1 Corinthians 4:6-21
A Life Worth Imitating

Sermon Disussion Questions:

  1. Read 1 Corinthians 4:6-21 together.

  2. Paul gives one of his sharpest rebukes to the Corinthians church in this chapter. What have been some of the major issues in the Corinthian church that Paul has addressed so far? What problem seems to be at the root?

  3. Have you ever felt tempted to take pride in something about yourself instead of giving the credit to God? What motivates you to do that?

  4. What kind of life should Christians expect to experience in the world? Why was it hard for the Corinthians to stomach that reality? Why is it difficult for us?

  5. Are there any areas in your life currently where you are not walking in full obedience to Christ due to fear of suffering? Explain.

  6. Was it prideful for Paul to say, “be imitators of me”? Why or why not? Should Christians today similarly say, “Imitate me”?

  7. What’s the difference between guides in Christ and fathers in Christ? Who are some examples of godly “fathers” or “mothers” in Christ that you have known?


We are all affected—for good or bad—by the examples set for us.

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Audie L. Murphy convinced his sister to lie to the US government so he could join the army, despite being underage. It worked. At 17 years old, Audie Murphy was sent overseas to fight the Axis powers. He proved to be an excellent soldier, quickly decorated with medals, and worked his way up to 2nd Lieutenant. On January 22nd, 1945, a joint French-American pushed into the Colmar pocket of Eastern France and met heavy German resistance. The ground was so frozen from the winter that men were unable to dig fox holes, and so suffered great casualties. Just four days later, every officer in Murphy’s company was either dead or injured, and the 120 rifleman had been reduced to 18. Then the Germans pressed their advantage. Six panzer tanks and over 250 German soldiers rushed at Murphy’s small company. Audie called his men to retreat but he himself remained at his post with a walkie-talkie and rifle, directing artillery fire on the enemy and returning fire till his rifle was out of ammunition.

Nearby, an American tank destroyer lay abandoned with its .50 caliber machine gun unused. The tank destroyer was on fire and full of ammunition and gasoline and could explode at any second. Nevertheless, Murphy climbed on top of the blazing vehicle, racked a shell into the Browning .50 caliber and returned fire on German soldiers who were within 10 yards of him. Murphy was immediately shot in the leg, but continued to return fire as the tank burned underneath him. Twice, the tank destroyer was hit directly with more German tank shells, rocking the vehicle backwards and nearly throwing Murphy from the gunner position. Yet, with what seemed like a kind of superhuman invincibility, Murphy remained in the tank, knowing it could explode any second, continuing to return fire on all sides. Amazingly, the German infantry began to retreat.

Only when Murphy ran out of ammunition did he leave the burning tank destroyer and return to his retreated company. But instead of getting immediate medical attention for the bullet wound in his leg, he gathered the company together and led a counter charge, expelling the Germans from the area. For his selfless acts of gallantry and courage that day, Murphy was awarded the highest award for valor available in the United States, the Medal of Honor. In fact, Murphy received every military combat medal possible and to this day is one of the most well-decorated American soldiers in all history.

We all love  stories like this, don’t we? The hero who everyone initially doubts until one day they rise up and pull off a miraculous feat of courage, grit, and strength that no one suspected they were capable of. And then the screen fades to black, and we read the epilogue text where the narrator explains the acclaim and awards that our hero received and we feel so vindicated on their behalf! “Finally, they got the recognition they deserve!”

But what happens when we’re presented with an underdog story of a person’s life that doesn’t seem all that attractive?  One where great sacrifices are made, and tremendous suffering is endured, but one where there is no worldly vindication? No military medals, no public recognition and esteem, no job promotion, no social media platform, no book deal? What if, on the contrary, the more this person lived righteously, the worse things got for them? And then imagine that this person turns to you and says, “Imitate me.”

In our text this morning, we will see the Apostle Paul set forth his life as a model for the Corinthians believers, and us today, to imitate. 

Our text this morning will be verses 6-21, but we’ll start our readimg with verse 1:

“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.  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. 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. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

In our text this morning, we will see from Paul three attributes of a life worth imitating:

1) A Life of Humble Dependence; 2) A Life of Worldly Suffering; 3) A Life Like that Looks like Jesus.

