Letter to the church in Corinth
From Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles
Jesus invested His life in twelve unlikely characters, a ragtag group of common Jews, and used them as the foundation of His church. Then He miraculously revealed Himself to Saul (also known as Paul), who had previously devoted his life to the destruction of Jewish Christians.
Not only was Paul an unlikely emissary, but he also planted churches in unlikely places. Corinth was the last place one would imagine starting one of the first churches. This small strip of land in Achaia (southern Greece) served as a seaport on two seas and was home to sailors and merchants.
It was known primarily as a place of sin, decadence, and corruption. If someone was looking for prostitutes, orgies, pagan festivals, or abundant alcohol, then Corinth was the place. However, if a person was looking for a faithful church, then this would seem an impossible location—but not with God.
Paul’s Letter to a Deeply Divided Church
Paul stayed in Corinth for almost two years. In that time, he led many people to faith in Jesus. Some of these people were transients who boarded ships and carried the good news to distant shores, but others stayed in Corinth as members of this early Christian community. Once Paul left to plant churches elsewhere, the situation in Corinth began to deteriorate.
This first generation of believers struggled with what it meant to live the gospel faithfully in this challenging and immoral city. When Paul heard reports that the church was deeply divided and immorality was rampant, he had no trouble believing it.
He addresses those issues in the first part of this letter (chapters 1–6). But Paul also received a letter from the church posing to him a number of questions about celibacy, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. He deals with their questions in the last part of his letter (chapters 7–15).
Today’s and Yesterday’s Troubled Times
Although this letter is known today as 1 Corinthians, it is clear Paul wrote this church an earlier letter which apparently some misunderstood (see 1 Corinthians 5:9). So 1 Corinthians is at least Paul’s second letter to them. But the situation becomes more complex, as we see in 2 Corinthians, when Paul speaks of another tearful letter written between 1 and 2 Corinthians.
In all, we know of four letters Paul writes to this community, but there may have been more. Of all the churches Paul established, the Corinthian church was the most troubled; so it received more visits, more letters, and more instruction than any other.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians exhibit his deep, pastoral concern for these urban believers who live in a truly secular city. His teachings continue to speak today to our own troubled times.
1 Corinthians 1:14
Paul knows that if the work of Jesus’ gospel degenerates into a cult of personality, it will hardly resemble true Christianity. If the focus is on Paul, Cephas, Apollos, or any famous religious leader, then that distracts from the person and central message of Jesus.
Any cult of personality is intoxicating, and it is often easier to claim to follow a person who can be seen and touched. But Christianity is founded upon the belief that Jesus is the head of the church and that all of His followers serve His will as a part of the royal priesthood.
1 Corinthians 1:26
The cross challenges human values because no one expects to find freedom through capital punishment. Unlike most of the thousands who faced crucifixion before and after Jesus, He was clearly not a criminal. God uses this contradiction to reveal His power and wisdom: Jesus has offered Himself to death and has been raised to life to bring liberation to others.
Those who truly follow this crucified king do not seek power and authority through the normal patterns of the world; they offer themselves in loving sacrifice for others. That is where God’s transforming power is truly revealed in the church.
1 Corinthians 2:6
Christianity is not merely a set of ideas and propositions. One can agree with all the truths in the Bible and still miss the power of God. Paul knows the brothers and sisters in Corinth might attempt to reduce Christianity to a new philosophy based on human understanding, but the power of God cannot be fully grasped by our eight-pound brains. We must approach God humbly as creations, not as those aspiring to fully explain the Creator of the universe.
1 Corinthians 4:14
Paul explains and exemplifies the goals of a mature believer in a way that may be easily contrasted with the desires of an immature believer. He is seeking love and truth more than popularity, embracing suffering rather than comfort. In fact, he disregards popularity and comfort completely so that he isn’t distracted from the love and truth of Jesus. This could be a powerful force in the world if believers embraced this kind of maturity.
1 Corinthians 5:9
Sexual sin is always painful, but incest decimates families and communities, and it leaves people isolated and angry. The danger for believers who understand the reality of sin is that they may lose sight of redemption and become complacent in their brokenness.
In Corinth the believers have become so complacent that they are ignoring the incest in their community. The church’s reputation is beginning to suffer among outsiders.
Church discipline if properly done accomplishes two things: first, it protects the community from harm caused by the sin; second, it can lead to a restoration of the sinner to God and the community. Ignoring the sin actually makes the lives of the sinners worse. Real love confronts the sin and leads the sinners toward redemption and wholeness.
1 Corinthians 6:12
In the same way that some seek to reduce Christianity to a philosophy or a set of ideas, others seek to reduce it to a set of rules for living. If true faith is only about eating certain foods, abstaining from others, and avoiding certain practices, then willpower must be more important than the Spirit of God.
But following stringent rules is not that easy. Actually, living by willpower is hard — some might say impossible. Paul is preaching about an alternative to a life governed by rules and restrictions, and that’s a life of faith that embraces grace. What Paul is about to describe is a life of freedom that surpasses a life of rule keeping.
1 Corinthians 7:8
Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about marriage stands in contrast to the message in Genesis 2, where God declares that it is not good to be alone. There He sculpts woman from the rib of the man: she was molded so that man and woman fit perfectly together. And God blesses marriage as a good and beautiful thing. So is Paul contradicting the declaration of the Creator God when he suggests that it might be better for some people to choose an unmarried life? Absolutely not!
