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First Corinthians 4:14-21


We have seen the contrast between the Corinthian believers who were puffed up in their pseudo spirituality
and worldly wisdom, and the apostles, who were humbly following the way of the cross. And what a
contrast it was! Pauls point was that, if the Corinthian believers were genuinely following Christ, why did
they look so very different from the apostles?
What would have been the reaction of those who heard Pauls letter read, in Corinth? The instigators in the
assembly were unlikely to have been moved, by Pauls words - after all, their hearts were still hardened
with unbelief; they were still men of the world, grasping to attain honor and recognition, for themselves.
On the other hand, some of the puffed up believers who had been following them may have taken Pauls
sharp words to heart; and if they did, it would have brought them back down to size - as little Christ Ones.
But Paul seems to know the church in Corinth well enough to surmise that many of the believers there
would require further persuasive measures. So as Paul continues, he gives them just that; he appeals to
them, he challenges them - and finally, he offers them a stern - but amusing - choice.
We begin in verse 14.
[Read First Corinthians 4:14-21]
Paul begins by reflecting on the things that he had just written to them; that while the Corinthian believers
spent their time in their self-exalting endeavors, the apostles, who had ministered the gospel to them, were
continually suffering, for Christs sake.
Paul says that his intention in writing this was not to shame them - although they might have felt that way,
having shamed themselves by their conduct. But Pauls intention was that his words would serve as a
warning to them.
Notice that Paul speaks of them as his beloved children - and as we continue in the passage, we see that
Paul is viewing himself in the role of father to the Corinthian believers.
A good father loves his children. He would not desire to shame them; that wouldnt be his intent. But if
the children are going the wrong way in life, a father may have to allow his children to experience shame,
in order to give them a loving warning; to correct them, and put them back in the way of righteousness.
Thats what Paul was doing here. The contrast he has made to himself and the other apostles was intended
to warn the believers in Corinth that they were going the wrong way; they were going the way of the world.
And Paul goes on to explain why he called them his beloved children.
v. 15 Paul says to the believers, you dont have many fathers. How many did they have? Well, each had
an earthly father, who had begotten them, as natural sons - through whom they were born in the flesh, of
the corruptible seed of man. That father corrected them as it seemed best to him (Heb 12:9-10).
And as believers, they each now had a heavenly Father - God the Father, who had begotten them again they were born again - to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1:3);
born of the Incorruptible Seed, Christ, as ever-living sons of God.

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Their heavenly Father had purposed their second birth before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-5); in
eternity past, when they were elected - chosen - based on the foreknowledge of God the Father (1 Pet 1:2).
Based on His foreknowledge of what? Based on the Fathers foreknowing that they would choose to
believe in the Savior whom He sent; Jesus.
But how could they believe in Jesus, if theyd never heard the gospel? And how would they hear the gospel
without a preacher? And how could the preacher preach to them, unless he was sent to them (Rm 10:1314)?
And thats where Paul came in. Paul was an apostle; a sent one; commissioned by the Lord to preach the
gospel, particularly to the Gentiles. It was Paul who delivered to the Corinthians the message of the
Incorruptible Seed Christ, whom they must receive by faith, in order to be born again; in order to be saved.
And as Paul considered his role in planting that Incorruptible Seed into the hearts of those in Corinth; and
beheld God giving eternal life to those who believed; and witnessed the changed lives of the Corinthian
believers, as a new creation in Christ Jesus - through Pauls ministry - Paul was privileged to enter in to a
special fellowship with God, as the father of these children of God.
There was a tender love and a fierce protectiveness, that was a reflection of the Fathers unique love for
those who had become His born children. And there was also a burden of responsibility: to teach, to train,
to correct. This was what Paul experienced and shared with the Father, in his unique bond with the
converts who came forth from his ministry.
Paul contrasts himself with those who would merely instruct, in Christ. Ten thousand is the highest
number in the Greek, and is sometimes translated a myriad. It implies a countless number.
Instructors or teachers literally means a child leader, in the Greek. This was usually a slave to whom the
father turned over his children to conduct them to and from school; a guardian. The word came to mean
teacher or educator.
The Corinthian believers could have countless teachers - even those who genuinely taught them about
Christ. But the sum of them could never compare to what Paul - and only Paul - was to them. Why not?
Because their teachers were not the ones who conveyed the very words of life to them, that germinated in
their hearts. Their teachers didnt assist in the delivery, when they were born again, of water and the Spirit
(Jn 3:5). And they didnt cherish those first steps - as a child of God. What Paul is expressing is the depth
of his great love for them - the love that only a father can have, for his children.
Like a caring father, Pauls love has taken the form of a warning, for his children - they have gone off the
course - the course of following Christ. And now, as a father, Paul exhorts them.
v. 16-17 Because they have gone off course, Paul is urging the believers in Corinth to imitate him. What
does that mean? Are the believers to think back on things that Paul did, things that he said, and copy his
behavior? Talk like Paul, walk like Paul? No; he couldnt mean that, could he? Without a change in heart,
a change in behavior would be mere posturing; religious legalism.
This word translated imitate means to be a follower. It speaks of imitating the manner of life of another;
following their pattern of life. What was Pauls pattern of life? His life was patterned on the life of his
Lord; in fact, Paul will exhort the Corinthian believers later in this letter, Imitate me, just as I also imitate
Christ (1 Cor 11:1).

