8-1 Corinthians

 The Letter of 1st Corinthians—7th book of the New Testament—A.D. 55


26. Corinth—A Tempestuous and Troubled City

Corinth was a major trading and shipping center of commerce of 600,000 or more inhabitants, if slaves are counted. It was also a religious center, with up to twelve temples to a variety of Greek gods and goddesses. During his lengthy eighteen month stay in Corinth in the middle of his second missionary journey with Priscilla and Aquila, recently come from Rome (Acts 18:1-18, sometime between the years 50-52), Paul became an intimate part of the growing Christian movement in that city.

Corinth—A melting pot for sin

The location of Corinth attracted immigrants from all over the world. A more thorough mix of people was found within its walls than possibly in any other Mediterranean city in the Roman Empire other than Rome itself. Immorality was rife, encouraged by some of the religious practices and temple prostitution. The cult of Aphrodite is estimated to have housed a thousand temple priestess-prostitutes in its Corinthian temple.

Sexual immorality was the characteristic trademark of Corinth. No wonder the church there struggled with sexual issues. No wonder the Christian men and women ofCorinthhad such trouble understanding marriage correctly.

The sexual immorality of Corinthwas so widely known throughout the Greek world that the very term corinthianize was synonomous with sexual activity and immorality. That all this went on in the name of “religion” made it an even greater mockery of truth. Paul gives us a picture of the moral atmosphere in 1 Cor. 6:9-11 when he says, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.” (NIV)

A sizeable Jewish community already existed in Corinthwhen Paul arrived. It was in their homes and synagogues he began to preach. By coincidence Aquila and Priscilla were leather workers. Whether Paul worked directly with them or not, he later comments on his practice of supporting himself by his own hands, also as a leather worker and/or tentmaker. Paul later moved to the home of Gentile Titius Justus, nearer the synagogue, to carry on his work and preaching.

Four strikes against him that Paul always faced

His ministry must have been fruitful for Paul to have remained inCorinthso long. But as was the case wherever he went, there were disputes with the Jews of the synagogue community. These difficulties came from both Jews who did not believe Paul’s message that Jesus was the Messiah, as well as from and believing “Judaizing” Christian Jews who did not endorse Paul’s presentation of the gospel and the wholesale repudiation of Jewish tradition and law. In addition, there continued to be ongoing disagreement about the authenticity of Paul’s teaching and his “new gospel.” The related question of the validity of his apostleship, therefore, always loomed in the background.

The questions we examined in the context of Galatians were raised by many at the time and followed Paul most of his life. His apostleship was continually called into question. Paul was under attack from somebody all his days.

So Paul faced opposition from:

               Orthodox faithful Jews,

                Judaizing Christians,

                Those who disagreed with his Christian doctrine,

                Those who doubted his apostleship.

Keeping in mind these four areas of opposition that hounded Paul, constantly threatening to undermine his ministry, gives us a sense of the pressure he always felt to explain and defend himself. We saw it in Galatians. We see it in the Corinthian letters. Wherever Paul went, these factors set up a unique background of relationships, circumstances, and opposition to which Paul’s letters were often a response.

Paul’s method

As we read Acts and Paul’s letters, we tend to move through the years quickly, without pausing to ask what these first Christian missionaries actually did. How did Paul go into a city of 600,000 such as Corinth and “start a church?”

Did he simply begin preaching on a street corner on his first day, hope to attract a few listeners, give an altar call, lead a few pagans or dissatisfied Jews into faith in Christ there on the streets, and then, doing the same thing day after day, eventually say to his small group of converts, “All right, there are ten of you…now we will find a place to meet and start holding services. You are now the Christian church in Corinth.”

Judy and I had a friend—now with the Lord—who, forty years ago, arrived in our area at the height of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, complete with the style and with robe and staff and prophetic accouterments of a modern day John the Baptist. And he did indeed preach on street corners! It was not long before every Christian knew of him. The reason they came to know him was not because of his street preaching, but rather because on Sundays he made the rounds of the area churches, either preaching the denunciation of organized Christendom outside their doors, or standing up in the midst of their services and shouting down the preachers in their pulpit with pronouncements of judgment. Needless to say, it caused quite a stir in the local Christian community! Thankfully over the years his methods became somewhat less confrontive, and we later developed a lifelong friendship.

