1 Corinthians 4:14-21
December 17, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:40 in the audio file.
Or, How to Avoid an Apostolic Spanking
Sometimes I can’t help myself. Sometimes I see a bear and I’ve got to poke it. This bear isn’t a momma bear, this is the single, frustrated, she bear who hates the #patriarchy in our day. At a base level patriarchy means that dads have the greatest responsibility in a society. Would that we had more patriarchy of the right kind. Men, fathers especially, should be owning the work to raise the next generation. It is a blessing when the Lord turns the hearts of fathers to their children (Malichi 4:6).
I get that such a lovely view of “patriarchy” is inconceivable and intolerable to many today, scare quotes or not. For some, patriarchy means (usually white) men holding, yay verily wielding, power over women, excluding women from positions in business or government or whatever group. But I want to insist that we need the patriarchy and we ought to follow the patriarchy, at least as the patriarchy follows the ways of Christ.
God made fathers. God Himself reveals Himself as a Father, a Father to His own Son and a Father to us as His adopted children. Fathers on earth image God, at best in limited ways, at worst in distorted ways. But the answer to flawed fatherhood is not to get rid of fathers, it’s for fathers to act faithfully, which spreads blessings (to women and children) rather than hoards them.
The apostle Paul saw himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians. It’s not merely that he self-identified as a father, he was, by God’s grace, their father in the faith. God birthed the Corinthian congregation through Paul’s faithful work. And now the father expected his children to grow up and act like him, which they weren’t doing, including the ones who were claiming to be in Paul’s special group (1:12; 3:4). They were not acting like they should, not following Paul’s ways, not living in light of the word of the cross. Like a loving father, Paul warns them about their behavior and commands them to imitate him. Follow the patriarchy in the ways of a crucified Christ. In other words, follow the patriarchy to death.
We’re going to finish 1 Corinthians 4 this morning and then we’ll take a break for a Christmas message next Lord’s day and then a series on worship for the following two to four Sundays. When we come back to our study of this letter, we’ll come back with a bang in chapter 5. For now, Paul warns his beloved children how to avoid an apostolic spanking.
They’ve been having some problems. They’ve been fighting with each other for position. They’ve been seeking status from the unbelievers around them. They thought they were wise when they were really acting like “infants in Christ.” They were judging their preachers based on unsound, unspiritual standards. They believed the gospel, but they weren’t living in light of it. Paul cares for them like a father and commands them to imitate his cruciform lifestyle.
In the previous paragraph he said some sharp things and cut with a sarcasm scalpel. In verse 14 he explains his motivation. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. The reason he wrote what he did, in the mocking way he did, was not to break them down just to make himself feel better. He didn’t want them to be humiliated, but he did want them to be humbled and humble. He certainly wanted them to recognize their foolishness and stop it, but it wasn’t hurt for hurt’s sake. So he wrote to admonish, to “warn” (NIV), one of Paul’s go-to shepherding words. He put to mind the truth and power of the gospel in order to get his beloved children to turn course.
Verse 15 expands on their relationship. 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. Paul contrasts two kinds of responsibilities: that of a “guide” and that of a “father.” The guide or “tutor” (NAS), “guardian” (NIV), “instructor” (KJV) was “usually a slave, whose duty it was to conduct a boy or youth to and from school and to superintend his conduct generally” (BAGD). “Quintilian (Institutio oratoria. 1.1.8) complains about the paedagogi who have gone a little beyond the alphabet and falsely persuade themselves that they are knowledgeable,” Garland). There really isn’t one great English word to translate it, and “guide” is one of the least good. We might compare it to the hireling that Jesus referred to in John 10:11-14 in comparison with the shepherd (Thiselton). There is a connection, but it is a custodial, supervisory relationship.
The Corinthian congregation had plenty, countless, “thousands” of these sorts. What they didn’t have were many fathers. You really only need one father, but this makes the illustration more remarkable. You can have more than one spiritual father who cares. Paul had a special relationship with them as the one who planted the seed (3:6), who laid the foundation (3:10). But you don’t have to be the first to be this kind of father. You do have to love those you’re responsible for. Calvin contrasted fathers to “those who, while agreeing with us in doctrine, employ themselves in taking care of their own affairs, rather than those of Christ” Calvin). Serving self is not fatherly.
As their father Paul was in the position to make a requirement. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. He began in 1:10 with “I appeal to you,” but it’s the same Greek word (Παρακαλῶ) as here in 4:16. He is not suggesting, he is commanding, and doing so with authority. They were behaving like fools. They were behaving like unbelievers. They were behaving like unthankful and bratty little kids. They were not behaving like their father.
I wish it could go without saying, but this is not proud on Paul’s part, at least not by default. Is it true that only men who are full of themselves could say “Follow me”? Isn’t it actually the opposite? He’s been telling his children to live in light of the gospel. He’s been poking at their inflated pride. If he couldn’t tell them to act like him—in humility—then that would mean he was acting like them, and that would make him a hypocrite.
