1 Corinthians

How to read 1 Corinthians


  • Content: a letter of correction, in which Paul stands over against the Corinthians on issue after issue, mostly behavioral, but which are nevertheless betrayals of the gospel of Christ and the life in the Spirit

  • Author: the apostle Paul

  • Date: ca. A.D. 53 -54, from Ephesus (see 16:8)

  • Recipients: the church in Corinth, composed mostly of Gentiles (12:2; 8:7)

  • Occasion: Paul responds to a letter from the church (7:1) and to reports he has received (1:11; 5:1)

  • Emphases: a crucified Messiah as the central message of the gospel; the cross as God's wisdom and power; Christian behavior that conforms to the gospel; the true nature of life in the Spirit; the future bodily resurrection of the Christian dead


First Corinthians is the most difficult of the New Testament letters to summarize, because Paul deals in turn with no less than eleven different issues, sometimes in a length similar to some of his shorter letters (2 Thessalonians, Titus). Some items (on divisions and on wisdom, 1:10-4:21; on incest,5:1-13; on litigation, 6:1-11; and on going to prostitutes, 6:12-20) are in direct response to reports from members of Chloe's household (1 :1 1, probably an Ephesian Christian whose servants have been in Corinth on business). This may very well be true of the head covering of women in 1 1:2-16 as well and is almost certainly true of the Lord's Table correctives in 11:17-34.

The rest is in response to the Corinthians' letter to him mentioned in 7:1 , where he starts by taking up the question of sex and marriage (7 :1 -24). At 7:25 the formula "Now about [virgins]" occurs, repeated in 8:1 ("Now about food sacrificed to idols"); 12:1 ("Now about spiritual gifts"); 16: 1 ("Now about the collection"); and 16:12 ("Now about our brother Apollos"). Most of these are in direct response to behavior that is being embraced by some or most of the believers in Corinth; in each case Paul is correcting them, not informing them about things they do not yet know (notice how often he prods them with "Don't you know ..." where the implication is that they do in fact know; see 3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24).The only issue raised that is not behavioral is the bodily resurrection of believers in chapter 15, and here Paul specifically says that "some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead" (v.12).

There is a degree of logic to the overall arrangement. He begins with matters reported to him (1:10-6:20), starting with the basic issue of divisions-within the community itself, but primarily over against Paul-before picking up other forms of breakdown in community relationships (incest, litigation, prostitution). Beginning at 7:1, he takes up issues from their letter, very likely in the order they occur. But when he comes to a couple of matters dealing with worship (attending idol feasts and the abuse of tongues), he inserts two other matters of worship that he has information about (head coverings and abuse of the Lord's Table). He puts the issue of the resurrection at the end of his response to Spirit giftings, because it probably reflects the false theology (or spirituality) that is responsible for the Corinthians' attitudes on most of the other issues as well. He concludes with more practical matters in chapter 16.


To read 1 Corinthians well, you need some understanding of the city where the Corinthian believers lived. After lying dormant for nearly a hundred years, Corinth was refounded by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. as a Roman colony. Because of its strategic location for commerce both

north-south and east-west, by the time of Paul (one hundred years later) it had become the largest city in Roman Greece. By ancient standards it was a relatively new city, but it had quickly become cosmopolitan (having attracted people from all over the empire) and full of the nouveau riche. It was also very religious (all of the immigrants brought their deities), while at the same time morally decadent. So those who had become believers were from among this diverse population, both slave and free, Gentile and Jew (12:13), who brought a lot of their prior baggage with them to the Christian faith.

It is important as you read I Corinthians to be aware that the opposition to Paul in this letter (e.g. 4:3-5, 18-21;9:1-2) was not from the outside-as in Galatians, 2 Corinthians 10-13, and 1 Thessalonians-but from within the church itself. A careful reading suggests that he and they (at least many of them) are at odds on every issue. They have either misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted an earlier letter from him that prohibited certain vices (1 Cor 5:9- l0) and have written to tell him why they think they are right and he is wrong (e.g. chs. 8-10; 12-14). And the conduct of some of them, which they h ave not written about, is so grotesquely unchristian that Paul is horrified that a christian community could have brought itself to believe as they do. At times you can even pick out where Paul is citing them, often in agreement with their statement itself, but disagreeing with how they understand it (see 6: 12-13; 7:1-2; 8:1, 4).

The primary place where he and they are at odds is over the question of being spiritual-what it means to be a person of the Spirit. This surfaces most sharply in chapters 12-15, where they apparently believe that speaking in tongues is to speak the language of angels ( 13:1)-they have thus already arrived at the ultimate state of spirituality, so much so that some of them have no use for a bodily resurrection (6:13-14; 15:12).This has also led to a triumphalist view of life in the present. Full of "wisdom" by the Spirit, they see Paul's weaknesses as evidence of a lesser spirituality (4:6-21).In such a view there is no room for the life of the cross. Hence the ease whereby they reject Paul's view on so many issues. very likely their spirituality also lends itself to their low view of bodily activities (meaning they can indulge or be ascetic at will) so that some are even arguing against sexual life in marriage (7:1-7), and the traditional head coverings are being cast aside .,because of the angels" (11:3-16, esp. v. l0).