This is not so very different than Paul’s method. Christianity was still in most cities a small sect within the synagogue community of Judaism. Every synagogue of any size probably contained a handful of Christians who continued to exercise their new faith as part of the Jewish community. So when he came to anew city, as well as preaching in the streets as he had atAthens, Paul immediately went to the synagogue, as did our friend, attempting to establish contact with those believing Christians who were part of that synagogue congregation.

Paul’s method was not to come in quietly and respectfully, sitting in the back row, saying nothing, content to win people over slowly. Not for a minute. Paul came in with all guns blazing! It is hardly any wonder that he caused conflict, that many opposed him, that that Paul regularly got himself into trouble with the Jews. So did our friend. Some of the pastors of our area eventually had to speak out against him because he was creating so much division.

Paul’s method, too, invited controversy. His method was argumentation, attempting to prove by logical argument that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Whenever there is argumentation there is difference. And difference provokes conflict.

27. Paul’s In Your Face Witness

Conflict dogs Paul’s steps

Paul’s pattern of getting in people’s faces is vividly visible in Thessalonica, where Luke records the sequence of events:

They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas…. But the Jews were jealous… (Acts 17:1-5, RSV)

The result in every case was predictable: Some believed and some didn’t.

Those Jews who rejected his message branded Paul a heretic, blasphemer, and rabble-rouser, and instigated (sometimes violent) opposition and sought his arrest by Roman authorities. Riots and arrests were commonplace in Paul’s life, and were his own doing. His confrontive, argumentative method made them inevitable. We see exactly this pattern in Corinth(Acts 18:12-15) where the Jews brought Paul before the Roman proconsul Gallio.

Even among those Jews who did believe in the new “Christian” message, however, not all believed in Paul’s doctrine of complete freedom from their Jewish past. Opposition to his teachings was wider than merely concerning circumcision. It involved the entire context of Jewish tradition in light of the Christian message. That Paul was so intolerant toward those of opposing view made other matters of difference equally contentious.

It is clear from the occasionally defensive tone of the Corinthian letters that the question of Paul’s apostleship was still disputed by many in the growing Christian community. 1 Cor. 9:1 reveals that there were those who did not consider the claim legitimate. Not only does Paul repeat his erroneous basis for apostleship, he begins to expand the story of his vision of the bright light on the Damascusroad. Luke tells us (Acts 9:8) that he could see nothing. Now Paul says he saw Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1), and that this is sufficient for apostleship.

It is not surprising, then, that some in Corinth had their doubts.

Paul was not the only intelligent, theologically-minded man in the young Christian community, There were others of equal mental powers who saw things differently. They read Scripture and circumstances in such a way as to arrive at different conclusions. Because we know so much about Paul, and possess so little information about his first century theological counterparts, we tend to assume that Paul was the only and the preeminent theologian of the early church. But this can hardly be an accurate assumption. History has shown that Christianity usually attracts the best and brightest and most intelligent men and women of most cultures. Surely this was so in the first century as well. Had we their writings in front of us, we might well find that many of Paul’s theological adversaries, even the hated “Judaizers,” were men of intelligence and spiritual stature and humility whose perspectives deserved equal serious weight of consideration alongside Paul’s. But Paul’s lack of tolerance toward alternate perspectives, and the strong language he used toward any and all of different view, kept division and dispute constant within the church.

The debate over Christian liberty, Jewish tradition, Paul’s “new gospel,” and ultimately over a wide range of theological and doctrinal issues kept the question of Paul’s authority stirred up as well. Was Paul the supreme and only authority on matters of doctrine in the church? As the passage of time has placed the halo of infallibility upon Paul’s head, we have lost sight of the historical reality of the first century—Paul was controversial, and many believers did not endorse his presentation of the Christian faith.

