Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: 1 Corinthians

Sara and Justin Kraft

Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: 1 Corinthians

Today we will examine St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is written to members of the Church in the port city of Corinth which was located in south-central Greece and about 50 miles from Athens. Corinth was actually one of the richest and most important cities in all the Roman Empire. It was a hub for trade and commerce. 

It was also home to one of the first Christian communities. The Church in Corinth was founded directly by Paul in 51 A.D., less than 20 years after the life and death of our Lord Jesus. The community was probably mostly comprised of Gentiles, but likely also contained a mix of Jewish converts as well. Thus, Paul’s admonition, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” (1 Corinthians 22-23). Internal evidence indicates that unlike the city at large which was prosperous, most of the community probably came from the poor and lower class. “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1 Corinthians 1: 26) Hence, the contrast between the wisdom and power of God and men is an early theme within the letter. 

This letter was written just 5 years after Paul founded the community. It is the first of four letters Paul is believed to have written to the community (although we only have two). It is written in response to reports of distress which are endangering the community. Like many of his letters, it can sometimes be difficult to interpret because we are witnessing only half of the conversation. We can deduce from the letter that the issues relate to both the moral conduct of the community members and doctrinal errors. 

Interestingly, echoes of many of the issues addressed can be seen in modern American culture. These include celebrity worship leading to division, sexual immorality, Eucharistic abuse, and even a practical (if not open) rejection of the resurrection in the way we live. Hence, we can learn a great deal from Paul about how we should conduct ourselves and engage our own culture. While we cannot examine the entirety of the letter, we will look at the four themes mentioned above. 

The first issue Paul addresses is factions caused by personality worship. “For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” (1 Corinthians 1: 11-12) This is not dissimilar to the state of our own day where we flock to political or Church leaders which reinforce our biases. Paul recognizes that division is incompatible with truth and adjures the Corinthians to set personality worship aside “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” (1 Corinthians 1: 17) His instruction on factionalism then comprises the remainder of chapter 1 through chapter 4. 

Paul next turns his attention to sexual immorality (chapter 5) which some members even appear to be boasting about, “And you are inflated with pride. Should you not rather have been sorrowful?...Your boasting is not appropriate.” (1 Corinthians 5:2,6) Paul’s response is one of zero tolerance, “…The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. I, for my part, although absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as if present, pronounced judgment…” (1 Corinthians 5:2-3) Yet, what appears harsh on the surface is not without love. For Paul does not indicate that this sinner is irredeemable, but rather “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5) For it is better that this man be cast out such that he may turn away from the flesh, repent, and return for the salvation of his soul. 

The specific sin addressed in chapter 5 is incest, “immorality of a kind not found even among pagans—a man living with his father’s wife.” (1 Corinthians 5:1), but one can extrapolate the principle that sexual sin of all kind is serious. That sins of the flesh and life in the Spirit cannot coexist. Paul, himself, makes this extrapolation to the sin of prostitution in one of the most well-known sections,

 “[Or] do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20)

After dealing with the issue of sexual immorality, Paul provides advice on a number of practical considerations for the Christian life. This section culminates with a warning that we should not assume our salvation in which Paul provides an example of the Israelites wandering in the desert (chapter 10). Paul then turns his attention to the Eucharist.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” (1 Corinthians 11: 23-30)

We see here beautiful description of the Mass which demonstrates the continuity of the modern Mass and the ancient. Additionally, we clearly see the belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist even from the earliest days. 

Finally, Paul turns his attention to the prominence of the resurrection in the Christian life. 

“But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Corinthians 15: 12-19)

As one can see, the resurrection is the fundamental reason for our hope. It is the foundation for turning away from immoral behavior and persevering through the suffering we will inevitably experience as part of the Christian life. It is so fundamental that if untrue, the Christian life is in vain and we should be pitied for chaining ourselves to Christ. In other words, as Christians we do not live our life for the rewards of this world alone. 

However, because of the resurrection we experience a great victory over the world. 

“And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”” (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55)

And so, in this way the letter ends on the great message of hope of the Christian life.