Introduction to the Bible - 46 - 1 Corinthains

The First Epistle to the Corinthians

by Louis Berkhof


 The contents of this Epistle may be divided into five parts:

 I. Condemnation of the Factions in the Church, 1:1--4: 21. After a  brief introduction in 1: 1-9 Paul states that he had heard of the  divisions among the Corinthians, 1: 11-12. In arguing against these he  points out that his conduct was free from party spirit, since this is  opposed by the gospel and forbidden by the character of Christ,  1:13-31. Moreover he reminds the Corinthians that his preaching had  been free from all partisanship which glories in the wisdom of man,  because the gospel is the message of divine wisdom, is revealed by the  Spirit and is understood only through the Spirit; white party spirit  misapprehends the nature of the ministry, 2: 1--3 : 23. He concludes  this argument by pointing to his own example, 4:1-21.

 II. The Necessity of Church Discipline urged, 5:1--6: 20. The  Corinthians are exhorted to cast out the incestuous person, 5:1-13; to  desist from lawsuits before the unrighteous, 6:1-11; and to flee from  fornication, 6:12-20.

 III. Answer to Inquiries sent from the Church, 7:1--14: 39. Here we  find a discussion of the lawfulness of marriage and its duties;  directions about mixed marriages and an apostolic advice to the  unmarried, 7:1-40. Then follows a discussion of Christian liberty in  the participation of food offered to the idols, in which love must  rule, and one must beware of any participation in idolatrous practices.  The apostle illustrates this principle at length by pointing to his own  example, 8:1--11: 1. Next the place of woman in the assemblies of the  church, and the proper observance of the Lord's supper is considered,  11:2-34. And finally the spiritual gifts manifest in the congregation  come in for consideration. Their source and diversity, their functions,  the superiority of love over the extraordinary gifts, and of prophecy  over the speaking of tongues, and the right service of God,--all  receive due treatment, 12:1--14: 40.

 IV. A Discussion of the Resurrection, 15:1-58. The apostle shows that  the resurrection of Christ is an essential article of the apostolic  testimony, and is the pledge of our resurrection; and answers various  objections, describing the nature of the resurrection body and the  final victory over death.

 V. Conclusion, 16:1-24. In this chapter the apostle commends to the  Corinthians the collection for the saints at Jerusalem, bespeaks a good  reception for Timothy, and ends his epistle with friendly admonitions  and salutations.


 1. This Epistle is the most comprehensive of all the writings of Paul.  It is just about as long as the letter to the Romans, and contains the  same number of chapters; but, while the Epistle to the Romans  systematically treats a single theme, this letter discusses a great  variety of subjects, such as party spirit, church discipline, marriage  and celibacy, Christian liberty, the place of woman in the church, the  significance and use of the charismata, and the resurrection of the  dead. And the apostle treats of these matters in a very orderly way,  first taking up the accusations contained in the report of those from  the household of Chloe, and then answering the questions that were put  to him in the letter sent by the Corinthians.

 2. Closely connected with the first is a second characteristic, viz,  that this Epistle is the most practical of all the Pauline letters. It  reveals to us, as no other New Testament writing does, the snares and  pitfalls, the difficulties and temptations to which a church just  emerging from heathendom and situated in a wicked city, is exposed.  Many of the problems that arose in the Corinthian church constantly  recur in city congregations. As important as the Epistle to the Romans  is for instruction in Christian doctrine, the first Epistle to the  Corinthians is for the study of social relations.

 3. Little need be said regarding the language of Paul in this Epistle;  it is the Greek of a Hellenistic Jew. We cannot call it Hebraistic;  neither is it literary Greek. It is rather the Greek of Paul's own  period, containing, aside from a few Hebrew loanwords, such as pascha,  very few words that are found exclusively in the Septuagint. Findlay  says: "Paul has become in this epistle more than elsewhere tois  'Ellesin hos 'Ellen." Exp. Gk. Test. II p. 748. The argumentative form  too in which the apostles thought is cast here, as elsewhere, is far  more Greek than Hebrew, more Western than Oriental.


 This epistle also claims to have been written by Paul, 1:1, 2, and  bears upon the face of it the earmarks of the great apostle. The  language, the style, the doctrine, and the spirit which it  breathes,--are all his; and the historical allusions in chapters 9 and  16 fit in exactly with what we know of his life and acquaintances from  other sources. Besides this there is an imposing body of external  evidence from Clement of Rome down to the authenticity of the letter.  Hence it, like that written to the Romans, has been remarkably free  from hostile attacks. Robertson and Plummer truly say in the  Introduction to their Commentary on this Epistle p. XVI: "Both the  external and the internal evidence for the Pauline authorship are so  strong that those who attempt to show that the apostle was not the  writer succeed chiefly in proving their own incompetence as critics."

 The free-lance Bruno Bauer was the first, and for a long time the only  one, to attack the genuineness of I Corinthians. But in the last two  decennia of the preceding century the Dutch critics Loman, Pierson,  Naber and Van Manen, and the Swiss professor Steck chimed in with a  most irresponsible kind of criticism, founded on supposed  inconsistencies and evidences of composite authorship found in the  Epistle, and on imaginary conflicts between it and the Acts of the  Apostles. No critic of name takes their argument serious; according to  the general estimate they are scarcely worth the paper on which they  are written.


 1. Its Origin. After Paul left Athens on his second missionary journey,  he came to the capital of Achaia,--to Corinth, a city situated on the  isthmus of the Peloponnese between the Ionian and the Aegean sea. It  was not the old Corinth, since this had been destroyed by Mummius in  146 B. C., but Corinth redivivus, Corinth rebuilt by Ceasar just a  hundred years later, that had rapidly risen in fame, and now had a  population of between six and seven hundred thousand, consisting of  Romans, Greeks, Jews and people of such other nationalities as were  attracted by the commercial advantages of Corinth. The East and the  West met there, and it soon became the mart of the world, where  unparalleled riches were found alongside of the deepest poverty. And  with the increase of riches and luxury came a life of ease and  licentiousness. Worldly wisdom and great moral degradation went hand in  hand. On the Acropolis shotie the temple of Venus, where a thousand  maidens devoted themselves to the sensual service of the goddess.  Corinthian immorality became a byword; and the expression to live like  a Corinthian (korinthiazein) was indicative of the greatest  licentiousness. Farrar says: "Corinth was the Vanity Fair of the Roman  Empire, at once the London and the Paris of the first century after  Christ." St. Paul I p. 556.

 To that worldly-wise profligate Corinth Paul wended his way with a sad  heart in A. D. 52. Depressed in spirit because of past experiences, he  began his labors in the synagogue, preaching to the Jews; but when they  opposed him, he turned to the Gentiles and taught them in the house of  a certain Justus. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, became one of  his first converts, and many others believed and were baptized, Acts  18:1-8. Encouraged by a vision, he now began a ministry of a year and a  half in that city. The Jews, filled with hatred, brought him before  Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, but did not succeed in making out a  case against him. Even after this incident he labored a long time in  Corinth and the adjacent country and undoubtedly established the  Corinthian church on this occasion, Acts 18:18; ICor. 1:1.

 2. Its Composition and Character. We may be sure that the church  consisted primarily of Christians from the Gentiles. This impression is  conveyed by the account of Pauls work in Corinth, preserved for us in  Acts 18, and is strengthened by a careful study of the epistle. The  apostle says of the congregation, describing it according to its main  constituent element: "Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto  these dumb idols, even as ye were led," 12:1. Yet the church also  comprised many Jews, as we may infer from Acts 18:8; I Cor. 1:12; 7:18;  12:13. The majority of the converts were of the poorer classes, 1: 26;  but there were also Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, Acts 18: 8; I  Cor. 1: 14, Erastus, the chamberlain of the city and Gajus, Paul's  host, Rom. 16: 23, and several others that were in more favorable  circumstances, as we may infer from I Cor. 11:21, 22.

 As far as the complexion of the church is concerned we find that it  bore the impress of its surroundings. There was a shallow  intellectualism, coupled with a factiousness that was "the inveterate  curse of Greece." Lax morals and unseemly conduct disgraced its life.  Christian liberty was abused and idolatrous practices were tolerated.  Even the gifts of the Holy Spirit gave rise to vainglory; and a false  spiritualism led, on the one hand, to a disregard of bodily sin, and,  on the other, to a denial of the bodily resurrection. But these faults  should not blind us to the fact that there was a great deal in the  church of Corinth that was praiseworthy. The social relations among the  Corinthians had already undergone to a certain degree the elevating and  sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit; the church was rich in  spiritual gifts, and was willing to impart of its substance to the poor  saints at Jerusalem.

