RPM, Volume 12, Number 45, November 7 to November 13, 2010

1 Corinthians 4:14-21

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of 1st Corinthians, picking up at Chapter 4:14 and working through to the end of the chapter. If you have been with us for any part of this series then you will know that in this letter Paul is addressing a church he had originally planted in Corinth and from which he had subsequently moved on.

After about 4-5 years, Paul received word that there were all kinds of problems that had arisen amongst the Corinthian believers. Some of that information had come to him "through the grapevine", so to speak, and some of it by means of written communication from persons in the church. Therefore,, in response, Paul sends them a letter in which he addresses both the things he has heard about and questions they have asked.

Thus far, in the letter, we have seen Paul address one of the problems he has heard about - the problem of division in the church. Now, in order to really get at the heart of that problem he has had to dig deep and talk to them about the issues behind their divisiveness - the way that they were thinking about some things - specifically - the way they were thinking about and pursuing a worldly wisdom and, alongside that, the way they thought about leaders and ministry. The leaders who were promoting this alternative wisdom among them and stirring up all this division were the same leaders who were also modeling and exercising an alternative approach to leadership and ministry - one that was very different from Paul's leadership and ministry amongst them.

In the passage just prior to this one, 1 Cor. 4:6-13, Paul has been challenging their so called "wisdom" and their new found leaders - holding himself and Apollos and the other apostles up as examples and through that showing the huge contrast that now existed between the Corinthians and the founding Apostles.

Therefore, Paul has now arrived at the end of his opening appeal. There has obviously been some strangeness that has come into their relationship and he knows that in the hearts of at least some of them, he has been or is being replaced by other leaders - some of them good but many of them bad. Nevertheless, and in spite of the strangeness, Paul is banking on the reality of the special relationship he has with them as their spiritual "father" in the faith to perhaps gain a hearing and get past their increasing hardness of heart toward him.

With that as our introduction this morning, let me invite you to join with me in prayer for God's illumination as we begin to explore this portion of his Word together.

Turning our attention to the passage before us, the first thing I want you to notice this morning is Paul's fatherly appeal. It's very much as if he has taken off his "apostolic robe", so to speak, and is putting aside all officialdom for a moment in order to address the Corinthians at the closest and most personal of levels - that of a parent - and in this instance - as a Father appealing to his much loved, but wayward, children:

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children...
Paul wants them to come back to him. He wants them to come back to the place where they will once again recognize and value his leadership and authority. As we have seen in previous studies - this has nothing to do with Paul's ego but, instead, has everything to do with his wanting them to embrace him that they might embrace again his Gospel - from which they were beginning to stray.

So, Paul certainly wants them to come back - but he wants them to come back, not out of a sense of shame or duty or obligation but rather he would prefer that they come to their senses and come back willingly and gladly - as wayward children returning to a forgiving Father.

To be sure, it is not that Paul has a problem with the concept of shame or that he doesn't see that there is a proper place and usefulness role that shame sometimes can play in the Christian experience. Later on in this same letter he will very explicitly appeal to the Corinthians' sense of shame in order to move them to change their behavior (e.g., see 1 Cor. 6:5 and 15:34).

Therefore, Paul does not have a problem with shame, as such. It is just that, once again, he is appealing to them as a Father. No Father wants his children to respond to him merely from a sense of shame or duty. He wants them to respond because they love him and they respect him. Paul certain could shame them at this point. And they might well feel shame at some things that he has said. That is not Paul's motive at this point. He wants them to return to their special relationship and regard for him as their "spiritual Father". Paul knows that they have many other teachers - "guides" or "guardians" as the text says. He also knows that they will likely have many MORE teachers in the future. Paul is okay with that. He's not being territorial here. Paul does not for one minute think that he is the only one that can teach or lead the Corinthians.

But what Paul is concerned about is when some of these other teachers begin to lead the Corinthians astray - as has been happening - causing them to go against Paul's teaching and to discredit Paul himself. Because, you see, once Paul's credibility is gone - there is nothing he can do to call them back. Paul knows that. He knows that the clock is running and his window of opportunity for turning things around in Corinth is closing fast. And so he makes this kind of final, last ditch appeal as their spiritual Father, hoping against hope that perhaps this may be the thing that gets through to them:

...Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel....
The second thing I want you to notice is not only a father's appeal, but also a father's example - the testimony of Paul's life that he lived openly before them. And looking at Paul's example I want you to see in particular this confidence Paul has to ask the Corinthians to use his life as a model for their own:
Therefore I urge you to imitate me....
Now, you may find those words to be pretty bold, even stunning. Imagine saying to somebody, "I want you to model your life on mine." Could you say that to somebody? Would you? Why would Paul say something like this? Wouldn't it be safer to say, "Imitate Christ"? Why does Paul take the risk? Why does he use himself as the primary example? And, lest you think this is just a one off occurrence, let me remind you that this isn't the only place where Paul says these kinds of things,
Phil 3:17 -- Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us....

