1 Corinthians Week 1
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Educational Ministry
Read this week’s Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1–9
We should probably admit it right from the get-go. It seems a little odd to think we can find help for living today by reading a letter written to people living 2,000 years ago and half a world away. And yet this is exactly what we can expect reading Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth — when we read it as Scripture and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.
As we join together on this journey through 1 Corinthians, I invite you to read carefully and prayerfully Paul’s amazing letter. We want the journey to take us beyond “reading someone else’s mail” to hearing a word from God for our life together in Christian faith.
I have a two-fold task serving as your guide. First, I want to help you get the big picture of this letter. Weekly readings will take us through the letter in 11 weeks. My first task is keeping the 11 weekly “dots” connected as Paul explains to the Corinthian Christians how their life together can be strengthened by God (1:8).
My second task is encouraging imaginative reflection on how your life within a local Christian community can be strengthened by God. At times, Paul’s letter will feel both strange and familiar to the worlds we inhabit. To hear a word from God, we will need the Holy Spirit to enliven our imagination so we can find appropriate connections between our lives and the lives of the believers at Corinth [see Author’s Note 1]. Now let’s begin.
Become Who You Are
Paul opens his letter with a greeting and a thanksgiving prayer, a typical way letters began in the ancient world. In the body of the letter Paul addresses issues in the church, but in his greeting and prayer he reminds the Corinthians of their identity in Christ. Notice Paul’s descriptions of the Corinthian Christians’ status in Christ: they are sanctified (1:2), enriched in every way (1:5), not lacking any spiritual gift (1:7), and called into the fellowship of Christ (1:9).
What a positive picture! Though Paul will have much to say about their shortcomings, his letter essentially calls them to live into their identity; to become who they are in Christ.
Chief among the identity descriptors Paul mentions is the idea of being called. Paul refers to the concept of calling four times in the space of nine verses. First, he identifies himself as one called to be an apostle by the will of God (1:1). Then he reminds the Corinthians that they have been called to be saints (1:2). This call is not exclusive, since the Corinthians join all who call on the name of the Lord (1:2). Finally, Paul notes that God has called the Corinthians into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1:9).
An invitation rests at the heart of being called. Invitations require a response. The second verse shows this essential relationship between invitation and response: “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” The Greek word for sanctify is hagiazo. Its root is hagios, the same word translated saint. The Corinthian believers are saints; they are holy people. Yet they are also to become holy people!
Paul’s letter guides the Corinthians in living into their identity as holy people. In each week’s Lectio, we will examine a way Paul wants them to become holy. In this initial Lectio, we set the stage for Paul’s letter by examining life in Corinth and the church’s relationship to Paul.
Setting the Stage
If we pay close attention to Paul’s greeting and prayer, we see Paul “tip his hand” on many of the issues he will address later in the letter. Here are three glimpses of what’s to come:
- The Corinthians have been enriched with every spiritual gift. Paul mentions specifically the gifts of speech and knowledge (1:5). Unfortunately, it will be these very gifts — which some church members misuse — that “come back to bite them.” Paul will instruct believers on the role of spiritual gifts in Chapters 12–14.
- Paul reminds the Corinthians they are waiting for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:7). They are living “between the times,” after Jesus’ first appearance but prior to Jesus’ second coming. Much of Paul’s teaching in the letter aims at helping the Corinthians live responsibly during this time of waiting.
- The Corinthians have been called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinonia, and it means far more than casual conversation over coffee in the church fellowship hall. Koinonia implies joint participation — a partnership. Due to bad behavior, however, the partnership is suffering and the unity that marks true partnership in Christ is threatened. Paul addresses the causes of divisions in the opening section of the letter.
Corinth: Not Your Average City
We are fond of “the best of” lists that tell us the top places for eating out, raising a family, healthy living, or whatever else we are interested in finding. My hometown, Seattle, shows up on many lists as one of the best cities in the United States (though not on the list of best places to get a suntan!).
