< November 30, 2008 >

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

 

As in most of his letters, Paul begins 1 Corinthians with an expression of thanksgiving.

Paul's regular opening thanksgivings serve at least two purposes: here he signals the concerns he has for his addressees and seeks to influence their behavior and self-understanding.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul first gives thanks for the grace of God which was given in Christ Jesus. This says something very interesting about what Paul thinks of the Corinthian believers and perhaps about what he thinks they think of themselves. Paul focuses his and his readers' attention first on God's grace in Christ. Almost certainly this is because he thinks his converts have lost this focus. Whatever else Paul is grateful for (and whatever else he wants the Corinthians to be grateful for), the primary object of gratitude must be God. Every other reason for gratitude is rooted in the primary reason for gratitude -- God's grace in Jesus Christ.

Paul also gives thanks for the speech and knowledge the Corinthians possess. Later in the letter, we learn that some in the Corinthian church had exceptional capacities for Spirit-inspired speech−prophecy and speaking in tongues−and some were receiving revelations (1 Corinthians 14:26-39). Paul here wants to emphasize their speech and knowledge are not their own achievement but a gift.

The Corinthians have, Paul says, been enriched in every way with all speech and knowledge. It is not their doing. Perhaps Paul gives thanks to God for the richness of the Corinthians' experience of the Spirit as a way of introducing the directives he will later give. Paul will direct the Corinthians to recognize that speaking in tongues, prophecy, speaking knowledge and wisdom, and having revelation are meant for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). This is the case because any signs of the Spirit are signs not of the importance of the individuals who receive these manifestations but of the love of God. It is God who is the source of spiritual gifts, and it is God who is to be acknowledged and thanked continually.

Those who believe in Jesus Christ are those who are 'in Christ.' Their lives are rooted in God through Christ. Paul reminds his converts of this when he gives thanks that they have been enriched 'in him' (1:5), that is, 'in Christ'. The lives of the Corinthian believers are lived as gift in the rich sphere of Christ. Their quarrelling and self-satisfaction (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 4:8) are a denial of the reality of their new lives.

Not only is Paul worried that the Corinthian believers have focused on themselves rather than on God when they experience manifestations of the Spirit, but he is also worried that they are deluded into thinking that what is now is all there is.

The Corinthian believers had exceptional spiritual experiences. Several lengthy passages later in 1 Corinthians give a window into a church community that was bursting with signs of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 12 and 14). These experiences were so powerful that some of the Corinthian believers thought they now had been given the completion of what God offers in Christ. They felt they had no need to hope or wait for more. The touch of the Holy Spirit in their lives was so exciting and profound that they thought they had all God wanted to give them.

Paul thinks the opposite: to think that this life--even if it is marvelously imbued with a sense of God's Spirit--is all God offers is dead wrong, because it misses the key to God's grace in Christ Jesus. God in Christ gives life; life that never ends; life that lives after physical death. This is why Paul claims "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection of Christ insures that those who believe in Christ will also be raised. In other words, there is more, much more, than the life before physical death. As wonderful as this life may be, if it is filled with experiences of God's Spirit, it is not all there is.

And so at the beginning of this letter Paul gives thanks that the Corinthian converts "are not lacking in any spiritual gift" as they "wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, the function of the spiritual gifts they have−the purpose of their experiences of the Holy Spirit−is not in order to make this life enjoyable. It is for the purpose of being able to wait for what Paul calls 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' and to be able to arrive 'blameless' on that day.

What some of the Corinthian believers either denied or had forgotten was that their lives were to participate in the narrative of Christ. Once they were incorporated into Christ through faith, their lives were to follow the shape of Christ's life. There are aspects of Christ's life which of course are not to be imitated. However, Christ's obedient faith, Christ's suffering for the sake of others, Christ's death and resurrection--these narrative episodes of Christ's life are to be re-enacted by those who by faith live 'in Christ'.

Some of the Corinthians thought that belief in Christ took them directly to the resurrection. Paul makes fun of this view. In chapter four of 1 Corinthians he derides this opinion: "Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!" (4:8) Paul contrasts their view with his life and the lives of his fellow apostles--"we have become a spectacle for the world, to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless...." (1 Corinthians 4:9-11). Paul's words sound almost spiteful. Perhaps such strong irony is the only way Paul thinks he can wake his converts out of their self-satisfaction and their delusion.

Paul wants the Corinthians to realize that they are not yet at the resurrection; they are waiting for it. They have their clocks set all wrong. This is the time of waiting for the end. This is the time of expectation. And during this time, it is essential to participate in the life of Christ which preceded the resurrection--in faithful obedience, in willingness to suffer for the sake of others, in dying to sin.

In this passage Paul assures the Corinthians not only that they must do these difficult things but that they are able to do these difficult things; they are able to wait, they are able to be obedient, to suffer, to die to sin. In Paul's word, they are able to be 'blameless' because of the grace of God.

They, and we, have been given what is necessary in order to live purely as we wait for the end; as we wait for the resurrection. The Corinthians, and we, have been given every spiritual gift that is required. So we can wait, and wait well. What we wait for is 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ', which Paul describes in Technicolor in a later chapter: at that day 'all shall be made alive' (15:22); and death will be destroyed (15:26). In that day "God may be everything to everyone" (15:28). The goal of waiting is not only to reach that day, but to reach it, as Paul says, 'blameless' (1:7).

Paul is convinced that God in Christ has given those 'in Christ' everything they need in order to wait well for 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ'.