In one sense this debate reduced to a very simple question: Could Paul be wrong? If so, how were these differences and debatable points to be resolved? Paul’s tendency toward self-defense, and his use of the language of rebuke and judgment against those who disagreed with him certainly complicated these discussions of legitimate issues.

Paul leaves Corinth and the problems begin

After eighteen months in Corinth, Paul sailed for Syria and Antioch, Priscilla and Aquila accompanied him as far as Ephesus, where they became part of the new growing church in that sprawling capital of the Asian province. Paul remained only briefly, promising to return to visit his new Ephesian friends at the first opportunity, then continued on.

After Paul’s departure for Palestine, a Jew by the name of Apollos arrived in Ephesus, a native of Alexandria, apparently educated and a gifted speaker.

As Aquila and Priscilla listened to Apollos, however, his doctrine did not seem complete. So they took him aside and “expounded to him the way of God more accurately” (ie—according to Pauline interpretation.) This is mentioned in Acts 18:26, and offers another fascinating window into the early emphasis on “doctrinal correctness.” We have Priscilla and Aquilla, for all we know relatively new Christians themselves, establishing the trend that would become such a foundation stone of church doctrinal policy and method. Recently schooled in the “doctrine of Paul,” they now turn to Apollos and say, “You don’t have it quite right, brother—let us enlighten you concerning the full truth.”

This, “I am right, you are wrong,” perspective about church doctrine began early. We now see it perpetuated through Aquila and Priscilla.

After getting himself doctrinally sorted out by Aquila and Priscilla, and with a letter of introduction, Apollos then journeyed on to Corinth. There he became a wise and instrumental leader in that congregation. It is also possible that Peter paid a visit to Corinth at some point during this general period, for he is mentioned in connection with the cliques that began to arise in the Corinthian church. This is one of the tantalizing clues pointing to the possibility mentioned before that Peter journeyed to Rome, visiting Corinthen route, in the early 50s. more concern than those in Corinth claiming to follow Paul or Apollos or Peter, however, was the rising influence of Gnostic cliques within the church.

Paul did not spend much time in Antioch after his return toSyria. Within a year he set out again on his “third missionary journey.” This arrival back in Antioch and subsequent departure on another trip is mentioned in Acts 18:22-23. On this third voyage, Paul emphasis was Ephesus. After traveling overland again through Galatia, he arrived in Ephesus and remained for three years between 53 and 55.

It was probably at about the midpoint of this stay when visitors arrived in Ephesus with disturbing reports from the church at Corinth—marriages in shambles, rampant divorce, immorality, lawsuits between Christians, factionalism, disunity, eating food offered to idols, cliques forming and creating a party spirit. In a dozen different ways the young Corinthian church was being pulled and tested in the crucible of an immoral, godless city whose influence was about them everywhere. Complicating all these problems was, yet again, a dispute about Paul himself—his authority, his teaching, his apostleship. At the center of this firestorm of immorality and controversy was a man, perhaps one of the church’s leaders, who was in the midst of an affair with his step-mother, his father’s wife.

Paul immediately began an intense correspondence with the Corinthian church to try to help with all these problems. In some ways, the remainder of his stay in Ephesus was actually dominated by events at Corinth.

28. Get Your Lives Together!

Though the New Testament presents us with two letters that are called “First” and “Second” Corinthians, Paul did not actually write these letters in the form we read them. These “two” letters probably actually represent parts of four letters, though none of the four are entirely preserved. Since the letters are incomplete, it is therefore more accurate to refer to this as the “Corinthian correspondence.”

Several letters and visits went back and forth between Paul and the Corinthian congregation which are not possible to identify with certainty. Given the circumstances, it is no wonder Paul wrote strongly. He is uncompromising about the man sinning with his stepmother—Get rid of the wicked man. Expel him. (1 Cor. 5) Without Paul’s strong and authoritative reply, it is possible the Corinthian church might have disintegrated and fallen apart. One wonders what might be the effect in our day if more Christian leaders had Paul’s courage to speak out against adultery, divorce, homosexuality, and sexual immorality within their congregations.

