Third Sunday after Epiphany

We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy.

January 23, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy.

The Cross
We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy. The cross transforms the value of our actions and status. Because of the cross we must learn to view the world differently. And so, as we start reading about the problems confronting the church in ancient Corinth, we will find ourselves invited to what Richard Hays refers to as a “conversion of the imagination,”1 what Paul himself speaks of as being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Paul beckons his readers to participate in the story of the cross–a narrative in which all that we think we know about the world, its value, its knowledge, its wisdom, its virtue, is reconfigured by God’s great act of salvation in Christ. The message of the cross is not something that only applies to entering the people of God. It gives shape to the entirety of our life together.

Living Up To Our Identity
Paul begins his letter by summoning the Corinthians to live up to their identity in Christ. In particular, Paul calls them to unity.

In verse 10 he appeals to them “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We must not skip over this too quickly. The name of Jesus is not only the authority by which Paul calls them to account, it is the name that makes the Corinthians one. When Paul later asks, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:13), the obvious answer is, “No, we were baptized into the name of Jesus.”

Thus, the very basis of his admonition, “the name of the Lord Jesus” carries with it the diagnosis of their problem and its solution. The problem is that they are claiming other peoples’ names as their identity markers. The solution is to be united in their common identity in Christ.

The Corinthians are plagued by party spirit. We get a hint at the divisions even in the fact that one group is reporting to Paul about everyone else. “Chloe’s people,” perhaps Chloe’s household or perhaps those who meet for worship in Chloe’s house, bring word to Paul that the church is fracturing (1:11). Each group has rallied to a particular leader, and the debate in Corinth revolves around the knowledge and power that each of these teachers embodies.

One group in Corinth has rallied to Apollos. We know from later in 1 Corinthians (3:1-11) that Paul came first to Corinth and that Apollos later took up the work. Acts 18-19 paints a similar picture, and also depicts Apollos as “an eloquent man” (Acts 18:24), powerful in public debate (Acts 18:28). Such rhetorical force might have formed the rallying point for the Apollos party, and seems to lie behind Paul’s insistence that true proclamation of the gospel does not require such eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

When Paul goes to close the letter in 1 Cor 16, he indicates that Apollos is with him in Ephesus and says that he encouraged Apollos to return to Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:12). This might indicate to the Corinthians that Apollos is as unhappy about the party spirit as Paul.

The place of Cephas in the community (traditionally understood to be the apostle Peter) is a bit more difficult to pin down. Other references to Cephas in 1 Corinthians include an indication that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Cephas before appearing to the rest of the twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5), and that Cephas models the rights of an apostle by taking his believing wife with him as he proclaims the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:5).

It may be that Cephas or his followers introduced theological tensions into Corinth by bringing in the same sort of conservative, law-keeping Christianity that caused conflict between Paul and Cephas at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). There is some evidence of this type of dispute lingering in 2 Corinthians.

The Corinthians, then, were flocking to smooth rhetoric that lived up to the day’s worldly display of wisdom (Apollos), to a Jewish theology that seemed to have a stronger biblical pedigree than what Paul had on offer (Cephas), and to their own history, roots, and founder (Paul).

Living Out Our Story
In response to this partisan bickering, Paul brings them back to the story that defines us all as the people of God: the crucifixion of Christ. “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).

It is important that we not allow ourselves to separate these two questions. The first speaks to the story of God’s action to save a people to himself; the second speaks to how we come to play a part in that drama. Christ’s own crucifixion saves us; and, our baptism into his name makes us “Christ people,” which also signifies, “a people of the cross.”

For Paul, the ramifications of party spirit are nothing less than a denial of the gospel itself. The story says that Christ is crucified, and when we act as though anything else (or anyone else) defines who we are then we deny the story of our salvation.

Like the other rhetorical questions Paul poses, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) anticipates a negative answer. Jesus is one; therefore, those who bear his name must be one as well.

We should not forget as we come to the end of this passage that Paul resists the temptation to side with the “Paul party.” “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) anticipates a negative response. Rather than accepting that division is a given and that those who support his authority and/or positions are in the right, he renounces his own claim to primacy and draws the church back to Jesus Christ, the Crucified.

1Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).