Paul the Spiritual Father
1 Corinthians 4:14-17
Paul the Spiritual Father
Vs. 14 “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you.”
In the preceding verses from our last study Paul and the other apostles’ lives which were patterned after the crucified life of Christ, were contrasted with the lives of the Corinthian believers which were patterned after the wisdom of the world. (4:8-13) Now Paul says that he is not making this contrast in order to make them ashamed of themselves. He doesn’t attach their identity and worth to their behavior, but he does want to warn them that they are in danger because of their behavior. He is exhorting them to change their ways or they will suffer harm.
Paul is not saying these things because his own ego has been hurt by their rejection of his example and authority. He is not seeking to restore a right relationship between himself and them for his own benefit but for their well-being.
Speaking of the relationships between natural children and their natural parents the Bible says, that children are to honor their parents in the Lord in order that it may go well with them. We suffer harm when we do not honor our parents. Now there seems to be a similar correlation between our relationship to our spiritual parents and our spiritual well being.
First of all, notice that Paul refers to the believers at Corinth as his beloved children. The people in the churches that Paul planted were often referred to as his children because they were ones whom he led to faith in Christ. They were spiritual children; and not just spiritual children but beloved spiritual children. As we become aware of how badly these Corinthian believers have been behaving and of how critical they have been of Paul it is a wonder that he can use such endearing terms when referring to them. But have you ever noticed that loving parents have way more tolerance for their own kids than anyone else does, and loving parents have much more tolerance for their own kids than they do for anyone else’s kids? The same is true in the spiritual realm. If you have ever led someone to the Lord you will discover that you have far more patience with them, love for them and interest in their well being than you do for anyone else. To Paul, these Corinthian believers, in spite of all their problems, were his beloved children. And keep in mind that he is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so they are also beloved children to God.
Vs. 15 “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
How is it that Paul can refer to these believers as his children? On what basis can he consider himself to be their father? In what sense has he begotten them? According to this verse it is through the gospel. Because Paul proclaimed to them the Gospel message and they responded with faith, in a certain sense he therefore is considered to be a spiritual father to them. It is because of the Lord’s ministry through him that they had become children of God.
In John’s gospel Jesus made it clear that His people—the true children of God—will be produced not by physical procreation but by spiritual regeneration. John 1:12-13 “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So he said to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).And Paul says in Galatians 3 to the Jews and Gentiles alike, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26).
So children are born into God’s family and receive their inheritance not by marriage and procreation but by faith and regeneration. Incidentally, this means that single people in Christ have no disadvantage in bearing children for God, and may in some ways have a great advantage. The apostle Paul was single in Christ, and he says here in verse 15 of his converts, “For . . . in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
Just as in the natural, our children are really God’s children, God created them and gave them life and God has a plan for their lives, they are not my own but His. However He used us to bring them into this world and therefore we have an ongoing relationship with them and responsibility toward them. Likewise there seems to be a similar relationship and responsibility between spiritual children and their spiritual parents. I think that this is often ignored in our spiritual relationships. We tend to be very irresponsible spiritual parents.
Notice that Paul never asks them to call him “father” and there is no indication that they ever did call him by the title of “father” which would have been an unbiblical practice, but there was a legitimate sense in which he had the relationship of a father toward them. He had the relationship of a father towards them but never bore the title of father. Matthew 23:9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.”
Also, in Jewish culture the one who taught a boy the Torah (OT scriptures) was recognized as having begotten the boy into the faith. (Fee, p. 185) Therefore because of Paul’s ministry of the gospel he has begotten them as children of God. They are his spiritual children.
The word that is translated “instructors” in the expression, “You might have ten thousand instructors in Christ . . .” in the NKJV, (or as guides, guardians or tutors in some other translations) is not easy to translate accurately because we do not have the equivalent role in our culture. (ibid., p.185) It was somewhat similar to the role of a nanny but with more of a teaching responsibility. The instructor or guardian was a trusted slave into whose care a father turned over his children. The instructor or guardian was responsible to take the kids to and from school and to tutor them with their homework, to teach them good manners, to look after them in general and to oversee their overall development. (Morris, p. 80) The guardian or instructor had a very important role in the development of the child to help bring the child to maturity, but the guardian never replaced the role or the authority of the father.
Likewise, the other apostles and teaching ministries (i.e., Apollos and Peter) who had followed Paul were like tutors or guides and they played an important part in ministering to the church in Corinth, but they did not replace Paul’s significance in their lives. Paul was the only spiritual father for most of them and that gave him a special position of both influence and responsibility toward them. No matter how much they had profited from other ministries they owed special honor to Paul, their spiritual father. Who is your spiritual father or spiritual mother? Who are your spiritual children?
Does every evangelist have this responsibility toward those he/she leads to Christ? It is not always possible, for example in the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. However, I believe that under normal circumstances there is a responsibility to ensure that your spiritual children are being nurtured and cared for in the faith so that they can grow. When we lead someone to faith in Christ we then have a responsibility toward them to nurture them and instruct them in the faith just as parents in the natural have a responsibility toward their biological children to nurture and care for them until maturity. What do we think of natural parents who produce children but never take responsibility for their well being? They are unfit to be parents. Is it any different spiritually?
