Here is a short summary of 1 Corinthians: 1 Corinthians was written to a young and struggling church in the city of Corinth. Paul had heard reports of divisions in the church and received a letter from the church asking all sorts of questions. The church was riddled with problems and 1 Corinthians sought to address these issues one after the other.
At the heart of these specific topics that were pertinent to the Corinthian congregation was their identity as the people of the triune God. They needed to learn to embody the wisdom of God revealed in the cross of the Messiah. And they needed to learn to embody the holiness that is only appropriate to being the temple of God’s Spirit.
These two great truths about their identity would help them deal with their divisions, sexual immorality, disorder in corporate worship, and confusion about the future resurrection.
Backstory to 1 Corinthians
It’s the AD mid-50’s and there’s a small and struggling church in the city of Corinth. The church is just a few years old. Paul had started it in AD 51, spending 18 months in the city laboring to establish a solid body of Christ there.
Paul’s labor was deliberate and focused. Corinth was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, booming with growth and economic opportunity. It commanded two harbors on the west and the east, and tradesmen and travelers frequented the city. A solid church there could influence hundreds, if not thousands, for the sake of Christ.
So, Paul stationed himself in Corinth on his second missionary journey in the year AD 51. You can read the story in Acts 18. We know the year, because we know from historical records that Gallio was proconsul in Corinth for only one year, July 51-June 52 (see Acts 18:12).
“A solid church there could influence hundreds, if not thousands, for the sake of Christ.”
When Paul first came to Corinth, he stayed and worked with Aquilla and Priscilla in their leather and tent shop. Working for his own room and board was a regular practice for Paul, but in due course it caused issues with some of the Corinthians. Manual labor like that lowered his honor and status, and seemed beneath the dignity of someone who was supposedly an apostle of King Jesus. If he needed financial help, why not just accept some wealthy person’s patronage as everyone else did?
But the patronage had its own entanglements that Paul saw the problems of, so he worked for his own keep until Timothy and Silas came down from Macedonia and brought an offering from the church there which allowed Paul to give himself more full-time to preaching and ministry. And so Paul settled in for 18 months laboring to establish the church.
A few years after his time in the city, Paul writes 1 Corinthians to address pressing questions and issues that were threatening the church in Corinth. The church members thought of themselves as super spiritual, but they were actually quite spiritually immature. And as a result, they were being shaped much more by the values of the city around them than by the kingdom of Jesus.
“They were being shaped much more by the values of the city around them than by the kingdom of Jesus.”
When Paul writes the letter, he is in Ephesus, just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, near enough to have received communication concerning the church there. He’s heard from some of Chloe’s people (probably a group of people from Chloe’s household in Corinth) about some of the problems in the church, especially the factionalism and divisions (1:11). He’s also received a letter from the Corinthians themselves asking some questions about some of the issues causing them problems (7:1).
And there are a ton of problems:
- There were divisions along the lines of various leaders and it seems to have to do with matters of status and honor and who’s really wise and spiritual.
- There were issues related to sexuality and marriage.
- There were questions about meat offered to idols and idol banquets which were impacting people’s faith.
- There were matters of corporate worship, pertaining to proper attire in worship, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual gifts.
- There was even confusion about the resurrection from the dead!
The church was pretty much a mess!
And even though we call this letter 1 Corinthians, it’s not Paul’s first letter to them. He’s already written them one letter dealing with a problem or two, especially with an “immoral brother,” but they had apparently misunderstood that letter.
“He’s received a letter from the Corinthians themselves asking some questions about some of the issues causing them problems.”
So Paul sets out to write another letter, the one we call 1 Corinthians, and he intends to address their questions and problems, not just for their benefit but also for the benefit of all the churches.
An Overview of 1 Corinthians
As mentioned above, Paul received his information about the problems in the church from two main sources: Chloe’s people (1:11) and a letter (7:1). Because of this, many organize the contents of the letter according to those sources: 1) chapters 1-6, responding to a report from Chloe’s people, 2) chapters 7-16, responding to the questions in the letter.
Organizing it that way, however, doesn’t really help us keep track of the contents of the letter because it doesn’t describe or summarize the topics of those sections. Not only that, but it’s pretty clear that Paul intermixes material from both sources at times throughout the letter. So I think it’s best to organize the letter according to main topics, which gives us a much clearer overview.
Chapters 1-4: Divisions, Wisdom, and the Cross
The first major section of the letter focuses on the divisions that are plaguing the church in Corinth. These divisions are being fueled by the “wisdom” of this world—the values, aims, and ambitions of Corinth itself. God’s wisdom subverts all of that, and the pattern of God’s wisdom takes the shape of the cross.
