Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 15:9-11
9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
This short section of verses is Paul’s very brief autobiography. His story is told more fully in the Book of Acts, but he gives it here as well. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
For. This and the next verse are an explanation of the strong and strange term which he had applied to himself. The least of the apostles. In St. Paul there was a true and most deep humility, but no mock modesty. He knew the special gifts which he had received from God. He was well aware that to him had been entrusted the ten talents rather than the one talent. He could appeal to far vaster results than had been achieved by the work of any other apostle. He knew his own importance as “a chosen vessel,” a special instrument in God’s hands to work out exceptional results. But in himself he always felt, and did not shrink from confessing, that he was “nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11). The notion that he here alludes to the meaning of his own name (Paulus, connected with παῦρος, φαῦρος, equivalent to “little”) is very unlikely. In Ephesians 3:8 he goes further, and calls himself “less than the least of all saints,” though even there he claims to have been the special apostle of the Gentiles. Because I persecuted the Church of God. This was the one sin for which, though he knew that God had forgiven him (1 Timothy 1:13), yet he could never quite forgive himself (Galatians 1:13). In my ‘Life of St. Paul’ I have shown from the language used, that this persecution was probably more deadly than has been usually supposed, involving not only torture, but actual bloodshed (Acts 8:4; Acts 9:1), besides the martyrdom of St. Stephen. We can imagine how such deeds and such scenes would, even after forgiveness, lie like sparks of fire in a sensitive conscience.
“Saints, did I say? with your remembered faces;
Dear men and women whom I sought and slew?
Oh, when I meet you in the heavenly places,
How will I weep to Stephen and to you!”
persecuted = διώκω diṓkō, dee-o’-ko; a prolonged (and causative) form of a primary verb δίω díō (to flee; compare the base of G1169 and G1249); to pursue (literally or figuratively); by implication, to persecute:—ensue, follow (after), given to, (suffer) persecute(-ion), press forward.
It is a difficult thing to admit when one is wrong. It is far worse when one has done terrible things, believing those things to be just, only to learn later that those deeds were wrong. As a zealous person, we get a sense throughout his letters that his prior life bothers Paul quite a bit, though he also freely acknowledges the extent to which he has been blessed sense.
For the other Apostles, Paul’s conversion must have felt like a triumph, while simultaneously, it must also have been difficult to fully embrace him comfortably. Paul is undoubtedly aware of their feelings. Paul continues on, though, accepting. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(10) But by the grace of God I am what I am.—This whole verse is full of that maintenance of official dignity as an Apostle and a labourer, and of personal humility, which were characteristic of St. Paul.
I really like the way the note above expresses Paul’s position – “difficult dignity.” Paul points out here that even though he was unworthy of the grace shown to him, he is also trying hard to make the most of it.
vain = κενός kenós, ken-os’; apparently a primary word; empty (literally or figuratively):—empty, (in) vain.
Paul seems to brag on himself. However, it is likely, in my opinion, that Paul was stating simple obvious truth and did not want to present a false modesty about his own efforts, which were likely well known within the Church.
Paul then ties his own ministry back to those of the other Apostles, and to the Church to whom he is writing. From The Pulpit Commentaries on verse 11:
Whether it were I or they; namely, who preached this gospel to you. It is not his immediate object to maintain his independent apostolic claims, but only to appeal to the fact of the Resurrection which was preached by all the apostles alike. So. In accordance with the testimony just given (1 Corinthians 15:4-8). We preach. There are in the New Testament two words for “preaching.” One is often rendered “prophesy,” and refers to spiritual instruction and exhortation. The other, which is used here, is “we proclaim,” or “herald” (kerusso), and refers to the statement of the facts of the gospel—Christ crucified and risen (1 Corinthians 2:2; Acts 4:2; Acts 8:5). Besides these, there is the one word for “to preach the gospel,” or “evangelize.”
preach = κηρύσσω kērýssō, kay-roos’-so; of uncertain affinity; to herald (as a public crier), especially divine truth (the gospel):—preacher(-er), proclaim, publish.
believed = πιστεύω pisteúō, pist-yoo’-o; from G4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), i.e. credit; by implication, to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ):—believe(-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with.
In these verses, Paul is reminding the Church in Corinth of things they most likely already know, as these are things Paul likely spent time discussing when he was among them. When we keep in mind that this letter is about the disunity within the Church in Corinth, these verses are a reminder of their beginnings together, a time when unity existed among them.
In the next section, Paul begins to address some beliefs that have cropped up among the Corinthians that need to be corrected – firstly on the topic of the Resurrection.