v.1 As we will learn later, Paul’s letter is prompted by reports he has received about the condition of the church from some of its members. Paul’s letters begin in the conventional way of letters of that day, with the identity of the writer and a greeting
There is a Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18:17, who was the synagogue ruler, apparently having replaced Crispus who had been the synagogue ruler and had become a Christian through Paul’s preaching. If this is the same Sosthenes, he himself became a Christian in due time and then became Paul’s personal assistant or secretary, traveling with him and helping him write his letters. In 16:21 Paul says that he wrote the final greeting of this letter with his own hand. That suggests that the bulk of the letter was actually written down by a secretary and that is probably why Sosthenes was mentioned in particular; that and the fact that he would have been known to these Christians in Corinth.
v.2 Paul may be intending to say something particular with the phrase “assembly or church of God.” The Corinthians had too independent and free an attitude about what they did as an ekklēsia and Paul is reminding them that it is not their ekklēsia, not their assembly, but God’s. [Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, 80] He goes on then to remind them that their calling is to be holy – different in many ways from the world around them – and that they are part of, belong to the larger community of Christians. They are not called nor are they free to go their own way.
By the way, the use of the term ekklēsia, our assembly, for the Christian community would have been particularly meaningful to the Corinthian Christians because that term was in widespread use in Greece for the political assembly, the body politic, of the Greek city-states such as Corinth. There was a new body-politic to which they belonged, a Christian one.
v.3 It is very interesting that “grace,” at least the word, if not the Christian idea, was a conventional term in the salutation of Greek letters and “peace” (shalom) was the conventional term in the salutation of Jewish letters. Paul has combined the two because Christ has combined the two peoples.
v.7 Now, vv. 4-9 have been more recently recognized as a familiar ingredient in Greco-Roman rhetorical style and this has opened the way to a new understanding of the structure of Paul’s letter. In Greco-Roman rhetoric of the period there is a literary device, known as the exordium, a kind of introduction to a speech or letter, by which the goodwill of the listeners or readers was secured at the outset by praise and in which the main themes of the letter or speech were introduced. Cicero and Quintilian, two masters of Greco-Roman rhetorical style both recommend the use of such an “opening.” [Thiselton, 93] This introduction paves the way for the statement of the main thesis or purpose statement which, in this case, will come in v. 10. That statement, called the propositio or proposition, is then followed by the narratio, the statement of the facts that generate the discourse or the letter. In this case that would be vv. 11-17, the brief summary statement of the fact that Paul has learned that there are deep and dangerous divisions in the Corinthian church. The narratio is in turn followed by the probatio or proofs. These are the arguments of the letter and take us from 1:18 almost to the end, at 16:12. They provide the reasons why the hearers or readers should take up the course of action that is being recommended. The final section, characteristically brief, is the peroratio, or summary, final exhortation, which is found in 16:13-18. It is a brief recapitulation of Paul’s basic thesis, stated as the propositio or proposition, in 1:10. I think this is a very helpful way to understand the letter. The exact similarities between these various rhetorical forms in Greco-Roman writing and speaking and Paul’s structure here in 1 Corinthians seems to me to put it beyond doubt that Paul has employed this well-known and accepted structure in writing his letter. The Holy Spirit and Moses used the structure of the ANE political treaties to state and describe God’s covenant with Israel. The prophets used a standard legal form of speech and argument to indict Israel for her crimes against the covenant God made with her. Paul, like many other biblical writers, uses the literary and rhetorical forms common in his day, just as Christian writers and speakers today use the forms common to our discourse to speak and write on behalf of the Gospel of Christ.
I think, myself, this is a fascinating new insight and is helpful to seeing the letter as a whole. Exordium, or introductory thanksgiving in 1:4-9; propositio or thesis statement, the brief summary of the exhortation Paul is going to give in 1:10, narratio, or the statement of the facts that have called forth the letter in vv. 11-17, probatio, the main argument of the letter, from 1:18-16:12, and peroratio, the recapitulation and summing up in 16:13-18. What we have in 1 Corinthians is a marvelous example of Greco-Roman literary style employed in the service of the kingdom of God. Culture is appropriated for eternal truth.
