1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 
When we come to a particular book of Scripture, it’s natural to want to understand the context in which it was written. What were the circumstances in which the author wrote the book? What was his purpose in writing? What needs and problems was he addressing? There are interpretive differences to understand and cultural contexts to plumb. Paul’s first surviving letter to the house churches of Corinth has an original context that looks very much like any modern-day Western-world urban setting. Here we find a church that faced many of the same or similar issues we face today. How do we view the people Christ calls to minister to his churches? How do we handle disagreements? What does biblical sexual ethics look like in a promiscuous world? How should the fact of the gospel shape our marriages or determine our cultural practices, or tear down barriers we’ve built between others and ourselves?
The Apostle Paul sets out to answer these questions in the letter we have come to call “1 Corinthians.” It is the first of two surviving letters to the church at Corinth, though he wrote to them at least one, possibly two, other letters. He writes (verse 2) “To the church of God that is in Corinth” and also to “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That address tells us this is not just a letter to one specific church with unique problems, but the Word of God given to everyone who trusts into the person and work of Christ. This is God’s Word to you 1,970 years after Paul dictated it to a group of house churches in a wealthy trading city on the isthmus of Greece that was neither more nor less corrupt than our own American culture today. Paul answers the question of how God’s grace works in the context of a pluralized, influential, commercial, permissive, self-seeking modern setting.
Corinth was an entrepreneurial city. There was no landed aristocracy. It was a culture of ascendency where everyone looked to advance up the social ladder, aspiring to wealth and good looks and social influence for their own honor and fame. It was a place where even a slave could pull herself up by her own bootstraps and rise toward the top of the pecking order. The community and culture of Corinth were those of trade, business, and pragmatism in pursuit of success. Few other cities in the Roman Empire possessed such an atmosphere for personal and corporate advancement. Corinthian culture, like modern Western culture, contained schmoozing, flattering the egos of others, pulling strings, backstabbing rivals, and sucking up to the wealthy and powerful while despising the less-fortunate.
Along with clawing one’s way up the socioeconomic ladder, Corinth was a city of multiculturalism and religious diversity. Sitting on a narrow strip of land that connected the two major parts of Greece and situated within two miles of ports on both the Aegean and Ionian Seas, it was occupied and visited by people from the entire Roman Empire and beyond. According to Gordon Fee:
The Romans were dominant; they brought with them not only their laws but also their culture and religions. But the Roman world had been thoroughly Hellenized; and since Corinth was historically Greek, it maintained many of those ties—religion, philosophy, the arts. And from the East came the mystery cults of Egypt and Asia and the Jews with their synagogue and “peculiar” belief in a single God.”
Corinth had a long cafeteria line of religions and practices from which to choose, mostly centered on some form of self-ascendency and self-improvement – spiritual, material, or both. “The ideal of the Corinthian was the reckless development of the individual. The merchant who made his gain by all and every means, the man of pleasure surrendering himself to every lust, the athlete steeled to every bodily exercise and proud in his physical strength, are the true Corinthian types: in a word, the man who recognized no superior and no law but his own desires.” That is the context into which the Apostle Paul speaks, addressing Christians forced to ask many of the questions the 21st-century church also asks.
Although there were Jewish converts in the church, it seems the vast majority were former idol-worshipping Gentiles (6:10–11; 8:7; 12:2). The picture is one of a predominantly Gentile community, the majority of whom were at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, although there were a few wealthy families who hosted the larger house churches. As former pagans they brought to the Christian faith a Hellenistic worldview and attitude toward ethical behavior. Although they were the Christian church in Corinth, an inordinate amount of Corinth was yet in them, emerging in a number of attitudes and behaviors that required radical surgery without killing the patient. This is what Paul’s letter attempts to do.
He begins with profound encouragement in three short movements that emphasize the truth, the tension, and the basis for the encouragement.
Encouragement is a basic human need. Very few are the individuals who thrive without some form of affirmation or approval. Because mankind was inherently valued at creation and then separated by sin from the ultimate source of affirmation, we need to hear at least someone say, “I approve of who you are.” We need to be noticed for our contributions and we long for assurance that the directions we take are worthy of our time and energy. Paul will deliver some hard medicine. So, he beings with the sweetness of the good news.
