Please open your bibles this morning to 1 Corinthians chapter 4. The text to which I’d like to focus our attention this morning is found in the end of chapter 4 of 1st Corinthians.
Paul has been correcting the Corinthian church for their inflated view of themselves. They were acting in appropriately, blinded by their sin, like we discussed last week, and were living wrongly because of it.
Which is always what happens. We get a wrong view of things, either our situation or ourselves, and that leads us to act wrongly. And as we will see again this morning, Paul reveals, even in a slightly comical way, the absurdity of the Corinthian believers’ thinking.
But as we press into the text, and let the text press into us, we will also see how our thinking can be obscured, how we can have blind spots, how we can let the world and the devil lull us into a stupor of comfort and smugness that undermines the gospel and can destroy the church.
Let’s begin by reading first our text this morning. We’ll start reading in verse 6 for context, and then focus on verses 8 through the end of the chapter. 1 Corinthians 4:
6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 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. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 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. 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?
We will study our text this morning through three words: Irony, Imitation, and Instruction. Irony, Imitation, and Instruction.
Let’s start by looking at verses 8-13 and noting Paul’s use of Irony. Paul’s use of irony.
Paul’s language in the beginning of this passage is overflowing with biting irony. He’s describing the Corinthians in ways that are over the top, even sarcastic we might say, to reveal the fact that they have the they have a huge blind spot. They have become smug, satisfied with themselves, and prideful in their comfortable positions.
The situation is similar to what God says to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3: “you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The congregations in Laodicea and in Corinth had huge blind spots. They weren’t seeing their position and their status rightly, because they were blinded by pride.
And this warning from Paul isn’t just for a particular church in Greece 2 thousand years ago. It is a warning for us as well. Church history is full of once-thriving, effective, vibrant churches that are now gone. You won’t find the church of Ephesus today, the one to whom Paul wrote his letter. Around the world, Satan must get great pleasure in seeing many, once-thriving church buildings are now museums, or concert venues. Or, much worse, you can find some previously-faithful congregations, now explicitly denying the gospel, and are houses of pagan worship.
For example, you can pull up the website for Jonathan Edward’s church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and you’ll see rainbow flags and proud talk of inclusivity. Imagine, the church of probably the best theologian America has produced, now boasting of its damnable gospel proclaimed the woman filling Edwards’s pulpit. I could give you dozens of other examples of once thriving and faithful congregations that are now dazzlingly corrupted.
The implosion of churches like that one didn’t happen overnight. But it can happen in the course of a single generation, history warns us. No church is immune to this arrogant wandering. No church is immune to its blind spots, and we need to be careful.
That’s the danger that the Corinthian church was in. Now lets jump in and see exactly What Paul says:
“Already you have all you want,” he says. Already you are rich. Indeed, without us you’ve even begun your reign as kings. Oh, that we might share in such a reign.
Paul’s language here is not merely sarcastic, it’s even satirical. He’s using that wonderfully incisive, but often dangerous tool of sarcasm to expose. To reveal the insanity of what they were doing.
And what were they doing? They were acting like they had arrived. They were acting as if heaven was already here on earth. Like they possessed heavenly wisdom and were above the suffering of this age. They had it all figured out. They were strong. They were feasting. They were above the fray and the strife and the pain of life. They were kings.
But Paul chides them by reminding them of his position. He was a fool. He was weak. He was starving. He was slaving away with his hands. And he even says that he was like a man headed to the arena, which is language the Corinthians would immediately understand.
When a Roman general would victoriously return from Battle, he would enter into town through a glorious new arch that was dressed with beautiful garlands. And there would be a giant parade with musicians and dancers and all sorts of fanfare.
The general would ride in first, then his colonels and lieutenants, then the infantry and the rest of the soldiers, carrying all the spoils of war. Then what remained of the defeated army would be marched through in chains and humiliated. Then finally, at the end of the line, were the lowest, the slaves, whom everybody present knew would be destined for death inside the coliseum or the arena, where they would face the lions and the gladiators. That’s what Paul compares himself to: somebody destined to die as worthless in the eyes of the world, as the scum of the earth, he calls himself.