It would have been easy for Paul to have washed his hands of this rebellious church and let Apollos or Peter take responsibility for them. But he does not abdicate his responsibility to his spiritual children.
Notice that the terminology for describing the relationship between the evangelist and the convert is all family related terminology. The church is the family of God and we are to relate to one another in the church as we would relate to family members. This is one of the main reasons we often refer to one another in the church as brother or sister. It reflects the fact that we are members of a family, not members of an organization. 1 Timothy 5:1-2 “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.”
Let us not think that the referring to the church as family is just a sentimental comparison with real families. The church family is a greater reality than our natural families. Marriage and family are temporary for this age; the church is forever. The radical biblical truth is this, belonging to a human family is no sign of eternal blessing, but belonging to God’s family means you are eternally blessed. Relationships based on natural family are temporary. Relationships based on union with Christ are eternal. Marriage is a temporary institution, but what it stands for lasts forever. “In the resurrection,” Jesus said, “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). And when his own mother and brothers asked to see him, Jesus said, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Matthew 12:48-49). Of course Jesus loved his mother and his brothers. But those are all natural and temporary relationships. He did not come into the world focus on that. He came into the world to call out a people for His name from all the families into a new family where whether single or married, orphaned or barren or accompanied by many natural relatives, we are all full-fledged family members on a par with all others, bearing fruit for God and becoming mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters of the eternal kind.
Some of us need to take a serious look at our attitude toward relationships and reorder our world. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,” Jesus said, “who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Are you struggling with a lack of natural relationships in your life? Single person, barren mother, abandoned spouse, only child, do you want children, mothers, brothers, sisters? Renounce your preoccupation with obtaining natural relationships and follow Jesus into the fellowship of the family of God. (Piper, John: Sermons from John Piper (2000-2007). Minneapolis : Desiring God, 2007)
Vs. 16 “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”
This expresses the heart of a father who is instructing his children to learn how they should live by following his example. They are to be “like father, like children.”
People have often asked why Paul instructs the church to be imitators of himself rather than telling them to imitate Christ. But in the context of a father /child relationship, the best way for a child to understand the character of Christ is to see Christ’s life expressed through the lives of the parents. We learn best through example. In fact this is the essence of what Paul is saying as he more clearly expresses his meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
We also have to keep in mind that at the time Paul was writing this letter of First Corinthians, (AD 56), the first Gospel, which was Mark, was not written yet (it was written in AD 58). Therefore they did not have a written record of the life of Jesus to know what He was like, but they had seen Paul living among them for many months. They had seen the life of Jesus expressed through the life of Paul.
Secondly it is important for us to understand what Paul means when he tells them to imitate him. In both the Greek/ Roman culture and also the Jewish culture this was a common expression. When a pupil was told to imitate their teacher, or when a worshipper was told to imitate their god, “the term does not refer to one who mimics, nor even to one who follows as a disciple, but to one who actually internalizes and lives out the model that has been set before her/him.” (Fee, p. 186, footnote #24) In other words Paul is not telling them to mimic his actions and words but to adopt his whole way of living, living by faith in the Son of God, living the crucified life.
In asking them to imitate him, Paul was not contradicting his earlier teaching when he was condemning their practice of identifying themselves as followers of a particular man, i.e., “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos.” (1:12).He was not asking them to become followers of Paul, but like himself to be filled with the Spirit and led by God. He is continuing with his emphasis all along in exhorting them to abandon living their lives according to the natural wisdom of the world, but like himself, to be led by the wisdom of God. Rather than seeking to be accepted and exalted in the eyes of the world, Paul says embrace the crucified life. (Illustrated for us in 4:9-13 and expounded in 2 Cor. 4:7-11 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
Vs. 17 “For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.”
This verse implies that Timothy is going in Paul’s place, on behalf of Paul. Timothy also is described as Paul’s beloved son in the Lord, one of Paul’s spiritual children. Timothy is further described as a faithful son. As we saw in verse 2, faithfulness, being full of faith in God, walking consistently by faith, is the one requirement of God’s stewards.
The expression, “Who will remind you of my ways in Christ”, means that the way of living that Paul wants them to imitate is being demonstrated in Timothy, walking by faith. As Timothy spends time with you will be reminded of “my ways in Christ”. Four times in the passage we have studied today Paul identifies legitimate living and serving as being that which is done in Christ. Not that which is done in the energy of the flesh, nor in the wisdom of the world, but in Christ; abiding in Christ; trusting in Christ; relying on the power and wisdom of Christ. The only legitimate way for a believer to live is to live “in Christ”. As you read through the writing of Paul there is probably no phrase that is more often repeated than the simple words, “in Christ” or “in Him” or “in Jesus” or “in the Lord”.
Paul lived by the principle taught by Jesus in John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
Notice the last part of verse 17, “As I teach everywhere in every church.” This was the same message that Paul emphasized everywhere he went.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”