Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. Our previous entry examined Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
The recipients of this letter were debaucherous and immoral. Infighting was common, and they were quick to sue each other. They entertained false teachings and lacked spiritual maturity.
Harsh words! Paul must have been writing to the pagans who lived in the city of Corinth, right?
Wait—what? He was writing to the Christians?
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
Start reading it here: 1 Corinthians 1
When was it written? Around A.D. 55, approximately 20-25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To whom was it written? The Christian church in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a bustling center of trade and commerce, known for its art and philosophy—and less pleasantly, for its vice and immorality.
Why was it written? Word had reached the apostle Paul that the Christian community in Corinth had fallen into a variety of serious moral errors. The vibrantly pagan culture that Corinth was famous for had crept into the church there—to the point where there was alarmingly little that distinguished the Christians from the non-Christians.
But Paul’s letter to the spiritually struggling Corinthian church was not intended just to harangue them for their failings. Paul challenged his Corinthian brothers and sisters not just to step back from error, but to actively cultivate holy lives in emulation of Jesus Christ.
What does it say? In his characteristic style, Paul opens his letter by getting straight to the heart of the Corinthians’ problem: misplaced priorities. He contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God, asking the Corinthians—proud of their philosophical knowledge—which type of wisdom they ought to pursue.
From there, Paul moves on to address the specific moral problems in the Corinthian church, including divisiveness, sexual immorality, and litigiousness. His words, however harsh, are always accompanied by positive encouragement to strive for holiness; and throughout the letter his genuine concern is evident: “I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.”
Paul’s letter wraps up with some of the most well-known passages in the entire Bible, notably the famous “love chapter” and an eloquent explanation of the great hope around which Christanity revolves: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 6:12: The answer to that commonly-asked question: “Is it acceptable for Christians to…?”
- 1 Corinthians 9: If Christians are free from the judgment of the law, does that mean they can do anything they want? And if we have the “right” to do something, does that mean we should always do it?
- 1 Corinthians 12: Paul’s classic explanation of spiritual gifts—and of the important role that every Christian, no matter how great or obscure, plays in the grand scheme of God’s Kingdom.
- 1 Corinthians 13: Even if you’ve never read even a single sentence from the Bible, chances are you’ve heard this beautiful description of love recited at weddings.
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-2: “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”
What can we learn from 1 Corinthians? It’s not too difficult to see the ongoing relevance of 1 Corinthians: the Christian church today is riven by the same moral faults that plagued the Corinthian believers. Although the specifics might (or might not!) be different in your church, Paul’s exhortation to pursue holiness and godliness instead of attractive but ultimately empty philosophies speaks plainly to us today. This letter richly answers the question “As a follower of Christ, how should I live?”
Consider these questions as you read 1 Corinthians today:
- The moral problems in the Corinthian church were very severe—to an outside observer, they could well have appeared fatal. Why do think Paul took the time to write to a church so mired in error?
- Is Paul’s tone in this letter negative or positive? How does he balance criticism with encouragement, and can you apply his approach to your own relationships?
- How do you think the Corinthian church reached its grim state? What could happen to cause a Bible-believing, Christ-following church today to slip in this same manner?
- Imagine that you’ve received this letter from Paul. What might you write back to him in response?
Like all of the New Testament epistles, it’s not a long read. Give it a look this week; next week, we’ll take a look at the follow-up to this book when Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthian church!