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Paul was not calling for the Corinthian believers to do anything that he did not do, himself. And the fact
that Paul can write to them imitate me tells us that it is entirely possible to be successful, at imitating
Christ - for clearly, Paul was imitating Christ; so much so that he held up his life as a pattern, for his
converts to follow.
In what respect did Paul imitate, or follow Christ? Did Paul say to himself in every situation, What would
Jesus do? How could he? Did Jesus have Pauls precise experiences, in life? No more than Paul had
those of Jesus. So trying to figure out what Jesus would do is not following Christ; in fact, trying to reason
that out would be to exclude Christ, from the process.
To imitate Christ is to follow His example. Lets think about that. Christ was the Servant of Jehovah, who
came to accomplish the purposes of God, on earth - for the redemption of mankind.
In order to do that, Jesus had to expressly obey the will of His Father; to speak only the words that the
Father told Him to speak; to go only to the places where the Father directed Him to go; to do only the
works that the Father showed Him to do.
This meant that Jesus could never be high-minded, thinking independently of the Father, but had to always
be humble of mind, willing to be led of the Father, and live in complete submission to Him.
And that was the pattern of Pauls life; willing to proclaim the message of the cross, foolish as it seemed to
men; willing to live his life surrendered to the will of God; willing to bear the reproach of Christ, from a
world at enmity with God. As a father with his children, Paul was laying before the Corinthian believers
his ways in Christ - humility; whole-hearted service; selfless devotion; love for others.
This was the same pattern he held up to all the churches to follow. We can see another example of it in one
of his letters to the church in Thessalonica. Turn to First Thessalonians chapter 1. Paul was commending
the church in Thessalonica as faithful followers of Christ.
[First Thessalonians 1:5-8]
v. 5 Paul is speaking for Timothy and Silas also, who had been with him preached the gospel in
Thessalonica. Hes saying that the gospel wasnt just a bunch of words; its power could be seen in the lives
of those who preached it.
v. 6-7 The word followers is the same word we had in our letter, imitate. The Thessalonian believers
followed the Lord, with Paul and the other teachers, in their willingness to obey Gods will, and to live by
faith. This led others to faith in Christ, who then followed their example.
v. 8 Paul is saying that no words were needed; the power of God in their lives was their testimony to
Christ.
In chapter 2, Paul was recalling for the believers how the missionaries had conducted themselves, while in
Thessalonica.
[First Thessalonians 2:9-12]
v. 9 The missionaries worked to pay for their own expenses, in addition to preaching to the Thessalonians
while they were there - just as in Corinth.

