Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians

It is obvious from the text that Paul wrote more than two letters to the church at Corinth (5:9), this probably being his second. It was written circa A.D. 55, towards the end of Paul’s three-year stay at Ephesus. However, it is evident that, at the time of writing, he had only intended to remain there for less than a year (16:8). This letter was prompted by news from Chloe’s household that there was less than unity in the church (1:10, 11), also by a visit from Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, who probably gave him further information (16:17), and in response to a letter from the church with specific concerns (7:1). In this letter Paul addresses the following subjects: Divisions in the church [1-4] Immorality in the church [5-6] Marriage [7] Concerns over questionable practices [8-10] Propriety in worship [11] Spiritual gifts [12] Love [13] Prophesying and speaking in tongues [14] Resurrection of the body [15] A collection for the mother church and final greetings [16]

Divisions in the church

[1-4] After Paul’s opening introduction to his letter, he addresses one of the major problems that has been brought to his attention: divisions in the church. People had been aligning themselves to individuals, Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter), instead of being one church in Christ. He reminds them of the principal purpose of his ministry, to preach the gospel, and this he does, not by use of fancy speech as if he were a wise man to be admired, but plainly declaring the risen Christ and thus bringing glory to God. In preaching the gospel, he brought to them a wisdom exceeding the wisdom of the world, a wisdom that could be delivered only through the power of the Spirit of God. Paul tells them that, although they have received the gospel, they are still carnal-minded and he has to speak to them in a likewise manner, not spiritually. He reminds them that in bringing the gospel to them, he planted the seed, which Apollos then watered, but God provided the growth. He and Apollos are just labourers for God together, building on the true foundation that is Christ Jesus. How they build on that foundation will be judged by God. Paul reminds them that their bodies are the temple of God in whom God’s spirit dwells. They are, then, to keep themselves pure, not thinking themselves wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and to glory in no man, whether it be Paul, Apollos or Cephas, for they are all equal in Christ. As ministers of God, Paul and his companions are faithful stewards of God, the judgement of which will be God’s, not theirs. Paul cautions them against their acquired pride, and calls on them to regard him as their spiritual father in Christ, in the way he regards them as his children. To this end he had sent Timothy to them as his beloved son who will remind them of his teaching, which is the same in every church. He will come to visit them in person, if it be the Lord’s will, in the hope he will be able to come not to reproach, but in love and in the spirit of meekness.

Immorality in the church

[5-6] A serious case of fornication had been brought to Paul’s attention, that of a man who is having sexual relations with his stepmother, and of their carefree attitude towards this. They are instructed to excommunicate him, and not to keep company with any brother who is an unrepentant sinner. Paul also reproves them for going to law with one another over small matters, and hence to be judged by heathens. They should be able to settle these matters amongst themselves as brothers in Christ. At this point Paul warns them against a number of gross sins, inhibitors to the inheritance of the kingdom of God, which some of them have been guilty of in the past. He now returns to the sin of fornication, which is specifically a sin against a man’s own body, the temple of the Holy Spirit that is in him. Having been bought for a price, they are to glorify God in their bodies and in their spirit, which are God’s.

Marriage

[7] The church had previously written to Paul with some concerns about marriage, which he now addresses. He suggests that marriage can be seen as a remedy against fornication. In marriage, the husband and wife should be consenting towards one another. It is better to be married than to burn with lust. To the married he says they should remain together, but if they divorce, then they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled, for this is God’s law. If anyone has an unbelieving spouse, they should stay married if the unbeliever is content to remain with them. But if not, then they are to let the spouse go, as they are not under bondage in such cases, for God hath called us to peace. Paul offers this as his advice, and not the law. He describes by examples how becoming Christians does not change their external state, and advises everyone to continue in the state in which they were called. Paul considers the time is short and advises accordingly that it is better to be unmarried because those who are married have to give time for their spouses, but those who are unmarried are able to devote their time to the Lord. Nevertheless, those who are married should remain married. His advice concerning virgins is given in the same vein.