The blind spot of the Corinthians was that they considered such a position, such a status, as beneath them. But Paul challenges their thinking by saying that such a lowly position in the eyes of the world, is exactly what the Christian life is all about.
The Corinthian church was in danger, and Morningview is in danger, of thinking that we have arrived. Like we’re above the fray. Like we’re so holy, like we’re so comfortable and rich, that we’re like kings. And when we do that, we not only deceive ourselves, but we obscure the gospel with the American dream, and we can make people feel like they don’t fit in here, and therefore the gospel must not be for them.
If I am an outsider, and I’m really struggling with sin or really suffering in this life, and I walk into Morningview, what do I see? Do I see a congregation of once-lost sinners who now humbly know that every bit of their standing is because of grace alone? Or do I see a congregation so polished and proper that they could never relate to me in my suffering and sin? Do I see a congregation of smug triumphalists who think they have it all together, and whom can’t see their blind spot right in front of their face, and whom therefore could never relate to me?
We need to be warned by Paul’s words, and consider our ways. Indeed, that leads neatly to Paul’s next exhortation, which is my second point: Paul’s call to imitate him, particularly in suffering. The call to imitate Paul in his suffering.
Look again at verse 14: “14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless[b] guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent[c] you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ”
Paul appeals to them as their spiritual father, as the one who saw them come to faith, as the one who brought them the gospel initially.
And he gives to his spiritual children a humble reminder that his position is worthy of imitation because he is suffering for Christ. They were disdaining him for his suffering, for his laboring with his own hands, which the Greek world thought was for slaves, rather than them instead being slaves for Christ. They were disdaining Paul for his poverty, rather than him sharing in their imagined own riches.
But the call of Christ is instead a call to suffer. To pick up our cross. To join Christ in His sufferings. Paul is reminding them again of the cross.
It’s as if Paul is saying to the Corinthians, Remember what Isaiah said about our savior, about our suffering servant, “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, [acquainted] with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not (Is. 53:2b-3).
Paul testifies later to the Philippians that he wants to experience not only the power of Christ’s resurrection, but also the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Indeed, he … writes to the Christians in Rome and tells them that believers are ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:17).’ [Thus,] if Paul insists he is a model for others, telling them to imitate him, it is because he himself follows the example of Christ.”
So to summarize, Paul’s theology informing his understanding of suffering is guided by a few keep points. First, we follow a suffering messiah. All the future promises of reigning and ruling, promises of the new heavens and new earth do not negate the necessary fact that as we proclaim the good news of the gospel we are called to be fools, to suffer, in the eyes of the world for the sake of Christ. We’re called to take up our cross, until the end of the age, and daily die to our own self-interests and our own desires, in order to faithfully follow our suffering messiah. There is no other way to follow Jesus, because to imitate Jesus and to imitate Paul, is to imitate them in suffering.
And secondly, this call to suffering is a call for leaders to suffer especially. Christian leaders are not like the generals of this world who call the shots from behind the safety of the front lines, and whom ride in the front of glorious parades.
Rather, Christian leaders lead by leading the charge. They are the frontline people, the tip of the spear. And they lead by example as much as by word. To praise a form of leadership that despises suffering is therefore to deny the basic understanding the Christian life.
And a third principle we can draw from Paul’s understanding of suffering, is that all Christians are called to this vision of a suffering life and a suffering view of discipleship. That’s why Paul says he sent Timothy in verse 17, “to remind [them, the Corinthian believers] of MY WAY OF LIFE in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s call to imitation is for every believer, and it is a call that entails suffering.
We must recognize that this view of the Christian life is foreign to much of our world today. We don’t like to suffer. We avoid it all costs. We medicate it, or we ignore it, or we distract ourselves from it, and try to act as if it not there. We tend live lives that are generally comfortable. We have decent medical care. We don’t often, if ever, have to worry about our safety or our next meal. We don’t live in fear of our lives being taken from us. And because of these blessings, we can be tempted to think that we have arrived. We can slip into a Corinthian mindset that the not yet blessings of heaven are somehow here already. Sadly, we act like this world is our home.
But Paul’s words remind us of who we follow. If the world crucified our master, will they not treat us the same way? If Christ suffered, why do we expect any better?
