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. (4:5)
God has a day planned when He will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts. Those two phrases refer to the attitudes of the inner man, which only God can see. Ultimate judgment of every kind, including the evaluation of His servants’ ministries, will be by Him and in His time. God’s people, including the ministers themselves, have no business passing judgment before [that] time. We see only the outside, the visible, and cannot know what is hidden in the recesses of the soul.
Because Paul speaks here of each man’s praise, I do not believe things hidden in the darkness refers to sins or anything evil, but simply to things presently unknown to us. The passage emphasizes that every believer will have praise, no matter what his works and motives, because “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). All Christians will have some reward and some praise. Who will receive much and who will receive little only God knows. But once the wood, hay, and straw are burned away, the gold, silver, and precious stones will remain to be eternally rewarded.
We do know, however, that the rewards given will not be based on the degrees behind our name, the numbers we have preached to or witnessed to, the programs we have planned and directed, the books we have written, or even the number of converts won to Christ through us. It will be based on one thing alone: the motives (boulē, “secret thoughts”) of [our] hearts.
One of the marvelous experiences we will have on that day will be to realize that many dear saints, completely unknown to the world and perhaps hardly known to fellow believers, will receive reward after reward after reward from the Lord’s hands—because their works were of gold, silver, and precious stones. Their hearts will have been pure, their works will have been precious, and their rewards will be great.
Because God will reward according to the motives of men’s hearts, our single purpose in life should be that, “whether, then [we] eat or drink or whatever [we] do, [we] do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). That motive should determine everything we think and do.
It is good when fellow Christians can speak well of us sincerely. It is good when our own conscience does not accuse us. But it will be wonderful beyond description if, on that day, our Lord can say of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Paul’s purpose here is to show that because all ministers are no more than servants and stewards, because neither we nor they can properly evaluate the value and worth of their ministry, and because God alone can and will give the proper estimate in a future reckoning day, it is not only destructive but ridiculous to cause divisions in the church by arguing over who is the most honored servant.
5. Therefore judge nothing before the time. From this conclusion it is manifest, that Paul did not mean to reprove every kind of judgment without exception, but only what is hasty and rash, without examination of the case. For the Corinthians did not mark with unjaundiced eye the character of each individual, but, blinded by ambition, groundlessly extolled one and depreciated another, and took upon themselves to mark out the dignity of each individual beyond what is lawful for men. Let us know, then, how much is allowed us, what is now within the sphere of our knowledge, and what is deferred until the day of Christ, and let us not attempt to go beyond these limits. For there are some things that are now seen openly, while there are others that lie buried in obscurity until the day of Christ.
Who will bring to light. If this is affirmed truly and properly respecting the day of Christ, it follows that matters are never so well regulated in this world but that many things are involved in darkness, and that there is never so much light, but that many things remain in obscurity. I speak of the life of men, and their actions. He explains in the second clause, what is the cause of the obscurity and confusion, so that all things are not now manifest. It is because there are wonderful recesses and deepest lurking-places in the hearts of men. Hence, until the thoughts of the hearts are brought to light, there will always be darkness.
And then shall every one have praise. It is as though he had said, “You now, O Corinthians, as if you had the adjudging of the prizes, crown some, and send away others with disgrace, but this right and office belong exclusively to Christ. You do that before the time—before it has become manifest who is worthy to be crowned, but the Lord has appointed a day on which he will make it manifest.” This statement takes its rise from the assurance of a good conscience, which brings us also this advantage, that committing our praises into the hands of God, we disregard the empty breath of human applause.
5 This sentence, beginning with hōste (“as a result”; NIV, “therefore”), gives Paul’s conclusion from the previous four verses, though it comes in the form of a present tense negative command: “Do not judge [or “stop judging”] anything [NIV, “judge nothing”] before the appointed time [kairos, GK 2789].” In contrast to chronos (GK 5989), which generally denotes chronological time, kairos means time in the sense of “opportunity” or “appointed moment.” Undoubtedly here the word denotes the time of final judgment, for Paul explains it in the next phrase as the time when the Lord returns.
At that time, the Lord Jesus will bring to light all the hidden things we have done—attitudes and actions we have hidden from others and perhaps even from ourselves (cf. 2 Co 5:10). Jesus will also make manifest what lies deep within the recesses of our hearts. The idea that God and the Son of God know what is inside our minds and hearts is a frequent testimony of the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Sa 16:7; Ps 139:1–2, 23; Mt 9:4; Jn 2:25). If our works, including our motivations, have indeed measured up to what God has expected of us, we will receive praise from him (cf. a similar point in 1 Co 3:14). Once again, that is the only judgment worth being concerned about.
4:5 / Paul draws to a close the metaphor that he began at 4:1. The emphatic character of his statement is evident from the beginning of the verse, Therefore. The words that follow are a single complex construction in Greek, as one sees in the three correlated sentences into which the niv breaks the verse. These lines reiterate the thought of 3:10–15, where Paul used the metaphors of building and fire to call for “faithful” and appropriate construction on the foundation of Christ crucified.