So the letter begins in 1:1-9 with a standard greeting and thanksgiving, but Paul doesn’t thank God for the Corinthians directly. Instead, he thanks God for his grace that has enriched them and his faithfulness that will establish them.
Then he turns to the first major issue in the church that he needs to address: divisions. In 1:10-17, Paul asserts that there must not be any divisions based on worldly wisdom around various leaders in the church. God’s wisdom is completely different from worldly wisdom, and at the heart of God’s wisdom is the message of the cross. That message may be considered foolish by the wisdom of the world, but it imparts God’s power (1:18-2:5).
Summary of 1 Corinthians: “The message of the cross may be considered foolish by the wisdom of the world, but it imparts God’s power.”
In fact, Paul challenges the Corinthians to acknowledge that most of those who made up the church in Corinth weren’t wise or great or powerful by the world’s standards, and that’s because God in his wisdom intends to subvert the so-called wisdom of this world.
In 2:6-16, Paul clarifies that even though the message of the cross is viewed as foolish by the standards of the world, it actually reveals the wisdom of God. Thus, Paul’s preaching does in fact impart wisdom, even wisdom revealed by the Sprit of God. Those who are mature, that is, those who live by the Spirit, will recognize the message about Jesus and the cross as God’s wisdom (3:1-23). If anyone does not recognize it as such, then they aren’t spiritual or mature.
In 4:1-16, all of this material about wisdom and the cross is applied to the issue of leadership and status. It’s the worldly values surrounding those two things that are causing many of the divisions in the church. So, in view of the cross, God’s wisdom is that status and leadership means being self-emptying servants of Christ. In ch. 4, Paul uses himself and his team as examples of this kind of self-giving service. He expresses hope that they will follow his example so that when he comes he won’t have to use a “rod” of discipline (4:17-20).
“In view of the cross, God’s wisdom is that status and leadership means being self-emptying servants of Christ.”
Chapters 5-7: Immorality, Sexuality, and Marriage
As you end chapter 4 and begin chapter 5, you are beginning the next major section of the letter. All the issues addressed in chapters 5-7 involve sexuality and marriage, except one (6:1-11). It appears there was some confusion about holiness, marriage, and sex in the church at Corinth. Some in the church seemed to have the idea that they could have sex with whomever since it didn’t affect their spiritual life. Others had the opposite view that sex even in marriage taints their holiness. Paul thus provides a Christian perspective on sex and marriage.
In 5:1-13, Paul addresses a specific behavioral issue facing the church in Corinth. There is a man who is sleeping with his stepmom! Paul is aghast and urges them to remove the man from among them for the purity of the community and hopefully the man will repent, too.
6:1-11 discusses the one topic that isn’t directly related to sexuality and marriage in this section, but it is loosely connected to the end of chapter 5. In 5:11 Paul lists the kinds of people the church should discipline, and he restates that list in 6:9-10, tying the two paragraphs together. The specific issue in 6:1-11 is people in the church suing other people in the church. In short, Paul says to quit taking their fellow Christians to court and sort the matters out among themselves, since they have been called by God to judge matters like this.
“Paul thus provides a Christian perspective on sex and marriage.”
In 6:12-20, Paul returns to the issue of sexuality and addresses some in the church who are still visiting prostitutes. Paul’s instructions are clear: flee immorality and stop going to prostitutes.
Then chapter 7 addresses several topics related to sexuality and marriage. First, Paul tells married couples to stop withholding sex from each other (7:1-9). Then in 7:10-24, he addresses people who have become believers but their spouses have not. He tells them to stay married to their unbelieving spouse unless the unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the marriage. Finally in 7:25-40, Paul gives instructions about marriage for young betrothed people, explaining that there are advantages to choosing to remain unmarried but that getting married isn’t a sin.
Chapters 8-10: Freedom and Meat Offered to Idols
Chapter 8 begins a new topic that is also stirring up trouble in the church: meat offered to idols and how Christian freedom relates to that. Paul states in 8:1-13 that
although they have freedom to eat meat, if eating it causes their fellow Christians to stumble, they should not eat meat.
On the surface, 9:1-27 seems like a different subject altogether. But Paul returns to the topic of meat offered to idols in chapter 10, so we know Paul is still addressing that subject. So how does chapter 9 fit in? Paul once again provides his own example as a pattern for the Corinthians (Paul even ends this whole section in 11:1 by calling the Corinthians to imitate him). In ministry, Paul limited his freedom based on what was best for others and the Corinthians should imitate this pattern.
