“I thank my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.” So Paul writes near the opening of First Corinthians, a book to which I plan to offer considerable attention this spring. Paul’s first move after his greeting is similar to what he does in Romans: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” (1:8) Phillipians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians have similarly worded greetings, but the links between Romans and 1 Corinthians are of special interest to me.
Paul’s gratitude in Romans is for their faith, and specifically that their faith has become public. His gratitude for the Corinthians is grounded more internally, upon what God has done to and in and for the community: the grace of God given to them is specified by their enrichment, and specifically the abundance of their reasoning and knowledge. The economic metaphor of wealth that Paul supplies here is one that he will return to, albeit in a less flattering way. “Already you have become rich!,” he chides in 4:8, bringing up the bitter irony that the Corinthians have not yet attained all that they claim. Still, Paul highlights the disparity not to shame them, but to admonish them as his ‘beloved children’ to imitate him (4:14).
Yet here in the opening there is no such shadow: they really are enriched in Christ, and marked by abundance. The testimony of Christ is confirmed among them, so that they might not be ‘lacking’ in any spiritual gift while waiting for the revelation of Jesus Christ (7). That is to say: their oil will not run dry, as they await the bridegroom like the virgins of Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25). There is a temporal dimension to the threat of this impoverishment: the abundance is forward-facing, as it were, enough to get them even to the unveiling of Christ. But there is also a hint they will not be inferior, that their lack will not move them to the margins: the Corinthians really will not find themselves in a secondary position. All this is loaded into Paul’s affirmation of the sufficiency and comprehensiveness of God’s grace for the church in Corinth.
It is, though, the testimony about Christ that is confirmed among them—and it is confirmed by spiritual gifts, charismati. The presence of the Spirit in their midst confirms the witness of Christ’s life and death: the spiritual gifts are God’s own self-authentication, and as such are ordered toward His unveiling at the last. There is a movement here from Christ to Christ: it is a grace given in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, and directed toward Christ. More than that, there is a correspondence between the confirmation of the witness of Christ by the Spirit and the confirmation of the Corinthians themselves. The ESV suggests that God will “sustain” the Corinthians, but the verb is the same as the testimony of Christ being ‘confirmed’ among them—even if in a future-oriented direction. And how shall God sustain them? It is not the providential sustaining of creaturely life that the Spirit undertakes which is in Paul’s purview here, but the moral blamelessness, the rectitude, the rightness of their life that is secure. And this in a book that shall deal with a scandal unknown even among the pagans.
In this way, God is faithful: He does not relinquish the creature to the destruction of sin, but confirms His own self-authenticating witness in the Cross and Resurrection by being present within His people by His Spirit, confirming the righteousness and sanctity of His people until He—and they—are revealed in glory. This faithfulness of God is not abstract: it is through God that we are called into fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ. The faithfulness of God takes His shape, as does—we shall learn—the shape of the community who responds to Him. The Corinthians are called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, which is also fellowship with Jesus Christ. The meanings are not the identical, though both are present. Their fellowship is with Jesus Christ, as He stands over His community, guiding and directing them until the end. And it is a fellowship of Jesus Christ, a community whose source and origin and life is found outside of itself, in Him. This God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the one who calls us into this fellowship, a fellowship of protection and preservation and guidance and care and love—even until the end.