Updated: Nov 18, 2022
“I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?” - 1 Corinthians 4:14-21
Discipling someone is far more than just leading them through a 13-week curriculum. Discipleship curriculums can be very valuable and certainly have their place, but in 1 Corinthians 4:14-21, Paul describes many of the elements required for effectively discipling others which go beyond leading someone through a curriculum.
Please notice from this passage that discipling others must be rooted in genuine love. When there is Christ-like love for others, there naturally and simultaneously exists a willingness to make the appropriate sacrifices that foster spiritual growth and Christian discipleship in others.
Personally, my youth pastor made huge personal sacrifices in an effort to disciple me when I was a teenager. As I look back on those days, I see his love for me and how amazingly Christ-like it was.
Without a heart of sincere love, the sacrifice of discipling others will be short-lived. Paul refers to these Corinthians as his “beloved sons.” The word “beloved” in verse 14 means to love purely or dearly. In spite of the Corinthian carnality and their numerous shortcomings, these people are “beloved” to Paul. He has a pure and a dear love for them.
This is one reason why 1 Corinthians 13:7 explains that love (more specifically “charity”) “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Because of the extreme nature of their problems and carnality, 1 Corinthians 13:7 is amazingly applicable in describing the way that Paul loved the Corinthian believers.
In 2 Corinthians 6:11-13, Paul explains his heartfelt affection when he says his “heart is enlarged” for them.
In 2 Corinthians 11:11, Paul plainly states that he loves them, and for verification’s sake he says, “God knoweth.”
In 2 Corinthians 12:15, Paul explains, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you…”, because he loves them! Don’t forget that he spent “a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:11).
It has been said that the way to spell love is T.I.M.E. and Paul has certainly exhibited his love for them by giving them his time.
Paul desires to see these immature Christians grow into conformity to Christ. He wants Christ to be fully formed in them so out of a heart of love, he provides for them counsel, comfort, character, Christ-centered teaching, and calm correction.
1. Counsel (vs 14)
The word “warn” in verse 14 comes from the same word that Christians derive the idea of “nouthetic counseling.” It means “to put in mind, to caution or to reprove gently.”
In verse 14 Paul is explaining that he’s not writing the book of Corinthians to “shame” them but instead to counsel them; to put them in mind of things that they need to hear.
By the way, they were ashamed of themselves after reading the rebuke, which is the entire book of 1 Corinthians, but shaming them was not his goal, it was merely an indirect result. His goal was to “warn” them; to gently reprove them by giving them Holy Spirit-inspired counsel.
If we are going to be effective at discipling others, we must be prepared to lovingly counsel them. In order for us to provide Spirit-inspired counsel, we must ourselves be saturated with the Scripture. When we offer counsel to those we are discipling, it is only Spirit-filled to the extent that it is from the Word of God. Both heaven-sent power, and life-changing conviction come from the Scripture.
If we want to see Christ formed in others, we must be biblically equipped and humbly willing to warn/counsel them about the potential consequences of their life choices, out of a heart of genuine love.
2. Comfort (vs 15)
In verse 15, Paul is contrasting the roles of instructor and father. Teachers and tutors certainly provide help and instruction for students but the comfort that is provided from a loving father is unique. Paul is reminding them that he is their spiritual father when he says that it was “in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
A person could have “ten thousand instructors” and they can all be helpful, but the love and comfort provided by the one who introduced them savingly to Christ is special. Paul is describing a special affection.
Certainly that is true for me. I’ve had countless teachers in my life and I appreciate them. While my mom is the one who led me to Christ, the primary person who discipled me was my youth pastor. Both my mom and my youth pastor will always have a very special place in my heart because of their involvement in attempting to foster Christ-likeness in me.
Over the years, I’ve shared with my youth pastor the details of my spiritual successes and failures. He has cried and prayed with me on more than one occasion and specifically through the numerous heartaches along my spiritual journey. As a result, a unique level of spiritual intimacy and trust has developed which brings an amazing comfort to my heart and a sense of security to my mind.
As Christians engage in leading people to Jesus, and then discipling them, they will find themselves cultivating deep and abiding relationships that are both rewarding and priceless. Those comforting relationships exist because of the commonality in Christ and the joy of together being in the family of God. (Consider Romans 8:14-17)
3. Character (vs 16)
In verse 16, Paul beseeches them to follow him. The word “follow” in this passage is the idea of “imitate or mimic.” He wants them to imitate his pursuit of holiness and mimic his Christ-like character.
Paul is not suggesting that they follow him out of a sense of arrogance or a know-it-all spirit. Instead, he suggests that they follow him because he knows both the dangers/heartache of sinful choices, as well as the spiritual safety and security found in pursuing Christ-likeness.
