1 Corinthians

What Is the Background of 1 Corinthians?

Time: 20 Minutes

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Background of 1 Corinthians

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Author, Date, and Recipients

The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian church in the spring of AD 53, 54, or 55. This was near the end of his three-year ministry in Ephesus. Altogether Paul wrote four letters to this church: (1) the previous letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9; (2) 1 Corinthians; (3) the tearful, severe letter mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4; and (4) 2 Corinthians. Only 1 and 2 Corinthians have survived.

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Theme

The Corinthian church, divided because of the arrogance of its more powerful members, should work together for the advancement of the gospel. They should repent of their rivalries, build up the faith of those who are weak, and witness effectively to unbelievers.

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Purpose

Paul received an oral report and a letter from the Corinthian church. These revealed a church struggling with division, immorality, idolatry, and theological confusion. He wrote them this letter so that they would become a true dwelling place for God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:12, 16), stay faithful to the gospel, and be “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).

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Key Themes

1. The church is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. Thus, the people who make up the church should work for unity by building each other up (1 Corinthians 1:10–4:21, especially 3:10–16; 14:12).

2. Christians should build up the church in four practical ways:

a. they should be sensitive to those with fragile faith (1 Corinthians 8:1–9:18; 10:28, 33).
b. they should win unbelievers to the faith (1 Corinthians 9:19–23; 10:27, 32–33).
c. they should conduct worship services in such a way that unbelievers might come to faith (1 Corinthians 14:16, 23–25).
d. their corporate worship should use spiritual gifts not out of personal pride, or for evaluating who has the better gift, but to build up the church (1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 12:12–30; 14:1–35).

3. Sexual relations form a union between man and woman as deep as the union of the believer with Christ. Therefore sexual activity should be confined to marriage (1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 6:12–20; 7:5, 9, 36).

4. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important. Yet both are less important than personal trust in the gospel and living in the way God commands (1 Corinthians 1:14–17; 10:1–5; 11:17–34; 15:29–34).

5. The bodily resurrection of Jesus (and of his followers) from the dead is a key truth of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:1–58).

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Outline

I. Introduction to the Letter’s Main Themes (1:1–9)
II. Divisions over Christian Preachers (1:10–4:21)
III. A Report of Sexual Immorality and Lawsuits (5:1–6:20)
IV. Three Issues from the Corinthians’ Letter (7:1–11:1)
V. Divisions over Corporate Worship (11:2–14:40)
VI. The Futility of Faith If the Dead Are Not Raised (15:1–58)
VII. The Collection for the Saints and Travel Plans (16:1–12)
VIII. Closing Admonitions and Greetings (16:13–24)

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The Setting of 1 Corinthians

Background of 1 Corinthians

The Global Message of 1 Corinthians

The global message of 1 Corinthians is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant to every dimension of church life. To a church facing many problems, Paul writes of God’s empowering grace and the need to know Christ alone and him crucified. There is much for the global church today to learn from this important letter.

1

First Corinthians and Redemptive History

Paul’s vision in 1 Corinthians stretches all the way back to the first man, Adam (1 Corinthians 15:21–22), and all the way forward to the future return of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:23–24). Paul places his letter to the Corinthian church against the backdrop of the massive sweep of world history. The Corinthians themselves are part of that history. And as equal members of the body of Christ, so are Christians today, wherever in the world they may live.

Because Christ is the center point of all human history, we see Paul connecting both the Old Testament past and his own present ministry to Christ himself. Indeed, for Paul, because Christ has come we are now those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Paul warns the Corinthians against idolatrous desires by reminding them of what had become of Israel when they wandered in the wilderness. Yet Paul also makes the surprising statement that the rock from which Israel drank was Christ himself (1 Corinthians 10:4). All of God’s divine provision for his people foreshadows, and is fulfilled in, Jesus Christ.

Today, then, we live as those “on whom the end of the ages has come.” We live mindful of Christ and the supreme provision God has worked out for us in him, freely available to all those around the world who will forsake worldly ways of thought and life and trust in him.

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Universal Themes in 1 Corinthians

The Folly of Human Wisdom

Paul speaks in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians of the folly of human wisdom—that is, worldly patterns of thinking that exalt human competency and cleverness. This is contrary to the cross of Christ, where God turned the world’s wisdom upside down by providing salvation through a crucified man rather than a conquering king. As Paul puts it, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22–23). The gospel addresses every culture around the world at the very point where it believes itself to be strongest, and offers Christ instead as an alternate source of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:28–31).

The Power of the Spirit

The Corinthian church was infected with a view of life that focused on worldly glory, human triumph, eloquent speech, and natural strength (e.g., 1 Corinthians 4:7–20). For this reason, when Paul came to preach to them, they disrespected him due to his lack of style and eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:1–5; 4:1–7). Yet Paul’s lack of worldly impressiveness was precisely what unlocked the power of the Spirit in his life and through his ministry. His preaching was effective not because of any words of human wisdom but because it involved a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). Across the globe, this remains the crying need of preaching, regardless of the cultural garb in which the preaching is clothed: the church must proclaim the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, not in human wisdom, so that the faith of the hearers “might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

The Body of Christ

The fullest biblical description of the church, the body of Christ, is in 1 Corinthians. Paul tells us in chapters 12–14 that all the various members of the Christian church—whatever their particular gifts, whatever their particular location—are part of Christ’s own body. And the significance of the various parts of the body ought not to be underestimated. Indeed, some body parts that appear least important are in fact crucial to the proper functioning of the body (1 Corinthians 12:22–25).

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The Global Message of 1 Corinthians for Today

In the World, But Not of the World

The heart of the problem in the church at Corinth was that the world was influencing them rather than they influencing the world. In the opening chapters especially, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, and the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. The Corinthians were not only in the world but also of it, whereas Christ calls believers to be in the world but not of it (John 17:14–19). Christians around the globe today are called to live in faithful presence among their unbelieving neighbors, influencing them with the love of Christ rather than being infected by worldly patterns of thinking (Romans 12:1–2). We are to be salt and light to a lost world (Matthew 5:13–16).

Global Unity

In his final prayer for the church, Christ prayed above all for unity among the generations of believers who would follow the apostles (John 17:20–21). Yet the situation in Corinth was a mess of dissension and factions (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:1–8, 21–23). Down through history and around the world such disunity has often plagued God’s people. This is deeply offensive to the heart of God, and it is also confusing to nonbelievers as they wonder why Christians don’t “practice what they preach.” The global church is called, now as much as at any other time in history, to labor for unity—never by compromising doctrinal truth, but rather by celebrating our common fellowship in the family of God wherever genuine faith in Christ is exercised. The way such common faith is expressed may be quite different culturally or in other ways, but the beauty of the body of Christ will be seen in a single, unitive, though diversely expressed, love for Christ.

Love

The main way unity of faith will be seen is through love (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:1–14:1; 16:14). Across cultures, classes, languages, and borders, nothing is more central to the Christian life than love. Indeed, love is definitive of Christian living (1 John 4:7–12). Beneath the various surface-level distinguishing marks of Christian people, the global church is called to clothe itself with love toward one another and toward the world. Such love, moreover, will be more than words; it will also be actions:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)

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