Paul's basic response to all of this is to remind them that the gospel has a crucified Messiah, risen from the dead, at its very heart, and thus he bookends the letter with these two basic theological realities (the cross, 1:17-2:16:- the resurrection, 15:1-59). Everything else in the letter must be understood in light of these; indeed, the most crucial role of the Spirit is to reveal the cross as the key to God's wisdom (2:6-16).

Because Paul sees the gospel itself at stake (especially because of the Corinthians'rejecting the centrality of the cross in Christian life), you will find his moods to run a wide gamut of emotion-confrontation (4:18-21; 9:1-12; I 4:36-38), appeal (4: 15- 16; 10:31 - 11 : 1 ), sarcasm

(4:8; 6:5, the "wise" aren't wise enough to settle disputes!), irony (1:26-28, no one in the name of wisdom would have chosen them to be God's people!), eloquence (13:1-8), and rhapsody (15:51-57)-but there is very little joy or pleasure to be found currently in his relationship with this church (and 2 Corinthians tells us it gets worse before it gets better).


1: 1 -9

Salutation, Prayer, and Thanksgiving

Note how, typically, these formal elements are elaborated in ways that anticipate the rest of the letter ("sanctified in Christ Jesus"; "enriched in every way" [with Spirit giftings]). Significantly, Paul still thanks God for them-all of them-because they are God's people, after all, not his.

As you read the rest of the letter, look for the various elements of and reasons for the specific problems Paul is dealing with, and note now he responds to each.


Divisions over Leaders in the Name of Wisdom

The problem: a combination of (l) their anti-Paul sentiment, which (2) has broken out as strife over their leaders, which (3) is being carried on in the name of wisdom.

Paul's response: Note how he takes on the problem of wisdom first (1:13-3 :4), urging that everything about the Corinthians' existence in Christ gives the lie to their present wisdom-the gospel of a crucified Messiah (1:18-25); their own calling (1:26-31); Paul's preaching (2: 1 -5). Indeed, one role of the Spirit is to reveal the cross as God's wisdom (2:6-16).

Second (3:5-23), he corrects their inadequate understanding of (1) leaders, who are merely servants (w. 5-15), and of (2) the church, which is the temple of the living God in Corinth (w. 16-17); thus there should be no boasting in mere mortals (w. 18-23).

Third (4:l-21), he responds to their criticism of him: Since he is God's servant, they have no right to judge him; their pride reeks, so he appeals to them and warns them.

5:1- 13

Case of incest

The problem:A believer is living incestuously with his "father,s wife', (another wife of his father, but not his biological mother; see Lev 18:8); note that this is an instance where they are directly at odds with his previous letter to them (5:9).

Paul's response: Since Paul has already judged the offender, they are to gather in the power of Christ and turn him over to Satan (: put him back out of the church into Satan's sphere; cf. 1 Tim 1:20)-for the sake of the church in the present and finally for the offender's own salvation.

6:1- 11

External Litigation of an internal Squabble

The problem: One brother has cheated another (v. g), who has taken him to the pagan courts for judgment (v. 1), and the church has done nothing (w. 2-5).

Paul's response: Horrors! By doing nothing, the church has betrayed its existence as God's end-time people (w.2-4); shame on the litigant (vv.6-7); warning to the defendant (w. 8-10). But note how Paul ends by affirming their redemption through Jesus Christ and the spirit (v.11).


On Going to the Prostitutes

The problem: In the name of their rights as believers (v. 12) and on the basis of a low view of the body (v.13), some men are arguing for the right to visit the prostitutes (understandable in light of 7:1 -16).

Paul's response: Against their view of rights, only what is "beneficial" counts, and to be mastered by anything is a form of bondage (v.12). Against their wrong view of the body, he appeals to the Lord,s resurrection as affirming the body (v. 14) and to the nature of sexual intercourse as uniting two people (v. 15); one cannot thus be united to the Lord by the Spirit and united to a prostitute by sex (w. 16-17), since the body belongs to the Lord as his temple (w. 18-20).


To Married and Once-Married

The problem: on the basis of a slogan, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman," some women apparently (see v. 10) are arguing for no sex within marriage (because they have already assumed their "heavenly" existence in which there is no marrying or giving in marriage?), and if not regarding no sex, then for the right to divorce.

Paul's response: To the already married (w. 1-7), stop depriving each other on this matter; instead, maintain full conjugal relationships. To widows and (probably) widowers (w. 8-9), stay as you are. To the presently married (to a believing spouse, w. 10-11), no divorce (: stay as you are). To the "rest" (= presently married to an unbeliever, w. 12-16), do not seek divorce (= stay as you are).

The "rule" (vv. 17 -24), based on God's calling and Christ's redemption is this: Stay as you are, since God's call sanctifies your present situation, but if change comes, that too is acceptable.


To the Never-before Married

The problem: Based on the premise of 7:1, some are arguing that virgins (=betrothed young women) surely should not marry.

Paul's response: Note how Paul agrees with the conclusion but not the premise; hence he offers different reasons for staying single (the "present crisis", unencumbered freedom to serve the Lord)-but whatever else, do not be anxious (v.32), because marriage is also God's plan.


