Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
A four-way partisan divide based on cults of personality; sexual immorality; lawsuits; class distinctions; abuse of spiritual gifts; denial of the resurrection: such are just a few of the difficulties which beset the Christians in Corinth. Yet somehow Paul calls them the “church of God…called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2)!
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the seventh book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul and Sosthenes are listed as the authors of the letter, yet Paul’s voice is the one primarily heard. 1 Corinthians 16:21 gives reason to believe that 1 Corinthians was dictated to an amanuensis (someone writing to Paul’s dictation). Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians is not in dispute even among scholars. Paul wished to come and visit the Corinthians but felt that he had an effective door of ministry remaining in Ephesus, thus indicating the provenance of the letter (1 Corinthians 16:7-9, ca. 55-56; cf. Acts 19:1-41). Paul was instrumental in founding the church in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:1-17); from 1 Corinthians it seems that Paul and the Corinthian Christians maintained continual contact and correspondence over the intervening two or three years (1 Corinthians 1:11, 5:9, 7:1, 16:17-18). While we consider the letter 1 Corinthians we thus must remember that Paul has already written to the Corinthian Christians and is also responding to things which they have asked. Paul wrote his “first” letter to the Corinthians in order to address many specific challenges plaguing the church there.
After his standard welcome greeting and thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 1:1-9), Paul addressed a major challenge in Corinth: the development of no fewer than four factions among the brethren (1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21). Paul did not want the Corinthians’ faith to be in him, in the wisdom of the world, or in rhetoric, but in Christ and Him crucified and in the power of God in Christ, which is foolishness to the world, but to those who have spiritual understanding the power of salvation (1 Corinthians 1:10-2:5). Paul spoke according to the spiritual wisdom of God, not the natural things of man (1 Corinthians 2:6-16); he wished to speak with the Corinthians in a spiritual way, yet they remain fleshly, made evident in their factions (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Paul and Apollos are but workers; God gives the increase; the Corinthians are collectively a temple to God; each builds on the foundation of Jesus, and the fires of persecution will reveal the strength of what was built (1 Corinthians 3:5-23). Paul speaks of himself as nothing in comparison to the Corinthian Christians; he sarcastically spoke of the Corinthians’ “wealth,” admonished them to observe his example, and asked if they wanted him to come with harsh judgment or in a spirit of gentleness (1 Corinthians 4:1-21).
Paul then turned to other situations in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1-10:33). A Christian in Corinth had his father’s wife, a form of immorality not seen among pagans, and the Corinthians glory in it: he chastised them, demanded the man to be given over to Satan until he repented, and explained the importance of having no association, even table fellowship, with so-called Christians who flagrantly participate in severe immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). The Corinthian Christians are taking each other to secular courts; Paul expected them to be ashamed of this and to rather be defrauded (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). Some Corinthian Christians seemed to justify sexually deviant behavior with prostitutes; Paul would not have them join members of Christ’s body to prostitutes, and expected them to glorify God in their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). The Corinthians had written to him regarding marriage; Paul gave his insights, recommending celibacy for those who could endure it, not penalizing those who needed to marry on account of the temptation of sexually deviant behavior, and gave instruction to divorced persons and widows as well as slaves (1 Corinthians 7:1-40). Christians should not use their knowledge regarding the lack of existence of idols to sear the conscience of weaker Christians who did not have that knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); nevertheless the Corinthians would do well to learn from Israel’s transgressions, avoid idolatry, not join the Lord’s table to that of demons, and not eat meat sacrificed to an idol if much is made of it, for Christians must do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:1-33). Paul also made a defense for liberty in his ministry: the ability to be paid and to seek to be as all men to win some for Christ, to run the race (1 Corinthians 9:1-27).
Paul then explained how women were to pray or prophesy with their heads covered but men with uncovered heads (1 Corinthians 11:1-16); he castigated the Corinthians for manifesting class divisions in the Lord’s Supper, establishing what was handed down to him and what he expected the Corinthians to remember (1 Corinthians 11:17-31). Paul then set forth expectations regarding spiritual gifts and the assembly (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). There is one Spirit and one Lord but many gifts; God has so composed the body of Christ to have different parts with different functions and gifts to encourage the whole (1 Corinthians 12:1-31). Paul demonstrated the superiority of love as the most excellent way, that which would outlast speaking in tongues, prophecy, and newly revealed knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:1-10). Paul then gave direction regarding the function of the assembly: prophecy was superior to speaking in tongues; all was to be done to build up the saints; all was to be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:1-40).
Some Christians in Corinth denied the resurrection of the body; Paul thus presented a most thorough and systematic explanation of the fundamental importance of Jesus’ resurrection to the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Having established the procedure for making collections for the needy saints of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4), setting forth his intended travel plans (1 Corinthians 16:5-11), and providing final instruction (1 Corinthians 16:12-18), Paul expressed his final salutations and those of the Christians in Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19-24).
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, as well as later information seen in 1 Clement, demonstrates that the church in Corinth would continue to be beset by difficulties for many years; Paul’s letter was not fully heard. Nevertheless 1 Corinthians is of great importance and value for Christians, giving us important insights about the faith and warnings about what to avoid. May we learn from the example of our spiritual forefathers and put our trust in the Lord Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry