In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul describes the nature and work of true apostleship. In verse 6 he says, “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.”
It’s not entirely clear where the saying do not go beyond what is written came from, but it is obvious that the Corinthian believers were familiar with it. Some people speculate that it refers to the Old Testament quotations Paul had referenced previously (such as 1 Corinthians 1:19 and 2:16) or even the theological statements he had written up to this point in the letter. Most likely, though, this saying refers to the general principle that everything a believer does should be based on biblical truth.
In saying, “Do not go beyond what is written,” Paul wants his readers to understand that the words and teachings of Scripture are ultimately sufficient and true. Truth is not dependent on the personality or charisma of those who teach. In the first century AD, the Corinthian church was full of many problems, including factional divisions and favoritism. Some in the church only wanted to follow or listen to certain leaders (such as Paul or Apollos) rather than Christ alone (1 Corinthians 1:12). As a result of their sectarianism, it appears that some of the believers conducted themselves in a way that “went beyond “ what was appropriate as followers of Jesus. We might say that they were listening to the words of their preferred leader more than they were to the words of Scripture itself. Paul challenged this mindset among the Corinthians by stating his desire among them was to know nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
So, to “not go beyond what is written” means to focus on Jesus and His Word above all else. It means to trust that the Bible has all the answers and truths we need to live a holy and pleasing life before God—we don’t need anything beyond what God has provided for us in His Word (see 2 Peter 1:3). In fact, in the very last chapter of the Bible, we are warned not to add or take away from the inspired words of God (Revelation 22:18–19). We must consider all Scripture as sacred and not seek to tamper with it. In other words, we should “not go beyond what is written” in Scripture, for it is the very Word of God.
For today, this means that believers should strive to know and trust the Bible as God’s Word. If we don’t adhere to what the Bible strictly says, it’s easy to go beyond what is written. Every time someone says, “Speaking in tongues is the proof of salvation“ or “Christians shouldn’t own a television“ or “Mary is the mother of God,“ that someone is going beyond what is written. The Bible never says any of those things.
We must be able to tell right from wrong, of course, and the Bible clearly delineates the two. But we also must be able to tell where the Bible is descriptive versus where it is prescriptive. If we confuse description with instruction, we usually run into error. The Bible must be the final and ultimate authority for believers rather than the latest book, the newest cultural trend, or the most popular Christian speaker. Believers should work hard to study and memorize the Bible and seek to live out its teachings in their daily lives. In doing this, and not adding to what it says, they will ensure they do not “go beyond what is written” for life and faith.