Bible Book Number 46—1 Corinthians
Place Written: Ephesus
Writing Completed: c. 55 C.E.
1. What kind of city was Corinth in the days of Paul?
CORINTH was “a renowned and voluptuous city, where the vices of East and West met.”a Situated on the narrow isthmus between the Peloponnesus and continental Greece, Corinth commanded the land route to the mainland. In the days of the apostle Paul, its population of about 400,000 was exceeded only by Rome, Alexandria, and Syrian Antioch. To the east of Corinth lay the Aegean Sea, and to the west, the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea. So Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia, with its two ports of Cenchreae and Lechaeum, held a position of strategic importance commercially. It was also a center of Greek learning. “Its wealth,” it has been said, “was so celebrated as to be proverbial; so were the vice and profligacy of its inhabitants.”b Among its pagan religious practices was the worship of Aphrodite (counterpart of the Roman Venus). Sensuality was a product of Corinthian worship.
2. How was the Corinthian congregation established, and hence what bond did it have with Paul?
2 It was to this thriving but morally decadent metropolis of the Roman world that the apostle Paul traveled in about 50 C.E. During his stay of 18 months, a Christian congregation was established there. (Acts 18:1-11) What love Paul felt toward these believers to whom he had first carried the good news about Christ! By letter he reminded them of the spiritual bond that existed, saying: “Though you may have ten thousand tutors in Christ, you certainly do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have become your father through the good news.”—1 Cor. 4:15.
3. What moved Paul to write his first letter to the Corinthians?
3 Deep concern for their spiritual welfare moved Paul to write his first letter to the Corinthian Christians while in the course of his third missionary tour. A few years had passed since he had resided in Corinth. It was now about 55 C.E., and Paul was in Ephesus. Apparently he had received a letter from the relatively new congregation in Corinth, and it required a reply. Furthermore, disturbing reports had reached Paul. (7:1; 1:11; 5:1; 11:18) So distressing were these that the apostle did not even refer to their letter of inquiry until the opening verse of chapter 7 vs 1 of his letter. Especially because of the reports he had received did Paul feel compelled to write to his fellow Christians in Corinth.
4. What proves that Paul wrote First Corinthians from Ephesus?
4 But how do we know Paul wrote First Corinthians from Ephesus? For one thing, in concluding the letter with greetings, the apostle includes those of Aquila and Prisca (Priscilla). (16:19) Acts 18:18, 19 shows that they had transferred from Corinth to Ephesus. Since Aquila and Priscilla were residing there and Paul included them in the closing greetings of First Corinthians, he must have been in Ephesus when he wrote the letter. A point that leaves no uncertainty, however, is Paul’s statement at 1 Corinthians 16:8: “But I am remaining in Ephesus until the festival of Pentecost.” So First Corinthians was written by Paul at Ephesus, apparently near the end of his stay there.
5. What establishes the authenticity of the letters to the Corinthians?
5 The authenticity of First Corinthians, and also of Second Corinthians, is unquestionable. These letters were ascribed to Paul and accepted as canonical by the early Christians, who included them in their collections. In fact, it is said that First Corinthians is alluded to and quoted at least six times in a letter from Rome to Corinth dated about 95 C.E. and called First Clement. With apparent reference to First Corinthians, the writer urged the recipients of this letter to “take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle.”c First Corinthians is also directly quoted by Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. There is strong evidence that a corpus, or collection, of Paul’s letters, including First and Second Corinthians, “was formed and published in the last decade of the first century.”d
6. What problems existed in the Corinthian congregation, and in what was Paul especially interested?
6 Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us an opportunity to look inside the Corinthian congregation itself. These Christians had problems to face, and they had questions to be resolved. There were factions within the congregation, for some were following men. A shocking case of sexual immorality had arisen. Some were living in religiously divided households. Should they remain with their unbelieving mates or separate? And what of eating meat sacrificed to idols? Should they partake of it? The Corinthians needed advice regarding the conducting of their meetings, including the celebration of the Lord’s Evening Meal. What should be the position of women in the congregation? Then, too, there were those in their midst who denied the resurrection. Problems were many. Particularly, though, was the apostle interested in bringing about a spiritual restoration of the Corinthians.
7. With what attitude of mind should we consider First Corinthians, and why?
7 Because conditions inside the congregation and the environment outside in ancient Corinth, with its prosperity and licentiousness, have modern parallels, Paul’s sterling counsel penned under divine inspiration commands our attention. What Paul said is so full of meaning for our own day that thoughtful consideration of his first letter to his beloved Corinthian brothers and sisters will prove beneficial indeed. Recall now the spirit of the time and place. Think searchingly, as the Corinthian Christians must have done, while we review the penetrating, stirring, inspired words of Paul to his fellow believers in Corinth of old.
