1 Corinthians 4:1-21 | I Urge You To Imitate Me

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I Urge You To Imitate Me

1 Corinthians 4:1-21

Key Verse 4:15-16

“Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.”

The Corinthian Christians were divided on issues of leadership, over which of the Apostles to follow. But Paul gives them sound advice on how to resolve such issues, so that they might unite and begin to grow as individuals and as a church— and by that— to also become a fruit bearing church. Paul teaches them what it is to be a servant of Christ, and someone they should not put on a pedestal but rather imitate his life of servantship to Christ and to them. He teaches them that the kingdom of God— and the Christian life— is not a matter of talk but of power.

Read verse 1. “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.” By “men” Paul meant the Corinthian church members who were divided on issues of which preacher to follow. And by “us”, he meant the very apostles and preachers over whom they were divided. And he starts by teaching them how to have the right view of all those over whom they were divided on. And his words are indeed very interesting. He says “Here’s how you should regard us. In other words, here is how you should view us apostles and preachers.” You ought to regard us as servants of Christ, he tells them. In other words, if we are God’s servants, then you should not measure us by human standards, as if we were servants of men. Paul and Apollos, those who had given them the gospel cannot be regarded or measured by human standards. Consequently they cannot be judged by human standards. They are to be regarded as servants of Christ, as servants who belong to Christ, whom Christ has chosen for his own purpose, and who has approved them and set them up to serve his purpose and his purpose alone.

Paul and Apollos were different in many ways. And it seems to have been easy to distinguish them and compare them and judge them accordingly. One may have been well dressed and the other disheveled. One may have been eloquent and vibrant in speech, while the other’s speech was slow and choppy. They were different. But they were chosen by God and used by God to serve his purpose. And that is how the Corinthian Christians should regard them, as servants of Christ. As such they did not belong to the church nor the members, nor to the elders nor to the deacons of the church, but they belong to God. They obey God and do the work of God. And they must be viewed as such. They must not judge them. They must not compare them. They must not play favorites with them. Paul was teaching these infant Christians who were not growing one of the secrets of growing spiritually.

Look at verse 1 again. Paul taught them to regard all those who bring the message of the Christ to others as servants of Christ who have been entrusted with the secret things of God. The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that the secret things of God, that were once upon a time mysteries, have now become known, for God had revealed them. And what God has already revealed in the New Testament is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus— the greatest mystery of mysteries. It was the secret mystery that God loves all men, and that God wills no one to perish, but that God had therefore, provided a way for all men to be saved, and is through our Lord Jesus. The mystery that Jesus did not come to rescue the Jews alone but also the Gentiles has been one of the greatest revelations of God Almighty. And God had commissioned his servants everywhere to bring the Gospel of life to all men, even unto the Gentiles. Paul was one of those men commissioned to bring the Gospel to the Gentile world. He crossed into Europe against his own will, but by the will of God, and began a Gospel work so mighty and powerful that the whole world heard about it. When he arrived at Corinth, the city was utterly debauched. But Paul obeyed the will of God and preached there as he had been directed. And many Gentiles received the Gospel. And through faith in Christ, they had received eternal life into the Kingdom of God.

Paul had been entrusted with this Gospel. He had gone to Corinth not as a free lancer, with personal agenda nor with a self serving motive. He had gone there by the will of God. He was one of those servants entrusted with this mystery and revealed it to the Corinthians with a heart of a father who wants to see his sick children recover from a deadly illness. God did not entrust just anybody with the message of the Gospel of life. But he entrusted Paul. And he entrusted it to Apollos, and to Cephas and to others who had taken up the banner of the Gospel and had given it to dying men everywhere. “So”, he said, “Men” meaning you Corinthian Christians, “ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.” When men boast about such men, they show that they do not regard these men with the respect and the honor due them. They reveal that they do not regard them as servants of Christ, entrusted with the Gospel of life. They reveal that they rather regard them as competitors who are striving for some human recognition or some reward. (5) Paul was not striving for anything except the praise of God who had entrusted him with the Gospel message and sent him to bring it to those Corinthians. If these Corinthians had striven to mature spiritually, they would have regarded Paul and Apollos and anyone else who carries the Gospel message as servants of Christ— servants whose intent is no more than to deliver what they had been entrusted with to those who would receive it. Then there wouldn’t have been a division among them, but surely a unity of heart and mind staid on Christ.

We too ought to regard those who carry the Good News of Christ as servants of Christ, not as our servants. They must do what God would have them do. They must obey the Lord rather than take sides in church squabbles that divide the church and make a mockery of the Gospel of God’s grace. We too ought to regard them as those entrusted with the secret things of God that are no longer secrets when the Bible is studied with reverence and with intent to reform our ways and bend our hearts to the Lord’s. When members of a church begin to judge God’s servants according to human standards of performance, appearance, knowledge, ability and wisdom and such, the church weakens and gives foot to the devil who is eager to divide and set God’s people one against another.