Verse 17 confirms that Paul’s strategy was personal. 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. He wasn’t able to come at the moment. He was writing a letter to them, and such communication has it’s place. But when it comes to fatherhood writing may supplement but it shouldn’t supplant presence.
He sent Timothy, who hadn’t arrived yet according to 1 Corinthians 16:10, so he couldn’t have been the one delivering the letter. But Timothy would arrive and remind them of Paul’s ways in Christ. They knew the ways, but they had forgotten them, which is a significant sin in God’s eyes. There is a path to follow, and Paul has been following the path of dying to bring life to others. This is the way of a crucified Christ. That’s what he wants them to follow. Follow the patriarchy to death.
And this dying like Christ is what he taught everywhere in every church. There are certainly unique opportunities and decisions in different locations, but there are some principles that transcend particular places. While each local church has responsibility to believe and obey, there are some ways that are catholic, as in, universal. So Paul urges them to follow his ways to dying.
As a father he had interest in them, so he’s planning to visit. He knows their situation and will test their supposedly “superior” status in person. These verses also begin the transition to some serious fails among the Corinthians in the following chapters concerning their sexual and business relationships.
Before he gets more specific he tells them his plan in verses 18-19. 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. Kids get arrogant, puffed up when they think dad is gone and can’t see what they’re doing. But Paul has been planning to come and see them, and he’s still hoping to do so if the Lord wills. God determines what gets done; we should always see that banner above our calendars and todo lists.
Paul’s trip will not be for pleasure, it will be for parenting. He will be testing their claims, and he doesn’t expect good scores. They’ve been impressed with rhetoric. They’ve been seeking speaking gifts. They’ve compromised in order to win worldly approval. And it shows in their lives. In chapter five Paul confronts their sexual immorality especially in terms of tolerating incest, in chapter six he confronts their greed and lawsuits as well as their view (and use) of prostitution. Always remember, Your talk talks and your walk talks but your walk talks a whole lot louder than your talk talks. Faith works. Following Christ is a confessional and behavioral commitment.
Verse 20 summarizes the principle. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. This is the key verse in the paragraph.
The Corinthians definitely overestimated the value of talk, but didn’t they also value power? Hasn’t Paul been contrasting worldly power with gospel weakness? They wanted power, they imagined themselves as reigning kings. And they didn’t appreciate Paul and the other preachers as servants, as manual laborers, as the scum of the earth. How can Paul say that the kingdom of God consists in power, presumably power that he was demonstrating?
It’s because God shows His power in our weakness, and it takes true power to spend your life for others. With His divine power God took the form of a servant and took His place on the cross. Christmas and Good Friday are power. Humility is power. Obedience is power. Holiness is power. Dependence on God rather than self is power. Serving others rather than status is power. Power is on display to the world, to angels, and to men (verse 9), but it a surprising power. All the Corinthians had was cheap talk, Paul wanted them to follow his ways of power.
He finishes the paragraph in verse 21 with one of those “did you really need to ask?” questions. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? I remember as a kid hearing this kind of question. “Do you want to get a spanking?” At school it was, “Do you want to go to the principal’s office?” “Why, yes! Of course I do!” It’s almost an exasperated question. To get to this point is to get to a not good point.
A rod is a stick for beating, an instrument familiar to faithful fathers in Proverbs (see 22:15; 23:13-14). As it’s been said, no one cares how much you know until they know how large your paddle is. He’s offering a fatherly, apostolic spanking. Is that what they want? Or do they want him to come already in fellowship? It’s not that discipline isn’t loving; too many proverbs say it’s loving not to discipline a son, as does the author of Hebrews. But the choice is theirs. Either they will humble themselves or he will come and humble them. “Come on, guys, get your stuff together.”
The imagery of fatherhood is a central piece to this paragraph. The answer to bad fathering is not getting rid of fathers, it’s fathers acting like they should. We need to get rid of pride, not patriarchs. Ironically, many of those complaining about fathers are themselves proud. The fix won’t happen by putting another proud group on top. The tyranny of fussiness is not a better rule for society’s sake.
Who would we rather listen to? Fathers don’t always act as they should, but would it be better to have to follow the Emperor? The State? A judge? No one? Doesn’t that just become everyone? The women, and the men who are too afraid to contradict those women, offer nothing better.
The image of fathering and spiritual fathering confronts those who seek their own interests, including those who speak truth but don’t do so for sake of their relationship with the people. It also applies to more than apostles and preachers, since Paul urges them all to imitate him. Then we ought to follow the patriarchy, we ought to follow these sorts of fathers to death. That’s where the power is.
Many of you know that R.C. Sproul went to be with our Lord this past week. We don’t boast in men, but he is one of ours. The Bible commands us to listen to those who teach us the Bible, and even more so, to imitate their faith. The outcome of R.C.’s life is great fruit by God’s grace and many of us are thankful recipients of his labors. It is another reminder for us to be good fathers, in our homes and also in the church, so that others may imitate us to the honor of Jesus Christ.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:7–8)