An Introduction to 1 Corinthians
BIG PICTURE: In one sentence, the theological message of 1 Corinthians is that the gospel requires God’s holy people to mature in purity and unity. The church in Corinth has many problems, but the gospel solves them all.
The historical-cultural context 1 Corinthians.
- Genre: 1 Corinthians is a letter—very similar to other ancient Greco-Roman letters.
- Author: The apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Paul identifies himself as the author in the letter’s opening line, and few have contested the claim.
- Date: Probably early in d. 55.
- Audience: “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).
- Purpose: Paul is responding to a report that Chloe’s people gave him about the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11) and to a letter that the church wrote to him (1 Cor. 7:1a). He has many specific purposes for writing this letter. The most basic is to exhort the Corinthian church to live like what they are: God’s holy people (1:2).
1 Corinthians addresses a string of ten controversial topics in the church:
- Why is it sinful for a church to be divided over church leaders? (1:10-4:21)
- When and why should a church excommunicate a professing believer? (5:1-13)
- Why is it wrong for a believer to bring a lawsuit against a fellow believer? (6:1-11)
- Should a Christian commit sexual immorality? (6:12-20)
- Should a husband and wife regularly enjoy sex? Is it always wrong to get divorced? Should single people stay single? (7:1-40)
- Is it wrong to eat food offered to idols? (8:1-11:1)
- Should women wear head coverings when the church gathers to worship? (11:2-16)
- How should we treat the Lord’s Supper? (11:17-34)
- Should we desire to speak in tongues and to prophesy? Are some spiritual gifts better than others? How should we use our gifts? (12:1-14:40)
- Will God resurrect the corpses of believers? (15:1-58)
All of those issues are still highly relevant today—including eating food offered to idols and wearing head coverings.
The following list briefly shows how the gospel solves the ten main problems Paul addresses.
Issue 1: 1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are dividing over church teachers. They embrace the values of their Roman society, which divides over ethnicity (e.g., Jews vs. Gentiles) and social rank (wise vs. foolish, powerful vs. weak, noble birth vs. low and despised). Roman culture values polished rhetoric and regards the message of a crucified Messiah as folly.
Gospel solution. “Christ crucified” is the power and wisdom of God (and confounds Roman values). God uses church teachers to plant and water the church, but God alone gives the growth. So do not boast in particular church teachers, because they are merely servants of Christ. Boast in the Lord.
Issue 2: 1 Corinthians 5:1–13
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are tolerating incest.
Gospel solution. Purge the evil person from among you, because Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Issue 3: 1 Corinthians 6:1–11
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are bringing lawsuits against one another.
Gospel solution. Do not wrong or defraud your own brothers and sisters, because the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Unrepentant sin formerly characterized your life, but God has washed, sanctified, and justified you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by God’s Spirit.
Issue 4: 1 Corinthians 6:12–20
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are excusing sexual immorality because it occurs outside the body.
Gospel solution. Your body matters, because God will raise it up like he raised the Lord. Your body is a member of Christ, so you should not make it a member of a prostitute. You do not have the right to do whatever you want with your body, because God owns it, and he owns it because he redeemed you at the cost of his Son’s life. So glorify God with your body by not committing sexual immorality.
Issue 5: 1 Corinthians 7:1–40
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians need instruction and wisdom about marriage and singleness.
Gospel solution. God graciously gives singleness to some and marriage to others. Lead the life the Lord has assigned to you. (And do not become a bondservant of human beings, because God bought you with a price: Christ crucified.) If you marry, marry “only in the Lord” (7:39).
Issue 6: 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are eating food offered to idols in a way that does not build up their neighbors or in a way that participates with demons.
Gospel solution. Do not make your brother or sister stumble, because Christ died for them. Be willing to give up your rights for the sake of the gospel. You cannot participate with both (a) the blood and body of Christ and (b) demons.
Issue 7: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16
Problem. The Corinthian Christians might wear or not wear head coverings in a way that defiantly flouts God’s beautiful design for husbands and wives.
Gospel solution. The husband-wife relationship reflects the Father-Son relationship with reference to authority and submission.
Issue 8: 1 Corinthians 11:17–34
Problem. Some more affluent Corinthian Christians are abusing the Lord’s Supper by marginalizing poor Christians.
Gospel solution. Jesus gave his body and blood for the church, so do not despise it. When you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, you proclaim his death until he comes. So sacrificially share food with one another when you celebrate how Jesus has sacrificed his life for you.
Issue 9: 1 Corinthians 12:1–14:40
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are prioritizing less edifying spiritual gifts and failing to use their gifts to edify the body of Christ in love.
Gospel solution. Pursue love (which the gospel embodies) by earnestly desiring and using spiritual gifts that build up the Spirit-baptized body of Christ.
Issue 10: 1 Corinthians 15:1–58
Problem. Some Corinthian Christians are denying that God will resurrect the corpses of believers.
Gospel solution. Christ died for our sins, and God resurrected his corpse. If God will not resurrect the corpses of believers, then he has not resurrected the corpse of Christ. But he did resurrect the corpse of Christ and therefore will resurrect the corpses of believers.
*This outline is indebted to Andrew Naselli’s “1 Corinthians”
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