First Corinthians 4:14-21
Be Imitators Of Me
1. "Be imitators of me," (verse sixteen). That's what Paul wrote to the disciples at Corinth and he is not just saying this to them only. We see a similar exhortation in The Epistle To The Philippians as well. And that's not all. According to the passage we read today it says that Paul was teaching this in "all churches everywhere," (verse seventeen). In effect, for Paul's mission & preaching this would mean that the exhortation to "be imitators of me" did not have marginal and unique significance but was meant to have central meaning for all. Today, I would like for us to think about what these words might mean for us.
Just As I Imitate Christ
2. "Be imitators of me." These words in and of themselves are not unusual. Think about how that in different kinds of seminars the world [offers] a successful person in his or her respective field stands up as a lecturer. An admired person who has achieved something and is held up in great respect by others gives the talk. They will speak on the paths they have taken regarding something or on what methods they have been using. And we don't find it strange at all when they say if you have been wanting to be like me, "do like me."
3. But, when we think about what these words mean, we can't disregard what Paul wrote before this. He wrote about how he and the others as apostles had been living, "We have become fools for Christ, but you believe in Christ and are become wise persons. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held up in honor, but we are held in contempt," (verse ten). And then he went on to say, "Up to now we've been made the scraps of the world, and the refuse of all," (verse thirteen).
4. What if instead of a successful person for a lecturer at a worldly seminar, some "fool" or someone "weak" or someone "despised" were to stand up? And then that person would say, "Be imitators of me." When seen from the perspective of the world, it sounds pretty stupid, doesn't it? In other words, it goes against common sense. But, when spoken and heard based on the faith that believes in Jesus Christ, these words begin to hold true.
5. The relationship between Paul and the believers at Corinth is compared to that of a parent and a child starting in verse fourteen. It is not a metaphorical expression that just expresses the close relationship of a teacher and his or her students. The important part is the phrase that "Through the gospel I have begotten you in Christ Jesus." It was true, the believers at Corinth were certainly newly born [in the faith]. A new relationship with Paul has also started up among them. It is a relationship that the scriptures says is "in Christ Jesus." Christ is related to Paul and the believers at Corinth. As Paul says, Christ means "the crucified Christ," (2:2). In saying "Be imitators of me" it is a special phrase that is said in accordance with this [crucified] Christ himself.
6. Paul didn't line up any of his great achievements or notable deeds and say, "Be an imitator of me." He didn't say that because he was a person who had attained some special level. In another epistle he himself says, "It is not that I have already attained it or have already become a perfect person," (Philippians 3:12). The direction of his looking is not on himself, but is on Christ, on the crucified Christ.
7. Actually, in this epistle, he exhorts them another time with "Be imitators of me." There he says, "As I imitate Christ, you, too please imitate me," (11:1). Thus, the important point for Paul is Christ, it is that Christ be formed among and within the believers at Corinth. Paul was seeking that they would not elevate gospel workers in saying as some did, "I follow Paul," (1:12). To imitate Paul is equivalent in meaning to imitating the crucified Christ. I'd say for many of the Corinthian believers it would have meant they actually start going in the opposite direction, wouldn't it? It might mean the same for us.
8. There is one more thing I'd like for us to remember. After saying "Be imitators of me," he goes on to write, "The reason I sent Timothy to you is this. He is my beloved son, he is loyal to the Lord, as I taught in all the churches everywhere, he will bring to your minds my way of life as it is in Christ Jesus," (verse seventeen). The Japanese word for "my way of life" should be more aptly taken with the sense of "my view of life." But, if translated literally, as it is written it is "my path" it means the way he lives his day to day life. Life in Christ is a faith life from day to day. Paul sent the person of Timothy explicitly for this purpose. If it was only words he would say it with letters, but real life is not possibly communicated in a letter.
9. Communication in the church is not the communication of mere words, knowledge, or ideas. That's why it is important for people to be together and for them to spend time together. In the church where I have spent my childhood, they had communicated the faith life to me not just in scriptural words or just doctrines. They have communicated to me the way of life through evangelists, through people already saved, through my parents who were both christians. Of course, where there are people together, sin is there too. At times being with people brings stumbling blocks. One person's life even leads to the prevention of the faith life of [many] others. But, in spite of that, there are things in the soul life of faith which can't be communicated unless we live together and share time together.
10. Of course, we're not operating a commune of some kind. We're normally scattered all over society and making our living in various places. We arrange a time, meet at the set hour, and make it a rule to share the hour. Our focus [at that hour] is Sunday worship and on that day it is an hour in this place that we spend. We meet each other, pray together, praise, and listen to the Word. Besides that, there are many other times set in this church where we can assemble together.
11. But, regretfully, the sad fact is that the various opportunities for us to be able to spend together as we should are not made use of by most people. Due to different situations and physical limitations there are also some who can't make use of these opportunities. I feel sorry for them. Churches may need to come up with fresh opportunities for those kinds of folks. But, it is not necessarily due to such limitations but rather there are also cases where we ourselves choose "not to meet." That's really disappointing.
12. Bonhoeffer said about the fellowship visible to christians that it "is a gracious gift from the kingdom of God, and may be snatched away at any time from us." I completely agree with what he said. We must see what a loss it is when we let the limited hours go by during our limited life spans. At any rate, the words of Paul of "be imitators of me" mean that the christian life is something communicated through the fellowship we are given in His gracious blessing.
The Kingdom Of God Is In Power
13. So, Paul did not just send Timothy, but was telling them that he himself had the will to go to Corinth. "It seems some are overly proud thinking that I do not intend to come to you again. But, if it is the Lord's will, I will come to you soon. And of those who are lifting themselves up I will have them let me see not just their words but their power. Because the kingdom of God is not words but in power. What are you hoping for? That I come to you with a whip, or that I come to you in love and a meek heart?," (verses eighteen through twenty-one).
14. Previously Paul had said, "We have become fools for Christ, but you believe in Christ and are become wise persons. We are weak, but you are strong," (verse ten). But now, he is taking issue with the puffed up at Corinth over whether they have real power or not. They certainly spoke of a word of superior wisdom and may have been strong in this world. But, the only things that showed up in the real world of their lives were jealousy and fightings among them, and chaos due to their sexual sins, and a collapse in orderliness. Then he says, can you truly claim to be strong, can you truly claim to be wise or that true power is there among you? Paul says, "I want you to show me power and not words."
15. As matters of faith are separate from the visible physical world, words are not enough. They had among them this major problem of the idealistic tendency called Gnosticism which had crept into the Corinthian church. But, in fighting Gnosticism, the church from the beginning had been emphasizing that the visible world is the world God created and that matters of faith surely do have to do with the visible world. If that's so, that is, if it does have to do with our visible "daily life," then the important thing is if there is real power present among us or not.
16. And Paul has already said in chapter one, for the Jews it may be a stumbling block and for the Gentiles it may be foolish, but the crucified Christ is truly the power of God and the wisdom of God. "The kingdom of God is not in word but in power!" That power cannot be found apart from the crucified Christ.