CONTENTS OF FIRST CORINTHIANS
8. (a) How does Paul expose the folly of sectarianism in the congregation? (b) What does Paul show is necessary in order to understand the things of God?
8 Paul exposes sectarianism, exhorts unity (1:1–4:21). Paul has good wishes for the Corinthians. But what of the factions, the dissensions, among them? “The Christ exists divided.” (1:13) The apostle is thankful that he has baptized so few of them, so they cannot say they have been baptized in his name. Paul preaches Christ impaled. This is a cause of stumbling to the Jews and foolishness to the nations. But God chose the foolish and weak things of the world to put to shame the wise and strong. So Paul does not use extravagant speech but lets the brothers see the spirit and power of God through his words, that their faith may not be in men’s wisdom but in God’s power. We speak the things revealed by God’s spirit, says Paul, “for the spirit searches into all things, even the deep things of God.” These cannot be understood by the physical man but only by the spiritual man.—2:10.
9. By what argument does Paul show that no one should boast in men?
9 They are following men—some Apollos, some Paul. But who are these? Only ministers through whom the Corinthians became believers. The ones planting and watering are not anything, for “God kept making it grow,” and they are his “fellow workers.” The test of fire will prove whose works are durable. Paul tells them, “You people are God’s temple,” in whom His spirit dwells. “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Hence, let no one boast in men, for indeed all things belong to God.—3:6, 9, 16, 19.
10. Why is the boasting of the Corinthians out of place, and what steps is Paul taking to remedy the situation?
10 Paul and Apollos are humble stewards of God’s sacred secrets, and stewards should be found faithful. Who are the brothers at Corinth to boast, and what do they have that they did not receive? Have they become rich, begun ruling as kings, and become so discreet and strong, while the apostles, who have become a theatrical spectacle to both angels and to men, are yet foolish and weak, the offscouring of all things? Paul is sending Timothy to help them remember his methods in connection with Christ and become his imitators. If Jehovah wills, Paul himself will come shortly and get to know, not just the speech of those who are puffed up, but their power.
11. What immorality has arisen among them, what must be done about it, and why?
11 On keeping the congregation clean (5:1–6:20). A shocking case of immorality has been reported among the Corinthians! A man has taken his father’s wife. He must be handed over to Satan because a little leaven ferments the whole lump. They must quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother who is wicked.
12. (a) What does Paul argue about taking one another to court? (b) Why does Paul say, “Flee from fornication”?
12 Why, the Corinthians have even been taking one another to court! Would it not be better to let themselves be defrauded? Since they are going to judge the world and angels, can they not find someone among them to judge between brothers? More than that, they should be clean, for fornicators, idolaters, and the like will not inherit God’s Kingdom. That is what some of them were, but they have been washed clean and sanctified. “Flee from fornication,” says Paul. “For you were bought with a price. By all means, glorify God in the body of you people.”—6:18, 20.
13. (a) Why does Paul counsel some to marry? But once married, what should they do? (b) How does the single person “do better”?
13 Counsel on singleness and marriage (7:1-40). Paul answers a question about marriage. Because of the prevalence of fornication, it may be advisable for a man or a woman to be married, and those who are married should not be depriving each other of conjugal dues. It is well for the unmarried and the widows to remain single, like Paul; but if they do not have self-control, let them marry. Once they marry, they should remain together. Even if one’s mate is an unbeliever, the believer should not depart, for in that way the believer may save the unbelieving mate. As to circumcision and slavery, let each one be content to remain in the state in which he was called. With regard to the married person, he is divided because he wants to gain the approval of his mate, whereas the single person is anxious only for the things of the Lord. Those who marry do not sin, but those who do not marry “do better.”—7:38.
14. What does Paul say about “gods” and “lords,” yet when is it wise to refrain from food offered to idols?
14 Doing all things for the sake of the good news (8:1–9:27). What about food offered to idols? An idol is nothing! There are many “gods” and “lords” in the world, but for the Christian there is only “one God the Father” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ.” (8:5, 6) Yet someone may be offended if he observes you eating meat sacrificed to an idol. Under these circumstances, Paul advises, refrain from it so as not to cause your brother to stumble.
15. How does Paul conduct himself in the ministry?
15 Paul denies himself many things for the sake of the ministry. As an apostle, he has a right “to live by means of the good news,” but he has refrained from doing so. However, necessity is laid upon him to preach; in fact, he says, “Woe is me if I did not declare the good news!” So he has made himself a slave to all, becoming “all things to people of all sorts” that he “might by all means save some,” doing all things “for the sake of the good news.” To win the contest and the incorruptible crown, he browbeats his body so that after preaching to others, he himself “should not become disapproved somehow.”—9:14, 16, 19, 22, 23, 27.