Most scholars believe that Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians. First, we have the intriguing passage in 1 Cor. 5:9-11 in which Paul speaks of a letter prior to 1 Corinthians. Some biblical researchers believe that portions of this first letter are preserved in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1. There is also a reference (1 Cor. 7:1) to an apparent letter written to Paul fromCorinth in which those in the church ask him various questions on a number of practical issues.

William Barclay reminds us that this confusion over parts of letters, portions of which may have been lost or miscopied or bits mistakenly added onto other letters, can be accounted for by the fact that it was not until after 90 a.d. or so that Paul’s correspondence began to be collected and organized in a thorough way.

Barclay writes:

“It was when he was in Ephesus in the year A.D. 55 that Paul learned that things were not all well in Corinth and the he wrote to the Corinthian Church. Now there is every possibility that the Corinthian correspondence as we have it is out of order. We must always remember that it was not until A.D. 90 or thereby that Paul’s correspondence was collected. In many Churches it must have existed only on scraps of papyrus and the putting together of it would be a problem: and it seems that, when the Corinthian letters were collected, they were not all discovered and they were not all arranged in the right order…

“(We must remind ourselves that in the original letters there were no chapter or verse divisions. The chapters were not divided up until the thirteenth century and the verses not till the sixteenth, and because of that the arranging of the collection of letters would be much more difficult.)” (The Letters to the Corinthians, pp. 6-7)

Advice from the hip

Immediately, we encounter something distinct in the Corinthian situation. We saw hints of it in the two Thessalonian letters, but here it is even more pronounced.

This is an progressive and evolving dialogue over difficult issues. This back-and-forth correspondence with the Corinthian church is not characterized by a one-time theological treatise as are so many of Paul’s letters (Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians.) This is an ongoing dialogue about family business.

It gets contentious. It gets angry. It gets defensive. It gets sarcastic. It gets personal.

No other correspondence gives such a realistic portrait of a church trying to deal with significant problems in a corrupt and pagan society. Out of these two/four letters emerge some of the most soaring passages in the entire New Testament.

How can we not love the ongoing Corinthian dialogue for just this reason? It is born in real life, from situations involving real people. The Corinthian church was just like our churches. Its people were real, they were at different stages of growth and development, they had differences, they got a few things messed up. They also got some things right. These letters are wonderful, too, because they are practical, not primarily theological. We can view the Corinthian letters as the parallel in Paul’s writing to James’s letter—down-to-earth advice and direction about daily matters.

Paul, too, is very real here. He talks far too much about himself. He is defensive, boastful, critical. He acts petulant and small. He says, “Boasting is not good, (5:6), then spends half the ensuing correspondence boasting about himself. He brags that he speaks in tongues more than anyone. He makes the positively ridiculous statement that it is good for a man not to marry, which runs exactly contrary to God’s ordained order for the world. Then he makes the equally bizarre statement that men who have wives should live as if they had none.

Huh! What kind of picture of marriage is that! The only justification Paul seems to give for people to marry at all is because they are base and unspiritual, and because immorality is so prevalent. Paul’s image of marriage in 1 Corinthians is truly an unfortunate (to put it mildly) perspective of the high family institution that God established.

Unfortunate also are his perceptions about male and female roles in the church. In what we can only consider an absurd line of reasoning, he cites “nature itself” (11:14) as teaching that long hair is the pride of a woman and a disgrace to a man. Now it may be that long hair is indeed disgraceful on a man. That is another matter. But nature certainly doesn’t teach such an idea. In actual fact, as God created them, hair grows more freely on the male body than the female. If left to “nature,” masculine hair grows just as long as does feminine hair. So nature itself teaches no such thing as Paul implies.