And that’s exactly the message that we need to hear. The message of a Christ that came and suffered. He was mocked and ridiculed in our place, and yet he remained faithful. He was poor and meek, and yet he was elevated to the place of honor by the Father. He was whipped and beaten for our sins, so that we can be spared the death that we deserved.
We in our pride think that we have arrived, and don’t have anything to learn. But Hebrews 5 reminds us that Christ learned obedience through his sufferings. He learned, because we were too prideful to listen and obey. He suffered, because we were unwilling to suffer. He endured pain, because we were too busy inflicting pain on others through our sin.
And because he was faithful as a son, faithful to suffer, faithful to become despised by the world, we have been granted forgiveness and life. We can come, merely by faith, and taste of rewards. We can have the blessing of eternal life, if we would imitate him, and come simply by faith to believe in his message, the foolish message of the cross, and become despised by the world. If we would imitate him, we too can have all things. We too can have life and honor and glory, but we must first die to ourselves and trust in him.
Have you imitated this Christ, our suffering servant? Have you renounced your pride, become a fool in the eyes of the world, and submitted yourself to a life of suffering? If you have, then don’t fall for the Corinthian temptation to believe that suffering is beneath you or somehow foreign to the Christian life. Resolve again to suffer for the sake of Christ, to die to yourself and your desires and your comfort, so that Christ might be made all in all by your life.
And if you have not come to Christ, then hear of this suffering servant. Hear of his love. How he came to die in the place of sinners who cared only about their own comfort. How he came to suffer for those who sought their own glory. How he became nothing, so that in him we might have all things. Come and believe, take on his yoke, which is light he says, but comes with inevitable suffering, knowing that this yoke of suffering in this age will become for you a crown of glory in the next.
For if you remain in your stubbornness, and retain your prideful position of judge, then you will see that your arrogant despising of Christ earns for you an eternal weight of judgment in hell. Don’t wait any longer. Hear this message of the cross, which the world considers foolish and contemptable, but once embraced by faith, will be for you the path of life and glory. Imitate him, and in imitating him, you too will share in his eternal rewards.
Third, and finally, we’ve seen Paul’s use of irony and Paul’s call for imitation. Now let’s look at verses 18-21 and see Paul’s instruction. Paul’s instruction. And his instruction is two-fold for us: instruction toward humility, and instruction by faithful example. Let’s at Verse 18 and see his instruction toward humility:
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?
In most institutions in this fallen world, there is usually a small group of people who exert a disproportionately large influence over everyone else. And it seems like that is what is going on in Corinth. Some of the troublemakers in Corinth were apparently arguing that Paul was bold in his letters, when he was absent from, but that he was timid when he was present with them. We know that from what he says in 2 Corinthians 10.
These arrogant ones were assuming the position of self-appointed judges and were messing up the works in Paul’s absence. And they were banking on Paul not coming back. But Paul is coming back, and he says, to translate it literally, that he will find out, “not the word of these arrogant people, but their power.” To understand this threat, we need to remember the situation.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul explains how they had become enamored with the “wisdom of words,” words which empty the cross of its power. They were intoxicated with a form of speech and rhetoric that flaunted its eloquence, which had become more important to them than the gospel itself. But when Paul comes, he won’t care about their flashy rhetoric. He wants to know what power they have, which we know from earlier texts, is nothing.
Their eloquence has no power to change, no power to forgive, no power to transform men and women from wretched sinners into saints of God. Winsome rhetoric never won a single soul from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear son. Their pride in their own ability, should instead be humble gratitude to God for his grace.
Mere talk won’t change people, only the gospel can. So Paul is asking for their credentials: What people have been born again by your eloquence? How many have been saved by your savvy speech? Paul is going to expose them for the empty, religious windbags that they are, to quote DA Carson.
Contrary to this empty speech, Paul is going to come with power, the power of the gospel. And here we find another instructive example, an example again worthy of imitation. Paul is going to come and preach a consistent Christian message of the gospel, a gospel of a suffering messiah, and his mission is so important that he will not swerve from his goal. He will encourage and admonish the arrogant Corinthians. And if severer discipline is needed, he will not flinch.
