First Corinthians


I. Introduction

In 51 CE, Paul of Tarsus came to the Roman city of Corinth to found a Christian community. The ancient city had been destroyed by Rome in 146 BCE and lie desolate until Julius Caesar ordered it rebuilt in 44 BCE. Over the next several decades, it grew into a vibrate urban center populated by Greeks, Romans and Jews. It soon gained the status as the Roman capital for the province of Greece.

Corinth lie on the isthmus between upper and lower Greece; this narrow strip of land allowed sea vessels save harbor from rough sailing on the Mediterranean and a shorter trade route between Asia Minor and Italy. Workers would drag ships over the isthmus, while their crews would spend the night in the city. As a travel hub between East and West, the urban center gained wealth and a cosmopolitan flavor; it was a magnet for all types of people and ideas. Paul evangelized in this multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual city.

Five year later, Paul corresponded with the church there (first letter mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9 now lost); he received a disturbing letter in return from members of the community. Internal strife, uncertainty in Christian lifestyle, questions over liturgical practice and belief in the Resurrection stressed the community to the breaking point. He wrote them a second letter (First Corinthians) in response to the divisions and confusion the faithful in Corinth faced.

II. Dating: 55-56 CE in Ephesus.

The date of composition first depended upon where Paul wrote the letter and how that agreed with details of his journeys in the book of Acts.

Several verses in the letter point toward Ephesus as the place of origin, especially 1 Cor 16:1-12, where Paul expressed his intention to visit the city, so he could collect monies the community set aside for the poor in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-3). He hoped to arrive some time after Pentecost and perhaps spend the winter with them after he traveled through Macedonia (1 Cor 16:5-6, 8). Finally, he addressed the possible travel plans of two other missionaries: Timothy, who might arrive before Paul (1 Cor 16:9-10), and Apollos, who would visit as his plans allowed (1 Cor 16:12).

Acts Nineteen described a stay of Paul in Ephesus long enough to write the letter (three years according to Acts 20:31). His intention to travel to Macedonia in 20:3 agreed with 1 Cor 16:6, so he wrote the letter in the spring of the third year before Pentecost. Two events also set the context for the composition: when he established the Church community at Corinth (Acts 18:1-11) and his arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:26-22:29).

If Acts portrayed the time flow accurately, Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, traveled for approximately six months, then remained in Ephesus for three years. Towards the end of his time there, he wrote First Corinthians. Next, he traveled for approximately a year before he arrived in Jerusalem. Considering the detail of his travels between Corinth, Ephesus and Jerusalem, the approximated times of his journey seemed reasonable.

In the time line, Paul's trial before Gallio synchronized Acts with pagan sources. Gallio was a contemporary of Jesus, born at the beginning of the first century, the son of the well connected rhetorician, Seneca the Elder. He took his name from the man who adopted him, Lucius Junius Gallio. Towards the end of his reign, Claudius appointed him proconsul of Acheae; in an imperial stone tablet dated to 52 CE (the Delphi Inscription), the emperor addressed him as "my friend and proconsul." On to long into his office, he resigned, possibly due to health reasons. With the death of Claudius and the rise of Nero in 54 CE, Gallio's family fell out of favor with Rome's elite. He eventually committed suicide, possibility under imperial orders.

With many different sources about the proconsul, scholars have dated the reign of Gallio between 51-52 CE, which placed Paul's stay in Corinth in the same time span. So, Paul laid the ground work for the community around 51 CE, wrote his letter between 55-56 CE and came under arrest in 57 CE.

III. Structure

Just as Paul composed his other letters, he constructed First Corinthians in a multi-level chiastic structure. The over all plan for the letter has the following parallels:

A. Greeting (1:1-9) and future plans/farewell (16:1-24)

B. Divisions in the community (1:10-4:21) and their resolution with proper use of spiritual gifts (orthopraxy; 12:1-14:40) and belief in the Resurrection (orthodoxy; 15:1-18).

C. Immorality of the libertines in the community (5:1-60:20) and warnings against their selfish influence in worship (10:1-11:34)

D. Questions on marital and cultural status (7:1-40) and Paul's status as an apostle authority figure (9:1-27)

The high point of the letter has no parallel; it addressed the libertine's obsession with freedom based upon their knowledge. Here, Paul trumped their freedom with a reoccurring theme: the call to responsibility for others. At the core of the argument and the letter itself was a creedal statement that equated the creative and saving power of Christ with that of his Father in heaven.

IV. Synopsis and Commentary

A. Greeting (1:1-9)

Paul, along with his companion Sosthenes, greeted the community with in his typical manner, calling church members "saints" and wishing them "grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:1-3). In his salutation, Paul reminded the believers at Corinth that the grace God gave would sustain them until the Second Coming (1 Cor 1:4-8).

B. Chiasmus 1a: Critique of divided leadership within the community (1:10-4:21)

1. Step A1: Divisions within the Church (1:10-16)

Paul appealed for unity despite divisions based upon personalities and their traditions (Paul, Apollos, Kephas) or some higher source (Christ). He followed with an absurd set of questions to shame the Corinthians, then stated his purpose; he came to evangelize others in the name of crucified Christ, not merely baptize (1 Cor 1:10-16).

2. Step B: Wisdom, the ideal of community (1:17-2:16)

The highest virtue in Hellenistic culture was wisdom. Different cliques within the community fought each other for control based upon claims of wisdom from different missionaries. Paul would have none of that. "Hasn't God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" (1 Cor 1:20) He proclaimed "Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor 1:23-24) He pointed to the unity of Greek and Jew in Christ that overturned the wisdom of common culture (1 Cor 1:25-29).

Certainly, Paul did not come preaching wisdom but the Good News; he came in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:1-5). Implicitly, he reminded his audience of their place as the eschatological community, based upon the message of the crucified Christ and the activity of the Spirit. Their existence made manifest divine providence, once shrouded in mystery but now revealed to them. They had the words of the Spirit and the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:13-16).

3. Step A2: The sordid reality of the divided community (3:1-4:21)

Paul harshly criticized divisions in the church. In their desire to latch onto a pure tradition, members of the community pitted one missionary against another, yet failed to see how the toils of these wandering preachers worked together to achieve a common end (1 Cor 3:1-10; 1 Cor 3:21-23). Yet, each missionary would face testing and would receive either punishment or reward on the Day of YHWH (1 Cor 3:12-15). Their judgment depending upon whether they built up or tore down the community (1 Cor 3:16-17). Again, Paul reminded them of their eschatological reality; they were the Temple of God, the dwelling place of God's Spirit.

Paul considered himself and his companions as "Christ's servants and stewards of God's mysteries," hoping to be found faithful (1 Cor 4:1-2). He found no fault in his calling; instead, he only saw Final Judgment that rendered everyone transparent before the Lord (1 Cor 4:4-5).

Turning to the efforts of missionaries like Apollos, Paul urged his audience to see his and their messages as complimentary; their preaching gave the faithful a complete picture of the faith. Then, he compared the community to the missionaries like himself. The assembly had the fullness and riches of faith (1 Cor 4:8) while he and his companions endured opposition, hardships and hunger, even to the point of weakness (1 Cor 4:9-13). He admonished them as a reminder that he and others sacrificed what the Corinthians had in order to proclaim the Good News; he even held himself up as an example for them to follow. (1 Cor 4:14-16). He sent Timothy with the letter, but threatened to go there himself to shame the arrogant with his spiritual power (1 Cor 4:17-20).

C. Chiasmus 2a: Immorality dividing the community (5:1-6:20)

After defending and acquitting himself, Paul turned to the real issues at hand in need of judgment: sexual immorality tolerated by the community and member suing each other in civil court. Both problems hindered the church to evangelize as an eschatological community.

1. Step A1: Immorality of incest (5:1-13)

Paul chided the believers for their tolerance of a man who had relations with his stepmother. Their attitude might have been a point of pride for some in the community. The apostle would have none of it; instead, he rejected the man and insisted they excommunicate the sinner (1 Cor 5:1-8). Paul reasoned that if a Christian associated with the incestuous man, even by sharing a meal, he would open himself up to the corruption of other vices. Certainly, outsiders would judge those who shared fellowship with such a Christian as morally tainted. So, believers only had one choice: reject the sinner (1 Cor 5:9-13).

