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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: Show Me
1 Corinthians 4:14 - 4:21
November 21, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
In our final message of our sermon series on 1 Corinthians, we explore the model, mode, and motivation for Christian mentorship.
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Homer's epic story, The Odyssey, opens 10 years after the conclusion of the Trojan War. All of the Greek heroes have returned from the battle, except Odysseus, who is still struggling to get back home. Meanwhile, a mob of suitors is devouring his estate and pursuing his wife, Penelope, and his son Telemachus is powerless to stop them. Telemachus was just an infant when Odysseus went off to war. Now he's grown up to become a young boy, but there's no one to lead him into adulthood. No one that is until Mentor, an old friend of his father's, shows up in his life. It turns out that Mentor is actually Athena, the goddess of wisdom in disguise, and she coaches Telemachus on how to become a young prince. She encourages him to be more assertive. Upon Mentor's advice, Telemachus banishes the suitors from his father's estate, and then engages in a quest of his own in order to find news about his dad, whom he previously thought was dead, but has now learned is still alive. The ancient Greeks understood that you will never become the person that you're destined to be without friends and mentors in your life in order to show you the way. Many of us would probably say, “You know what, that's exactly what is missing. I need a coach. I need someone to show me how to do life. I don't need more information, what I'm looking for is transformation. How do I actually grow and change?” If you've ever thought about that, or wondered about it, then I'm happy to tell you that that is the specific theme that we find in the passage before us.
Over the last several weeks, we have been doing a very close study of the opening four chapters of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and in this sermon we bring that series to a conclusion. Here we see that Paul introduces us to a very specific form of mentorship. He shows us what a Christian mentor is and is not. He provides us with the model, the mode, and the motivation for a Christian mentor. We might think it would be great to have Athena, the goddess of wisdom, as a mentor in our life, but no, Paul says we've got something better. If you'd like, let me encourage you to open up a Bible to 1 Corinthians 4. I'll be reading v.14-21,
14I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17That 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. 18Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19But 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. 20For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
If you're joining us for the first time, let me get you caught up to speed and provide you with a little background. The Apostle Paul first founded this church in the Greek city of Corinth around the year 50 AD, and he was followed by his colleague, Apollos, who nurtured and developed this fledgling congregation. After Paul and Apollos both left and went back to Ephesus, other leaders slipped in, and they arrogantly suggested that Paul and Apollos might have gotten the Christians in Corinth started out on the right path, but they didn't take them deep enough. The reason was because Paul's message was too basic. It was child's play. They considered it baby stuff. These leaders claimed that they could help the Christians in Corinth take the next step in their spirituality. Yet as it turns out, we find that rather than soaring to new heights, this church in Corinth continued to hit new lows. Why was that? It was because the ministry of the so-called leaders proved to be not only divisive, but destructive because they were creating little cliques within the community with themselves at the center. This led to all kinds of infighting, and such immature and dysfunctional behavior that the church was now in danger of collapse. So the Apostle Paul dashes off a letter from the city of Ephesus in order to try to prevent this church from imploding. The encouragement to us today is that if God can turn around a church in the first century that was a complete mess, then he can do it again in the 21st century.
What I love about the passage that is before us is that it reveals to us the very heart of the Apostle Paul. As we've seen, Paul has had some stern things to say in these opening four chapters. He's had to address a number of serious issues with major potential consequences, but at the beginning of this passage, in v.14, he says he's written these things not to shame the Christians in Corinth. That's rather striking coming from Paul. He's writing in a honor shame society. He says that he's written these things not to shame them—shame is never a good motivator—but rather, he's written these stern things in order to admonish them, to warn them, because he regards them as his beloved children. Then in v.15, he proceeds to present himself as a mentor to the Christians in Corinth, but he has a very specific model for what a mentor should be. This comes out in v.15 when he says, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.” Perhaps a better, more literal translation of what he says is, for though you have countless babysitters in Christ, you do not have many fathers.
The word that he uses in Greek is the word “pedagogue,” and that word had a negative connotation. In ancient Greco Roman society, a pedagogue was someone who was perhaps a household slave, maybe a hired servant, but their primary responsibility was to accompany a child, usually a young boy, to and from school and keep an eye on that child whenever the parents were absent. The pedagogue not only provided protection, it was also the pedagogue's job to manage that child's behavior—make sure they stayed out of trouble. They were responsible for what the child wore, what they ate, how they spoke, how they behaved. Oftentimes, we associate the word pedagogue with teaching because that's the root for the English word pedagogy, but a pedagogue rarely taught anything. Many of them were illiterate themselves. Instead, the pedagogue functions like a strict disciplinarian. That's why in ancient art, you would often see the pedagogue depicted with a long rod in his hand. The job of the pedagogue was to whip those kids into shape and keep them in line.
