1 Corinthians 4:14-21

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 4:14-21

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?


Here Paul explains that he is not trying to shame the Corinthians but to help them be better. He compares his relationship with this Church to that of a father with children. We’ll jump right on with that in The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 4:14

To shame you. Such seems to be the meaning of the word, for it is so used in the LXX. (compare the use of the verb in 2 Thessalonians 3:14Titus 2:8; and of the substantive in 1 Corinthians 6:51 Corinthians 15:34). I warn; rather, I admonish. St. Paul here gives the reason why he cannot write angrily or bitterly, even though he has used strong expostulation and keen irony. It is because he regards himself as their spiritual father.

1 Corinthians 4:15

Ten thousand; never so many. The word in Greek is used indefinitely, but here implies a touch of impatience at the itch of teaching which seems to have prevailed at Corinth. Tutors; rather, pedagogues, in a technical sense. We have no exact equivalent in English to the paidagogos, the slave who led boys to school. The word also occurs in Galatians 3:24Galatians 3:25. The father loves most, and has the nearer and dearer claim. In Christ. So he says, “The Law was our paidagogos to Christ.” These guides or guardians were such “in Christ,” i.e. in the sphere of Christian life. Not many fathers. St. Paul felt a yearning desire that his unique claim as the founder of their Church should not be so ungratefully overlooked, as though it were of no importance. I have begotten you. The word is here only used in a secondary and metaphoric sense, as in Philemon 1:10Galatians 4:19. In the highest sense we are only begotten by the will of God, by that Word of truth (James 1:18), to which he alludes in the words “through the gospel.” The “second birth” is, however a doctrine more dwelt on by St. John (John 3:31 John 3:91 John 5:1, etc.) than by St. Paul, who, as Mr. Beet observes, only refers to it in Titus 3:5.

We see in the language of the text, explained further in the comments, that Paul views himself as having an authority which distinguishes him from “guides” but he views that authority as undergirded by the type of love a father has for his children. “Guides” here – as the note says – is difficult to translate but perhaps the best way to think of it is “experienced Christians but without authority.”

The element of corporate authority is thus important to understand. It exists. We know how Paul obtained his authority from the Book of Acts. He was called directly by Jesus and was eventually signed off on by the other Apostles. Paul did not self-appoint his own authority. We have to at least pause and reflect on more modern notions of self-appointed authority (i.e. “I started a church in my garage” or the increasingly common “I am an online but not ordained Christian influencer.”) To the extent that anyone might ever consider *me* an influencer, let me influence you to seek out actual authority, though hopefully I might help you to recognize and distinguish between actual authority and those who claim it but do not possess it. We will delve more into that topic when the text takes us there. Continuing on with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(16) Wherefore.—Because I stand in this relation I call you to preserve, as it were, in a moral sense, that family likeness which would naturally accompany such a relationship (Galatians 4:12Ephesians 5:1Philippians 3:17).

(17) For this cause.—When St. Paul contemplated a visit to the churches in Macedonia and Achaia he sent Timothy and Erastus in advance (Acts 19:21-22). It is to this fact allusion is here made—from 1 Corinthians 16:10, we see that the Apostle did not calculate on Timothy’s arrival in Corinth until after this letter had reached them. The rumours of the existence of factions in Corinth had reached St. Paul before Timothy had departed, and were the cause of his desire that before himself visiting Corinth Timothy should do so, and bring the Corinthians to a better frame of mind before the Apostle’s arrival. After Timothy’s departure from Ephesus the Apostle heard from the household of Chloe how very much worse than he had imagined from the previous rumours was the state of affairs at Corinth. It would not do to let such a condition of things continue to grow and intensify until Timothy should arrive there, delayed as he would be in visiting other places in Macedonia and Achaia en route. Nor, indeed, would it be safe to leave one of Timothy’s nervous (1 Corinthians 16:10) and gentle temperament (perhaps the result of his having been brought up and educated entirely by women, 2 Timothy 1:5) to deal with such a state of anarchy as the Apostle now knew to exist in Corinth. Further, the letter from Corinth had arrived since Timothy had left, and it required an immediate answer. Such reason, doubtless, influenced St. Paul in sending this letter to Corinth at once so as to anticipate the arrival of Timothy there. That you might return to the dutiful position of sons, I sent you one who is a son—a beloved and a faithful spiritual child—who will not be an addition to the too numerous instructors already at Corinth, but will, by what he says, and by his own example, remind you of my teaching (see 2 Timothy 3:10), which he fully understands, and which never varies, being the same to every church. The emphatic use of the word “my son” here in reference to Timothy, taken in connection with the clear expression in 1 Corinthians 4:15 of what was involved in that spiritual relationship, shows that St. Paul had converted Timothy to the faith (Acts 16:1). In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul speaks of Timothy as his “brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1).