2. Step B: Making divisions public in court (6:1-11)

Next, Paul reminded their status as the saved, even able to judge heavenly beings (6:3). Yet, church members at Corinth sued each other in civil court. The apostle asked a rhetorical question: Wasn't there any Christian wise enough within the community to judge disputes between believers? (1 Cor 6:1-6) He implicitly held such law suits made the community look weak and self destructive in the eyes of pagans. But, he even took a further step, accusing believers who resorted to the civil courts of committing the same crime they sought remedy from (1 Cor 6:7-8).

In the end, Paul lumped the incestuous and the petty litigants together with other sinners as a warning. The immoral would not see the Kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10). But, the believers had prepared for God's reign through baptism, thus justifying them "in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor 6:11).

3. Step A2: Against the immoral libertines (6:12-20)

Finally, Paul attacked the root cause of the problem the Corinthians faced, the libertines who took freedom from the Law to its literal conclusion. They claimed: "All things are lawful for me." In the case of sexual immorality and eating meat offered to idols, the apostle pushed back with the principles of the common good, overcoming addiction and the grander view of end times (1 Cor 6:12-13).

Why did Paul connect sexual immorality and eating meat together? In 20 CE, the ancient geographer Strabo described Corinth's temple to Aphrodite as a sacred brothel housing over 1,000 prostitutes. While many scholars consider the geographer's three line passage as hyperbole, they do acknowledge the city's reputation as center of loose morals.

Paul criticized those who considered Christian freedom as license to partake in pleasures associated with the goddess and to eat meat offered to her. He addressed the intimacy baptism created between the believer and the Lord; through that closeness, Christ would raise up the faithful in the end times (1 Cor 13-14). In that context, he hammered the principle that one could not become one with the Lord and with a prostitute. He insisted the believer should use their body to glorify God since it was the Temple of the Spirit; the Christian should not defile that holy place (1 Cor 6:15-20).

Paul used this passage as a transition. In chapter 7, he addressed the place of sex in the eschatological community. In chapter 8, he spoke to the controversy over eating meats offered to idols.

D. Chiasmus 3a: On Status in Culture (7:1-40)

1. Step A1: Questions on marital status (7:1-16)

Someone in the community wrote to Paul about the institution of marriage implicitly within the context of the Second Coming; "Is it good for a man to not take a wife?" (1 Cor 7:1). Why would such a question arise? To some, marriage made little sense if the eschaton was immanent. With the libertine controversy in mind, however, the apostle answered the question of marriage in a practical way; one should take a spouse to give a healthy direction for sexual urges. Notice Paul couched the decision in opposition to the libertine position; deference, not selfish concerns, stood as the choice of Christian freedom (1 Cor 7:2-4). In fact, if the couple did practice abstinence from sexual relations, they should discuss the matter and limit its duration (1 Cor 7:5).

With reference to the institution of marriage, Paul preferred church members to remain single (implicitly to wait for the Second Coming) but realized not everyone had such a "charism from God" (1 Cor 7:7). He extended this thought to widows (1 Cor 7:8-9).

In a similar vein to Mark 2:2-12 (Matthew 19:3-12), Paul forbade divorce in the community in the Lord's name (1 Cor 7:10-11) but made some concessions for mixed Christian-pagan couples (1 Cor 7:15). However, he urged such couples to remain together, for even marriage and child rearing could evangelize the non-Christian spouse (1 Cor 7:12-14; 1 Cor 7:16).

2. Step B: Circumcision and the status of slaves (7:17-24)

Paul made a side comment on religious and social status; one should remain in the place God called him (1 Cor 1:17; 1 Cor 7:20, 1 Cor 7:24). The Jew should not seek to become like the Gentile and remove the sign of circumcision (see my comments on circumcision here), nor should a Gentile seek to convert to Judaism, for in the Christian community, circumcision meant nothing (1 Cor 7:18-19).

The Christian slave faced the possibility of manumission, legal freedom, so they might expend their energy to gain it. While acknowledging freedom, Paul implicitly urged slaves to use their present status as a means to evangelize (1 Cor 7:21). He reminded them of the Master they freely chose, while the freeman Christian chose slavery under Christ (1 Cor 7:22). Indeed, he implied the crucified Jesus paid the manumission fee ("ransom"), so they should not become the mere slaves of others (1 Cor 7:23); their faith gave them a interior dignity far above that of an ordinary slave and, as such, could evangelize.

