As we noted when we began our study of the letter to the Romans, it is important for us to understand the form of a letter that would have been written during the first century. Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us now read 1 Corinthians looking for Paul’s thesis in the letter. We have the tendency to think that this first letter to the Corinthians is just a scattered letter about all sorts of different topics. But once we are able to break down this letter into its proper sections we can see that this letter is not as scattered as some may think.
Finding the Purpose Through the Structure
With a view to the structure of first century letter, a letter would begin by the author mentioning who he is and state his rank, if any. The first letter to the Corinthians begins with this same form: "Paul, called as an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and our brother Sosthenes" (1:1). Next, we would expect to read the recipients of this letter and this is what we find in verse 2: "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours." Next comes the salutation in a typical first century letter. Paul does the same: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). This was a typical Roman and Jewish salutation in the first century, offering grace and peace to the readers and listeners of the letter.
In verses 4-9 we read the thanksgiving section of the letter. Paul describes his thanks to God for the grace that had been given to the Christians in Corinth. This leads Paul to be thankful for how the Corinthians have been enriched in every way and that they do not lack any spiritual gift.
Verse 10 is the beginning of the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Verse 10 becomes the key verse to the letter: "Now I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction." This is the tone of Paul’s letter. There should not be any divisions. But more specifically, the things that Paul writes to them is so that the church at Corinth can be united with the same mind and same purpose.
Outlining the Letter
Beginning in verse 11 of chapter 1 through chapter 4, Paul is dealing with the problem of divisions in the Corinthian church. Verse 11 begins, "For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by members of Chloe’s household, that there are quarrels among you." We will see this phrase again in the next section that something had been reported to Paul that needed to be addressed. This report of divisions is the reason why Paul now writes this letter to try to bring about unity to the Corinthian church. It seems that these divisions were aligned based upon who was the one who baptized the person or who the person held in higher esteem.
Therefore, chapter 1 centers around teaching the Corinthians that there is no glory in men. Rather, Christ is the power and we glorify in Him. This is why Paul talks about the foolishness of the things of the world in contrast to the wisdom of God. Paul’s conclusion to his argument is found in verse 31 where Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:24, "as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord." There is nothing in any person that one can take pride in or glorify. All glory belongs to God because all wisdom and all power in found in Christ (1:24).
Chapter 2 continues this argument in that Paul declares that he himself is nothing also. In the first five verses Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not come in any grandeur personally. Paul’s words, power, and wisdom are from the Holy Spirit and not from himself. Thus, Paul argues, "We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit" (2:13).
Chapter 3 continues with this argument. Though we have had many chapter breaks, the thought process and argument remains the same. Paul condemns the Corinthians for acting as fleshly, worldly people when they have these kinds of divisions. Verse 5 is a key to Paul’s argument: "So, what is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given." Paul simply says in chapter 3 that Paul, the apostles, and other disciples with spiritual gifts are simply God’s servants and are not to be glorified. Paul says that he planted, Apollos watered, but it was God who gave the increase (3:6). "So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (3:7). Paul’s argument continues through chapter 3 and spills into chapter 4. "So no one should boast in men, for all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come—all are yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ to God" (3:21-23).
Chapter 4 continues this argument: "The purpose is that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over another" (4:6). This leads back to the original problem of the divisions at the church in Corinth. People were inflated with pride with favoritism of one person over another. The apostles have nothing to boast in and neither should the Corinthians except Jesus Christ.
Chapter 5 continues Paul’s treatment of the reports he has received from Chloe’s household: "It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you…" (5:1). The problem in the first four chapters continues into chapter 5. "And you are inflated with pride…" (5:2). "Your boasting is not good" (5:6). The problem the Corinthians had was not merely their acceptance of people openly committing sin, but also that they gloried in the actions of these sinners. We all recognize that each person here is a sinner. The problem Paul is dealing with is that we cannot continue practicing sin nor glory in the sinful activities of others.
Chapter 6 continues the dealing with the problems that have been reported among the Corinthians. Paul deals with the report in the form of a question: "Does any of you who has a complaint against someone dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?" (6:1). Paul says, "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" (6:7). The fourth matter that had been reported to Paul was that some were living by the mantra, "Everything is permissible for me." Paul goes on to argue that a Christian cannot allow themselves to be brought under the control of any physical thing, whether it is food or sexual activity, as Paul goes on to describe. Paul concludes with the reminder to the Corinthians, "You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body" (6:19-20).
