Paul’s opening concern has been the divisions in the church over their allegiance to various teachers. Paul challenged their immaturity and arrogance and in vv. 8-13 used sarcasm to shake them out of their smugness. Now he assures them that his words to them are not an attempt to beat them down in shame, but to build them up, because he has a special relationship to them, and a great responsibility for them.
Last time, we focused on how we need to humble ourselves in order to grow. We must resist our pride, be willing to learn, suffer, and sacrifice. Many of those things are in a “negative” direction (negating something). But, positively, what do we need? We need leadership. Children need leadership from their parents in order to grow in a healthy direction. Communities need leadership. The Church needs leadership also. In order to grow, we need to submit to the leadership that God has provided for us.
For basketball fans, it’s tournament time. The teams that have grown strong through the season rise to the top now. They haven’t gotten there by ignoring their coaches. They’ve gotten there by submitting to their leadership – listening to them, receiving their encouragement and heeding their correction.
Jesus Christ gives leaders to His Church. This passage reminds us that: In order to grow up in Christ, we must submit to His leaders. As with all leadership, this means receiving their encouragement, and heeding their correction.
1. We must receive their encouragement.
Paul is aware that his sarcasm may have seemed harsh to the Corinthians, so he makes his purpose clear in 1 Cor. 4:14. He was not trying to tear them down in shame. He was admonishing (warning) them because he considered them his “beloved children.” He wanted them to see the truth about themselves and their behavior. He reminds them that he has a special relationship to them that is different from the other teachers they are following. He seems to refer to those teachers when he says they “have countless guides in Christ.” The word for “guide” refers to an ancient practice where a slave would assist the parents by taking a young boy to and from school, oversee his homework, and help develop his conduct and character. It was something like a nanny or a personal attendant.
Paul says it is possible to have many such guides, but not many fathers. He reminds them that he is their spiritual father, having “become their father” “through the gospel.” Paul is not trying to take credit for their conversion, as if he accomplished it. He has already said that God is the One who makes things happen in ministry and the One who gives life. But it was Paul and his preaching of the gospel that God used to bring life and establish the Church in Corinth. Therefore, Paul feels entitled to warn them, even with sarcasm, because he is their spiritual father.
But, as Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 4:16, he is not warning them, but encouraging them. He encourages them to do something amazing – to imitate him. As their spiritual father, he asks them to see him as their model. He is not saying “follow me instead of Apollos.” In the context, we are not to understand that Paul is asking them to imitate every single thing he does – that they are all to quit their jobs and become tentmakers and travel around seeking to plant churches. He is encouraging them to imitate him in the matters about which he has been speaking. He has already said that he spoke of himself and Apollos to serve as examples to them. Though Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, he displayed a humble, self-denying, and self-sacrificing attitude among the other apostles, Christian teachers, and church members. He asks the Corinthians to imitate these traits in their own relationships.
So that they might have a fresh picture of Paul’s teaching and behavior, Paul has sent Timothy to them, who he also calls his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord” in 1 Cor. 4:17. Apparently Timothy was converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry as well, and has been learning the ministry under him. Timothy will remind them of Paul by teaching the same truths and displaying the same integrity and behavior. Paul is not asking the Corinthians to do anything out of the ordinary. Timothy will remind them of his ways that he teaches “everywhere in every church.” Paul is encouraging them as their spiritual father to imitate his conduct in the faith.
Children are natural imitators. It’s more obvious when they’re younger. You’re working on a project around the house, and have your toolbox out with your tools spread around. You’re banging on things and twisting things. Pretty soon the kids are right there with their tools. They take out their toy hammers and bang, and take out their wrenches and twist their toy bolts. Maybe you’re in the kitchen cooking something and the kids are whipping up their own recipe alongside you. It’s not as obvious when they get older, but I’m still reminded from time to time that they are still watching and still imitating. It is very sobering as a parent, because our children are imitating much more than our projects and hobbies. They are imitating our faith, our morality, and our way of living. They are not the only ones watching, either.
Paul reminds us here that the Christian faith is about more than understanding and affirming a list of teachings. It is not less than that, but it is more than that. The truths of the Christian faith are to be worked out in our lives, changing us more and more into the image of God in Jesus Christ, so that our lives become examples, pictures of the gospel. So, leaders in the church are to have godly character, to set a good example. Parents are called to set a godly example before their children. All of God’s people are called to be “lights” in this dark world with the example of our lives. We are all to seek to live lives that are worthy of imitation.