3. Step A2: Marital status in view of the Second Coming (7:25-40)

Paul returned to the question of marital status explicitly through the lens of the end times. He noted that,the single man "should remain as he is" because of the "distress at hand" (1 Cor 7:26). His remarks echoed God's calling above. The unmarried man should not seek a wife but does not sin if he married; the same principle held for the single woman, but marriage would bring only grief (1 Cor 7:28) for the Tribulation drew near (1 Cor 7:29; 1 Cor 7:31). Paul urged his audience not to assume daily life would go on; the married should live as if they were not, those who did not mourn should mourn, those involved in commerce should act as if they did not (1 Cor 7:29-31).

Notice Paul did not tout the single life as morally superior but, in his eyes, more practical for one's spiritual life. The unmarried man or woman could focus on ways to "please the Lord" (1 Cor 7:32; 1 Cor 7:34) but the married individual worried about their spouse and the support of a family while trying to maintain a spiritual life (1 Cor 7:33-34). The lack of conflicting priorities, in Paul's mind, reduced anxiety (1 Cor 1:32) and increased the devotion (1 Cor 7:35).

Paul continued to call his audience to remain as God called them. The single man should marry his betrothed if his passion overwhelmed him, but should remain betrothed if it did not (1 Cor 7:36-38). He applied the same rule to the widow. She would live a happier life if she did not remarry; however, she could take a husband but only a Christian one (1 Cor 7:39-40).

E. Core Chiasmus: The Controversy over Meat Offered to Idols (8:1-13)

In the midpoint of his letter, Paul addressed the complaint that caused scandal both inside and outside the community: the libertines who partook in meats offered to idols.

1. Step A1: Knowledge of libertine freedom (8:1-5)

Paul acknowledged the libertine position but undercut it with a preview of chapter 13. Love trumped knowledge for it bought the believer closer to God and built up the community (1 Cor 8:1-3). He ceded to their point that "there is no God but One" and "an idol in the world is nothing" (1 Cor 8:4). He even agreed that a spiritual hierarchy existed (similar to ancient society; 1 Cor 8:5).

2. Step B: Creedal formula (1 Cor 8:6)

"but for us, one God the Father,
out of whom all things (live) and we (live) in him,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom all things (live) and we (live) through him."

Notice how Paul placed Christ on the same level as God the Father in spiritual powers of creation (we live in him) and salvation (we live through him). This verse marked the high point of the First Corinthians, summing up the apostle's spiritual vision.

3. Step A2: Responsibilities that come from knowledge (8:7-13)

Paul shared the principle with the libertines that food had no spiritual significance (1 Cor 8:8). But he took the libertines to task. Those who acted based upon their superior knowledge did not consider the possible scandal they might create with those who consider eating meat offered to pagan deities as idolatry. Paul insisted that knowledge entailed responsibility; those with knowledge should not destroy the conscience of those lacking such insight. Acting out of self interest created the conditions for sin, against the weak in the community and, ultimately, against Christ (1 Cor 8:7; 1 Cor 8:9-12). For his part, Paul became a vegetarian for the good of the community (1 Cor 8:13).

F. Chiasmus 3b: On Paul's status as an Apostle (9:1-27)

After his rulings on sexual morality in the community and the controversy over eating meat offered to idols, Paul defended his place as an apostle. Implicitly, he faced questions from some in the community over his status. Did he really see the Lord? Did he, in fact, receive a commission to preach? Why did he support himself while other missionaries enjoyed the hospitality of the community? Wasn't he rude in his independence?

1. Step A1 : The rights of an apostle (9:1-7)

Paul answered his critics in two ways. First, he success in the Corinthian community proved his status as an apostle (1 Cor 9:1-2); if Christ had not sent him, he would have failed and suffered shame as a fraud.

Second, Paul and Barnabas did have the right to the community's hospitality, along with other missionaries and their entourages (1 Cor 9:3-5) but decided to work and enjoy the fruits of his labor, like the self-supporting soldier, the vineyard owner or the shepherd (1 Cor 9:6-7).

