I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? – 1 Corinthians 4:14-21 ESV
Paul wasn’t out to embarrass or demean the believers in Corinth. But he simply wanted to lovingly expose the error of their way. He refers to himself as their “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15b ESV). He calls them “my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14b ESV). He wants to remind them that it was he who had originally brought the good news of Jesus Christ to them and presented to them the life-altering message of reconciliation with God made possible through faith in His Son. At each of their conversions they had received not only the forgiveness of their sins, but the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Their salvation had been the work of God from beginning to end. It was only by His grace that they could claim to be His children. And so there was no room for boasting, pride or arrogance of any kind.
Over time, since accepting Christ, they had been privileged to have “countless guides.” Paul is referring to men like Cephas and Apollos, whom God had used to instruct and guide them in the faith. Paul uses the Greek word, παιδαγωγός (paidagōgos), which refers to…
a tutor i.e. a guardian and guide of boys. Among the Greeks and the Romans the name was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood. (“G3807 – paidagōgos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible).
But these teachers and tutors were not to be a replacement of the father of the son. He held a special place in the lives of his children. They owed their very existence to him. And it was this thought that Paul seems to have in mind. He is not bragging, but simply stating the fact that had he not come to them with the message of the gospel, they would still be in their sins and separated from God. Paul is not asking for special recognition and, based on everything else he has written, he is not expecting them to idolize him. He only wants them to stop their pointless arguing and prideful posturing. There was a spirit of pride that had begun to permeate the church in Corinth and Paul wanted to put a stop to it.
Interestingly enough, Paul invites them to imitate him. This could easily come across as a prideful statement if we did not know so much about Paul and his life. His was not a life of ease and comfort. He had a reputation for serving Christ in humility and obedience. He was the consummate servant, sacrificing even his health for the sake of the body of Christ. That is why he could say, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16 ESV). And because he could not be with them, he had sent Timothy “to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17b ESV). Paul wasn’t just interested in promoting the teachings of Christ, he wanted to model them. He wanted to show through his very own life what Christ-likeness really looked like. Paul insisted that “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20 ESV). Anyone can teach and talk a good game, but if what they teach does not show up in their day-to-day life, their words lack power. The pastor who can craft a good message and wow the audience with his rhetorical skills, but who does not live out the power of the gospel in his life, is all talk, no action. Later on in this letter, Paul challenges the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). So Paul was not making this stuff up. He wasn’t encouraging them to ”do as I say,” but to “do what I do” because he was following the example of Christ.
How many of us could issue that same challenge with confidence? Are our lives a reflection of the life of Christ? Are we following His example? Or are we all talk, no action. They say talk is cheap. I can know all that Christ taught, but if I don’t put it into action, it means nothing. Paul was fully confident that his life was worthy of emulation because his life was modeled after that of Christ. He was not claiming perfection or sinlessness. He was not putting himself up as an icon of virtue or moral excellence. He was a work in progress. God was continually molding and making him into the likeness of Christ. He told the believers in Philippi, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). At one time, Paul had told Timothy, his young protegé in the faith, “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ — and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 NLT). Paul was an example of the patience and mercy of God. He had not deserved salvation, but God had graciously extended it to him. His life was an example of the mercy and grace of God, but also of the presence of the Holy Spirit as His sanctifying power continued to change his life.
Paul was so passionate about this issue, that he threatened to show up like a father ready to discipline his wayward children. He loved them too much to watch them live their lives in arrogant pride rather than in humble submission to God’s divine will for them. The time for talk was over. It was a time for action and for the life-altering power of the Spirit to show up in their daily behavior.