Paul encourages them in their identity by addressing them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints….” To be sanctified is to be set apart for a special use. God has declared them to be special to him as important and unique. In Greco-Roman society, one’s honor was measured by the importance of one’s patron and friends. To be made special to God should have been the ultimate encouragement. “Though all the surrounding voices might tell them otherwise, to be sanctified in Christ— past tense— was to have already received the ultimate word of approval, acceptance, and identity encouragement.” Likewise, to be “called to be saints” meant their identity and purpose were given to them, not earned by their own wiles or performance. Their identity and purpose came solely through the gracious and effectual call of God.
Along with their new identity, he encourages them by telling them they are truly well-equipped to live out their identity. Not only do they know something of who they are in Christ, they have an aptitude (gifts, wisdom, skills, abilities) to live out of their identity. Paul roots their identity in Christ and speaks to them as those who “were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge” (v. 5). They are able to speak clearly and convincingly about their faith, not lacking in their culture’s most valuable commodities – for the Greeks admired rhetoric, logic, and new knowledge. And their gifts did not come from studying with rhetoricians and philosophers but were direct unearned gifts from God. They were gifted with identity and aptitude.
With their new identities and aptitudes, they had forward momentum toward their destination. Paul tells them that the Lord Jesus (v. 8) “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They are on the right spiritual path leading to the beautiful end that God has prepared for them. All this because God is faithful to keep them in union with Christ, “9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In a meritocracy, where your position is only as secure as your present success and the future is always uncertain, what Paul writes should have given them encouragement with the fact of God’s unconditional covenant loyalty love.
Since Paul intends his letter for the whole Church throughout all this present evil age, it should be an encouragement to us as well. Our future is just as secure as was that of the saints at Corinth. We too are familiar with the constant demands for high performance and the temptations of our own self-security projects – the race to be someone important, or at least be near someone important, to be recognized and admired for who we are and what we do. But the Scriptures assure us that no matter the uncertainty or precariousness of our present situation, our Lord Jesus Christ “will sustain [us] to the end” (v. 8), and we will enjoy life with him because we “were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).
When we receive a communication from a leader or supervisor, we’re hoping for encouragement. But we recognize it’s almost always connected to our level of performance. Paul does not tie his encouragement to the Corinthians’ level of performance. He ties their identities to the person and work of Christ. He is saying that, regardless of what they bring to the table, God finds them exceedingly valuable and worthy of his love. They are in fellowship with Christ because God called them into it. God loved them – and he loves us – as if they and we have done all that Jesus had done. What makes this letter’s introduction so special is that it’s so upside down to how earthly life normally operates. No one expects to receive this kind of unconditional encouragement, particularly not when they were behaving themselves the way the Corinthians were. That introduces us to a significant tension in this letter.
If you’re a fist-time reader of this letter, you would be tempted to think that the Corinthians are doing an outstanding job in their Christian lives and church conduct. You might think that Paul was incredibly happy with the way things were going in the house churches of Corinth and intended to continue praising them throughout this epistle. However, if you’ve had some exposure to this letter before, you know that is not the case. The reality was that the Church of Corinth was dramatically and profoundly flawed. The next heading in your Bible after verse 9 probably reads something like “Divisions in the Church.” We begin to see that Paul has not commended the church because they are good people, but because God has called them by his name, included them in his saving covenant, an extended to them unconditional covenant loyalty. In other words, Paul has begun by reminding them of who they are in Christ so that now he can admonish them to live out who they are in Christ – to display the fact of their having been sanctified (v. 2).
Though the Corinthian believers are objectively and eternally sanctified, their subjective and experiential reality is far from their saintly calling. We will find that the idols of many in the church overlap with those found in the unsanctified Corinthian culture. They even make idols out of teachers in the church and divide themselves accordingly (3:4-9). Some in the congregations have used their wealth as an occasion to separate themselves from their brothers and sisters as they celebrate the agape meal and Holy Communion. They feast like Kings and Queens, while their brothers and sisters in Christ make do with meager portions (11:17-22). In chapter 5, we will find that the unbridled passions and unrestrained lusts that characterized the rest of Corinth have crept into the congregations. The church has even proudly tolerated a sexual relationship that would scandalize even the pagans of the city (5:1).
God had gifted them with an amazing new identity and poured out gifts of speech and knowledge upon them. But rather than praising God for his good gifts, they began to take credit to themselves for their God given talents. They began to confuse their aptitudes with their identity.
