Corinth was a strategically located Roman city on the main land route between East and West and was the crossroads for several sea routes. Corinth was famous for its intellectual and material prosperity and was honored with being the capitol of Achaia. It also became famous for its corruption. As Guthrie says, “Its name became a byword for profligacy.”1
Paul began his ministry in Corinth on his second missionary journey under much opposition (Acts 18:6-17), but he was able to convert several influential people and consequently remained for about one and a half years in Corinth.2
He left Corinth and traveled to Ephesus. The city’s corruption had its influence on the church and Paul heard of the problems and divisions in the church. It is from Ephesus that he wrote and sent this letter to Corinth in about 53 A.D.
Paul’s purposes for writing the Corinthians were several. His first purpose was to deal with several moral problems and the divisions that had formed as people had divided into fan-clubs and were proclaiming themselves followers of Paul, Apollos, Peter or Christ (1:10). His second reason was to deal with several questions that had been asked in a letter the Corinthians had sent to him (7:1). A third purpose that appears throughout the book is Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority.3
All of these issues can be related to a problem with pride, and thus in 1:27-29 we have what may be the thesis statement of the book:
. . . but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
Paul will develop this idea in several different ways to deal with their root problem of pride. They had their eyes on external things like eloquence, social status, ascetic practices, etc. and Paul explains that those things mean nothing in God’s kingdom.
Paul’s introduction is distinct from introductions to his other epistles in that he fails to commend these believers. One might compare his thankfulness for the Roman and Ephesian Christians’ faith (Rom. 1:8; Eph. 1:1) and the Philippians’ participation in the gospel (Phil. 1:5). Only the epistle to the Galatians starts off with less warmth than this one. (That may be because the issue in Galatians is justification by faith and their very salvation was threatened.) Instead he elaborates on their position and blessings in Christ and His faithfulness to confirm them to the end. It might even be considered amazing that Paul is able to be thankful for the grace of God because it was their abuse of that grace that caused all these problems he is writing about. He is able to be thankful that they are not lacking in any spiritual gifts, although they are not using them for edification of the body.4
Paul had heard that the Corinthian believers had divided into groups and were holding up various leaders as being superior to the others. There were those that followed Paul, who had founded the church. Others followed the eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:24). Some thought that Peter was the best, perhaps because he had been with Jesus. And perhaps the worst of all, at least because they were the most self-righteous, there were those who claimed they were superior because they followed Christ or were servants of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23).
Of course this problem is one of the most blatant and destructive examples of what was discussed as the theme of the book. The Corinthians were focused on external methods of measurement for spirituality. The specific reason for the divisions was that the Corinthians were placing their faith in the wisdom of men. Paul points out that the wisdom of men is foolishness to God (1:25) and their faith should be in the power of God (2:5), not the power of men.
Paul’s argument is that they have misunderstood the very nature of the gospel. In the next three paragraphs he shows them first, that the very idea of a crucified Messiah is foolish (1:18-25), second, that God chose them though they did not deserve it (1:26-31) and third, look how God used him, Paul, in his weakness (2:1-5).5
Because the Corinthians were pursuing wisdom, Paul concludes chapter 2 by asserting that what he is about to discuss is wisdom. It is the wisdom of God, and only the spiritual will be able to understand it.
Paul continues his thought on spirituality and he shows that they are not spiritual. One result of the divisions was carnality and stunted spiritual growth (3:1-2).
Paul shows that another result is the loss of rewards. While living in a carnal state, any good performed by man will be considered wood, hay and straw (3:12) and will be burned up (3:15) at the judgment seat of Christ.
Because they were focused on the external, they had set up extra-biblical standards of comparison. Paul points out that what counts with God is the heart and only God knows the heart and motivation. What men see on the outside is not an accurate barometer of the heart.
Within this next section are two ideas. One is Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority, and the other idea is the solution to their problem.
