1 Corinthians 1.4–9
I was first introduced to Greco-Roman letter structure during my undergraduate years at OBU. In a typical letter, the sender would first state his or her name followed by the name of the addressees and a greeting. This would be followed by some sort of thanksgiving section or acknowledgment of the gods before the “real” reason for writing was stated. One of the things I enjoyed most about this discovery was that the few other Greco-Roman letters I had read previously suddenly looked more comprehensible. I came to understand that it was customary to thank the gods after greeting the addressee. References to Serapis and Apollo which I had previously found very odd now made more sense.
This discovery also challenged how I read Paul. I became reticent to draw much theology from the thanksgiving sections. After all, if Paul is simply following a custom put on him by his own culture, why should I take that part of his letter particularly seriously. Looking back, this probably came as a reaction against a church culture that read all scripture simply as scripture (whatever that meant) with little regard for how those words were shaped by ancient or contemporary cultures. What I missed is that it is important not only to see where Paul is like his culture but also where he differs from it (I would have been good for me to have read Thiselton on this point, 1 Corinthians, 84–87). In the case of the greetings, Paul did not simply write “Greetings” (χαιρειν) like most of his contemporaries but “Grace and peace” (χαρις και ειρηνη). The change is theologically significant, emphasizing important points in Paul’s teaching about what God has done and how it fulfills what he promised his people Israel. Similarly, the thanksgiving sections in particular letters often look forward to things that will receive fuller exposition later in the letter.
In the thanksgiving section of 1 Cor 1.4–9, the emphasis is on Jesus Christ. If pronouns are included in the count, he is mentioned either 6 or 7 times in these six verses alone depending on whether the relative pronoun in v. 8 refers to God or Jesus. Jesus’ centrality in the working out of God’s gracious plan by which the Corinthians are made rich is clear. However, the precise way in which Paul understands Jesus’ role in these verses is a matter which deserves close attention. Is “the witness of Christ” in v. 6 to be understood as (a) “the witness which Christ gives” and thus Christ’s testimony about himself or (b) “the witness about Christ” and thus the testimony which is being given to the Corinthians concerning Christ. A similar question arises when examining the phrase “revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” in v. 7. Is this revelatory work (a) done by Jesus himself or (b) the public unveiling of Jesus by another?
Personally, I am inclined to take both phrases in sense (b). It is not that I think (a) is not theologically possible, just that (b) seems to make better sense of these two particular verses. The issue may also need to be revisited as I continue to read the letter, particularly if Paul anticipates what he will later say in these thanksgiving sections. However, I am also inclined to take the pronoun at v. 8 as referring to Christ. It makes sense to understand it as referring to God, but it is a long way back to v. 4 to pick up that referent. Jesus Christ has just been mentioned at the end of v. 7, and it seems to me that the pronoun at the beginning of v. 8 makes sense when taken with reference to Jesus. If this is the case, the witness and revelation are about Jesus Christ (sense b), but Jesus himself will confirm these promises in the end. Jesus is thus both the object of what is witnessed and revealed as well as the one who acts in the process of witnessing and revealing.