1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Acts 18:1-17 recounts Paul’s visit to Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey and his work with the Jewish community there. We can date this visit fairly precisely, because of the reference in Acts 18:12 to the Roman proconsul Gallio, who held office in Corinth less than one year, probably beginning in 51 A.D. Based on this, we believe that the appearance of Paul before Gallio in Acts 18 took place in the middle of the year in 51 A.D. (Murphy-O’Connor, 732-733).
Paul spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), arguing in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to convince Greeks (Gentiles) as well as Jews (Acts 18:4). When the Jews opposed him, he left the synagogue to begin to work primarily among the Gentiles (Acts 18:5-7). However, Crispus, a leader of the synagogue became a believer, along with his family (Acts 18:8), so Paul did not turn his back on Jews.
The Jewish community continued its attack against Paul by preferring charges against him in civil court. The proconsul, Gallio, dismissed the charges as having nothing to do with Roman law. Gentile bystanders (not the Christian community) responded by beating Sosthenes, the synagogue leader (Acts 18:12-17).
After serving in Corinth for eighteen months, Paul left to go to Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). During that time Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, began teaching in the synagogue at Ephesus. He knew only the baptism of John, but Priscilla and Aquila corrected his understanding. Apollos then went to Achaia (of which Corinth was the capitol) where he gave a powerful witness to the messiahship of Jesus (Acts 18:24-28).
Paul then wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (1 Corinthians 5:9), but that letter has been lost to us. Paul then learned of divisions within the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:11) and mentioned receiving a letter from the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 7:1). He clearly understood that there were problems in the Corinthian church, and wrote this letter that we know as his First Epistle to the Corinthians to address those issues.
Our text is composed of the opening verses of this epistle (letter). These nine verses function as a greeting, but also serve as an overture to the rest of the letter. In a musical work, an overture serves to introduce the music that will follow. In the Overture to the musical “Oklahoma,” we hear snippets of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Kansas City,” and other songs. Those snippets whet the audience’s appetite for the music that they will hear later in the program.
In like manner, Paul uses this greeting to introduce a number of topics that he will deal with later in this letter.
• He says that he was called to be an apostle (v. 1), and will have more to say about his apostleship in chapter 9.
• He addresses “those who are sanctified” and “called to be saints,” (v. 2) but his letter will reveal many ways that they have failed to live holy lives.
• His comments about their “speech and all knowledge” (v. 5) points to to chapter 13, where he will tell them that eloquent speech and great knowledge have no value apart from Christian love.
• His comment about spiritual gifts (v. 7) lays the foundation for him to call them to “strive for greater gifts” (12:31).
• He holds up the ideal of “fellowship” (v. 9) to a church that has been torn apart by disharmony (6:1-11; 8:1-13; 11:17-22).
1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-3. PAUL, CALLED TO BE AN APOSTLE OF JESUS CHRIST
1Paul, called to be an apostle (Greek: apostolos) of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2to the assembly (Greek: ekklesia) of God which is at Corinth; those who are sanctified (Greek: hagiazo) in Christ Jesus, called to be saints(Greek: hagios), with all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, both theirs and ours: 3Grace (Greek: charis) to you and peace (Greek: eirene) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Paul, called to be an apostle (apostolos) of Jesus Christ” (v. 1a). It was customary for people of that time and place to begin their letters by introducing themselves (quite different from our letters today, name of the author at the end), and Paul follows that convention by introducing himself at the beginning.
Paul first states his name, and then his office. He is an apostle (apostolos). An apostolos is one sent with a message. In Paul’s case, the one who did the sending was Christ Jesus and the message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There has been a question in the minds of the Corinthians concerning Paul’s apostolic authority (4:1-5; 9:1-23), so Paul wants to establish in the beginning that Christ Jesus has called him to be an apostle.
It is important that Paul establish upfront that he is an apostle. These Corinthian Christians have questioned his authority, and he cannot fulfill the work to which Christ has called him unless they acknowledge his authority as an apostle. If Christ has called him to be an apostle—has endowed him with apostolic authority—then these Corinthian Christians must listen to him. If Christ has not endowed him with authority, they are well within their rights not to listen.
We usually think of twelve apostles, but after Judas committed suicide there were only eleven for a time. The apostles chose Matthias to succeed Judas (Acts 1:21-26), so then there were twelve again.
Later, Paul saw a vision of the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus, and the Lord told Ananias that Paul was “my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Luke (the author of Acts) soon thereafter refers to “the apostles, Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 14:14).
In his letters, Paul refers to “James, the Lord’s brother” as an apostle (Galatians 1:19). That James was not one of the original twelve apostles (see Matthew 10:2). Paul refers to “the brothers of the Lord” in such a way that suggests that they might have been apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5). He refers to Andronicus and Junia as apostles (Romans 16:7). So, over time there were far more than twelve apostles.
