Introducing 1 Corinthians

For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. Out of all the churches in the New Testament, I think the church in Corinth is the closest to the Western church today in terms of the issues it faced: without the immediate threat of persecution to bind them together, it was easy for them to act out the values of the surrounding culture among the church community. They were divided and status-seeking; they were judgemental about matters of style but often carefree when it came to morality. Sound familiar? Let’s see what Paul has to say to this church…

Paul begins his letter sounding pretty positive, particularly in how he thanks God for the Corinthian believers. To some extent, this was expected in ancient letters. But as you read the first nine verses, look out for any hints Paul might be dropping about what he’s going to talk about – clues that things might not be as good as they seem. (This was the ancient technique of insinuation, approaching a delicate topic indirectly.) Read 1 Cor 1:1-9 now.

For example, if I started a conversation, ‘you know how I did such-and-such for you; and how I’m always there for you; and you know that we’re like family…’  – by this point you’d be thinking, ‘OK, Tim, what do you want…?’

This is what Paul does in his introduction. He lays the groundwork by dropping hints: ‘you know how you’re all indebted to God (v4); and you all call upon the same Lord (v2); and you all therefore have the same status (v5); and you all have had the same spiritual enlightenment (v7), and how God called you into fellowship with one another (v9)…’ At this point the Corinthians are all, like, ‘Ye-e-e-s…’  Then he hits them with it in verse 10: ‘SO STOP ARGUING AND GET ALONG!’ Or as he puts it:

1:10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

groupsAnd he then goes on in the following verses to describe how the Corinthian church was divided around leaders, of all things! They were seeking to build their status in the church the same way they did in the world. We’ll look at this in more detail tomorrow, asking why they did this, as well as thinking about how we might be tempted to do similar things.

But for now, let’s see how in his introduction Paul has already given some strong hints about the antidote to this kind of division – indeed, all kinds of division in the church. The antidote is nothing less than the gospel!

1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

Already, there’s the subtle message about the basis of our unity. We call upon the one Lord – Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are united. He picks up the negative side of this coin a little later, when in v13 he asks ‘Is Christ divided?’ Of course not! We all have the one Lord.

1:4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.

That’s nice, Paul’s thanking God for us! But not because we’re important, or wise and sophisticated, or wealthy. In fact, it’s nothing about us. But because of God’s grace, God’s favour that’s been given to us. It’s not something we’ve earned. Not something we can brag about.

And although the wealthy in Corinth might have sought honour by giving plenty of favours to others further down the social food-chain – it doesn’t matter in the eyes of God. We’re all recipients of the same favour from him. In the church, no-one has any claim to rank or status whatsoever!

1:5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge

Do you notice the little dig? ‘In him.’ The source of our status is Christ, not anywhere else. And ‘in him’ we’ve been made rich with all kinds of speech and knowledge. We don’t need to attach ourselves to our favourite leaders or preachers (more on that tomorrow) in order to appear cultured and wise. We’ve been given the real deal by God himself! Christ is the source of our status – not human speech or knowledge. Nor anything else that might confer status in the rest of the world, whether it be fame, wealth, appearance, eloquence, or intelligence.

Further, v7 tells us we don’t lack any spiritual gift. Again, Paul reminds us that the source is not ourselves. It’s God. In short – whatever you’re seeking in terms of worldly status, you already have it in Christ:

If you want to bask in the reflected glory of being around the famous and powerful – you’re already reflecting the glory of the name that is above every name.

If you want wealth – you already have access to the riches of God; an inheritance that will never spoil or perish or fade.

If you want beauty – God is already at work removing all of the moral ugliness inside of you. And one day you’ll be given a spectacular new body, immortal and imperishable.

Christ is your source of status, and the status you have in him trumps anything this world can offer, every time!

1:7-8 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If Christ is our source of status, then our behaviour in the church should reflect this. The bulk of Paul’s letter focuses on this behaviour – being blameless as a church. And although he casts it in positive terms – God will keep you blameless – there’s a little reminder here that Christ is returning. We’ll be accountable for our behaviour.

1:9 God is faithful, who has called you into the fellowship [of*] his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Greek is plural. God has called ‘you all’ into this same fellowship; this same community that belongs to Jesus. He’s not just your Lord. He’s not just mine. He’s our Lord. The gospel calls us to this kind of unified living. So live like it!

To think about

In your own church experience(s), what are the sources of division you’ve seen?

Are there times when you have contributed to those divisions by your attitudes or actions?

How might more frequent contemplation of the gospel help to heal or dissolve any divisions (big or small) that you might be experiencing at the moment?

For further reading: Ben Witherington’s Conflict and Community in Corinth.

*The NIV reads “fellowship with his Son.” This is one way of taking the Greek grammar, but the more natural way would be “fellowship of his Son.” In the first reading, we are all called into a community relationship with Jesus; in the second, we are all called into a community relationship with one another which belongs to Jesus. I think it’s an important nuance, similar to how the traditional translation of 1 Cor 3:9 (“God’s fellow workers”) gives the impression of each of us working alongside God in partnership for the gospel. However, the Greek grammar is clearly “workers-together who belong to God” – we are partners, and we all belong to God, so there should be no division! Here endeth the nerd content for today.

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