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Introduction to Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians

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General Info

Like all of the other Pauline epistles, the title of the book comes from the name of the recipients, in this case, the church at Corinth.  If the church at Philippi was Paul’s pride and joy, the Corinthian church was, a one commentator once noted, Paul’s problem child.  After establishing the church while on an eighteen month stay in the city, he left the church under the leadership of Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) to continue his second missionary journey in 53 AD.  As with many churches in a pagan land, problems later developed that warranted his attention.  He was notified of these problems in two separate letters from some of the church members.  He then writes a letter (1st Corinthians) back to the church, addressing a wide assortment of problems and answering many of their questions.

Thus, the epistle contains many very practical applications for all churches today, particularly in our modern age in which many churches are attempting to blend in with our pagan culture rather than transforming it.  See the “Brief Survey” in the next section below for many of the subjects that Paul addressed.

Regarding the book’s canonization, there were no issues with this book or any other of the Pauline epistles.  They were gathered together early in the second century AD, and were included in the lists of “accepted” books by many of the second and third century AD church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexander, Tertullian, and more before being “officially” canonized at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.

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Brief Survey

Paul’s letter opens with a greeting and acknowledgment that the author is praying for the Corinthian church and its members.  He then urges the members to be united and not to quarrel over non-essential matters.  He then reminds them of the power of the message of the cross that should encourage them to remain humble.  He then contrasts the wisdom of God with that of man.  In chapter 3, Paul encourages the church leaders to build on the true foundation of Christ and the Spirit.  In chapter 4, Paul defends and clarifies his role as an apostle and in chapter 5, he deals with a case of incest and warns them not to associate with sexually immoral people.  In chapter 6, he deals with lawsuits amongst believers and warns them to flee from sexual immorality because for believers, the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul then answers questions on marriage and divorce, and gives advice for those who remain single in chapter 7.  In chapter 8, the author speaks of Christian freedom and the weaker brother.  Then in the following two chapters he follows up by explaining his freedom and rights as an apostle, and his use of these rights, including the requirement of self-discipline.  In chapter 11, he reprimands some members for their methods of abusing the celebration of the Lord’s supper, and offers instruction on proper procedures.

In chapters 12-14, Paul gives instruction on the different spiritual gifts and their proper usage.  He illustrates by comparing the church members with differing parts of the human body, each having their own particular and essential function.  The members are diversified in their functions, yet united in one body of Christ.  In chapter 13, Paul gives an almost hymn-like description of Christian love, along with its attributes and resulting effects.  In chapter 14, he gives instructions on public worship, including the use of prophecy and tongues.

Finally, in chapter 15, Paul provides us with one of the best treatments of the theology of the Resurrection, both of the Christ and of individual believers.  He defends the bodily resurrection against those who would deny a literal resurrection of the body, with some even erroneously claiming that the event was merely symbolic.  He uses the sacrament of baptism to illustrate the raising up of the imperishable body.  Paul then closes the letter in the final chapter by instructing the church members to take up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem.  He gives details of his upcoming travels and passes along greeting from other associates and churches.

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Key Verses

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1:18)

Where is the wise person?  Where is the teacher of the law?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1:20-24)

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.  No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.  None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.  The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.  The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ. (2:6-10, 14-16)

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (3:16)

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (6:9-11)

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (9:19-23)

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!  No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (10:11-13)

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.  “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.  No one should seek their own good, but the good of others...  So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (10:23, 31-33)

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (11:1)

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (11:23-26)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (12:27-28)

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love. (13:11-13)

Key Chapter:  Chapter 15 - The Resurrection Chapter:  Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (15:1-8)

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (15:20-22)

The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.  So will it be with the resurrection of the dead.  The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.  (15:42-45)

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (15:50-58)

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.  Do everything in love. (16:13-14)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Paul directly identifies himself as the author in the opening verse (1:1) and in his final comments (16:21).  He also identifies the church of God in Corinth (1:2) as the direct recipients.  In addition, he names those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:2) as indirect recipients.  Finally, he also refers to himself in the third person in several additional locations (1:13; 3:4-6; 4:15).

Pauline authorship has not been seriously questioned, even by the usual critics.  It was almost universally accepted by the church fathers from the first century AD, within a couple of decades after it was written.  Clement of Rome referred to Paul as the author in a letter to the Corinthian church in 95 AD.  Other early authentications of Paul as the author were Ignatius (~ 110 AD), Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John (~ 135 AD), and Tertullian (~ 200 AD).

It is estimated that Paul wrote the letter while he was on his third missionary journey.  In the letter (16:8) he stated that he was in Ephesus and would remain there until Pentecost because a great ministry opportunity had arisen (16:8-9).  Based on Acts 20:31, Paul appears to have written the epistle in the final year of his three-year stay in Ephesus, probably 55 or 56 AD.  This would indicate that the Corinthian church was about four years old at the time they received Paul’s letter.

