Chapter One1 Corinthians 1:1-9
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Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will
of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in
Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those
everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-their
Lord and ours:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you
in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every
way-in all your speaking and in all your knowledge-6 because
our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.
7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly
wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will keep
you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the
day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into
fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
The conventional letter in the ancient
Greco-Roman world began with a salutation, in
which the writer identified himself and his recipients
and gave a brief greeting. This letter is
from Paul, the Pharisaic Jew converted to Christ (Acts 9:1-31), who became
the first generation of Christianity's premier church-planter among the non-Jewish
world (Acts 13-28). He identifies himself as "called" (v. 1) or commissioned
to be an "apostle," not in the sense Luke uses that term for one of
the twelve disciples of Jesus (Acts 1:21-26), but as one divinely sent out on
a mission of church-planting. Paul will later identify apostleship as a
spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:29). This calling was not of Paul's own choosing, as his Damascus
road experience makes plain, but was due entirely to "the will of God."
This letter is said also to come from "our brother," that is, fellow-Christian,
Sosthenes, possibly the synagogue ruler of Acts 18:17, if he was later converted.
He does not seem to have been involved in the actual writing of the
letter but was merely accompanying Paul at the time of its composition.
The recipients of the letter are the Corinthian Christians. They probably
comprise several house-congregations, but Paul addresses them as a collective
whole, "the church" or assembly of those God has saved. "Sanctified"
in verse 2 does not mean "made holy," as often in Paul, but separated apart for
God. It is virtually synonymous with the next phrase, "called to be holy." Paul
is reminding the Corinthians of their overarching purpose in the Christian
life. He then generalizes to include all Christians everywhere, though obviously
not all would immediately read his letter for themselves. "Their Lord
and ours" stresses the spiritual unity that all believers share in Jesus Christ.
"Grace" (v. 3) reflects the conventional Greco-Roman form of greeting;
"peace," the typical Jewish salutation. But each suggests theological overtones
too. Grace is a free gift; peace is wholeness in every aspect of life. Paul
Christianizes these conventional greetings by adding a reference to the origin
of grace and peace-the one, true, living God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The second section of an ancient Greco-Roman letter was a prayer or a
word of thanks. One might typically thank God or the gods for learning that
the recipient was in good health or that his or her family prospered. Paul
adopts this convention in most of his letters as well but centers primarily on
spiritual blessings. When Paul says he "always" thanks God (v. 4a), he means
either "repeatedly," or "whenever I pray." His thankfulness for God's "grace"
(v. 4b; from the same root as "gift") prepares the way for his references to
spiritual gifts in verses 5-7. Paul is grateful that the Corinthian Christians have
been enriched or "made wealthy" (v. 5), specifically with reference to the
spiritual gifts of speaking and knowledge-most prominently words of
knowledge and wisdom, prophecy, and tongues (12:8-10). This occurred as
they responded to his preaching with faith and repentance and thus received
the Spirit, who began to distribute his gifts among them. The truth
of Paul's message was thus confirmed (vv. 6-7). "You do not lack any spiritual
gift" (v. 7) might also mean "you are not deficient in the exercise of any
How can Paul be so thankful and positive about a church rife with divisions
and abuses even of these very gifts? Verses 8-9 supply the answer:
God's character provides the guarantee. He will remain faithful to his
promises ultimately to perfect his people, however immature they at times
seem to be (vv. 8a, 9). When he returns, when the age of the fulfillment of
all of the remaining biblical promises arrives, then believers will be made
wholly blameless (v. 8b). Acquitted of their past sins, they will be fully prepared
for the life to come. Even now, his people are in the process of being
remolded, even if it is with fits and starts, as they enter into a personal relationship
In trying to apply all of a biblical book, it is easy
to milk relatively peripheral parts for more than
they are worth. This temptation proves particularly
strong at the beginning of a letter with
preachers who want to start a series of sermons on a given letter with a
"bang." The solution to this problem is to determine what a letter writer was
stressing in a greeting and thanksgiving and what was merely conventional.
As we have already seen, the name of the author, recipients, and a brief
salutation were conventional. So we must not read too much theology into
"grace" and "peace" this early in the letter, any more than we assume today
that people consciously mean "God be with you" when they say "goodbye,"
even though that is the etymology of the word. Nor should we make
too much of Paul's greeting to "the church of God in Corinth," as if this
demonstrated something about the completeness of the church in each of its
local manifestations. Instead, we should look for ways in which Paul broke
from convention and stress these aspects.
In doing this, we sense Paul's concern to stress his authority in verse 1, by
the conjunction of the terms "called," "apostle," and "the will of God." It
would not be conventional to add all these descriptions of an author's identity.
But many of the Corinthians have rejected his authority (1:12), so immediately
at the outset of his letter he begins to seek ways to reassert it. His
use of the term "called" is relatively rare. Usually he applies it to what God
does for all believers when they are saved-designating them as his own.
There is no biblical evidence that all Christians are given a unique calling or
commissioning upon conversion which they must seek to discover, though
some, like Paul, may be given one. Rather Paul will outline in chapter 12 how
every believer is given at least one spiritual gift. Discovering our gifts is the
appropriate way to determine our unique avenues of service or "niches" in the
kingdom. Paul's unique additions in verse 1 further stress his authority, but
they do so gently, a strategy Paul follows with only occasional deviation
throughout his letters.
Unusual in this greeting too are Paul's declarations of the spiritual state
of the Corinthians and of God's purposes for them, particularly because
when we learn more about them it will be clear that they seem far from holy
or "sanctified" in the more traditional sense of that word. Paul hints here at
part of the solution-recognizing that the church is "of God" (v. 2) and does
not belong to a particular leader or congregation. The Corinthians must also
recognize that they are not the center of their religious universe but merely
one cog in a large wheel of "those everywhere who call on the name of our
Lord." The same Lord is Lord over all, which should inspire Christians in all
times and places to seek unity and not factionalism.