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v. 10-12 You can see that Paul did not hesitate to hold up his way of life and that of the other missionaries
as an example to the believers.
Notice how Paul speaks of the Thessalonian believers as his children also, for they were converted by his
preaching of the gospel to them. And as a good father, Paul was reminding them of how he exhorted them
to follow his example: to walk worthy of God, their heavenly Father, whose home they would one day
share.
Unlike the Corinthian believers, who had gone off course, Pauls commendation of the Thessalonians
reflects that they were walking worthy of God, submitting themselves to the leading of the Spirit, within
them.
And Paul would pass this pattern on to the churches in Asia. Turn to Ephesians chapter 5. Paul had been
writing of putting off the old man - who is that? Adam; and putting on the new Man - who would that be?
Christ. After Paul gave a sampling of what that would look like, for a Christ One, he summed up his
thoughts.
[Ephesians 5:1-2]
Paul had essentially created a sketch of a Christ One, who had put on the new man; but now he finishes the
picture by saying, therefore be imitators of God. The children should follow the example their heavenly
Father has given them. That example is Christ - the new Man, Himself. And as we follow His example,
submitting ourselves to the will of God, we will walk in love.
But Paul goes further, describing what that walk of Christ looked like. He loved us, and gave Himself for
us. Paul is talking about Christ having given Himself over for us, in death - greater love has no man that
this (Jn 15:13).
As Paul describes this act, the greatest possible demonstration of love, he uses language that suggests one
of the offerings of the LORD, made by the Levitical priesthood - the ceremonial worship prescribed for the
nation Israel.
Paul alludes to the walk of Christ - His life; an offering that was a sacrifice - the shedding of blood; and a
sweet-smelling aroma to God. Taken together, these elements suggest that what Paul has in his mind was
the burnt offering; a sweet-savor offering to the LORD (Lev 1).
The word for burnt offering in the Hebrew means that which goes up; the smoke of the sacrifice
ascended toward heaven. In the burnt offering, the entire animal was offered as a sacrifice to the LORD; so
the main idea was a consecrated offering, reflecting a life of complete devotion to the service of God. For
I always do those things that please Him (Jn 8:29).
The sacrifice was offered by the worshipper of his own free will (Lev 1:3). Therefore My Father loves
Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of
Myself (Jn 10:17-18).
The highest form of the burnt offering was the bullock, valued for its strength and willing submission (Lev
1:3-9). Here is the Servant of Jehovah, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a
ransom for many (Mt 20:28).

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Jesus humbled himself, and was obedient to death; the death of the cross (Phil 2:7,8). And so the whole
sacrifice was laid, on the wood.
Jesus offered up the entirety of His life to His Father - His mind, His strength, His will, His conduct (Lev
1:8-9) - all laid upon that altar of the cross. And the fire of Gods holiness searched that sacrifice, made in
our stead, and found it to be perfect; the offering was a sweet savor, to the LORD. God was completely
satisfied, in the offering of His Son, Jesus.
Paul is saying that Christ is our example of how to walk in love, as Christ Ones; as the Fathers beloved
children: freely submitting ourselves, to the will of our Father; entirely devoted to serving Him, with all of
our strength; letting Him have all the say, over what we take in with our minds, and what we do with our
bodies.
This is what it means to be a living sacrifice (Rm 12:1): our service of worship, to the God who gave
Himself for us in death, is to give ourselves to Him - in life.
[Return to First Corinthians 4]
This is the pattern to which Paul was calling the high-minded Corinthian believers - to be willing to humble
themselves, and submit to God; to be led of the Spirit, whom the Lord had given, to guide them; to imitate
their Lord, and walk in love, ever yielded to the Lords will.
These were Pauls ways in Christ; but they were not Pauls alone. Paul was sending to the Corinthians one
who would remind them of his ways. Who does Paul indicate he is sending them, in verse 17? Timothy.
And look at how Paul describes Timothy; his beloved and faithful son - literally, child - in the Lord. This
description of Timothy tells us that he was converted under the teaching of Paul, which is borne out in the
account in Acts and Pauls later letters to Timothy.
And as Paul indicates that Timothy was a faithful son, we understand that this was a convert who did follow
the example of his father in the faith. Paul knew that Timothy could be trusted to remind the Corinthians of
that pattern, not just in word, but in particular through Timothys own ways, in Christ.
We know from the account in Acts and other letters that Timothy had taught with Paul in Corinth (Acts
18:5, 2 Cor 1:19). But because Timothy is not mentioned in the prescript of this letter, he apparently was
not with Paul, when this letter was written. Probably this was one of the occasions that Timothy had been
sent back to Macedonia by Paul, to strengthen the assemblies there (Acts 19:22).
When Paul indicates here that he sent Timothy to Corinth, he most likely had written to Timothy in
Macedonia, telling him that he should proceed to Corinth, next. As we get close to the end of this letter,
well see that Paul is not completely certain that Timothy will come to them (1 Cor 16:10), due to these
circumstances.
But here, Paul is indicating that he is purposing that Timothy should come to them. Apparently, Paul
himself could not come at this time, as the Lord required him to continue his ministry in Ephesus (1 Cor
16:8-10). But Paul wants to assure the Corinthians that he is expecting to come to them himself - in the
Lords good time.

