Overview of the Book of 1 Corinthians

Question
Overview of the Book of 1 Corinthians
Answer

Overview of the Book of 1 Corinthians

Author: The author is the Apostle Paul.

Purpose:

To counter defiance, divisions and lack of love that had arisen out of pride and self-importance in the Corinthian Church.

Date: c. A.D. 55

Key Truths:

  • The Church must be unified not divided.
  • Christians must look to God for their model of wisdom, not to the world.
  • Proper Church courts and discipline ensure the peace and purity of the Church.
  • Christian liberty must be exercised in ways that protect those who are weak in faith.
  • Worship and the exercise of spiritual gifts must respect and honor God and fellow believers.
  • The reality of the future bodily resurrection of believers is integral to the Gospel.

Author:

This letter claims Paul as its author, and the Pauline authorship of the Corinthian correspondence has not been seriously questioned. Even radical scholars acknowledge that the epistle is fundamental to our understanding of Paul's ministry and message.

Time and Place of Writing:

Paul wrote from Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8), almost certainly during his third missionary journey (c. A.D. 53-57). Since Paul stayed in Ephesus for well over two years (Acts 19:8, 10), we may date the writing of 1 Corinthians about the year A.D. 55.

Original Audience:

Although the book of Acts says nothing about this correspondence, Acts 18:1-11 gives us some important information about the founding of the Church in Corinth during Paul's second missionary journey (c. A.D. 50-52). First, Paul arrived in Corinth after his visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34), an experience that had reminded him of the foolishness of worldly wisdom. Second Corinthians 2:1-5 suggests that this incident with the Athenian philosophers made Paul more determined than ever to preach the simple message of the cross, however offensive it might be to some. Second, with the support of the influential Christian couple Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19), Paul preached in the synagogue in Corinth until Jewish opposition forced him to focus his ministry on Gentiles. Third, the Christian congregation in Corinth, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, flourished dramatically (Acts 18:8-10). Finally, Paul's ministry in Corinth lasted more than 18 months (Acts 18:11,18). Paul had reason to expect a degree of spiritual maturity from the Corinthian Christians.

This letter reveals that after Paul left Corinth, the Church developed a remarkable number of serious problems. Bickering and division, misunderstanding of the sacraments, disorder during the worship services, theological heresy and the extremes of moral laxity and unhealthy asceticism plagued the congregation. What had happened? Corinth was not only one of the largest cities in the Roman world, but also one of the most corrupt. A strategic commercial center, the city sought to provide international pleasures. It was a setting that polarized the Christians - some insisting that association with sinners was permissible and necessary, others arguing that some measure of isolation was essential to preserve holiness. These opposing tendencies spun out of control in Corinth and endangered the future of the congregation.

Purpose and Distinctives:

We may infer from 1 Corinthians 5:9 that Paul had sent the church an earlier letter (which is no longer extant), exhorting them to separate from immoral Christians. This letter must have also contained a request for an offering, not tithe (1 Cor. 16:1-4), and probably other instructions related to problems within the congregation. The troubles did not subside. Eventually, the apostle received reports that the Church in Corinth was being torn apart by internal divisions, particularly as a result of some in the congregation viewing themselves as more spiritual and knowledgeable than their fellow believers (1 Cor. 1:11-12; 3:1-4; 8:1-3). Pride also led to criticisms hurled at Paul (1 Cor. 4:1-4), gross immorality by some Church members (1 Cor. 5:1) and lawsuits among Christians (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Moreover, the Church itself had written a letter to Paul requesting instruction about such matters as marriage and divorce, meat offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the method Paul was using for his collection (1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). The Corinthians also asked for a visit from Apollos (1 Cor. 16:12). Paul was confronted with a massive task, and he wrote to deal with the problem.

The letter's contents were determined by the specific issues that had surfaced in Corinth. Many interpreters have suggested that the letter is loosely divided into two parts: (1) the matters that had been reported to Paul (1 Cor. 1-6) and (2) the problems the Corinthians had raised in their letter (1 Cor. 7-16). The Greek phrase peri de, generally translated "now about," appears to introduce Paul's responses to their specific questions (1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). Although such a division may not accurately reflect every section of the epistle, it does provide a valuable overview. One should note, however, that behind the great diversity of issues treated in this document lie some deep and recurring problems. Challenges to Paul's authority and a lack of love revealed that the Corinthian believers had become full of pride, thinking themselves more spiritual and insightful than other Christians. In the course of dealing with these issues, the apostle Paul set forth his teaching on a number of specific doctrines that he believed the Corinthians needed to hear.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.