Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
Chapter 5 Verse 9 of this Epistle tells us that Paul had written a previous letter: ‘In my letter, I wrote to you…….’ But, sadly, it is lost. Corinth is from where Paul had written his letter to the Romans. It was a ‘den of iniquity’ a most appalling place. It must have taken immense courage for Paul to even think of preaching there. But Paul’s faith was so strong that he was prepared for any challenge. Cornith had a host of temples including one to the idol Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To help them worship her, prostitution was fostered in the name of religion. In Corinth immorality was rife to the point where the Greek verb ‘to Corinthianise’ came to mean ‘to practise sexual immorality’.
But there were also advantages in commencing a Christian church in Corinth. The city was built on an isthmus and had two harbours, one leading to the west the other to the east. To save ships having to sail around Achea, in the unpredictable waters of the Mediterranean, a road had been built between the two harbours. Smaller ships were hauled from one harbour to the other, larger loads were transported between the ships. When Emperor Nero visited Corinth in 67A.D. He initiated a scheme to cut a canal through the isthmus but the project was not completed. From Paul’s point of view all this activity not only meant that there were many souls needing conversion, but also it was a centre from which, through the comings and goings at the two harbours, the faith would spread throughout the then known world.
It is assumed that this letter was written towards the end of Paul’s three-year time in Ephesus about 54A.D. He had received disturbing information about the church in Corinth. Some of the problems were: 1 Divisions in the Church, 2 A case of incest, 3 Court-cases between Christians, 4 Chaos, even in celebrating the Lord's Supper, 5 Decisions referring to marriage, 6 Problems over food consecrated to idols. Paul’s reply to these questions gives us a fascinating glimpse of what actually went on in the early churches, and it is none too savoury!
Greetings and Thanksgiving.
1. As with his letter to the Romans Paul commences with a ’Dear Sir/Madam’ convention of the day followed by a ‘thanksgiving’, encouraging the church in Corinth by thanking God for the Graces which have been given to them. (Of all his letters to the churches, only the one to the Galatians lacks this note of praise.) 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Nature of the Division.
2. As there were no churches or places large enough for them to meet together small groups of Christians used to meet in each other’s houses. This had led to divisions - rival leaders “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, “I belong to Cephas (Peter)”, “I belong to Christ. etc. - pride – and feelings of exclusive rights. (The mention of Peter does not necessarily mean that he ever went to Corinth. As leader of the twelve apostles it would be natural for him to have a following, especially among the Jewish Christians.) Paul, aware that the blame for the problems cannot be laid on him, mentions that has he has only baptised two of their number, Crispus and Gaius. (Then he recalls another named, Stephanas, and mentions him. That would be typical of what would happen when dictating to a scribe.) 1 Corinthians 1:10-16.
Salvation Not by Wisdom of Words.
3. Because Corinth was near Athens with its intellectual thinkers the Christians fancied themselves as thinkers and took pride in their supposed intellectual superiority. But their argumentative attitude clearly showed that they are still bound by the world’s way of thinking. Paul tells them that human cleverness is a far cry from God’s wisdom. ‘If anyone wants to boast, let him boast in the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 9:23-24.)
1 Corinthians 1:17-31.
Paul’s Method of Preaching.
4. It was not to attempt to do so with eloquence but to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. He admits to having come in fear and trembling. (This agrees with Corinth’s description as a den-of-iniquity. Paul had great courage to have chosen to preach there.) Words invoke in the listener a surely human response. This Paul will not accept. His word demands the action on a different plane, that of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16.
The Place of the Christian Preacher.
5. Despite Paul’s previous preaching Corinth’s Christians had not become spiritual but were still worldly. They had rival cliques “I follow Paul,” I follow Apollos.” In doing so they were following human standards. Paul explains that he had preached where no-one had preached before. Apollos (a learned Jew with a good knowledge of scripture. See Acts 18:24) was carrying on the work which Paul had commenced. So Paul and Apollos are carrying out the same work; they are God’s fellow-workers. Finally Paul turns their cliques against them. “You don’t belong to Paul, Apollos and Cephas; they belong to you and you belong to Christ.”
1 Corinthians 3:1-23.
Ministers of the Gospel Judged by Christ.
6. There should be no place for pride among Christians and no looking down on others. Paul compares himself and the other disciples with the way they contrast the Corinthians who, in contrast to the Christians, live like kings. He teaches that the greatest Christians regard themselves as no more than God’s slaves. That is the example to follow. 1 Corinthians 4:1-21.
