Introduction to 1 Corinthians: A Book Cover Approach

Lesson ▪ 2009
Tags: 1 Corinthians; Paul; Church at Corinth
Related Resources: A Survey of 2 Corinthians


Introduction

When we visit a library or bookstore, or even when we shop for books online, we look at certain parts of the books (or their digital representatives) in order to decide whether to read them. What kinds of information do we look for?

  • author profiles
  • book summaries
  • publishers
  • series
  • tables of contents
  • etc.

A lot of the information we care about is on the outside cover or dust jacket, and the rest of it is not far from the front or back cover.

As we contemplate studying our way through 1 Corinthians, we need to grasp some sense of the whole in order to make better sense of the parts. Understanding a book of the Bible as a whole is no small feat. Often we read and quote Bible verses, but have little idea of their immediate context—much less how they fit into the book where they appear.

So our purpose today is to look at the “wrapping” that a publisher might wrap put around the text of 1 Corinthians if it were being published today. Literally, we’re going to study our way through a made-up book cover and table of contents, and in the process we’ll achieve a better understanding of the letter: the circumstances under which it was authored, the way that its contents are structured, and the themes that it addresses.


Publication Elements

Authors/About the Authors

Our book cover identifies two contributors to the text of 1 Corinthians: Paul and Sosthenes. Both are named in the very first verse of the letter (1 Cor. 1:1). Paul was certainly the primary author, and thus his name appears in various portions of the text (1:12, 13; 3:4, 5, 22; 16:21). It is possible that Sosthenes performed the physical act of writing the letter under Paul’s direction (16:21) (Fee 30-31).

We know nothing about him from 1 Corinthians itself, as he is not mentioned again in the letter. The name Sosthenes occurs one other time in the New Testament, in the narrative about Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:17). One might speculate that the Sosthenes who appears there is the “brother” who collaborated in writing 1 Corinthians, but this cannot be confirmed, as Sosthenes was a common name (Unger 1212).

We know Paul, of course, as the named author of 13 letters included in the New Testament and the apostle whose itinerant ministry is the focus of much of the book of Acts.

Series

The book we know as 1 Corinthians is actually not the first letter that Paul sent to Corinth; it is merely the first that is included in the biblical canon. Paul wrote at least one prior letter to the same church—a fact that he points out in 1 Cor. 5:9: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.” So, if a publisher were preparing to release 1 Corinthians today, it might regard it as the second volume in a series, the sequel to a prior work that might have been entitled Keeping the Right Company. The series might be entitled Letters to Corinth.

About the Publisher

None of the New Testament books were “published” in the modern sense. In order to reflect something of the circumstances under which Paul authored 1 Corinthians, the book cover we’re working through lists the publisher as Ephesus Press. Evidence within and outside of 1 Corinthians leads us to believe that Paul was in Ephesus at the time he wrote the letter. Internal evidence includes the mention of Ephesus in 15:32 and 16:8. In the latter of these references, Paul says, “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost.” External evidence includes the fact that Paul embarked on a multi-year ministry in Ephesus not long after he left Corinth (Acts 19:1ff).

Date

The ancient world didn’t use dates in the same way that we do today. There is no date imprint in the text of 1 Corinthians. The best way we can date 1 Corinthians is to fit it into the historical scheme of the book of Acts, which does contain some historical references that help to establish dates. Among those is a reference to Gallio, a political leader of Corinth who is mentioned in Acts 18. Secular history places the start of Gallio’s administration around AD 52, so the letter may have been penned around AD 55 (Tenney 291; Fee 15).

About This Book

Our book cover provides the following blurb in description of the contents of 1 Corinthians:

Fostering Unity, Dispelling Confusion is the much anticipated sequel to Paul’s earlier epistle to the Corinthian believers, Keeping the Right Company. This letter seeks to correct the disunity and disorder prevalent within the Corinthian church, addressing such topics as cliquishness, lawsuits, marriage, personal liberty, Christian worship, and the hope of future resurrection. The book concludes with an appeal for the Corinthians’ continued partnership in Paul’s ministry, including contribution to a collection for the impoverished Jerusalem Christians.

