1 Corinthians 1:1-9
September 17, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:45 in the audio file.
Or, Paul’s Greeting to and Gratitude for the Church in Corinth
To read the opening of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth for the first time without going on to read the rest of the letter, it would not be unreasonable to think that the apostle was in a cheerful mood when he began to write or that he had recently heard a report that the Corinthian Christians were really walking in a manner pleasing to the Lord. These first thoughts initially appear that positive.
To read the beginning of this letter a second time, after having finished reading the rest of the letter, it would not be difficult to argue that Paul’s positivity was inconsistent with the true state of things in Corinth, perhaps he was even in a state of delusion. Maybe worse, Paul was using a rhetorical device merely to draw them close enough for a verbal beating.
But having the gift of our own copies of this letter, as well as the gift of other letters from Paul to different churches for sake of comparison, and having opportunity to observe what he says and what he doesn’t say in light of what he’s about to say, I believe we should read these initial greetings and expressions of gratitude as pastoral and provocative. We ought also read them as a pattern for our own responses to fellow Christians, especially those who are less saintly in practice than we deem thanks-worthy.
For all of their personality-driven division (chapters 1-4), misapplied sense of purity (chapter 5, maybe chapter 7 as well), self-centered pursuit of spiritual knowledge and gifts (chapters 12-14), and their conformity to worldly, even idolatrous, values (chapter 6, 8-9), Paul sees signs of grace among them. The very existence of a church in Corinth calls for songs of loudest praise to the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not blowing sunshine at them, he is giving thanks to God the Father and His Son in front of them.
As he greets them and gives thanks to God for them, he reminds them of what they’ve been given. These are God-givens that identify them, grace-givens that set a trajectory for the rest of the letter.
There are two main thoughts in verses 1-9: the greeting in verses 1-3 and the gratitude in verses 4-9. Once we look at those I’ll summarize a list of all the things that were given to them that identify them.
This letter, and the relationship between the man writing the letter and the group reading the letter, are far beyond the human horizon. The formula of “From whom, To whom, Hello,” is a standard way to start a first-century letter, but that is the only part of these first three verses that is ordinary.
The letter is from the apostle Paul. Technically, he is dictating as he makes clear in chapter 16:21. Sosthenes may be the one scratching pen on papyrus, but an amanuensis usually wasn’t considered a sender. Sosthenes may have been the “ruler of the synagogue” in Corinth from Acts 18:17. He was known by those in Corinth as our brother. But the letter is from Paul.
The letter is to the Christian church in Corinth. Corinth was a city in Greece but politically and culturally Roman. They had been a church for two to three years by the time Paul writes.
But Paul only wrote because of God. The church in Corinth existed because of God. The greeting itself is not boilerplate filler, the greeting is because of God.
Paul had been called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. Paul had other intentions on the Damascus Road, malicious to Christ and murderous to Christians (see Acts 11). God changed Paul’s direction, giving him a heart that believed and loved Christ then appointing him to service for the gospel of Christ. God ordained Paul for this responsibility.
The people he was writing to were those sanctified in Christ Jesus. The use of sanctification here doesn’t refer to the practical outworking of faith after conversion but rather to having already been set apart by God. This sort of sanctification was a present state, their current identity, based on God’s election. Utensils in the temple were sanctified. Animals for sacrifice were sanctified. All those in Christ were dedicated to God. So they were called to be saints, ordained to be “holy ones,” a noun form of the word for “sanctified.”
Against the precious and proud attitude the Corinthians seemed to have developed, Paul connects them with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Saints are worshippers. That’s what it means to call upon the name of [the] Lord. This is how you know a Christian. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). You can’t know someone else’s heart, but you can hear who they depend on. Who do they trust enough to call on in the day of trouble? God called them and they called on God.
These “callers” are everywhere. “[T]he church in Corinth is not a self-contained autonomous entity: they are not a self-sufficient community; they are not the only pebble on the beach” (Thiselton).
The salutation proper in verse 3 is different from Greek (usually Chairein = “Greetings”) and Jewish (usually Shalom = “Peace”) patterns. More than that, it only makes sense because of God. Grace is God’s powerful blessing and peace is one of the results, an objective reality and a cause of subjective joy. It is only as good as it comes from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now that is a “Hello.”
In all but one of his letters Paul includes thanksgiving to God. (The only letter in which he does not make any mention of thanks for the readers is Galatians.) As usual his gratitude is thick and sticky in this paragraph, but it is not his usual reasons.
There is no mention of the Corinthians’ faith, love, or works (see for comparison his thanks to God for the Colossians 1:3-4 and Thessalonians 1:2-3). There is no mention of anything God has done through the Corinthians, only what God has done for them and given to them (note also the passive verbs: “was given,” “were enriched,” “was confirmed,” He “will sustain you,” “were called”). As in the greeting, God is key, and even more specifically, Christ is key, referenced by name in all six verses.