2. Step B1: Agricultural analogy from Scripture (9:8-12)

Indeed, Paul claimed the right to evangelize when he employed an agricultural mitzvot (Deu 25:4). His self-employment allowed him the freedom to preach the Good News without hindrance, bringing spiritual blessings to the community. The obligation of the community to support him remained; in fact, his refusal to actually increased their duty towards him (1 Cor 9:8-12).

3. Step C: Paul's boast for self-sufficiency, suffer for the Gospel (9:12)

Paul and Barnabas did not accept hospitality, willing to suffer so they could proclaim the Good News without owing any debt (1 Cor 9:12).

4. Step B2: Show bread analogy from Scripture (9:13-14)

Yet, Paul and his friends had a right to the help, based upon the command for show bread offerings which only the priests could eat (Lev 24:5-9; 2 Cor 9:13-14 ).

5. Step A2: Paul refused his rights as an apostle (9:15-27)

Paul made his self-employment a point of pride. Implicitly, he did not have to please his host; he was only obligated to evangelize. That duty had its own reward, his boasting (1 Cor 9:15-18). But even his crowing had its limits. Not only did he need to proclaim the Good News, he had the responsibility to effectively communicate that message through relationships. He adjusted his rhetoric to the Jew, the Gentile and the weak for their sake; he "became all things to all people" so that he "might save some" (1 Cor 9:22). He became a slave to all in his proclamation so that he might enjoy the blessings from the effort and its effects upon people (1 Cor 9:19-23).

Paul ended his defense with a sports analogies: the runner and the boxer. He ran to win the "imperishable wreath" of salvation. He disciplined himself like a fighter to compete, otherwise he would be disqualified from eternal life. He focused on life with Christ, not the present order (1 Cor 9:24-27).

G. Chiasmus 2b: Warnings against the Libertines (10:1-11:34)

1. Step A1: Spiritual food and drink, Exodus as the eternal pattern of salvation and judgment (10:1-13)

To begin his warnings, Paul recalled the Exodus, the liberation journey that molded a people into a nation. He couched his language in sacramental images; Jewish ancestors "passed through the sea" (baptism), "ate the same spiritual food" and "drank the same spiritual drink" from "the spiritual rock that followed them" (Eucharist). Yet, they were judged unworthy (1 Cor 10:1-5).

In 1 Cor 10:6, the apostle called this paraphrase a "tupos," a pattern that occurred in time that revealed a timeless truth. While we post-moderns separate historical events and theological truths, ancient peoples actively sought eternal truths in the significant moments of a nation. Paul applied that common logic to their present situation. The Hebrews enjoyed divine favor but were rejected; this should stand as a warning to the libertines in Corinth. They should not feast at the city-wide festival that honored Aphrodite, like the Israelites who partied before offering sacrifice to the golden calf (Exo 32:6). They should not partake in ritual prostitution like many of the Chosen People did near Shittim (Num 25:1-4). They should not test the divine like those Hebrews who suffered an attack of snakes (Num 21:5-9); notice how Paul pointed to the snake pole Moses erected as a sign for Christ in 1 Cor 10:9. Finally, they should not grumble as the people did in the desert, only to suffer God's wrath from a destroying spirit (Num 16:41-50). See how the apostle argued in a parallel fashion, comparing past events with the present situation; he called the Scripture accounts "tupikos," patterns meant to warn those who used their freedom for self-centered ends (1 Cor 10:6-11). Yet, he recognized the allurements such practices offered, but promised divine help to those tempted (1 Cor 10:13).

2. Step B1: Partaking in the Eucharist vs. Meals in Honor of Pagan Deities (10:14-22)

Paul struck another blow against the libertines. He commanded his audience to abandon any association with idol worship. He reminded the faithful in Corinth they celebrated the Eucharist, sharing the cup of Christ's blood and breaking the bread of Christ's body; this sacred meal united them. Flashing back to 1 Cor 10:7, the apostle argued that association, not the food itself, defiled the libertine who celebrated pagan festivals; they were "partners in the altar" of "demons." Paul concluded one could not share in the sacred meal of the Lord and partake in the "cup" and "meal" of the devils; if they did, they provoked God's wrath (1 Cor 10:14-22).

