Text: 1 Cor. 4:14-21
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.
Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?
Today is All Saints Day, and it is also the Sunday on which we celebrate the Protestant Reformation. These two days go together for two reasons. Historically, Martin Luther chose this date to post his 95 theses on the Caste Church Door in Wittenberg. He did this on purpose because his theses had to do with what happened to Christians after they died. He criticized the practice of selling indulgences, which promised to reduce a soul’s time in Purgatory. And so Luther chose the date to send a powerful message. These days also go together thematically because they are both occasions for us to remember and commemorate the lives and legacies of Christians who have gone before us. As Protestants we do not believe that only a minority of elite Christians can be considered saints, and so we gladly extend that title to the men of the 16th and 17th century, as well as Christians today. So it makes good sense to put these two days together.
This occasion also happens to pair well with the next section of 1st Corinthians, and so this presents a great opportunity for our church to both celebrate the liturgical calendar and refuse to break with our ongoing consecutive expository exegetical series. Call it Reformed catholicity, the best of all worlds. The reason I think our text is appropriate for today is because it is all about the faithful example of fathers in the faith. There are three basic points: Paul is a father to the Corinthians, he wants them to imitate him, and he will come to visit them and see how they are doing. In all of this we will see that fathers in the faith, like earthly fathers, deserve respect and imitation, and that all true Christian discipleship comes about as children in the faith learn from and aspire to be like their spiritual parents.
Paul is a Father
The first thing we notice is that Paul relates to the Corinthians as a father. The Corinthians are his children. In verse 14 he calls them “my beloved children.” Then in vs. 15 he says, “I have begotten you through the gospel.” Through his role in bringing them to faith, he has “birthed them.” They were born again through his preaching and teaching, and so he is, in a way, their father. Notice also that Timothy is called Paul’s son. He calls Timothy his “beloved and faithful son” in vs. 17. Over in the 1st Epistle to Timothy, we read, “To Timothy, a true son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). This matters because he now leads them in the way that a father leads his children.
How does a father lead? Well, he ought to lead by training, “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). He should discipline. “For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:12). Through all that he does, he should love and show compassion. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:13). And, as we will see in just a bit, fathers should also lead by example.
This is one reason that pastors have been referred to as “father” over the years. I don’t think that’s a necessary application here, but neither do I think it’s wrong to call pastors “Father.” Any language like that should be organic and based on a real-life relationship. The “father” in the faith needs to have actually been involved in a fatherly relationship, whether in the original evangelism or in helping the people through difficult life experiences. It shouldn’t be a mere title but an expression of love and admiration. And it should set the tone for the pastor’s ministry.
In all of this we see that fatherhood is a model for leadership, and this is how it should be. In fact, this is a creation ordinance. This is also a way in which God Himself is manifest, as a Father. Yes, God is a Father because He begets the Son, but He is also a Father because He has loving authority. Jesus says this Himself, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19).
And so fathers should lead. This is natural. In fact, fathers will lead, one way or another. They will lead by taking responsibility and setting a good example, or they will lead by shirking it and setting a bad example. In every dysfunctional family, there is a father either abusing his authority through anger and violence or by abdication and cowardice. Fathers ought to aspire towards good leadership, and good leaders should model themselves after good fathers.
Earlier we said that fathers should lead by example. This is a pretty popular sentiment. We rightly reject the old line “Do as I say, not as I do.” But what we often miss, and certainly what our culture in general tends to reject, is that leading by example directly implies learning by imitation. We learn from seeing how others actually do things, and then we do those same things, after the way we saw them get done. Imitation is a good and natural way in which we learn from others.
Paul mentions imitation in verse 16 of 1 Cor. 4. “Therefore I urge you, imitate me…” Later in the same letter he says, “therefore imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Imitation is good, and this makes sense when we consider the whole Biblical story. We are image-bearers, after all. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). We reflect God by nature, and what we also see is that we reflect other people, those who we are around.
Hebrews 6:12 also tells us to imitate other godly men and women. “Imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” This is why we are given the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11, the examples of Abraham, Moses, and the rest. We are supposed to see how they had faith and then to imitate them. This shows us that you can legitimately find examples in the Biblical narrative. Not all characters in the Bible are good guys, and even the good guys can make bad decisions. We are all sinners, after all. But there are good guys in the Bible, namely those who have faith, and the Bible itself tells us that we should be like them.
You can also find examples of godly people in your life today. You should imitate biblical characters, but you should also imitate good leaders, starting with your parents, but also including your pastor and elders. In fact, this is exactly what Paul does with Timothy. “For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). Timothy, as Paul’s son, has already been taught to imitate him. Now he is being sent to the church at Corinth to help the Corinthians imitate Paul, and he is going to do this, in part, by setting a good example.
