How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 3:21-22: “So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”


One of the things that has plagued the church throughout its history is when people become more committed to various teachers than they are committed to Christ. There have been many great teachers in the history of the Church—names like: Augustine and Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Alexander Campbell. These were men who, with great passion and eloquence, proclaimed the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. By their insight they helped people understand more about Christ. But unfortunately, because of their strong characters, people came to have allegiance to them rather than to the God whom they proclaimed. This is a natural temptation, and as we take up the letter of 1st Corinthians, we will see that it is a temptation that has been with the church ever since its founding.


I think it would be fair to say that Paul had a love/hate relationship with the church in Corinth. On the one hand, he spent a long time there; longer than he stayed in many places. And yet, on the other hand, there was probably no other church who caused him more heartburn. It is quite likely that Paul wrote to the Corinthians on at least four occasions. Only two have been preserved for us to read today. The letter that we now call First Corinthians is likely the first of those correspondences. Second Corinthians is likely the fourth. Second Corinthians is by far the most painful of the two letters we have. But even in this first letter, Paul has a lot to deal with in this congregation.


What seems to be the problem in Corinth? There are several things worth mentioning. The primary thing, that becomes an issue in both letters, is how the Corinthians are prone to get wrapped up in the gifts of their teachers. They divide up among themselves, each claiming fidelity to their favorite preacher. But then there are also problems of their inner life in the church. Members are going to court against one another; others are having shameful sexual liaisons; they are fighting about who has the most important spiritual gifts; and some are even denying the resurrection itself. So, this is no model church. There are deep challenges to be faced.


With that in mind, First Corinthians can be broken up into five different sections. The first section includes the first four chapters. There Paul chastises the congregation for dividing up according to the influence of their favorite teachers. Some were loyal to Paul; others preferred Apollos. Still others claimed Peter, though we are not sure whether Peter ever went there. And some just claim allegiance to Christ alone. That sounds more noble, but perhaps there was an air of arrogance about this claim. Whatever the case, Paul scolds them for their divisions. To be a Christian is not to be like the Greeks, who loved to give themselves to the wisdom of various teachers. The wisdom of man is foolishness compared to the wisdom of God. If all things are theirs in Christ, why should they try to own the influence of others? They should accept all things as a gift from God. All teachers, especially the apostles, are mere servants of Christ—none are important themselves.


Section two covers chapters 5 and 6, and there Paul deals with some rumors he has heard about them. Two things in particular stand out. Number one, believers are going to court against one another. Secondly, a member is having a sexual relationship that even the pagans would have sneered at—he is sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul minces no words as he tackles these issues. If they are to judge the world at the arrival of the kingdom, are they not competent to handle these lesser issues? And if their bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, should they use them in such sexually shameful ways?


Section three is the longest section of book and deals with issues that apparently the Corinthians had written to him about. In chapter 7 Paul answers their questions about marriage and divorce. In chapters 8 through 10 Paul addresses the issue of eating meat that has been dedicated to idols. Chapters 11 through 14 give various instructions about public worship, including their debate about which spiritual gifts were most important.


Section four is just one chapter (chapter 15), but it is an important one. There Paul takes up the subject of the resurrection of Christ. Apparently, some were claiming there is no such thing as a resurrection from the dead and that Christ had not been physically raised. Perhaps they saw the teaching on the resurrection as a kind of spiritual metaphor for being given a new kind of life. Such teaching is still prominent in some circles today. But Paul is quick to proclaim, “if Christ has not been raised from the dead you are still in your sins!” But Christ has indeed been raised, and because he has been raised that means profound implications for us. If Christ has been raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead, based on our faith with him. Paul has the longest discussion in the New Testament here about the nature of the new body we will receive. It is one of the most illuminating chapters in all of the Bible.


Finally, the book closes in chapter 16 with some practical matters. Paul talks about how they are to go about the collection they are gathering for the Christians in Jerusalem. He makes some personal requests, and he also addresses how they are to receive Timothy when Paul sends him to Corinth. First Corinthians is one of the longest of Paul’s letters, but because of the breadth of subjects it covers, it is a real treasure of our faith.

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