See A Brief Bio of the Apostle Paul and the Historical Background of Acts for additional info on his life and ministry.

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Historical Background

Paul established the church at Corinth during an approximate two-year visit (50 - 52 AD, see Acts 18) while on his second missionary journey.  During his time in Corinth, he encountered almost constant opposition.  The church was thriving however, when he left it under the leadership of Aquila and Priscilla in order to continue his mission.  Three or four years later, as Paul was ministering at Ephesus while on his third missionary journey, he received two letters from the church at Corinth.  The first came from the house of Chloe (1:11) that reported divisions and immorality that had arisen within the church.  The young immature church had apparently allowed the degenerate culture of the city to invade the church.  The second letter, containing questions about various subjects such as marriage, divorce, Christian liberty and other subjects, was delivered from Corinth by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:15–18).  Paul’s response to the the letters resulted in the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

The city of Corinth was one of the most important cities in ancient Greece at the time.  Geographically, it was an ideal hub for commerce between Italy and Asia, so a large variety of merchandise was constantly flowing.  The city had been under Roman control for about 200 years, which also allowed them to dominate commerce throughout the surrounding areas.  Commerce however, was not the only diverse element at Corinth.  Travelers arrived from both east and west, and north and south, creating significant ethnic diversity among the city’s inhabitants.  Thus the city also became famous for its international arts and crafts.

Corinth had been completely destroyed in 146 BC by the Roman General Mummius due to its lead role in an attempted revolt by the Greeks against the rising power of the Roman Empire.  At that time, its art treasures and wealth were thought to have equaled those from Athens.  After the revolt, the city lay in ruins for almost a century until it was rebuilt under Julius Caesar in 44 BC, who also made it the political seat of the Roman province of Achaia.  Thus, it promptly assumed the prominence that it previously had as the richest and most powerful city in Greece.

Unfortunately, Corinth’s commercial success was surpassed only by its corruption and depravity. The immorality of Corinth was so well known that Greek plays of the day often depicted Corinthians as drunkards and reprobates.  One Greek playwright even coined a new Greek verb korinthiazomai (meaning “to act like a Corinthian”) that became a synonym for sexual immorality.  It is not surprising that one of their most popular “deities” was Aphrodite, the false goddess of love and beauty.  The Temple of  of Aphrodite prided itself for having one thousand female prostitutes available to the people of the city and to its foreign visitors.

On the other hand, the geographical location and the diversity aspects also carried certain advantages.  The constant traffic flow made for Corinth to be a very strategic and advantageous location for the spreading of the gospel.  Travellers who positively responded to the gospel could take the great news back to their home countries.  In addition, the contrast of the city’s corrupt nature made for a golden opportunity to demonstrate the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  Altered lives produce strong witnesses.  Unfortunately however, the young church, like many churches today, had often allowed the pagan culture to infiltrate and corrupt the church rather than the church reforming the culture by the message of Jesus Christ.  Since many of the converts at Corinth had come from very immoral backgrounds, they were constantly facing temptation all around them.

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See the Timeline for the Epistles of Paul for additional context.

30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 46-48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey
~ 51-52 Paul establishes the Church at Corinth during a 1-2 year stay in the city
~ 53-57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~ 55-56 Paul writes his first epistle to the Corinthian Church
~59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 Paul imprisoned in Rome
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The primary purpose of the epistle is to answer the various questions that Paul received in a couple of letters from the relatively young and immature church at Corinth.  Paul had left the Corinthian church under the leadership of Aquila and Priscilla a few short years before, so that he could continue on his second missionary journey.  He was now on his third missionary journey and problems had developed that required his attention.

The primary themes are the wide variety of basic topics addressed in his letter.  Perhaps his biggest concern, based on the vast attention given to it, was the divisions that had arisen amongst the members.  He advised them to strive for unity for the sake of the gospel and building up of the weaker members.  Another important issue dealt with skepticism regarding a future resurrection of deceased believers.  Paul also dealt with other issues such as the existence of sexual immorality in the church, marriage and divorce, whether to marry or remain single, freedom of believers, appropriate roles of women and men during worship, and beliefs and practices regarding spiritual gifts.

Paul’s foremost theological proclamation is his clear description and reminder of the the power of the gospel for salvation (15:1-8).  While First Corinthians is primarily an epistle of moral and practical instruction, almost all bad morals are a result of faulty theological beliefs.  Improper worship and lack of unity in the church is almost always related to a faulty view of God’s holy nature.  Sexual sins are almost always the result of disregarding God’s plan for the family (7:1-40).  Finally, a correct understanding of spiritual gifts are essential for their effective use in building up the church.