But Paul introduces a very different kind of model for mentorship. He says, I'm not your babysitter. I'm your father. I'm not a pedagogue. I'm your spiritual parent. Now, right away, we run into another difficulty because Jesus specifically said in Matthew 23, that we should not call any human person “Rabbi” because we have one teacher, and we should not call any man on earth “father” because we have one father in heaven—which is why it is a little strange that in some traditions, people do still refer to their pastor or their priest as “father” when Jesus explicitly told us not to do that. So is Paul making the same mistake? Is Paul contradicting Jesus? Is Paul telling us to do the very thing that Jesus told us not to do? No, and here's why. This is what Jesus was focused on: Jesus wanted us to understand that we have direct access to our Heavenly Father, because of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Therefore, we should not set up any kind of human intermediary between us and God. We should not develop an overly dependent or overly deferential relationship with any human person because God alone is the one who deserves our ultimate allegiance. He is the one whom we obey in all things. Notice, Paul is not telling the Christians in Corinth to call him father, and he's not using this language of being a father to assume some kind of macho, heavy handed, paternalistic, authoritarian position over the Christians in Corinth.
Rather what Paul is doing is simply revealing his heart. He's speaking from the heart. Remember, Paul was the first person to share the message of the gospel—the message of Jesus—with people living in the Greek city of Corinth. Largely as a result of his ministry, they became Christians. That's why he says in v.15, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” He refers to himself as their spiritual father because that's the only way to describe this special bond of love that he feels for them. I understand this feeling. Over the course of my ministry, there have been times where some people have become Christians or experienced some kind of a spiritual awakening at least in part because of my ministry. Of course at the end of the day, this is all God's work. It's all the result of his Spirit. None of us can take any credit for it. But the point is, when you see that happening, there's no other word to describe how you feel towards the people whom you've seen come to life in Christ than love. That's what Paul's talking about here.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he says something very similar, although there he uses a feminine analogy rather than a masculine one. Rather than likening himself to a spiritual father, he likens himself to a spiritual mother. He says to the Thessalonians, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” The model of ministry that Paul has in mind is one of gentleness, one of self sacrifice, and one of love. He goes on in v.8 to say, “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” That verse has been important to me ever since I was in high school. In many ways, it has functioned like a theme verse for my ministry because this is what ministry is supposed to look like. “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very own selves, because you had become dear to us.”
Paul, of course, was an apostle, so he was in a unique position. All of us need mentors in our life, and we're all called to be mentors to others in one degree or another. 1 Thessalonians 2 shows us what that ministry is supposed to look like, “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel, but our very own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” In other words, you don't love people in order to share the gospel with them. No, you share the gospel with them because you love them. You don't love people in order to share the gospel with them. That's not love. That's an instrumental relationship. No, you share the gospel with people because you love them. If you love them, you don't share mere words, but you share your very own life. You open up and share yourself, and that's what makes all the difference in the world.
What I've come to see is that people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care. People do not care how much you know about the Bible, or theology or about Jesus or about the gospel, until they know how much you care for them. That's what Paul is modeling for us here. My guess is that the majority of you could point to someone in your past, who functioned in this way, who not only shared the gospel of God, but who shared their very life with you because they loved you. That is what planted the gospel deep in your heart. I bet it's fair to say that many of you would not be here today, sitting in these pews, listening to my voice, if it hadn't been for the influence of that other person.
My question for you is, are you paying it forward? You've received the friendship and the mentorship of others, but have you sought to be a friend and a mentor to others because this is what we need, all of us. I'm not saying that we should try to do this in some kind of domineering, know-it-all kind of way. No, to be a friend, to be a mentor, simply means being a source of encouragement in another person's spiritual life. It doesn't matter how far along we are, we can be a source of encouragement and friendship in the lives of others. Imagine the difference that would make if rather than sitting back and waiting for someone to be a friend to us, we proactively sought to be a friend and a mentor to others. Wouldn't we all feel much more connected and cared for if we were doing that for each other? Wouldn't that make this church stand out as something remarkably different in the constellation of churches within New York City? That's the model that Paul puts before us.
He not only introduces this specific model, he also describes a particular mode of ministry. He says, I'm not your babysitter. I'm your spiritual father. I'm not interested in mere talk. I'm interested in power. That was the problem with some of the Christians in Corinth. They were all talk. They talked a big game. They made lots of big promises. It might have sounded very impressive. They used a lot of words. They cast a big vision. But the problem was that they never followed through on their actions. It was all smoke but no fire. There was no substance behind their words. They were all talk, but that's not how the kingdom of God works. Paul says in v.20, “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” When the gospel of Jesus is not only proclaimed, but when it is embodied in another human life, it changes things. It unleashes the power of God in your life. When people hear the gospel, when they see it displayed before them, it changes things. It changes their lives. It changes their relationships. It changes their way of thinking and being and acting in the world. They find themselves falling in love with the God who has made himself known in the person of Jesus, and they can't help but give their lives in service to Jesus in response. The kingdom of God does not consist in mere talk, but in power. It changes things when it's proclaimed, and when it's embodied. Have you experienced that? Are you all talk? Or have you experienced the power of God unleashed in your life?
