Wednesday, February 28, 2018

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently in January 2017; then a portion of it during Year B (Lent 2018).

Rather than review this whole passage, I just want to offer an in-depth commentary on this one crucial verse:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."  1 Corinthians 1:18

...foolishness to those who are perishing
            Although the NIV, NRSV, NAU and NET translate απολλυμι as “perishing” it should not be understood as merely physical death.   The middle voice of this verb (it cannot be determined if the verb is middle or passive) means “ruin."  Looking at how Paul uses this verb throughout his letters to the Corinthians suggest Paul employs a metaphorical, or perhaps better said, theological layer when he uses the word "perish." 

            When Paul later uses the verb in the present tense in chapter 8:11, “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed (απολλυται),” Paul does not mean that weak believers are immediately undergoing physical death.  Instead, Paul is trying to talk about the process of dying; or being captive to sin, the law and the flesh.  Paul will use this verb to refer to physical death (10:9, 10:10, and 15:18) but in these cases, the verb tense is aorist.  15:18 even refers to the physical death of Christians.  In short, all humans perish (aorist tense), but non-believers are perishing (present tense).

            This pattern of Paul using απολλυμι in the present tense to signify not an ultimate death, but the process of perishing, matches with 2 Corinthians and Romans.  These passages also continue the pattern of contrasting those being saved and those being ruined.
  • For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;  2 Corinthians 2:15
  • And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  2 Corinthians 4:3
  • If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  Romans 14:15
            This point is most saliently brought home by contrasting 1 Cor 15:18 which talks about the reality that Christians will die (aorist tense) with 2 Cor 4:9, that even through Christians are “struck down” they are not “απολλυμενοι.” 

What does this mean for a sermon:  Consider the ways in which life outside of Christ consists of perishing each and every day.

...power of God to those who are being saved
            Paul uses the word power in a variety of ways.  One of the most important, however, is that God’s power will bring about resurrection:  Both Jesus and ours.  (And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power, 1 Cor 6:14), It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (15:43). 
The final word in the section "σωζω" is also a loaded theological term.  Although BDAG indicates this word can mean “heal”, Paul normally employs it to mean “save/preserve from eternal death.”  In America today, people often think about “being saved” as an event-triggered state which allows for a reality in heaven.  There are some verses in 1 Corinthians that could perhaps suggest this (1:21,7:16, 9:22,10:33).  However, for Paul, salvation seems to work in the opposite direction: the age-to-come reality breaks into our own present state.  For, in both 1:18 and 15:2, "σωζω" is in the present passive, indicating that salvation is not a one-time event, but an on-going process.  The consummation of our salvation comes on the final day of judgment (3:15,5:5), which Paul likens to a fire.  All that remains of the present age of darkness will be burned away.  Therefore, being saved means not only existing in, but being transformed by, this future reality.
            The most saliently comes across in verse 1:18.  The cross does not simply trigger a salvation event.  The wording is not:  The words of the cross is the power of God for salvation to those believing, as it is in Romans 1:16.  Rather it is the power of God to those being saved.  What is amazing is that the power of God is not simply the saving, but rather, to those being saved, the cross is the power of God.  At the very least the power of God entails something more dynamic than ultimate salvation; it may even include something more than being saved.
            2nd Corinthians gives an image of how the power of God becomes that which allows Christians to endure hardship. 
  • But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)
  • We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed (u`pe.r du,namin) ‘beyond our strength’ that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
  • but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; (2 Corinthians 6:4-7)
  • but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
            This is an amazing revelation of the power of God.  The power of God does not glorify the Christians, but propels them through suffering.  Paul even takes it a step further in Philippians: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, Philippians 3:10
To conclude with another quote from Corinithians around power:
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:4

What does this mean for a sermon:  Well, everything.  But I think the notion of dynamic salvation is crucial (pun intended); I also think clarifying the power of God is really important for people.  (This links up well with the connected Gospel passage on Matthew 5!)


Unknown said...

"At the very least the power of God entails something more dynamic than ultimate salvation; it may even include something more than being saved.". Wow, God's power may entail something more than being saved?! I have to contemplate that for my life. Thanks Pastor Rob!

RJM said...

When I say more than "being saved" I should probably clarify -- either we need to significantly broaden what we mean by "saved" (often just seen as getting into heaven) or we need to acknowledge that God's power in our lives extends beyond getting us into heaven. Obviously getting to heaven is a good and wonderful thing!! I just want to suggest that God's salvation is, to say the least, comprehensive!

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