Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Letters typically begin with statements identifying the author of the epistle and the person or community being addressed.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is no different. Paul seeks to establish his own identity and the identity of the Christian community to which he is writing. Notable is Paul’s use of the word “call” as he seeks to underline his own authority (1:1). And the people of the church at Corinth are “called to be saints” (1:2), they “call on the name” of the Lord” (1:2), and they are “called into the fellowship” (1:9) of Christ. Given the prominence of this theme in our passage, it might be fruitful to interpret this text as a way of understanding what it means to be called. But first a word about the community at Corinth.
Corinth: A Holy Mess
Most preachers are aware of the challenge facing Paul at Corinth. The church is split by factions (1:10-17), charges of sexual immorality (chapter 5), questions about lawsuits (chapter 6), conduct at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), and the interpretation of speaking in tongues (chapter 14). And yet note that Paul does not hesitate to express gratitude for this community (1:4). He also reminds them (and us!) that they are holy (“sanctified”), which seems preposterous given the behaviors listed above. But this holiness is not something they have merited or produced. Rather it is a result of their relationship to Christ (1:2). He has made them holy and holy they remain, even if to outward appearances they appear to be something like sailors on shore leave.
In dealing with the situation at Corinth, Paul’s first move is to underline that he has been “called to be an apostle by the will of God” (1:1). Paul used similar language in addressing the church at Rome, where he immediately identified himself as one who is “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Paul is making an assertion about his identity in Christ. He is not appealing to his own human experience. Paul’s sense of call is not rooted in his education, though he was advanced beyond most in his understanding of Judaism (Galatians 1:14). Nor does it rest in his suffering, though he surely experienced trials far beyond that of the ordinary believer (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). As for status, Paul could claim the rights of a Roman citizen, but this is not relevant to his vocation.
Paul is remarkably modest when describing the incident behind his calling (see Galatians 2). While the events related in Acts are far more dramatic, Paul seems content to say that he was “set apart” (Romans 1:1; Galatians 2:15) in order to witness to Christ.
This might be a good opportunity for preachers to highlight the important role that baptism plays in the life of Christians. For Paul, this is when Christians are “set apart” by God (see Romans 6:1-11 and Galatians 3:27). There continue to be differences among Christians about what actually happens in baptism. However, few would dispute that our call in Christ is closely linked with our watery death in baptism. Like Paul, we can point to something outside of ourselves (namely God!) as the one who initiates, nurtures and sustains our life in Christ.
What Does It Mean To Be Called?
Our text also provides some hints about the shape of our calling in Christ. This is by no means an exhaustive inventory of the nature of Christian vocation. But Paul does suggest the following characteristics of a “called” community:
- Think big, not small.
Paul reminds the church at Corinth that not only are they “called to be saints” (1:2) but that they are linked “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). In other words, do not fall into the trap of thinking you have a monopoly on God’s attention! Your issues and concerns might seem as if they are that matters. But in reality, not only is God much bigger than your problems but the church of Jesus Christ also extends far beyond the border of Corinth’s city limits.
Keeping the bigger picture in mind does not mean Corinth’s issues are minor. Paul’s passion to address the conflicts in church is evident throughout the letter. However, severe conflict has the tendency to reduce our field of vision to a narrow tunnel. Paul seems to be declaring to the Christians at Corinth: You really are not that important! And…you are part of much bigger body.
- You are a work in progress.
One of the issues in Corinth was a faulty eschatology. That is, certain members of this remarkable community were given to “boasting” (see 3:21, 4:7). His words dripping with sarcasm, Paul says “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” (4:8). In our text Paul acknowledges the church’s considerable spiritual gifts by noting that “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1:5). But he also reminds the Corinthians that though they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” they nevertheless “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).
Paul has no doubt that the decisive event in the history of the world has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this event is far from over! It continues until the Lord returns. This is the famous “already…not yet” quality of the Christian faith. Our calling is grounded in Christ, and we have Christ’s promise to strengthen our faith (1:8) until he returns. But we claim nothing for ourselves. We must be especially mindful of our tendency to see ourselves as a “finished product.” When we slip into this kind of thinking, there is a temptation to see ourselves as an island of light in an ocean of darkness. And self-righteous rigidity is sure to follow.