Paul writes I give thanks to my God always for you, not that he is praying every waking moment but that he is thankful every time he thinks about them. Thanks was his habit. He put on his thanks shirt every time he saw it in the drawer. He gives thanks for the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus. He’s about to describe some more specific ways that this grace was visible.
Verse 5 begins the series of graces. First Paul observes that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge. This is deep and wide. To be enriched means that their account was full, the bottom line was heavy. This wealth also came in diversified assets, in every way, all speech, all knowledge.
These are great riches. They are not as great as faith and hope and love and good works, but they are great. What stands out most, though, is not what Paul doesn’t list, it’s that he lists the very gifts the Corinthians were abusing.
The church in Corinth was “puffed up” with their knowledge. They lusted after the kind of knowledge that would impress, or at least be acceptable to, the world. They acted as if knowledge was something they achieved rather than something given to them. Likewise, their relationship with speech was precarious. They identified themselves with the best speakers, and they wanted to be identified with what they considered to be the most impressive speaking gifts. They would have crossed the bridge to hell and back if they could have spoken “with the tongues of angels.”
Yet Paul acknowledges God’s grace to them even in these misunderstood and misspent riches. The presence of the gifts made it so that, as verse 6 states, the testimony of Christ was confirmed among them. He will dig up the dirt with an apostolic backhoe, but there is a bone, it’s just buried deep.
Verse 7 reveals a result of their enriched condition, and a second evidence of grace. They had hope.
God enriched the Christians so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He repeats their identity as those who are gifted by God (that they had the gifts not necessarily for how they were using them) and adds that they are also those who are waiting for God. There is a future expectation in the revealing of our Lord also referred to as the day of our Lord. They were identified with an eschatological hope. They will get to the end, they will “make it” ἕως τέλους.
What stands out, though, is that Paul expected that they would do more than “survive.” Paul did not draft a letter that started with this thanks before he heard about their problems and then scrapped the rest of the letter yet still left this unrelated thanks piece. He knew all about their issues and he believed that God would sustain them and sanctify them completely, that they would be guiltless, irreproachable, unimpeachable by the time Christ returned. This crew would not be bedraggled but without blemish when presented to Christ.
This is more than a third gift of grace, though it is that. It is also a corroboration of their future hope.
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
God’s faithfulness, His dependability, reliability, trustworthiness is a favorite theme of the Old Testament. He can do things, and He does do what He says He will. He says He will save those whom He saved and is saving. He says He will glorify those whom He justified and is sanctifying. He is the Author of salvation and will finish writing the story. This is the kind of thing that gets Him doxologies:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever, Amen. (James 24-25)
James wrote those lines, but Paul had his own versions. And rather than at the end of this letter to the Corinthians, he begins with a benediction, and it is indeed a good word.
The final identifier reminds us of what we get in our salvation. This faithful God has called into the fellowship of his Son. What God wants from us, or better with us, is not understanding of truth. Knowledge is good and necessary but not the end; at least a certain kind of knowledge will pass away (1 Corinthians 13:8). What God wants from us is not words of worship or witness. Words are good and necessary but not sufficient; even prophecy will pass away (also 1 For 13:8). God calls us to a further end than being right about Him or being representatives for Him. God calls us into fellowship. He brings us not just to heaven but to Himself (see 1 Peter 3:18). His Spirit not only regenerates He indwells us. The Son of God’s love loves us, the Spirit produces the fruit of love in us, and we are brought to share the life and love of the Triune God.
This also means that we are part of the fellowship of the Son with all the rest of those called to saints who aren’t acting like saints at the moment. We don’t just share company, we are a company. It means we may be blessed by a particular teacher but we can’t separate from those who are blessed by another teacher. It means that spiritual gifts are good as they build up the rest of the body. If they build up Me, I am found working against fellowship rather than identifying with it.
In these first verses we see identifying givens. The Christians in Corinth were:
That’s seventeen. None of these identifiers were deserved due to something in them. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Of course Paul saw their problems. Fifteen and more than a half more chapters address the problems. But he, and they, had all kinds of reasons to be thankful for the existence of a church in Corinth and the signs of grace among them.
It does not require grace to see another person’s problems. It does not require grace to see how someone is abusing their gifts and wish that they’d never received them (or decide not to give them anything more for them to abuse). It also doesn’t require grace to ignore their issues; that’s selfish in a different way.
This introduction to 1 Corinthians should cause us to:
On the day that Adam sinned the whole creation groaned. Creation has been groaning ever since, waiting for freedom from decay. Humanity also groans, but for those in Christ, who call upon the name of the Lord, groaning is a reminder that good is coming. He is coming, and we have been called into His fellowship. Remember all that He has given You and give thanks in such a way that others might conclude you must be blind or you’ve lost your mind.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–19, 23, ESV)