Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Flyover Country: 1 Corinthians

No genuine Christian sets out deliberately to displease God or mislead his fellow believers. Nevertheless, as James puts it, “We all stumble in many ways”, and the Lord often graciously uses the errors of others to help us find the right path, rather than requiring us to learn Christlikeness through hard personal experience of its opposite.

Many New Testament letters were written in response to doctrinal errors or bad practice, but the church in Corinth seems to have had more than their fair share.

The book touches on many different subjects and themes, but perhaps we could sum it up as follows:

One Sentence Summary: Life as a properly functioning member of the body of Christ.

In this individualistic age, we can all use clear instruction on how to behave when we interact with other believers.

Background and Purpose

1 Corinthians is thought to be the second letter of four written by Paul to the Christians in Corinth, in this case somewhere between AD53-55, and probably from Ephesus. In his first chapter, he refers to having received a report of trouble in the congregation, and addresses the issue of Christian unity, though it will turn out from his later comments that there were plenty of other errors of doctrine and practice (lawsuits, sexual immorality, disorderly worship, etc.) happening in Corinth. The ensuing chapters respond to questions raised by the Corinthians with a combination of theological background and practical instruction.

The church in Corinth, like so many others, started with preaching in the local synagogue and ended by taking the gospel to the Gentiles. The story is in Acts 18. The resulting Corinthian church was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. Paul instructed them for a year and a half before returning to Antioch, but it would become apparent within only a couple of years of the apostle’s departure that a great deal more teaching was needed.

While it is necessary to supplement Paul’s teaching here with that of other NT epistles, this letter is probably the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for the local church.

Organization and Content

Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, 1 Corinthians contains detailed instruction on a great number of unrelated topics. The section on orderly worship (chapters 11 through 14) is probably the longest sustained argument in the book, with the appeal for unity in chapters 1 through 4 a close second.

  1. Introduction and thanksgiving (1:1-9)
  2. An appeal for unity:
  1. What does it look like when God is working? (1:10-17)
  1. It looks like foolishness (1:18-31)
  2. It looks like weakness (2:1-5)
  3. It looks like a secret (2:6-15)
  4. It looks like a team effort (3:1-18)
  1. The true shepherd is a servant and steward (4:1-21)
  1. The Christian sex life:
  1. The church and sexual immorality (5:1-13)

[Digression: Lawsuits (6:1-11)]

  1. The toxic effects of sexual immorality (6:12-20)
  2. Marriage: God’s antidote to sexual immorality
  1. Rules for Christian marriage (7:1-11)
  2. Rules for mixed marriages (7:12-16)

[Digression: Contentment (7:17-24)]

  1. To marry or not to marry (7:25-40)
  1. Freedom and self-sacrifice:
  1. An illustration: Food offered to idols (8:1-13)
  2. Paul as an example:
  1. Christian service comes with benefits (9:1-7)
  2. The Law confirms it (9:8-12)
  3. The gospel is more important than my rights (9:13-23)
  4. Sacrifice brings reward (9:24-27)
  1. Warning about indulging the flesh (10:1-22)
  2. Summary: Prioritize others over self (10:23-33)
  1. Orderly worship:
  1. Headship (11:1-16)
  2. Discerning the body (11:17-34)
  3. How the body operates (12:1-31)
  4. The right motive for service (13:1-13)
  5. Orderly worship (14:1-40)
  1. The importance of resurrection:
  1. Christ was raised from the dead (15:1-11)
  2. Because he lives, so will believers (15:12-34)
  3. Death is a necessary part of the process (15:35-49)
  4. The final victory (15:50-58)
  1. Miscellaneous personal notes and instructions (16:1-24)

Value to Modern Readers

As Paul writes in answer to a different question, “Much in every way.” 1 Corinthians contains more direct teaching about Christian marriage and appropriate sexual behavior than any other book of the Bible. Chapter 5 gives instructions about church discipline found nowhere else. Likewise, the four-chapter section on orderly worship provides us with a more comprehensive understanding of life in the body of Christ as the Lord intended us to experience it than any other epistle. Why can’t Christians just stay home, read the Bible and follow Jesus according to the dictates of our own consciences? The answer is here, and it explains the existence of spiritual gifts both past and present. Elsewhere, the doctrine of headship is assumed; here, it is explained. 1 Thessalonians teaches the rapture, but chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians explains the importance of resurrection and why death is a part of the natural order in a fallen world. And Paul’s instructions about Christian unity, though roundly ignored by the denominationalism we see everywhere around us, remain of great value to those of us seeking to express the oneness of all believers in everything we do.

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