1. A Life of Humble Dependence (6-7)

“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit”

What does Paul mean by “all these things?” He’s referring back to everything he has said in the letter thus far, as far back as 1:10. And what have been some of the major themes Paul has addressed? Divisions in the church, the foolishness of the message of the cross, the wisdom of the world versus the wisdom of God, and the measure of true Christian fruitfulness. There seems to be one major sin that is at the root of the Corinthians problems: pride. They crave the praise and respect of those both inside and outside the church. They have made an idol out of eloquence and worldly wisdom, causing great divisions in the church. As Paul has responded to these major issues in the church, he references Apollos and himself several times—some in the church seem to be saying, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos.” The Corinthians were placing themselves in the judgment seat of God, judging the worthiness of these leaders by what they could see—their speaking ability, worldly wisdom, and visible fruitfulness in ministry (perhaps whose preaching attracted bigger crowds, and who built bigger churches). And in the first three chapters, Paul gives them a sharp rebuke:

  • Corinthians, your arrogance is leading to divisions in the church, but the Jesus who saved you is not divided.
  • The gospel message you believe is utter foolishness to the world. And any preacher you follow that preaches a gospel that seems wise to the world preaches a gospel that is emptied of its power to save.
  • You think that you can judge the merit of your favorite Christian leaders based on the fruit you can see, but your judgment (and even my judgment, Paul says) means nothing. God is the one who gives the growth, and God is the one who will judge the true fruit of every Christian on the last day.
  • All we are (me, Apollos, Peter) are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. We are nothing special. 

Throughout these proceeding chapters, Paul uses Apollos and himself as “placeholders” within his arguments, but the reality was that there were likely many teachers and leaders within the church who the Corinthians were idolizing.  So, when Paul says, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit”, he’s making the case that the Corinthians should think of their other teachers in the same way—as simple servants and stewards.

“That you may learn not to go beyond what is written”

What do you think Paul means by, “going beyond what is written?” He is likely referring to the following 5 OT passages he’s already referenced in 1 Corinthians:

  • 1:19 “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and nullify the cleverness of the clever” (Isa. 29:14).
  • 1:31 “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (Jer. 9:22–23 LXX).
  • 2:9 “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard and what has not entered the human mind, things God has prepared for those who love him” (Isa. 64:4 LXX).
  • 3:19 “He catches the wise in their cunning” (Job 5:13). \3:20 “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” (Ps. 93:11 LXX [94:11 MT]).

By going beyond what is written and boasting in men instead of God, the Corinthians were in essence thinking themselves smarter and stronger than God (Pillar). Instead of boasting in God alone, the Corinthians were boasting in their favorite teachers, and thus, in themselves. 

Isn’t it ironic how insidious the sin of pride is that we can think more highly of ourselves because of a person or movement that we follow? We see this all the time, don’t we? In smaller, sillier ways like who you consider to be the “Greatest of All Time” in Basketball (even though the only right answer is Michael Jordan), but also in more significant ways: which political party holds our ticket, which parenting philosophy we follow, and likely for us, simliar to the Corinthians, who our favorite Bible teachers are. And somehow, we make it all about us. “Everyone who thinks like me is right, and everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.”

To boast in anything or anyone other than God is idolatry.

Paul rebukes the Corinthians for “going beyond what is written in the OT,  which has led them to being “puffed up in favor of one against another.” “Puffed up” is one of Paul’s central accusations against the Corinthians—he uses it 7 times between 1 and 2 Corinthians (cf. 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4; 2 Cor. 12:20) The Corinthians may pride themselves as being “filled with the Spirit”, but their inflated ego eveals that they are really just filled with the wind. “Puffed up” is just another way to say arrogant. And what is arrogrance? It’s a failure in self-knowledge. Look what Paul says next: Vs 7 “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

Paul gives us three questions to consider: Who, What, Why? 

1. “Who sees anything different in you?” Or, “Who made you so special?”

If Paul was simply a steward of God’s grace, and a recipient of God’s gracious gifting, what right do the Corinthians (and what right do we have) to think more highly of ourselves?