Paul’s instructions about the godliness of hair (long and short) are inconsistent, illogical, and ridiculous. Yet for hundreds of years, Christians have built up all sorts of doctrines around this passage, ruled by fear of going against anything Paul says.

We have to contextualize everything in the Corinthian letters. We must realize the tremendously contorted problems Paul was attempting to address. We have to recognize the horrendous climate of sexual confusion and impurity. In some cases, Paul may have been making a point to the Corinthians, and to them alone. At other points, he may simply have blundered. 1 and 2 Corinthians are full of what occasionally sound like such outrageous statements that we have to read from a perspective of the times, of Paul’s flawed humanity, and sometimes with a grain of salt:

                I urge you to imitate me. (4:16)

                It is good for a man not to marry. (7:1)

                I wish that all men were as I am. (7:7)

                The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. (7:29)

                He who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (7:38)

                Follow my example. (11:1)

                If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off. (11:6)

                A man ought not to cover his head. (11:7)

                Because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (11:10)

                Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading? (11:14)

                I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. (14:18)

                Women should remain silent in the churches. (14:34)

                I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you…By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (15:1-2)

                … of the apostles…by the grace of God…I worked harder than all of them. (15:9-10)

29. Sequence of Corinthian Events

From the hip reality

Even in the midst of all this, however, once we remove the halo, we find intense and wonderful reality. Here is a real church full of real people. Paul is a real Christian leader. He is no icon, but a real man.

By its very practical context, some of the content in 1 Corinthians is outmoded. How to deal with food offered to idols is not high on the list of concerns you and I face in our daily lives. Much of Paul’s marital advice, as well as his perspective on the role of women in church can only be read within its historical context. Then adjustments must made as we apply truth to our own culture. This does not mean that we throw out his instructions, or imply that women should preach and teach in church. It simply means that we must read historically and intelligently.

In the midst of the practicality we discover in the Corinthian letters, therefore, we also encounter one of the serious dangers in Bible reading: There is always a tendency to universalize biblical “instructions” which were intended for one or another specific situation at one particular time. In 1 Corinthians we find Paul shooting from the hip with opinion that obviously cannot be taken as universal truth for all time—head coverings, head shavings, strong Christians should not marry because the time is short, women should wear long hair. He tangles himself up in more conflicting marital advice than any unmarried man has a right to, causing more confusion in some cases than clarification.

We are all accustomed to the explanations brought out in explanation of Paul’s words to blunt their audacity. But what in the world are we to think of a statement like, be imitators of me, other than spiritual chutzpah? Therefore, we have to read the Corinthian letters with care. We must sift and sort as we progress through them, recognizing the kinds of things facing the people Paul was writing to. In the end, we are enriched all the more by having to pull high truth out of such real-life drama.

Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction, gives us an excellent overview to the Corinthian letters.

“In such an atmosphere of moral laxity and intellectual pride,” he writes, “the Corinthian church was bound to be troubled with many problems arising from the impact of Christianity on its pagan environment. This background can in many places be traced in the Corinthian correspondence. Many of the Christians were as yet undisciplined extremists and needed strong handling. None of the apostle’s churches seems to have given him such grave cause for concern as this, for these Christians were setting a poor example to their pagan neighbours. They also did not take too kindly to the apostle’s authority, no doubt because of a false estimate of their own importance. The letters preserved for us (1 and 2 Corinthians) are invaluable for the light they throw, not only on the practical problems of a primitive community but also on the personality of the great apostle.” (p. 422)

Corinthian timeline

At least four letters from Paul to the Corinthians are are postulated. An approximate timeline of events can be established that is  helpful in putting the overall relationship of Paul to the church of Corinth in context.

