Study Notes for I Corinthians 4:14-21 (click here for Study Sheet)
Paul has been emphasizing (with some sarcasm) the fact that he and the other apostles have been enduring relentless hardships while the Corinthian church has been sidetracked into pursuing material prosperity and dividing themselves into competing factions. They are acting haughty and immature.
"I am not writing this to shame you," he tells the Corinthians, "but to warn you, as my dear children."
Elsewhere Paul does admonish the believers in order to stimulate shame. In I Cor. 6:5, for instance, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for taking each other to court to have a worldly judge rule between them. "I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?" he says.
Again in I Cor. 15:34 he says, "Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God-I say this to your shame."
In these and other instances Paul wanted these young believers to realize they were behaving inappropriately for Christ-followers. He wanted them to feel embarrassment and contrition. He wanted them to see in bold relief the difference between what they were doing and what they could experience as chosen people who were one in Christ.
In I Cor. 4, however, his sarcasm is not intended to bring shame. In this instance he is contrasting the Corinthians' shallow experience with his and the other apostles' life-threatening commitment to the gospel. "I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you"
The Greek word translated "warn" in the NIV is translated elsewhere, including in the NASB, as "admonish". "I amwritingto admonish you, as my dear children." Paul wants them to see what they're really doing. They're living superficial, self-centered lives, while he, their spiritual father, is suffering nearly to the point of death. In fact, by splitting themselves into factions and rallying around different spiritual leaders, they have lost sight of the gospel foundation Paul laid when he first preached to them. They have also forgotten that Paul is their spiritual father. He first brought the gospel to them; he grounded them in Christ's love; he cared for them and gave them his spiritual legacy.
"Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ," he writes, "you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel." They have forgotten who they are; they have stopped observing how Paul lives as a Christ-follower and have started living to please themselves.
A Father's Love
Implicit in Paul's wake-up call to the Corinthians are his feelings of responsibility and love for them. Because he brought them to their new birth, he sees himself as responsible to nurture them and to help them grow. When he calls himself their father in Christ, he means that literally. It's not just a metaphor. He sees himself as passing on to them the example of how to live in Christ. "I urge you to imitate me," he tells them, just as a father might say to his children.
The "ten thousand guardians in Christ" of whom he speaks will watch the Corinthians and admonish them and even help them in their new lives as believers, but they will not, Paul insists, be fathers to them. A guardian will not pursue and love and challenge them as he will. A guardian will not expect as much from them as he will.
Because he wants the Corinthians to imitate him, he's sending his "son", Timothy. Timothy, he tells them, will remind them of Paul's "way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church." Paul doesn't expect different things from the different churches. Living in Christ is the unchanging foundation of life no matter how lives differ. Paul is calling them to lives of integrity and spiritual consistency.
Arrogance vs. Authority
Forgetting their spiritual heritage was not the Corinthians' only problem. Some of them had "become arrogant." With Paul out of sight, some of them began undercutting him and suggesting that he was unstable. (see I Cor. 9:1-3; II Cor. 1:17; II Cor. 10:10) But he reminded them that he was planning to come and see them personally. "I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have," he tells them.
Arrogance cannot walk hand-in-hand with Christ. Part of the seduction of arrogance is that it poses as authority. But the problem with its "authority" is that it condescends and shames those under its power. Arrogance masquerades as wisdom and knowledge, but in reality it masks pride and disdain. It's the disguise of an unrepentant heart.
Paul said he would come not only to see how those "arrogant people" were talking but also to see "what power they have." The power of arrogance is not the power of the Holy Spirit. Arrogance gets its way by being a bully. The Holy Spirit brings true power-the power of Jesus, the love of His servant's heart.
Jesus had true authority. He "taught as one who had authority" (Mt 7:29); he had "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Mt 28:18); people were amazed at his teaching because it had authority (Luke 4:32); he had authority to lay down his life and authority to take it up again (John 10:18).
The arrogance which Paul addressed was divisive. It was critical and demeaning (see I Cor. 9:1-3; II Cor. 1:17 & 10:10) It destroyed reputations. It did not have true authority.
The kingdom of God, Paul asserts, "is not a matter of talk but of power." True power, the power of God, brings grace and justice; mercy and discipline. True power is compelling and convicting because it operates on the authority of God. True power is not demeaning or manipulative as is arrogance; rather it bears redemption, truth, and love.
Paul doesn't want to come to the Corinthians bearing criticism and discipline. He wants them to decide to lay their arrogance and materialism and shallowness before God and let him change them. He wants them to take the initiative to be accountable for their attitudes and actions. He wants to visit them, when he comes, in "love and with a gentle spirit."
Learn from Weakness
We can learn from the Corinthians' weaknesses. God wants us to remember our true foundation in him. The pure gospel of Jesus Christ is what our lives build on. If we get caught up in anything else and take our eyes off that central truth, we will become powerless and arrogant.
We belong to Jesus. He is our power, and he is our authority. As members of the kingdom of God we are called to live in his power. We have to stop arguing, gossiping, and showing off our knowledge and intelligence. We have to confess the unconscious arrogance of our past and ask his Spirit to live in us instead.
God calls us to truth and openness. He calls us to speak his words. He does not want us to slide into pride or feelings of superiority. Jesus asks us to rest in him. He asks us to trust him in quietness and peace.
When we allow Jesus to enter our hearts, there's no more room for arrogance. Jesus will temper our rough edges until we increasingly look like him.
The Holy Spirit will give us authority, and we will move in our wold bearing Love.
We will be Jesus' hands and heart to each other.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 23, 2000.