“In ministry, Paul limited his freedom based on what was best for others and the Corinthians should imitate this pattern.”
Next Paul uses the example of Israel during the Exodus (10:1-13). They experienced some amazing displays of God’s power, but those experiences did not eliminate the need for loyal obedience to God. The same is true for the Corinthians. They must be loyal to God.
So in 10:14-11:1, Paul calls the Corinthians to flee idolatry. That means that even though they have freedom regarding meat, they should not eat in temple dining rooms, and they should avoid eating idol meat when they learn that’s what is being served.
Chapters 11-14: Issues of Order in Christian Worship
The Corinthians were also dealing with several kinds of disorder in their corporate church gatherings. So Paul addresses those issues next.
In 11:2-16, he addresses a very specific issue about head coverings for those praying and prophesying in the church service. In keeping with their culture’s gender expressions, he instructs that when someone prays or prophesies in church, men should keep their head uncovered and women should wear a head covering. (For more on this, see the article “What’s Up with Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11?”)
There was also a problem with the way they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper and the meal that went with it. The more well-to-do people in church were feasting and the poorer members of the church were going hungry. So in 11:17-34, Paul tells them that this division between the haves and have nots in their communal meal was a violation of the very spirit of the Lord’s Supper, and it must stop. It’s the kind of activity that brings judgment upon them.
“The more well-to-do people in church were feasting and the poorer members of the church were going hungry.”
There was also a major problem involving the spiritual gifts in the church gathering, especially regarding tongues-speaking and prophesy. Paul tackles this subject in chapters 12-14.
In 12:1-31, Paul makes clear that, in the body of Christ, unity in diversity is a God-designed necessity. Not everyone has the same gift. Not one gift is superior to the others. All gifts are necessary to forming a complete body.
13:1-13 points out that spiritual gifts (including the more visible speaking gifts like tongues and prophecy) are not the mark of spirituality. Love is the supreme measure of spiritual maturity.
Then in chapter 14, Paul gives some specific guidelines for using the gifts of tongues and prophecy in the church service. It appears that some in the Corinthian congregation were claiming that tongues-speaking was the greatest (and most spiritual) gift. So in 14:1-19, Paul explains that prophecy is superior to tongues because it is understandable to everybody in the gathering. Paul is also concerned that everything be done in an orderly fashion, so in 14:20-40, Paul gives specific guidelines for order in the practice of prophecy and tongues when the whole church gathers.
“Paul is concerned that everything be done in an orderly fashion.”
Chapter 15: The Resurrection
The Corinthian church is so theologically confused that there was even some confusion about the resurrection of the dead, with some even denying it. So, in 15:1-34, Paul contends that the resurrection is central to Christian faith and living, and is based on the fact of Jesus’ own resurrection. If Jesus has not been raised, their faith is worthless!
Paul then addresses some of their confusion by explaining a few things about the future resurrection body in 15:35-58. He says, in essence, that the resurrection body will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and empowered by the Spirit.
Chapter 16: The Collection and Closing Remarks
Before Paul wraps up the letter, he addresses one of his own concerns. He is working on a project to collect an offering for the Christians in Judea and the Corinthians have signed on to participate. So in 16:1-12, he instructs them to prepare for the collection by collecting their offerings each Sunday until he comes.
Paul wraps up the letter in 16:13-24 by noting that Apollos will come when he can and encouraging the Corinthians to be strong and to honor people like Stephanas and others who give themselves to ministry.
1 Corinthians in 10 Passages
1. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
—1 Corinthians 1:18
2. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.”
—1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Summary of 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
3. “Flee sexual immorality. Every other sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
—1 Corinthians 6:18-19
4. “But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife is not to leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband is not to divorce his wife.”
—1 Corinthians 7:10-11
5. “But take care that this freedom of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
—1 Corinthians 8:10
6. “For though I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may gain more….I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”
—1 Corinthians 9:19, 23
Summary of 1 Corinthians: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”
7. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
—1 Corinthians 11:26
8. “For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
—1 Corinthians 12:12-13
9. “If I speak with the tongues of mankind and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
—1 Corinthians 13:1-2
Summary of 1 Corinthians: “If I speak with the tongues of mankind and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
10. “For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”
—1 Corinthians 15:16-17
One Bonus Passage
“But when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?’”
—1 Corinthians 15:54-55
 All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard.
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