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Message # 18 | 1 Corinthians 4:16-21 | June 5, 2016

Purpose Statement:  Our care of others should reflect God’s care for us.

A Spiritual Father Offers a Model to Follow

First, Let’s wrestle with the fact that Paul tells people to imitate him.

He exhorts the believers to imitate him.  How arrogant of him!?  Or was it?  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul tells other believers to imitate him.  We probably struggle with this even a little bit with Paul saying it . . . and we extol Paul as one of the greatest believers alive . . . and he’s not one of our peers or someone who lives today . . . in our distance from Paul we somehow wrap our minds around his statement and accept it, especially as we acknowledge the reality that he is making this statement under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  But to accept anyone else saying something similar . . . no way!  We might consider that the epitome of arrogance . . . but should we?

To better help us understand Paul’s intent in this command let’s take a look at a couple of the other passages in which he makes this same command.  In these other passages he offers a few caveats.

Later in 1 Corinthians he includes the additional phrase, “as I am of Christ.”  Our imitation of Paul extends as far as he accurately reflects Christ.  Therefore, Paul desires for us to follow Christ and he offers a tangible illustration in doing so.

1 Corinthians 11:1 (ESV) Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

There are a few other passages in which he tells us to imitate him but he includes with the command that we are to imitate not just him but others as well.

Philippians 3:17 (ESV) Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

1 Thessalonians 1:6 (ESV) And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

1 Thessalonians 2:14 (ESV) For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,

2 Thessalonians 3:7–9 (ESV) 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.

“Sure he thought people should imitate him, but he also called on them to imitate other Christian leaders as good examples of Christlike living (Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:14). And that kind of imitational diversity is wise for at least a couple of reasons. First, it protects us against the very real possibility that even our “best” models will eventually blow it. It will still be devastating when a cherished leader fails, but less so when your identity isn’t built entirely around him or her. Second, life is complex and its challenges legion. A variety of godly models stands a better chance of giving you something to imitate across a range of difficult circumstances than any single model possibly could.  Imitating me might be good. Imitating us will always be better.”[1]

Now, let’s wrestle with how that finds application with us today.

So, we’ve probably come to the point where we are fine with Paul commanding others to imitate him, but how does that transfer over to us by means of application . . . are we to tell others to imitate us?

To answer that question, let’s set aside the idea of verbalizing to people, “imitate me.”  Let’s acknowledge a few realities.

(1)  Everyone imitates someone.  We are influenced by the people around us.  We observe them and consider whether or not their actions are worthy of emulation.  This is just a reality.  We all imitate people.

(2)  We all want models to follow or imitate.  We may not want to always be following someone, but there are a lot of moments in our lives in which we wish there was a model to follow.  We struggle knowing how to respond in a given circumstance and we wish we could observe someone else do it . . . or we call someone who has already gone through it and we ask them for advice . . . Why?  Because, at times, we all want a model to follow.

(3)  Offering yourself as an example doesn’t demand that you think you have everything figured out or don’t have areas of weakness.  Paul was quick to refer to himself as the “chiefest of sinners.”  Obviously there were areas in which we shouldn’t follow his example, but there were a number of areas in which he did offer a helpful and consistent example to follow.

(4) While we may never tell people to imitate us, we should all be aspiring to be the kind of people that others could imitate.

Challies:  A man who does not feel his pursuit of God is worthy of emulation or a man who knows that he is not imitating Christ is a man who does not meet the biblical requirements of leadership.[2]

D.A. Carson takes it a little further:  Do you ever say to a young Christian, ‘Do you want to know what Christianity is like? Watch me!’ If you never do, you are unbiblical.[3]

So whether or not you ever say, “imitate me” of “follow my example” we should all be aspiring to be the kind of people others could imitate and follow.

And let me tell you, there are people here within our church that are worthy of following.

Some have walked the deepest of times and offered an example of faith.

Some offer a godly model of financial stewardship.

Others offer a model of repentance and confession.

Service within the church.

Commitment to one’s family.

Commitment to one’s spouse.

Lived a life of chronic pain while consistently praising God and sharing their faith.

Godly and consistent example in the work place.

Having dealt with severe consequences of personal sin.

No one of us offers a model that anyone should follow all the time, but most of us have the ability to offer a model for someone to follow . . . whether it’s someone in the church or someone in your family.

Challies says so well: as a father, I wish to model a life that my children can imitate. I wish to be able to say to them, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” I want them to see in me a life of godliness that they want to imitate. I want them to see and to know that I love God best and first and that I love Him more than anything or anyone else. I want them to know that nothing will come between myself and Him. I want them to see and to know that I love my wife second only to God—that she is and will always be my closest companion, my best friend, and that nothing and no one will come between myself and her. If forced to choose between my wife and any other person, I will always choose her. And I want them to know that I love them deeply and dearly, that I love Christ’s people the church, and that I love my neighbor as myself. I want them to imitate me.

And yet in many ways I do not want them to imitate me. As my children they see my sin more clearly than anyone. They see those areas in which I refuse to submit to God and they see the sins that constantly plague me. They may see me at my best, but they also see me at my worst. I know that if I am to be able to say to them “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” I will have to make many changes to my life. Were they to imitate me now, they would imitate far too many flaws, far too many sins.