  1. Paul’s First Visit: Paul visits Corinth after leaving Athens during second missionary journey, meets Aquila and Priscilla and others, remains approximately eighteen months. Year: 51-52.
  2. Paul’s First Letter: Paul returns to Syria, then embarks on third journey and spends approximately three years in Ephesus—53-55. At some point he writes to the Corinthians warning them not to associate with immoral persons. Scholars call this first communication “the previous letter.” Paul mentions it in 1 Cor. 5:9, but from what he adds in the next two verses (10-11) it was apparently misunderstood. Many conjecture portions of this letter to be preserved in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 on the basis of its clear distinction from what comes before and after.
  3. Negative Reports and Questions: Around the same time as learning of this misunderstanding to his exhortative letter, Paul hears reports from the household of Chloe of disorders in the Corinthian church. He also receives a delegation from the church—Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus—who brought to him a number of questions that had been raised. Whether these two visits (Chloe’s household, the church delegation) represent one or two separate visits from Corinth is unknown.
  4. Paul’s Second Letter: Paul writes 1 Corinthians and sends it to Corinth with Timothy. Year: 55.
  5. Paul’s Second “Painful” Visit: As Ephesus and Corinth were across the Aegean Sea from one another, not exactly a convenient journey but a relatively easy trip of two or three days by ship, communication and travel between the two major cities was common. Paul continued to hear negative reports and decided to pay a visit toCorinth in the midst of his Ephesus work. It was a painful experience, apparently did not help the situation, and Paul left in haste, returning to Ephesus. Scholars call this “the painful visit.”
  6. Paul’s Third Letter, the “Sorrowful” or “Severe” Letter: In an attempt to heal and rectify whatever had happened, Paul writes a third letter, which is referred to in 2 Cor. 2:4. It was taken to Corinth by Titus and called “the sorrowful letter” or “the severe letter.” Many consider 2 Cor. 10-13 to be a portion of this letter. If true, this might more realistically be called “the boastful letter,” for these four chapters at the end of 2 Corinthians are among Paul’s most well known for his admitted “foolish” and “boastful” self-defense.
  7. Paul leaves Ephesusand awaits Titus’ atTroasfor news of the reception of the sorrowful letter. Titus does not come, Paul moves on to Macedonia, where he finally meets Titus who brings good news from Corinth.
  8. Paul’s Fourth Letter, the “Reconciliation” Letter: In response to Titus’ visit and expressing relief and joy at the result of his severe/sorrowful/boasting letter, Paul writes the early portions of 2 Corinthians from somewhere in Macedonia, possibly Philippi. Year—late 55 or 56.
  9. Paul’s Third Visit: Paul later winters in Corinth before leaving, again by way of Macedonia, to Jerusalem with the money for the suffering Christians there that he has been collecting from the churches during his travels.

Many embrace this reconstruction of events, though is not accepted by all scholars. Like every attempt to chronologize the events of Paul’s life, there are inconsistencies. It is set it down in this manner to illustrate how involved was Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, making it unique among the New Testament churches.

The continued debate over the sequence of events is illustrated by the following:

“Many scholars hold rather that II 10-13 contains a substantial fragment of the severe letter. Observing the content and tone of II 1-9, they cannot believe that Paul could have experienced such a radical change of mood that he would put into the same letter the bitter, sarcastic remonstrance and self-defense found in chs. 10-13…

“Since no notice is taken of II Cor. By the writers of the church before the middle of the 2nd cent., whereas I Cor. Is cited as early as the 90’s, some force is added to the view that II Cor. Was compiled by an editor from several fragments of Paul’s correspondence—including even perhaps some work of another author…In contrast to those who find the severe letter in chs. 10-12, certain scholars have claimed that these chs. Are a fragment of a letter written by Paul to the Cors. Later than the letter or letters preserved in chs. 1-9. Still others believe that chs. 8-9 should be separated from chs. 1-7 and assigned to one or more letters of Paul. Of these several partition theories, the case for identifying chs. 10-13 with the severe letter is the strongest.

“The evidence for all such theories falls short of proof, however, and there is no compelling reason why II Cor. As it now stands could not have been dispatched by Paul as a single letter to the Cor.Church. Dictating a letter in ancient times was a slow process, and for one of this length several interruptions would be quite probable. Such breaks may well explain the abrupt shifts of thought and mood found in II Cor.” (James Price, The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, p. 796)

An aside–The different kinds of spiritual gifts

The New Testament details what are called “spiritual gifts” in three distinctive categories.