3. Step C1: Eating and drinking with neighbors for the glory of God (10:23-11:1)

Paul reintroduced the principle found in 1 Cor 8:1-3. Knowledge by itself did not build up the community; instead one should seek the good of others. With this in mind, he told his audience to consume meat sold at the marketplace or at the home of a pagan friend without worry. However, if someone commented that the food before the Christian was offered to an idol, the believer should not eat it out of concern for the conscience of others. Without such controversy, the faithful should eat and drink in gratitude to God. Their goal was the glory of God, neither causing scandal to outsiders nor to the community itself; instead, Paul insisted, they should aim to please everyone, as he tried to do, for salvation of others (1 Cor 10:23-11:1).

4. Step D: Place of genders in worship (11:2-16)

Despite arguing for the equality of genders before God (Gal 3:28), Paul insisted upon the social custom of head coverings for women, especially in liturgical settings. Such coverings signified modesty since ancient Judaism considered long hair on a woman a sign of beauty (Song 4:1; Song 7:6), never to be cut except in times of mourning (Jer 7:29). Women cared for and decorated their hair (2 Kings 9:30; Song 4:4) thus tempting them to vanity. The public display of long hair revealed the beauty of the woman normally reserved for her husband, family and intimate friends; hence, it flaunted social norms with its audacity. (Men, however, had their hair cut on a regular basis.)

Paul argued for head coverings based upon a cosmological hierarchy. In this order, God created man then woman; the woman depended upon the man who depended upon God; indeed, God created the male in his image but woman in the image of man (1 Cor 11:7-8) . The apostle used that structure as allegory for the relationship between Christ and his Church (1 Cor 11:3). With these two images in mind, he insisted that women should have their hair covered in a liturgical setting (for prayer and prophecy) as a sign they were under an authority; otherwise, they were contentious and faced shame (1 Cor 11:2-16).

From a modern standpoint, Paul mixed the cosmological and social world views together; he assumed that the social order should reflect the created order. We must understand that he did not make distinctions we take for granted. In his mind, God's world was his world.

5. Step C2: Partaking in community meal worthily (11:17-34)

Paul slammed the community for celebrating the Lord's Supper unworthily. He pointed to the factions that made their disdain of each other apparent at the ritual; they ate in their little cliques and drank even to the point of drunkenness. In doing so, they ignored the needs of the hungering poor. They, according to the apostle, approached the celebration as a party, not as a ritual that expressed the fullness of the Church (1 Cor 11:17-22).

6. Step B2: Meaning of the Lord's Supper (11:23-26)

Much of the early theology about the Eucharist came from Paul's passage. He passed along the narrative of the Last Supper and its focus upon the end times; this ritual evangelized the crucifixion with an eye on the Second Coming (1 Cor 11:23-26; more detailed commentaries on the Lord's Supper here and here).

Originally, the Lord's Supper was a fellowship meal where members brought food to share in common (an ancient "pot-luck"). The "breaking of bread" began the meal, the sharing of the Eucharistic cup ended it and, between these end caps, the co-mingling of donated food gave the community a chance to express unity and for its members to interact with each other. The ceremony gave expression to the phrase "the Body of Christ" (1 Cor 11:29; this title would be explored more fully in chapter 12).

7: Step A2: Spiritual food and drink to the community's salvation and judgment (11:27-34)

Paul heightened his critique, implicitly telling the community they ignored the presence of the Risen Christ in their midst; because of their abuses, they would answer to "the Body and Blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27). The apostle urged the community to examine themselves and change their ways, lest they be judged and suffer like others in their midst had. In the end, he instructed the community to wait until all gathered, even if that meant eating at home, all for the good order of the local church (1 Cor 11:27-34).

H. Chiasmus 1b: Orthopraxy in the spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40)

1. Step A1: Unity of spiritual gifts under the Spirit (12:1-11)

After Paul lectured the Corinthian community on decorum and nature of the Lord's Supper, he turned to the subject of charisms exercised during local church gathering. He rooted those spiritual gifts in the Spirit. The Spirit initiated faith in Jesus as Lord. It brought unity to the local church despite different types of service offered to its members with varied outcomes. It gave different charisms to community members to strengthen the church's internal bonds. In 1 Cor 12:8-10, Paul listed the spiritual gifts in order of importance, with wisdom first, then knowledge, faith, healing, working amazing powers, prophecy, discernment of spirits, gift of tongue and, finally, the interpretation of tongues. But, he insisted that the root of these charisms lie in the initiative of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:1-11).

2. Step B1: The Body as a metaphor for the Church (12:12-31)

Paul shifted his focus to the physical body as a metaphor for the Church. Like the body, he stated that the church had different parts ("members") but also possessed the unity found in a formal group which he identified as "Christ." Peoples from varied backgrounds that reflected the cosmopolitan nature of Corinth were baptized into the community and shared the same Spirit-driven ethos (1 Cor 12:12-13).

The apostle emphasized unity over diversity. But now he delved into the metaphor to show how absurd he found the factionalism of the Corinthian church. Those cliques that claimed superiority over others based upon special knowledge (the libertines), special tradition (Paul vs. Kephas vs. Apollos) or special charisms could not exist by themselves (1 Cor 12:15-16). Nor could the church be reduced to a special knowledge or tradition or charism that one of these cliques represented (1 Cor 12:17-19). While each of these groups had a place in the community, they had no right to exclude others (1 Cor 12:20-21). In fact, those church members who did not possess knowledge or tradition or charism required greater care, thus emphasizing the equality of Christians; such concern for each other reduced internal dissension and increased mutual affection (1 Cor 12:22-26). Above all, the diversity found in the community found its source not in the egos of the cliques but in the initiative of God.

Paul summed up the discussion of diversity in the community by listing a leadership hierarchy. He began with the traveling ministers (apostles), then local leaders (prophets and teachers) and, finally, those with special gifts that rose up organically within the church (workers of great power, healers, charitable outreach and those with the gift of tongues). Through the use of rhetorical questions, he pointed out that no one could lead in every position. So, what could Christians do? He pointed to a greater way (1 Cor 12:27-31).

3. Step C: Love as the Critique of Community Factionalism (13:1-13)

In his discourse on love, Paul criticized the church at Corinth for their lack of cohesion. First, he asserted that the charisms the factions touted did not guarantee any desired results. Without love, the beauty of tongues, prophecy and understanding, the power of faith, even asceticism and martyrdom all came to naught (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Next, the apostle described the power of love in a way the distinguished it from the attitudes found among the Corinthians. Love encouraged patience, kindness, humility, gentleness and forbearance. The factions in the community were impatient, unkind, arrogant and highly critical; they insisted upon their self-righteousness, and basted in their immorality. The community there did not share in the hallmark virtue other churches possessed (1 Cor 13:4-7).

Finally, Paul charged the factions with taking the short view. They saw their charisms not as means to an end but ends in themselves. However, as the apostle pointed out, their gifts would fade away at the end, while love would remain. He stated the present only provided a partial view while the Second Coming would give everyone the complete picture. Here, he employed two analogies to make his point: growing up and a mirror. The child matured and developed into an adult, out growing earlier concerns. (Notice his implicit insult; the factions were childish!) The ancient mirror could only give an imperfect likeness; in the end, the image would become clear. And in the Kingdom, only the theological virtues would remain, with love would tower over the others (1 Cor 13:8-13). By saying this, Paul insinuated that the church he founded might not survive the Tribulation, all due to their lack of love.

4. Step B2: Use of tongues and prophecy to build up the Body (14:1-25)

With regard to the charisms of tongues and prophecy, Paul touted the superiority of the later. As an ecstatic utterance, speaking in tongues had no meaning except as prayer ("the mysteries of the Spirit" in 1 Cor 14:2); it only built up the individual. However, prophecy had a coherence that gave insight; it build up, encouraged and consoled the community. The apostle saw these qualities as vital. Speaking in tongues without interpretation had limited utility for the growth of the church (1 Cor 14:1-5).

Paul reinforced this point with a rhetorical statement and the analogy of an musical instrument. If he came just speaking in tongues, how effective would his evangelization be? If someone just played random sounds on a flute or harp, how would anyone make out the melody? If a bugler did the same, how would the army prepare for battle? So, it was with speaking in tongues. While someone engaging in the charism might find emotional satisfaction, they still did not build up the community with their incoherent sounds. In fact, the apostle insisted, such a practice alone might lead to estrangement (1 Cor 14:11). Implicitly, he jabbed the factions whose charism of tongues became their proof of superiority and claims to leadership; ecstatic utterances by themselves did not advance the good of the community. Instead of advancing the gift of tongues alone, he insisted, Christians in Corinth should seek the charisms that built up (1 Cor 14:6-12).

