We have seen that the letters of Paul each follow a recognisably similar outline, mostly including all the main sections and often adhering to the major conventions of the day. See
There are variations, of course, in each letter, so that no one letter follows this pattern exactly. This is especially so in the largest section, the “body”, in the middle of the letter. The excerpt from 1 Corinthians we hear on Sunday demonstrates this in a very clear way.
In opening his letters, Paul characteristically modified the simple verb “greetings” to read “grace and peace to you”. We find that is the case at 1 Cor 1:3. What usually followed in letters of the day was a prayer of thanks to a particular god or goddess; Paul’s letters followed this convention in most cases, with a prayer specifically to “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3).
This prayer often contained clear pointers to some of the key topics in the letter that follows, such as “I am eager to preach the gospel” (Rom 1:15), or “you were enriched in him with all speech and knowledge” (1 Cor 1:5), or “I thank my God…because of your partnership in the gospel” (Phil 1:5); and see also “we always give thanks to God … remembering … your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess 1:3) and “God gave us … a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).
Galatians stands as a noteworthy exception, for Paul substituted a condemnation in place of the traditional thanksgiving: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you … and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).
So as we read through the first nine verses of his letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth”, 1 Corinthians, we hear sounded some key themes in Paul’s theology, which receive attention in subsequent chapters of this letter, as the observations below indicate.
A. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4).
This is the same grace that Paul himself has experienced through his calling to proclaim the good news: “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it” (1 Cor 3:10); “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (15:10).
Paul refers also to “the grace of God” as the motivator for how he has “behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor 1:12). This grace undergirds all that Paul says and does, so he returns to it at the close of the letter with a repetition of the opening prayer, “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (16:23; cf. 1:3).
B. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1:5).
This statement appears to be a straightforward commendation of the believers in Corinth, but actually conceals a degree of sarcasm in how Paul assesses some, at least, of them. They appear to have been enriched by God; but the depth of Paul’s feeling about this is revealed in a strident passage in chapter 4, after Paul has discussed the earlier work of Apollos and Cephas amongst the Corinthians (3:5–4:7), and the resultant formation of sectarian groups amongst the believers (1:11–12).
Paul regrets this development; earlier, he has lamented, “has Christ been divided? was Paul crucified for you? were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). A note of sarcasm is already evident in his disappointment. He returns to this sarcastic tone when he berates the Corinthians: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!” (4:8). Clearly, the “enriching” that the Corinthians felt they had was not in accord with Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.
That understanding is evident in 2 Corinthians, when Paul writes of “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9), and thus of the life of the believer “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10). The Corinthian “enrichment” needs to be corrected.
A much-loved passage in this letter, chapter 13, actually continues this sarcastic commentary on the Corinthians. A careful reading of the whole letter reveals that the various characteristics which Paul extols in “love”—patience and kindness, with no boastfulness or envy, for instance—are actually in short supply in Corinth.
C. “Just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:6–7).
Spiritual gifts come into focus in the later sections of Paul’s letter, in chapters 12 to 14. The terms “speech” and “knowledge” that appear at 1:5 pick up two of the “spiritual gifts” (1:7) that are specifically discussed in more detail in chapter 14 of the letter. The reference to “spiritual gifts” in 1:7 is initially developed in chapter 2, when Paul writes, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” (2:12–13).
Paul makes a clear differentiation between “those who are unspiritual [who] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit” and “those who are spiritual [who] discern all things” (2:14–15). So both Paul and the Corinthians exhibit spiritual gifts which have been given by God. But Paul is not happy with the way that some in Corinth are exercising those gifts, particularly in the community gatherings. So his discussion in chapters 12–14 identifies and corrects these bad practices. Thus, the opening reference to the Corinthians as “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:7) has a barbed undertone—perhaps not evident at first hearing, but becoming clear with the benefit of hindsight after the whole letter has been heard.
The gift of “speech” signals the exercise, within the Corinthian community, of the gifts of prophecy (speaking the word of the Lord) and its interpretation, as well as the gift of tongues and their interpretation. The fact that Paul is intending to address the way these gifts are exercised, and to offer corrections to the Corinthians in his critical analysis of chapter 14, is thus signalled explicitly in the opening prayer.
