Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2023
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Commentary
Many Westerners have now entered the season of waiting. But the primary object of most of our contemporaries’ wait is Christmas’ arrival. Citizens of the 21st century don’t think much about the Advent that is also a season of waiting. Even many Christians who celebrate Advent focus more on waiting for our celebration of Christ’s first coming than for his second. So preachers may need to (again!) remind our hearers that the season of Advent summons on to concentrate as much on Christ’s second coming as his first.
This first Sunday in Advent’s Epistolary Lesson offers preachers some help with that reminder. It, in fact, offers an opportunity to sharpen God’s people’s focus on both waits. However, 1 Corinthians 1 perhaps especially sharpens our focus on our wait for Jesus’ return. In particular, it reminds us that God has graced us with everything we need in order to await it in hope.
Of course, Paul doesn’t specifically use the term “Jesus’ return” in this text. In verse 7 he, instead, says we “do not lack any spiritual gift as [we] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed [apokalypsin]*.” In verse 9 the apostle speaks of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet it’s quite clear that 1 Corinthians’ 1’s apostle refers to Jesus’ return as the revelation or day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul insists that Jesus’s friends don’t lack even one gift while we’re literally eagerly awaiting that revelation and day. Biblical paraphrases like The Message understand to what Paul refers when he speaks of them. It, after all, paraphrases the apostle as claiming that “All God’s gifts are in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the finale.”
Preachers might explore with our hearers why Paul refers to Jesus’ second coming as his “revelation.” Jesus’ “revelation,” in fact, also relates to aspects of both his first coming and current comings to his friends. We might note how when Jesus came the first time into Mary’s womb and our world in Bethlehem, virtually no one but the angels recognized him as God’s incarnate Son. Almost all of Jesus’ contemporaries thought of him as Joseph’s son, a rabbi, a heretic or a common criminal. The incarnate Son of God, we might say, deliberately disguised his divine identity.
What’s more, as my colleague Stan Mast points out in his wonderful commentary on this passage, the Christ whose return we eagerly await is “hidden behind the veil of history.” People don’t yet see him anywhere, except with what Mast calls “the eyes of faith.”
Yet when Christ returns, he’ll, in a sense, strip off that disguise and cure our natural spiritual blindness. He will reveal himself as who he really is: the world’s Savior and Lord. At his second coming, Jesus’ true identity will be uncovered once and for all. That great unveiling, says Paul later, will so startle everyone that it will drive every person to his or her knees in worship and a profession of him as Lord.
Yet the apostle insists that that great revelation won’t startle Jesus’ followers in Corinth – or anywhere else for that matter. We aren’t, after all, “lacking” [hystereisthai] the “spiritual gift” [charismati] that is our recognition and profession of who Christ Jesus is. The Spirit has gifted us with the faith that he is the eternal Son of God who came to give his life in order to rescue us not just from our ignorance about him, but also eternal separation from God. In that knowledge we are ready, writes Paul, for Jesus’ return to reveal who he really is.
God, after all, according to verse 4, has given us God’s “grace” [chariti] in Christ Jesus.” That grace, however, isn’t just our rescue from the eternal condemnation we deserve because we deliberately reject both God and God’s good purposes. It’s also the grace with which the Spirit has gifted Corinth’s Christians in all their “speaking” [logo] and “knowledge” [gnosei] (5). The evidence of the Spirit’s work, as The Message paraphrases the apostle, “has been clearly verified in” their “lives.” The Corinthian Christians show that they know who the returning Jesus really is by the way they talk and think (as well as act).
God, continues the apostle in verse 8, will keep God’s dearly beloved people “strong to the end [heos telos].” God will literally make Jesus’ friends secure in their faith and faithfulness until measured time is once and for all swallowed up at Christ’s return.
Because God will keep us “steady and on” track until Jesus’ return reveals who he is, we will be “blameless” [anenkletous] on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ [hemera tou Kyriou hemon Iesou Christou].” When Jesus comes again, God will graciously consider and treat God’s adopted children as irreproachable.
Of course, this assertion is ironic, especially in the light of the rest of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. After all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in an earlier fine commentary on this passage, the Corinthian Christians to whom the apostle wrote could hardly by any objective standard be called “blameless.”
The Christians there who claimed to follow the Jesus who with one of his last breaths prayed for Christians’ unity relentlessly divided from each other. They also constantly bickered about things like marriage, food sacrificed to idols and Paul’s apostolic credentials’ authenticity.
At Corinth’s celebrations of the Lord’s Supper rich church members shoved poorer members out of the way. Corinthian Christians were sexually intimate with people to whom they weren’t married. And when they weren’t busy doing that, they were busy taking each other to court.
How, then, can the apostle dare to claim that what Hoezee calls “this factious, contentious little group of people” will be “blameless” when Jesus returns? He can be so confident only because he knows that God is “faithful [pistos]” (9). The God who, according to verse 9, called Jesus’ friends into fellowship [koinonian] with him will not let our faithlessness destroy that fellowship.
While the returning Christ will find God’s people in a real sense blameworthy, he won’t treat us in the way we deserve. In fact, our realization of our blameworthiness may make us less than “eager” (cf. 7) for Jesus’ return. That helps make Paul’s assertion of God’s faithfulness such gospel. Near the end of a passage that the apostle saturates with grace, he insists that God will at Christ’s return graciously treat us not as reproachable, but as irreproachable.
In fact, when Christ is revealed when he returns, God will perfect our fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord. On the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, God will bring God’s adopted sons and daughters with Christ into the eternal glory of the new earth and heaven.
Preachers might consider closing a message on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the way the New Testament scholar Carla Weeks closes her commentary on it. She suggests that “as we await the revelation of God’s Son during this Advent, we would do well to look for God’s work among us and to be reminded of the gifts that God has given us.” Then, in this season of Advent, we can join John in pleading, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa called her to readers to a kind of faithfulness that in some ways more closely imitated Christ’s than the Corinthians’. She wrote: “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little … Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God …
“Do not pursue spectacular deeds. We must deliberately renounce all desires to see the fruit of our labor, doing all we can as best we can, leaving the rest in the hands of God. What matters is the gift of your self, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions.
“Do not allow yourself to be disheartened by any failure, as long as you have done your best. Neither glory in your success, but refer all to God in deepest thankfulness. If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people’s opinions. Be humble and you will never be disturbed. The Lord has willed me here where I am. He will offer a solution.”
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