Concerns over questionable practices

[8-10] Paul responds to a question concerning eating meat offered in sacrifice to idols. He suggests it is of no consequence to the spiritually mature since idols are nothing, but to the spiritually weak it can be a problem. To cause a weaker brother to stumble in such a situation is an offence against the brother and against Christ. For this reason, despite his uperior knowledge, his spiritual maturity, Paul would not eat meat sacrificed for idols and offend a brother. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. There has been some charge against Paul concerning compensation for his services as an apostle. He defends the right of a minister of God to receive some recompense, even by Mosaic law, but states that he has waived this right so as not to hinder the gospel of Christ. In doing so he becomes a servant to all he preaches to: to the Jew he becomes as a Jew, to the Gentile a Gentile,  and to the weak he becomes as a weak man. All this for the sake of the gospel and the prize of an incorruptible crown. Paul now reflects on the Israelites who, when wandering in the desert, were all recipients of God’s grace, but nevertheless were backsliders and punished by God for their many sins. These things are an example to us who may think we are strong, but should take heed lest we fall to temptation as they did, recognising that our faithful God will never permit temptation beyond that which we should be able to withstand. Returning to the matter of eating meat prepared for idols, Paul reminds the Corinthians they are all partakers of the communion of Christ’s blood and body, and are all of the one body of Christ. As such, considering idols to be of some significance and the eating of things offered to them as also having significance is wholly inconsistent with Christianity, and is gross idolatry. Paul states, All things are lawful to me, but not all things profit. All things are lawful to me, but not all things build up. They may buy such meat in the markets or eat at a heathen’s table without the need to ask questions, for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness of it. Everything is done to the glory of God, but in this freedom, care must be taken not to give offence to weaker brethren.

Propriety in worship

[11] Perhaps inspired by a newfound freedom in Christ, some women had laid aside the custom of wearing their veils, particularly while praying or prophesying. Paul reminds them of the divine order of God, Christ, man then woman, and the significance of head covering, yet also reminds them that man and woman were made for their mutual benefit. Paul reprimands them for their behaviour and attitude at the Lord’s supper where some are hungry and some even drunk. He tells them that eating and drinking to satisfaction is done at home, and reminds them of the Lord’s words in ordaining the communion of bread and wine, and the sanctity of it.

Spiritual gifts

[12] Here Paul speaks of the abundance of spiritual gifts in the church, and how the different gifts given to individuals are for the edification of the whole church. He uses the body as an analogy for the body of the church, illustrating the importance of each member working as an essential part of the whole, resulting in a close relationship within the body, reflected in both common suffering and glorification. Not everyone is called for the same purpose in church, consequently, not all will have the same gifts. Some seem to want to strive for what might be considered the better gifts, but Paul is about to show them the true motivation behind the use of all gifts.

Love

[13] Paul tells how love is the only true motivation behind all that he does. He describes the attributes of love and concludes that of faith, hope and love, the greatest is love.

Prophecy and speaking in tongues

[14] In advising them concerning spiritual gifts, Paul places an importance on prophecy in preference to speaking in tongues, because prophecy edifies the church, whereas speaking in tongues is like a musical instrument without a tune, which benefits no one unless there is another to interpret it. Their praise and worship should be to the benefit of the whole church, and to this end Paul would rather speak five words with understanding than ten thousand in an unknown tongue. If a non believer were to hear the whole church speaking in tongues, he would probably consider them mad; whereas a non- believer hearing prophecy may well be converted. Paul accuses them of bringing disorder and confusion into the church with their desire to show off spiritual gifts, and directs them in the correct use of tongues and prophecy. To maintain order, they are told their wives are to be silent in church. If something arises they do not understand, then they should not question it at the time, but resolve the matter at home. All things are to be done in public worship with decency and order.

Resurrection of the body

[15] Paul summarises the gospel to them: how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. He reminds them of how Christ’s resurrection was witnessed by the apostles, lastly by himself through grace, as he was the least of the apostles having persecuted the church. As an apostle, they are able to believe what he preaches, yet some amongst them are saying there is no resurrection of the dead. If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not resurrected, and their faith and his teachings are all in vain. But Christ is risen, and those who are His will be resurrected and reign with Him. It is to their shame that some amongst them do not know God, and they are to be careful not to be deceived by these people. Paul then explains how in the resurrection their bodies would no longer be flesh and blood but spiritual, as neither flesh and blood, nor anything corruptible, can enter the kingdom of heaven. This is a mystery that Paul is revealing to them, that all will be changed in a twinkling of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet, from corruptible to incorruptible, from mortal to immortal, and death will be swallowed up in victory. They are, then, to remain steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because they know their labour will not be in vain.

A collection for the mother church and final greetings

[16] Paul concludes by giving them some directions concerning a collection he is making for the saints in Jerusalem. He speaks of paying them a visit, recommends Timothy to them, and tells them Apollos also wants to visit them in due course. He exhorts them to be strong in their faith, to do everything in love, and to respect those who have helped him and his fellow labourers in their work. Finally, following salutations from the churches in Asia, from Aquila and Priscilla and from himself, he blesses them and gives them his love in Christ Jesus.
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