16. (a) What warning should Christians take from the “forefathers”? (b) As to idolatry, how may Christians do all things for God’s glory?
16 Warning against injurious things (10:1–33). What of the “forefathers”? These were under the cloud and were baptized into Moses. Most of them did not gain God’s approval but were laid low in the wilderness. Why? They desired injurious things. Christians should take warning from this and refrain from idolatry and fornication, from putting Jehovah to the test, and from murmuring. The one who thinks he is standing should be careful that he does not fall. Temptation will come, but God will not let his servants be tempted beyond what they can bear; he will provide a way out so they can endure it. “Therefore,” writes Paul, “flee from idolatry.” (10:1, 14) We cannot be partakers of the table of Jehovah and the table of demons. However, should you be eating in a home, do not inquire regarding the source of the meat. If someone advises you that it has been sacrificed to idols, though, refrain from eating on account of that one’s conscience. “Do all things for God’s glory,” writes Paul.—10:31.
17. (a) What principle does Paul set out concerning headship? (b) How does he tie in the question of division in the congregation with a discussion of the Lord’s Evening Meal?
17 Headship; the Lord’s Evening Meal (11:1-34). “Become imitators of me, even as I am of Christ,” Paul declares, and then he proceeds to set out the divine principle of headship: The head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is Christ, the head of Christ is God. Therefore, the woman should have “a sign of authority” upon her head when she prays or prophesies in the congregation. Paul cannot commend the Corinthians, for divisions exist among them when they meet together. In this condition, how can they properly partake of the Lord’s Evening Meal? He reviews what occurred when Jesus instituted the Memorial of his death. Each must scrutinize himself before partaking, lest he bring judgment against himself for failure to discern “the body.”—11:1, 10, 29.
18. (a) While there are varieties of gifts and ministries, why should there be no division in the body? (b) Why is love preeminent?
18 Spiritual gifts; love and its pursuit (12:1–14:40). There are varieties of spiritual gifts, yet the same spirit; varieties of ministries and operations, yet the same Lord and the same God. Likewise there are many members in the one united body of Christ, each member needing the other, as in the human body. God has set every member in the body as He pleases, and each has his work to do, so “there should be no division in the body.” (12:25) Users of spiritual gifts are nothing without love. Love is long-suffering and kind, not jealous, not puffed up. It rejoices only with the truth. “Love never fails.” (13:8) Spiritual gifts, such as prophesying and tongues, will be done away with, but faith, hope, and love remain. Of these, the greatest is love.
19. What counsel does Paul give for building up the congregation and for the orderly arrangement of things?
19 “Pursue love,” Paul admonishes. Spiritual gifts are to be used in love for the upbuilding of the congregation. For this reason, prophesying is to be preferred over speaking in tongues. He would rather speak five words with understanding to teach others than ten thousand in an unknown language. Tongues are for a sign to unbelievers, but prophesying is for the believers. They should not be “young children” in their understanding of these matters. As for women, they should be in subjection in the congregation. “Let all things take place decently and by arrangement.”—14:1, 20, 40.
20. (a) What evidence does Paul give as to Christ’s resurrection? (b) What is the order of the resurrection, and what enemies are to be put down?
20 The certainty of the resurrection hope (15:1–16:24). The resurrected Christ appeared to Cephas, to the 12, to upward of 500 brothers at one time, to James, to all the apostles, and last of all to Paul. ‘If Christ has not been raised up,’ writes Paul, ‘our preaching and faith are in vain.’ (15:14) Each one is raised in his own order, Christ the firstfruits, then afterward those who belong to him during his presence. Finally he hands over the Kingdom to his Father after all enemies have been put under his feet. Even death, the last enemy, is to be brought to nothing. Of what use is it for Paul to face perils of death continually if there is no resurrection?
21. (a) How are those who are to inherit God’s Kingdom raised? (b) What sacred secret does Paul reveal, and what does he say about victory over death?
21 But how are the dead to be raised? In order for the body of a plant to develop, the sown grain must die. It is similar with the resurrection of the dead. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised up a spiritual body. . . . Flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom.” (15:44, 50) Paul tells a sacred secret: Not all will fall asleep in death, but during the last trumpet, they will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. When this that is mortal puts on immortality, death will be swallowed up forever. “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” From the heart Paul exclaims: “But thanks to God, for he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”—15:55, 57.
