1 Corinthians 1:1-9, Greeting and Thanksgiving
Paul first journeyed to Corinth near the end of his second missionary journey around 51 AD. He had been in Athens where he had addressed the Areopagus, proclaiming to them who was this unknown god that they worshipped. It was after he left Athens that he traveled to Corinth, where he met Aquila and Priscilla – fellow Jewish Christians and fellow tentmakers. It was while Paul was in Corinth that “the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’”[i] And the book of Acts tells us that he stayed in Corinth more than 18 months “teaching the word of God among them.”[ii]
Corinth was a port city, one of the largest cities in the Roman world and one of the most corrupt.[iii] It was a strategic commercial center, filled with immorality of all kinds.
In 1 Corinthians 16:8, Paul tells us that he is writing this letter while he was staying in Ephesus. This would have been during his third missionary journey when Paul spent about three years ministering in Ephesus. This would put the writing of 1 Corinthians around 55 AD.
It had been a couple years since Paul was last with the church in Corinth. This letter reveals that instead of growing more mature in the faith, as Paul might have expected, the church at Corinth had developed a great number of problems. Word of these various problems had come to Paul, and he spends the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing several of these problems that have come to his attention: problems like divisions within the church, arrogance, questioning of apostolic authority, incest, sexual immorality, and believers cheating each other and taking each other to court.
The rest of the letter is driven by issues raised by the Corinthians themselves, as we read in 7:1, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote….”
Beginning in chapter 7, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul tackles issues regarding: marriage, divorce, singleness, Christian liberty, headship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, serving in the body of Christ, and the Resurrection.
And yet, in this letter that grew out of all these different problems, we find some of the most familiar and beautiful passages of Scripture: the chapter on Love, 1 Corinthians 13, read at weddings throughout the world; the chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, which has for centuries brought hope to believers during times of grief, and read at countless funerals and graveside services.
As Paul does in many of his letters, he begins 1 Corinthians with a greeting, followed by thanksgiving in verses 4-9. Contrary to how we write letters today, where you have to go all the way to the end to see who wrote the letter, letters in ancient times would begin with the author’s name – which we see here in verse 1, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.”
There is only one other Sosthenes mentioned in Scripture, and he was a synagogue ruler in Corinth. If you remember, back in Acts 18, we read about an incident when the Jews joined together to make a unified attack on Paul. They hauled him before the tribunal and accused him of “persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” As it turned out, Gallio, who was the proconsul in Corinth, had no interest in getting involved in matters of Jewish law, as he saw it, and he drove the Jews from the tribunal. Then we read in Acts 18:17, “And they all [that is, the Jews] seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal.” If this is the same Sosthenes, it’s not too hard to believe that he left Corinth after all of that, and later ended up in Ephesus with Paul.
In verse 2, Paul addresses the letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Even in this simple address, we see an important truth: not only are we called to be saints, not only are we called to be holy (which is what the word “saints” means), but we are already, in Christ, seen as being sanctified.
There is said to be three tenses of sanctification used in the Bible: past, present, and future. In the past, when we came to Christ for salvation, we are said to be justified in Christ, and as we see in this verse, we are described as being “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” This is an accomplished fact. Those who are in Christ are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. So when God looks upon us in Christ, we are seen as being sanctified, as being holy, as being perfect, all for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone. What a wonderful truth this is! It is our assurance as we come to God in worship and prayer.
The present tense of sanctification is ongoing. We are called to be saints, to be holy. As the catechism teaches us, sanctification is a work of God’s free grace, and as a work, it is continuing. It is the process by which we “are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”[iv]
The future tense of sanctification refers to that time when we go to be with the Lord, that we will be finally free from sin, both the sin within ourselves, and the sin that surrounds us. Verse 8 refers to this when it says that we will be sustained “to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We will finally be holy. And that is our glorious hope – that when we go to be with the Lord, we will be fit, by his grace, to live with Him forever, for we will be without sin.
Let us also notice the emphasis upon Jesus as Lord. Notice how in verse 2 the saints are described as those who “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” In verse 3: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. In verse 7: “so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In verse 8: “who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And finally, again in verse 9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” More references are made to the Lordship of Christ in these nine verses than in any other chapter of Scripture.
How appropriate it is, in this letter that will deal with many different problems in the church, that it begins with all these references to Jesus Christ as Lord, and as verse 2 says, “both their Lord and ours.” As we go through 1 Corinthians in the months ahead, we should keep in mind that Christ is Lord of His Church. And as such, He is rightfully able to give direction as to how His Church should act and live.
One last thing to consider from our passage this morning: Even with all the problems the church in Corinth had, from rivalries and divisions, to incest and sexual immorality; even with all that, Paul gives thanks to God, in verse 4, for the grace of God that was given them in Christ Jesus. Even with all their problems, Paul is able to see the grace of God working out in their lives, and is able to write with confidence that they were “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Some days we can tend to forget that. We can so easily concentrate our gaze upon our own problems, or worse yet, the problems of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and miss the evidences of God’s work of sanctification in His children, whom he has called to be saints. Let us be reminded to give thanks to God always for each other because of the grace of God that was given us in Christ Jesus.
[i] Acts 18:9-10
[ii] v. 11
[iii] Reformation Study Bible, Introduction to First Corinthians, p. 1642.
[iv] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q35