Paul understood the importance of leading by example. He knew that in order for Christ to be formed in their character, Christ must be formed in him. He wanted them to know the many benefits that abiding in Christ provides.
To be clear, Paul’s primary motive for pursuing Christ-likeness was to be pleasing to God. After all that Jesus had done for him, Paul knew that it was his “reasonable service” to strive for a holy character and Christ-likeness (Romans 12:1-2). However, a secondary motive for Paul was that he understood that when Christians model Christ-likeness, it influences others to do the same.
Remember though, it’s also true that when Christian leaders model mediocrity or even carnality, it has the potential to influence others to do the same. Paul tells them to “be ye followers of me” because he knew his character was Christ-like, and he also understood the power of influence.
Numerous other New Testament passages emphasize the importance of following the examples of individuals displaying a Christ-like character. (See 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 5:3; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; Hebrews 13:7; Titus 2:7)
And, numerous Bible passages emphasize the importance of avoiding but learning from the examples of individuals displaying an ungodly character. (See 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Proverbs 1:10-16)
This lays a heavenly responsibility at the feet of the person being discipled but also the person doing the discipling. Every Christian needs to be genuinely pursuing holiness for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s.
4. Christ-Centered Teaching (vs 17)
At the end of verse 17, Paul reminds them that he is personally involved in discipling many Christians at once. Having already spent a lot of time in person with the Corinthian believers and knowing the importance of them being taught more about Christ, Paul sends them Timothy.
Like the Corinthians, Timothy is someone that Paul loves very much and specifically is one of his spiritual sons. Timothy has been “faithful in the Lord,” and has already been so well discipled by Paul that he is now essentially a duplicate of Paul. Timothy is being sent into an extremely carnal and dysfunctional church ministry, but Paul sends him with complete confidence knowing that Timothy will bring them “into remembrance of (Paul’s) ways which be in Christ.” (vs 17)
Timothy’s job is to teach them more about Christ just as Paul would. (This is the point when a 13-week curriculum might be handy.)
Remember that Timothy is an extension of the Apostle Paul’s ministry and his presence with them represents not only his own sacrifice and investment in them, but the sacrifice and investment of their spiritual father, the Apostle Paul.
Paul is teaching Christ in other churches, but at the same time has a genuine concern for the carnal Corinthian believers, so he sends his top man to cultivate Christ-likeness among those believers. This is a biblical goal of every spiritually mature Christian; to participate in cultivating Christ-likeness in other believers. This is what it means to be involved in discipling others; to cultivate Christ-likeness in them.
Paul says to the Galatian believers, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…” (Galatians 4:19). The word “travail” describes the experience of physical pain and emotional agony that often accompanies childbirth. Depending on who you’re discipling, travail can be a very accurate description of the work and investment of the discipler. Paul wants to see Christ “formed” in them and he knows that this Spirit-filled work is worth the reward.
He says to the Roman believers that God predestined them to be “conformed to the image of his Son.” The word “conformed” is the idea of being fashioned like unto, or jointly formed, or similar. God has predestined believers to be fashioned like unto the image of His Son, and He chooses to use Christian people to cultivate this conformity in one another through discipleship.
Remember that the term “Christian” is a descriptive term that basically means a person who is acting like Christ. Disciples of Christ were first called “Christians” in Antioch. (See Acts 11:26) Originally “Christian” was a term of derision used by those who had disdain for Jesus and his followers. (More and more this is becoming the case again).
The goal of every Christian discipler is to see the one they are discipling act like Christ, to genuinely exhibit His attributes. In other words, the goal is to have an understanding and an application of the Word of God, and therefore manifest the character of Christ so that the one being discipled is accurately called a Christian. This only comes as a result of Bible-based Christ-centered teaching.
In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts the believers in that church to be like Christ. Specifically, he wants them to have the humble mind of Christ. (Philippians 2:1-11)
With the Spirit’s enabling, Paul and Timothy wanted to see the Corinthians believers do away with their carnality and embrace Christ-likeness.
This spiritual father, the Apostle Paul, and his top protégé Timothy, wanted the Corinthian believers to be discipled in such a way that Christ was formed in them; that they were conformed to the image of Christ; that they were accurately called “Christians,” and that they would have the mind of Christ in them. Each of these ideas is synonymous with the maturation of the Christian disciple.
While the Corinthians would have certainly appreciated seeing Paul in person, many of them understood Paul’s sacrifice to send Timothy as well as the benefits Timothy provided to them through his Christ-centered teaching and spiritual guidance. However, others of them were fine that Paul wasn’t there personally because they preferred to continue in their carnality. This attitude, and the deeds which sprang from it, is what prompts Paul’s correction of them.