Read verse 2. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” Paul wanted them to have the right view of God’s servants such as himself and Apollos. But he did not require them to regard him as such without a proof of who he truly was. He would not have them regard him as a servant of Christ, if he did not have that which identifies him as a true servant of Christ. So Paul taught them what God requires when one is entrusted with the very message of salvation. God had required him to be faithful, trustworthy. The hidden question seems to be, has he? Has he been faithful, and trustworthy with what he had been entrusted with? Certainly Paul has, and so has Apollos as well, and every one of those servants who had served them with the word of life. Paul’s answer is found in verses 3-5. “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”

Paul didn’t need to prove himself to them. They were the very proof of his apostleship, his servantship, his obedience to the Master, his labor in the Lord, his message of life which he imparted to them, which they had believed and by which they had been transformed from the dominion of death and darkness to the dominion of light and life. Paul’s track record in faithfulness and trustworthiness is impeccable. His record is briefly stated in verses 8-13 where he states all that he has done and gone through in his faithfulness to deliver the trust— the message of life he was entrusted with to them. Of all the necessary requirements of those who are entrusted with the Gospel is “faithfulness” or “trustworthiness” as Paul tells us. Faithfulness is required. To be faithful, to be true to one’s calling, and to be true to the message entrusted to deliver. The requirement had not been eloquence, nor stature, nor good speech, nor popularity. It had not been humility nor gracefulness nor higher education. It had not been manner of speaking nor proficiency in languages, nor elegance or such. It had been faithfulness.

Our God is a faithful God. God who had promised to send the Savior to this world, had every opportunity in heaven and on earth to renege on his promise. His people were not worthy. They had been wayward, idolatrous, troublesome, annoying, unfaithful, etc. But God had ever remained faithful in all his dealing with them. Still, in spite of all things, he sent the Savior to save them from their sins. Not only that, but God had also promised long ago that even the Gentiles who had abandoned God and followed their own ways in life were to be given the privilege to return home to God. And in spite of all things, God remained faithful. He also entrusted men like Paul to deliver the message of salvation to them. Paul was Jew who had suffered much at the hands of the Gentiles. He could have resisted God’s will and refused to go the Corinthians with the Gospel message. But he was faithful. He was trustworthy. God had entrusted him with a tremendous task and Paul had proved faithful. That is the mark of a servant of God. Faithfulness is bending the will to the will of God. Faithfulness is remaining true to where God sends you and what God asks of you.

Look at verses 3-5. Paul was not hurt in the sense of when someone is hurt if and when he or she is not trusted. The Corinthians, whom he had given his life to serve with the message of life, had decided to split up into groups or cliques of those who followed him and of those who followed others such as Apollos and Cephas and such. More than that, those who had followed the other apostles were in fact saying that Paul was not good enough to follow, that he did not have what it takes to be a rightful apostle to follow. They were judging him. They were judging the other apostles as well. Paul should have been hurt by their presumption, by their betrayal of him. But he wasn’t. He tells us in these verses why. Her cares little if he is judged by them. He does not even judge himself. Even if he were an inferior apostle, he dares not judge himself. Because he leaves all judgment to almighty God, to the Lord himself who alone is worthy and qualified to judge his servants as well as the whole world. In their division, in choosing an apostle over another apostle, they had judged him. They had sinned against God by judging him, and by judging the other servants as well. Paul reflected that he is not moved by their judgment because he does not live in the sight of men but in the sight of God. He answers to God. He does what God would have him do. And now rather than being angered by them, he lovingly rebukes their judgment of him. We too must not judge but leave all judgments to God alone. We must not sin against God by favoring one man of God over another, by setting one man over another. Division came to the church at Corinthian when they presumed to judge those who had served them with the Gospel. Unity comes from living in the sight of God, as Paul did, not moved by what the world thinks of us, or what other men think of us. Unity comes when we determine to honor God and listen to his word rather than waste our time comparing servants or Bible versions.