Paul introduces most of his letters with a claim to be an apostle (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1-2 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:1—but not Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians, or Philemon), and makes many other references to his apostleship in his letters.
Paul says that he was called to be an apostle by Christ Jesus. That story is told in some detail in Acts 9:1-19).
“the will of God” (v. 1b). Paul further cements his authority by stating that his call by Christ Jesus to the apostleship was in accord with God’s will.
“and our brother Sosthenes” (v. 1c). The name Sostenes appears in the New Testament only here and in Acts 18:17, where Sostenes was an official of the synagogue who underwent a beating in Corinth after the proconsul Gallio refused to hear Sosthenes’ complaint against Paul. If this was the Sosthenes mentioned in this verse, he would have had to have experienced a conversion for Paul to speak of him as “our brother.” However, Sosthenes was a common name, so this could be a man about whom we know nothing other than what is revealed in this verse.
“to the assembly (ekklesia) of God which is at Corinth“ (v. 2a). The word ekklesia is a combination of two Greek words—ek, a preposition meaning “out” and kaleo, a verb meaning “to call.” Greeks used ekklesia to speak of assemblies—gatherings of people who had been called or invited to assemble. Early Christians appropriated ekklesia to speak of the church, by which they meant those people who are called by God out of the world and into a holy community. They were almost certainly influenced at this point by the LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament), where the word ekklesia was sometimes used for the people of Israel.
The Christian use of the word ekklesia (“those who are called by God”) has much in common with the words “elect” or “election” (eklektos or ekloge), which are used in the New Testament to speak of those whom God has chosen. The idea of election extends back to the Old Testament, where Yahweh said to the people of Israel, “For you are a holy (Hebrew: qadosh—set aside for a holy purpose) people to Yahweh your God: Yahweh your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). In both cases (“those whom God has called” and “those whom God has chosen”), there is the sense that the people have been called or chosen to be a holy people, separate and distinct from the common people of the world.
New Testament translations routinely use the word “church” to translate the word ekklesia. The word “church” goes back to the Greek word kyrios, which means “Lord.” Over time, it morphed from kyrios to the Greek words kyriakos or kyriakon—to the Middle English word chirche—to the modern English word “church.”
Paul speaks of these Corinthian Christians as “the assembly of God which is at Corinth“ (v. 2a). The church belongs to God, not to them. They aren’t the church of Corinth, but the church of God. They aren’t in charge—God is in charge. God isn’t dependent on their wisdom or strength, but they are dependent on God’s wisdom, which sometimes appears as foolishness to humans (2:18-31). Paul doesn’t dignify their local leadership by naming their leaders. He wants them to understand that they are simply the church’s local manifestation in the city of Corinth.
“those who are sanctified (hagiazo) in Christ Jesus, called to be saints“(hagios) (v. 2b). These two Greek words, hagiazo and hagios are related. Both speak of holiness, which is one of God’s chief characteristics. God’s people are called to be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is always derivative—derived from a relationship to God. Only God can make a people holy.
This understanding of holiness has its roots in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew word is qadosh—set aside for a holy purpose. The sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service.
To become holy, a person must separate him/herself from that which is common. To be holy is to be “called out” from the sinful world into a deep and abiding relationship with God so that the person becomes more God-like—more holy—less like the sinful world-at-large.
Paul says of these Corinthian Christians that they “are sanctified”—have been made holy. While he chooses to defer dealing with their unholiness until after these opening paragraphs, Paul will have a great deal to say in this letter about divisions in the Corinthian church (1:10-31; 3:1-23) and sexual immorality in the Corinthian church (5:1-13)—and a host of other sins.
But, regardless of their present sins, Paul reminds these Corinthian Christians that they have been“called to be saints”—called to be holy. While they will never become perfectly holy in this life, they should strive toward the goal of holiness. To be chosen by God to be a holy people confers obligations as well as privileges. As God’s holy people, Israel incurred an obligation to live as a holy people—to obey God’s laws.
But in the end, it is not our striving for holiness that makes us holy, but our relationship to Christ. He confers the holiness that we could never attain on our own. Our striving to live holy lives is simply our attempt to be faithful—to live up to the status which Christ has already conferred on us.
People today usually hear the word “saints” quite differently than Paul intends in this verse. We usually hear the word “saints” used in one of two ways. A saint is either a person who has been canonized by the church or an unbelievably virtuous person. In either case, we cannot imagine that sainthood has anything to do with us. We aren’t likely to be canonized and aren’t unbelievably virtuous, so we assume that we are anything but saints—and have no hope of ever achieving anything resembling sainthood.