Romans 12:4-8 lists seven motivational gifts:

1 Cor. 12:7-11 lists nine gifts given by the Spirit:

1 Cor. 12:27-30 and Eph. 4:11  lists ten offices and functions through which God uses the various gifts.

The “motivational gifts” are usually the least understood, and point to the basic, inward, intrinsic temperamental drive we each possess—how we approach things. We will not all do things in the same way. That is the wonderful lesson of 1 Cor. 12—we are     not supposed to!

Equally misunderstood are the “higher” spiritual gifts—the highest being wisdom, knowledge, and faith. To be wise is a far higher thing in God’s economy than to speak in tongues or prophesy or work miracles.

The “offices” and “functions” within the church outline different methods and jobs through which the motivational gifts and spiritual gifts may be exercised. A “prophet” or a  “teacher” or a “helper” may be one gifted with giving, or encouragement or mercy or administration, and may therefore carry out his or her function and calling differently depending on that temperamental motivation. It is  fascinating to note that prophets and helpers are both listed as giftings from God. To “help” is as high a calling as to prophesy.

30. Paul’s Summum Bonum—The Greatest Thing

1 Corinthians—A high point among new testament epistles

Out of this intense and at times troublesome relationship with the Corinthians some of Paul’s most brilliant and practical writing emerges. The two chapters that occur side by side—the twelfth and thirteenth of 1 Corinthians—are true high points in the entire Pauline corpus.

Poor brother Paul has had something of a hard time of it from me thus far. But whatever else he may have been, he was a genuinely gifted and God-inspired communicator and theologian to whom we are indebted for much truth concerning the Christian faith.

The inconsistencies we have pointed out are not at root with Paul at all. There is no inconsistency in being a man. The deeper problem is with those who imbue both Paul’s character, his words, and his doctrine with infallibility. But we do well to consider Paul’s words very carefully before raising his opinions to the level of 100% infallibility. Certain erroneous doctrine has come to be embedded in Christian theology on the basis of Paul’s writings, and then various contorted explanations devised to prop up those doctrines in order to maintain the pretense that they are consistent with the rest of Scripture. All this originates from the inability to admit what must be an obvious truth about any man: “Hey…brother Paul was one of us.”

Perhaps because they are so thoroughly infused with real life, in these Corinthian letters Paul truly begins to hit his stride as that inspired communicator of truth. 1 Corinthians stands as one of the New Testament’s powerful and important books, placing so many aspects of the growing church into a wonderful order and perspective. In spite of some of the blundering fauxs pas  alluded to a moment ago, this letter  represents Paul’s climax in eloquence and maturity as a Christian teacher to date. In 1 Corinthians Paul has produced one of the true magnificent documents of the Christian faith.

But it is not only the towering 250 words that make up the 13th chapter, possibly the most important chapter in the Bible outside Matthew 5-7. Each in their own way, the 3rd and the 12th chapters, with their perspectives on unity and the distinctions within God’s family, may be of almost equal import.

In addition we are given added detail about the last supper which Paul no doubt received from one of the twelve. Then we have additional information about appearances the Lord made after his resurrection…and the timeless passage about the fire testing the worth of each man’s life and work. There are so many notable passages here!

And what a magnificent final charge from Paul’s pen: Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be men of courage, be strong. Do everything in love. (16:13-14)

Placing all this into perspective, then, in order to get a sense of the historical flow of events, you might read the Corinthian correspondence in the following order:


Acts 18:1-11                                          Paul’s first visit toCorinth.

Acts 18:24-19:1                                   Apollos’ and Paul’s travels

2 Cor. 6:14-7:1                                     Small portion of Paul’s first letter—“the previous letter.”

1 Corinthians                                       Paul’s second letter to Corinth in response to questions and negative reports.


2 Corinthians 10-13                          The severe/boasting letter

2 Corinthians 1-9                              The letter of reconciliation.