So, we must receive the encouragement of those leaders that God has placed in our lives – in our families and in the church. It can be as simple as noticing a godly trait in someone else that you want to develop more in your own life, perhaps asking someone who is farther along than you in an area how they grew. We can find encouragement from fathers in the faith recorded in the Scriptures, as well as in biographies of Christians before us that have lived well. We grow by receiving the encouragement of the leaders God provides, and…
2. We must heed their correction.
Paul seems to recognize that not all of the Corinthians are going to respond to his correction. In 1 Cor. 4:18 he says he knows that some are arrogant (“puffed up” with pride – as back in 1 Cor. 4:6), as if he were not coming to them. It is fairly clear that there were some in Corinth who were trying to undermine Paul’s authority. They criticized his preaching and his ministry, and apparently thought he was afraid to come face them in person since he was sending Timothy. But Paul says he actually is planning to come himself – and soon. But only “if the Lord wills,” he says in 1 Cor. 4:19. Paul serves Christ and represents Him. It is ultimately Christ Himself who is the head of the church and who will decide how to deal with the situation. Assuming he does come, however, Paul says that then he will know not only the talk of those who are arrogant, but their power. He says in 1 Cor. 4:20 that this is what God’s kingdom consists in – not mere talk, but power.
To these Corinthians who were preoccupied with words and those who could use them well, Paul has been emphasizing the power of the simple gospel message of the cross against reliance on the methods of Greek rhetoric. In 1 Cor. 1:18 – Paul emphasized that the “word” (message) of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. 1 Cor. 2:4,5 – “my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
1 Thess. 1:5 – “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.” In Rom. 15:19 – the demonstration of the Spirit was also displayed through Paul with signs and wonders.
The good news of God’s Kingdom is that through Jesus Christ sin and death and the forces of evil have been defeated. Therefore the preaching and receiving of the gospel was accompanied by people being delivered from their bondage to sin and evil forces. Paul says he will find out what the behavior of these arrogant people has produced and judge accordingly. He would later write to Timothy about those who had a form of godliness, but denied its power.
Paul would like the Corinthians to respond to his encouragement to imitate him. But he is ready to exercise his apostolic authority to correct their divisive behavior. As a parent will often do for his children, he lets them know in v.21 that the choice is theirs. He can come to them either with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness. The rod has various uses in Scripture, but one of its uses, which seems to be the meaning here, is for chastisement – the infliction of pain in order to redirect the heart. As an apostle, Paul had authority to receive members into the Church, and to exercise church discipline among the members. God has given the church the means of correction through discipline, and Paul lets the Corinthians know that he would be faithful to carry it out. Discipline is also loving, but painful. God not only guides His children through encouragement, but, if necessary, through correction.
I grew up with two brothers. We were not always as respectful of the delicate things in the house as we should have been when Mom & Dad were gone. We knew, and I’m sure we were reminded from time to time, that Mom & Dad’s mood and actions toward us would depend on whether or not we listened to their instructions, perhaps heeded their correction from the last time we’d been on our own. Parents remind their children from time to time that these things depend on their behavior.
If we are His children, God will correct us to see that we continue to grow. Like any good parent, He will try the gentle and easy way of encouragement first. But if we choose not to respond to the easy way and do what offends Him and harms our relationship, He will bring more painful correction.
Is God seeking to correct something in your life now? A sinful habit? A sinful attitude? A needed adjustment in priorities? We all need it because we are all works in progress. He provides us with one another and leaders to bring needed correction in its time. He is a faithful father who not only encourages His children, but corrects us as well.
Our sin has left us lost and miserable, without life, guidance, separated from our Heavenly Father – like orphans in a war-torn country. But God has sent His Son, Jesus, to travel to our distant land and pay the ultimate price, His own life, that we might become members of His family. For those who receive and trust in Him, He has made us His children. As a good Father, He guides us through life, using leaders that He gives. Let us submit to His guidance.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your great grace and mercy – that You have paid such a great price to make us Your children. We thank You that You are faithful not only to save us, but to guide us through this life. Thank You for the ways You encourage us to do what pleases You. Thank You also for those times when You bring even painful correction into our lives for our own good. Please make us wise to see the work You are doing in our lives. Make us responsive to the call of Your Spirit, that we might live faithfully as Your children.