And yet I do want them to be able to imitate me in the ways that I imitate Christ. I see no way of accomplishing this—of accomplishing my goal of being one they can imitate—but by being a student of the Word, by having my heart and my life shaped continually by the very Word of God. And maybe, if God is gracious to me, I will someday be able to say to them, when they wonder how they are to serve Christ in this world, “Be imitators of me.” And God will be glorified.

A Spiritual Father Reproduces His Faith in Others

1 Corinthians 4:17 (ESV) 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.

First, Notice how Paul follows up his statement “be imitators of me” with the fact that he is going to send Timothy.  Wouldn’t it seem to make more sense to say that he is going to come himself if he desires for them to imitate him?

The reality is that the believers in Corinth could imitate Paul by imitating Timothy . . . because Paul had reproduced his faith, walk, and doctrine in Timothy.

Secondly, note that he sends Timothy to remind them of his ways.  Notice that he uses ways instead of teachings.  Of course his teachings were important, but the exhortation went further than that.  He wanted the outgrowth of that teaching to manifest itself in godly actions.

Way: as a manner of living and acting way of life, type of conduct[4]

Reproducing your faith in someone goes way beyond you reproducing your knowledge in someone.  While it is important for us all to verbalize the truths of God’s Word, it is important to offer wise counsel from the principles of God’s Word . . . but it is vital that we model how to live out God’s Word.  We are to model a walk with Christ and assist in others in doing the same.

A Spiritual Father Acknowledges God’s Oversight

As we come to verse 18 we enter into three verses concerning the arrogance of some of these Corinthians believers.  Somehow this arrogance is tied in their view of him coming or not.  In the middle of these 4 verses he includes a simple but meaningful phrase . . . “If the Lord wills.”  We’ll look more at these 4 verses in a moment, but let’s just take a moment to acknowledge this simple phrase . . . “If the Lord wills.”

1 Corinthians 4:19 (ESV) 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.

Fee:  Paul’s previous experiences of promising a return but having “Satan hinder” him (1 Thess 2:18), plus his own untoward circumstances in Ephesus (15:31-32; 16:9), have made him properly cautious.  He plans to come; but his plans are always subject to the divine will.[5]

Paul acknowledges that there are things present in his life that may not allow him to do what he has planned.

1 Thessalonians 2:18 (ESV) because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.

1 Corinthians 16:8–9 (ESV) But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, 9 for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

Therefore, if the Lord wills, he will come to them.

A Spiritual Father Recognizes the Spiritual Battle at Hand

So then, let’s take a deeper look at verses 18-21 and this discussion about Paul coming and the arrogance of the Corinthian believers.

1 Corinthians 4:18–21 (ESV) 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 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. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

(1)  Let’s wrap our minds around the phrase, “some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.” What does Paul mean here?  How does their view of his coming or not reveal arrogance on their part?

Garland:  Their arrogant self-importance is like that of little children who have the house to themselves when the parents have slipped out for a minute.[6]

Some of the hurtful teachers within the Corinthian church community had lifted themselves up as authorities within the church – likely with little fear of Paul coming to put them in their place – because Paul had been gone for a while and wasn’t likely to come back soon.  Anders writes in his commentary, “In Paul’s absence, these members of the church had become bold in their stances. They had probably grown confident in their opposition to Paul, assuming he would never return to challenge them.”[7]

So Paul takes a brief moment to remind them that he will be coming soon.  They need to be careful because they will soon have to deal with him . . . but he’s careful to not make it about having to deal with him but instead having to reveal whether or not their ministries were all talk or not.

(2)  Paul makes a distinction between their talk and their power.

Garland:  To use a Texas idiom, Paul implies that these arrogant persons are “all hat and no cattle.”[8]

1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (ESV) 1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

(3)  Paul then acknowledges the potential manner in which he may need to come – either with the rod or in a spirit of gentleness.

It’s worth nothing that Paul’s intent is not to communicate that the rod is unloving.  Either way he’s going to come in love, but the manner of his coming is dependent on them – whether he comes with the rod or with a spirit of gentleness.

Barrett:  Certainly, if Paul comes armed with a rod, he will nevertheless come in love, for love must sometimes wield a rod.  The question is whether love is to be expressed in gentleness or in violence, and this will depend not on Paul’s mood but on the Corinthian response to his admonition.[9]


In conclusion, let me remind us all of the full portrait of a spiritual father that is presented to us here by Paul . . .

A Spiritual Father Admonishes Without Shaming.

A Spiritual Father’s love is based on position not actions.

A Spiritual Father is motivated by love not approval.

A Spiritual Father embraces his role of authority.

A Spiritual Father Offers a Model to Follow

A Spiritual Father Reproduces His Faith in Others

A Spiritual Father Acknowledges God’s Oversight

A Spiritual Father Recognizes the Spiritual Battle at Hand

First, be encouraged that God, our Father, is all these things for us as his children . . . and secondly, let’s consider how we can better live out this portrait of a spiritual father for both our children and towards others around us.



[2] Tim Challies,

[3] D.A. Carson, The Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days, Christian Focus.

[4] Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Vol. 4, p. 277).

[5] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 191.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 148.

[7] Anders, Holman New Testament Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians, 65. Kindle Edition.

[8] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 148.

[9] Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 119.


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