Going further, Paul stated that those who speak in tongues should pray for the power to interpret, to make the incoherent understandable. For the apostle, intelligible prayers of praise, blessing and thanksgiving were superior to tongues alone. Such prayers engaged the mind as well as the spirit and allowed others, especially the outsider, to partake in their intent with an "Amen." While Paul prayed frequently in tongues, he preferred intelligible statements to instruct and edify the community (1 Cor 14:13-18).

Paul chided the community for its childish spirituality (not unlike 1 Cor 13:11) and challenged them to maturity. He quoted Isaiah 28:11-12 in which the prophet told the people YHWH would speak to them through foreigners (the Assyrians), yet they would not understand. The ecstatic utterances, the apostle implied, revealed God's will in ways unintelligible, like the misunderstood speech of the Assyrians to the Israelites; such speech might catch the attention of the outsider, but it hardly evangelized. But, Paul insisted that prophecy primarily edified the community but also evangelized; a prophet could make plain the inner thoughts of the outsider and cause that non-believer to recognize the power of God in the midst of the church (1 Cor 14:20-25).

5. Step A1: Harmony of spiritual gifts in the order of worship (14:26-40)

In this last section of his liturgical instructions, Paul laid out guidelines for orderly worship. Members of the community should come prepared to make a contribution to the service. He limited the number of those speaking in tongues or prophesying to a few, commanded they take turns and insisted on silent time so the community could absorb the message. He also ordered women to remain silent in church because of their socially subordinate role (see 1 Cor 11:7-8); they should discuss church affairs at home with their husbands. He insisted his commands came from the Lord, as any prophet in the community should recognize. In the end, while he did not want to stifle prophecy or speaking in tongues, he wanted liturgical order in the community (1 Cor 14:26-39). "For God is one of chaos, but one of peace." (1 Cor 14:33)

I. Chiasmus 1b: Orthodoxy in the Resurrection (15:1-58)

Paul turned his attention to a faction of philosophically minded members who claimed the Resurrection was metaphorical, not literal. Such believers had a world view closer to that of the Athenians in Acts 17:16-34 than that of the Jewish Paul. This clash requires some unpacking, so there is a separate detailed commentary for chapter 15.

J. Conclusion (16:1-24)

Paul concluded his letter with a charity appeal, his travel plans and his farewell. He asked the community to contribute on the "first day of the week" for the needy in Jerusalem; implicitly, the church collected monies during its weekly liturgical gathering that commemorated the Resurrection. When he arrived he would not have to take a collection and representatives from the church could accompany him to Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4).

While Paul was delayed in Ephesus until Pentecost, he intended to visit the community after following the coast of the Aegean north to Macedonia, then south to Corinth. He asked them to warmly receive Timothy as a fellow missionary and relayed the vague plan of Apollos to visit them (1 Cor 16:10-12).

Paul mentioned the household of Stephanas as the first converts in the area and steadfast hosts to the community; they deserved the church's support. He sent along the greetings of the churches from Asia Minor, especially those of Aquila and Prisca. Finally, he closed with call for the Lord's coming and a prayer for grace upon them (1 Cor 16:21-24).

V. Summary

St. Paul wrote to a community he founded and, after five years, fell into discord. Many different factions within the church claimed leadership, some based upon tradition (followers of Paul, Apollos or Kephas), some on self-proclaimed "superior" knowledge (libertines), some who covered Greek philosophy with a Christian veneer (resurrection deniers). Some tried to prove their superiority with the exercise of charisms. The apostle chastised those groups, defending his place as an apostle while clearly stating their infighting took their focus away from the presence of the Lord Jesus.

Paul wrote to them, implicitly reminding them that they gathered as an eschatological community. They had the Spirit of the Risen Christ; he lived among them. But, he would only reveal himself fully in the Second Coming. They differed from the common culture, yet they lived in the midst of that culture. Paul penned the letter to expound on that reality and to challenge the faithful there to live up to ideal of a Spirit-filled, Spirit-driven assembly awaiting the coming of the Lord.


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