A 2011 survey by the United States Postal Service indicated that the typical American home receives a personal letter—not including greeting cards or invitations—once every seven weeks. It was once every two weeks as recently as 1987. A stream of advertisements still arrives; but personal letters have largely been replaced by email, Facebook, and Twitter.
In Paul’s days, letter writing was the only option if you wanted to send a message to far-flung friends. In the Greco-Roman world letters followed certain conventions. They would begin with a salutation followed by prosaic words of thanksgiving. Concrete directions of some sort (called the parenesis) often sat sandwiched between the main body of the text and the closing. Paul largely stuck to this convention when writing his letters, but he included modifications that underscored his Christian commitments. Among these was making the thanksgiving a strategic, dynamic force in his message.
In today’s passage, Paul directed his thanksgiving to God for the gifts of grace He had given the Corinthians—“all kinds of speech and with all knowledge” (v. 5). This was an interesting choice for Paul; as the letter continues, it becomes clear these very gifts were at the root of the problems causing discord within the Corinthian church. It might seem that Paul was using sarcasm when he thanked God for qualities he then went on to critique. But this fails to appreciate the range of Paul’s thought. As one scholar wrote, “Paul . . . believes in, practices, and celebrates the reality of God’s spiritual gifts. He can easily distinguish between the use and abuse of spiritual gifts.” God’s gifts are real and Paul’s confidence rests in the Giver, who is worthy of thanks for these gifts, even when they’re being misused.