Paul now applies the logic of the preceding lines to the Corinthians. Paul exhorts them, saying, Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time. An overreading of the decree takes the statement to mean that they are to refrain from all evaluation, but Paul’s ensuing discussions in chapters 5–6 make that interpretation impossible. Moreover, in context Paul is discussing the Corinthians’ tendency to criticize and compare various stewards of God for the purposes of their own boasting. His command here should not be taken out of that context. Thus, “before the appointed time” refers to the predilection of the Corinthians to judge from a human perspective, a mistaken tendency not to think eschatologically in terms of God’s ultimate values. The Corinthians are disqualified from judging in the present matters over which the Lord alone has a final say; they are to wait till the Lord comes. Then judgment will take place.
The promise of judgment comes in striking form, in the language of apocalyptic eschatology. Paul expects the coming of Christ in the end, saying that his coming will create a separation of light and darkness, apocalyptic language for good and evil. Christ’s final judgment will be universal, disclosing and exposing all things, what is hidden in darkness, even the motives of [the] heart. Nothing can be or will be concealed from the Lord at the appointed time. In the end, the focus turns to God, who enacts the results of the judgment that Christ effected by giving each whatever praise is due. One should not miss this essentially positive conclusion to a discussion that was less than purely positive in tone. Despite present difficulties, Paul expects the Lord’s judgment to result in good things from God!
4:5. Paul drew a conclusion from the foregoing argument. Because God restrains final judgment until the day of the Lord, Christians should judge nothing before the appointed time. Instead, they should wait for the day when Christ will expose what is hidden, even the motives of men’s hearts. In many passages, Paul affirmed his belief that Jesus’ return will be accompanied by a great judgment for all people. Not only will God judge actions, but he will also judge intentions and motives (Heb. 4:12). As a result, at this final judgment everyone will receive his praise from God (see Rom. 2:29). God will honor those who prove faithful to Christ.
Paul mentioned these facts about future judgment so the Corinthians would stop judging him. It seems evident from Paul’s objections to the Corinthians’ behavior that they stood against Paul, judging him to be foolish and weak. For example, in their divisions, the Corinthians not only supported Apollos or Peter but opposed Paul. As the rest of the chapter would show, they evidently thought him low and foolish, preferring human wisdom to the wisdom he preached. Paul wanted them to stop judging him and to accept his authority as he addressed their problems.
5. Therefore, do not judge anything before the end-time, until the Lord comes, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will reveal the purposes of the hearts. And then each man’s praise will come from God.
Note the following points:
- The Lord’s return. “Do not judge anything before the end-time, until the Lord comes.” Paul now closes the discussion on adverse comments that he and his co-workers have received. He concludes that because Jesus himself is Paul’s judge, the Corinthians should refrain from judging him. He instructs them not to judge anything but to wait until the end-time when the Lord returns. When they with Paul will stand before the judgment seat, then the time will have come to criticize the work performed by Paul (see 6:2–3). The obvious intent of this remark is to show the Corinthians that then they also will face judgment.
Notice that Paul gives the readers an emphatic command, which literally reads: “not before the end-time judge anything.” Linking the consummation of the age to the return of the Lord, he tells the believers to cease uttering their judgmental comments. He is not saying that they should suspend judging altogether. Surely not! When a pastor or teacher fails to adhere to the truth of God’s Word and in his teachings and life goes contrary to the Scriptures, the church must judge. But Paul forbids criticizing a person whose teaching and conduct are in harmony with Scripture. When Jesus returns—and no one knows when that will be—every believer may take part in the judging (6:2).
- The Lord’s revelation. “Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will reveal the purposes of the hearts.” The Lord will expose both the external and internal things that pertain to man. He will dispel the darkness and thus bring to light all kinds of things that until then remain hidden. Although the term darkness frequently has a sinister meaning (see, e.g., the blinding of the magician Bar-Jesus [Acts 13:11] or the command to expose unfruitful deeds of darkness [Eph. 5:11]), here the word has only a neutral connotation and refers to matters that are unknown. God is the ruler of everything he has created, and that includes darkness. David notes that darkness is the same as light to God (Ps. 139:12). In the judgment day, numerous items that were unknown to the believers will come to light.
Moreover, people are able to hide thoughts and intentions in the inner recesses of their hearts. Many of these intentions never come to light during a person’s earthly life. But when Jesus comes again he will expose them, so that all secrets will be disclosed (Rom. 2:16; Rev. 20:11–13).
- Praise from God. “And then each man’s praise will come from God.” Who receives praise from God? God commends the person who possesses the inner regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and consequently listens obediently to the Word as a recipient of God’s commendation (see Rom. 2:29). God will graciously apportion praise to the individual believer on the judgment day when Christ reveals all things (Rev. 22:12).
Instead of writing words of rebuke, Paul concludes this section with a positive note on praise. It serves as an exhortation to the Corinthians to desist from judging Paul and his associates and to wait for praise not from men but from God.
Practical Considerations in 4:5
We should see Paul’s emphasis on praise in the context of this particular verse. For example, he begins by indicating when the Christian will receive praise, namely, at the appointed time when Jesus comes. Next, he states that each person will receive praise individually. And last, this praise comes from God, not from human beings.
Scripture definitely teaches that there will be rewards in heaven for the Christian. Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). The Bible teaches not that a person can earn salvation, but rather that God showers his praise on the believer who faithfully does God’s will. Thus, in the teaching of the parable of the talents, we hear Jesus say about both the servant with the five talents and the servant with two talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matt. 25:21, 23, NKJV).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 102–103). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 156–157). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 291). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Soards, M. L. (2011). 1 Corinthians (pp. 88–89). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). I & II Corinthians (Vol. 7, p. 61). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 131–133). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.