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In 1 Cor. 4:14 Paul told the church that they were his “beloved children,” because he was the one who had established that assembly by the preaching of the gospel in Corinth. As the spiritual father of yet-immature children, he had the right to admonish them so that they could grow up into Christ.
1 Cor. 4:15 (NASB) then says,
15 For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father [gennao] through the gospel.
The KJV is more literal, saying: “for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” A father, of course, is one who begets, either physically or spiritually, so either translation is accurate. However, the KJV better reveals the spiritual truth about begetting. Paul was the “father,” the gospel was the “seed,” the church was the “wife,” and the individual people were the “children” in this spiritual metaphor.
The Greek word gennao has a dual meaning. When applied to a man (as above), it means “to beget.” When applied to a woman, it means “to give birth.” Dr. Bullinger says this in his notes on Matt. 1:2,
“begat. Gr. gennao. When used of the father = to beget or engender; and when used of the mother it means to bring forth into the world.”
So in the genealogy of Jesus in Matt. 1:2 (KJV), we read that “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren.” The NASB reads, “To Abraham was born Isaac.” Certainly, we understand, but technically, this is incorrect. Abraham did not give birth to anyone. He only begat Isaac. It was to Sarah that Isaac was born.
Paul, being a father to the Corinthian believers, had begotten them with the seed of the gospel. He had not given birth to them, for that was the role of a mother, not a father. It is important to know the difference, not so much in 1 Cor. 4:15, but in other passages where many translators miss the distinction and thereby hide much truth.
Another good example of a misunderstanding is found in 1 Peter 1:23 (KJV), which reads,
23 Being born again [gennao], not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.
No seed can give birth. Seed begets. Birth comes later. Mother’s Day arrives about nine months after Father’s Day.
Peter goes on to describe the difference between physical and spiritual seed, saying in 1 Peter 1:24, 25,
24 For, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, 25 but the word of the Lord abides forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you.
Fleshly seed from our biological fathers is like grass and flowers. They have a temporary “glory,” but eventually, they wither and die, because they are mortal. By contrast, “the word of the Lord,” which is the gospel, “abides forever.” In other words, if we are begotten by the abiding word of God, then that holy seed in us is immortal.
More than that, it is incorruptible and sinless. 1 John 3:9 says (literally),
9 No one who is begotten of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God.
Hence, if we sin (as Paul says), it is the flesh that sins, not the new man. The new man cannot sin. For this reason, in Paul’s discussion of the two “I’s” in Rom. 7:16, 17, we read,
16 But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.
The entire passage is a bit awkward and difficult to comprehend, but if we understand that Paul had two “I’s,” one fleshly and one spiritual, then we can make sense of Paul’s inner conflict. The fleshly “I” was following the command to sin—that is, to violate the Law—while the spiritual “I” was in agreement with the Law of God (Rom. 7:25). Paul’s spiritual “I” had been begotten by the Spirit.
By ignoring or hiding the distinction between begetting and birthing, the translators have spawned the idea that believers are now “born again,” when, in fact, technically, they have been begotten by receiving (by faith) the seed of the gospel and are now awaiting their birth on the first day of some feast of Tabernacles in the future.
That which has been begotten by this spiritual, incorruptible seed is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This spiritual embryo is the “new man” (Col. 3:10, KJV), our new identity as sons of God, now that the “old man” (Col. 3:9, KJV) has been put to death. The old man was begotten by our biological parents through corruptible and mortal seed; the new man was begotten by incorruptible and immortal seed.
As we identify with this “new man,” reckoning it to be the real “I,” we begin to learn how to walk according to the spirit and not by the flesh. Because “we know that the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14), whichever identity we claim in the divine court is who we are. If we claim fleshly identity from Adam or Israel or from our natural parents, then God will treat us as children of the flesh. However, if we claim to be the new man that has been begotten by our heavenly Father, then God will consider us to be His children—sons of God.
Not knowing the distinction between begotten and born again hinders many believers in their Christian walk without their awareness. Without a clear distinction, they tend to think that the Christian life is a matter of training the old man to serve God, instead of following the sinless leading of the spiritual man within. They try to reform the old man, rather than put him to death.
This results in a strange situation, where a new man has been begotten in them, but their attention is focused upon the old man—as if their true identity is in the flesh. It is a good thing to be begotten by the gospel, but believers should also learn to change their identity.
To put to death the old man means to reckon him dead—as if he no longer exists. To live according to the new man means to reckon him as the real you. It is a lot of work to try to keep the old man from sinning; but our call is simply to walk out the life of the new man, not letting the old man take a single breath.
The evidence of success, Paul says, is how well we concur with the Law of God (Rom. 7:22). If we violate the Law, which is sin (1 John 3:4), then we know that the old man is yet alive and well. If we are not only concurring with the law, but also “serving” it (Rom. 7:25), then it is certain that the old man is truly dead, because the new man does not sin. By not comprehending this truth, many who think that they are spiritual are yet carnal, for they claim to be led by the Spirit, while at the same time reject and put away the law of God.
Paul continues in 1 Cor. 4:16, 17, saying,
16 I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in the church.
Children imitate their parents quite naturally. So also, insofar as Paul’s ways and teachings were of Christ, he tells them to imitate what they have seen and heard from him. Timothy was sent to them as a reminder of these things, because Timothy taught and lived the same manner of life that Paul did.
Paul does not attempt to reconstruct all of his teaching here. To know Paul’s teaching, one must read the rest of his writings, especially his great theological treatise which he wrote to the believers in Rome.
Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:18-20,
18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power [dunamis]. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power.
Paul warns them to watch what they say against him, because he will soon return. Those who opposed his teaching might be able to convince those who did not yet have a clear concept of the gospel; but what will they do when Paul confronts them in person? They ought to have compiled a list of questions for Paul to answer when he returned. They should not have assumed Paul was wrong and then tried to displace him by convincing others of their contradictory views.
It is interesting to see that Paul does not appeal to his authority [exousia], but to his power [dunamis]. As a “father,” he might have claimed authority over them. But the true gospel comes with power, as we read in Acts 1:8, “you will receive power [dunamis] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Paul himself did not depend solely upon words, but upon the manifestation of the Holy Spirit that bore witness to his gospel.
Yet as a father, he intended to return to Corinth. Upon his return, he intended to correct the errors that had crept into the assembly. So he says in 1 Cor. 4:21,
21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
What do you want? Take your pick. Do I need to give you a spiritual beating? Is it not better that I come with love and a spirit of gentleness?
This concludes the first section of Paul’s letter. Hereafter, he deals more fully with the specific problems in the church from Chloe’s letter. The first four chapters deal with the roots of the problem, but beginning in chapter five Paul examines the fruit of the tree.