Corinth also would have been on many “best of” lists. It was a young, port city with a strong economy. Actually, in Paul’s day Corinth was on its “second life.” It had been a thriving city in the Greek Empire, but was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. Essentially uninhabited for a century, Emperor Julius Caesar reestablished the city in 44 B.C. as a Roman colony. Cosmopolitan in flavor, Corinth was a city where people could come and move up the social and economic ladder. Though there was a small Jewish population present (Acts 18:1–4), Corinthian religious life revolved around Greek and Roman pagan religions.
Defining the Relationship: A “DTR” for Paul and the Corinthians
1 Corinthians gives a snapshot of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian church. It helps to expand that snapshot for a more complete picture of their relationship. Briefly, here’s the story. Paul visited Corinth on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–18:22). He founded the Corinthian church (Paul claims to have planted, 3:6, and fathered, 4:15, the congregation) and stayed in Corinth 18 months, from spring of 50 A.D. to fall of 51 A.D. [see Author’s Note 2].
During this time, Paul supported himself through tent-making, while simultaneously proclaiming Christ in the synagogues. When his preaching met opposition in the synagogues, Paul relocated his ministry in Titus Justus’ home. According to Acts, many Corinthians became believers and were baptized, though Paul faced continued opposition from some quarters (Acts 18:1–17). After leaving Corinth, Paul sailed to Ephesus for a brief stay, then traveled on to Jerusalem and his home base of Antioch.
On his third missionary journey, Paul lived in Ephesus for two years (Acts 20:31). During this time, Paul wrote the Corinthians at least four times and visited them at least once. Two of the four letters are lost — one written before 1 Corinthians (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9–11) and one written between the letters we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians (mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:4). In addition to his initial stay, Paul made a “painful” visit (mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:1) and planned a third visit (anticipated in 1 Corinthians 16:1–9). Below is a chart of Paul’s known contacts with the Corinthian believers over a six-year period:
|Approximate Date (A.D.)||Reference||Contact||Comments|
|Spring of 50–fall of 51||Acts 18:1–17||Paul arrives in Corinth, stays 18 months, establishes the church||This was on Paul’s second missionary journey|
|Sometime in 53||1 Corinthians 5:9–13||Paul’s first letter||This letter is lost to us|
|Spring of 54||Paul’s second letter||This letter is our 1 Corinthians|
|Date uncertain||2 Corinthians 2:1||Paul’s second visit to Corinth||Paul describes this as a “painful visit”|
|Date uncertain||2 Corinthians 2:3–4||Paul’s third letter||This letter is also lost to us|
|Spring of 56||Paul’s fourth letter||This letter is our 2 Corinthians|
|Spring of 56||Acts 20:2||Paul stays three months on his third missionary journey||This visit is anticipated in 1 Corinthians 16:1–9|
How does this information “define the relationship” between Paul and the Corinthian church? It suggests what we will see in the letter — Paul has a huge personal stake in the church’s success and well-being, and in maintaining a good relationship with the church. Small wonder Paul’s letter pulls out all the stops in his effort to convince the Corinthian Christians to unify around the cross of Christ.
In the same way, God has a huge personal stake in our success and well-being. God has invested in our lives through “letters and visits.” As the author of Hebrews declares, “in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.” As we read about Paul’s passion for the Corinthian believers to be “strengthened to the end, so that you may be blameless” (1:8), let’s imagine God’s passion for us to be strengthened to the end as well. We should read this letter expectantly, confident that God will use this letter to help us embrace the call to discipleship.
Questions for Further Reflection
- When you read a New Testament letter like 1 Corinthians, does it seem more like “someone else’s mail” or more like “God’s word for your life?” What accounts for your perspective?
- In this opening section, Paul describes Corinthian Christians as saints, on their way to blamelessness, enriched in every way, spiritually gifted, and called by God. Which of these five identity descriptors would you most likely use in describing your identity in Christ? Which seems furthest from describing your identity?
- If you are a Christian, are there other cherished identity descriptors you would add to Paul’s list?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.