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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 17–21
Verses 17–21

Here, I. He tells them of his having sent Timothy to them, to bring them into remembrance of his ways in Christ, as he taught every where in every church (1 Cor. 4:17)-- to remind them of his ways in Christ, to refresh their memory as to his preaching and practice, what he taught, and how he lived among them. Note, Those who have had ever so good teaching are apt to forget, and need to have their memories refreshed. The same truth, taught over again, if it give no new light, may make new and quicker impression. He also lets them know that his teaching was the same every where, and in every church. He had not one doctrine for one place and people, and another for another. He kept close to his instructions. What he received of the Lord, that he delivered, 1 Cor. 11:23. This was the gospel revelation, which was the equal concern of all men, and did not very from itself. He therefore taught the same things in every church, and lived after the same manner in all times and places. Note, The truth of Christ is one and invariable. What one apostle taught every one taught. What one apostle taught at one time and in one place, he taught at all times and in all places. Christians may mistake and differ in their apprehensions, but Christ and Christian truth are the same yesterday, today, and for ever, Heb. 13:8. To render their regard to Timothy the greater, he gives them his character. He was his beloved son, a spiritual child of his, as well as themselves. Note, Spiritual brotherhood should engage affection as well as what is common and natural. The children of one father should have one heart. But he adds, “He is faithful in the Lord—trustworthy, as one that feared the Lord. He will be faithful in the particular office he has now received of the Lord, the particular errand on which he comes; not only from me, but from Christ. He knows what I have taught, and what my conversation has been in all places, and, you may depend upon it, he will make a faithful report.” Note, It is a great commendation of any minister that he is faithful in the Lord, faithful to his soul, to his light, to his trust from God; this must go a great way in procuring regard to his message with those that fear God.

II. He rebukes the vanity of those who imagined he would not come to them, by letting them know this was his purpose, though he had sent Timothy: “I will come to you shortly, though some of you are so vain as to think I will not.” But he adds, if the Lord will. It seems, as to the common events of life, apostles knew no more than other men, nor were they in these points under inspiration. For, had the apostle certainly known the mind of God in this matter, he would not have expressed himself with this certainty. But he sets a good example to us in it. Note, All our purposes must be formed with a dependence on Providence, and a reserve for the overruling purposes of God. If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this and that, Jas. 4:15.

III. He lets them know what would follow upon his coming to them: I will know, not the speech of those that are puffed up, but the power, 1 Cor. 4:19. He would bring the great pretenders among them to a trial, would know what they were, not by their rhetoric or philosophy, but by the authority and efficacy of what they taught, whether they could confirm it by miraculous operations, and whether it was accompanied with divine influences and saving effects on the minds of men. For, adds he, the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. It is not set up, nor propagated, nor established, in the hearts of men, by plausible reasonings nor florid discourses, but by the external power of the Holy Spirit in miraculous operations at first, and the powerful influence of divine truth on the minds and manners of men. Note, It is a good way in the general to judge of a preacher’s doctrine, to see whether the effects of it upon men’s hearts to be truly divine. That is most likely to come from God which in its own nature is most fit, and in event is found to produce most likeness to God, to spread piety and virtue, to change men’s hearts and mend their manners.

IV. He puts it to their choice how he should come among them, whether with a rod or in love and the spirit of meekness (1 Cor. 4:21); that is, according as they were they would find him. If they continued perverse among themselves and with him, it would be necessary to come with a rod; that is, to exert his apostolical power in chastising them, by making some examples, and inflicting some diseases and corporal punishments, or by other censures for their faults. Note, Stubborn offenders must be used with severity. In families, in Christian communities, paternal pity and tenderness, Christian love and compassion, will sometimes force the use of the rod. But this is far from being desirable, if it may be prevented. And therefore the apostle adds that it was in their own option whether he should come with a rod or in a quite different disposition and manner: Or in love and the spirit of meekness. As much as if he had said, “Take warning, cease your unchristian feuds, rectify the abuses among you, and return to your duty, and you shall find me as gentle and benign as you can with. It will be a force upon my inclination to proceed with severity. I had rather come and display the tenderness of a father among you than assert his authority. Do but your duty, and you have no reason to avoid my presence.” Note, It is a happy temper in a minister to have the spirit of love and meekness predominant, and yet to maintain his just authority.