Of course, as we will see, Paul fills that form with Christian content and a sincerely Christian spirit. [D. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, 185-186]
v.9 You will notice how in these verses all the emphasis falls on what God has given and what God has done for them and will do for them.
You will also notice clearly the famous double perspective of the NT, the “now but not yet” perspective. They have been given much, but they await much more. They live, as it were, between times. “You have been enriched…” he tells them and then says that they “eagerly await” the Lord Jesus. Oscar Cullman, the NT theologian, popularized one illustration of this “now but not yet” character of the life of Christians in the world when, in his famous book, Christ and Time, he suggested that the Christian life was like the gap between D-Day, the decisive battle that determined the outcome of the war, and V-Day, the actual end of the war itself. We know we are going to win, but there is still hard fighting to come. Another theologian used the illustration of people who had been out in the bitter cold, freezing to death, and then were brought into a warm room. The warmth will win out eventually, but for some time the effects of the cold are still powerfully felt. [NIGTC, 99] Every Christian feels the effects of this double perspective. The NT talks about our new creation and the new life in Christ, about our bondage to sin being broken, about love, joy, and peace and talks about all these features of the life of Christians in absolute terms. But the NT also talks about the struggle, even the anguish that also marks the Christian’s life. And we find both in ourselves, the joy of salvation, the real changes taking place, but also the remaining sin, the sorrows and frustrations; the sense of incompleteness. D-Day may have made victory inevitable, as Christ’s cross and resurrection have made our victory inevitable, but any soldier who was there at the Battle of the Bulge will tell you having victory assured did not make the fighting any less bitter or terrible. Well this is always the NT’s perspective. Now…but not yet. We have so much already and the assurance of eventual triumph, but there is much we must wait for until Christ comes again.
There are a great many things to admire about the Apostle Paul. There are many ways in which we would be wise to follow him as he followed Christ. He was a great man, one of the greatest of all men in human history.
He who can part from country and from kin,
And scorn delights, and tread the thorny way,
A heavenly crown, through toil and pain, to win –
He, who reviled, can tender love repay,
And buffeted, for bitter foes can pray –
He who, upspringing at his Captain’s call,
Fights the good fight, when at last the day
Of fiery trial comes, can nobly fall –
Such were a saint – or more – and such the holy Paul!
[Anon. In Schaff, Church History, i, 316]
And among those things that made Paul such a great man and increased his influence was the largeness of his heart. And that large heart is on display in wonderful ways as this great letter begins.
We find it in the very first words of the letter, when Paul includes Sosthenes in the salutation. He didn’t have to do that. This letter wasn’t really from Sosthenes. At the most, and even this isn’t a certainty, Sosthenes wrote the letter as Paul dictated it to him. He was the secretary in other words. Great men don’t sign their important letters with their own name and the name of their secretary. At the most, and this is a modern invention for the purpose of filing only, the secretary’s initials may appear in code under the writer’s signature. But the letter isn’t from the secretary, from the person who typed the letter or printed it out; it is from the person whose thoughts and expressions are in the letter. Interestingly, studies of Greco-Roman letter-writing style have shown that including a co-sender in the salutation of a letter is extremely rare in Greek letters.
But, it is not rare for Paul to do this. He often does it. He begins his letters to the Thessalonians, “Paul, Silas, and Timothy…” They were Paul’s letters; no one doubts that. But he included his co-workers, his assistants as co-senders because they were with him when he wrote the letters and he wanted to acknowledge their work and their value to him and because they were known to the people to whom he was writing the letters. That is true here also apparently. He includes Sosthenes, whether or not he was his secretary, because the Corinthian Christians knew Sosthenes. He was a friend and it would please them to have one of their own mentioned as sending the letter.
This was the sort of thing Paul was always doing. He did it because he had a fine feeling for the sensibilities of people. He knew what would please them and wanted to please them. And he did it because he wanted to affirm and credit those who were working with him and make them feel that they were important to the great work he was doing. I love this about the Apostle Paul and I wish I were more like him in that way. His was a large heart and he was always building up the people around him, always making them feel that they were important to him, essential to the progress of the work that Jesus Christ had committed to him.
