Date: c. A.D. 56
Paul traveled to Corinth on his second missionary journey and spent some time there establishing the church. It was a difficult task, not only because of the opposition that he met, but because of the city itself. Corinth was notorious even in ancient times for being a city of great evil. As a seaport, it attracted all kinds of people who would work their evil, depart without being held accountable, and leave behind misery and distress. When people in that setting became Christians, they were transformed into new creations in Christ. But regrettably, some brought along many of their old habits.
Theological Themes in the Epistle of I Corinthians
It is important to remember that when we believe, we are not usually transformed instantly into something totally other than what we were before. We are new creations, but we need to “grow in grace” with the power that God gives us. It is the power of God that makes the difference, and it is there if we will avail ourselves of it. Some of the Corinthian Christians did, but many did not.
A large portion of this epistle is devoted to Paul’s responding to questions put to him by representatives from Corinth. They cover a spectrum of theological and practical problems. First, Paul dealt with the relationship of faith to life, showing that faith is the essence of Christian existence. It might seem foolish to some, but it is in fact the only way to live a life that is pleasing to God. Paul continued by discussing how we are then to work this out and what rewards we will receive. In a metaphorical description of judgment (3:10-15), Paul showed that some of our acts will not survive the test. But some will, and, like precious stones, will shine forever.
A very important passage about living non-judgmentally opens Chapter 4. We are not to pass judgment on each other; only God can do that. Paul then took up a series of problems–lawsuits, personal grievances, immorality, issues related to marriage, eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, human freedom to act as we please; then he went on to discuss the Lord’s supper, spiritual gifts, and the doctrine of the resurrection.
Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts is especially important. Three chapters outline how our gifts are to be exercised (Chapters 12-14). Here is a partial list of the gifts that the Spirit distributes among believers and the constructive use of them. Paul stressed the motive that should underlie the use of anything God gives us: love (Chapter 13). If we possessed all the brilliance or strength in the world and did not live lovingly, we would be nothing at all.
The discussion on the resurrection (Chapter 15) is equally important. It is not just today that people are inclined to doubt the truth of what Christians say about Jesus’ coming back from the dead. It was also true in Paul’s day. He found it necessary to defend the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection. It is the foundation of the Christian faith that Jesus died and rose again. Based on that, we have eternal hope.
Paul concluded his letter with a series of greetings and an exhortation to make a contribution to the church in Jerusalem. That might sound like a small matter, but in fact it was very important to Paul. He wanted the early Christians to recognize their dependence on one another. The gospel had come from Jerusalem and had been a spiritual benefit to the Corinthians. They, in turn, were to accept some responsibility for those who were suffering there. In that way both groups would recognize the oneness they had in Christ. If more of this spirit were evident today, we would have far fewer problems.
Outline for the Epistle of I Corinthians
- The glorious gospel of Christ I Corinthians 1:1-3:23
- The apostles’ lives I Corinthians 4:1-21
- Personal problems discussed I Corinthians 5:1-6:20
- Problems in marriage discussed I Corinthians 7:1-40
- Problems in Christian life discussed I Corinthians 7:1-40
- Spiritual gifts discussed I Corinthians 12:1-14:40
- The resurrection of Christ I Corinthians 15:1-58
- Closing greetings I Corinthians 16:1-24