However, the Corinthians to whom Paul is writing this letter are ordinary Christians—below average when it comes to virtuous living. But Paul nevertheless tells them that they are called to be saints. Is he saying that, while they are unbelievably unholy at present, God has called them to be unbelievably holy? Is he trying to get them to strive toward an impossible goal? Hardly! Paul uses the word saints often in his letters, and his most frequent use of the word is simply to refer to ordinary believers—not some sort of super-Christians. In most cases, he uses the word saints as a synonym for believers (Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25-26, 31; 16:2, 15; etc.)
However, he also uses the word saints to remind Christians of their high calling and to encourage them to live up to that high calling.
“with all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, both theirs and ours“ (v. 2c). Paul took an initial step to deflate the inflated egos of these Corinthian Christians when he used the phrase “church of God” earlier in this verse. It isn’t their church, but God’s church. Now Paul goes another step to deflate their egos. These Corinthian Christians aren’t the church, but only the church at Corinth—just a small part of a larger whole.
Paul words this with considerable delicacy. Instead of telling the Corinthian Christians that they are just a small cog in a grand enterprise, he simply widens his greeting to include all Christians everywhere. In doing so, he provides a subtle reminder that the church is much larger than the little body of believers at Corinth. By adding “both theirs and ours,” he reminds the Corinthians that they are tied by the Lordship of Jesus Christ to Christians everywhere.
“Grace (charis) to you and peace (eirene) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 3). In keeping with convention, Paul opened this letter by identifying himself and those to whom the letter was addressed. Now he continues with customary practice by offering good wishes—in this case a prayer for the recipients of the letter. He prays that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ might confer on them both grace (charis) and peace (eirene).
Fee notes that Greeks commonly used the word chairein, which means “to rejoice” as a greeting—and that Paul took that secular greeting and adapted it to his Christian purpose by saying charis (grace) instead of chairein (Greetings!).
Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The understanding of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. Just as we could never fully repay a person who left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth, so also we can never repay God for the gift of salvation. However, if a patron were to grant us unimaginable wealth, we could be faithful to the patron by using the money in a way that would be consistent with the patron’s wishes or values. So also, we can be faithful to the God who gives us salvation by living in accord with God’s will.
Peace (eirene) is also a significant word, occurring nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. The Christian understanding of eirene has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom, which was used frequently in the Old Testament. The LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the Greek word eirene to translate the Hebrew word shalom nearly two hundred times.
Both eirene and shalom, as used in the Bible, mean more than the absence of violence—although they can mean that (Judges 4:17; 1 Samuel 7:14). Both eirene and shalom connote the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God. They connote the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer.
“from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3b). Paul leaves no doubt as to the source of grace and peace. They are blessings to be bestowed by “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”—not something that the Corinthian Christians can produce on their own.
This is the fourth reference in three verses to Jesus Christ. In three of the four references, the name of Jesus Christ is specifically tied to the name of God. Paul has a high Christology (his understanding of the person and work of Christ), and we will to see Paul continue to use the name of Jesus Christ frequently in the verses that follow.
1 CORINTHIANS 1:4-9. I ALWAYS THANK MY GOD CONCERNING YOU
4 I always thank my God concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; 5that in everything you were enriched in him, in all speech (Greek: logos) and all knowledge (Greek:gnosis); 6even as the testimony (Greek: marturion) of Christ was confirmed (Greek: bebaioo) in you: 7so that you come behind in no gift (Greek: charismati); waiting (Greek: apekdechomai) for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; 8will also confirm (Greek: bebaioo) you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
“I always thank my God concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus“ (v. 4). I once attended a funeral where the preacher spoke in glowing terms about a man whose life had been less than glowing. After the funeral, someone asked me, “Who was she talking about?”
We might ask the same of Paul here. Who is he talking about? Is he talking about the Corinthian church that has suffered because of its many divisions (1:10-17)? Is he talking about Christians who have either engaged in or turned a blind eye to sexual immorality in the church (5:1-13)? Is he talking about believers who have turned to civil courts to air their grievances against one another (6:1-11)? Is he talking about Christians who have observed the Lord’s supper with the rich having plenty to eat and the poor having nothing—with some people actually getting drunk (11:17-22)?
Some scholars believe that Paul is being sarcastic here. If so, his intent would be to shame these Corinthian Christians—to remind them how far they have fallen short of the life to which God has called them. Other scholars, however, see this as honest thanksgiving on Paul’s part for the Corinthian Christians and the grace that they have received. I believe the latter camp to be correct:
• Paul is a very direct person (as he will soon demonstrate in this letter), and doesn’t need sarcasm to shame people.
• He understands that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that we are “justified freely by his grace” (Romans 3:24)—so he can appreciate the faith even of Christians who are falling short of the Christian ideal.
