Paul was in a dilemma. How could he further communicate with the recalcitrant Corinthians? His powerful visit to the town, following the personal encouragement of the Lord Jesus, had resulted in the birth of the church. Jesus had stirred Paul to action with the promise that he had many people in that city (Acts 18:10). Now, however, Paul was getting to know these awkward people.
Though they were proof of his apostolic ministry they were proving arrogant, divisive, opinionated, critical and carnal in every way. Yet he still addressed them as ‘My beloved children’ (1 Cor. 4:14). Through the gospel he became their father, not simply their leader or minister but their ‘father’ (1 Cor. 4:15).
The New Testament is full of family references. Timothy, who is addressed tenderly as ‘my son’, is told to treat the younger women as ‘sisters’, the older women as ‘mothers’, younger men as ‘brothers’ and older men are not to be sharply rebuked but appealed to as ‘fathers’ (1 Tim. 5:1-2).
Intimacy characterised the church. The language of family relationships pervaded the whole. Paul’s great epistle to the Romans, full of enough theology to line book shelves with the multiplied commentaries and theological tomes that explain it, concludes with a chapter of heartfelt greetings to individuals with personal touches such as ‘Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine’ (Rom. 16:14).
Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘My brothers, my beloved, my longed-for, my joy, my crown’ (Phil. 4:1). Will he ever stop? How many more words will tumble out to express his love and delight in the church that he has helped to bring to birth? How he expresses something of Christ’s heart to his beloved church.
How far removed from the ‘hire ‘em’ and ‘fire ‘em’ atmosphere which sometimes prevails in the modern church. How much business talk and technique has invaded the glorious household of God where brothers and sisters come to be called ‘staff’.
Thank God for John Piper’s magnificent book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals with its frank wake-up call to pastors and his red light alarm warning us against the frightening drift.
Paul does face a painful dilemma. His beloved children, to whom he has become a father through the gospel, need some admonition. So how is he to proceed?
I’ll send my son
Very interestingly, he chooses to send them an exemplary son, ‘I have sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 4:17). In so doing, he follows the magnificent example set by God himself who sent His unique and wondrous Son to model sonship for us.
Because Jesus perfectly represented the Father, lived in full obedience to His command, and accomplished the work he was given to do, we are saved; God’s purpose is being fulfilled; the world is on its way to new creation and God’s glory has been and will be revealed. If the Son hadn’t perfectly obeyed; if he had chosen an alternative route, and acted independently and argued, ‘I also am God, I’ll choose my own path,’ all would have been lost.
Praise God, an obedient Father-besotted Son who delighted in doing his Father’s will showed a rebel planet how to live as a true son. He exceeded all the great advice handed out in the book of Proverbs about good sons and radiated the Father’s glory in the midst of a dark world. Refusing independence, He only spoke what the Father told him and only did what the Father showed him. Doing the Father’s will was meat and drink to him (John 4:34). He found his nourishment there.
Now it’s Timothy’s turn. Paul is not coming so he is sending a faithful and beloved son. How will Timothy handle his responsibility? ‘Paul’s not coming. Not sure why. I guess he’s busy. I am not sure he could really handle this anyway. It needs a fresh approach.’ Such a style would have spelt disaster.
Exemplifying the life of a son
John says of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1:14). A beautifully attractive life was on display and this life embodied a revelation of God. The family likeness could not be hidden. ‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). As John later stated, ‘… the life was manifested … what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the word of life …’ (1 John 1:1-2).
In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul claims that his gospel came to them not in word only but also in power and the Holy Spirit, but then he goes on to add, ‘You know what manner of men we prove to be among you’ (1 Thess. 1:5). He is unashamed to call their attention to his lifestyle. Living the life is a huge message and Paul was unashamed to say, ‘the things you have … seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil. 4:9).
Sadly, modern evangelicals know little about such relationships, aiming to develop their father/son relationship exclusively with God Himself by studying the Scriptures alone. Happy to aim to live as sons of God, they are not looking for the personal and intimate relationship so evident in New Testament times. Nor is this often being provided. Surely this represents loss and the atmosphere of the church reflects it.
Independent individuals retain their personal devotions, do their personal evangelism and sustain their personal walk with God, but where is the family? Where is the intimacy? How can we see the kind of development that John refers to when he writes to the fathers, young men and children (1 John 2:12-13). Surely this is not simply a reference to how old a guy is. We know that maturity doesn’t come simply with age; growing old comes with age. Maturity comes with taking responsibility, and we need fathers in the church who will help to raise up the kind of young men that John describes, namely ‘who have overcome the evil one’ (1 John 2:13-14).
Fathers don’t have to be very old
I thank God for a guy who took me under his wing when I was about 20 and he was about 26. I was a new believer but he had walked with God for years and he ‘fathered’ me, cared for me, admonished me, modelled a walk of faith and brought me into some maturity.
Had I only sat in church, listening to the preaching and attending the meetings, I would never have grown like I did under his significant influence.
This is true for women also, many of whom become wives and mothers but, in our modern world, often live far from their natural parents. Young wives and mothers desperately need the older women referred to in Titus 2:3-5 who will teach the younger women how to love their husbands and raise their children with real ‘hands-on’ insight and tenderness. Family integration and the interweaving of lives that draw strength from one another and impart life and help to one another should characterise the local church.
New converts need to encounter not simply a series of meetings and events but a family dwelling together in love and light where grace is not simply ‘in the air’, but in personal relationships which communicate life, support and strength.