Question: "What does "what do you have that you did not receive?" mean (1 Corinthians 4:7)?"

Answer: In 1 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul uses rhetorical questions to address the problem of pride and boasting within the church at Corinth. Regrettably, the believers’ pride had caused them to value outward appearances and eloquent words above the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21). For this reason, Paul corrects their sin and reminds them of a central theological truth: all their abilities, accomplishments, and achievements are blessings from God. Thus, it is not about what we have done, but what the Lord has done in and through us: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17).

Paul asks three rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 4:7 to make his point:

1. “For who makes you different from anyone else?” — Believers may have different spiritual gifts and roles within the church (1 Corinthians 12:11; Ephesians 4:11), but no one is above or below the next person (Romans 12:3; Philippians 2:1–11). The proper attitude, then, is one of humility. In humility, the “self” should be entirely forgotten: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV).

2. “What do you have that you did not receive?” — Believers should remember that everything we have is not self-attained but received from God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

In James 1:17, the apostle expresses the same idea but in different words: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (ESV).

Because every good and perfect gift comes from God, we are called to steward his possessions wisely, carefully, and faithfully: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2, ESV). Stewardship includes management of our time (Ephesians 5:15–16), spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10), relationships (Colossians 3:12–14), marriages (Ephesians 5:25–27), finances (Matthew 25:14–30), and possessions (Luke 12:15). In short, it encompasses everything we have on earth.

3. “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” — Boasting about our abilities, accomplishments, and achievements as if they are not received from God is like a charity recipient boasting about his wealth. It is not only misguided but absurd: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord’” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV).

Paul’s rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 4:7 are poignant reminders to view life through the lens of divine grace (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9–11). Everything we have we owe to God. If we fail to give Him credit, then we will become “puffed up with pride” (1 Timothy 3:6) and lose sight of what is most important: loving God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40).