What is in 1 Corinthians?
1 Corinthians is the 46th book in the Bible, the 7th book in the New Testament, and one of Paul’s longest letters. It covers a wide variety of topics.

While Paul starts off giving thanks to God for His workings among the Corinthians, Paul’s letter is largely corrective. He cites quarreling among the believers, and desires that it should cease. God puts to shame those who seek the knowledge of the world, and chooses the foolish to shame the wise. Therefore, the one who boasts should boast in the Lord and not themselves, as Paul did when he came to the Corinthians. Instead, the Corinthians should be seeking knowledge from the Holy Spirit, and to understand the mind of Christ.

Then, Paul turns to address sexual immorality and believers taking each other to court. As far as sexual immorality, Paul mentions a man having his father’s wife (his mother) and prostitution, speaking out against both of those. They should flee from sexual immorality, and discipline those inside the church who keep to those ways. Christians are meant to glorify God with their bodies. On the issue of the courts, Christians are bringing each other to pagan courts. This is not acceptable to Paul, who says that Christians should be able to settle disputes amongst themselves and not bring them before those who have no standing in the church.

Paul then address marriage. A husband and a wife should be faithful to each other and to God in their marriages. Marriage is the proper place for sexual relations. Paul also says that he personally wishes more people were like himself, not married. They are able to focus their lives on the Lord instead of dividing attention between the Lord and his or her spouse (and family). But if one cannot exercise sexual self-control, it is better to marry. It is not a sin. Regardless, marriage is to be a lifelong commitment. In cases where two unbelieving people get married, but later on one becomes a Christian, they are to remain married if they have any say in the matter at all. They can be a valuable Christian witness in such cases. Moving on, Paul tells the Corinthians that God calls people from all different walks of life to Him, and that those people should remain in those positions. Paul particularly mentions those who are circumcised (a Jewish ritual signifying holiness to God, which was not important in Christianity) and slaves. In reference to the latter, slaves are free in the Lord. If they have the opportunity to earn their freedom, they should take it, but if that is impossible, being a slave in no way affects a person’s salvation.

Paul notes how food offered to pagan Gods is not sinful to eat, if it does not become a stumbling block to others. It should be clear that the idols are not being worshipped. Then, in general, Paul says Christians should be wary about what, if misinterpreted, could cause others to stumble. Paul describes himself becoming ‘all things to all people’, that he might serve and speak the Gospel message. Paul then turns to idolatry, and urges Christians to put their faith in Jesus instead of any other earthly thing lest they be consumed by it. Temptations will come, but God also provides the means to escape them. All things should be done for the glory of God.

Paul continues to speak on a variety of topics of interest to the Corinthian church. First, men are to pray with their heads uncovered and women with their heads covered (note: this is because a head covering on a woman was a sign of marriage. Taking the covering off would be somewhat like taking an engagement ring off today, a sign of disrespect towards husbands. This is the main concern there, and not a general command for all women). Then he goes on to mention how the Lord’s Supper is disrespected by the Corinthians, wherein some people go hungry and others get drunk. He reminds them of what Jesus said the night of His last supper, and reminds them of the Lord’s presence during communion.

Paul moves on to spiritual gifts. Many different people have many different gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit (prophecy, teaching, healing, etc.) for the building up of the general church. While Paul prioritizes some gifts above others (especially prophecy) and urges the Corinthians to pray that they might receive those higher gifts, no gift is useless. Nor will it be the case that everyone has the same spiritual gift. But all gifts are to be used to build up the church, and they should be utilized in an orderly fashion. Paul then speaks of love as ‘a more excellent way’, saying that even if one gains the whole world, but do not love, they are nothing. Love is selfless, always seeking the truth and the betterment of all.

Coming to the end of the letter, Paul discusses the resurrection. He reiterates that Jesus was seen by more than 500 people after His resurrection, including Paul, with many still alive at the time of writing. The resurrection of the dead is a reality, because it has already happened. This speaks to the hope of future resurrection of all Christians. What’s more, when the dead are raised they will have bodies made perfect, so they can never die. Jesus has conquered death for us all! Lastly, as is customary in Paul’s letters, he ends with more specific instructions for the recipients of his letters, his travel plans, final instructions, and greetings.

Who wrote it?
1 Corinthians 1:1 names the apostle Paul as the author (although he may have composed most of the letter with the help of a scribe), with Sosthenes. The letter does occasionally use ‘I’ to refer to Paul, as in 1 Corinthians 1:4, and Paul is generally considered to have authored the letter.

Who was it written to?
Corinth, located in modern-day Greece, was a crossroads for trade and ideas. On Paul’s journey the in the early 50s A.D., he came to Corinth for 18 months and helped establish a church in the city.

When was it written?
1 Corinthians was written after Paul had moved on to Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8). He lived there for three years, 53-55 A.D. The letter was written towards the end of that stay.

Why was it written?
1 Corinthians was written to correct the Corinthians. Evidently, they had not grown much in the faith since Paul had first visited them. Additionally, the church was divided about a great many things, big and small.

How does 1 Corinthians apply to me?
A life looking to Jesus is very different from a life that only looks for idols. The wisdom of man becomes becomes trivial, even foolish (see Ecclesiastes) in the view of eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity. Since Jesus has risen, we know every other thing He said to be true – the value of love, the mortal danger of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the prospect of the Lord’s return, among so many other things. Paul perceived that the Corinthians were lacking in this regard, so he sought to correct them. Likewise, we could also benefit from these teachings in this world that so often rejects the role of deeply-held religion on public life.

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Recommended resources:

As for all posts in this series, a book introduction in a good study Bible will provide more information than listed here. The ESV Study Bible is one recommendation.
The Bible Project video on 1 Corinthians