We can see this by looking at the sources of the divisions that unfold throughout the book. For instance, they are more concerned with eloquent speech than with grasping the true wisdom of God (1:18–31). And rather than finding unity in the knowledge they have received they have divided minds (1:10–17). They are overly concerned with pedigree and position, and as a result they are choosing to lead with competence in place of character— gifts in place of grace.
This happens to all of us when we separate our giftings from God as the source of them, using them to build ourselves up individually rather than for their divine purpose – to build up the church collectively and spiritually. You can think of the church at Corinth as an orchestra with a few extraordinarily talented and technically gifted performers. Those few players Have become so preoccupied with their abilities, they have ignored their rolls in the orchestra and are even ignoring the conductor. They had lost their sense of community and brought disharmony upon the collective. They had become out of tune with the entire orchestra. They led with their aptitude rather than their identity causing communal disharmony.
Though Paul has written that God will sustain them to their glorious end (v. 8), the rest of the letter shows us that this congregation of house churches is very unhealthy. As Gordon Fee sums up:
… the historical situation in Corinth was one of conflict between the church and its founder. This is not to deny that the church was experiencing internal strife, but it is to argue that the greater problem of “division” was between Paul and some in the community who were leading the church as a whole into an anti-Pauline view of things. For Paul, this conflict presents a twofold crisis—over his authority and his gospel. Furthermore, the key issue between Paul and them, which created both of these crises, has to do with the Corinthian understanding of what it means to be “spiritual” (pneumatikos).
How can we believe Paul’s encouragement in these first nine verses knowing how troubled the congregations of Corinth were? “If our subjective experience is one of dissatisfaction and disharmony, then how is it possible to have confidence in believing that this encouragement is true of us? Is there a way to re-ground our identity, to rightly reevaluate our aptitude, and to live lives that are rightly aligned with the promised trajectory of perseverance?”
BASIS FOR PROPS
The basis for Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian church is that their past, present, and future have been confirmed, declared, secured, enriched, and sustained in Christ. Listen to the text again and focus on how Christ-centered it is:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
All the realities of Paul’s props are grounded in Christ. Our Christian identity is not self-made or self-earned or self-maintained or self-secured. It is the result of an outside action of God on our behalf. We are sanctified not in ourselves but “in Christ Jesus” (v. 2). We are “called to be saints” not because we are inherently saintly but simply because we “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2). The grace and peace we experience is delivered to us “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). The grace we experience was not earned but was a gift given to us “in Christ Jesus” (v. 4). Our speech and knowledge are “enriched in him” (v. 5). We are confident in our faith because God confirmed the “testimony about Christ” among us (v. 6). Our future hope is not in our assorted gifts or in the potential of our achievements but in “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). In Christ, God sustains us to the end. He has promised to make us – the guilty – “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). And we are absolutely certain of this because “God is faithful,” and he has called us into “the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).
This up-front focus on the person and work of Christ is intended to frame the entire letter. He wants the Corinthians to know absolutely that God’s objective reality can and will overcome their subjective experience. Christ’s work for them is more foundational for them than is their ability to tarnish it with their failures. Even though their congregations may be falling apart, Christ will surely hold them together. And, if that was true for the home churches of Corinth, it remains true for you and me today. Our status as “sanctified” and “saints” is not based on our work. It is based upon the work of another – upon the perfect law-keeping life and sacrificial blood-shedding death of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, the Promised Seed. He creates, ordains, and sustains all things. He holds our future in his hands.
Because, like the Corinthians, we live in a meritocracy, this sounds alien. The good news of Christ’s perfect performance for us is utterly opposite to our culture of self-definition, self-help, and self-realization. But for those of us who have failed at identity building, competence building, and self-actualization, the gospel is the greatest news imaginable. According to the good news of Christ’s performance, God declares us perfectly acceptable before he ever takes a look at our record (just like Paul does here for the Corinthians)! The gospel frees us to give up and die to building a self-identity. We have been given one free of charge because of the striving of another in our place. You no longer have to live in order to build an identity. But, because you who trust into Christ have the Spirit of Christ in you, you can live into the identity that has been given to you.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 1:1–9.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 2.
 Um, Stephen T. 1 Corinthians (Preaching the Word), 16. Crossway. Kindle Edition.
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