1 Corinthians 1:1–10
The ancient Greek city of Corinth, just down the highway from Athens, was awfully rich and terribly pagan. Athens was the university city where the philosophers had their homes and where the arts festivals were hosted. Corinth was the bustling port city filled with merchants and traders. As the shortest and safest route from Italy and the Ionian Sea to Turkey and the Aegean Sea, Corinth was important for trade. These days there is a 6km long canal between the two seas, but in Paul’s day cargoes were moved the short distance by land.
Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia at that time and had a cosmopolitan population. There were Jews, who built a synagogue, and Greeks, who influenced the architecture and thinking of the city. But Corinth was founded by the Romans on Roman laws and most of the people practised Roman religions. There were no aristocrats in Corinth, so all of the distinctions in society were based on wealth alone, which was created by the market and by the port. Most of the people were freedmen, ex-slaves who had bought or earned their freedom.
These people worshipped Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The temple of Aphrodite housed 2,000 priestesses, who were practically prostitutes since worship involved having sex with them.
What was normal for the people of Corinth was a life of sin. Paul lists these in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 where he says they have been involved in sexual sin, worship of idols, adultery, male prostitutes, and the practice of homosexuality. He says they were thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusive, and cheats.
Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Corinth from Ephesus in the spring just before the festival of Pentecost in the year ad 52–5.
Paul opens his letter with a greeting in verse two. “I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”
Having just described the moral depravity of the city of Corinth, you might be surprised to hear Paul addressing them as ‘holy people’ until you remember he is writing to the believers.
In fact though, Paul is writing to a church in crisis where the members are involved in various unacceptable practices.
In his letter Paul tells of rivalry between followers of different teachers in the church. He tells of the awful immorality of a man living in sin with his own mother. Even the pagans condemned such wicked behaviour. Paul tells of people getting drunk at holy communion and other errors.
The church in Corinth appears to lack resistance to sin, and be weak in the face of pagan immorality. It appears they enjoyed Roman law too much, constantly taking each other to court rather than trying to settle their disagreements amicably. And they allowed the influences of Greek philosophy, which dominated the city, to sway their thinking instead of rejecting it. We still have this problem in the west because so much of our society is based on Greek thinking. Like the Corinthians, we are at risk of accepting pagan Greek philosophical concepts such as democracy because we mistake them as being biblical.
It is these believers, living in ways far from ideal, that Paul calls ‘holy people’ in verse two. He also describes them as people made holy “by means of Christ Jesus”. Another word for a holy person is ‘saint’ (성도). And a person who has been made holy has been ‘sanctified’. It should be obvious therefore that in Paul’s mind a saint isn’t perfect. The Greek word that Paul used is hágios and it literally means ‘set apart’. This is the same as when in Exodus 16:23 God says to Moses, “Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord.”
To sanctify is to separate from profane things and dedicate to God. The Sabbath day is separated from all the other days of the week and dedicated to God.
When Paul says these troublemakers in the church in Corinth are saints, or when I say you are saints, it doesn’t mean sinless or perfect. We are set apart from the world and we are being set further apart from the world by Jesus. We are far from perfect, as I’m sure you will all admit.
We have been set apart, called out of the world, by Jesus for his purposes. Our lives have been dedicated to God. Being a saint is nothing to be proud of as if we had done something great, but rather it is a responsibility. God called Abraham out of the world in the same way as he called us, and it was for the same purpose. We have been set apart, made holy people by Jesus, so that God can bless others through us. There are obvious benefits for us in being set apart, but these are a consequence of being sanctified and are not the primary purpose.
You are God’s people now, his children and his ambassadors to a lost world. We are disciples who have been told by our master to go and make more disciples. This is the great command from Jesus that he gave just before leaving earth to enter heaven (Matthew 28:18–20). Usually known as ‘the Great Commission’ this is a command and not a suggestion.
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” “그러므로 너희는 가서 모든 민족을 제자로 삼아 아버지와 아들과 성령의 이름으로 세례를 주고” (Matthew 마태복음 28:19)
These words were given to every follower of Jesus. If I am his disciple, I am commanded to go and make disciples of others. On the other hand, if I am not making disciples of others, then I am not being the disciple God wants me to be.
Paul confirms to these poor Christians that in fact God has given them “gracious gifts”. (v4)
He tells them in verse seven, “you have every spiritual gift you need”, indicating that spiritual gifts do not wait for us to become perfect first. God pours out his gifts on us so that we have all we need to live as disciples and make more disciples.
You and I, all of us, are included in this. It may be confusing to our Greek ideas of justice and democracy, but God has given the gifts first and then asks us to stop quarrelling (verse 11).
You have spiritual gifts right now, and they have been given so that first you can bless others. But also, Paul says, so that you might stay strong and faithful, living in harmony, of one mind, united in thought and purpose.
In verse 17 Paul shares what he thinks it means for a disciple to be a blessing. It means to make disciples. Paul thinks that the baptism is not so important, being simply a sign that someone has decided to become a disciple.
“For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power.” “그리스도께서는 세례를 주라고 나를 보내신 것이 아니라 기쁜 소식을 전파하라고 나를 보내셨습니다. 그리고 인간의 지혜로운 말로 하지 않는 것은 그리스도의 십자가가 헛되지 않도록 하기 위한 것입니다.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)
The task is to share the Good News that “[God] has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” That is our task. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to be clever or have great words, you just need the Holy Spirit. You have been separated from the world by God for this purpose, so please don’t rush back into the world.
It is not up to you or to your great words if people accept the Good News, for “people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit.”
As partners with Jesus, we are inviting people to also become partners. It will change their lives and it will change the world, because God will make them holy.