Ethical concerns, as many commentators have noticed, occupy a significant place in the Pauline Epistles. Paul is never content to give only theology, for he also applies this theology to behavior so that his audience will know what a Christ-transformed life looks like. This ethical teaching is frequently concentrated in the second half of Paul’s letters, but in 1 Corinthians it appears throughout the epistle. We have already seen some of it, for example, in the Apostle’s admonition that we not boast in men (3:21). In today’s passage, ethical concerns are discussed again.
Paul tells the Corinthian believers to “be imitators” of him (4:16). Of course, the Apostle refers to their imitation of him in both his teaching and in his actions, and in the immediate context Paul stresses particularly that they imitate him in enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel (see vv. 10–13). He presents this call to imitation as a consequence of what he has just said about his being their father (vv. 14–16), and this does not surprise us. After all, there are few things more natural than for children to imitate their parents. Because the Corinthian believers are Paul’s “children,” they must imitate their “father” by not acting in worldly ways in the church but by faithfully serving others, not exalting themselves but bearing the reproach of Christ (see 1:10–4:5).
Note that Paul does not present himself as the ultimate model for the Corinthians. Later in the epistle, he adds the qualifier that the Corinthians are to imitate him as he imitates Christ (11:1). As important and faithful as Paul was, he was still a sinner, and one should never imitate sin. But as Paul lived in a manner faithful to Jesus, he was a model for believers. There may not be any Apostles walking the earth today, but we do well to find examples in the church whom we can imitate insofar as they imitate Christ. In so doing, let us always remember, as John Calvin comments, “This . . . must always be observed, so as not to follow any man, except in so far as he leads us to Christ.”
When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he could not be with them to give them an example in person. Yet, he did not leave them without assistance, for he sent Timothy to guide them in his absence (4:17). Timothy had taken part in the original Corinthian mission when Paul planted the church (Acts 18:1–11), so the congregation in Corinth knew he would be a reliable guide.