 The divisions at Corinth deserve more than a passing notice, since they  are made so prominent in the Epistle. The question is, whether we can  determine the character of the existing parties. In attempting this we  desire to point out first of all that they were no parties in the  strict sense of the word, each with an organization of its own, but  merely dissensions in the church, representing a difference of opinion.  They had not led to an absolute split in the ranks of believers, for  Paul distinctly recognizes a certain feeling of unity in the church of  Corinth, since he mentions meetings of the whole church repeatedly,  11:18; 14: 23. Yet there were four divisions of which each one had his  own slogan.

 a. Some said: "I am of Paul !" This party is mentioned first, not  necessarily because it comes first in chronological order. Since the  church had been founded by Paul, it would seem that a separate party,  using the apostles name as their shibboleth, could only arise in  opposition to another. It consisted most likely of those serious-minded  believers who had regard to the contents of the gospel preaching rather  than to its form; and who heartily accepted the simple doctrine of the  cross, as Paul preached it, who had come to them without wisdom of  words that the cross of Christ might not be made of non-effect.

 b. Others said: "I am of Apollos !" We do not believe that the  preaching of Apollos differed essentially from that of Paul, nor that  he was to blame for the dissension that arose as a result of his work.  Paul himself bears witness to his perfect unity of spirit with Apollos,  where he says that Apollos watered what he had planted, and that he  that planteth and he that watereth are one, 3: 6-8; and that he had  greatly desired to send Apollos with Timothy and the other brethren to  Corinth, 15:12. And is it not likely that Apollos refused to go, just  because he feared that it might foster the party spirit? The Apollos  Christians were in all probability those cultured Greeks who, while  they were in accord with the doctrine of free grace, greatly preferred  a speculative and oratorical presentation of it to the simple preaching  of Paul.

 c. Still others said: "I am of Cephas !" While the two former parties  undoubtedly constituted the bulk of the congregation, there were also  some who had scruples regarding the doctrine of free grace. They were  conservative Jewish believers that adhered to the decisions of the  council of Jerusalem and persisted in certain legal observances.  Naturally they in spirit rallied around Peter, the apostle of  circumcision. It may be that the tradition preserved by Dionysius of  Corinth is true that Peter has at one time visited Corinth. If it is,  this helps to explain their watchword.

 d. Finally there were also those who said: "I am of Christ !" This  party has always been the most difficult to characterize, and, as a  result, a great number of theories have been broached. After F. C. Baur  many interpreted this "of Christ" in the light of II Cor. 10: 7, where  the opponents of whom Paul speaks are ultra-Judaeists. On that theory  the Christ-party would be even more strictly Jewish than the party of  Peter. Others, such as Hilgenfeld and Hausrath maintain that it  consisted of those that had been in personal relation with the Lord,  and probably belonged to the five hundred of I Cor. 15: 5. Godet  suggests that they were such as were embued with the spirit of  Cerinthus, and believed in Christ in distinction from the human Jesus.  He identifies them with those who would call Jesus accursed, I Cor. 12  :3. We prefer to think with Meyer, Ellicott, Alford, Findley (Exp. Gk.  Test.) and Biesterveld that it consisted of the ultra-pious ones who,  despising all human leadership, arrogated the common watchword as their  own private property, and by so doing made it a party slogan. They  regarded themselves as the ideal party, were filled with spiritual  pride, and thus became a great stumblingblock for the apostle. The key  to this interpretation is found in 3: 22, 23, where the apostle offers  a corrective for the party spirit, when he says: "Whether Paul, or  Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present,  or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ's and Christ is  God's." Findlay correctly remarks that "the catholic humeis Christou  swallows up the self-assertive and sectarian Ego de Christou.

 3. Pauls Communications with it. There are two questions that call for  consideration under this heading: a. How often did Paul visit Corinth?  and b. Did he write more letters to the Corinthian church than we now  possess?

 a. We know that Paul visited Corinth in A. D. 52, Acts 18:1, and again  in 57, Acts 20: 2. Are there traces of any other visits? The allusions  in II Cor. 2: 1; 12:14; 13: 1 seem to imply that he had been in Corinth  twice before he wrote II Corinthians, and hence prior to the visit of  A. D. 57. In all probability we must assume a visit not recorded in the  Acts of the Apostles. The question is, however, whether we must place  it before the writing of I Corinthians, or between this and the  composition of II Corinthians. This cannot be decided absolutely with  the data at hand, but we consider it preferable to place it before the  first Epistle: (1) because the time intervening between the two letters  is so short that a trip to Corinth in that time is exceedingly  improbable; (2) Since, Timothy and Titus having been in Corinth a part  of that time, we cannot understand, what could make it imperative for  Paul to make such a hasty visit; and (3) II Corinthians constantly  refers to things written in the first Epistle in a way that would not  have been necessary if Paul had already been in Corinth himself. In  favor of placing it after the writing of the first Epistle, it is urged  that I Corinthians does not refer to a visit that shortly preceded it.