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v. 18-20 So some of the Corinthians were puffed up, as though Paul might not be coming. Why would
they think that? One reason is because Paul had been away for so long. It had been at least two years since
he had been in Corinth (Acts 19:10, 1 Cor 16:8).
Since some of the Corinthian believers had begun to cast a critical eye on Paul and his teaching, Paul
realized that when they heard Timothy was coming in Pauls place, they might arrogantly imagine that Paul
was too intimidated by their recent acquisition of greater wisdom and spirituality to return and deal with
them, himself; that he was just sending a letter, and a junior member of the team, to back it up.
No doubt such a thought would be promoted in the assembly by the instigators. But such a thought was
indeed imagined, and Paul makes that quite clear. Paul affirms to them that he desires to come to them and soon - as soon as the Lord permits it.
Far from being intimidated, Paul is eager to confront their thinking - with the Lords. And then, Paul says,
I will know; then well see. Well see if those lofty words of worldly wisdom have any real power in them
- beside the power to deceive men.
Paul has already made it plain that His message - Christ crucified - is the power and the wisdom of God.
That power had been demonstrated in those who had believed, in Corinth, by their receiving of the Holy
Spirit. And for those believers who submitted to the work of the Spirit in their hearts, that power was also
demonstrated by the change in their lives, as they were being transformed into a sanctified son of God.
Could their worldly philosophies effect any such transformation? No. Why is that?
Well, think about philosophy. Its basically various collections of mans reasoning, on some key topics.
Man makes certain observations, about the way things are, such as what makes men tick; life and death;
about the nature of the world, the universe; and about circumstances, under the sun.
All of those observations are made from mans limited perspective, on earth, under time. That makes those
observations incomplete, and frequently distorted.
Then on top of that, man extrapolates from what he observes, theorizing, constructing a philosophy to try
to make sense of it all; to try to make connections, deductions, determine trends - all in his efforts to change
or control himself, his world, his circumstances.
Of course, his extrapolations have now taken him even further from the realities, which he can never fully
know. So his philosophy is essentially a weak tool with which man tries to gauge and move mountains, in
his life. And inevitably, man discovers his tool is ineffective, to control, or to change things.
So man seizes upon other tools, which he has made. A different philosophy, perhaps - there were several
circulating, in Corinth. Or maybe, a religion. Or psychology. And man discovers that they dont work,
either. Its the wrong tool, in the wrong hand; tools that only serve to demonstrate their weakness; they
have no power.
Is there a right tool? There is. The tool is love. And whose hand must it be in? The Lords hand; its His
love; His tool. And in the right hand - the Lords hand - love can change everything.
When the heart yields to it, love will overcome self-will, every time; and in himself, the believer changes.
It causes the believer to see that he is no longer of the world, but is separated from it;

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that his life is not his own; but has been given back to the Lord, its rightful owner;
that his circumstances are just circumstances, and that the Spirit can teach him how, not to move the
mountains in his life, but to rise above them, and soar.
And in this way, genuine change is effected, in the believer - through Gods power-tool - love.
True, vital change is based on a relationship with God; union with Him. There is no such thing as selfimprovement; any significant, deep, critical change only takes place within the context of the relationship
that God has created for men, through Christ. And the change only comes when the believer is willing to
submit himself to the Spirit of God in him, as He works Gods love into him.
The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. You cant have a kingdom without subjects. The
subjects of Gods kingdom are the objects of His love; His sons. No one has the power to create and shape
these sons, but God alone. And it can only be done Gods way, through the persuasive power of love.
And that is the note upon which Paul closes, with his Corinthians.
v. 21 Paul is asking them what their preference is. Who says Paul isnt funny? What is the rod that Paul
is speaking of, here? The rod of correction, which is to be used to drive foolishness from the heart of a
child (Prov 22:15).
Will Pauls beloved children continue in their foolish enchantment with the worlds wisdom? Then Paul
will have to come to them with a rod - the authority of God and His word - and as a good and loving father,
Paul will chasten them with it.
Wouldnt they prefer Paul come to them in love and a spirit of gentleness? Certainly Paul would prefer
that! But he can only do so if they are willing to receive his loving corrections from this letter and from
Timothy.
If they are willing, the Spirit will gently lead them into the truth again - if they are not obstinate; if they are
teachable. But either way, Love will do what it takes - in order to obtain sons for the Fathers kingdom.
Reading: 1 Cor 5; Col 2:1-5; Gal 1:1-5; 1 Tim 1:18-20, 5:1-16.