Incest in the Church.
7. A Corinthian Christian is living with his stepmother (both Roman and Jewish law forbade marriage between a man and his stepmother. Leviticus 18:8). But it seems to have been condoned. They must rid themselves of this man, ‘hand such a man over to Satan so that on the Day of the Lord his spirit might be saved.’ 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.
People Living Immoral Lives.
8. They should have nothing to do with people living immoral lives. The church is to exercise spiritual discipline over the professing believers in the church. But it is not to attempt to judge the unsaved world. The ultimate judgement of the world is to be left to God. 1 Corinthians 5:6-13.
Lawsuits Between Christians.
9. They should not take each other to court. Jews did not take cases before gentile courts – not because the courts were corrupt (although that was often the case, and bribery was rife), but because it would be an admission of Jewish inability to operate their own laws. Surely the Christian community should be capable of settling internal disputes. Better to be wronged than drag another to court. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.
The Evil of Immorality.
10. The Corinthians claim that they are free to do anything. Sexual needs, they argue, are like hunger: they must be satisfied. (These ideas came grom the appalling immorality in which they were living.) The body is not important anyway. But this is wrong thinking, a Christian body cannot be separated off from the whole personality. You cannot sin with the body and keep the ‘real’ person untarnished: every individual is a unity. Christians have been joined to Christ’s body: they must honour God in the way they use their own bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.
Advice to the Married.
Answers to Various Questions. Marriage and Virginity (Some of the questions are so basic that the Christians must have become totally confused living in the midst of immorality.)
11. Can married couples continue normal sexual relations after conversion? “Yes.” 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.
Advice to the Unmarried.
12. Should single people marry? Paul prefers the single life – but only for those with the gift of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.
13. Is divorce between Christians permissible? “No”. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.
14. What if your husband or wife is not a Christian? Stay with your pagan partner, unless your partner wants a separation. 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.
15. Is Circumcision necessary for new converts. “No”. 1 Corinthians 7:17-19.
16. Advice to convert Slaves. Stay in the state you were in when you were called. Even if you have your chance of freedom you should prefer to make full use of your condition as a slave. 1 Corinthians 7:20-24.
About Remaining a Virgin.
17. People should stay as they are. If you are married, stay married. If you are single do not look for a wife but getting married is not a sin. But getting married will bring hardships due to human nature. Paul’s personal choice is to stay single. Paul compares the unmarried, who are totally free to give their time to God, to the married who must share their time between their spouse and God. 1 Corinthians 7:25-28.
Advice for Those Engaged to be Married.
18. Due to the level of immorality in Corinth anyone getting married could meet with hostility. Some may have a spiritual marriage (where their love for each other is directed to God) in which case they don’t need to marry. But where anyone cannot control their desires they should marry. 1 Corinthians 7:29‑38.
May Widows Remarry?
19. “Yes, but they must marry a Christian.” Paul adds a rider that he thinks the widow would be happier unmarried as he is. 1 Corinthians 7:39‑40.
Food Sacrificed to Idols.
20. This was a matter of conscience. Some Christians worried because most of the meat on sale would have first been offered in sacrifice. Other Christians said that as the gods didn’t exist it didn’t matter. Paul suggests that there must be sympathy for everyone’s conscience. But the important thing was not to eat at a table in a pagan temple. (That would only affect the social elite, the poor were unlikely to get invited to such feasts.) 1 Corinthians 8:1‑13.
His Claim of Rights.
21. To emphasise the advice he has given Paul explains how he has chosen to give up some of his rights out of consideration for others. Christians should be prepared to curtail their freedom if there is any risk it will damage others or lead them astray. (The mention of ‘runners’ and ‘stadium’ refer to the Corinthian Isthmian Games second only to the Olympics). Paul compares the athletes striving to win to his need to keep striving to measure up to his calling. 1 Corinthians 9:1-27.
Warning from Old Testament.
22. A warning and lesson from Israel’s history. It is easy to be over-confident, especially when life is smooth. The fate of many of the people of Israel during the wilderness wanderings stands as a solemn warning. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.
23. No compromise with idolatry. Christians must choose between the Lord and idols (empty in themselves but, behind them, real demonic powers). There can be no compromise. It is playing with fire to have any part in pagan sacrifices. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22.