First, we see that Paul discusses stewardship. The Greek word oikonomov implies accountability and delegated authority.6 This fits nicely with Paul’s defense of his ministry. Paul is accountable to God, so their judgmental spirit does not affect him. God will judge him. And second, although Paul is weak and unimpressive in his own flesh (4:9-13), God has seen fit to use him, and he is backed by the authority of God.
Second we see principles that will heal their divisions. One solution was to stop passing judgment on others. What God requires is faithfulness (4:2) and only God can judge the heart (4:5).
Another solution was to stop being arrogant (4:6). These examples (of watering and sowing 3:6, being God’s fellow-workers 3:9, being a servant and steward 4:1) that Paul had “figuratively applied” (4:6) to himself and Apollos were to make a point: Paul and Apollos were only channels of God. The Corinthians, on the other hand, were exalting themselves over the Word.7
Paul further explains the futility of following men because these leaders that they were exalting were actually weak, despised, persecuted and without honor (4:10-13). It is also interesting to consider that this is why God was able to use them as leaders in the first place. Therefore, the Corinthians are urged to imitate Paul (4:16).
The test, Paul says, is not in their arrogant speech (4:19), but whether or not they are leading powerful lives through the Spirit’s power. And with this thought he moves to deal with other problems which show they are not living through the Spirit’s power.
Paul had also received reports that there was immorality in the church, and what was worse, they had not dealt with the offender (5:1-2).
In 5:3-8 Paul explains that they need to remove the immoral person from the church for discipline because if left in their midst, he would corrupt the rest of the body.
In a previous letter (5:9) Paul had told them not to associate with immoral people and they had obviously misunderstood. He was not referring to unbelievers as they would have no witness should they isolate themselves (5:10). He was referring to immoral people in the church because they would corrupt the church and weaken its testimony. There has been some confusion over the phrase “so-called brother” in 5:11 with some taking this to mean a person who is not really a brother (in Christ). However, the translation “so-called” is an unfortunate and inaccurate one. It is better translated “with anyone who bears the name brother.” Paul is not casting doubt on the offender’s salvation.8
In the last section Paul corrected a misunderstanding and showed that the Corinthians were to judge those inside the church and not those on the outside. He now shows that church members should not go outside the body and let outsiders judge the church members.9
The Corinthians pride and occupation with social status was evident by their disputes before the legal authorities. They were only concerned about themselves and who came out on top, and it was ruining their testimony before unbelievers (6:6).
Paul’s argument is that since they would some day even judge angels (6:3), they ought to be able to settle disputes among themselves. They were certainly not living according to their full potential.10
He then asks them, if they were to set up a court of their own, would they place an incompetent judge on the bench? The obvious answer is “no.” So why do they subject themselves to the judgment of those who are of no account in the church.11
Paul also points out that there were actually no winners in these suits because “they had incurred a far greater loss in their disobedience to the Word of God”12 as it was not God’s will that they defraud one another.
Paul had dealt with the problem of incest and their inability to judge the offender in 5:1-13. That led to a discussion of having unbelievers judge church members (6:1-8), but Paul returns to his topic of sexual immorality. Evidently some of the Corinthians were going to prostitutes and they were probably appealing their right to do so because of their liberty in Christ, but they had a false view of Christian freedom.13
Paul’s response is that their liberty is limited by whether or not it is profitable and whether or not it will enslave (vs. 12). And as is typical in Ancient Near Eastern literature, he deals with these things in reverse order—enslavement and then profitability.
Perhaps Paul is dealing with a couple of the common arguments the Corinthians were using to justify their immorality. The first one is related to the enslavement idea. The phrase “food is for the stomach and the stomach for food” in vs. 13 may mean they were giving the analogy that, just like one eats when he is hungry, so one also fulfills sexual desires. After all, both are natural physical desires. But Paul points out that the body is not to be used for immorality, but to serve God. Certainly, hunger and sexual desire are normal but you can abuse both and we are not to always give in to them. It is possible that Paul has in mind that one actually becomes enslaved to the power or enchantment of the prostitute as opposed to Christ.14
Paul then turns to the concept of profitability (6:14-20). He points out that our bodies no longer belong to us but to Christ. And we should not do anything to harm them. Paul explains that being joined to a prostitute is actually harmful to the body, and we have responsibility to take care of our bodies as they are the temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19).
