Soon after leaving Corinth in 52 AD, Paul heard some disturbing reports about the young Corinthian church and its struggles with the pagan practices in the city. They were also full of pride and excusing sexual immorality. Spiritual gifts were being used improperly, and there was a total misunderstanding of key Christian doctrines. From Ephesus, in about 53 AD, Paul wrote his first letter back to the Corinthians in an attempt to restore the Corinthian church to its foundation — Jesus Christ.
Many of the problems and questions the Corinthian church was dealing with are still present in Christianity today. Churches today still struggle with divisions, with immorality, and with the abuse of spiritual gifts. The first letter to the Corinthians very well could have been written to the church today and we would do well to heed Paul’s warnings and apply them to ourselves. Despite all the rebukes and corrections, 1 Corinthians brings our focus back to where it should be – on Jesus – and teaches that genuine Christian love is the answer to many of our problems.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is well known for its teaching on love. You might have heard the following read at a wedding ceremony:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
First Corinthians is also important for Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of Jesus.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)
Paul wrote this to the church in Corinth about 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Not only does Paul confirm the physical resurrection of Jesus and his appearance to over 500 people, but he goes on to explain that the resurrection of Jesus is of the utmost importance in demonstrating that Jesus is God, Savior, and Messiah.
Paul made it clear, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)
Remarkably, even though the Gospels and other New Testament writings clearly document Jesus’ bodily resurrection and establish that there were hundreds of witnesses, that event is still rejected by many skeptics who question the historical reliability of the Bible, especially concerning miraculous events. Although six different New Testament authors recorded the physical resurrection of Jesus, and many of the apostles and disciples are known from various historical sources to have died for their belief in that event, there is a growing trend to reject the truth of the resurrection and its significance for humanity.
So, what about Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians? This one was probably written two years later, in about 55 AD. Paul’s second letter expressed his relief and joy that the Corinthians had received his “severe” letter in a positive way. This “severe” letter was another letter lost to history, but it addressed issues that were tearing the church apart, primarily the arrival of false apostles who were assaulting Paul’s character, causing strife among the believers, and teaching false doctrine. There were also some church members who had not repented of their immoral behavior. Truth and lies cannot coexist in a healthy church. Paul was teaching the Corinthians the difference.
Paul was truly happy to learn that the majority of Corinthians repented of their bad behavior and turned from their rebellion against Paul. Paul spent much of his second letter encouraging them and expressing his love. He also used the opportunity to reconfirm his apostleship and reestablish his authority in the church.