Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


14. 1 Corinthians

Video Introduction


This chapter offers a brief overview of the contents of 1 Corinthians, followed by discussion of historical background and major themes.

In terms of historical background, 1 Corinthians appears to be the second of at least four letters that Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth, the capital city of Achaia. Written from Ephesus to a troubled church sometime between 53 and 57, the letter responds to questions Paul has received from representatives of various groups within the church.

Paul denounces the divisions that exist within this congregation, particularly since the different parties are appealing to various human leaders (including him) as their progenitor. He sees the heart of the problem as lying in the Corinthians’ fascination with worldly wisdom and power, and he declares that the cross of Jesus Christ provides a better model for orienting one’s thinking and practice. He also offers, however, a soaring treatise on the resurrection of Christ, emphasizing that both Christ and his faithful believers are raised with new, incorruptible bodies—the point apparently being that God cares about human bodies, not just souls or minds. Paul corrects the notion the being set free from the law allows people to do as they please; rather, they have been liberated to live in a way that will glorify God, edify the community, and be beneficial to all.

Paul discusses numerous practical matters and offers the Corinthians his advice. They need to provide uniform distribution of food at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, so as to reflect unity of believers and avoid dishonoring the poor. They should excommunicate believers who live unrepentantly in appalling, sinful relationships. With regard to sexual relations, unmarried celibacy is preferable, but sexual relations within marriage are to be allowed, and divorce is to be avoided if at all possible. With regard to food sacrificed to idols, Paul cautions against participation in pagan social activities, but he allows for private consumption of food that might be considered “idol meat” so long as one’s actions do not have an ill effect on others. Finally, on the question of spiritual gifts, Paul encourages speaking in tongues as a form of private prayer but places some restrictions on its use in public, where prophecy is to be preferred. Above all, the congregation is to view itself as the very body of Christ on earth and to seek the more excellent way of “love.”

Study Questions

  1. What do we know about the city and region of Corinth at the time Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were written? What can we deduce about Paul’s ministry there from the book of Acts and references in his various letters?

  2. How does Paul address the problem of factions within the Corinthian church? Describe two images that he offers the church to help them overcome these divisions.

  3. Describe how Paul’s claim to have preached nothing but “Christ crucified” would be relevant to the Corinthian situation. How is the message of “Christ crucified” expected to counter or correct the Corinthians’ preferred value system?

  4. Why does Paul want to emphasize that the resurrection of believers will be corporal, involving bodies? What are the implications of belief in bodily resurrection that would be particularly relevant to the Corinthians’ situation?

  5. Indicate how issues involving social class may underscore problems the Corinthian church was experiencing relative to its observance of the Lord’s Supper. What advice does Paul give to remedy these problems?

  6. Summarize Paul’s teaching on three aspects related to sexual morality: celibacy, divorce, and marriage. What does Paul say to the Corinthians regarding each of these matters?

  7. How might Paul’s words regarding food sacrificed to idols be understood as addressing two somewhat different situations? How does Paul’s advice differ for each of these situations?

  8. Summarize Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church regarding the practice of speaking in tongues. Include reference to private and public practice, to prohibition of tongue-speaking, and to the practice of speaking in tongues when accompanied by “interpretation.”

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for you to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.