt the sorrow associated with all these things; conversion did not take these human feeling away from him; yet, he seldom refers to it; and when he does, it is more with triumph than with sadness; as when he says, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18)
In our verses this morning, his reference to his sorrows has more in it of sadness than elsewhere. Yet he has not repented of his way of life; he is not ashamed of his apostleship; he is willing to drink even a bitterer cup than he has yet tasted. The sadness that comes out in these verses is altogether natural, and shows how truly the apostle was a man; “a man with a nature like ours.” (James 5:17) We get a passing insight into the noble soul, and learn how profoundly he felt the evils, that, like the waves of the storm, beat upon him without ceasing; and how at many times his heart was likely to break, even in the midst of the joy unspeakable and full of glory.
He does not draw back, nor refuse to pay the cost of apostleship. He accepts the present honor and the coming glory, with all their conditions and penalties. For the joy set before him he endures the shame. But he feels the agony; and Oh, with what a tone of serene, yet shaded feeling do we hear him speak these words, "For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 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; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” 1 Corinthians 4:9-13
There are some, it is to be feared, who go further than the apostle's sorrow. They do not, perhaps, repent of having taken up the cross; but they shrink back sometimes from what it has brought upon them.
They counted on a little suffering—but it has turned out to be a great deal of suffering. They gladly took up the cross at first—but they did not have a clear view of its weight and its sharpness. They were prepared for some bitterness; but not for all this injury, rejection and sourness. They prepared themselves for battle—but the fight has proved to be harder and longer than they ever dreamed of. They were not unwilling to bear shame for his name; but the reproach has proved heavier than they can bear. They knew that they were to meet resistance from the world—but not all this enmity, this malicious evil, this misrepresentation. They did not refuse sacrifice and suffering; but the poverty, the disappointment, and the all but broken heart, have gone beyond what they had anticipated. The wounds are deeper, the fiery darts are sharper, the furnace is hotter, the road is rougher, the hill is higher, the stream is deeper—than what they had expected.
It is not that they wish they had not become Christians; but they hardly know what to do, or which way to turn. They submit—but they do not count it all joy. They have the sadness of the apostle, without his exulting gladness. His sorrow was only a half sorrow, because of the joy; theirs is but half a joy, because of the sorrow. What they need is to be reminded of the apostolic hope, by which the early Church was sustained, for fear that Satan should get the upper hand over them, or they become weary and depressed.
There is another class of Christians, however, of whom Paul here more especially speaks. They are the easy-minded and self-satisfied, who think of themselves as full and rich. They have not been emptied of themselves and still rest on some self-confidence.
They are not Laodiceans—but very near them; they are not foolish virgins—but very like them. They would not think of following the world; but they do not like the idea of confronting and condemning it. They would rather be saved from the reproach and scorn which separation from its vanities and entertainments is sure to produce; all the while enjoying Christianity at their firesides, and congratulating themselves on the prudence by means of which they have succeeded in avoiding the reproach, without giving up their Christian profession.
They would rather not expose themselves to too much shame for being to zealous, or being too insisting and decided, or being too bold in the cause of Christ. A little compromise with the world, they think, does no harm. A proper enjoyment of its harmless amusements, they are persuaded, is of great benefit to themselves, and a wonderful way to appease worldly men, and smooth away their prejudices.
They look with great disdain upon the outspoken fervor of fearless single-eyed disciples, to whom Christ is everything, and the world nothing; rather, they join with the scoffer in reviling these men as unwise fanatics; professing themselves the best of Christians all the while, and announcing that the religion they admire is impassive and private, modest and hidden; indeed, they do not hesitate to denounce zeal for Christ, and never fail to add that these overzealous Christians do more harm than good.
These are the ones to whom the apostle writes these words of solemn rebuke—"Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!" (v.8) And it is in reference to their conduct that he adds these other words of sorrowful irony—"And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!" I wish that the day of reigning were already come, that we might be delivered from these calamities; but, alas for us, that day has not yet arrived; we are not in the kingdom yet—but only suffering tribulation on the way to the kingdom.