That’s the negative side to this “who” question, but one commentator, David Garland, says that Paul’s “who” question can also be interpreted positively. Christians are special, but we are prone to forget that it is God who makes us special: It is God who saves you (1:18), chose you (1:27–28), and revealed to you the hidden mysteries of God (2:10–12), with the result that no one may boast (1:29). God is the source of your life in Christ (1:30) and activates all the spiritual gifts (12:6). God appointed the various roles in the church (12:28) and will give them the final victory over death (15:57). Everything special about you is attributable to God’s calling of you.

This is the great paradox of Christianity’s teaching on human dignity and worth: within ourselves alone, we have nothing we can boast in, and yet the Bible says that we are of inestimable worth. Why? It’s because our worth is inherited from God.  Murder is the most henious of crimes because every person is made in the image of God, and so to commit violence against another person is to also commit violence against God himself (Gen 9:6). 

2. “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Similarly, there is nothing that we can claim we have contributed to our salvation. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” There was no loveliness in us, nor obedience that compelled God to reach down to scoop us out of our bog of despair. And yet, he did! Because of his love, and his free choosing, he redeemed us from the bondage of our sin through the precious blood of Jesus, his son. And all Christians have been clothed not with a righteousness of their own, but with the righteousness of Christ. And we have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and equipped with spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. None of this emanates from us. All of it is undeserved mercy.

3. “Why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

This is Paul’s conclusion: we are not to boast. To be puffed up one against another effectively denies that God is the one who has given us everything. Nothing is inherently yours, so what right do you have to be arrogant or boastful (P. Marshall 1987: 205)?. We must learn to imitate Paul, who says, “What is Paul?”—merely a servant … graced by God (3:10; cf. 15:10). Grace levels the playing field. John Calvin says it well: “No room is left for taking pride in ourselves, when it is by God's grace [that] we are what we are.” Christian, what do you have that you did not receive? Imitate Paul’s example of humble dependence.

2. A Life of Wordly Suffering (8-13)

The Corinthians have become so worldly, so wrapped up in their pagan, decadent society that they believe themselves to be spiritual powerhouses, abounding in riches, and ruling the world (Schreiner). Again, we see the Corinthians incredible arrogance here that Paul rebukes with dripping sarcasm—“You have become rich! You have become kings!” They viewed their great wealth and honor in the eyes of the world as evidence of God’s blessing on their lives. 

Yet it is the path of Paul and the apostles that reveals the true place of believers in the world. 

Paul says that he and the other apostles are a “spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men—” like men thrown into a gladiator’s arena, but not to be a spectacle of honor and victory, but suffering, abuse, and defeat. Weak, held in disrepute, hungering, thirsting, poorly dressed, homesless, reviled, persecuted, and slandered. The scum of the world, or, in the words of the New Living Translation, “ Everybody’s trash!” (How’s that for your new Twitter bio?) In their pursuit of prosperity, worldly wisdom, and the respect of the world, the Corinthians are positioning themselves on the side that is opposing God! 

Friends, this is the heresy of the prosperity gospel and the false teachers who peddle it—the false belief that health, wealth, and worldly influence must be a sign of God’s blessing, and conversely, that the lack of these things is a sign that God is not pleased with you, or perhaps that there is unconfessed sin in your life that has led to that cancer diagnosis, relational fallout, or financial poverty. The Corinthians were looking at Paul— perhaps his physical deformities, lackluster oratory skills, shabby clothing, and blue-collar work ethic—and they turned their noses up at him. Who would want to follow a leader like that? What must God have against a person whose life looks like that?

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Paul says, Vs 9: “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death.” What does it mean to “exhibit” something? In one sense, to exhibit something could mean to put it out on display for people to notice and marvel at it. But there’s also a legal sense to this word. Think about how a lawyer might present evidence in a court room—“Exhibit A!” They are putting forward a piece of evidence to show the proof of their argument. This is what God did in the life of the apostles, and what God does today with all Christians, to prove definitively that the foolishness of the cross stands opposed to the wisdom of the world, and that those who choose to follow Jesus will necessarily be met with persecution and suffering. A Christian is one who is willing to be thought lesser of by the world, to be mistreated, to suffer, to go without, all for the sake of Christ. This is the kind of life that God calls beautiful.

Now I want to to be clear here: It’s not a sin to be financially stable and well thought of by outsiders. In fact, these are two qualifications the Bible gives to would-be pastors (1 Tim 3:4-5, 7). The sin comes when these things become your driving motivation over obedience to Christ; when you become willing to water down truth, compromise your convictions, and distance yourself from Jesus to receive the welcome of the world. 