22. What closing counsel and exhortation does Paul give?
22 In conclusion Paul counsels on orderliness in collecting the contributions for sending to Jerusalem to aid needy brothers. He tells of his coming visit via Macedonia and indicates that Timothy and Apollos may also visit. “Stay awake,” Paul exhorts. “Stand firm in the faith, carry on as men, grow mighty. Let all your affairs take place with love.” (16:13, 14) Paul sends greetings from the congregations in Asia, and then he writes a final greeting in his own hand, conveying his love.
23. (a) How does Paul illustrate the disastrous consequences of wrong desire and self-reliance? (b) To what authority does Paul refer in counseling on the Lord’s Evening Meal and proper foods?
23 This letter of the apostle Paul is most beneficial in enlarging our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, from which it makes many quotations. In the tenth chapter, Paul points out that the Israelites under Moses drank from a spiritual rock-mass, which meant the Christ. (1 Cor. 10:4; Num. 20:11) Then he goes on to refer to the disastrous consequences of desiring injurious things, as exemplified by the Israelites under Moses, and adds: “Now these things went on befalling them as examples, and they were written for a warning to us upon whom the ends of the systems of things have arrived.” Never let us become self-reliant, thinking that we cannot fall! (1 Cor. 10:11, 12; Num. 14:2; 21:5; 25:9) Again, he draws an illustration from the Law. He refers to the communion sacrifices in Israel to show how partakers of the Lord’s Evening Meal should partake worthily of the table of Jehovah. Then, to back up his argument that it is proper to eat everything sold in the meat market, he quotes from Psalm 24:1, saying, “To Jehovah belong the earth and that which fills it.”—1 Cor. 10:18, 21, 26; Ex. 32:6; Lev. 7:11-15.
24. What other references does Paul make to the Hebrew Scriptures in support of his arguments?
24 In showing the superiority of “the things that God has prepared for those who love him” and the futility of “the reasonings of the wise men” of this world, Paul again draws on the Hebrew Scriptures. (1 Cor. 2:9; 3:20; Isa. 64:4; Ps. 94:11) As authority for his instructions in chapter 5 on disfellowshipping the wrongdoer, he quotes Jehovah’s law to ‘clear what is bad from your midst.’ (Deut. 17:7) In discussing his right to live by the ministry, Paul again refers to the Law of Moses, which said that working animals must not be muzzled to prevent their eating and that the Levites in temple service were to receive their portion from the altar.—1 Cor. 9:8-14; Deut. 25:4; 18:1.
25. What are some of the outstanding points of beneficial instruction contained in First Corinthians?
25 What benefits of inspired instruction we have received from Paul’s first letter to Corinthian Christians! Meditate upon the counsel given against divisions and following men. (Chapters 1-4) Recall the case of immorality and how Paul emphasized the need for virtue and cleanliness within the congregation. (Chapters 5, 6) Consider his inspired advice relative to singleness, marriage, and separation. (Chapter 7) Think of the apostle’s discussion of foods offered to idols as well as of how the necessity of guarding against stumbling others and falling into idolatry was so forcefully brought to the fore. (Chapters 8-10) Admonition concerning proper subjection, a consideration of spiritual gifts, that most practical discussion on the excellence of the enduring, unfailing quality of love—these things too have passed in review. And how well the apostle accentuated the need for orderliness in Christian meetings! (Chapters 11-14) What a marvelous defense of the resurrection he penned under inspiration! (Chapter 15) All of this and more has moved before the mind’s eye—and it is so valuable to Christians in our day!
26. (a) What long-foretold work does the resurrected Christ accomplish when he rules as King? (b) On the basis of the resurrection hope, what powerful encouragement does Paul give?
26 This letter adds notably to our understanding of the glorious Bible theme of the Kingdom of God. It gives a stern warning that unrighteous persons will not enter the Kingdom, and it lists many of the vices that would disqualify a person. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10) But most important, it explains the relation between the resurrection and God’s Kingdom. It shows that Christ, “the firstfruits” of the resurrection, must “rule as king until God has put all enemies under his feet.” Then, when he has put down all enemies, including death, “he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, . . . that God may be all things to everyone.” Finally, in fulfillment of the Kingdom promise made in Eden, the complete bruising of the Serpent’s head is accomplished by Christ, along with His resurrected spiritual brothers. Grand, indeed, is the resurrection prospect of those who are to share incorruptibility with Christ Jesus in the heavenly Kingdom. It is on the basis of the resurrection hope that Paul admonishes: “Consequently, my beloved brothers, become steadfast, unmovable, always having plenty to do in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in connection with the Lord.”—1 Cor. 15:20-28, 58; Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20.
a Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1988, H. H. Halley, page 593.
b Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1863, Vol. 1, page 353.
c The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 10, 1953, page 13.
d The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9, 1954, page 356.