Read 1 Corinthians 4:14-16 …
The letters to the Corinthians are typically recognized as “occasional.” That is not to say happening only rarely, but that the letters were written to address a problem that was occurring. Basically, all the epistles that are incorporated into the NT are occasional, that is, written to deal with a specific problem or deliver a specific message important to those readers. Looking at 1 Corinthians, Paul appears to be answering a series of questions that have been sent to him. The questions themselves can almost be determined from the answers given by the Apostle, but as circumstances would have it, the questions have been lost to history.
Even though only half of the correspondence has been left to us, the words of wisdom given to Paul resound with some wonderful theological thoughts. In the first chapter, dealing with the problem of division in the congregation, Paul reminds them that those earthly teachers are but a part of the greater whole. The Corinthians shouldn’t be putting their trust in Paul, Apollos, or Cephas … none of these men had done what Christ had done. None of them were crucified for them; they were not baptized into the name of any of those men (1 Cor. 10-13). Paul here begins a grand overarching theme of Christian unity that weaves its way through the letter.
In 1 Corinthians there are also two specific parts that have become very deeply engrained in Christian theology. In 1 Corinthians 13 the Apostle relates a beautiful section on the (agape) love that Christians should be expressing towards one another. That love is bound up in personal self-sacrifice, the putting aside of “my” needs and desires in favor of the “other.” Also 1 Corinthians 15 brings us a rare glimpse into that life that will follow this one. Paul gives assurances of our resurrection by grounding it in the resurrection of Christ. Paul reminds us that even though we are made of material that is corruptible, in the time to come we will be changed into a form that will no longer be corrupted. We are not only made to be loving individuals but also individuals that are eternal beings.
Yet amid these wonderful truths and appeals to Christ as the true focus of the Christian, Paul still outlines and deals with numerous problems and questions in that congregation. Sectarianism, immorality, litigiousness, abandonment by a spouse, abuse of their liberty in Christ, what is authority, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, chaos in the worship service, and preeminent pride. Yet, in this problem laden letter truths are found that should never be forgotten. Truths that rise to the top as the problems are brought to light. Truths that have stood the test of time and are just applicable in the 21st century as they were the 1st.
Perhaps the more difficult part for today’s Christian in all of this is finding a balance between rightly discerning the truths presented and appealing to their broken practices as authoritative. “The problem,” as one writer notes, “was not so much that they were relapsing into paganism, as that their Christian faith … had not yet transformed the world-view they had adopted from the surrounding culture.”[i] Even though the Corinthians are referred to as saints, brethren and children, Paul has to remind them of the need to become stronger spiritually toward one another and toward God – something their practice was often hampering!
Have we really grown past the problems that the Corinthians faced? Well, if history is the witness, then not altogether. If their example is to be followed in certain things, let us tread cautiously in the footsteps of these brethren lest we experience the same traps.
[i] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 427.