In v.18, Paul reveals that some people back there in Corinth were suggesting that despite what he said, he wasn't coming back. He's not going to come back and visit them, but he says in v.19, that's not true. He will come and he will come soon if the Lord wills—always an important caveat. What Paul wants us to understand is he's not a man of mere words. He says what he means and he means what he says. He does what he says. That's why in v.16, he can say, don't just do what I say, do what I do. Do what I do because I'm the genuine article. I’m the real deal. I don't just say things, I do them so you can do what I do. In v.16, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” He's actually telling people to imitate himself, imitate his life, imitate his patterns of thought and behavior. In 1 Corinthians 11, he'll go on to qualify it even a little bit more: Imitate me, as I imitate Christ. If they've forgotten how he has modeled his life after Christ, that's why he's sending Timothy to remind them of his ways. What Paul emphasizes here is that we have to be people not merely of words, but also of action.
When I first enrolled in seminary, I had the opportunity to meet with Bruce Metzger, who was a retired professor at Princeton seminary, and he was perhaps one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century. He taught at Princeton for about 50 years. He'd been retired for about 20 years. By the time that I met him, he was 88-years-old on that particular day. He was renowned around the world for his expertise as a textual critic, meaning that he was a scholar who studied all the documents, and the fragments of documents, from the ancient world in order to piece together the original manuscript of the New Testament writings. He was by far the leader in the field. He was an academic among academics. I met with him in his home and I said, “I'm about to become a pastor. I'm about to begin seminary. What advice do you have for me as I venture out on this path to become a minister?” What do you think an academic like that would say to a young, budding seminarian about to begin a career, a vocation, as a minister? He had three things to say to me because we people in ministry, we love speaking in threes.
What did this academic say? He said, “Number one: Read your Bible and pray.” He had made it the regular practice of his life to read his Bible and pray every morning over breakfast. The second thing he said was, “Always carry a three by five index card in your pocket. You never know when you might think of something, or hear something, or read about something, and then if you don't write it down, you're going to forget it. Write it down. Then that could become the basis of future things that you talk about or write about.” Because I was meeting with him in his home, he showed me that he had file cabinet upon file cabinet filled with these little three by five index cards. That was the basis of all of his reading and writing and research over the years. Now, he was 88 years old, so he was a little old school, but I have tried to put that thought into practice, although I do it in a more digital format. What was the third thing he said to me? Most important of all, he said, “If you're going to become a minister, if you're going to become a pastor to God's people, practice what you preach. Practice what you preach because there's nothing worse than a pastor who does not practice what he preaches.” I don't think truer words have ever been spoken, and I've taken that to heart. That's the difference between talk and power.
We have to remember that the Christians in Corinth had never met Jesus in the flesh. They didn't have a copy of the New Testament in their hands because the New Testament hadn't been written and compiled yet. What did they have? All they had were the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul's teaching, and Paul's way of life. That's why Paul is telling them Imitate me, look at my life, because those people in ancient Corinth had never seen anyone live life like Paul. They had never seen anything like this before because Paul was not interested in putting on airs or playing games. He wasn't interested in trying to win popularity contests or power struggles. Paul was not a person of mere words, he was a man of action. He practiced what he preached. He did what he said. He lived a life of passion, of integrity, of humility, and of self sacrifice. That's what blew the people of Corinth away. Paul lived his life differently, and that's what made all the difference because Paul had patterned his life off of the life of Jesus. This was how the people in Corinth saw what Jesus' life looked like, what a Christ centered life looked like. It was through Paul. It's the first time they'd ever seen it. That's what they were called to model and to emulate in their own life. That's how they knew that they were dealing with the genuine article.
The thing I wonder about is, could you get away with saying the same thing? Could I get away with saying the same thing? Could we honestly say to someone else, imitate me? I urge you to imitate me. Don't just do what I say, do what I do. Watch me. Watch how I live, and do what I do. Could you do that? Can I do that, honestly? We have to be able to because here's why. Just like the people in Corinth, in the post-Christian world in which we live, you too may be the only Bible that some people ever read. What will they find in the pages of your life? Will the pages of your life point them to Jesus or to something else? Does your life exemplify the power of the kingdom or is your life nothing more than empty words?