One point here deserves a little more treatment. Sons should want to be like their fathers. Indeed, children should want to be like their parents. This sounds like a very basic point, but my guess is that many of us have struggled with this in our own lives, and the larger culture in the world definitely tends to reject this point. The relationship between parents and children has been broken by the Fall of man, and unless we have God’s grace and a proper fatherly love, we will not be able to do this correctly. Still, the Bible says that children ought to be like their parents. There’s the famous line in Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). But there’s also the prophecy of Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Harmonious, loving relationships between parents and children is a mark of redemption. It is one of the effects of the work of the messiah, and we in the church should strive for this. Children, honor your father and mother. Respect them, and long to be like them. But parents, this also gives you a duty. Be the kind of people you think are worth admiring and imitating. Don’t be overbearing and critical. Don’t constantly discourage your children or provoke them to wrath. Make yourself imitable.
This truth begins with parents, but, as we have been saying, it isn’t limited. Pastors and elders should also follow this example. Parishioners should want to be like their pastors, and so pastors should strive to set a pleasing example. Bosses should do the same with their employees, and all people in authority should set the kind of example that they would want those under them to imitate.
Visitation and Judgment
The third point to make about Paul’s model of leadership in this section is that he promises to visit the Corinthian church and to pass judgment upon them. At first it might sound nice when Paul says, “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills” (1 Cor. 4:19), as good leaders to need to be with their people. But remember that this entire section began with Paul saying, “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you” (vs. 14). Now he says, “some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power” (vs. 18-19). Paul’s visit will be the way in which he finally puts down those who are “puffed up.”
Paul is going to demonstrate his authority beyond mere words. “For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power” (vs. 20). There’s a bit of a threat there. You see, that is not a statement about the inadequacy of speech or written communication. Instead Paul is contrasting “mere speech” over and against spiritual action. When he arrives, the power of God, the work of the Spirit, will prove the difference.
This statement does suggest sanctions of some sort. Paul would prefer not to have to use “the rod” (vs. 21), but he brings it up to remind the Corinthians that it is a possibility. Now, as we will see in chapter 5, Paul does not actually mean that he will use a physical rod. Violence is not a part of the ministry. But Paul does believe in church discipline, and he does prescribe excommunication, that is “kicking out” sinful members of the church. Paul would prefer not to have to do this, but it is a tool in his ministerial leadership.
This too is fatherly action. Fathers prefer to be gentle, and they ought to be gentle most of the time. But there are occasions where discipline is necessary. “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Proverbs 13:24). Fathers need to be hard at the right time, and they will have to use painful discipline from time to time. If they do not do this, then they do not love their children. They hate them. And so the same goes for Paul’s leadership in the church. He has the ability to use painful discipline if necessary.
A common objection to this is that it isn’t very “Christ-like.” We hear this kind of argument all the time—Jesus was loving, meek, and mild. He was a “servant.” He certainly never needed to make power-plays. The people who make these kinds of statements do not seem to be very familiar with the Jesus of the Bible. Was Jesus being “Christ-like” when he flipped over the money changers’ tables and flogged them with a whip (Matthew 21:12, John 2:15)? Is the Jesus of the book of Revelation Christ-like?
On top of this, however, we need to see that Paul is actually imitating Christ even in this passage where he promises visitation and judgment. Just think about it. Paul has given birth to these Christians when they were saved. They have been born again, and they have new fathers. Paul is currently absent, conducting ministry at place physically removed from the Corinthians. But he is still in communication with them, and he plans to return to them and to evaluate their behavior. He promises to come again and judge them. Paul is imitating Jesus every step of the way here, and Paul’s promise of potentially negative sanctions is exactly what all Christians are promised on the Last Day. Jesus will come again to judge the quick and the dead, and without holiness no man will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
This means that there is no conflict between Christ-like love and firm leadership. There is no conflict between a gentle, humble leader and a leader who has to use hard discipline at times. All of this is imitation, and it’s the imitation of fatherly rule. Jesus Himself imitates His Father (John 5:19). Paul imitates Jesus. Timothy imitates Paul. We are then called to imitate them all, as they imitate God. This includes gentleness, holiness, fitting words, and the use of the rod.
And so we see the power of fathers. Leaders ought to be like fathers, and this is especially true in the church. This means that authority is a good thing, but it must be wielded appropriately, as a father. The converse is also true. It is a good thing for fathers to have authority, and they are good fathers when they use that authority appropriately.
We need to be able to imitate godly fathers, both in our families, and in our faith, and so this means that we need godly fathers to imitate. Parents, keep this in mind towards your children. Conduct yourselves as those whom you want your children to imitate. And leaders and older people in general, conduct yourselves in ways that you could call younger Christians to imitate. Set the example so that they can follow.
It’s good to remember that God hasn’t left us all on our own and only with our generation. He’s sent many fathers in the faith before us. So look to their example as well. Read history. Read biographies. Read about faithful Christians who have gone before, and aspire to imitate their examples.
And then, let all of us conduct ourselves, both fathers and children, as those who are awaiting the return of Jesus Christ. When He comes, He will judge in power. He will bring His kingdom in. And He will set all things right.
Let us pray.