What relevance does this first-century writing have for us today?
you read throug
h the New Testament, perhaps you get the distinct impression that you are reading mail intended for someone else. How does this letter from so long ago even relate to your current experience? Here is some good news: The material covered in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians invokes images and ideas that are very familiar. In fact, these letters deal specifically with issues many people face today: subjects such as division, authority, authentic Christian living, and even controversies over sexual relationships, lawsuits, and worship.
In response to these subjects, Paul’s answer is straightforward: when faced with controversy and division, life must be lived in a cross-shaped and selfless manner. Jesus is the model for how we are to live in a broken world. His model is revealed not by spectacular accomplishments or pride-fueled attempts to get ahead; rather, the model Paul provides in 1 Corinthians takes the values of the world and turns them upside down. As he responds to a number of concerns throughout this letter, Paul reminds his readers
that Jesus’s humble life, sacrificial death, and physical resurrection reveal the unique way Christians should live and the means by which they may accomplish such a life. If you wonder whether the Bible offers answers to real-life issues, and whether God has provided a means to live an aut
hentically humble life of service, then 1 Corinthians is a great starting point.
With this in mind, consider making this your prayer as you read and study this chapter:
God, you keep your promises, and you make yourself known. Through your Son, Jesus, you reveal your goodness, grace, and mercy. Thank you for salvation through his life, death, and resurrection, and for his example of faithful love towards others. Thank you for your servant Paul, and for these words you provided through him to help us grow in your mercy and grace. Open the eyes of my heart to understand the truth of your Word, and empower me to live a life of courageous faith, obedience, and humble service to others. May my life reveal more of Jesus to others, until all know him. Amen.
Both 1 and 2 Corinthians are universally acknowledged to have been written by the apostle
Paul. The early church recognized both epistles as authentic, and this consensus has not been seriously challenged. Paul addresses his first epistle to “the church of God at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called as saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:2). Both epistles were written in the mid-50s of the first century during Paul’s
third missionary journey. The first epistle appears to have been written during Paul’s lengthy stay in the city of Ephesus around AD 54–55 (1 Cor 16:8), while the second epistle was likely written by Paul around AD 55–56 from Macedonia after he was forced to abruptly depart Ephesus.
The Corinthians had a long history with Paul. To help us understand this history and these people, we must consider three subjects: (1) the history of Corinth, (2) the people of Corinth, and (3) Paul’s interactions with
Corinth was a city of commerce, diversity, and division. Ideally located on a narrow strip of land connecting the southern peninsula (known today as the Peloponnese) and the mainland of Greece, Corinth controlled the land route between the east and the west. It received goods in two harbors,
Lechaeum (on the Adriatic Sea) and
Cenchrea (on the Aegean Sea). As a result, Corinth was well known as a destination for ships full of cargo and passengers.
Second Missionary Journey of Paul
An important commercial center to both the region and the greater
Roman world (at one time Corinth was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire), Corinth was known as a destination city. The economy in Corinth was one selling point, but it was also known for its religious and ethnic diversity. As a prosperous hub for commerce and shipping, Corinth had a reputation for pleasure and vice, especially in the area of sexuality. “To
Corinthianize” was a term coined by
Aristophanes to refer to the practice of
immorality, and the term “Corinthian girl” was slang for “prostitute.” A report even circulated that the temple of
Aphrodite in Corinth
housed around 1,000 prostitutes for use in worship. While vice was one side of Corinth’s reputation, the other part was religious. Corinth was home to many temples dedicated to a variety of Greek and Roman gods, and a significant Jewish population was also known to exist there. The confusing array of religions and “authorities” played a role in making Corinth a pluralistic melting pot of cultures, philosophies, and lifestyles. These various
religions also contributed to division in the city.
Ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite
In a city of such diversity, the people regularly competed with each other for public
recognition and honor,
that often led to disagreement and conflict. With regard to the religious element of Corinthian society, the people would often seek recognition and
honor for being connected to someone (divine or human) of great esteem. Much like some religious groups today, the connection to a particular divinity or temple became bragging points for why one group’s religion was somehow better or more honorable than others. The people who first occupied Corinth after it was reestablished by the Romans did not come from elite backgrounds, so many of them were naturally hungry for recognition that derived from certain social, economic, or even religious connections. The idea of “honor” attached to a person’s civil and religious connections became an area for boasting and competition in the city. To add to this spirit of competition, the city of Corinth was known for the
(which took place every two years and provided huge economic and social rewards for the winners). Large crowds from around the Roman Empire would flock to Corinth for the games in order to compete or participate in the commerce generated by the games. The presence of these games was an honor for Corinth and became one more reason for this pluralistic city to boast.
Into this situation came
Paul the missionary. He made his first contact with Corinth during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1–11). After a brief stay in Athens, Paul traveled to
Corinth where he spent eighteen months before returning to Antioch to prepare for his third missionary
journey. During his time in Corinth, Paul met
Priscilla (tentmakers like Paul) and worked with a number of believers in the city to bring the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. Luke records that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and tried to persuade both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). This attempt to proclaim Jesus in such a divisive and debauched city often led to significant resistance. In fact, after many of the local Jews resisted Paul’s message, the Lord saw it necessary to encourage Paul in a vision to remain vigilant and to keep proclaiming the good news of Jesus (Acts 18:9–10).
While Paul experienced many hardships for faithfully proclaiming the gospel, the Lord was certainly active in establishing his church in the city. As Luke wrote, “Many of the Corinthians, when they heard, believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). Those who came to believe during Paul’s stay in the city (some Jews and some Gentiles) established a Christian community to which Paul would address two of the letters contained in the New Testament. This group included people who came from a Jewish background and were thus familiar with synagogue worship as well as many others who were associated with the various pagan religions that were prominent in Corinth at the time. The diverse backgrounds of the members of the church in Corinth often made it difficult for the church to achieve unity and avoid competition and division.
Themes and Key Passages
While division is one clear theme, Paul also addresses the topics of sexual immorality, lawsuits, proper worship practices, marriage, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. Division arose over several of these topics, division that was often the result of either confusion or pride. In his response to these concerns, Paul emphasizes the need for unity by recognizing that true honor in God’s economy comes not from amazing accomplishments but by learning to be humble and serve others selflessly. The selfish life that emphasizes personal success is contrasted with a life focused on Jesus and his sacrificial love. For Paul, a life of loving, humble service is the only proper way to receive true and meaningful honor—the honor that comes from God. To elevate the needs and interests of others above oneself and
lay down one’s life in service to others is to live a life of true honor. In short, the imitation of Christ is the highest calling to which one could aspire. The following passages give evidence to this reality.
1 Cor 2:1–2: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus C...