Read verses 6-7. “Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” Now Paul explains to them why he has talked extensively about himself and the other apostles in this letter. He had compared human wisdom with spiritual wisdom. He had talked about those who plant and those who water the seeds. He had talked about how they ought to regard each servant of God, and the quality of faithfulness that is required of each servant. And Paul tells them that the reason he has done that, is to help them see the good example of those who serve the Gospel. Among themselves, Paul and Apollos do not compete nor do they criticize each other’s ministry. They do not argue about leadership and who is better qualified to teach or who is better equipped to lead a church. And they do not do that because of these simple words Paul is now teaching the Corinthians: “do not go beyond what is written.” Paul and the others had certainly lived by this counsel— not to go beyond what is written. What is written is the word of God, the word of life, the Bible. And we should not go beyond what is written in the Bible. In other words, Christians should not judge others or things by human or worldly standards. They must remain true and faithful to the word of God. They must use the word of God as the absolute standard for truth and for life. If they do, then they would not put one man over another. They would not favor Paul over Apollos.

Paul called it pride to favor one servant over and above another. The Corinthians had become proud judging one man over another. But they did not judge them by the word of God, they had judged them by the human standard. They were talking about eloquence and wisdom and speeches that titillate the mind. In that sense they had gone beyond the Scripture, beyond the word of God which never ever puts man at the center of things. Men and their achievements or their skills should never be at the center of things when it comes to the work of God. In verse 7 Paul explained why. When we do not go beyond the Bible and what is written in the Bible we realize something wondrous and absolute. We realize that whatever we or any servant of God has received did not come from us or from them, but came from God. And this is wisdom. To know that whatever we are, whether we are great speakers, or great teachers, or encouragers, or whatever gift we have, it all comes from God. And the Gospel of grace which Paul and the others brought them also comes from God. These apostles all had a sense of God’s grace, and of God’s providence. They knew that what they had did not come from them. That it has come from God. So they themselves never set themselves up against another. But Paul tells us that when the Corinthians went beyond the Bible, what is written, the result was arrogance and pride, which led to division. We must realize that our pride comes from going beyond what is written in the Bible. Our pride comes from using human measurements when only a spiritual measure needs be used. We must be humble, and humbleness comes from remaining true to what is written in the Bible. Humbleness comes when we know that whoever it may be, whatever we may or they may have, all comes from God— a cause for joy rather than a cause for pride.

Look at verses 8-13. “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings–and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

These verses are glorious demanding that we remain in them for a very long time in order to learn the wonders of apostleship life. To learn the wonders of what it takes to be a truly effective servant of God. To learn the level of commitment, the faithfulness, and the love of one who has been entrusted with the secret things of God, with the Gospel, and who has faithfully given the Gospel of life during his or her life. But we can’t in this lesson do so even though we should. But we ought to take a good look at what made Paul the man of God that he was. What he has suffered in the process of bringing the Gospel not only to the Corinthian Christians but also to the whole world. When we look at his track record, we realize that in a sense if the Corinthians who were judging him as inferior or superior or whatever they were judging him to be, if they would only stop for a moment to look at his life, and compare to his life, then they would put aside their ridiculous squabbles and their unfounded divisions, and their childish ways, and would learn instead to imitate him. Then the church would truly grow into a giant tree that can harbor all the lost children of God in the world. Actually his conclusion in verse 17 is to “imitate me”.

In other words, they had no idea what a servant of God goes through who is committed to serving the Gospel faithfully to those who are unworthy, by the command of God. If they did they would not have been in this situation, stagnant and arrogant and full of pride and following their own foolish and worldly ways. In these words, Paul tells us that what he did he did for Christ. He tells us that he lives like a man condemned to die. He is a spectacle for others to mock and to deride. He has become a fool for the Gospel and for Christ. he tells us that he is weak in his own eyes, that he often goes around hungry, and destitute, and persecuted. He is cursed yet he blesses. He is slandered and he endures it. He has literally become like the scum of the earth and the refuse of the world. And he became so willingly, because he stands to serve his Lord faithfully.

It is ridiculous how these Corinthian Christians have taken sides and rallied behind some of these apostles as if they were competing for an office or for praise and recognition— when the last thing on their were such things. From Paul’s words in these verses, we see how the Corinthian Christians had viewed themselves as better than even the apostles. They were once nothing before the Gospel reached them through Paul. But now they were behaving like kings, as if they were kings who had everything, even more than what the apostles had. Paul is deeply distressed when he was writing this. It seems as if it were mockery or sarcasm. But it comes from a father’s heart that is torn apart at his children’s folly and their irrational behavior. How could these who were wallowing in their sins not a few years ago, suddenly begin thinking they were better than Paul and the others? It is not very hard for us to understand this ourselves. Every church has men and women who think they know better than others, who think they have a better relationship with God than the others, who think they can do a better job than the others. And by their folly they remain weak and they weaken the church as well. The Corinthian church was full of such men and women who look down even on the speaker and the elder and the fellow brother and sister. We would be terribly foolish not to listen to Paul’s treatise on his apostleship, which humbles us and makes us give thanks to God that through his suffering we have gotten the Gospel in our hearts.

