Remember your calling (preaching resource for January 15, 22, and 29, 2023)

This post exegetes 1 Cor. 1:1-31, providing context for the RCL Epistles readings for Jan. 15, 22 & 29, 2023. This exegesis draws on multiple resources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").

Ruins of Corinth with Acrocorinth in the background
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction  

Paul sent the letter we know as 1 Corinthians to the church gathered in the city of Corinth in Southern Greece. Corinth was the seat of government for the Roman province of Achaia and an important center of culture and trade. Its population included freed slaves working as laborers and tradesmen, as well as many highly-educated, upper-class folk. In general, the citizens of Corinth were known for their immorality—fomented by temple prostitutes who plied their “religious wares” out of the temple to Aphrodite that sat atop the nearby mountain known as Acrocorinth (see the picture). 

Before sending this letter, it seems that Paul sent the church in Corinth another letter addressing the issue of immorality. Apparently that letter was being misunderstood (1 Cor. 5:9), so the church wrote Paul back seeking clarification and asking him to rule on several other issues including marriage, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts and collecting for the impoverished Jerusalem church. Paul replied with 1 Corinthians, answering their questions and addressing other issues that had come to his attention including division in the church, incest, civil litigation, immorality, women prophesying in church, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and a denial of the resurrection of the body.

The picture of the church formed by this letter is of a rather unhealthy group: divided by internal factions, defiled by immoral behavior, and weakened in its public testimony by these internal problems. Still, it was God’s church—called of God and deeply loved by Paul its founder. And now as a wise and Christ-centered leader, Paul writes to help the church embrace and more faithfully express their calling in Christ. He begins by reminding them of three important aspects of that calling: it’s a calling as saints, it’s a calling into fellowship, and it’s a calling to glorify God. 

Called as saints (1Cor 1:1–9)

Rather than beginning with their bad behavior, Paul begins with their exalted position—their high calling as God’s saints. The most needful thing is that Christians understand and embrace who they are in Christ. As they do, Jesus’ holiness will flow through and out from them. Paul makes four points about our exalted position and calling: In Christ we are set apart, enriched by grace, given hope and assured of God’s faithfulness. 

Set apart (vv. 1–3) 

1  Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-- their Lord and ours: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The word church in Greek means “an assembly of a called-out people.” Each church has a geographic address (“in Corinth”) and a spiritual address (“in Christ Jesus”). And in Christ, we are “called to be holy.”  This phrase is more appropriately translated in the NASB as “saints by calling.” To be a “saint” speaks to our spiritual address—in Christ we are “sanctified”—God’s “set apart” ones.  This is not so much about our behavior as it is about our relationship; not so much about what we are as whose we are.  Think of it like being sanctified (set apart) like a man and woman in marriage—set apart to and for each other. Just so, the Christian belongs completely and exclusively to God—set apart for him and him alone. Those who have given themselves to this relationship are part of a worldwide fellowship of Christians, “all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 2).  

Enriched by grace (vv. 4–6) 

4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way-- in all your speaking and in all your knowledge-- 6 because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.

As saints of God we are set apart in Christ. It is here that we receive God’s amazing grace. And note that this grace is not a “what” but a “who”—it is Jesus, whose life we share as saints “in Christ.” In and through that relationship we receive many gifts including what is often referred to as “spiritual gifts” (Paul enumerates these in chapter 12). An awareness of the fact that God has included us in Jesus’ life and there enriched us in many ways, ought to encourage us to participate actively and faithfully in the life we are given. Both our position and our participation in that life are God’s gifts of grace—indeed this message of God’s grace was the “testimony” which Paul had shared with the church in Corinth.

Given hope (v. 7) 

7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.

Our motivation for active participation in Jesus’ life is hope—specifically the hope of Jesus’ promised return and our inclusion in the fullness of his eternal glory. Paul will have a great deal to say about this future in 1Cor. 15. But suffice it to say here that Christians who look eagerly toward that time are motivated to reflect that future hope in their present behavior (see 1John 2:28–3:3). 