Marriage is a sacred union, but it is possible that many will be able to serve God more fully if they do not have the limitations that come with marriage and family. Paul shares his advice humbly based on his own experience. The tension between the beauty of marriage and the freedom from marital obligations is one we should all explore. As we come to our own conclusions, we must also carry them humbly, remembering that one is not better than the other.
1 Corinthians 7:21
The call to faith is not a call to abandon your life, family, neighborhood, and culture. We must play with the hand God deals us, not look for a new deck. He works through faith to redeem broken lives and wasted years, not to provide a change of scenery. Even in the worst circumstances, faith can change the believer from the inside.
1 Corinthians 9:1
Meat left over from pagan temple sacrifices was sold daily in the market. It was about the only option available for those who didn’t raise their own livestock. Paul knows that idols are nothing really because there is only one God, but another brother thinks he is engaging in a heinous act and supporting a pagan temple by eating food that comes from a pagan sacrifice.
So what is a believer to do? Well, it is not a matter of knowledge: Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s a matter of love. Paul says that he has the right to eat the meat, but that he gladly gives up that right for the sake of the other brother. Paul limits his freedom out of love for the Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 9:15
Paul works hard. He travels the known world starting new churches and writes letters instructing other churches. Simultaneously, he makes and sells tents to fund his basic needs and missionary travels. Would Paul’s time be better spent training young pastors or preaching to a group of church leaders rather than making tents? By giving his churches his service for free, is he doing a disservice to those who will serve these churches in the future and have families to care for?
1 Corinthians 10:13
One of the strengths of the Jewish people is their corporate identity that comes from belonging to a unique, suffering people deeply loved by God. The tendency for the new, non-Jewish believers may be to create a new identity among themselves because they lack the sense of belonging shared by Israel’s descendants.
A new day is dawning, a day when all may come to God regardless of ethnicity, locale, or social class. Believers in Corinth are not part of a new movement; they are a fresh expression of the historic movement of God. The twenty-first century church needs to hear this truth today as much as the church in Corinth did two millennia ago.
The world has changed drastically since the times of Abraham, David, John the Baptist, and even Martin Luther. In the midst of radical economic and technological advances, some within the church are embracing new or contemporary practices and regarding them as somehow superior to ancient and historic practices.
Paul is challenging this idea and calling all believers to see themselves as a part of the local, global, and historic church.
1 Corinthians 10:27
Paul’s instruction on this matter is clear: believers should give up their rights and freedoms for the sake of others. This is the essence of sacrifice. This is what Jesus did. This is what Paul does. Otherwise, community becomes impossible. But no state or church authority should force compliance; it must arise from a heart of love and a disposition that puts the needs of others first.
1 Corinthians 12:7
Paul’s description of the works of the Spirit, the Lord (Jesus), and God (the Father) links the three persons together in remarkable ways. Although Paul never articulates the doctrine of the Trinity, what he writes here about the Godhead relationship — their community of persons — becomes the raw materials used by later believers to construct the church’s teaching on the Trinity.
In this chapter the apostle emphasizes the agency of the Spirit. For him the Spirit is not just an impersonal force or feeling; He is just as much a person within the Trinity as the Father and the Son. Accordingly, the Spirit chooses where to impart gifts as He works together with the Father and the Son to build up the church.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Gifts of the Spirit, which are intended to strengthen the church body, often divide the body because members of the church elevate those who possess the more visible gifts over those whose gifts function in the background. In fact, this is the very problem facing the Corinthians.
So while talking about the importance and function of these gifts in chapters 12 and 14, Paul shifts his focus to the central role love plays in a believer’s life in chapter 13. Love is essential for the body to be unified and for members to work together. Members of the body that are very different, with little in common, are able to appreciate and even enjoy others because of the love that comes when a life is submitted to God.
1 Corinthians 13:4
Paul boils it all down for the believers in Corinth. Religious people often spend their time practicing rituals, projecting dogma, and going through routines that might look like Christianity on the outside but that lack the essential ingredient that brings all of it together — love! It is a loving God who birthed creation and now pursues a broken people in the most spectacular way. That same love must guide believers, so faith doesn’t appear to be meaningless noise.
1 Corinthians 15:29
Resurrection is central to the gospel. In fact, without the bodily resurrection of Jesus there is no good news at all. For in Jesus, God personifies His redeeming work and demonstrates the scope of that redemption. He is a God who brings life from death, peace from war, prosperity from adversity, and bounty from famine. The resurrection of Jesus marks a new era of God’s dealing with the world. He intends nothing less than the total reclamation of His good creation damaged by human folly, sin, and death.
1 Corinthians 15:50
Redemption is not merely forgiveness of sin’s guilt so our souls can go to heaven someday. Our true hope is to be free from physical death just as Jesus was raised from the dead. Accordingly, this hope of bodily resurrection stands against the expectation that souls escape from their mortal bodies (as if your soul is the real “you” and your body is a disposable external space suit) and merely float up to heaven.
Rather, Paul presents resurrection as a new creation; and this restored bodily existence affirms and fulfills the original intent of creation. Believers don’t have to wait until the future to experience this Spirit-enabled life because living in obedience to God through the Spirit is a foretaste of the total experience that will come when all is restored later.
1 Corinthians 16:10
Churches are often characterized by words such as “independent” and “autonomous.” But one would be hard-pressed to find any of these ideas in the Scriptures. Instead, Paul seems to be modeling submission and interdependence. We must always consider others and shape our actions to bless them.
But he does not stop there — it is clear that we are responsible to care for one another in physical and monetary ways. What might Paul say to the church today, given the drastic disparity between the wealthy churches of the West and the brothers and sisters in the rest of the world who lack food, water, or shelter?