Updated: Dec 21, 2018
A long time ago, a certain wise man said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Indeed, Paul’s first letter to Corinthians is a prime example of that truth. If you’ve ever thought that Christ’s church has been in a downward spiral since the death of the last Apostle, don’t worry; 1 Corinthians shows that Christ’s church is really in a closed loop. The same or similar problems that plague the modern church also plagued the churches in the time of the Apostles, and 1 Corinthians is an example of the on-going need for the bride of Christ to fix her eyes upon her groom. It reminds us that our problem is a universal sin problem that is only overcome by Christ and will only be finally overcome when Christ comes again to make all things new. Let’s now look at 4 “W” questions.
Who wrote 1 Corinthians? The Apostle Paul. And to whom did Paul write? The church at Corinth, which he founded during his second missionary journey (cf. Acts 18).
When did Paul write? He wrote in ~55 AD. This is based on the fixed timing of Gallio’s proconsulship (Acts 18:12), which we know from other sources was roughly 51/52 AD. During that time Paul was in Corinth. Paul then continued his travels, and approximately three years later wrote this letter from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8).
Why did Paul write this letter? Two factors in particular prompted Paul’s writing of this letter. First, after leaving Corinth to continue his missionary journeys, he received verbal reports about the Corinthian church’s behavior (1:11, 5:1). In these verbal reports, Paul also learns that the church has misunderstood his first letter to them on at least one point (5:9-13). Yes, Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians before 1 Corinthians, but in God’s providence it was not preserved for the church universal.
Second, Paul received a written letter from the Corinthians in which the church laid out a number of issues facing it (7:1). This letter was delivered to Paul by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). The subjects addressed in 1 Corinthians remind us that temporal proximity to the Apostles did not equate to greater sanctification.
What does 1 Corinthians say? Structurally, it is divided by these two factors. After an initial greeting and thanksgiving section, Paul addresses the issues that came to him verbally in 1:10-6:20. These issues include false wisdom, internal divisions, scandal, litigiousness, and sexual immorality in general. Then, in 7:1-16:12, Paul addresses the issues brought up in the Corinthian’s letter to Paul. These topics are marriage (ch. 7), food offered to idols and proper table fellowship (chs. 8-10), conduct in the assembly of Christians (ch. 11), spiritual gifts (chs. 12-14), resurrection (ch. 15), benevolence (16:1-4), and Apollos’ visit (16:12). Paul concludes with a final exhortation and greetings.
Theologically, the fact that Paul is reacting to specific issues means that this letter is not “systematic” like Romans. Paul offers correction with respect to both theology and practice throughout this letter, but his corrections do form one sustained point.
Having said that, there still are certain themes that are woven throughout the various discussions. One of those themes is the reality that Christians are redeemed sinners. On the whole, 1 Corinthians is a negative letter. Paul has strong words of rebuke for this church. For example, Paul says, “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? … Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (11:22), and “I say this to your shame” (15:34). Those are difficult words to swallow. Nevertheless, when Paul addresses his audience he calls them saints (1:2). Saints! People who are divisive, who are wise in their own eyes, who despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing, are saints! For all of their warts, they have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God (6:11), so they—and we—ought to rejoice because we are redeemed sinners.
A second—and related—theme that runs through this letter is union with Christ. These saints, or holy ones, are made holy in Christ Jesus (1:2). They receive God’s grace because they are in Christ Jesus (1:4). Because of God, they are in Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30). Paul later says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. … You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (6:15, 17, 19-20). Finally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are united to Christ through resurrection. Christ is the first fruits by his resurrection, and we who belong to him will also be made alive in resurrection bodies (15:20-13).
The universal nature of sin accounts in large part for why these words are so instructive for the church today. We continue to battle against sin. So also, the union with Christ that every believer from every age possesses is the reason we need to hear Paul’s words to the Corinthians. We continue to hope for the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting: new creation. For this reason, Paul ends his letter with this: our Lord, come!