Assured of God’s faithfulness (vv. 8–9) 

8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

We live out our calling as saints with confidence—not in ourselves, but in God.  His faithfulness is our assurance.  Because of his good work we know that we will stand before him at his return, rejoicing in the truth that because of Jesus, we are truly “blameless.” 

Summary: So here is Paul’s grand pronouncement of who we are in Christ. What a fabulous, hope-filled, confidence-engendering picture!  And on that basis Paul now addresses the behavior of certain of the saints in Corinth. There is a disconnect between their position and their practice—particularly as it relates to the quality of their fellowship within the church. 

Called into fellowship (1Cor 1:10–25)

Paul addresses the problem of divisive behavior within the church in Corinth by asking three leading questions (all listed in verse 13): Is Christ divided? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? Was Paul crucified for you?

Is Christ divided? (vv. 10–13a) 

10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." 13 Is Christ divided?... 

Did Paul preach one Christ, Apollos another, and Cephas (Peter) yet another?  No, there is but one Savior and one Gospel (Gal. 1:6–9). It makes no sense that there are competing factions within the church in Corinth. These factions arose because people were emphasizing the messenger rather than the message. Paul, Apollos and Peter each had their own personality and style, yet they were one with Christ (1Cor. 3:3–8; 4:6). Division compromises that oneness and must not be tolerated!  Jesus, not human wisdom or personality, must have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). 

Paul emphasizes the essential unity of the church in his use of terms here.  We are “brothers”—all of one family. We are “united”—a medical term used to describe how the human body is knit together as one. And our identity is in “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (probably an allusion to baptism).  The bottom line?  There is no justification for factions in the church.  And thankfully some in “Chloe’s household” knew this and were willing to do something about it—they reported the situation to Paul. This was not gossip, but appropriate action. 

Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (vv. 13c-17) 

13c  …Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel-- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Baptism was an important matter in the early church. It often meant being cut off from family and friends. And it symbolized entry into a new family whose identity is in Jesus, not in the one who does the baptizing. Paul makes this clear by noting that he did not baptize most of them.  Indeed it is a mistake to identify any person’s name with your baptism other than the name of Jesus. To do so is to create rivalries and division. 

Was Paul crucified for you? (vv. 13b, 18–25) 

13b …Was Paul crucified for you? ….. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

The mention of the cross in verse 17 introduces this section on the wisdom and power of the Gospel versus the weakness of man’s wisdom. It’s interesting to note Paul’s approach here. First, he points to the unity of Christ: there is one Savior and one body. Then he reminds us of our baptism: a picture of our inclusion in Christ’s one body (1 Cor. 12:13). Then he takes us to the cross where God’s wisdom is fully revealed. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Paul points out three different attitudes toward the cross:

• Some stumble at the cross (v. 23a)

23a  …we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews…

Jews tended to reject the message of Christ crucified because they were looking for a conquering Messiah. They did not understand the scriptures that said their Messiah would come first to suffer and die (see Luke 24:13–35). Thus the Jews stumbled at the apparent weakness of the cross. How could anybody put faith in an unemployed carpenter from Nazareth who died the shameful death of a common criminal? But rather than a testimony of Jesus’ weakness, his cross is a tremendous instrument of God’s power! Indeed, the “weakness of God [in the cross] is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). 

• Some laugh at the cross (v. 23b) 

23b [Christ crucified]…foolishness to Gentiles,

Greeks (Gentiles) saw the message of Christ crucified as laughable. The Greeks emphasized wisdom but saw none in the message of the cross. Had they seen it from God’s viewpoint, they would have discerned the wisdom of God’s plan being worked out in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul calls on three men (the wise man, the scholar and the philosopher) to bear witness to the wisdom of God displayed in the cross of Christ. He asks them: Through your studies into man’s wisdom, have you come to know God? They all must answer no! The fact that they laugh at the cross and consider it foolishness is evidence that their human wisdom leaves them perishing in ignorance (in verse 19 Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 to make this point). 