In these verses, Paul continues the family metaphor, with relation to Church structure, and describes Timothy as his son (a spiritual son, not an actual son) who will come to them before his own eventual return visit. As Paul has already described this Church as his children, then Timothy is (or will be) like a visiting older brother. Interestingly though, and as the comment notes, Paul later describes Timothy as a “brother.” The familiar stations are not static. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 4:18

Are puffed up; rather, were puffed up; at the time that they made these disparaging comparisons of me with others. As though I would not come to you; rather, as though I were not coming to you. St. Paul was on the eve of starting for Macedonia on his way to visit them (1 Corinthians 16:5), but, owing to the grievous state of the Church, he subsequently changed his purpose (2 Corinthians 1:152 Corinthians 1:23). When he left them he had promised to return, “if God wilt” (Acts 18:21). His many enemies and critics were likely to say, “He is afraid to come himself, and so he sends Timothy.” They flattered themselves that he was alarmed by their culture and intellectualism.

1 Corinthians 4:19

I will come to you shortly (Philippians 2:242 Timothy 4:9). He came soon after writing the Second Epistle. At this time he was preparing to leave Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8); his actual departure was precipitated by the tumult (Acts 20:1-38. l, 2). If the Lord will. The apostolic use of the phrase was something more than a mere form (Romans 15:32Hebrews 6:3James 4:15); it expressed a real and humble spirit of dependence. Not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. He will use his gift of spiritual discernment to discover whether the haughty self assertion and sounding phraseology of these inflated partisans would not collapse when confronted with real authority. The “speech” was there in abundance; but was there anything genuine, any real spiritual force, behind it?

1 Corinthians 4:20

The kingdom of God. The Christian life, with all its attainments and all its hopes. Is not in word, but in power. It is not a matter of profession, or of eloquence, or of phrases, but of transforming efficacy. St. Paul always appeals for the corroboration of his authority to the signs and power of the Spirit (2Co 10:1-18 :45; Romans 15:191 Thessalonians 1:5), to the “demonstration” of which he has already referred (1 Corinthians 2:4).

The comment here lets us know that Paul does eventually visit this Church again and as verse 19 states, he hoped to find out whether the partisan spirit within the Church will withstand a confrontation with his actual God-given authority. That is why he shifts the discussion to one of power. Paul believes his power – through Christ – is greater than the spirit of division plaguing the Corinthians. We’ll finish the chapter with Ellicott’s note on verse 21:

(21) What will ye?—I give you a choice. I am coming to you as a father in any case. But shall I come as a father comes with a rod (Isaiah 11:4), and going to inflict punishment with it (such is the force of the Greek, “in a rod”); or as a father would come when no faults on the child’s part need interfere with the perfect and unrestricted outflowing of his gentleness and love. The pathos of these last few words sufficiently indicate what the Apostle would himself prefer. The choice, however, rested with them. His love would be no love, if without any change on their part, it led him to show no displeasure where correction was for their sake absolutely needed. This is a great and striking example of St. Paul having the “mind of God.” He treats the Corinthians as God ever treats His children.

This verse at once concludes this first part of the Epistle, in which the party-spirit and the evils resulting from it in Corinth are treated of, and naturally introduces the second topic to be discussed, viz., the case of incest which had occurred, it being one of the things which would compel the Apostle to visit Corinth, not “in love and in the spirit of meekness,” but “with a rod.”

Paul here essentially asks the Corinthians whether they would like his visit to go the easy way or the hard way. This type of question is in keeping with the theme of Paul being a father to this Church, and it might be familiar to anyone who has ever been in trouble, and subsequently disciplined by his or her father.

In chapter 5, on the heels of this question in verse 21, Paul begins to write about other specific sins within the Church which have been reported to him.