Troubles and questions from the congregation in Corinth led Paul to write 1 Corinthians. What does God intend us to learn from this ancient letter?
The apostle Paul wrote more books in the Bible than any other author. His first letter to the Corinthians gives us an amazing insight into a local congregation of the Church of God in the first century. Here was one of God’s greatest servants dealing with the contemporary issues of his day and giving us an up-close and personal look at how he handled these challenges.
Why did God preserve this book as part of the Bible? What can we learn today from this ancient letter?
Date of 1 Corinthians
The book of 1 Corinthians is an early letter from the apostle Paul. Paul was in Corinth and founded the congregation there on his second journey around A.D. 50. Acts 18:11 tells us that he remained in Corinth for 18 months, which is longer than any of the other recorded places he labored in God’s service except Ephesus.
According to most authorities, Paul wrote this letter to the congregation at Corinth from Ephesus around the mid-50s. “The spring of A.D. 54 or 55 is perhaps correct, although some would date it as late as A.D. 59” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 221).
Background of 1 Corinthians
The Corinth of Paul’s day, with nearly 200,000 inhabitants, was an even more prominent city than Athens. It was a great center of trading, embracing commerce from the entire Mediterranean, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the port of Alexandria. Prosperity abounded there, but it brought many of the problems that riches and wealth always seem to bring to cities, states and nations.
Adam Clarke described it this way: “Yet the inhabitants of it were as lascivious as they were learned” (Commentary on the Bible, “Preface to the First Epistle to the Corinthians”). William Barclay recorded the following in his Daily Study Bible series: “There was another side of Corinth. She had a reputation for commercial prosperity, but she was also a byword for evil living. The very word korinthiazesthai, to live like a Corinthian, had become a part of the Greek language, and meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery” (The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 2)
It was to this corrupt and immoral society that God sent the apostle Paul to do a great work. In this moral abyss God called so many people to His marvelous truth that Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months, and at least one fairly large congregation was started. As the months went by, more and more were added to the congregation as Paul taught these new converts to obey, serve and honor God.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians
After Paul left Corinth, he traveled to Ephesus. He left the Corinthian congregation in the control of local leaders, as his custom was (see Acts 14:23). During the ensuing years, problems began to develop and questions arose in the congregation at Corinth, and the leaders and members would write to Paul for his advice about these issues. It appears several of these questions are recorded in 1 Corinthians, such as:
- 1 Corinthians 7:1: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
- 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.”
- 1 Corinthians 12:1: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant.”
- 1 Corinthians 16:1: “Now concerning the collection for the saints. …”
All of these questions and other issues were addressed by Paul in this letter. What a marvelous insight we are given on how to handle difficult questions and issues that may arise within a congregation, as well as important information about how to think and act in a godly way.
Chapter outline of 1 Corinthians
Chapter 1 deals with the need for the Church to be unified in its beliefs and to look ultimately to Christ for unity and not to men.
Chapter 2 follows the theme of the first chapter and encourages the members to seek the wisdom that comes from God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Chapter 3 is a primer on the need to not be enticed and overly influenced by personalities and to realize that it is God who should get the credit for the spiritual work that is done. Too often throughout history, charismatic and dynamic personalities have held more sway in forming people’s beliefs than the Word of God itself.
We are warned in many places in the Bible to make sure that what a person is saying can actually be proven in the Scriptures. For example, Isaiah 8:20 says, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
We need to be sure that those we are listening to are speaking the truth that is written in the Bible. If not, then all the passion and charisma in the world isn’t worth anything. Paul himself said that we should follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Chapter 4 is an appeal by Paul to follow the things that he had taught them when he was with them because they were the truth. He asks them to remember his concern for them and that he has their best interest always at heart.
Chapter 5 gives some details about how the congregation had grown lax in dealing with sin. Like many religious people today, they apparently felt that being a Christian meant that they were supposed to be tolerant of sin rather than addressing it in a godly way. Paul cites the specific example of a man who had an immoral relationship with his stepmother.
The congregation should have dealt with this situation. Instead they ignored it because in a convoluted way it made them feel spiritually proud. But the only way to deal with sin is to repent and put it out of our lives (Acts 17:30).