It is evident from the way Paul introduces the next few sections of the letter that he is responding to questions that the Corinthians had asked him in a letter they had sent him previously.
It would be helpful if we had the exact questions that the Corinthians had asked Paul, but all we know is that some concerned celibacy and marriage. Paul deals with these first as they are related to the preceding section.
Evidently there were all types in the Corinthian church, and in contrast to the preceding group, some of the Corinthians had ascetic tendencies and thought that celibacy should be practiced by believers.15 Paul concedes that it is indeed good to be celibate (7:1,6), and he wished that all men could have that special gift, as he did (7:7), so they could devote fulltime service to God (7:34), but it was certainly not the norm and it was certainly not commanded (7:6,25). In addition, if one without the gift were to attempt to remain celibate, it might be more than they could maintain and it might lead to immorality (7:9).16
There is also a possibility that the participation in immorality by some married people had led them to abandon their marital duties to their spouses, or there could have been a unilateral decision by one spouse to practice abstinence, and Paul deals with that issue.17 Certainly, these actions were self-centered and not done with a view to ministering to the other spouse.
Paul also deals with the situation where a believer is married to an unbeliever. In the previous section and the next section, he does not give a command, but here he does and adds that it is not his, but it is the Lord’s command. God does not want the believer to leave their mate because God’s will is not divorce. Instead, they should live with them and try to win them over to Christ.
Paul adds that whatever circumstance you were in when you became a Christian, remain in them. Christianity is not designed to take us out of the world. It is to help us live in it. Paul may also have added this section, with his mention of circumcision, because he recognized the tendency of certain factions to exert “pressure to conform to old religious ways in order to gain prestige, a common failing of the Corinthians.”18 The tendency is to place too much emphasis on social status. That is unimportant in God’s eyes.
These topics relate back to the main argument of the book which is to point out that the Corinthians pridefully had their eyes on externals.
Paul continues his argument that the Corinthians placed too much emphasis on external practices by dealing with certain taboos some of the Corinthians had concerning food. He devotes much time to this issue and gives principles that should be our guide in all questionable things.
Some of the Corinthians thought that it was wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. They were certain that the pagan gods had somehow contaminated the meat and this would offend God. Others knew it didn’t matter as there was only one God. They may even have been proud of their knowledge and were flaunting their freedom. Paul’s point is that the one with Knowledge must practice Love and abstain. Because, just like one cannot reason logically to alleviate a child’s fear of the dark, in the same way some of these Christians were too immature to understand the logic of grace and Christian liberty.19
Paul then gives his own actions as an example to further his argument: His insistence on supporting himself by working while in Corinth demonstrated that although his apostleship gave him a position of social prominence, he did not exercise it (9:1-18). As already seen, social status was a major problem with the Corinthians. They needed to follow Paul’s example of humility. Paul also demonstrated the principle of love when he became a Jew to the Jews in order to win Jews; and a Gentile to the Gentiles in order that he might win Gentiles; and to the weak he became weak (9:19-22).
Paul concludes this section by warning them that, although it is permissible to eat the meat sacrificed to idols (unless it offends your brother), it is not permissible to partake in the religious feasts given in that deity’s honor (10:14-22). And he urges them to only partake in those things which edify and glorify God (10:23-33).
After dealing with the abuse of their liberty and forbidding the Corinthians to partake in pagan religious activities, Paul deals with three problems within the Corinthian church worship services. The Corinthians’ worship services also demonstrated their problem with pride and self-centeredness.