I have a treasured possession in my library. It is a collection of essays, all in Dutch, written over many years and then published together. The author of those essays gave the book to me when I visited him at his home in Utrecht in 1984. Prof. van der Linde, already in his retirement then, he died just two years ago, was a formidable personage. His is an honored name in Reformed scholarship and he was very impressive personally: a devout man with a beautiful Christian spirit. I spent a charmed afternoon with him. I still remember how kind he was to me, how generous with his time, the deference this great man showed to a still wet-behind-the-ears pastor from America. He made a present to me of a copy of this volume of his essays and inscribed it. “To Dr. Rayburn, a small present from S. van der Linde, co-pastor.”
Here he was, as it were, lifting me up to his level as if I belonged there, which I most certainly did not. He was doing for me what the Apostle Paul did for Sosthenes. And he did it so naturally and so graciously that it was simply pleasure for me, not embarrassment. That is Christian grace and goodness in action and in a most practical and meaningful form.
But there is more. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians with thanksgiving for them and with what anyone would take as praise of them. It is true, it seems beyond dispute, that Paul has written his letter according to a certain, definite Greco-Roman rhetorical form. This is the exordium, the introductory thanksgiving that is often found as the opening of the body of a speech or a letter and was designed to gain the goodwill of the audience. Paul, superbly educated and familiar with the rhetorical technique in vogue in that day, would be just the one to employ such forms and give them new and better life. What you can be sure of is that his exordium is no merely rhetorical device. Paul is pouring into it all the passion, all the sincerity, all the affection of his heart that we are accustomed to in the writing of this most honest and deep-feeling man.
He knows, as he writes this paragraph, of course, what is about to come. He knows the failings of this church that he is about to expose. He knows the hard truth that must be written to them. He knows that what follows, carefully as he will write it, is not going to be mistaken. It will be recognized for what it is: a thorough tongue-lashing.
But he begins with a heart-felt thanksgiving. These are praises that he makes to God not simply writes to them. Here is the distinctly new and Christian exordium. These are thanksgivings he had offered to God before he ever wrote them for the Corinthian Christians to read. And what thanksgivings they are, when you consider the context.
He thanks God for the way in which he had enriched these believers in speech and in knowledge and with other gifts as well. Paul knows that these gifts, these charismatic gifts for which he is giving thanks, have now been put to unhappy use in the church there. He knows that the knowledge God has given them has puffed some of them up and made them look down on Christian folk they think of as having less insight than they. Paul even knows that there are folk in the church who now look down on Paul himself as having less spiritual discernment than they. And the gift of speaking is similarly a problem. Paul, apparently, showed up better on paper than he did in public speaking. In this very up-to-date city, the gifts of utterance and of knowledge were highly prized and so had become a matter of pride. Paul, apparently, had become something of an embarrassment to some of these folk because he wasn’t a powerful, polished orator.
Paul knows all of this already. He is going to write about the sin of allowing God’s gifts to be turned to sinful purposes in their hearts and in their behavior. But, he is still grateful for the gifts, however they have been misused, and still thankful that God had favored them so richly.
Do you have a large enough heart to be thankful for the gifts that God has given to others, even when you don’t feel those gifts have been rightly used, and perhaps especially when those gifts seem, if only in the opinion of those who have them, to set the gifted above yourself?
It takes a large heart to do this genuinely. It takes a heart turned toward God and Christ. It takes a humble heart and a grateful heart to desire to give thanks for gifts that have been ill-used because they are still gifts from God and signs of his favor and because, after all, humility and grace require us to recognize that, if others have misused God’s gifts, so have we! Paul saw the gifts – he saw the sins too, to be sure, as the letter will indicate – but he saw the gifts and could give thanks for them because he saw God’s love and generosity in them. He remembered what these people had been; how far from God; without hope and without God in the world. He remembered how God’s grace had transformed them. He remembered with pleasure and deep satisfaction how he had watched these people come into the kingdom of God. He could be angry with them for screwing things up as they had, but when he thought of them he could not help but think of God’s grace to them. And he had kept his appreciation of that grace alive in the way in which it is best kept alive in the heart – he had thanked God for them and for his work in Corinth time and time again.
