Date of Writing: The Book of 1 Corinthians was written in approximately A. D. 55.
Purpose of Writing: The apostle Paul founded the church in Corinth. A few years after leaving the church, the apostle Paul heard some disturbing reports about the Corinthian church. They were full of pride and were excusing sexual immorality. Spiritual gifts were being used improperly, and there was rampant misunderstanding of key Christian doctrines. The apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in an attempt to restore the Corinthian church to its foundation—Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:3: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”
1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 12:7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
Brief Summary: The Corinthian church was plagued by divisions. The believers in Corinth were dividing into groups loyal to certain spiritual leaders (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:1-6). Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to be united because of devotion to Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). Many in the church were essentially approving of an immoral relationship (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Paul commanded them to expel the wicked man from the church (1 Corinthians 5:13). The Corinthian believers were taking each other to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-2). Paul taught the Corinthians that it would be better to be taken advantage of than to damage their Christian testimony (1 Corinthians 6:3-8).
Paul gave the Corinthian church instructions on marriage and celibacy (chapter 7), food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8 and 10), Christian freedom (chapter 9), the veiling of women (1 Corinthians 11:1-16), the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14), and the resurrection (chapter 15). Paul organized the book of 1 Corinthians by answering questions the Corinthian believers had asked him and by responding to improper conduct and erroneous beliefs they had accepted.
Connections: In chapter 10 of the Book of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness to illustrate to the Corinthian believers the folly of the misuse of freedom and the danger of overconfidence. Paul has just warned the Corinthians about their lack of self-discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). He goes on to describe the Israelites who, despite seeing God’s miracles and care for them—the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous provision of manna from heaven and water from a rock—they misused their freedom, rebelled against God, and fell into immorality and idolatry. Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to note the example of the Israelites and avoid lusts and sexual immorality (vv. 6-8) and putting Christ to the test and complaining (vv. 9-10). See Numbers 11:4, 34, 25:1-9; Exodus 16:2, 17:2, 7.
Practical Application: Many of the problems and questions the Corinthian church was dealing with are still present in the church today. Churches today still struggle with divisions, with immorality, and with the use of spiritual gifts. The Book of 1 Corinthians very well could have been written to the church today and we would do well to heed Paul’s warnings and apply them to ourselves. Despite all the rebukes and corrections, 1 Corinthians brings our focus back to where it should be—on Christ. Genuine Christian love is the answer to many problems (chapter 13). A proper understanding of the resurrection of Christ, as revealed in chapter 15, and thereby a proper understanding of our own resurrection, is the cure for what divides and defeats us.
Corinth was significant in the ancient Roman world because of its geography, its wealth, and its regional influence. In the Bible, Corinth is significant because of its connection with the apostle Paul’s missionary work. Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia and was situated on the Isthmus of Corinth, and about 40 miles west of Athens in Greece. It was a large city that controlled two harbors: Cenchreae on the eastern side of the isthmus, and Lechaeumon on the western side. Providing a natural refuge for the city was the Acrocorinthus, a large monolithic rock rising about 1,800 feet above the surrounding plain. Corinth had a large population of both Jewish and Gentile residents.
Paul spent about eighteen months in Corinth during his second missionary journey (Acts 18). Both Jews and Gentiles believed Paul’s message about Jesus, and these new believers became the Corinthian church. The New Testament epistles of 1 and 2 Corinthians are letters Paul later wrote to these believers. Notably, Corinth is also the place where Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, fellow tentmakers who became ministry coworkers (Acts 18:2, 18–19, 24–28).
Paul first traveled to Corinth after spending time preaching in Athens (see Acts 17:16—18:1). Upon arriving in Corinth, Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, who were tentmakers like the apostle, so Paul lived and worked with them (Acts 18:2–3). As was his custom, Paul reasoned in the Jewish synagogue every Sabbath, sharing the truth about Jesus, for as long as the Jews and God-following Gentiles there would endure it (Acts 18:4–5). When opposition and abuse arose, Paul took the message of the gospel more directly to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). Utilizing the house of Titius Justus, a Gentile who worshiped God and lived next door to the synagogue, Paul continued to share the message of the gospel. Many Corinthians placed their faith in Christ, including the synagogue ruler and his family (Acts 18:7–8).
In Corinth the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision, telling him not to fear but to keep speaking. God promised, “For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching the word of God and successfully establishing a group of believers there. Paul returned to visit the Corinthians at least twice (2 Corinthians 13:1). He also wrote them several letters to address problems in the church. Two of those letters are in our Bibles today, known as 1 and 2 Corinthians. At least one letter Paul wrote to them before 1 Corinthians has been lost to history (see 1 Corinthians 5:9), and there was possibly another letter he wrote between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 7:8). We have in our Bibles the words that God intended for us. These other letters were important for the church at Corinth in that time, but are evidently not necessary for us today.
In 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul addresses multiple issues. These range from division in the church, to immorality in the church, to freedom concerning foods, to voluntary restriction of rights, to spiritual gifts, to generosity, to explaining the glorious depth and beauty of the truth of the gospel, and more. Paul also defended his ministry in Corinth and his calling as an apostle because false teachers were leading the Corinthians astray. The words in these letters are theologically rich and of practical use in the church and our lives today.
First Corinthians addresses several issues of sexuality. There was a large following of the cult of Aphrodite among the Gentiles in Corinth—her temple was atop the Acrocorinthus, and her worship involved temple prostitution. In fact, the city had so many prostitutes that well-known Greeks, including Plato, openly referred to prostitutes as “Corinthians.” Although many natives of Corinth placed faith in Jesus, many were still influenced by their immoral surroundings, which promoted sexual immorality. In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions the problem of sexual sin in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5:1–2). God ultimately used this problem to bring about Paul’s inspired writing on sexual purity, marriage, and singleness (1 Corinthians 6—7). These inspired teachings have continued to instruct and guide the church regarding sexual issues. They are certainly beneficial to us in our sex-obsessed world.
Corinth was home to many people with diverse backgrounds, a characteristic reflected in the Corinthian church that contributed to some division and confusion. Previously legalistic Jews needed to hear about the freedom of the New Covenant in Christ; previously pagan Gentiles needed to be reminded that the gospel is not a license to sin. Both groups needed to learn to love the other and live at peace. Paul famously explains what true love is in 1 Corinthians 13. In our fractious world, this message of self-sacrificial love based in the person and work of Jesus Christ is equally important.
The city of Corinth was steeped in all the sins attendant upon a prosperous society, including idolatry and gross immorality, but the gospel still made a way through. We may fear our surrounding culture is too far away from God for people to hear His truth, but nothing is impossible for the Lord (Luke 1:37; Matthew 19:25–26). Paul gave the Corinthians a list of sinful behaviors that characterize those who will not enter God’s kingdom, then he declared, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). God changes lives! In fact, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18). Just as Paul was an ambassador of Christ to the Corinthians, we can be His ambassadors in our world, imploring people “on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).