Paul's thanksgivings are typically lengthier and more theological than was
customary in his day. They obviously provide an opportunity for him to
praise God for his many blessings and to set the stage and tone for topics in
the letter to come. As with his greetings, we must again look for the unconventional
or unexpected to see where Paul's emphases lie to see what we
should stress in contemporary application.
Surely the most striking feature of this thanksgiving is how positive Paul
can be about a church torn with strife and abuses of the very gifts he thanks
God for having given its members. The surprises extend to the very words
Paul employs. Being "enriched" (v. 5) will reappear in 4:8 in a passage dripping
with sarcasm: "Already you have become rich!" There Paul lambastes
their misguided views of their own maturity, yet here he genuinely praises
God for their manifold enrichment. Chapters 12-14 make plain that gifts of
speaking and knowledge form a central part of the Corinthians' problem with
spiritual gifts, but here he is grateful that they have received them. "Knowledge"
is closely related to "wisdom," which is being defined by some in the
church in an elitist, esoteric fashion, anticipating the development of full-blown
Gnosticism. Yet Paul can give thanks because spiritual gifts are the
sign of the presence of the Spirit. This is not nominal Christianity-profession
without reality. Neither is it lifeless orthodoxy. The Spirit is active amid
the Corinthians, even if they are employing their gifts in a somewhat
Verse 7b is crucial in three respects. First, the overly realized eschatology
in Corinth (see Introduction, p. 25) probably meant that most were not "eagerly
awaiting" Christ's return at all. Paul's statement either reflects what a
minority were faithfully doing or refers to their objective state rather than
their subjective behavior. So again Paul picks up on what they should be doing
rather than what most are doing, to try to point them in a positive direction.
Second, this clause strongly suggests that all the spiritual gifts will last
until Jesus comes back. Faithful exercise of the gifts is what Christians are to be
about until their Lord returns; they are believers' characteristic form of ministry
for this age. Third, by reminding them of Christ's second coming, he
prepares the way for what verse 8 implies even more clearly: the church in
general is not yet perfected, and this one in particular has a long way to go.
Our focus on God's strength rather than human frailty and on what's
going right more than on what's going wrong should lead us to outbursts of
praise to God for his grace and faithfulness. This praise should take place privately
but also publicly, so that the people we thank God for can be encouraged
by hearing us and knowing that we are speaking well of them
before the Lord. "To delight in God for his working in the lives of others,
even in the lives of those with whom we feel compelled to disagree, is sure
evidence of our own awareness of being the recipients of God's mercies." In
so doing, we do not abdicate our responsibility to correct others gently
(Gal. 6:1), particularly those over whom we are given positions of spiritual
authority and responsibility. But we hopefully prepare the way for the best
possible reception of our correction, though human freedom to reject our advances
ensures that we can never be guaranteed success.
The primary cross-cultural principle that emerges from both Paul's greeting
and his thanksgiving is to focus on what is going right in Christian circles
before addressing problems that require attention. This is made possible
by focusing on the faithfulness of God rather than the fickleness of humans,
including Christians who still await perfection. Christian leaders in every age
need to imitate Paul's combination of authority and tact (see his classic letter
to Philemon), avoiding heavy-handed authoritarianism on the one hand
and laissez-faire uninvolvement on the other.
The theological emphases of Paul's greeting
(vv. 1-3) all recur more explicitly and pointedly
as his letter unfolds, so detailed application is
best reserved for subsequent commentary. But
we can make some general remarks here and comment on a few specific applications
of the thanksgiving (vv. 4-9).
Paul's words in verse 7 offer important insights into the current debate
about spiritual gifts. To begin with, since even the most immature believers
are gifted in some way, every Christian is immediately useful to Christ and
his church with a unique opportunity for ministry. We do not need to seek
additional gifts or experiences, as many do today, though we may need
training in the use of the gifts we already have. And God may graciously
choose to grant us additional ones as we grow. But our primary task is to act
in faithful obedience to God and service to his people with what we have already
Second, what is true individually is true corporately. On the one hand, "as
far as knowledge is concerned, the church as a body has access to all the wisdom,
insight, discernment and truth which it needs; it needs no special
gurus to bring it to them." On the other hand, if all the gifts are for the entire
Christian age, serious questions must be asked of contemporary congregations
that are closed to certain of the so-called sign gifts. It seems
likely that they run the serious risk of missing out on blessings the Spirit
would want to bring them. Such conclusions will, of course, remain controversial.
Perhaps we can more readily agree that, charismatic or not, fellowships
that err on the side of overexercise and misuse of their gifts and talents
are less displeasing to God than those that err on the side of underuse. Immature
but growing children delight their parents far more than those who
simply refuse to mature in some area of their lives.
At the same time we must vigilantly guard against false claims of maturity,
of a sense of having arrived, or of achieving sinless perfection for any
substantial length of time, as certain modern offspring of the Wesleyan and
holiness movements periodically claim. This will occur only when Christ
returns (v. 8b). For most of us, this reminder should actually provide great
comfort and encouragement. In our complex and pressure-filled world, most
Christians more commonly struggle with the awareness of persistent sin in
their lives, with feelings of inadequacy and immaturity. Yet God remains
faithful: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion
until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).
Verses 8-9 also have important implications for the so-called "eternal
security" debate. Those whom the Spirit has genuinely indwelt will experience
transformation. Those who begin this process can rest assured that God will
be faithful to complete it.