5. Correction (vs 18-21)
These Corinthians had a lot of things that needed correction but here Paul corrects them for being proud. “Some are puffed up.” (vs 18) “Some” implies not all, but “some” in the church at Corinth “are puffed up” in arrogance. Paul is getting right to the heart of the matter. The numerous sinful things that these Corinthian believers were obviously involved in sprang up from their less obvious prideful hearts.
Paul is the type of spiritual father who doesn’t only address the symptoms, but he also gets to the actual source of the problem.
The Apostle Paul corrects them humbly with his own spiritual frailty in mind. Throughout his redeemed life, he has battled his own propensity toward sinful pride and he describes that in 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.
As Paul corrects their pride problem, he is doing it out of a heart of love, personal humility, and deep concern. He is very likely familiar with the wisdom and warnings found in the book of Proverbs.
Remember the list in Proverbs 6 of things that the Lord hates? The first item listed is a “proud look.”
Proverbs 11:2 states, “When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.”
Proverbs 16:5 explains, “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord…”
Proverbs 16:18-19 cautions, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”
As a loving spiritual father, the Apostle Paul wants these Corinthian believers to avoid the many serious consequences of a prideful heart. 1 Corinthians 5:6 explains that their “glorying (a similar idea to their being puffed up) is not good” and “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” In verse 7 they are instructed to “purge out therefore the old leaven“ and pursue humble, sacrificial Christ-likeness.
The presence of pride in the heart of a Christian disciple inhibits Christ from being fully formed in them. The Corinthian arrogance fostered the notion that there would be no earthly accountability, “as though (Paul) would not come to (them.)” (1 Corinthians 4:18)
Much like children in a classroom when the teacher leaves for an extended period of time, the Corinthians believers took advantage of the situation. Most children see the teacher’s temporary absence as an opportunity to goof around and be playful with their friends. Some more bold students may be dancing atop their desk, and just then, the teacher returns to see that little Johnny has some amazing dance moves, but the class is in disarray.
The teacher has the responsibility to enact loving and swift correction.
Paul explains to these Corinthians, “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.” (1 Corinthians 4:19). In order words, Paul is saying “if the Lord allows me to come to you, I will not listen to merely your verbal explanations, but I will look at the substantive things that you have done.” Paul is less interested in well-articulated speech, and more interested in the power of their actions, whether good or bad. It is from that vantage point that his correction will flow.
In verse 21 he describes his corrective responsibility when he suggests, “shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?”
The Christian discipler should not be shy to lovingly correct the one they are attempting to disciple. Our spiritual children occasionally need correction from their spiritual father. Although it can be difficult, loving correction in the spirit of meekness is often the agent of change that God uses to foster Christ-likeness in the life of a young believer.
1 Corinthians 4 concludes by describing the need for spiritual correction, and 1 Corinthians 5 continues that topic by appropriately opening with an explanation and example of needful church discipline which helps cultivate holiness in disciples of Christ. Effective spiritual mentoring and discipleship requires the difficult task of correction. It must be loving and sometimes it will be strong, but that correction must always be Bible-based and done with the goal of Christ being further formed in the life of the spiritually discipled.
Please be reminded that your participation in the making of Christian disciples is God’s command to every Christian. Seeing people saved and then discipled is not just the responsibility of the full-time pastor or the local church leadership, but it is a job God gives to every believer.
In Matthew 28:19-20, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, He instructs all disciples of Christ to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…”
This passage is not only a command to evangelize, but also it is a command to disciple. Specifically, it’s a command to teach others His commands. Jesus instructs His disciples to be human instruments through which Christian converts can be further conformed to the image of Christ.
2 Timothy 2:2 describes the generational impact of faithful Christian discipleship. Four generations of Christ-followers are mentioned in that single verse. Active participation in Christian discipleship can have a huge positive impact on generations to come.
Christian discipleship is not just about discipling your biological children, though that is important, but Christian discipleship also includes having spiritual children and aiding them in spiritual growth. Every believer should have children in the faith and every believer should be personally pursuing biblical knowledge so that they are prepared to pour that knowledge into younger believers from a heart of humility and love.
Involvement in the ministry of Christian discipleship requires the ability to biblically counsel, comfort in a fatherly way, personally model Christ-like character, provide Christ-centered teaching, and be willing to be involved in needful times of humble correction; all done out of a heart of love.
The responsibility and work of Christian discipleship is significant and includes many ups and downs, but it also includes great eternal benefit and heavenly reward. Discipling others is difficult at times, but seeing Christ formed in others is always worth it.
The above article was written by James C. Johnson and is a sermon he recently preached. James C. Johnson is the Pastor of NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Everlasting Strength Isaiah 26:3-4 by Pastor James C. Johnson