Perhaps this topic is necessary because some women were overstepping their freedom. Because of their new ontological equality in Christ (Gal 3:8) some women were forgetting their functionally subjective role to men. They evidently were prophesying or praying and not covering their head which was the normal practice of the church (11:16). Wayne House points out that Paul’s argument is this: “Even as Christ has a head, who is God, so the woman has a head, namely, man. She is to take that into account when she prophesies lest she dishonor man…and her own dignity.”20
Others were abusing the Lord’s Supper. Instead of the ordinance being a time of remembrance of Christ, worship to God and unity among the saints, the Corinthians were “pigging out” and getting drunk. Certainly the factions in the church contributed to the abuses because they were not even waiting until all were together to partake of the elements. Hence, Paul’s comment that “one is hungry and another is drunk” in vs. 21.
So Paul reminds them of the significance of the Lord’s Supper and the dire consequences of participating while out of fellowship (11:30), and he concludes by exhorting them to examine their lives for sin (11:28,31) and to partake of the Lord’s Supper as a unified body as it was designed (11:33).
The third area of concern was over their misuse and emphasis on certain spiritual gifts, specifically tongues. Tongues had become the prominent gift and those that were able to speak in tongues felt more spiritual than those that could not. Consequently Paul devotes a great deal of space to the topic of tongues at the end of the section.
Paul begins his argument with a confusing section (vss. 1-3) that seems unrelated to the rest of the discussion on spiritual gifts and tongues. Some see this as emphasizing a testing the spirit behind inspired utterances such as tongues. 21 Others see it as indicative of false teachers in their midst.22 But Gordon Fee relates it to the entire section as follows:
The presence of the Spirit in power and gifts makes it easy for God’s people to think of the power and gifts as the real evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Not so for Paul. The ultimate criterion of the Spirit’s activity is the exaltation of Jesus as Lord. Whatever takes away from that, even if they be legitimate expressions of the Spirit, begins to move away from Christ to a more pagan fascination with spiritual activity as an end in itself.23
This certainly fits with Paul’s argument against the Corinthians’ emphasis on external methods comparison.
Paul then shows through an analogy with the human body that all the spiritual gifts are important. The Corinthians preferred the “showy” gifts, which made the individual look spiritual. But Paul reminds them of the principle, which he has repeated often in the book, that God prefers the weak and humble and insignificant of the world, because they do not depend on their own ability, but on God’s power (cf. 1:26-29; 4:9-13; 12:23-24). Paul also shows that diversity is necessary for the proper function of the body (12:17).
Central to this section on spiritual gifts and tongues is Paul’s discussion of love. The Corinthians’ problem was self-love. They wanted to exalt themselves, and consequently, they emphasized the gifts which brought glory to themselves. But Paul points out that love does not seek its own (13:5).
In addition, Paul says “love never fails,” or perhaps more accurately, “love never ends” (13:8). This is in contrast to the spiritual gifts. Paul says they will cease. It is not clear whether Paul is saying all the gifts will cease when Christ comes (vs. 10),24 or whether Paul is saying some of the gifts are foundational gifts and will cease when the church’s foundation is laid.25 Although it is beyond the scope of this study to examine all the evidence, it is this author’s conviction that Paul is referring to the miraculous sign gifts which ceased as the church was founded and the canon completed.
But these gifts had not yet ceased so Paul gives instructions about the priority and proper exercise of these gifts and especially tongues.
Paul’s argument is that although speaking in tongues is good (vs. 5), it only edifies the speaker (vs. 4). So Paul would rather that they placed their emphasis on the gift of prophesy which edified all present, as it was spoken in the tongue of the listeners (vss. 3-4). By way of illustration, Paul gives the analogy of music and concludes that as music without melody is useless (vss. 7-8), so is tongues without interpretation. It seems that the Corinthians habitually spoke in tongues without the necessary interpretation.26
Paul also points out that tongues is a sign for the unbelieving Jew (vss. 21-22) and as their regular assembly consisted of believers, they should place their emphasis on prophecy which was directed toward believers. And if an unbeliever did visit, he would still benefit from the teaching (vs. 24).
