Exposition of 1 Corinthians 4:14-21, A father’s concern for his spiritual children

1 Corinthians 4:14-21

14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21 What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?

Paul once again changes metaphors, moving this time to depict himself as the spiritual father of the Corinthian believers. This metaphor allows him certain advantages.

In spite of the criticism Paul has received from some of the Corinthians, he seeks to communicate that he is on their team — or, better yet, with them on Christ’s team — rather than tearing them down (1 Cor. 4:14). The Corinthian church was growing within a society that assigned status on the basis of honor and shame. Anthony Thiselton says, “Paul does not wish simply to remove all status, but to redefine what counts as status in terms of glorying in the cross, glorying in the Lord and perceiving . . . the honor of being accounted worthy to suffer hardships in the service of their Lord.”[1]

By calling the Corinthian believers my dear children (1 Cor. 4:14), Paul prepares the way to take the role of your father through the gospel (verse 15) while casting the faction leaders in the role of guardians. The guardian was usually a trusted slave that Greek plays portrayed with a rod in hand for correction of the children in his care. David Garland says: “The humorous picture of ten thousand custodians brandishing rods at their stubborn charges may soften the affront. . . . Who these caretakers are, Paul does not say. . . . They are likely to be the local leaders of the competitive factions.”[2]

Paul is well aware that these first Christian converts had no precedents to teach them how to live for Christ. So, Paul says to them, “Take your cue from me” (Thiselton’s translation of 1 Cor. 4:16). By looking at Paul’s way of life, the Corinthians should know how to conduct their own lives in Christ. In his absence from them — Paul writes from Ephesus — he sends Timothy to remind them by example of the way of life Paul teaches in all the churches (1 Cor. 4:17).

By mentioning all the churches, it is likely that Paul wants to put the Corinthians in a different competition for status. By taking their cue from his pattern of life, the Corinthian believers will take their rightful place among all the churches striving to live for Christ crucified and turn away from the pointless rivalries of Roman Corinth.

Thiselton says, “Being blown up with air was a more familiar metaphor for arrogant self-importance in the first century than today,”[3] and that is a colorful image for the faction leaders. They are behaving as if Paul will never return, but they get a rude shock by his announcement that he will come to Corinth soon, assuming the Lord wants him to (1 Cor. 4:19a). He makes it clear that he will not be testing the talk of the faction leaders but rather their power. When Paul came the first time, his preaching was accompanied by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Cor. 2:3).

Paul knows that the kingdom of God can once again show its power over mere talk (1 Cor. 4:20). As he writes to the Corinthian church, Paul knows that others are also making decisions. The Greek verb theloties together verse 19 (Is God willing to allow Paul’s journey to Corinth?) and verse 21 (What type of visit do the Corinthians want?).

Thiselton relates a fascinating aspect of Roman culture affecting Roman Corinth: “The figures of the emperor and the father of the family were expected to admonish the communities for which they were responsible. The Corinthians would well understand the question: In which of these two ways am I to come as a father?”[4] That was the worldly viewpoint. As Christians we know that the spiritual oversight of Corinth lay with God the Father and his apostle, Paul, the spiritual father of the Corinthian church.

The moral issues which Paul addresses in chapter 5 made the rod more likely than the love and gentleness.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000)369.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003)146.

[3] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 376.

[4] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 378.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!