Phil 4:9 -- What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things....

2 Thess 3:7 -- For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us....

Clearly, Paul's exhortation to "imitate me" was not just a one-off occurrence. Paul says this kind of thing all the time and you may wonder why. Why not say, as he does later on in this very same letter, 1 Cor 11:1:
...Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ....
Well, I think the first thing to say about that is simply that while for Paul Christ is always the supreme example to be followed, and the example which he himself followed, as 11:1 shows, the reality is that the people to whom he is writing do not yet have a New Testament and they have never seen or met Jesus. The only things they know about Christ are the things that are being reported to them by the occasional eyewitness and the things taught them, orally - verbally, by Apostles who have visited and lived among them.

Therefore, it is not likely that they are familiar enough with the life of Christ, at this stage of the churches' history for it to serve as an example to which they could refer - as we do today - by simply picking up a New Testament. What is more likely and more helpful for them at this stage is to remember the way that Paul and other Apostles have lived among them. That example will be clearer in their minds than any other, at least at this stage of their history in particular and the church's history in general.

Then, the other thing to say about this is that Paul's saying to them "imitate me" is not simply a function of where they are in church history nor is it simply about being pragmatic. The accompanying reason for Paul is saying this to them was because he actually could say it to them, and mean it!

Now, to be sure, Paul was not perfect. He knew that. This is a man that referred to himself as "the chief of sinners". He was under no illusions about himself. And yet, he was also a man passionately in pursuit of the Savior. He was a man who knew the task to which God had called him and he knew the importance of being a living illustration of the kind of life that Christ himself lived, and he was captivated by that thought.

To be sure, Paul was a preacher, he knew the value of words, the importance of words, especially God's Words. He knew how to make arguments and use language to persuade people. He knew the value of images and metaphors, and he talked of soldiers and farmers and athletes running races. He knew how powerful a picture can be and that, sometimes, a picture can be worth a thousand words. But Paul also knew that, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, an example is worth a thousand pictures.

Therefore,, again, Paul said, "Imitate me." The reason he did say it was because he could say it. Gordon Fee, commenting on this passage, says:

...The [great] difficulty for most people in ministry is with the words "imitate me." These words surely heighten the responsibility that Christians have toward new converts universally. Perhaps our ability to put "a Bible" in their hands has been partly responsible for our unfortunately too frequent apology that they should do as we SAY, but not as we DO. When the basic way of learning ethical instruction is by example, the obedience factor on the part of the "instructor" is bound to increase!
That last statement is crucial. Because Fee is suggesting that because the early believers did not yet have a New Testament, Paul's life and words were the only "New Testament" they had, so to speak. It staggers the mind to think what might happen if Christians today began living under the same assumption - that the only access people around us have to the Bible - is the life that WE live, and the words that WE speak...

Well, seeing how important living by example is to Paul, it is not at all surprising then to see what he says in verse 17:

...For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church...
Paul not only says, "imitate me" but to help them do that, since he can't personally be there, he sends Timothy. Why? Because Timothy was a living, breathing example of someone who was already doing what Paul was now instructing the Corinthians to do. He was imitating Paul. The third and final thing I want you to notice this morning is not only a father's appeal, and a father's example, but also a father's anger:
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Here we see Paul, expressing his anger and showing that he is not afraid to say and do some hard things - if that becomes necessary. It seems that it may indeed be necessary. Judging from Paul's words, it would appear that some of the Corinthians were convinced that Paul was never coming back and that belief had emboldened some to begin speaking a little too loudly and a little too proudly and to begin taking matters into their own hands.

Therefore, Paul responds to their arrogance and presumption. If they will not be moved by his fatherly appeal or motivated by his fatherly example, they may YET respond to his fatherly anger.

