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Apostles On Display

What exactly is Paul alluding to in 1 Corinthians 4:9?

In the fourth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he gives these believers a much-needed lesson in humility. With tongue in cheek he says:

You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you! For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! 11 To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. 12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13 NKJV)

While Paul certainly makes his point clear, what are we to make of the allusion in verse 9? To what is Paul referring when he says that God has displayed the apostles last—men condemned to death as a spectacle to the world?

The nineteenth century reverend James M. Freeman suggested that “The apostle may have had in his mind the public exhibition of the bestiarii and gladiators; the former were men who fought with beasts, and the latter men who fought with each other. Some thus fought for pay, while others were criminals who were compelled to contend with beasts or with armed men as an expiation of their crimes, and as a source of amusement to the spectators. In the early part of the day of such an exhibition the prisoners were given arms wherewith to defend themselves, but at the close of the exhibition, at noon, the poor wretches had nothing to protect them, and soon fell easy and certain victims to the destroyer. Thus the apostles were set forth last.”[1]

Another idea is that Paul was referring to Roman triumphal processions in which their captors were paraded through the streets before being publicly executed.[2] While there is no specific mention of a procession in the Greek text, this is certainly possible. Of course, it’s also possible that both suggestions are true. In fact, judging by the translation of verse 9 in the New International Version of the Bible, these scholars subscribe to both views for they render Paul’s words in this way: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena.”

Whatever be the case, Paul’s important warning is loud and clear for both first century Christians and twenty-first century Christians: We as followers of Jesus Christ should be careful about our attitudes. Rather than being puffed up we should be “fools for Christ’s sake.” When we are cursed, we should bless; when we are persecuted, we should endure it; and when we are slandered, we should answer kindly.

Ryan Hembree is a daily co-host, speaker, and writer of Bible Discovery. He also hosts a YouTube channel that shows the unity of the Bible and how science and Scripture fit together. Ryan also has an honorary Masters of Ministry in Creation Science from Phoenix University of Theology.

[1] James Midwinter Freeman, Hand-Book of Bible Manners and Customs, 456.
[2] Frank S. Thielman, ESV Study Bible, Note on 4:9, 2196.

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  1. I love the Hembrees and am sure they can answer my question about what Spirits are made of . Also are there parallel dimensions or multiverses ? .. is the beginning already the end ? everyone's life pre-determined ? Will the atom one day be done away with ? ,..leaving only photons, forces or stuff we can't even comprehend ? animals, such as our pets, have spirits ?