This description is a summary of the contents of the letter, to which we now turn our attention.

Table of Contents

Discerning the structure of a Bible book can be a challenging task. Paul tended to write his letters to churches in a formulaic way. After an appropriate introduction, he would proceed to a large section with a strong doctrinal component, then move to a large section of practical exhortations. The letter would typically conclude with some personal greetings. This type of structure is present in Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. However, 1 Corinthians does not follow this type of structure.

1 Corinthians begins with an introduction and ends with material of a more personal nature in chapter 16. Since the intervening chapters that intervene do not follow the typical form (long doctrinal section, then long practical section), we have to look at other clues to discover the structure that best explains what Paul intended to communicate.

1 Corinthians was one of many elements in an ongoing conversation between Paul and the Corinthian church. As we’ve already noted, Paul had founded the church and had already written it at least one letter. The New Testament includes another epistle that he wrote to the same congregation, and the book of Acts tells us that Paul later returned to Greece for three months (Acts 20:3).

How did 1 Corinthians fit into this conversation? What motivated Paul to write it? The answer is twofold. First, Paul received some reports about the condition of the Corinthian church that concerned him: “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.” (1 Cor. 1:11; cf. 5:1). The situation required him to take action promptly in writing—not wait for the opportunity to travel to Corinth.

Second, the church itself had written to Paul, asking for his guidance on issues that troubled them: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me” (7:1; cf. 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; 16:12). 1 Corinthians includes Paul’s responses to a number of their questions.

Part I: Introduction (1:1-9)
Part I addresses the Corinthian church as a body of gifted believers who have been called to holy living. Throughout the remainder of the letter Paul calls on his readers to live up to this reality.

1 Gifted Saints: Paul’s Gratitude for the Corinthians’ Testimony (1:1-9)
Even though Paul would shortly confront the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity, he began his letter, as was his custom, by thanking God—in this case, for the gracious work that God had begun in them. As a result of God’s grace, they were gifted saints in whom God would continue to work.

Part II: Divisions and Disorder in the Corinthian Church (1:10-6:20)
Part II contains Paul’s response to reports about problems in the Corinthian church: “it has been declared to me” (1:11); “[i]t is actually reported” (5:1). Paul discusses loyalty to Christ as the remedy for divisions and disorder.

2 Wise up and Say Goodbye to Cliques (1:10-4:21)
The church had split into several factions, each of which claimed allegiance to a specific spiritual leader—Paul, Apollos, Cephas (i.e., Peter), etc. Paul addressed this problem somewhat unexpectedly with a discourse about the wisdom and power that God displayed through Christ’s crucifixion. The Corinthians’ partisan attitude was wrong; if they had maintained loyalty to Christ (substance), they would not have been distracted by the giftedness of his servants (style).

3 Lawsuits, Licentiousness, and Lordship (5:1-6:20)
Paul had heard that the Corinthian believers were allowing a man involved in an incestuous relationship to remain in their fellowship. He urged them to purify the church body by removing him from their midst. He had also heard that Christians were suing one another in the secular courts. He rebuked them for taking their disputes before unbelievers instead of resolving them within the Christian community. He concluded this section by teaching that our union with Christ demands that we glorify God in all of our actions.

Part III: Matters of Concern to the Corinthian Church (7:1-16:12)
Part III contains Paul’s replies to questions that the Corinthian believers had asked in a letter to him: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me” (7:1).

4 Marriage, Divorce, and Sex (7:1-40)
Marital issues were apparently among the Corinthian believers’ highest concerns. Paul responded to their inquiries by enjoining married couples to meet each other’s needs; encouraging single people to remain unmarried; instructing those married to an unbeliever to keep the relationship intact, if possible; and allowing marriage only within the confines of a Christian relationship.