Paul not only provides us with the model, and a mode of ministry, but he also provides us with the motivation for why we should do it. How do you do this? At the very end of the passage, v.21, Paul brings us back to the contrast between the pedagogue and the parent. It's very hard to capture tone of voice in writing, and oftentimes that leads to all kinds of misunderstandings. Try to tell a joke over email, and you'll see what I mean. It's important to see that in v.21, Paul is speaking in a kind of tongue in cheek kind of way. If you don't realize that, you're going to miss the significance of what he says because there at the conclusion of the passage, he says, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” In light of everything Paul has said up to this point, you can tell that he's joking around. He's sort of poking fun at the Corinthians because what has been one of his complaints about them? That they're spiritually immature. That they've been acting like spiritual babies. Remember, we summed up the beginning of 1 Corinthians 3 as, “Don't be a Baby.” That was Paul's message, but then in v.21, we have to remember that it's the pedagogues, it's the babysitters, who carried the rod in their hands. Paul is not the one who's going to wrap you on the knuckles in order to get you to behave. Paul is not the one who's telling you, you got to do more, try harder. He's not the one who assumes the role of the strict disciplinarian. No, he is the one who assumes the role of the loving parent who comes not with a rod raised high over his head, but who comes with love, in a spirit of gentleness. What does this tell us about Paul's motivation? Think of the contrast here. What motivates the pedagogue? What motivates the babysitter? In the ancient world, there might have been exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, the pedagogue would say, “I take care of the kids because I have to. It's my job. I get paid to do it. Therefore, I don't really do it because I want to, but because I have to.” That's not the motivation of a parent. Yes, a parent has a responsibility to raise their child well so as not to spoil them. What fundamentally motivates a parent is not duty or obligation, but love. You coach and you train your children in the way that they should go not because you have to, but because you want to, not out of duty or obligation, but out of love. No one would question a babysitter if you said, “What is your attitude toward the children?” They respond by saying, “It's just a job. It's how I make ends meet. I get paid to do it.” But if a parent responded that way, “what motivates you as a parent?” “It's a job, I get paid to do it. I don't really care that much about the kids,” you would know that something was off. Here, what Paul is trying to tell us is that when he presents himself as a spiritual father to the Christians in Corinth, and to all of us by extension, he's not suggesting that he's got this rightful claim of authority over the Christians in Corinth, and that he can boss us around like a paternalistic dictator. No, he emphasizes his role as a spiritual father in order to highlight not his authority, but his affection. That should remind us of someone.
In John 10, Jesus uses a different image to describe his people. He describes his people not as children who need to grow up, but rather as sheep who need to be protected. Jesus also draws a contrast between two different kinds of leaders. On the one hand, he says there's the hired hand, who is a little bit like the babysitter, and as long as things are not complicated and simple, as long as there are no issues or problems, the hired hand can do his job. But the problem Jesus said with the hired hand is that at the first sign of trouble, he's going to run away and leave the sheep vulnerable, ready to be attacked. Why does the hired hand run away as soon as he sees a wolf? Because Jesus says the hired hand cares nothing for the sheep. It's just a job. He's just in it for the money. But Jesus, by contrast, calls himself “The Good Shepherd.” He's the shepherd of the sheep. He knows those who belong to him, and they know his voice. They recognize his voice and will follow him anywhere. The difference between the shepherd and the hired hand is that rather than running away from danger, the shepherd runs into danger. The shepherd is willing to abandon himself in order to save the sheep rather than abandon the sheep in order to save himself.
That's what Jesus has done for you on the cross. Jesus says that the thief comes only to steal, to kill, and to destroy, but Jesus came to lay down his life for you in order to give you life to the full, life to the fullest. Jesus doesn't run from danger, he runs right into it. He runs to the cross. He sacrifices himself for your well being. Why does he do it? Not out of duty or obligation. Not because he merely has to, but because he wants to out of love. Therefore, Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God does not consist in mere talk, but in power because he does what he says. He backs up his words with actions. The point is that not a single one of us will ever grow up into becoming the people that God has destined us to be on our own. We need friends. We need mentors, but above all, we need something far greater than a babysitter. That's what we have in Jesus. We have to look to Jesus. We have to imitate Jesus—model our life after his. If we all did that, then together we would become the kind of church that the world most needs.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we recognize that we will never become the people that you've called us to be on our own. We need friends. We need mentors. We need to be mentors to others. We pray that you would so work in our lives that you might enable us to so our gaze upon Jesus that we would do as he does, that we would become like him with such passion, with such integrity, with such commitment that we could honestly say to other people, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” so that they too, might experience the transformative power of the gospel in their lives, so that they might know that we love them. We ask that you do that work in us, by your grace and through your Holy Spirit's power. It is in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.