Transformed In Christ: 1 Corinthians is a concise, easily accessible summary of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the young church in Corinth, a large, prosperous, Greek city. Authors Ron Elsdon and William Olhausen lead us, through an examination of specific questions that Paul answered in his letter, into a rich understanding of the struggles faced as the Corinthian Christians confronted contemporary problems in their own culture.
Not only were these questions significant to the readers of Paul’s letter; when understood in the context of their time and culture, they can also shed light on issues we deal with today. Explaining that cultural and historical context is one of the real strengths of this excellent 2021 publication that mentions both the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Two specific issues that confounded the Corinthian church were entertainment and prosperity. Sound familiar?
In Corinth, entertainment primarily took the form of the art of rhetoric. The authors show evidence in 1 Corinthians that Paul considered this as one source of contention between the factions who favored either himself or Apollos, another leader in the Corinthian church who was a better public speaker than Paul was.
As for prosperity, the background information provided by the authors indicates that there was a very real possibility of personal economic advancement in Corinth through cultivating business contacts and buying influential positions in the administration of the city. This opportunity for advancement was the source of numerous temptations for believers.
One example of a question faced by the church in Corinth and an insight provided by the authors to show why it was a problem is that of how Christians should approach eating meat that had been offered to idols. At first glance, this seems to be a religious issue that relates back to the Ten Commandments in the prohibition of idol worship. But the authors take us deeper:
“A preliminary question arises: why did they raise the issue? The answer lies in the economic life of Corinth, an issue we visited in chapter 1. Particularly important here was the strategic importance of the pagan temples; sacrificial meat was eaten at dinners held there. Attendance was required of those holding public office; others climbing the social ladder were eager for invitations. These occasions were vital for cultivating economic opportunities as well as maintaining social contacts. Christians were faced with a dilemma; it is easy to imagine a reluctance to face the economic cost of refusing to participate in such meals… [Paul] draws their attention to four arguments: the impact of their behavior on ‘weaker’ Christians, the example of his own lifestyle, the reality of temptation, and the dynamic of Christian fellowship” (pp. 50-51).
Insights like this are helpful for personal understanding of Scripture, but they also provide meaningful material for pastors or anyone else who wants to explain how the Bible is relevant to people today. After all, Christians in Corinth faced many situations that are similar to ours. But Christian leaders and teachers today might not recognize all of the similarities unless they are equipped with helpful resources like this brief commentary.
In addition to addressing specific questions, Paul spent a lot of time in his letter talking about his own experience with God through Jesus. The authors deal with the strong impact of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity and show how Paul’s focus on the cross of Jesus encouraged the Corinthians to see how their lives should be shaped in response to God’s love as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The third chapter of Transformed in Christ emphasizes the importance of reading 1 Corinthians with the help of the Holy Spirit. Headings within the chapter identify that this can be accomplished by reading prayerfully, reading with the church, reading with gratitude, reading with humility, reading in hope, and reading with love. “If we can get under the skin of the church in Corinth, we will begin to understand the obstacles to discipleship in our own lives and in the lives of our churches” (p. 27).
Paul writes a lot about sexual behavior in 1 Corinthians, and indicates that it is an integral part of Christian discipleship. The authors devote a whole chapter to this topic: “Why Does Sex Matter So Much to Paul—And Should We Care?” They show us through Paul’s words that what we do with our bodies really matters. They acknowledge that, although there is a cost to discipleship in this regard, we will experience a benefit that “holds out the promise of transformation in the lives of believers and in the lives of our church communities” (p. 46).
Although this is a very brief commentary, Elsdon and Olhausen nevertheless manage to engage with a variety of other sources. The endnotes and the “Recommended Reading” list provide plenty of direction for deeper study of 1 Corinthians.
Furthermore, each chapter ends with reflection questions, providing a way of relating personally to the text and going further with the thoughts that have been presented. These would be useful in specific teaching/group settings, as well as for use in personal study.
As a layperson, I found both the words and the meaning of Transformed in Christ to be understandable and meaningful. And as one who has frequently taught or facilitated Bible studies, I found it to be a source that provides information to make any study more interesting and relevant.
Beth Cochran is a retired public school educator and former minister’s wife. Relative newcomers to the Anglican denomination, she and her husband are members of Christ Church Anglican in Overland Park, Kansas, where she is a small group facilitator. Beth is the author of A Quilt for the King, the story of her missionary parents.