5 Personal Liberty, Christian Responsibility (8:1-11:1)
The Corinthian culture was rife with idolatry. Christians were uncertain whether they had the freedom to eat meat that had been offered to idols. Paul addressed the church’s question, but he also made clear that Christian liberty would often need to be sacrificed in the interest of helping weaker believers mature and unbelievers come to faith in Christ.

6 Order in Public Worship: Male Leadership (11:2-16)
This section begins a long segment of the letter (11:2-14:40) that addresses how the Corinthian church was to conduct its public worship. The first matter that he addressed was clothing—specifically, how it symbolized God-ordained authority in worship. It is admittedly difficult to infer from Paul’s correction just what was wrong and how we might apply his teachings to our current situation.

7 Order in Public Worship: Reverence for the Lord’s Table (11:17-34)
Paul also found it necessary to address abuses of the Lord’s Supper. Some of the Corinthian Christians were quite flippant about this practice, engaging in excess and failing to use the ordinance as an occasion for spiritual reflection. The result, according to Paul, was divine judgment, including illness and even death.

8 Order in Public Worship: Edification through Spiritual Gifts (12:1-14:40)
One of the most lengthy sections of the epistle is given over to a discussion of spiritual gifts—distinctive empowerments for service given to Christians by the Holy Spirit at the point of salvation. Speaking in tongues (i.e., foreign languages, as in Acts 2) was apparently highly favored among the Christians. Paul attempted to mute their enthusiasm for this gift by teaching them that . . .

  • God’s gifts to his church are as diverse as the members of the human body, and thus not everyone is to be expected to speak in tongues (chap. 12)
  • all gifts are to be exercised in love, or else they are useless (chap. 13)
  • principles such as order, edification, and clear communication limit the practice of speaking in tongues and exalt the gift of prophecy (chap. 14)

9 The Christian’s Hope: The Reality of the Resurrection (15:1-58)
There were apparently members of the Corinthian church who doubted or disbelieved that Christians’ would experience a literal, physical resurrection after death. Paul argued that Christ’s resurrection prefigures believers’ resurrection. Furthermore, he taught that denying the hope of the resurrection renders the Christian faith useless.

10 Paul’s Program for the Corinthian Church (16:1-12)
Paul gave brief guidelines for the church at Corinth to take part in a collection that he was gathering for the poor believers in Jerusalem. He shared his plans for future ministry, including a trip to Corinth. And he made mention of others who would presumably engage in ministry in Corinth.

Part IV: Postscript (16:13-24)
Part IV consists of exhortations, commendations, greetings, and a benediction.

11 Personal Communication with the Corinthian Church (16:13-24)
In parting, Paul commended faithful members of the Corinthian church; gave greetings from other believers known to the Corinthians; and pronounced a blessing and a curse.

Title

The division of the letter into two major portions leads to the suggestion of the title presented on our book cover, Fostering Unity, Dispelling Confusion.

Lessons from 1 Corinthians

What can we learn from looking at 1 Corinthians in such broad fashion? Here are some lessons (among many others that could be identified):

  • Churches aren’t perfect, nor are they made up of perfect people. Christians have problems, both individually and corporately, but God has a plan for bringing us to greater maturity in faith and practice.
  • God—as represented by Paul and faithful ministers today—can handle our questions. However, sometimes the issues aren’t quite as we see them. When we bring up an issue or question of concern to us, we often get answers that challenge our way of thinking.
  • Different portions of the Bible—and even different portions of various Bible books—must be approached differently. Some of the sections of 1 Corinthians read like the “Troubleshooting” portion of an owner’s manual; they do a good job of correcting problems, but it’s difficult to infer from them just how the machine works.


Sources

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987.

Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. Rev. Walter M. Dunnett. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985.

Unger, Merrill F. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Revised and updated ed. Ed. R. K. Harrison. Chicago: Moody, 1988.


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