Maybe at this point you’re inclined to ask the question, “If I’m called to imitate Paul’s life of worldly suffering, and I’m not experiencing much suffering in this present season, should I pursue more suffering?” Suffering is not an end in itself. Christians aren’t called to be like Buddhists who purposefully expose themselves to suffering to achieve enlightenment. We don’t pursue suffering for its own sake, but worldly suffering is the promised path for all who choose to follow Jesus. 

  • 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
  • Luke 15:19: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
  • Most striking of all, the reality of suffering for Jesus’ sake is so sure, that the Bible presents it as a necessary qualification for our glorification—our final salvation: Romans 8:16-17: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

It is impossible to live as a Christian in the world and not suffer for the sake of Christ. Friend, are there any areas in your life right now where you are not walking in obedience to Christ out of a fear of suffering? 

  • Is there a specific friend or family member that you need to have a conversation with about what you truly believe about Jesus?
  • Is there a brother or sister in Christ whom you need to confront regarding sin? Or is there someone you need to go to in humility and ask for forgivenss? 
  • Are there policies or practices at your place of work that you are submitting to that you know dishonor God?
  • Are there areas in your life where you are living too lavishly and dulling your heart with worldly comforts?

All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Imitiate Paul’s example of worldly suffering.

3. A Life That Looks like Jesus (14-21)

Vs 14: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” 

Do you see what tender love Paul has for the Corinthians, even after such a pointed rebuke? He anticipates that after reading those words, the Corinthians will feel great shame. But shame for shame’s sake is not Paul’s goal—repentence is. He calls them his beloved children. He’s patient with them, willing to endure their mischaracterizations, misunderstandings, and misguided desires in order to see them mature in Christ. 

And how is Paul able to love the Corinthians like this? How is he able to overlook their grossly unfair evaluation of his ministry and continue pursuing them with this patient, fatherly love? 

I think the first and obvious answer is that Paul knows this is how Jesus dealt with him! Even when he was far off, an enemy of the cross and a persecutor of Christians, God in Christ sovereignly chose to love him, pursue him, and redeem him. God has been patient with Paul, and God has been patient with us.

But we also saw another answer to this question last week when we looked at the beginning of chapter 4. Whose judgment of a believer’s worthiness is it that ultimately counts? It’s not the world’s judgment, it’s not the church’s judgment, it’s not even our own judgment. It is God’s judgment—the one “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (4:5).

At the end of his life, Paul knows that the only opinion that counts is God’s. And so this is what allows him to keep loving, keep investing, and keep enduring, even if the church doesn’t see, doesn’t understand, and doesn’t reciprocate. God’s patience and God’s love.

Do you want to know the secret to longevity in ministry? Whether you’re a pastor or a faithful church member? This is it! It’s not about you. There’s a reason why Paul told at least two other churches to “not grow weary in doing good” (Gal 6:9; 2 Thess 3:13)—because there’s a very real temptation to grow weary in the Christian life. We pour ourselves into the lives of other Christians and may see little or no visible fruit. Or worse yet, like Paul, we may even be micharacterized and maligned in our desire to do others good. But we can press on because we know that others evaluation of our lives, and even our own evaluation does not ultimately matter. God is your judge, He is faithful, and your labor of love will not be in vain.

Vs 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.”

The Greek word  for “countless” here literally means 10,000 guides in Christ. The Corinthians apparently had an embarrasment of riches when it came to spiritual teachers. Perhaps they could wake up on a Sunday morning, walk to the town square in Corinth, and have their pick of a vast assortment of preachers to listen to. But they had very few fathers in the faith like Paul. 

What’s the difference between a teacher and a father or mother? Teachers don’t bear the same responsibility toward children as do fathers and mothers. A teacher may earnestly believe in what they’re teaching, and genuinely care about those who are listening, but they aren’t ultimately responsible for a child’s flourishing—their parents are. Teachers don’t go home with students at night; they aren’t there to comfort them when they have night terrors. They aren’t there to care for them when they get sick. They don’t get to stick with these children year after year, through good times and bad. Teachers can be a wonderful blessing, but they don’t bear the same weight of responsibility that God has assigned to mothers and fathers. 