• Others believe and experience the power and wisdom of the cross (v. 24) 

24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Those who respond in faith to the message of Christ crucified, be they Jew or Gentile, are able to see the power and wisdom of God. Indeed it is in the death of Christ for us that God has exposed the foolishness of man’s wisdom and the weakness of man’s power and opened to us true power and true wisdom. And now, in Jesus, we are one body. He is our unity and our fellowship. Indeed, our fellowship is at the foot of Christ’s cross. 

Called to glorify God (1Cor 1:26–31)

At the foot of the cross the ground is level. Distinctions as to class, educational level, ability, social standing, wealth, etc. are of no significance. We are saved by grace alone, in and through Christ alone--not by our own merit or ability. Yet, some of the Corinthian Christians were “puffed up” with pride in their achievements (1 Cor. 4:6, 18–19; 5:2). So Paul reminds them of what they were; why God called them; and of all they have in Christ. His message to them (and to us) is clear—we are called to glorify God, not ourselves. 

Paul reminded them of what they were (v. 26) 

26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

The implication is that some of the members in Corinth were of high and noble breeding.  But low or high, it makes no difference. God called us—opened our minds to the truth of our inclusion in the life of Jesus who is our salvation—not because of what we were, but in spite of what we were! All the credit for our calling—our position in Christ--goes to God. 

Paul reminded them of why God called them (vv. 27–29) 

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-- and the things that are not-- to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

In choosing those that the world considers foolish, weak, lowly and despised, God demonstrates to the prideful their need for God’s grace. The lost world admires birth, social status, financial success, power, and recognition. But none of these count in God’s economy. What counts is that God chooses us in Christ. This message and miracle of God’s grace in Christ puts to shame what humans tend to value. The wise of this world cannot understand how God changes sinners into saints, and the mighty of this world are helpless to duplicate this astounding miracle. God’s “foolishness” confounds the wise; God’s “weakness” confounds the mighty!  All the glory and “boasting” go to God, not us. Unfortunately, some Christians in Corinth were boasting (glorying) in men (1 Cor. 3:21). If we glory in men—even godly men like Peter and Paul and Apollos—we rob God of the glory that he alone is due. This sinful attitude of pride was fomenting division within the church in Corinth.

Paul reminded them of all they had in Jesus (vv. 30–31) 

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Since every aspect of our salvation is “in Christ” alone and not in our ability or breeding, it’s ludicrous that we should compete with each other or compare ourselves to each other. “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (a quote from Jer. 9:24). All of our spiritual blessings are in a Person: Jesus Christ. He is our wisdom (Col. 2:3), our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), our sanctification (John 17:19) and our redemption (Rom. 3:24). Actually, the emphasis here is that God shows his true wisdom (which trumps the wisdom of man) by means of the salvation we have in Jesus. That salvation is our ongoing relationship with Jesus: we have been saved from the penalty of sin (righteousness); we are being saved from the power of sin (holiness, which speaks to sanctification); and we shall be saved from the presence of sin (redemption). All of this comes to us in and through our union with Jesus who has saved, is saving and will save us. The point? Why glory in men? What does Paul have that you do not have? Does Peter have more of Jesus than you? We glory in Christ alone—for he alone is our salvation from start to finish.  

Conclusion

And so we see the mistakes the Corinthian Christians were making—mistakes that were weakening the church. Instead of living up to their calling, they were following the standards of the world. They ignored the fact that they were called to participate together in Jesus’ life. Instead, they were identifying with human leaders and creating divisions. Instead of glorifying God and his grace, they were pleasing themselves and boasting about men. But, before we pass judgment on them, we should examine our own congregations and our own lives. Let us remember and live the good news: we have been called as saints, called into fellowship, and called to glorify God. Remember your calling!