The church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2)
A.D. 53 to 55
Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians while he was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey (cf.
1 Corinthians is perhaps the only epistle where Paul writes a local congregation to address specific issues or questions one by one. Although it is not always obvious what the exact situation was with respect to the issues at hand, we do get a glimpse of some of the problems troubling this early church.
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
1 Corinthians was written primarily to address issues in the Corinthian church and answer inquiries from the believers of Corinth. Naturally, the letter is organized by these various subject matters. The following outline gives a broad overview of the content of the letter:
Addressing the division in the church in Corinth, Paul goes to the root cause—pride. The Corinthians, who are rich in speech and knowledge (1:15), take great pride in wisdom. By means of allegiance to gifted workers, the believers are deeply divided, each party boasts in their superiority. Paul reminds them that the message of the cross is folly to man (1:18–25). God has also chosen the low and despised in the world so that no human being may boast before God (1:26–31). For this reason, Paul preaches not with lofty speech or wisdom, but with demonstration of the Spirit of power (2:1–5). What the apostles impart to believers is not a wisdom of this world but a hidden and secret wisdom of God that only a spiritual person may understand (2:6–16).
Paul pinpoints the error of taking pride in following one minister over another. Such division based on loyalty to men betrays the immaturity of the Corinthians (3:1–4). Paul expounds that the ministers are simply God’s fellow workers serving for the benefit of the believers. The believers are God’s field and God’s building (3:5–16). Paul urges the Corinthians to regard the ministers as servants and stewards and not be puffed up in favor of one minister over another (4:1–7). The supposed wisdom based on boasting in men is in fact folly in God’s eyes (3:18–21). They ought to imitate the ministers of the gospel, who have become fools for Christ’s sake in their humiliation and suffering (4:8–16).
The pride of the Corinthian believers extends to their attitude toward morality. They condone the one who has committed a kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among unbelievers (5:1). Paul warns them to put away their boasting and commands them to purge the evil person from among them by delivering the sinner to Satan (5:3–13).
Not only does the church in Corinth fail to judge the sexually immoral, they are unable to settle the disputes that arose among them. Paul wants them to see how shameful it is for saints, who will judge the world and angels, to bring their own disputes to unbelievers (6:1–6). It is a defeat for the church when her members not only wrong and defraud each other but bring such matters to court (6:7–8). Believers ought to understand that the unrighteous behavior among them is unacceptable in the kingdom of God. Having been washed, sanctified, and justified, their lives should have no part at all in unrighteousness (6:9–11).
In addition to cleansing the church of the wicked person who has committed flagrant sexual immorality, each believer must also flee sexual immorality. Our bodies are members of Christ and belong to the Lord (6:13–15). The one who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit (6:16–19). Since we as believers are bought with a price, we are to glorify God in our body (6:19–20).
Love and Edification
Paul devotes three chapters (chapters 8 to 10) to the subject of idolatry and the eating of food offered to idols. Once again, the root of the problem pertains to pride. Hence Paul begins the discussion with the general fact that knowledge puffs up but love builds up (8:1). A person may claim to know that the idol is nothing and chooses to eat in an idol’s temple. But in doing so he is inconsiderate of the brother who has a weak conscience, making the brother stumble (8:2–13). Paul uses himself as an example to demonstrate that love entails giving up the freedom we are entitled to for the sake of others (9:1–27). Doing what is good for our neighbors applies not only to the question of food but to all areas of life (10:23–33).
Love is also the underlying principle in the use of spiritual gifts. Inbetween the two chapters on spiritual gifts is the famous chapter on love (chapter 13). Even the greatest knowledge and gifts amount to nothing if the one who possesses them has no love (13:1–4). Love is not self-seeking nor arrogant, but bears and endures all things (13:4–7). All the gifts will pass away, but love never ends (13:8–13). Therefore, while we earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, we need to above all pursue love (14:1). The case of speaking in a tongue during church gatherings is an example of how the Corinthian believers ought to exercise love while using spiritual gifts (14:2–33). Words of instructions are more appropriate than tongues during worship because the former builds up the whole church. The edification of others must be first priority.
Body of Christ
Paul makes numerous references to Christ and His body when addressing the issues in the church. First, he teaches believers the sanctity of Christ’s body. Our bodies are members of Christ in the sense that we are one spirit with Christ (6:13, 15–17). Therefore, sexual immorality is sinning against the body that belongs to Christ. When we take part in the Communion, we are participating in the body and the blood of Christ (10:16), for the Lord Himself called the Communion bread and cup His body and His blood (11:23–25). To eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner is to be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (11:27). By the same token, believers, who have participated in the body and blood of Christ, must abstain from idolatry, which is a participation with demons (10:14–22).
Secondly, the body of Christ is central to the call to unity in the church. Paul appeals to the Corinthians from the start to be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1:10). Speaking about the believers’ divisions based on their allegiance to men, Paul asks, “Is Christ divided”? (1:13). When discussing the diversity of spiritual gifts, Paul uses the analogy of the body: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12). Regardless of the diversity of gifts, service, and activities, there is but one Spirit, one Lord, and one God. It is the same Spirit who distributes the different gifts to each one (12:1–11). This unity in diversity is likened to the perfect coordination and interdependence of the various members of the body. God has composed the body of Christ in such a way that all the members apply their gifts to work closely together and support one another in unity (12:12–30).
While Paul’s defense of the resurrection of the dead is found in only one chapter, this topic is one of the lengthiest in the letter. Answering the doubts that some of the Corinthian believers have in the resurrection, Paul starts by reminding the believers that the resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the gospel and is substantiated by numerous witnesses, including Paul himself (15:1–11). The claim that there is no resurrection has devastating ramifications. If the dead do not rise, then Christ has not resurrected, and our faith in Christ is in vain. All who die in Christ have perished, and we who are alive have no hope at all (15:12–34). To those who may challenge how bodily resurrection is even possible, Paul explains the resurrected body in terms of sowing of seed, living organisms, and heavenly bodies. The resurrection is not the rise of our present natural and mortal body but a total transformation into a spiritual and immortal body (15:35–49). This final transformation of the perishable body into the imperishable body marks the final triumph of God and Christ over sin and death (15:50–57). Our hope in the resurrection, therefore, motivates us to be steadfast, immovable, and abounding in the work of the Lord (15:58).
Our faith is more than knowing certain facts. It must be put into practice in our personal lives and in our lives in the church. Although Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to address specific issues the church in Corinth faced, we can learn much from the teachings and exhortations that undergird the solutions Paul offered. Unity in the church is as relevant today as it was in the first century. The call to Christ-centered humility and love directly applies to our interactions with fellow believers. Holiness and righteousness in the kingdom of God continues to be our aim as individuals and as a church. Lastly, the resurrection of the dead and transformation into spiritual bodies, which Paul defended vigorously in his letter, are not only theological contemplations for us today but the very basis of our faith and hope in Christ as well as the driving force in our ministry.