May 18 – A Helpful Mountain Guide

Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

1 Corinthians 4:16

Since all Christians are imperfect, we need the example of someone who also is imperfect but knows how to deal with imperfection. Perhaps this illustration will help. Suppose I decide to embark on a dangerous mountain–climbing expedition. A helicopter drops a leader on top of the mountain, and he looks down on me and says, “This is the top. Just climb up here—this is where you want to be.” He would not be as much help as someone climbing up the path ahead of me, saying, “Follow me. I know the way up.”

Christ shows us the goal we need to achieve, but we also need someone to model the process of reaching the goal. Only by overcoming sin can we become more like Christ, so we need to find another Christian who is also battling to overcome sin. A godly human example can show you how to deal with all of the products of our fallen flesh. Begin to search for and follow a godly guide.[1]

He Sets an Example

I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ. (4:16–17a)

Without a good example, a parent’s teaching cannot be effective. A spiritual father must set the example for his spiritual children, as Paul was careful to do. With confidence, but without bragging, he could say, be imitators of me. He not only could say, “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do.” The Greek term is equivalent to our word mimic (cf. Matt. 23:3).

Often the hardest place to disciple is in the home. When we disciple those outside our families, they often see us only in ideal situations, where it is easy to act spiritual and mature. But our children see us in all of our moods, in all of our attitudes and actions. They know firsthand if we are living up to what we are trying to teach them. If we are not, most of our instruction and admonition will fall on deaf ears. Even if we sincerely love them, our children are more likely to follow what we do than what we say. Having godly children is required of an elder (1 Tim. 3:4–5) in part, at least, because that is good evidence that he himself is godly. Discipling is more than teaching right principles; it is also living those principles before the ones being discipled (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12).

Paul was so successful as a discipler that he could entrust his discipling to those he had discipled. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ. For this reason refers to the goal of making the Corinthians imitators of Paul. To accomplish that he sent Timothy. What a thought! Timothy was so like Paul that he could be sent as a Pauline model. The apostle had done such a complete work as a spiritual father to Timothy that he could send Timothy to continue discipling the Corinthians on his behalf. He was a replica. That is the epitome of raising spiritual children: being able to send them to work in our place. When we are Christlike, those we disciple will be more likely to become Christlike and be able to help others become Christlike. This obviously provides a potentially great multiplication of ministry. Paul loved Timothy and commended him as a faithful child who would bring back to mind the Christlike life pattern of Paul, because it was also his own life pattern.[2]

  1. Therefore I urge you to be imitators of me. 17. For this reason, I am sending Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful child in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways that are in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every church.
  2. Imitators. Paul brought the gospel to the Corinthians, witnessed their spiritual birth, taught them the Christian way of life, urged to follow Christ, and demonstrated his unwavering love for them. Now he directs them to become his imitators and adopt his personal testimony of Christ. By implication, Paul urges them to imitate Christ, who reveals himself in the gospel. Elsewhere in this epistle he writes, “Be imitators of me, just as I am of Christ” (11:1; see also Gal. 4:12; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). What Paul is trying to say is that one who is imitating Paul is imitating Christ.

Speaking as their spiritual father, Paul expects the Corinthians to follow his example. From the moment they are born, children are dependent on their parents for survival, care, guidance, and teaching. They copy the parents’ way of life, learn elementary truths, and adopt their basic values. Children not only physically but also spiritually reflect the likeness of their father and mother. “The closer the relationship of parent and child, the more the similarities develop.” This close relationship, of course, is founded on love. Paul demonstrates his love toward his spiritual offspring by calling them his “beloved children” (v. 14, NKJV).

Offspring. Most translators render the Greek literally: “I have sent” or “I sent,” which implies that Paul instructed Timothy to travel to Corinth. Yet we have no evidence that Timothy ever arrived in Corinth (but see 16:10–11). About this time (a.d. 55), Paul began writing the First Epistle to the Corinthians. If Timothy had been with Paul at that time, we would have expected Paul to include his name in the greetings, as in 2 Corinthians 1:1.

Other translators prefer the present tense of the verb: “I am sending.” The reasoning is that when a writer sent a letter or a messenger, he would place himself in the position of the recipients. For the recipient the act of sending occurred in the past. But from the sender’s point of view, this happened in the present.

“For this reason, I am sending Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful child in the Lord.” Along with the letter, Paul is sending Timothy to the Corinthians. Timothy became acquainted with the faith of his grandmother Lois and his mother, Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5); we assume that he was converted when Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra and Derbe on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:8–21). When Timothy eventually accompanied Paul, he was heartily recommended by the Christians in Lystra (Acts 16:1–3) and presumably had been a believer for some time.

Paul called Timothy “my dear faithful child in the Lord,” This means that Paul considered himself Timothy’s spiritual father. As a natural father normally loves his son, so Paul deeply loved his spiritual father. As a natural father normally loves his son, so Paul deeply loved his spiritual son (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; compare Philem. 10). And Timothy proved to be Paul’s faithful child in working for the Lord. We learn from Acts and Paul’s epistles that Timothy often completed tasks that Paul himself was hindered from doing. For example, when Paul had to leave Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, Timothy went there to work in his place (Acts 17:15; Phil. 2:22; 1 Thess. 3:1–3, 6).

Instruction. “[Timothy] will remind you of my ways that are in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every in every church.” As Paul’s spiritual son, Timothy must refresh the memory of Paul’s spiritual children in Corinth. He has to remind them of Paul’s Christian conduct, mentioned here as “ways that are in Christ Jesus.” These ways relate to the work Paul performed while he was with the Corinthians: teaching, preaching, counseling, shaping, nurturing, and praying. They pertain to the work Paul accomplished on behalf of Jesus Christ and the building of the church.

Paul intimates that even though he has not visited the church in Corinth for some time, let no one think that he has not been busy elsewhere. He has been teaching, chiefly in Ephesus and the province of Asia. And his teaching there is similar to what the Corinthians received some years earlier. Furthermore, Paul believes in and contends for the unity of the church of Jesus Christ (see 7:17; 14:33). There is, therefore, no place for divisions and doctrines that are contrary to the gospel.[3]

16 On the basis of vv. 14–15 Paul now feels free to “urge” or “exhort” (parakaleō, see comments at 4:13) the Corinthians to “imitate” him. Such a comment may take us aback. What pastor today would dare to stand in front of his congregation and suggest that they use him as a model for how to live a godly Christian life? Yet Paul does not hesitate to do precisely that, both here and elsewhere (cf. 11:1; Php 3:17; 4:9; 1 Th 1:6; 2 Th 3:7, 9). In a sense, of course, this is to be expected. Many of these Corinthians had just come out of paganism, and the Christian way of life is more caught than taught. So it was inevitable that these people would look to Paul, their father, as an example. Moreover, since the NT had not yet been written, believers did not have written guidelines by which to conduct their new life in Christ. Even more important, Paul felt convinced that his own life was modeled on Jesus Christ (1 Co 11:1), so that by imitating him they were ultimately using Christ as their model and example.

What specific imitation is Paul referring to here? Undoubtedly he must be thinking of his pattern of not judging himself or not taking pride in any human leaders (4:1–7). Moreover, he is probably also thinking of his willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ rather than living with a triumphalist theology (4:8–13). But insofar as Paul presents this concept of himself as an example in various contexts, he probably would extend its implications to his entire Christian life.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 155). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 117–118). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 145–147). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 297). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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