Chapter 7 begins a new section of the letter. From chapter 7 through chapter 16 Paul now is going to answer questions that have been submitted to him by the Corinthians, likely in the letter Paul had received from them. Chapter 7 deals with the question of marriage and sexual immorality. It is important to notice that Paul’s purpose is not a discourse on divorce and remarriage, but about marriage and sexual relations. To the unmarried, Paul tells them that they have the right to be married, but it is good to remain single as Paul is because of the coming persecution. To the married, Paul instructs them not to divorce. If a person does divorce, he or she must remain unmarried or be reconciled. This command is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus (7:10). In verse 12 Paul deals with the rest, which he tells us is what to do if a believer is married to a non-believer. They also are not to divorce. Paul further instructs them to "remain in the calling in which they were called" (7:20). That is, believers should not be getting divorces simply because their spouses are unbelievers. They are to remain in that calling, that marriage relationship. Paul goes on to give instructs to the virgins and the widows in regards to marriage.
Chapters 8-10 deals with the question concerning meat sacrificed to idols. There seems to be quite a division within the Corinthian church on this issue. Therefore Paul gives the following instructions. In chapter 8 Paul admits that these idols are nothing and the meat can be eaten. However, "if food causes my brother to fall, I will never eat meat again, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall" (8:13). In chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the rest of apostles as examples of this principle. Paul describes that he also has rights and liberties but has suppressed these rights so that he would not cause anyone to stumble. Paul then states a principle that should guide the lives of every Christian, "I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some" (9:22). In chapter 10 Paul uses a warning from Israel’s history to show the need to be sure that we do not cause others to stumble and fall. We can see in verse 23 of chapter 10 that Paul is still arguing about meat sacrificed to idols and why it is important for those who are strong to suppress their liberties to bear up the weak. Paul concludes in chapter 11 and verse 1 that should be imitators of Paul as he is an imitator of Christ.
In chapter 11, verses 2-16 we seem to have a problem among the Christians in Corinth about the head covering. Again, the theme of this book is about the divisions that exist and Paul writes to bring about unity among the saints. Therefore Paul instructs the Corinthians as to when and where the covering is to be used. In chapter 11, verses 17-34 we read about some abuses of the Lord’s Supper taking place at Corinth. It seems there were even divisions in regards to the Lord’s Supper. It seems the Lord’s Supper had been converted into a common meal. This was not the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Lord’s Supper is about remember the body and the blood of Jesus.
Chapters 12-14 deal with spiritual gifts. In chapter 12 it seems that some of the Corinthians held speaking in different languages of great importance and esteem than other spiritual gifts. Thus, the Christians looked down upon each other based upon the gift they had been given. Paul teaches that every gift is needed just as every part of the body is necessary and important. Chapter 13 continues by teaching that the greatest gift is love and that this must be sought out and practiced above all things. The other gifts would pass away and three would remain: faith, hope, and love. In chapter 14 Paul continues to teach the Corinthians about the useless of the way they were using their spiritual gifts. Paul also continues to show that speaking in different languages was the least of the spiritual gifts and not the greatest of the gifts. In the second half of chapter 14 Paul instructs the Corinthians how to use their spiritual gifts in the assembly. Only two or three speakers in different languages could speak when they came together, and only if there was an interpreter. Only two or three prophets were to speak when they came together so that there would be order and peace. Women were not to exercise their spiritual gifts they possessed and were instructed to keep silent in regards to their spiritual gifts.
Chapter 15 deals with the Corinthians questions surrounding the resurrection. According to verse 12 there were some who were teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul argues that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised from the dead and our faith is useless. In verse 35 Paul teaches that though our bodies are buried, they will be raised up and changed into incorruptible bodies, full of glory and splendor.
Chapter 16:1-4 deals with the question about the collection. On the first day of the week the saints were to set something aside as an offering. This collection specifically was to help the needing saints in Jerusalem.
1 Corinthians 16:5 begins the closing of the letter. This was typical for a first century letter. Paul describes his intent to come to Corinth after passing through Macedonia. Paul also explains how he has strongly urged Apollos to come to Corinth, but Apollos is not able at this time but will come later. Verse 13 gives a serious charge to the Corinthians: "Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong." This charge goes to the fact that the Corinthians had been acting like children (3:2). Therefore, act like a faithful Christian. Act like adults and not children.
Verses 19-24 is the greeting to the letter. The churches in Asia greet the Corinthians. Aquila and Priscilla greet the Corinthians along with the church that meets in their house. "This greeting is in my own hand—Paul." This means that Paul took the pen from the scribe and wrote these final words down himself. Thus, Paul has written this letter to bring unity and harmony to a local church that seems to have had divisions at every turn. It was time for them to come together, to grow up in the faith, and think of others before themselves.