When we open the Corinthians’ mail, we find ourselves confronted immediately by some remarkable claims about God’s designs for the community of people to whom Paul writes. The opening sentence of the letter declares not only that Paul is a special agent of Jesus Christ but also that the Corinthians are a community specially summoned by God for service: “the church of God that is in Corinth ... sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). This does not mean that the Corinthians have some special vocation that sets them apart from other Christians; rather, they—along with all other Christians—are set apart from a confused and perishing world, marked by God as God’s people. Paul regards all the members of all his churches as “the saints,” the elect of God. Thus, he and his readers are caught up in a cosmic drama, and they must play a distinctive role in God’s action to rescue the world.
Paul himself is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (v. 1). We know from Paul’s other letters that he understands his calling to be specially focused on the mission of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16); here he highlights the motif of God’s call, which both authorizes and motivates his mission. It is God, not Paul, who ultimately initiates and drives the proclamation of the gospel.
“Sosthenes the brother,” mentioned as co-sender of the letter (1 Cor. 1:1), is probably the same person described by Luke in Acts 18:17 as a leader of the synagogue in Corinth. According to that account, he was roughed up by a crowd of Corinthian Jews who were frustrated by the decision of the Roman proconsul Gallio to ignore their complaints against Paul. Why they picked on Sosthenes is not clear in the Acts narrative; perhaps if he had not already become a Christian convert he was at least perceived as sympathetic to Paul. By the time of the writing of this letter—two to four years later—Sosthenes was apparently with Paul in Ephesus, sharing in Paul’s missionary work. If he was a notable Corinthian convert who had suffered for the gospel, he might have been a person of some influence among the Corinthian Christians. Thus, though he is not mentioned again in the text, his appearance in the salutation perhaps lends some additional weight to the appeals that Paul will make throughout the letter. This is the first indication of a fact we will note repeatedly: Paul employs considerable political tact in addressing the touchy situation in the Corinthian church.
Just as Paul is called by God, so too are the Christians at Corinth. They are called to be hagioi, “saints.” This term does not apply—as in later Christian usage—only to a few especially holy individuals; rather, all the members of the community are gathered up into this calling. To be “sanctified” means to be set apart for the service of God, like Israel’s priests or the vessels used in the Temple. Long before, in the Old Testament, the call to be a sanctified people had been addressed to the people of Israel as a whole: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy [hagioi], for I the Lord your God am holy [hagios]’ ” (Lev. 19:1–2 LXX). Thus, when Paul applies this language to the Corinthians, he is echoing God’s call to Israel. This is the first of many times in the letter that Paul implicitly addresses and describes the Corinthian Christians—a predominantly Gentile group—as members of the covenant people of God, Israel. Whatever their background, they have now been caught up into the story of God’s gracious elective purpose. They are to serve as a covenant people, representing God’s kingdom within a world that does not know God. “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy [hagion] nation” (Exod. 19:5–6a LXX).
As this passage from Exodus suggests, to be God’s covenant people entails certain obligations of obedience: If the church is to represent God rightly in the world, certain norms and standards must be kept. Thus, when Paul addresses the Corinthians as “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” he introduces a tension that will play itself out throughout the letter, for the Corinthians’ actual conduct seems to be terribly out of synch with their vocation to be God’s covenant people. At this point, however, the tension remains unexpressed; the emphasis in the letter’s salutation remains on God’s initiative in calling and sanctifying this community.
Paul goes on to make another point: The Corinthians are not unique or isolated in their calling. They are “sanctified in Christ Jesus ... together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). Even in the opening address of the letter, Paul places the church at Corinth and its particular concerns within a much wider story, encouraging them to see themselves as part of a network of communities of faith stretching around the Mediterranean world. The importance of this broader framework will emerge as the letter proceeds. We will see that Paul chides the Corinthian Christians for their prideful presumption that their spiritual freedom liberates them from accountability to others: “[D]id the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (14:36). The answer is, of course, that the word of God has reached many and that the Corinthians must see themselves as part of a much larger movement, subject to the same Lord whose authority governs the church as a whole. They are not spiritual free agents. The church of God that is in Corinth is just one branch of a larger operation.
Thus, the letter salutation establishes the identity of the apostle and his addressees. Everything that follows is founded upon these identity ascriptions: God is the one who calls, and the church, not just at Corinth but everywhere, is the community of people who respond by calling on the name of Jesus Christ. Upon this community at Corinth Paul pronounces a blessing: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Those who participate in the covenant community are the recipients of God’s freely given mercy, and they therefore stand within the sphere of God’s peace, a peace that should extend to their relationships with one another.