1. The Corinthian church was fraught with challenges.
The Apostle Paul was the founder of the church in Corinth. That is, he was the human instrument that God used to bring to birth this church. It was on his second missionary journey, early in the 50s, that he arrived in this city located on the land bridge that connected the Achaean mainland with the Peloponnesus to the south. It was a city blessed with two ports (Lechaeum and Cenchreae) and a cosmopolitan population of an estimated 150,000. It was populous, idolatrous, and immoral to the extreme.
Paul’s ministry began in the synagogue, but when opposition there became too great, he continued in the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. No doubt he also ministered in the agora and other places. “Many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed” (Acts 18:8). God encouraged Paul in a night vision to fearlessly continue ministering, for there would be many people in the city who would yet believe. He continued there for a year and a half. Thus, it must have been a sizeable church, made up largely of converted idol worshipers, with a lesser number of Jews. Paul refers to himself as their spiritual father (1 Cor. 4:15).
However, this was not an easy church to minister to. Some of them were formerly involved in the sexual perversions that the city was noted for, and others were idolaters, thieves, and drunkards (1 Cor. 6:9–11). Furthermore, Paul refers to them as enamored with Greek wisdom (1 Cor. 2:4–5), immature (1 Cor. 3:1), puffed up (1 Cor. 4:6), arrogant (1 Cor. 5:2), boastful (1 Cor. 5:6), inconsiderate (1 Cor. 6:1; 11:21–22), and the list could go on. How did Paul minister to the people in those circumstances?
It is noteworthy that from the very outset of the letter, Paul gives thanks for them, commends them, and recognizes that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1:4–7). Later, he makes it clear that he was not writing to make them ashamed but to admonish them as his beloved children (1 Cor. 4:14). His pastoral love for them is evident throughout. His final words in the epistle are: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (1 Cor. 16:24).
2. First Corinthians has a greater variety of content than any of the other Pauline Epistles.
J. Gresham Machen wrote: “The First Epistle to the Corinthians affords more information than any other New Testament book about the internal affairs of an Apostolic church. First Corinthians alone presents the practical problems of an early church in the fullness of their puzzling variety.”1 A reading of this letter reveals the wide range of subjects in the book. Paul was informed about these matters by two communications that he received: a report from Chloe conveyed by some of her “people,” perhaps servants (1 Cor. 1:11), and another report from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, probably in the form of a letter from the church (1 Cor. 16:17).
There were divisive groups (1 Cor. 1:11–12); a case of incest of such a sort that it was shocking even to the pagans (1 Cor. 5:1); petty lawsuits being publicly aired (1 Cor. 6:1); need of instruction concerning marriage and divorce (1 Cor. 7); disagreements over eating meat that had previously been sacrificed to pagan idols (1 Cor. 8:1–11:1); various matters relating to worship and the use of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12–14); and a denial by some in the church of the reality of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12). That’s a dizzying list of difficulties, and that’s not even all of them. It was a church with a wide array of questions and concerns.
3. Although the Corinthians and their problems are largely separated from us chronologically and culturally, the way Paul engages with them is entirely relevant for us.
Once again, the observation of Machen is worth noting:
First Corinthians deals with certain concrete problems of an ancient church. Those problems are not our problems . . . [But] Paul had the remarkable faculty of viewing even petty problems in the light of eternal principles. Here is the remarkable thing about First Corinthians—every question that is discussed in it is tested by the fire of evangelical truth. Hence the permanent value of the Epistle. How to apply the lofty principles of the gospel to the routine of daily life is the fundamental problem of Christian conduct. That problem cannot be solved for any man in detail, for the details of life are of endless variety; but the method of solution has been set forth in First Corinthians.2
This is a good reminder that every Christian in every age must seek to apply Scripture to their own context. For that, we need help. Begin by using a good study Bible, like the Reformation Study Bible. Fuller commentaries are available, ranging from relatively simple ones to deeply technical ones. Helpful lists of the best commentaries have been compiled by Keith Mathison, Tim Challies, and others. Always remember that your greatest help is going to come from God. Psalm 119:18 is a good prayer to use whenever you read or study the Bible: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.