Chapter 6 instructs the members to resolve their differences in a godly manner and not through the courts of the land. It also deals with the need to remain spiritually pure, regardless of how corrupt and vulgar the culture may be. We are told in verse 18 to flee sexual immorality. The Bible makes it clear that any sexual conduct outside the marriage of a man to a woman is a sin.
Chapter 7 contains answers to questions about marriage, separation and divorce among believers. It also contains Paul’s advice in verses 25-40 about marrying at a time when there was great persecution against the Church. He wrote that, because of the present distress, all who were single should consider whether getting married at a time like that was a wise thing to do. He made it clear in verse 28 that even if they did marry, it would not be a sin.
Chapter 8 is an answer to a question they asked about eating meats that had been offered to idols. Some members thought it would be wrong to eat meat that had been part of these widespread pagan rituals, while other members did not see it as a problem. Paul advised them to not cause offense to others who looked at it differently.
Chapter 9, in the context of their question, includes a discussion of tithing. Paul shows that the ministry, according to the law of God, should be supported from the tithes of the people. However, Paul himself chose not to be supported by the members in Corinth, even though it was his prerogative, according to God’s law, to partake of the tithes. He chose not to because of the attitudes of some of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:7-12; 12:11-13), though he was supported by other congregations.
Chapter 10 explains, just because God has revealed His truth to us, that doesn’t guarantee that He will continue to accept us if we turn away from Him. Paul cited the example of the ancient Israelites and how God was not pleased with their conduct. He then concluded his answer to the question of meat offered to idols.
Chapter 11 deals with head coverings and hair length. (This is explained in our article “Must Women Wear Hats or Head Coverings at Church?”)
Our real value in the eyes of God is to be found in our character, and the most important trait of character is love—an outgoing concern for others.Paul also gives specific instructions about how the Passover should be kept in the New Testament. We are to follow the example Jesus set on the last Passover He kept with His disciples. We are now to take unleavened bread and wine, which represent His body and blood. Even though Jesus changed the symbols, it is abundantly clear that the Passover and the other festivals were still to be observed, albeit with these different symbols.
Chapter 12 deals with spiritual gifts and also describes the Church using an analogy to the physical body. The point is that every member, just like every part of the body, is necessary and serves a purpose.
Chapter 13 is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible. This Love Chapter is read at many wedding ceremonies. It extols the superiority of character to all other things. How we live our lives is far more important than what we have and how important we may be. Our real value in the eyes of God is to be found in our character, and the most important trait of character is love—an outgoing concern for others.
Chapter 14 discusses in detail the issue of spiritual gifts and focuses primarily on the gift of tongues. Paul was concerned that the Corinthians were getting carried away with spiritual gifts, using them to inflate their personal pride. He cautions them to realize that God gives spiritual gifts to do His work, not to promote pride and superiority among the recipients of these gifts. (See our article “What Is Speaking in Tongues?” for more explanation of this often-misunderstood spiritual gift.)
Chapter 15 may be one of the most inspiring chapters in the Bible. The subject is the resurrection, which is the ultimate potential of every human being. In verse 22, God promises that every person will live again. The marvelous truth of the Scriptures is that God wants all human beings to receive everlasting life. (See “Resurrections: What Are They?” for an overview of this important subject.)
Paul concludes the chapter with these stirring and encouraging words: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (verse 58).
Chapter 16 concludes this letter with instructions about a collection being made for the suffering saints in Jerusalem and a final appeal to treat each other with love and to strive for unity.
“Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).
Paul’s instructions to the congregation at Corinth, given under inspiration from God, elaborate on many of the characteristics that true Christians should have. We can use this letter and others in the New Testament to help us identify where God’s truth is.
We all have the responsibility to not just accept what we have always heard and to be careful about being swayed by engaging personalities who presume to speak for God. Look at Paul’s words carefully, think about what they mean and ask God to guide you to the truth—and eventually to everlasting life in the Kingdom of God.
Read more about Paul and his letters in the section “Epistles of Paul.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.