Who writes letters anymore? Now we tweet or text. Paul wrote letters in the old Greco-Roman form: writer’s name, addressee’s identification, greeting. This we typically skim. But there’s a rich message hidden in the hello.
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes . . . ” (1 Corinthians 1:1)
In two earlier letters to the Thessalonians, Paul identified himself simply by name. Here he identifies himself as Paul “called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”. Why? Were so many named “Paul” he wanted his readers to know which one? The reason: even though Paul planted that church just a few years earlier, a faction now questioned his apostolic authority.
So he claims to have been “called”. He didn’t choose to switch from Jewish rabbi to itinerant Christian preacher. As Abraham and Moses and David had been called, Paul claims he had been.
“ . . . by the will of God”. The call came in history. In a particular time and place. The origin of the call came from outside history, outside time. From eternity it was God’s sovereign will to call Paul. This is his claim.
“ . . . to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”. “Apostle” has become a vague, almost “technical” title. But its simple meaning packs a wallop. The Greek apostolos refers to one sent on a mission with full authority of the sender. Here Paul claims to have been called by God’s will to be sent on a mission to speak for Messiah Jesus with the full authority of Messiah Jesus. He writes in 1:17, “For Christ did not send (apestellen) me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”
This leads to the question, “Who has authority to speak to the church?” Others possessed Paul’s authority, men like Apollos and Peter. (Certain factions in the Corinthian church favored them.) But there were also false apostles deceiving the church (2 Corinthians 11:1-15).
The question lingers today. “Who has authority to speak to the church?” Or, to ask it from the other side, “To whose voice should the church listen?” The simple answer is, apostles. Trouble is the original apostles are no longer with us. But God has providentially preserved their words in the Scriptures. So, as Paul will argue in this letter, it’s apostles who have authority to speak to the church. It’s apostles to whom the church should listen. Today, that means men who speak (and properly interpret and apply) the apostles’ words.
Furthermore (as Paul will later imply), authority to speak and attentive listening aren’t determined by the number of followers or the “charisma” or fame of the speaker. It’s whether or not he speaks the apostles’ words. He may have relatively few followers, little “charisma” and no fame. No matter. The question is, Does he speak the apostles’ words? If so, we can be reasonably confident he has been called by the will of God to speak the message of Messiah Jesus.
Who’s “Sosthenes” and why does Paul mention him? He may have been the ruler of Corinth synagogue, beaten by Paul-hating Jews (Acts 18:16). If so, he’s become a believer and Paul’s co-worker. I don’t know why Paul mentioned him, so we’ll move on to . . .
“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 . . . ” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Many metaphors in Scripture define the church. Here Paul uses several phrases . . .
“ . . . the church of God . . . “ Who owns the church? To whom does the church belong? God. Not Paul, Peter, Apollos, not any faction within the church nor all the members together. The church is God’s.
“ . . . those sanctified in Christ Jesus . . . The Greek word is“hayagiosmenois”—“made holy, consecrated”. Jesus uses it of a gift offered on the temple altar (Matthew 19:23). And Paul uses it to describe the change Christ brought to them: “ . . . neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will in inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:10,11). In other words, in union with Christ Jesus they were set apart, consecrated to God for his use and his glory. The church, however, is not only “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” but also they are . . .
“ . . . called to be saints . . . “In Christ the church is sanctified; in practice the church is called to be hagiois. Because “saints” contains misleading connotations, “holy” is a clearer translation. God has called us to be and to live as his holy people. Given what these church members had been (see 1 Corinthians 6:10,11 above), this is no small change in identity and no minor adjustment in behavior!
“ . . .. together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours”. Many Corinthians had become overly fascinated with the work of the Holy Spirit, which led them down an independent path. Paul reminds them here that they are part of a larger picture, that specifically they are people of the new eschatological creation God is creating “in every place” who name Messiah Jesus as their Lord.
More than a theology lesson about a first-century church, this description paints our picture. We who are “in Christ Jesus” joined to his church belong to God, are consecrated to God in Christ Jesus, are called to be and live set apart to God, and are part of the eschatological community God is creating throughout the whole earth who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Greco-Roman letters the traditional greeting was “Greetings”, as used by the apostle James: “James, a servant1 of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings” (James 1:1). But Paul Christianizes it with”charis” (grace) and adds the traditional Jewish “shalom” (peace).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:3).
Instead of simply “Greetings”, the apostle greets the church with “Grace to you.” Here is Paul’s theology in a word. Nothing must be observed. Nothing must be achieved. “ . . . from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grace to you, church.”
John Wesley wrote of that grace . . .
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace.
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
And “peace” sums up the church’s grace-benefits. Greek eiraynay means “well-being, wholeness, welfare.” First, this describes the church’s standing with “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Second, this describes the church’s condition because of grace from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And, third, because it’s Paul’s greeting to the church, he gives it as a blessing/promise for continued grace and peace from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
* * *
A lot hidden in the hello, no? What shall we do with what we’ve found? Read and listen to the apostle’s words as words from God to us. See ourselves for who we are in Christ. Not just ordinary humans struggling to survive life, but God’s consecrated-to-him people called to be and behave holy with all his new, last-days people in Christ. And praise him that today and tomorrow his grace is ours, so we are put at peace.