On Idol Feasts and Marketplace Idol Food

The problem: Since idols have no reality because there is only one God (8:4), some have argued against Paul that they should have the right to continue attending temple feasts (8:10), where all family celebrations were held; related is the matter of Jewish scruples about buying food once offered to an idol (10:23-11:1). They have apparently called into question Paul's right to forbid temple attendance-denying his apostleship on the basis of his not accepting their patronage (9:1-18) and his being wishy-washy about marketplace food (eating it in Gentile homes, but remaining kosher in Jewish homes, 9:19-23).

Paul's response: Note that Paul does not begin with a prohibition (that will come later; 10:14-22),but with their acting on the basis of knowledge (spiritual elitism again) rather than love (8:1-6). For most former idolaters the "god" had subjective reality, and being encouraged to return to the temples would destroy them (8:7-13).

Paul then (9:1-18) defends his apostolic right to their support, even though he has given that right up, and maintains that his actions regarding marketplace food are strictly in the interest of evangelism (9:19-23). After urging the need for self-discipline, with himself as a positive example (9:24-27), he warns them on the basis of Israel,s negative examples (10:1-13). Finally, he explicitly forbids eating in the temples, since to do so is to participate in the demonic (10:14-22).

Turning to marketplace food itself in 10:23-11:1, Paul argues that Scripture itself makes clear that God doesn't care one way or the other so buy and eat unless it bothers a pagan's conscience (someone who understands Christianity as a Jewish sect).


On Head Coverings in Worship

The problem: Most likely some women were discarding a traditional loose-fitting shawl on the basis of being as the angels, which apparently brought tensions in marital relationships (the women were, in their husbands'view, being like men).

Paul's response: Although women do have authority over their own heads on this matter (v. 10), in the Lord women and men are interdependent (vv. 7 -9, 1 1- 12), so the women should maintain the customs (w. 13-16) so as not to appear like men (otherwise, he argues, go the whole way in looking like a man and be "shaved" w. 5-6).


Divisions at the Lord's Table

The problem:Note that their division here is along the lines of rich and poor (v.22) and is related to the eating of a meal in connection with the Lord's Table (vv. 17-21), at which the poor were being excluded (the church met in the houses of the well-to-do).

Paul's response: He reminds them of the words of institution (vv.23-25) and that they must "discern the body of Christ" when they eat (= the church; see 10: 16- 17); otherwise they eat for judgment instead of blessing (11 :27 -32). Eat private meals privately; at community meals ..make everyone equally welcome" (w. 33-34).


The Abuse of Speaking in Tongues

The problem:Their view of tongues as the language of angels (13:1) caused them to overemphasize this gift in worship (14:18-19,23),with the result that their community worship was nonintelligible and thus could not build up the body.

Paul's response: First, the primary criterion for Spirit utterances is the confession of Jesus as Lord (12:1-3). On the basis of their Trinitarian experience of God (w. 4-6), Paul then urges diversity of giftings in the unity of the Spirit (w. 7-31); in any case, love should rule at every point in their worship (13:1-13).

Pursuing love means first that only what is intelligible should occur in the community for the sake of edification (14:1-25) and second that everything must have a measure of order (vv.26-40), because one's worship reflects what one believes about God's character (v. 33).


The Bodily Resurrection of Believers

The problem: Some are denying a bodily resurrection of believers (v.12), apparently ridiculing the idea of a raised body (v. 35). Note that the placement of this issue in the letter suggests that it is closely related to chapters 12-14.

Paul's response: On the basis of Christ's resurrection, which they do believe (vv. 1-11 ), Paul argues for the certainty of our own resurrection (vv. 12-34), including (l) the folly of believing in the one and not the other (vv. 12-19); (2) both the inevitability (the first fruits guarantees the final harvest) and necessity (death is God's final enemy to be overcome) of our resurrection (w.20-28); and (3) the senselessness of their actions, and of life itself, without such a hope (w. 29-34).

As to "what kind of body," the answer is the same, but not quite the same-it will be spiritually refitted for heavenly existence (vv. 35-50). Notice how he concludes by taunting death in light of the certainty of our future (w. 51 -58)-here let your heart soar!


On the Collection for the Poor

The problem: Paul intends to take a substantial contribution from his Gentile churches to relieve the poor in Jerusalem; apparently the Corinthian believers have asked him about it.

Paul's response: Set some money aside weekly-to which he adds information about future plans, both his and Timothy's.


Concluding Matters

Note how he takes up their request for Apollos's return (v. 12) in a way that brings the letter to conclusion in typical style (staccato exhortations, w. 13-14; commendation of the letter,s bearers, w. 15-18; final greetings, w. 19-24). But note also that here he adds a final curse and prayer (v.22) and a word following the grace (v.24. reassuring them of his love for them, given how strongly he has had to respond).

This letter holds an important place in the biblical story, reminding us constantly that (1) God calls a people to himself so that they might be conformed to his own likeness, reflected in the (apparent) weakness and folly of the cross, and that (2) in the end he will overcome our (and his) final enemy-death-by resurrection and/or transformation.