Food Sacrificed to Idols.
24. Practical solution. It is acceptable to eat anything which is in the butchers’ shops. If anyone tells you that some meat has been sacrificed to idols do not eat it out of respect for the conscience of the one who has told you even if your conscience is not troubled. The rule is: unselfish concern for the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.
Women’s Behaviour at Services.
25. Women had started to pray bareheaded. Since Jewish customs differed from those of the Greeks Paul needs to give a ruling. But his ruling is open to several interpretations. What he might be trying to portray is that, as they live in a most licentious city, it is more necessary for the women to show modesty and covering their heads is a way towards that modesty. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.
The Lord’s Supper.
26. Disorder in Church. In the early days the Lord’s Supper took place in the course of a communal meal (as it had at the Last Supper). It was a ‘bring-and-share’ with everyone bringing what food they could. But in Corinth the loving, sharing principle had broken down. Some begin to eat before others have arrived. And some get drunk while others go hungry. It is a disgrace – a serious offence. Paul has to remind them of the circumstances in which the first Lord’s Supper took place.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
The Spiritual Gifts
27. The gifts. Paul compares the incoherence and disorderly conduct of pagan cults to the orderly use of ‘the gifts.’ Paul details the various gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing spirits, tongues, but the same Spirit distributing them all. 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.
The Analogy of the Body.
28. Christian unity does not imply uniformity. The gifts come from a single source, and are given for the good of the whole church. Every individual has an indispensable part to play in the life of the Church just as every part of the body has a part to play in the life of the body.
1 Corinthians 12:12-30.
Hymn of Love.
29. The order of importance in spiritual gifts. (For me this chapter is the most beautiful in the whole Bible. Paul was inspired to the highest level when he wrote these most beautiful words. Therefore I am not going to attempt to write a commentary or synopsis. Herewith the whole of the first two paragraphs of chapter thirteen taken from The New Jerusalem Bible.)
‘Though I command languages both human and angelic – if I speak without love, I am no more that a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains – if I am without love, I am nothing. Though I
should give away to the poor all that I possess, and even give up my body to be burned – if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes.
As it is these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them: and the greatest of them is love.
( ….’body to be burned’ is probably a reference to martyrdom. Even if one is martyred but does not have love, then the martyrdom would have no value.) 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
Superiority of Prophecy.
30. The respective importance of the gifts of Tongues and Prophecy. Paul suggests that the gift of prophecy is more useful to the Christian community than the gift of tongues unless there is someone who can interpret. 1 Corinthians 14:1-33.
Advice to Women.
31. Women should remain quiet in assemblies. (It seems that they had been not just chattering but shouting out questions and comments.) The chapter concludes with a command ‘be eager to prophesy.’ But in a proper and orderly manner. (Some chaos must have entered into their services.) 1 Corinthians 14:34-40.
32. Most of the Greeks believed in a soul that was immortal. The very idea of the resurrection of the body seemed ridiculous to them. (See Acts 17:32.) Paul states the evidence of Christ’s resurrection. On it the Christian faith stands or falls. Paul then states that most of those who saw the risen Christ are still alive (twenty five years after the event).
1 Corinthians 15:1-34.
The Manner of the Resurrection.
33. The body which is raised will be better than the body which is buried. The old was physical, the new will be ‘spiritual’ and immortal. It will as far outshine the old body as a full-grown plant outshines the shrivelled seed from which it grows. (This equates with the body of Jesus after the resurrection. He was not immediately recognised.) At the end, when Jesus comes to rule, death itself will be defeated. 1 Corinthians 15:35-53.
A Hymn of Triumph.
34. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (Isaiah 25:8). ‘Death, where is your victory?’ ‘Death, where is your sting?’ (Hosea 13:14). ‘The sting of death is sin.’ ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord………… your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ 1 Corinthians 15:54-58.
35. Paul asks the Corinthians to make a weekly collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Paul will take this collection to Jerusalem after his next visit to Corinth though they may prefer to send someone of their own, along with Paul, to present their gift. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.
36. Paul details his future travels. He tells the Corinthians ‘…I am hoping to spend quite a time with you…………’ He then makes introductions for Timothy and names others, with a request that they should be appreciated. Finally he conveys greetings to Corinth from the churches in Asia and sends his own love. 1 Corinthians 16:5-24.