Letters to the Corinthians: Saying Hello

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 …

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9 thoughts on “Letters to the Corinthians: Saying Hello

  1. It has been said that the city of Corinth was the New York City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles of the Apostle Paul’s day, all rolled into one. The parallels between the culture and life of this ancient Greek city and modern America are so striking that a number of theologians have seen fit to make the comparison independently from one another.

    Although many of his readers already knew Paul personally because he had been in their midst for eighteen months, he didn’t refer to himself as an apostle for the purpose of identity….to distinguish himself from all the other Pauls in the church or simply to inform his readers of his office…but because in this epistle he will be speaking with the full apostolic authority of his office in order to both rebuke them and instruct the Corinthian congregation in those areas where they are struggling. The man writing is not just Paul, their friend and acquaintance. The man writing is also Paul the apostle, who addresses them with the full divine authority associated with his office.

    There is no doubt this is the same Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18, one who knew the Corinthian situation very well. Some ancient manuscripts of the text report that the Jews beat him and other manuscripts report that the Greeks beat him. If by the Jews, it no doubt was because he represented them so poorly at court. If by the Greeks, it was probably because they resented his taking up their court time with a matter that concerned only Jewish religion. Now, however, Paul could refer to Sosthenes as “our brother.” indicating that some time after the incident just mentioned…and perhaps because of it…this former opponent of the gospel, like Paul himself, had become a Christian!!

    The church to whom Paul was writing was not the church of the Corinthians but the church of God which was located at Corinth. The church is a body of people who belong not to themselves or any leader or group but to God. We are not our own, individually or collectively, but have all been bought with the price of Christ’s blood ( 1 Corinthians 6:20).

    Given the stern rebuke he is about to extend to the Corinthians, we might be surprised that Paul includes a thanksgiving in the opening lines of this letter. We should not be. Paul does not give thanks for the Corinthians’ horrible conduct. Instead, he gives thanks for what God has graciously done in their midst, despite their conduct. Paul is grateful for those who have received the grace of salvation. His passion was to see people redeemed, and his joy was greatest when that happened. His thanks is directed Godward.

    I’m glad you have dusted off your Bible 🙂 Hope you didn’t mind my pulling up a chair and spending a little time sharing what I have learned.

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    1. I enjoy diverse perspectives – but I just never know if we can be sure about the details or minutiae of Scripture when we have lost so very much of how their culture works and what went without being said. I have read the whole of 1st Corinthians and it doesn’t seem as if it’s all about him asserting his apostolic authority. I was just reading a hundred year old perspective of 1st Corinthians and the author noted that Paul didn’t seem to think that things he had delivered with apostolic authority had equal authority with the things of Christ or the Lord; in some cases, the Lord’s teaching was superior to his own and he couldn’t speak for God – though he could offer advice for his culture.

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  2. I read page 68 and 67 online.

    But she is happier if she so abide. Why? Not because widowhood is of itself a virtue. No, because it will have less to distract, and is more exempt from earthly cares.

    You have to keep in mind the storyline of the Bible. In the Old Testament, marriage is the norm and singleness was rare. In the New Testament, though, marriage remains the norm but singleness is elevated as uniquely beneficial. Following the trajectory into the new creation, earthly marriages will be swallowed up in that supreme love which human marriage points (Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34,35). Earthly marriages exist to point forward to the ultimate union of Christ and His church. (Rev. 19:7-9), since the new creation has broken into the present through Christ, we now live with a forward tilt toward the age to come. Added to the original commission to multiply persons ( Gen. 1:28) is the commission to multiply disciples ( Matthew 28: 18-20). Marriage is required for the first, but not for the second.

    According to my judgment….he does not mean by this expression that his opinion was doubtful; but it is as if he had said that such was his decision as to this question; for he immediately adds that he has the Spirit of God, which is sufficient to give full and perfect authority.

    There appears, at the same time, to be somewhat of irony when he says “I think” for as the false apostles were ever and anon boasting in high-sounding terms of their having the Spirit of God, for the purpose of arrogations to themselves authority, and in the meantime endeavored to derogate from that of Paul, he says that he thinks that he is not less partaker of the Spirit than they.

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    1. I think that we have to remember that Paul was well aware of his own fallibility. He doesn’t consider every word that comes out of his mouth as having apostolic authority. Nor should we. If we just assume that everything Paul ever said was backed up with apostolic authority just because Paul the apostle said it, we run the risk of thinking every single one of his apostolic words being more important that the teaching of Christ Jesus. Paul’s whole ministry was to point people to Christ, not to draw people to his own authority. We’ll see that in 1 Cor. 9 when Paul declares what the rights of an apostle are and why he doesn’t use them.

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  3. Jamie, the words you have written here shows a profound misunderstanding of Scripture. The production of “red-letter” Bibles very well might have contributed to this false belief among people and separation of Christ and the Apostle Paul. The Scriptures themselves testify, “All Scripture is God-breathed” ( 2 Timothy 3:16). If they contain error, then one must call it God-inspired error. This is totally in incompatible the nature of God as revealed in the Bible. Titus 1:2 says God cannot lie. John 17:17 says, “Thy word is truth.” God used fallible men to receive and record His infallible Word so that it would reach us, correct and without error. Thank you for allowing my comments on your blog.

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    1. 2 Timothy is considered to be the last epistle, it could have been written by Paul shortly before his death, but a growing consensus among scholars is that one of Paul’s followers wrote it after his death and attributed it to Paul. At the time 1 Corinthians was written, it didn’t exist yet – nor did Titus. When I wrote that I was rooting the word in it’s cultural and historical context, I meant that I was considering it in it’s time-frame. At this point, Corinthians is a freshly-written letter of Greek text on a scroll, newly arrived in Corinth, being read aloud to the Corinthians for the very first time. It is not a copy of the letter bound in a codex and won’t be accepted as a part of the biblical canon until the fourth century. It stands alone, isolated from the rest of scripture in this form. Every now and then I do point out how the teachings are similar to others in Scripture, but only to show how coherent the message is, nothing more – in which case a 20/20 hindsight perspective can’t be avoided. Put yourself in their sandals and carefully consider what Scripture means when much of it isn’t yet written.

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