 b. It seems to us that Paul unquestionably wrote more epistles to the  Corinthians than those which we now possess. In I Cor. 5 : 9 the author  clearly refers to an earlier letter, forbidding intercourse with  immoral persons. That letter had been misunderstood, and therefore the  impression it made is now corrected by the apostle. Very likely it also  spoke of the collection for the saints at Jerusalem, 16:1, and conveyed  the apostles intention to visit Corinth both before and after his visit  to Macedonia, to which II Cor. 1: 15, 16 refers, and which he changed  before writing I Corinthians (cf. 16: 5), thereby unwittingly exposing  himself to the calumny of his enemies, II Cor. 1:15-18. From II Cor. 7:  6-8 some infer that another letter, far more censorious than I  Corinthians intervened between the two canonical letters, and caused  the apostles uneasiness; but the evidence is not strong enough to  warrant the conclusion.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. This letter was occasioned by reports which  Paul received from Corinth and by a series of questions that were put  to him by the Corinthians. Those who were of the house of Chloe told  him of the divisions in their home church, 1: 11, and common report had  it that fornication and even incest was permitted in the congregation,  5:1. Moreover the church sent a letter, probably by the hand of  Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, 16:17, asking the apostles opinion  in several matters, as marriage, 7:1; the eating of meat offered to the  idols, 8: 1; the proper conduct in the church, 11: 2; the right use of  the spiritual gifts, 12: 1; and in all probability also respecting the  doctrine of the resurrection, 15.

 In harmony with this occasion the purpose of the Epistle is especially  twofold: In the first place the apostle desires to quench the party  spirit that was rife among the Corinthians that he might lead them all  to the unity of faith that is in Jesus Christ; and to correct the other  evils that were found in the church, such as the case of incest and the  irregularities that disgraced their Agapae, which culminated in the  Lords Supper. And in the second place it was his aim to give the young  church, struggling with temptations and baffled by many difficult  questions, further instruction along the lines indicated by them in  their letter. With great diligence and care and solicitude for the  welfare of the congregation the apostle applies himself to this task.  In answer to the question, whether he also intended to defend his  apostleship over against his enemies we would say that, though this was  not altogether absent from his mind (cf. chs. 4 and 9), he does not aim  at this directly like he does in writing II Corinthians, when the  hostility of the false teachers has become far more pronounced.

 2. Time and Place. The place, where this Epistle was written, is  clearly indicated in 16: 8, and therefore does not call for further  discussion. This also aids us in determining the time of writing. The  only stay of Paul at Ephesus of any duration is described in Acts 19.  If our chronological calculations are correct, he came there in A. D.  54 and, after a stay of three years, left there again in 57. According  to I Cor. 16: 8 he wrote the epistle toward the end of his Ephesian  ministry, before Pentecost of A. D. 57, and therefore probably in the  early part of that year. We cannot conclude from I Cor. 5: 7 that it  was when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, although it is  very well possible that the nearness of that feast gave rise to the  line of thought developed in that chapter.


 The canonicity of the Epistle is abundantly attested by early Christian  literature. It is the first one of the New Testament writings that is  cited by name by one of the apostolic fathers. Clement of Rome says in  his first Epistle to the Corinthians: "Take the Epistle of the blessed  Paul the apostle into your hands etc." The writings of the other  apostolic fathers, viz. Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius and Polycarp show  clear traces of the use of this Epistle. From Irenaeus on it is quoted  as Holy Scripture. The Gnostics regarded it with special favor. It was  found in Marcion's canon, in the Muratorian Fragment etc. The testimony  to it is very full and clear.

 In the Epistle to the Romans we have a statement of the way of  salvation with special reference to the legalistic Romans; in this  Epistle we find an exposition of it particularly with a view to the  philosophically inclined Greeks. It clearly reveals that the way of  wordly wisdom is not the way of life, a valuable lesson for the Church  of all ages. But there is still another phase that gives the Epistle  permanent value; it contains the doctrine of the cross in its social  application. In it we see the church of God in the world with all its  glitter and show, its temptations and dangers, its errors and crimes,  and are taught to apply the principles of the Christian religion to the  diversified relations of life, as we meet them in the bustle of a great  and wicked city.