The gift of “knowledge” (1:5) receives consideration in a passage (8:1–11) which begins, “all of us possess knowledge”. This appears to be quoted by Paul as a slogan which had currency in Corinth, but which Paul wishes to critique. He ends his discussion with the punchline, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (8:11). Sadly, the kind of “knowledge” demonstrated by some believers in Corinth served to destroy the faith of others in their community.
D. “As you wait for the revealing of our Lord … he will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7–8).
The concept of being “blameless” derives from ancient Israelite piety, which would have been taught to Paul as he grew up within Judaism. The psalmist sings, “happy are those whose way is blameless,who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1), and prays, “may my heart be blameless in your statutes,
so that I may not be put to shame” (Ps 119:80). The sages note that “the righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight” (Prov 11:5) and rejoices that “the blameless will have a goodly inheritance” (Prov 28:10). In the historical sagas of Israel, those noted as being blameless include Noah (Gen 6:9), Abram (Gen 17:1), and David (1 Sam 29:9), as are Daniel (Dan 6:22) and Job (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3).
Paul therefore upheld the standard of being blameless in his upbringing (Phil 3:6) and in his behaviour (1 Thess 2:10), and he prays that believers also might be “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13). Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, held to an eschatological view of time; “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), there is an imminent “impending crisis l (1 Cor 7:26).
Paul thus connects his eschatological framework with this goal of being blameless, exhorting the Philippians “to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:10), and advising the Corinthians that “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Cor 3:13). The judgement that comes on this day is clear; so he advises the Corinthians that a man living with his father’s wife is to be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5).
This Day expounded in greater detail towards the end of his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:12–58). The fundamental belief is that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22); accordingly that Day
will be the time when those who have sinned, but trusted in Christ, will be found blameless; “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (15:49).
Paul’s affirmation of this eschatological viewpoint in the opening prayer (1:7–8) thus foreshadows one of his most extensive discussions of eschatology, Christology, and soteriology—the most theologically-complex section of this letter to the Corinthians.
E. “God is faithful” (1:9).
This is a short credal-like affirmation that Paul makes in his opening prayer, which occurs elsewhere in Paul’s writings. It may thus have been a fundamental element in Paul’s own belief system—God is the one who keeps faith with God’s people—rather than reflecting anything amongst the Corinthians. In this regard, Paul stands with the prophets of Israel, who consistently proclaimed that God do not want to abandon the expel of God, for God held steadfastly to his covenant with them.
Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul reflects this element of belief in God’s fidelity, when discussing “testing”. “God is faithful”, he writes, “and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (10:13). The phrase recurs in 2 Corinthians: “as surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No’l (2 Cor 1:18). Paul had already written similar in his earliest extant letter, 1 Thessalonians, affirming that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (5:24).
The phrase also appears at 2 Thess 3:3; 1 Peter 4:19; and perhaps most famously at 1 John 1:9 (“if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”). Finally, the rider of the white horse in a vision seen by the seer on Patmos was called “Faithful and True” (Rev 19:11).
F. “By him [God] you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).
The term “fellowship” (Greek koinonia) appears later in this letter, when Paul refers to “sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ … sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16). Paul uses this word elsewhere to refer to the nature of Christian community (Phil 1:5; 2:1), as well as to the shared relationship that believers have with Jesus (Phil 3:10), fellowship,with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14), and the offering from Gentile believers for their “ministry for the saints” (2 Cor 9:13). At both Gal 2:9 and Phlm 6 the term refers to fellowship or community amongst believers.
In his longest letter (to the saints in Rome), Paul describes the nature of Christian community without reference to the term koinonia, but using the common hellenistic topos of “the body”: “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another; we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4–5).
Before writing this letter, Paul had provided a much more extensive discussion of this image in chapter 12 of his letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth”, when he wrote, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ; for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12–13).
Thus, no one part of the body is superior to any other part; “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another; if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:24–26). This is the essential nature of the Christian community, a fellowship of interrelated parts.
Thus, in exploring the matter of how gifts are (mis)used in Corinth, Paul has a clear concern to ensure that all the members “build up the body” (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see earlier at 3:5–15). This concern has been clearly flagged in the final sentence of his opening prayer: “by God you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).
As we read through the first nine verses of his letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth”, 1 Corinthians, we hear sounded some key themes in Paul’s theology, which receive attention in subsequent chapters of this letter, as the above observations indicate.