It is indicative of the Corinthians’ spiritual condition that Paul could not just give them these principles and let them apply them, and thus he concludes this section by laying down some guidelines which are less dependent on the Corinthians’ judgment vss. 26-33). That these rules were designed to bring order to the worship services is evident from the statement that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
Paul returns to the discussion of the woman’s role in the worship service, and many see this as indicative that the women were being disruptive because it so closely follows his statement that God is not a God of confusion.27 However, it is possible that this command near the conclusion of the section follows Paul’s emphasis at the beginning on testing the spirit.28 Paul has just mentioned in verse 29 that others are to pass judgment on the one who prophesies, and it is not the woman’s role to pass judgment on men as it contradicts the functional headship of men over women.
Paul concludes his argument in this major section by saying that those who are spiritual should be able to follow these guidelines, and he gives two summary statements. One emphasizes prophecy over tongues because it edifies others, and the other emphasizes order in the worship service (vss. 39-40).
Paul now turns to a matter which was a crucial aspect of the gospel and foundational to their salvation.
Some of the Corinthians were denying that there would be a resurrection of the dead (15:12), but Paul points out that they had not seen the implications of that position because it led to denial of Christ’s own resurrection and thus their very salvation.29 He concludes that if this were true, and there was no life after death, then “we are of all men most to be pitied” (15:19), because the sacrifices made for Christ in this life would be for nothing.
Paul argues that Christ was raised and is actually the “first fruits” (vss. 20,23) of those who are asleep. Certainly, Christ was not the first to be raised from the dead. Elijah, Christ, Paul, etc. had raised people from the dead, but Christ was the first to be raised to a life that knows no death,30 and others would follow (vs. 23). Certainly Christ’s resurrection is the basis for our victory and our hope (vss. 51-58).
Paul concludes by dealing with several practical matters:
Paul writes concerning the collection of money for the church in Jerusalem. He gives a guideline for giving on a regular basis on the first day of the week (16:2).
Paul plans to visit them again and spend time ministering to them for an extended period.
He also deals with the Corinthians’ attitude towards Timothy and Apollos. With all the divisions in the church it was certainly not easy to minister to this congregation. It is specifically stated that Apollos did not want to return (16:12) at least until the exhortations in this letter had been received and applied. And one can assume that Timothy probably had similar concerns. Thus Paul exhorts the Corinthians to treat these men properly who are doing God’s work.
From this section we can conclude that the three men mentioned, Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus probably brought news of and the letter from Corinth.
Finally, Paul concludes by sending his greetings to the saints in Corinth.
The Corinthian church had many problems, and most of them were the result of pride and placing so much emphasis on social status. Their divisions, lack of church discipline, lawsuits, abuse of Christian liberty and over-emphasis of the gift of tongues, all illustrate this root problem. While Paul dealt with these problems separately, perhaps the pinnacle of Paul’s argument is in chapter 13 where he emphasizes the importance of love. Love of others is incompatible with pride and is to be the fundamental principle that guides all actions.
Fee, Gordon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987).
Guthrie, Donald, New Testament Introduction, Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1990).
House, H. Wayne, “Should a Woman Prophesy or Preach before Men?” Bibliothecra Sacra (April-June, 1988).
House, H. Wayne, “The Speaking of Women and the Prohibition of the Law,” Bibliothecra Sacra (July-September, 1988).
Hughes, Robert B., First Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985).
Lowery, David K., “1 Corinthians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983).
Morris, Leon, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985).
New American Standard Translation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978).
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Wise (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988).
Wilkin, Bob, “The So-Called So-Called Brother,” Grace Evangelical Society News Letter, Oct. 1991.
3 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 11. Gordon Fee sees this as the main purpose.
28 Although the section on public worship (12:1-14:40) may not be structured chiastically (that deserves futher study), it is certainly characteristic of Jewish literature for the writer to begin and end on similar or related topics. That may be the case here.