We can all relate to that, can't we? - either as parents or children or both. I can remember as a kid how I would not always respond to my parents' appeals and example. And I would push them - to a point. But then I would go a bit too far. And, for me, the first sign that I had gone too far or waited too long or said too much was when my parents suddenly called out, "Jeffery Scott Lindsay" - Then I knew I was on the verge of being in big trouble. Anytime more than one name was used it was bad. But when all three were used - that was a sure sign that things were going down hill. That was my parents' way of baring their teeth a little bit.

Well, Paul shows his teeth a little bit here. He is calling their bluff, by promising that he will come to see them soon, and when he comes he says that he will be coming to see whether or not there was any substance to their boasting about their power and ruling and reigning and having the fullness of God's kingdom right now. "I will find out", says Paul, "not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have."

Now, as we have already seen, when Paul talks about "power", he does not use the word in the way that you and I might use it, or in some worldly sense of "power". Along with that it must be said that when Paul says things like, "...the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power...." he is not saying these things because he is de-valuing the ministry of the Word. Paul is most certainly NOT devaluing the importance of the Word, nor is he talking about power in a worldly sense. As we have already seen, for Paul, power was all wrapped up in words - the words of the Gospel - the proclamation of the Gospel which Paul saw as God's power to save and transform a people through the apparent foolishness of the preached word - this was Paul's understanding of Gospel power.

Therefore, Paul's coming to them was to see whether that kind of power - the transforming power of the Gospel - was being demonstrated amongst them in people being saved and lives being changed. He wants to see if that sort of thing is going on or if they have perhaps traded real Gospel power for worldly notions of power.

If they have, he is prepared to take harsh measures with them. And he is prepared to do that precisely because his love for the Corinthians was the real thing. His love was not a cheap love - the kind that will not rebuke or confront or do or say risky things. No, Paul really loved them, and that meant he was prepared to show it in ways that might cause them pain. But that's what love does.

To be sure, loving that way is not easy, is it? The temptation is NOT to take the risk and to continue living under the illusion that we can't afford to say anything too difficult because it might "hurt our relationships". But friends, we risk more by withholding tough love than we ever risk by showing it. A friendship that cannot endure rebuke is not a friendship, it's merely an acquaintance, masquerading as a friendship.

So, because Paul has a real relationship and friendship with the Corinthians, he threatens the "whip" - that is, harsh words and disciplinary actions, but hopes all the while that he will not have to use it.

Well, in addition to all the other implications we have seen along the way, and in bringing this study to a close, there are just two other things I'd like to very quickly highlight from this passage, and then I promise to stop talking!

First, Paul was coming to the Corinthians, and was saying some hard things to them, because they had begun to abandon his teaching, flaunting what he had said, and were following other spiritual guides, taking other paths which took them away from a cross-centered theology and life and into a theology of personal and immediate glory. So, Paul says some hard things and warns of some hard things, if they will not turn around. And he also promises a gentle reception, if they will. However, as a Father who truly loves he cannot and will not sit back and do nothing.

If I know anything as a pastor it is that if you throw a bucket of water out over a congregation, you have a 10 out of 10 chance that that water will land on a struggling sinner. Therefore, the issue is not whether you are struggling as a sinner, but only how much you are and how much you are pretending you are not - and how elaborate is your charade.

Can I just say that the Corinthian believers are certainly not the only ones who have flaunted God's teaching and the godly example presented by Paul, are they? Are we not in the same boat? If so, can we not expect that God, who is no less a loving Father than Paul, will not sit idly by and watch as you and I continue down that path?

Nevertheless, even as we contemplate that reality, we must remember that our heavenly Father, like Paul his servant, is motivated in these things out of LOVE. Because he loves us, and has sent his son to save us, He will do whatever is necessary to bring us back when we stray. Sometimes it is with the rod of discipline that he brings us back. And sometimes it is with the mere prospect of discipline, that he calls us back. And if we respond, we can expect that He will receive us in a spirit of gentleness.

And I say all this, friends, knowing that some of you are wrestling with some stuff- and you've told me about it - and that's good - not the stuff, but the fact that you are wrestling with it! I want you to know that we're going to get through that. But in this particular matter, and at this particular moment, I don't have you in mind as much as I have in mind all the people that I and the elders are not talking to. I have in mind all the conversations that have not started yet - but which really need to.

Therefore,, as your pastor, and on behalf of your elders, I'm asking: Can we talk?

What do you wish? Do you want your Heavenly Father to come to you with a whip, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? There is an opportunity waiting for each and every one of us for growth in grace and sanctification, if we will heed the Spirit's leading us in these things, rather than continuing to put them off...

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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