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Undoubtedly, one of the most controversial interpretive issues in First Corinthians, and among believers today, involves the debate over whether or not certain miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are still available to believers today.  The most commonly debated gifts are those allegedly involving the doing of miracles, speaking in tongues, and prophesying among others.  There are two basic schools of thought regarding this issue.  The belief that these gifts were reserved for the Prophets and Apostles (using caps to distinguish the biblical-era Prophets and Apostles, with those offices that Christ assigned to those responsible for building up members of the church) is commonly referred to as “Cessationism”.  By contrast, the belief that these gifts, or at least some of them, continue to be readily available to church members today is known as “Continuationism” or “charismatic theology”.

So, which view is the correct one.  The shortest and most honest answer that I can give is “I don’t know”.  There are many highly respected orthodox pastors and scholars on both sides of the issue.  Perhaps the best known cessationist is Pastor John MacArthur, who hosted a Strange Fire Conference back in 2013 to examine the subject.  Speakers included Dr RC Sproul, Steve Lawson and others.  He also published a book by the same name.  Those who would like to dig deeper can do a web-search for the conference and the book.  Some may also want to check out this interview with Pastor John Piper (a continuationist) for a respectful different perspective.  Perhaps the best answer is the same as that for “who was the human author of the Book of Hebrews?”.  Answer: “God only knows”.

Another very difficult subject involves the passages in chapter 11, verses 1-16.  The subject is instruction for men and women and the use of head coverings during worship.  Paul states that a woman should cover her head while a man should leave his head uncovered.  The question is, “are these instructions binding on us today?” Again, there are good scholars on both sides of this issue, although the majority opinion appears to be that Paul is addressing the current culture rather than establishing a historical precedent.  A possible precedent might be that husbands and wives should show respect to each other (and thus to God) during worship.  See our Interpreting Historical Narratives for additional info. 

The fifteenth chapter of 1Corinthings on the Resurrection of the dead is very rich in theology, and will be the subject of many other articles.  For now, we want to focus on one often misunderstood verse, But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (15:20).  At first glance, it may appear that Paul is stating that Christ was the first person ever to be resurrected from the dead.  However, there are several other resurrections that chronologically preceded the resurrection of Jesus.  For example, Scripture records the account of the widow’s son at the time of Elijah (1Kg 17:17-24), the man in Elijah’s tomb (2Kg 13:20-21), Lazarus raised by Jesus (Jn 11:38-44), and Eutychus raised by Paul (Ac 20:7-11).  So, if Paul is saying that the resurrection of Jesus (1Cor 15:3-8) chronologically occurred prior to all others, we require an explanation.  Fortunately, most so-called Bible “errors” can be explained by understanding the context and/or the basic terms, in this case “firstfruits” and “resurrection”.

Starting with latter first, the term “resurrection” typically refers to the doctrine of believers being brought out of death to life, particularly at the end of the the age, but the term can have other meanings.  In a general sense, it can simply mean that someone has returned to life from a temporary state of death in order to carry on their life on earth without any resulting change to their physical mortal body.  This is the case with all those who were physically brought back to life as mentioned in OT and NT examples given in the previous paragraph.  Next we find the special case of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after being crucified on the cross as the firstfruits for all believers (1Cor 15:20-23).  It is this special case, along with its glorious consequence for all believers that Paul has in view.  Finally we note that, in a true sense, Jesus is the Resurrection (Jn 11:25-26).

Looking at the Biblical uses of the term “firstfruits”, we initially find it referring to the choice or best portions of the first harvest that was dedicated to God as an offering (Ex 23:19).  In another case, Israel was described as God’s firstfruits (Jer 2:3).  Other noteworthy examples of  “firstfruits” in Scripture are the Holy Spirit (Rm 8:23), believers (Ja 1:18), and the future 144,000 (Rev 14:1-5).

 So when the Bible authors use the term “firstfruits”, the emphasis is on quality rather than chronology.  Paul was stating that the Resurrection of Jesus was special.  It was also first in that it connects, and make possible, all the subsequent resurrections at the end times.  Like Jesus, all true believers will receive a permanent spiritual resurrected body in our eternal glorified state.

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Sandwiched in between his opening greeting (1:1-9) and closing remarks (16:13-24), we can divide the book into two sections.  The first concerns responses to the letter from Chloe’s household (chapters 1-6), and the second involves answers to a second letter from other members of the Corinthian church. 

1:1 - 1:9 Introduction
1:10 - 4:21 Divisions in the Church
5:1 - 6:20 Moral and Ethical Issues
7:1 - 7:40 Marriage and Divorce
8:1 - 11:1 Believer’s Liberty in the Church and its Limits
11:2 - 14:40 Church Worship Issues - Men and Women Roles, Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts
15:1 - 15:58 Resurrection Teaching - Christ and Believers
16:1 - 16:24 About the Collection and Personal Requests

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