Most of us have at some point in our lives read or heard a passage from the Book of First Corinthians. Chapter 13 in particular is a favorite reading at weddings, with its beautiful rumination on the nature of love.
Aside from the famous declaration—that Love is patient and kind—what is 1 Corinthians all about? When and why was it written? And how does it speak to those of us reading it today? We’ll take a look at these key questions throughout this article and examine what we can learn from the book.
Who Wrote First Corinthians?
The apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians sometime between 53-55 C.E. Although we speak of 1 Corinthians as a book of the Bible, it was originally written and sent as a letter from apostle Paul to the early church in the city of Corinth.
It is widely agreed upon by scholars that this letter was not actually the first that apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. We can see the proof of this in 1 Corinthians 5:9, which begins, “When I wrote to you before…” However, this referenced earlier letter has been lost.
Context and Background
While 1 Corinthians was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, his history with this community of corinthian believers began far earlier. It was Paul who founded the corinthian church on a prior journey. He had a deep familiarity with this community.
Corinth was an important city in the ancient world. A center for Greek culture and a bustling commercial hub, it was a city of much diversity, connecting people of various backgrounds and customs. The cosmopolitan nature of Corinth also contributed to its reputation as a hedonistic playground, placing the kind of lifestyle espoused by Paul and the Corinthian Church in stark contrast to the culture at large.
Paul’s reasons for writing to the Corinthian Christians are born out of concern. News had reached Paul of dangerous divisions among the believers and of behaviors and practices adopted from the surrounding Pagan culture. In particular, Paul addresses out sexual immorality, idol worship, and the growing trend among believers to throw their allegiance behind a specific church leader rather than Christ Jesus. With fatherly affection, Paul seeks to guide and correct the corinthian church he helped established back onto a healthy path.
Overview of the Letter
The central purpose of this letter might best be described as instruction on what it means to live as Christians in a non-Christian world. Paul explains that as believers, our lives should be set apart, and the driving force behind this distinction is love: the love we experience from God and the love we show to those around us. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides a model for what it looks like to confront our brokenness productively. Rather than ignore tensions, grievances, and divisions, this letter urges us to grapple with them, address them, and move forward restored.
We can think about the letter of 1 Corinthians as having five key sections.
A Response to the Report of Divisions Among Believers (Chapters 1-4)
“10 I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” —1 Corinthians 1:10
A Response to the Report of Prevalent Sexual Immorality (Chapters 5-7)
“7 Get rid of the old "yeast" by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. 8 So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth.” —1 Corinthians 5:7-8
A Declaration of Freedom in Christ, and a Call to Sacrifice Liberty for Unity (Chapters 8-10)
“ 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” —1 Corinthians 10:13
A Reflection on Order and Love in Worship Gatherings (Chapters 11-14)
“ 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my physical body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.”—1 Corinthians 13:3-4
A Reassertion of the Resurrection (Chapter 15)
“ 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”—1 Corinthians 15:13-14
How Do I Apply This?
Although he originally wrote 1 Corinthians for a specific community of believers, Paul's instruction and advice continue to have relevance for us today. In our increasingly interconnected world, we too find ourselves face to face with conflicting perspectives on what it means to live life well. The siren songs of greed, selfishness, and separatism call out to us. 1 Corinthians reminds us to instead pursue love, unity, and compassion.
Paul’s letter to the corinthian church continues to be a vital and relevant text for us today. It invites us to think mindfully about how we live together in community—it reminds us that we are none of us an island. United by the love of Jesus, we must seek to lift each other up and reconcile and grow together.
To learn more about the letters of the New Testament, consider the Letters Set from Alabaster.