Alexander Whyte once wrote this of Paul’s large heart, so full of thanksgiving and praise as it was.
“The size and the substance and the spirit of a man’s soul is at once seen by the spontaneity and the generosity and the exuberance and the warmth of his praises. Just as the smallness and the stinginess and the sullenness and the mulishness of another man’s soul is all disclosed to us by his despicable ingratitude to all his benefactors. Almighty God himself inhabits the praises of Israel. And to praise, and with your whole heart, all those men and women and children who deserve praise at your hands; that, already, is a certain contribution toward your praise of God.” [James Fraser of Brea, 19]
Is that not exactly right? And do we not have Paul before us as an example of precisely that large and gracious mind, full of thanksgiving and praise of God and men. And is not that spirit the only spirit to bring to controversy, which controversy will occupy virtually the remainder of Paul’s long letter? Are not relationships, all relationships best repaired, best sanctified, best improved, best corrected when the spirit is kept sweet and the heart large by thanksgiving and praise of both God and men.
Many of you have broken relationships. Troubles have come between you and someone else. There are matters that have created division and matters that call for correction of some kind or another. I know you do, and if not at this moment, you have had and you will again, for such is the stuff of life in this sinful world. And what are you to do so as to become a peacemaker and a boon to others and an instrument of God’s grace and goodness to them? Well, take a page from Paul’s great letter, make your beginning, your first principle to give thanks and praise. Thank God and acknowledge his gracious work in others and for others. Not just in those with whom you have your troubles, but make thanksgiving and praise the principle of your relationships with everyone. Be a person who fills his or her mouth with what God has done for others and given to others and made out of others. Paul could have begun with criticism but he did not. He could have attacked immediately but he did not. His first step was thanksgiving and praise, sincere and heartfelt, which is always easy to recognize.
I tell you the truth, much as it embarrasses me to admit it to you. I take criticism much better from folk who praise me and give thanks for me than I take it from folk who only criticize me. And in that I am like almost everyone else.
Is this not what God has done. He has affirmed us in the most astonishing ways. He has given us gift upon gift that we did not deserve. He calls us his sons and daughters, his servants; he declares in countless ways his love for us. He could spend all his time pointing out our faults and, God though he is, he still couldn’t finish enumerating all of them in time. But he does not. His generous heart will praise and affirm even when correction must be given. Surely we ought to be like that. Surely folk who have been treated so graciously as we have been treated ought to be large-hearted like that. Surely we who have been given so many gifts we did not deserve ought to be famous for our thankful spirit and our tendency to judge the behavior of others only after we have noted how much God loves them and how generous he has been to them. Surely if God has given his gifts to them, as he has to us, who are we not to acknowledge God’s heart? Is there a better way to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive, is there a better way to come to feel its force in our own hearts, than simply to fill our mouths with thanksgiving and praise to God and to others?
I tell you, Paul was very effective with the Corinthians at the end of the day. His letters brought great and happy changes. And no doubt it was his spirit that made his words so powerful and effective in bringing changes. I want a double portion of that spirit. I want you to have it as well. We have no idea what happy changes would come to pass in our marriages, in our families, in our friendships, in our fellowship here, in our ministry and witness to others, if only we displayed, we betrayed the effect of Gods’ grace to us in the spirit of thanksgiving and praise always detected in our words towards others and about others. Paul put this thanksgiving and this praising first. He led with it. It was the first thing he said to and about people. No wonder he exercised the influence he did. No wonder even his hard speech hit home to good effect.
Paul not only taught us in his letters to be thankful in everything and to think on those things that are noble, true, right, pure and admirable, but he did that himself. And, I’m telling you, it was a large part of his influence with people. Imitate him in that and you will see how God will bless you for it and others through you.
I was lecturing on John Chrysostom, the great early Christian preacher, yesterday in Langley, B.C. One of Chysostom’s favorite sayings, was “The Lord be praised for everything!” Make it yours and then apply it especially to other people and perhaps especially to those whose relationship with you is troubled in some way. Give thanks and praise to God for them and tell them yourself how grateful you are for what God has given them. Things will not long remain the same!