Bible Study Guide: 1 Corinthians

What makes 1 Corinthians unique?

Paul's letter to the church at Corinth provides a clear idea of the kind of questions one early group of Jesus' followers faced. It also shows Paul's teaching on a number of issues. This letter is well-known for its chapters that discuss the gifts of the Holy Spirit and for Paul's teaching that love is the best gift of all (12 - 14). Chapter 15 includes Paul's encouraging words about how God has defeated death and promises new life and a "spiritual" body to all who have faith in Jesus.

Why was 1 Corinthians written?

Paul had visited Corinth and spent time there teaching the good news about Jesus Christ (see Acts 18:1-17). During this time he became close to the followers of Christ who lived in Corinth. He wrote to them because they were his friends and because he had heard about certain arguments and disputes among them. He was especially concerned about the way the Corinthian Christians were dividing themselves into different groups (1:10 - 4:21) and about the way they were treating one another (5:1 - 6:20). He also wrote to answer their questions about marriage (7:1-40) and about whether it was appropriate to eat food offered to idols (8: 1-13; 10:23 - 11:1; cf. Romans 14). They had sent these questions to Paul in an earlier letter (7:1). Finally, Paul wanted to let the Corinthians Christians know that he intended to return to Corinth and stay with them for a while (16:5).

What's the story behind the scene?

Although this letter is called 1 Corinthians, it is not the first one that Paul wrote to this church. We know this because he mentions in this letter that he had written one before (5:9; see also the Introduction to 2 Corinthians). The city of Corinth was located on a narrow strip of land that had a seaport to both the east and west. It was a very worldly city influenced by people of many cultures. People who lived in Corinth had a long tradition of devotion to the love goddess, Aphrodite. Paul's letter addresses some of the struggles the Corinthian Christians continued to face because of the many influences present in the city.

How is 1 Corinthians constructed?

First Corinthians is probably one single letter, but may include portions of other letters Paul wrote to the followers at Corinth. Even so, it does begin with a greeting and ends with closing greetings in the style of other letters of that day. Most of the letter deals with the problems and questions the Corinthian Christians faced. Near the end of the letter, Paul provides some personal information about his future plans. The letter can be outlined in the following way:

  • Greetings and a prayer of thanks (1:1-9)
  • Be united by the cross of Christ (1:10 - 2:16)
  • Trust the teaching of God's apostles (3:1 - 4:21)
  • Advice about problems in relationships (5:1 - 7:40)
  • Honor God and not idols (8:1 - 11:1)
  • Guidance for worship and the use of spiritual gifts (11:2 - 14:40)
  • The meaning of Christ's victory over death (15:1-58)
  • Future plans and final greetings (16:1-24)