Let us now look into the exact teaching of these words:
I. First, these words remind us that there is a reign for Christians.
If we belong to God, we are made kings and priests to him, by virtue of our oneness with him who is our King and Priest as well as God's King and Priest. The Church is a royal priesthood, a noble band of Melchisedecs, each one of which can say even now, “We have received ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken.’” (Heb 12:28) In unison with the multitudes above, we sing not only, "by your blood you ransomed people for God," but, "they shall reign on the earth." (Rev 5:10)
At this present time, what we will be is hidden—it is hidden in these mortal bodies which we now inhabit—but we know that the crown of life; the crown of righteousness, is in store for us, and that, if we suffer, we will also reign. And what is in store for us is not merely safety, nor blessedness, nor glory—but a kingdom, a scepter, a throne! The world's reign is now; the Church's reign is coming. At present, Satan is the prince of the earth; but Christ will soon be king.
II. In the second place, that reign will end our tribulation.
There is first the suffering—and then the glory. The dawning of the glory is the dispersion of the clouds, and the stilling of the storm. For that glory comes from the presence of the glorious one; and in his presence there can be no mourning, and no darkness. It is his reign, as well as ours; and into his kingdom nothing that defiles or darkens will ever enter.
If he was still absent at that time as he is now, we could not be assured of its perfect happiness; but it is the day of his presence, and that is the assurance to us of its sorrowless splendor. There shall be no night there, for the sun never goes down. There shall be no more curse, for the Blessed One is there. The winter is past; the rain is over and gone; the clouds will never return.
Not the kingdom only—but the King, has come; and with him all his saints. The last battle is over; the imposter dethroned and bound; death is swallowed up in life; the days of mourning are ended; the tears are wiped away. The marriage of the Lamb is come; the Bride and the Bridegroom have met; the New Jerusalem has descended. We will no longer hear of a church militant and a church triumphant; no more of a "divided Christ," or a "divided Church;" part weeping, part rejoicing; some above, some below; souls in heaven, bodies in the grave; Christ's redeemed members scattered everywhere. All this is over. Separation, distance, death, toil, weariness, sighing—all these things have passed away. The year of the redeemed is come. Their reproach is ended; their reigning is begun.
III. In the third place, we are to look and long for that reign.
When the apostle says, I “would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you," he meant to say, "Oh that that day were actually come which you seem to think has arrived already; then would we and you rejoice and triumph together." He saw nothing on this side of that reign but reproach and tribulation. There might be streaks of sunlight here and there— but not the day. Hours of rest might relieve the lifetime's weariness—but "the rest that remains" (Heb 4:9) was awaiting the arrival of the King.
In days of prosperity the Church has forgotten these things; becoming contented with the imperfect and the mortal; ceasing to sigh for the incorruptible and the undefiled. And therefore she cannot be trusted with 'ease'. This has always been a great danger and a snare to her. In gracious wisdom God has made her path rough and her cup bitter; so that she may not relax as it where, nor tarry by the way; like Christian did by the arbor, but set her affection on things above.
In telling us of the kingdom, God meant us to think much of it, to desire it, to count all earth but a shadow, when compared to it. Our eyes are to be upward, eastward, watching for the day. Our " heart's desire and prayer" (Rom 10:1) is to be for the hastening of the kingdom. For the Church's sake, as well as for our own, we are to plead for its arrival. This is our hope; and there is no other like it!
These are our prospects, and what is there here, that can come between them and us! It is not sentimentalism, nor fanaticism, nor empty imagination—to desire the kingdom. It is simple faith; that faith which is the substance of things hoped for.
Love, also, constrains us to these longings. It is love to the king that compels us; for while the expectation of glory to ourselves is no base nor feeble motive; yet, above and beyond this, there is personal attachment to the Lord himself—true hearted loyalty which excites within us the fervent longing that he should be glorified!
This, every true believer, though never as much as he would like it to be, sees something of in himself. And if you are one of the blessed few who have this hope, give thanks to the Father who gave it to you.
If you do not have this hope, pray to God that he would give it you. He promises that if we ask anything in Christ’s name, He will do it. The desire for the new live which has its hope in heaven is something you can surely ask in Christ’s name. God is willing, Christ is willing, the Holy Spirit is inviting you. There is nothing preventing you from appealing to God this very moment except your own will.