Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Imagine that you spent a year and a half getting a church plant up and going. When you left to tend to other missions, the church was growing. Leaders were emerging, and the congregation was relatively healthy. All seemed well.
Then, a delegation from the young church arrives. The delegation brings word — a letter full of questions and unresolved issues, and the letter carries some distressing news. The church is fighting. The factions are visible. Some are in danger of going back to their former lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. Class divisions are visible — even at the Lord’s Table.
To make matters worse, you hear secret reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmom. Some are even questioning the resurrection — the very heart of the gospel! The problems are overwhelming and unrelenting. You cannot go visit now. But the delegation is awaiting your response. And respond you must. Volumes are writing themselves in your head of all the things you would like to say, but there are limits to what you can include in a letter — even a long one!
Where do you even begin? How are you supposed to address all these problems in one letter? How did things go so wrong?
Welcome to Paul’s world. The text for this week is the opening of the letter that is Paul’s response to a church in crisis. Contrary to how we title this letter, though, 1 Corinthians was not his first piece of written correspondence to this church. Paul refers to a previous letter, a letter containing instructions which they apparently misunderstood (1 Corinthians 5:9). Letter writing, for all its benefits, always runs a risk of misinterpretation. Paul must now correct that misunderstanding in this current letter as well as respond to what he knows about the church’s problems.
1 Corinthians is addressing a convergence of factors: the church’s official letter full of questions sent to Paul, which the apostle begins to address in 7:1 (“now concerning the matters about which you wrote”) and oral reports from Chloe’s people (1:11) about matters that the church decided not to share with Paul (like the class divisions at the Lord’s table or the lack of belief in the resurrection).
The beginning of the letter, a part which we might admittedly be tempted to skip, sets the tone and prepares the audience for what is to come. Paul follows a fairly standard format in the salutation: sender and recipient information (1 Corinthians 1:1-2), followed by a prayer wish (verse 3), and the thanksgiving (verse 4-9). The body of the letter begins in verse 10 with an appeal to unity.
Though the letter concerns Paul, Sosthenes (the co-sender), and the church at Corinth, the opening of the letter mentions another player in this drama: God. God is everywhere. Paul calls himself an apostle of Christ by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1). The letter addresses God’s church in Corinth, whom God has sanctified in Christ and called to be saints. Even the prayer wish stems from God’s ability to grant grace and peace (verse 3).
It is no surprise that the thanksgiving is also addressed to God for God’s work and God’s grace among them.
It is commonly noted that the thanksgiving section of Paul’s letters give a foretaste, an abbreviated table of contents, of what is to come. So, the audience might expect Paul to start mentioning them — or at least the letter that they sent to him. To be fair he does mention them. There are hints of some lording their knowledge over others, allusions to squabbles over spiritual gifts, and indications of the weakening of the fellowship over factions. But even these subtle references come in relationship to what God has done and will continue to do for them. The thanksgiving is a way to reframe the issues around the bigger picture.
Paul reminds them that whatever knowledge that they have or whatever abilities that they possess have been given to them by God (verse 5). God has even given them spiritual gifts to use for the edification of God’s church — a church that awaits God’s revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul grounds the whole letter in the work of God among them, and this God is faithful. God is the one who has called them together in this fellowship, and God will see them through.
Why begin a letter with a theology lesson? No doubt some in the church were probably hoping that Paul would just weigh in on the problems and take sides in contentious matters. Paul begins by reminding them of what they seem to have forgotten. Everything that they have and are comes from God. There would be no church without God. And whatever problems they are facing, the God who called them is powerful enough not only to help them find a way forward, but to strengthen them even as they await the revelation of Jesus.
In many ways the church today is similar to First Church Corinth. We are torn by many issues. Each side claims some knowledge from scripture to bolster its arguments all the while chiseling deeper into the chasm that divides us. Like the early church, God is at work — even in the midst of the chaos that we create. As we await the revelation of God’s Son during this Advent, we would do well to look for God’s work among us and to be reminded of the gifts that God has given us to strengthen the body rather than to tear it down. Like Corinth, we are called to be a church that remembers Christ’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). With this season of Advent, we proclaim with Paul, “Marana tha,” Our Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:22).