This week I decided that it was time to dust off my Bibles and take a look at a church in chaos, starting from the beginning and working through it section at a time to see what it really says and what it doesn’t say and what it might mean if we root the Word in it’s historical and cultural context; so take a look at 1st Corinthians 1:1-3 …
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
Sosthenes was probably the guy mentioned in Acts 18:17 – “Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.” I can’t imagine a more awkward way to begin a letter: “Jamie, who won the right to be the leader by the rules of Follow The Leader, and our friend Sven, …” For us, letter writing usually begins with: “To my dear friends at …” or “Dear Ivan” The first thing to notice is that we have different cultural rules for correspondences. So we have to be careful about judging the importance of the original based on what our culture would tell us. We could assume (1.) Paul and Sosthenes are asserting their authority as an apostle and a synagogue leader or (2.) Paul and Sosthenes are identifying themselves in a context that the receivers would easily recognize so that they know the message is genuine. Back in the day, it would have been relatively easy for anybody to write in Paul’s name, in Peter’s name, in John’s name and pass around whatever teaching based on the authority inherent in a recognizable name. While we’d like to imagine that Paul wrote this letter by hand, as we would, odds were that he had a scribe write down what he dictated. Given all that Paul had gone through – being attacked, beaten, stoned, and imprisoned – he might not have had full use of his fingers to write out a full letter in ancient Greek. But we do see him ‘sign off’ as it were in 1 Corinthians 16:21, Galatians 6:11, Colossians 4:18, and 2 Thessalonians 3:17; just four of the thirteen epistles attributed to Paul have his final greeting and even one of those is thought to not actually be written by him at all. Scholars do think that 1 Corinthians is genuine – if not written by Paul then dictated by Paul. Going back to the ‘sign off’ we can identify that the letter was likely written in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8) where he likely spent three years (Acts 20:31) so the possible date it was written has been narrowed down to: 53-57 A.D. And that’s just for 1st Corinthians. Which is not to say it’s the first letter written to the Corinthians. We can find reference to a total of four letters – the one mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9 as the previous or warning letter, the letter we know as 1st Corinthians, the one mentioned in a few places in 2 Cor. as the letter of tears or painful letter (2 Corinthians 2:3–4 and 2 Cor. 7:8 ), and the letter we know as 2nd Corinthians. So we have to treat these passages as if we’re getting to eaves-drop on half of a conversation, and every now and then the audio cuts out entirely leaving it anyone’s guess as to what was said aside from the references in the portions we do have.
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:
Sometimes when people look at this section, they read it a lot more like this: “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:” Which explains the general attitude of how they believe that this letter applies to them because it’s written to them even if the original Corinthians are gone. Still, this is quite the greeting. But I think it takes away from the assumption that the authors are asserting their own personal authority by reminding the congregation that the title of ‘Lord’ falls not upon Apostle Paul, but the one he serves – Jesus Christ. Paul has already used Jesus’ name three times. I’m guessing that’s pretty important.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Four times. Not long ago, my church held a special day all about getting excited about Jesus. The children were instructed to shout and cheer whenever they heard anybody say Jesus’ name – it was then that I realized that for most of the service, the children really didn’t have anything to to cheer about. Sure, we love him and follow him, but for most of the service his name was barely used, save for the prayers in his name. Paul is giving those children lots of reasons to cheer.
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 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. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
With the exception of Galatians, almost all of the other epistles written by Paul feature a Thanksgiving section as a reminder of what the church is doing right so that they won’t be too terribly discouraged by what they’re getting wrong. He also brings up the total uses of the name of Jesus to nine. (Not counting the ‘He’s’ and ‘In Hims’ – that would bring it up even higher!) At this point, the references to God comes up to only five. Now that Paul has identified himself, the intended recipients, and told them what they’ve done right – it’s time for him to start dealing with where they went wrong …