In verses 8-13, Paul truly laments those members who were tearing at the heart of the church with division and with their arrogance, and their worldly standards. But as a father, after chiding them with some truth, look at how he counsels them in verses 14-17. “I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”

There are many truths here that Paul wishes them to learn. He tells them that the reason he writes them as such is not to shame them. That is the first thing that comes to the mind of a childish and immature person when chided or rebuked or corrected. He or she thinks that the one chiding them is out to get them, or to shame them by pointing our their mistakes. Paul was not pointing out their mistakes. He is telling them all this, to remind them of who he is who is writing them. He is not one of the contenders for the throne of their hearts. He is not one of the competitors for the seat of honor in their church up against Apollos. He is not the one who is fishing for praise. He is rather their father in the faith. He was the one who had brought all of them the Gospel of life, when they were dying in their sins. And as their spiritual father, he has every right to speak to them words that would bring them back to their senses. He wanted to remind them of the way of his life. The way he lives as a disciple of Jesus and as an Apostle of Christ. He had been faithful to the Lord and he had been faithful to them. He had taught them the word of God, and had prayed for them. Then he had moved on to plant the Gospel message in other hearts. He had never competed with anyone. He had never wanted glory for himself. He had never asked for anything from them. And if they had forgotten how he lived by the message that the preached, well then, he would send them Timothy his son to remind them of all that they should already know. Timothy would vouch for Paul’s life and his message.

And Paul urged them to Imitate him, his life, his love for Christ, his humility, his tears for those who suffer, his commitment to the word of God and his commitment to the churches he had founded. He would have them imitate his love for Christ and for them. To imitate his heart so full of desire to grow more and more in Christ and to serve Christ more and more. Whom were they imitating in their arrogance and pride, in their division? Even those among them who claimed Paul to be their leader that they follow Paul, whom were they imitating since Paul never advocated one apostle over another, since Paul never divided a church by rank or prestige, or intellect, or speech or by anything else. Whom were they imitating when they had become so weak that the devil is ready to tear them apart and break down the divided church into oblivion? Whom were they imitating? They should imitate him as he imitates Christ. They should be eager to learn how to live the Christian life from the Scriptures and from the teachings and example of Paul. They must learn how Paul wastes no time in foolish arguments that mean nothing, and spends time in loving and serving God. And in loving and serving them. Paul’s words here really challenge us deeply. Whom are we imitating in life? The young generation, even those who belong to the church, know more about movie starts and sports people than Bible characters. They would rather imitate them in money loving, in their popularity, in their easy going life, in their freedom to do as they please. And they know so little about the life of a disciple which is marked by love and sacrifice. The older generations, even those who belong to Christ, who are they imitating in their every day life. We should heed Paul’s advice and imitate him, and follow Christ. Our heroes of faith should be those who have sacrificed themselves to advance the kingdom of God. These are truly worthy of imitating. Otherwise, we are no better than any worldly man or worldly Christian who speaks well in church and then goes out to imitate the world on the other six days of the week. I must challenge myself: “Who am I imitating in my life?”

Look at verses 19-21. Paul’s words here are very interesting. This is a call to compare what is truly from God and what is not. It is a call to compare what is truly the work of God and what is not. Apparently there were many talkers in the church. They talked well. They seemed to always have the right words to say. They had the right challenging questions to pose. They had confidence in their words, that with a few arguments they were able to promote one servant of God and crush another. They were good talkers, like those who know how to quote Scripture and the right verses to use in self defense and in attacking those who seemed to be lacking in knowledge and such. But Paul teaches us one truth not to forget. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. Paul is saying that he is not so much interested in talk, that talk is cheap. But what he is truly interested in is whether there is power in these talkers’ lives or not. The kingdom of God is a matter of power, it penetrates the heart. It changes the heart. It has the power to abolish sin and to bring peace and joy into the heart. It has the power to show love and to demonstrate life in sacrifice, in servantship, and in all that comes form the Holy Spirit working in and through the believer. That is what Paul was wanting to see. Anyone can talk even mimic what the Bible says. But not anyone can actually demonstrate the love and grace of God working through the message of life. Paul challenged them to check to see if their lives are powered by the Holy Spirit who is working to bless his kingdom. We need to know that talk is not effective. Mostly the wrong kind of talk brings division and doubt, and promotes jealousy and quarreling. But a life rooted in the Gospel, a life of imitating Christ spills blessing everywhere. It is full of power. Power to abolish all that divides and power to unite brothers and sisters in one cause that honors and glorifies God. May we imitate Christ. And may our lives be lives that reveal the power of God, and not just talk. Amen.

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