• He has experienced personally the inner conflict that causes good people to do bad things, and understands that God’s grace is his only hope (Romans 7:14-25).
• He doesn’t deny that these Corinthians are Christians. If they are Christians, they have received God’s grace, and it would be appropriate for Paul to be thankful for that.
• He doesn’t congratulate them for what they have done, but gives thanks for what they have received. In doing so, he moves the focus from what they have done to what God has done for them.
• In the verses that follow, Paul specifies some of the blessings that the Corinthian Christians have received from God.
“that in everything you were enriched in him, in all speech (logos) and all knowledge“ (gnosis) (v. 5). God has enriched the Corinthian Christians with the gifts of speech and knowledge:
• Speech (logos): The Greek word, logos, is often translated “word” (John 1:1) or “saying” or “speech.” It has to do with communication.
People in Paul’s day prized rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing effectively). Oratory was a means of convincing, persuading, and moving people. It is a powerful gift.
However, any great gift can be used to support evil purposes. Adoph Hitler’s greatest gift was the gift of oratory, but his use of that gift led to a war that killed millions of people.
As Paul will suggest in chapters 12-13, Corinthian Christians took great pride in their spiritual gifts, in particular the gift of speaking in tongues. While this was a legitimate gift, their focus on it led them into spiritual pride and a failure to appropriate more significant gifts. Later in this letter, Paul will say, “If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal” (13:1).
• Knowledge (gnosis): Knowledge is a great gift. The Corinthians are prosperous and sophisticated—and Corinthian Christians became prideful because of their knowledge. However, Paul will say later in this letter, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing” (13:2).
So these gifts, speech and knowledge, in which the Corinthian Christians take such pride, have become occasions for sin. While they are legitimate gifts, these Christians need to see them as gifts rather than personal achievements. They need to turn these gifts toward service to others. If they will do that, these gifts will bless them—and others as well. It is with that understanding that Paul can give thanks that these Corinthian Christians have received these two spiritual gifts.
“even as the testimony (marturion) of Christ was confirmed (bebaioo) in you“ (v. 6). The word marturion is the word from which we get our English word martyr. The reason for the connection between marturion and martyr should be obvious. Early Christians were often persecuted or even killed for bearing testimony to Christ. When we hear Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” (Luke 9:23; see also Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34) we seldom hear his words as a challenge to go and die with him—but that is exactly what Christians around the world have been doing for centuries. Discipleship, for most of us, is far tamer than Christ intended it to be.
The word bebaioo can be translated strengthened, confirmed, or guaranteed. We will see it again in verse 8.
While this is a difficult verse, Paul seems to be saying that God has empowered these Corinthian Christians to bear witness to their faith. Their gifts of speech and knowledge, properly used, could be a part of that empowerment.
“so that you come behind in no gift” (charismati) (v. 7a). Note the similarity between the words charis (grace) and charismati (spiritual gift). Both charis and charismati are gifts bestowed by a benevolent God.
“waiting (apekdechomai) for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 7b). The word apekdechomai speaks of expectant waiting—eager waiting—the kind of waiting that inspires the person to actively prepare for the coming of Christ.
When Paul speaks of “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” here, he is almost certainly speaking eschatologically (speaking about the end of time and Jesus’ Second Coming). God has given these Corinthian Christians certain spiritual gifts (charismati) so that they might fulfill the demands of discipleship as they await the Lord’s coming.
“will also confirm (bebaioo) you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 8). As noted above, the word bebaioo can be translated strengthened, confirmed, or guaranteed. As used in this verse, it could mean that God will strengthen these Corinthian Christians to be blameless when Christ comes again—or that God will guarantee their blamelessness in that day. In any event, God is the responsible agent. It is God, not these Corinthians, who can prepare them for the day of Jesus’ coming. It isn’t that they will be blameless on that day, but that God will count them as blameless because of their faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, as Paul proceeds through this letter, it will become apparent that these Corinthian Christians are anything but blameless. Their only hope (and ours) is the grace of God.
“God is faithful“ (v. 9a). Paul’s confidence that these Corinthian Christians will be held blameless on Judgment Day is based, not on their faithfulness, but on the faithfulness of God. God is trustworthy, because he loves us with steadfast love. Just as God continued his covenant relationship with Israel through thick and thin, so also we can trust him to continue his relationship with us in spite of our sins. We should note, however, that God will permit us to break that relationship if we choose to do so.
“through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord“ (v. 9b). In verse 1, Paul stated that he had been called to be an apostle. Now he tells these Corinthian Christians that they have been “called into the fellowship of (God’s) Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This fellowship is a privilege that we cannot earn. It is like having access to a president or a king—a great privilege. However, God calls all people into that fellowship, and all who respond in faith will enjoy it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Hayes, Richard B., Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
Hoezee, Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Copyright 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan