In the last essay we did an introduction to the Corinthian correspondence. In this essay we take up 1 Corinthians, and we begin with 1:1-17. In verses 1-3 we learn that the standard salutation of the day identified the writer, the recipients, and a word of greeting was added. Therefore a classic salutation in this case would have been, Paul to the Corinthians greeting. But as you can see, Paul added things to his salutations. The first thing he added here regarded his apostleship. He asserts that God called him to be an apostle.
Paul also added the name of Sosthenes as a sender of the letter. Paul frequently as a courtesy included such people as writers, even though they did not actually do the writing. This particular case is interesting, because Sosthenes is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament as a coworker or traveling companion of Paul’s. However Acts 18:17 tells us that a man by that name was the ruler of the synagogue at Corinth. Therefore it is possible that the Sosthenes mentioned in Acts was converted to Christ and was with Paul in Ephesus when he wrote 1 Corinthians.
The letter is addressed to the church at Corinth. The word “church” (ekklesia), which literally means “assembly,” became the standard term used to describe early Christian communities. Then Paul goes on to describe the people in the church as “those who are sanctified in Christ . . . called to be saints,” or “holy ones.” And he reminds them that they are called by God to be this special people along with all other sanctified Christians. In verse three Paul replaces the usual greeting with a Christian blessing of grace and peace.
In verses 4-9 Paul includes a thanksgiving section in the letter. He expresses thanks to God for the Corinthians, and their grace-given giftedness. This is interesting, because much of the grief that Paul experienced with the Corinthians before writing this letter was tied to their giftedness. This is a good lesson for us. Many of us tend to get impatient and even nasty with those with whom we disagree. But Paul could see past the Corinthians’ mistakes and thank God for their spiritual gifts, even though some of them were misusing the gifts.
In verse five Paul mentions two particular areas of giftedness that are particularly on his mind: “speech” and “knowledge.” He clearly believes that God gave the Corinthians gifts of the Spirit in those areas, but he also is anticipating his negative discussion of their use of several of those gifts of speech and knowledge. We will see that discussion in chapters 12-14. Then he adds in verse six, “just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened [literally confirmed] among you.” That clause suggests that God’s giving them the spiritual gifts confirmed Paul’s witness to Christ while he was with them. And he tells them in verses 7-8 that with the help of the gifts, God will continue to confirm them as they await the second coming of Christ.
In verse nine Paul concludes the thanksgiving section by reminding the Corinthians that their focus should be on God, not on themselves. God is the faithful one, and he is the one who called them into fellowship with Jesus.
In verses 10-17 we see two conflicts in the Corinthian church. There was an internal conflict among certain groups or parties in the church, and there was a conflict between some people in the church and Paul. Two things immediately jump out at us from the paragraph. First, Paul beseeches them, or appeals to them, to do the right thing, rather than making demands by apostolic authority. This was necessary because apostle or not, there was not enough support for him in Corinth to make demands in this matter.
Second, although you cannot tell it from the English translations, Paul uses the word “same” three times in verse 10. He wants them to say the same thing (the NRSV and NIV translate it “be in agreement”). And he wants them to be joined in the same mind and in the same opinion. The NRSV translates “opinion” as “purpose and the NIV as “thought”).
Now some have been concerned that Paul meant that all Christians must always agree with one another about everything. No, Paul confirms diversity in the church in chapter 12 of this very letter. Therefore we must look to the immediate context for guidance. And in the immediate context, the issue is divisions in the church. Paul says that he wants them to agree “that there be no divisions among you.”
Paul goes on in verse 11 to say that he has heard from Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among them. We have no idea who Chloe was. She is not mentioned anywhere else. Some, like Fee, do not believe she was from Corinth, and they speculate about who she might have been. But personally, I don’t see any reason to reject the idea that she was from Corinth. At any rate, it is obvious that the quarrels had to do with who their favorite preacher happened to be. Some of the Christians in Corinth identified themselves with Paul and his teaching, whereas others identified with Apollos or Cephas (that is, Peter). And they openly were arguing with one another about it. Paul is swift to denounce that kind of behavior. He uses himself as the example. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” To be baptized in someone’s name meant that you were giving your allegiance to that person. Therefore they could not belong to Paul, because they were baptized in Jesus’ name. Thus in Paul’s mind the Corinthian factualism was absurd. All of the preachers were seeking to advance the cause of Christ, not themselves.
Apollos is described in Acts 18:24 as an eloquent Jew from Alexandria, Egypt who had a good command of the Scriptures (that is the Old Testament). He had been converted to Christ, but his grasp of Christianity was weak. And so Aquila and Priscilla, two friends of Paul’s, took him under their wings to instruct him. Of course Cephas was the apostle Peter. It isn’t clear when or under what circumstances Peter visited Corinth. But obviously they had heard him preach.
Notice at the end of verse 12 that there was a faction that said, “I belong to Christ.” This has caused consternation among many scholars, because all true believers belong to Christ. There are two possibilities to explain this. First, it is possible that there was a small faction who thought they were the only true believers in Corinth, which logically would mean that they were the only ones there who belonged to Christ. Or second, it has been suggested that the statement, “but I belong to Christ” does not represent a fourth faction. Rather it represents a comment by Paul on the matter. It is very difficult to know; but if I were forced to choose, I lean towards the first possibility.
In verses 14 and following Paul expresses thanks to God for the fact that he had baptized very few people at Corinth. Had he baptized a lot of them, that might have brought comfort to and strengthened the Pauline faction. And he had no interest in doing that. Indeed, as he says in verse 17, Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel.
Paul was not belittling the sacrament of Baptism with this statement. His discussion of it in Rom. 6:3 and following doesn’t allow that. He simply was indicating that his special calling was to preach the gospel, not with “wisdom of speech,” literally; but that Christ’s cross might not be emptied of its power.
This is the first mention in the letter of “wisdom’ (sophia in the Greek). It will come up again later in the letter, so tuck it away in your mental filing cabinet. It is uncertain what the term meant to the Corinthians, or how it might empty the cross of its power, but it definitely had some relation to the problems at Corinth. This statement becomes a transition to the next section, 1:18-2:5, which deals with what Paul calls the “wisdom of God” (1:21). We shall take up that section in our next essay.