Chapter 3: The First Letter to the Corinthians
Paul had received a letter. Doubtless he received many, but with all his letter-writing we know definitely of only one letter that came to him. He was settled at Ephesus, working at his trade, and very much absorbed in explaining the gospel to everyone whom he could reach in that city and its neighborhood. Ephesus was a thriving center of life and industry, and people from the other cities on the Aegean were constantly coming and going. Among them were many from Corinth, which lay almost directly across from Ephesus, only a few days’ sail away. Some of the Corinthian visitors to Ephesus were Christians, and others were acquainted with Paul’s Christian friends at Corinth and brought him word of them.
Their news was not encouraging. The Corinthian believers, though they were probably few and humble in station, had divided into parties. Some of them had begun to look down upon Paul as a man of inferior gifts, as compared with the eloquent Apollos and of insignificant position in the Christian movement as compared with Cephas, that is, Peter. They had perhaps been visited by Jewish-Christian teachers from Jerusalem for they were beginning to doubt Paul’s right to be called an apostle. Business disputes among them had led to lawsuits between Christian brethren in the pagan courts. Worst of all, immoral conduct in the Corinthian church was reported to Paul, for the Corinthians had not yet fully learned that the Christian faith meant a new life of righteousness and love. With all these abuses the very existence of the little church was being endangered.
Paul was already troubled by these reports when three Greeks who had come over from Corinth sought out his lodgings and put into his hand a letter from the Christians of Corinth. They had been Christians only a little while and had many things to learn. New situations were constantly coming up which they did not know how to meet. They had their social problems. What were they to do about marriage? Should they marry or remain single? Should a woman whose husband had not been converted continue to live with him? When they were invited out to dinner they might have served to them meat that had first been offered in sacrifice in some pagan temple. Was it right to eat such meat and must they inquire about it before they ate it? Questions were arising about their public worship. What part were women to have in it, and how were they to behave and dress? Even the Lord’s Supper was leading to excesses in eating and drinking and bringing out inequalities and misunderstandings. The Corinthians were much interested in spiritual gifts and their comparative worth. Some rated the ecstatic and unintelligible utterance which they called "speaking with tongues’’ above prophesying or teaching. Moreover, the persons endowed with these gifts were so eager to be heard that the meetings were becoming confused and disorderly.
On the whole the Corinthians were beset with difficulties on all sides, and they wrote to Paul for advice and instruction regarding their problems. He had already written them a short letter about some immoral practices that had appeared among them or had held over from their heathen days. But that letter had not told them enough. They wanted to learn more about the matter it dealt with, and about a variety of other things.
So Paul came to write what we call First Corinthians. No wonder it is so varied and even miscellaneous. Paul has first to set right the bad practices that are creeping into the church--the factions the lawsuits, the immoralities -- and to defend himself against the criticisms that are being circulated at Corinth. He attacks these abuses with the utmost boldness. They must give up their factions. Christ must not be divided. If Paul preached to them a simple gospel, it is because their immaturity required it. And it was such plain preaching, as they now consider it, that converted them to a life of faith. The gross immoralities which Paul has heard of among them ought to make them humble and ashamed instead of boastful. Their lawsuits against one another disclose their unscrupulousness and self-seeking. Unrighteous men, Paul reminds them, will never enter the Kingdom of God.
From these painful matters Paul turns to the questions the Corinthians had asked in their letter. Married people are not to separate, but the unmarried had better remain as they are. The offering of meat to idols is really meaningless and does the meat no harm, yet we have a duty to the consciences of others, and must not give them offense. When we are guests at a dinner, indeed, we should eat what is offered by our host without asking whether it has been offered to an idol. But in our freedom we are to remember to seek the good of one another.
In church meetings good order and modest behavior are to be the rule for both men and women. The Lord’s Supper especially is to be observed in a serious and considerate way. More than any spiritual gifts Paul recommends faith, hope, and love as abiding virtues, much to be preferred to the spectacular and temporary endowments in which the Corinthians are so absorbed.
Some of the Corinthians had found difficulty with Paul’s teaching about the resurrection, and probably a question about it had been raised in their letter to him. At all events. Paul comes last of all to the resurrection, and defends his belief in it in an impassioned argument, which rises at the end into a paean of triumph.
So far has Paul brought his Corinthian correspondents -- from their petty disputes about their favorite preachers to the serene heights of the lyric on love and the vision of the resurrection. It is instructive to see how he has done it. For he has worked each of their principal difficulties through with them, not to any rule or statute, but to some great Christian principle which meets and solves it. Nowhere does Paul appear as a more patient and skillful teacher than in First Corinthians. And nowhere does the early church with its faults and its problems rise before us so plainly and clearly as here. Someone has said that Paul’s letters enable us to take the roof off the meeting-places of the early Christians and look inside. More than any other book of the New Testament it is First Corinthians that does this.