What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
He doesn’t mean that if he comes with the rod that he does not love them. The contrast refers not to differing motives, but to the manner or form of his coming. Spankings are painful, even from a father who loves his children. But it is much better for the son to change his behavior so that the father can then come not with painful corrective disciple, but rather in a spirit of gentleness.
So, the instruction and his example to us are clear: Christian leaders of any type, are called to faithfulness in correction, even if it is unpleasant. Indeed, this is connected to the call for suffering mentioned earlier. Christian leaders of every kind, whether as pastors, or as parents, or as church members, are called to vigilance in their responsibility to lead the people of God to live as they should.
That’s why Paul will tell the Ephesians to live a life worth of the calling they have received, and he tells the Colossians to live a life worthy of the Lord, the crucified messiah (Col. 1:10). And if the people of God dig in their heels in disobedience, there may come a time for these Christian leaders to admonish, to rebuke, to perhaps even discipline firmly those to take the name of Christ but do not care to follow him. [That’s where he’s going in Chapter 5, to church discipline]. Those sterner steps must never be taken hastily or lightly. But sometimes they must be taken. This is part of the responsibility of Christian leadership.
So, the application for us is clear. As leaders, are we taking our role seriously? Are we willing to have the unpleasant conversations, to gently rebuke or admonish, when needed, for the sake of the good of our brothers and sisters? As parents, are we faithful to warn our children, to even apply corrective discipline if persistent sinful behavior remains? As a church, are we mature enough to love, even through church discipline and excommunication, when someone claims the name of Christ but will not reject worldly behavior?
We must resolve to lead, to train, to encourage and rebuke and admonish, and to even discipline those whom we love. That’s what a loving father does. He doesn’t let his children in the faith continue down a path that leads to their own destruction. He warns. He pleads. He beckons. He even acts to correct. That’s Paul’s example, and that’s ours to imitate.
But we don’t often want to imitate him in this way. We can find ourselves too lazy or too comfortable, to bother with the hard work of faithful discipleship. Or perhaps we’re fearful, fearful of having a hard conversation, or giving a necessary rebuke.
But praise be to God that Christ was faithful in our place. He wasn’t an idle bridegroom who let his bride continue down the path of sin and death. He rose, and he acted. He came and took on the uncomfortable life of obedience, for the good of his bride. But he didn’t first come with a rod. He came and instead suffered the rod that we all deserved. He bore the death that each of us had earned. He took the punishment that all mankind had earned, and he carried it to the cross.
He died, as if he were the unrepentant son, the son who stubbornly chose sin, rather than righteousness. And because he willingly bore that suffering, we can be forgiven. We can be washed of our laziness and inaction. We can be cleansed of our selfishness and our fear.
That’s the gospel that shows us his love, that makes us lovely, and that propels us to act out of love for the sake of others. If Christ was willing to do so much so that you might be made right, how could we not lovingly act to correct others of the same sins? If he was willing to bear our discipline, our sentence of death, how could we not be willing to suffer to rescue others from their path of sin and their sentence of death?
May we be ever-willing to do the hard work of lovingly warning and correcting others, properly and humbly of course, as scripture directs us, for their good, and out of love for the God who has brought us where we are.
And if you still are stubborn, refusing to hear this message of the gospel, then hear in Paul’s warning the warning of Christ himself. Christ is speaking to you through his word now, warning you to humble yourself and submit to him. But if you will not hear his words now, then know that Christ will come. And Jesus will not send Timothy in his place, but will come himself. And he will not come merely with a rod of discipline. Scripture says that he will come with a sword of judgment. He will return and he will judge all those who rejected his offer of salvation.
Don’t wait until it is too late, until that final day of judgment. Come today and believe. Any sinner is welcome to come and believe. None of you is too far gone, too prideful, or too stubborn. Christ can forgive any and all that would come to him. Trust in that Christ. Hear his message of the cross, how he was the suffering servant in the place of his people, and how he willing bore the discipline that they deserved. Know him, trust him, and be made one with him, lest he come not in a spirit of gentleness, but in a spirit of judgment.
 DA Carson, “The Cross and Christian Ministry,” Baker: 1993, 106. What follows is also adapted from Carson.
 “The Cross and Christian Ministry,” 113. Much of this point is adapted or comes from Carson.