“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” quipped Oscar Wilde. If Wilde is correct, then the Apostle Paul must have been quite intelligent since Paul used sarcasm in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 to move the Corinthians toward repentance.
What? (…you might be thinking…) The Apostle Paul used sarcasm? Sarcasm is in the Bible?
Yes, Paul used sarcasm. And, yes, sarcasm is in the Bible. However, Paul did not use sarcasm to demean, disgrace, or degrade the Christians in Corinth. He used sarcasm to awaken the Corinthians out of their complacency and shake up their self-centeredness.
Still, unless you acknowledge that Paul sometimes uses sarcasm, you will entirely misunderstand 1 Corinthians 4:8-13.
Look carefully at the following paragraph where Paul clearly employs sarcasm. Even better, read it aloud.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 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 Cor. 4:8-13 ESV).
When you read the Bible, you need to stay attentive not only to the words on the page, but also to the likely communicative tone an author employs. If you were to read these verses without paying attention to tone, you might misunderstand Paul’s words as commendation of his readers’ attitudes (“you’re doing great!”); when in fact his words are closer to condemnation (“what’s the matter with you?”).
Paul employs sarcasm to counter the Corinthians’ over-realized eschatology. That is, the Corinthian Christians somehow got the idea into their heads (from false teachers, most likely) that all the blessings of future heaven were theirs to enjoy right now — whether health, riches, or pleasure. Walk through this paragraph with me.
Paul sarcastically calls out his readers by referring to them as “rich” and as “kings” (v. 8).
Contrasting his description of the Corinthians, Paul uses sarcasm to describe himself and his missionary band “like men sentenced to death,” and as “a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men” (v. 9).
The most intense sarcasm in the paragraph, however, is found in verse 10, where Paul toggles back and forth between the sufferings of his missionary team and the Corinthians’ own view of themselves. Paul writes: “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.” The contrasting statements highlight the sarcasm.
Then Paul gets more serious in verses 11-12a as he recounts the sufferings he and his missionary colleagues encountered. But still a tinge of sarcasm permeates the account: “To the present hour we hunger and thirst (in contrast to your eating and drinking), we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless (in contrast to your nice clothes and houses), and we labor, working with our own hands (in contrast to your laziness).
Then Paul gets deadly serious for a moment — possibly without any sarcasm — in 12b and 13a: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” It’s as if Paul closes his eyes and envisions the slander and persecution he and his co-missionaries have endured.
Finally, in 13b, Paul pulls out one more sentence of sarcasm before moving forward with his discussion. He writes: “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
Wow … tough words, Paul! Why would you write like this? I didn’t even know that the word “scum” was in the Bible! Are you trying to make us feel bad?
No. Paul follows up this spate of sarcastic challenges with: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” (v. 15).
Paul’s goal is not to take out his frustration on the Corinthians, generally make them feel bad, or induce shame.
His goal is to admonish them and get them back on the right track — the way a loving father arrests the attention of a defiant teenaged child. The next verse reads: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
So, Paul occasionally — not too often — uses sarcasm. But is there anything we can learn from observing Paul’s use of sarcasm in 1 Cor. 4:8-13?
The most important thing we can learn has to do with how we interpret the Bible. When we interpret Scripture, we need to pay attention to the tone of what is being written along with the actual words. Attentiveness to tone is one aspect of proper biblical interpretation. We need to take note of whether an author appears calm, bold, upset, joyful, or…even on occasion, sarcastic. We will become better interpreters of the Bible if we pay attention to the attitudes and approaches of the biblical authors, that is, the “tone” — if there are ways in the text to infer the author’s tone.
On a different note: Can we use sarcasm with other Christians like Paul did? Yes … but very, very carefully. People commonly use sarcasm to express disapproval in a roundabout way. Others use sarcasm simply to elicit a laugh. But even when there is no obvious harshness in a sarcastic comment, a bit of real criticism often lies beneath the surface. Keep that in mind. So, if your driving aim is love for the person to whom you are speaking or writing, and your deepest desire is to nudge your Christian brother or sister toward faithful living — and if you perceive, the way Paul did, that a bit of sarcasm might rouse someone out of spiritual lethargy, then, yes, it might be appropriate on occasion to utilize some humble sarcasm.
 For some other possible examples of sarcasm in the Bible, see: https://www.afrankvoice.com/blog/sarcasm-in-the-bible
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.