I think this has a lot of relevance for us today too, especially with how we think about the essential role pastors play in the life of believers. Right now, you could go on YouTube and find thousands of Christian preachers and teachers who are far more intelligent and compelling than the pastors you have in your church, and you might begin to believe that you would be better served spiritually to stay at home on Sunday mornings in your pajamas and listen to your favorite teacher online. But ask yourself this, what responsibility does this teacher have toward you? Absolutely none. Will they know the names of your children and how each one is growing and struggling? Will they be there to weep with you and pray with you when you get your cancer diagnosis? Are they on hand to meet over coffee to discuss doubts you are having in your faith? Will they be invested enough in your life to patiently and graciously call out your sin and point you to Christ? This is why we talk so much at Quinault about the necessity of being a member, not just attender, of a local church. If you want to grow in your Christian faith, you need to be somewhere where you can truly know others and be truly known yourself, and not just by your pastors, but by other brothers and sisters in Christ. We too have many teachers in Christ, but few fathers.

Vs 16: “I urge you then, be imitators of me.” 

Lest you think this is a wildly arrogant thing for Paul to say, look at what he says in the next verse, verse 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.” The NLT translates this, “He [Timothy] will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus.”

Why does Paul say this? Why not just cut out the middle man and say, “I urge you then, imitate Christ.” Wouldn’t that be more accurate? Less prone to misinterpretation? But he doesn’t do this. In fact, he doubles down on this a second time in 1 Corinthians 11:1 where he says again, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Why does he say this? Would any of us be willing to say the same—“Imitate me and the way that I follow Jesus?”

Again, I think the answer to this question is so important for us today: We need physical, emobied representations of Christ to know what it means to follow Christ. 

There’s another important verse I want us to look at to help us better understand this concept. This comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians in Colossians 1:24 (another highly controversial/misunderstood passage): “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”Man, you read that and you think, “Paul, where’s your PR person?! Don’t you know how arrogant that sounds?” Is Paul saying that the afflictions of Jesus—his torture and brutal crucifixion—were in some way deficient?

John Piper is really helful here in a sermon he gave in 2008 on this passage: "What’s missing in Christ’s afflictions is the presentation of those afflictions to the people for whom he died — the personal, touchable, visible, seeable presentation of his afflictions to those for whom he died...” It’s like Paul is saying, “My suffering will become the visible reenactment of the suffering of Christ for others so that when they see me suffering to reach them, to touch them, to love them, they will have a visual enactment of Christ’s love for them.”

The point is this: Insofar as you love Jesus, obey Jesus, and suffer for Jesus, you become like a physical representation of Jesus for others to model their lives after. You’re life puts his love, his beauty and his worth on display.  What a glorious honor that is! What a sobering weight that is. And yet if you’ve spent any time around other Christians, you know that this truth bears out.

This is why we benefit so much from the encouragement of Christian biographies. Through the stories of missionaries like Jim Elliot and Amy Carmichael, we see what it looks like to count the cost of discipleship and consider it pure joy. Through the perseverance and courage of the Reformers like Martin Luther and Calvin, we see that Jesus is jealous for the purity of his Church.

And I can think of examples in my own life, like one brother in Christ from my church in Kentucky who, like Jesus, suffered with enormous physical anguish (for him it was a undiagnosable intestinal issue) for several years and yet he praised God through it all. I think of another brother who moved his family across the country to serve as an associate pastor at a church only to experience (like Christ), false accusations, slander, and disonor and yet choose (again like Christ), not to revile that church in return, but to bless them and pray for them.

And I can think of many more examples, as can you, I’m sure, of faithful brothers and sisters who showed us tangibly, physically, what Jesus looks like. This is the kind of life Jesus calls you to lead. A life where you can say, “imtiate me as I imitate Christ.”

So, a life worth imitating is 1) A Life of Humble Dependence; 2) A Life of Worldly Suffering; 3) A Life that Looks like Jesus

Brothers and sisters, it is impossible to receive the spiritual benefits of Jesus without also embracing the cross of Jesus. We must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). But take heart, because the outcome is sure:

Hebrews 12:1-2  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [Christ-like examples that came before, and Christ-like examples here and now], let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”