Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians


The account of Paul's first visit to Corinth is given in Acts 17. He continued there a year and six months, going thence to Syria, and making a brief stay on his way to Jerusalem at Ephesus, to which he returned and remained for over two years. The church at Corinth became the most important of those founded by the apostle, and probably embraced the church at the adjoining seaport of Cenchreae (see on Rom_16:1), and the Christians scattered throughout Achaia (2Co_1:1).

After Paul's departure from Corinth, Apollos, commended by the Ephesian church, was sent to labor there. Notwithstanding his efficiency he involuntarily became the cause of division in the church, as the nucleus of a party which preferred his polished rhetoric to the plainer utterances of Paul (1Co_3:4, 1Co_3:5).

Besides this, the characteristic sensuous and pleasure-loving tendencies of the Corinthians began to assert themselves within the church. The majority of the converts were of a low social grade, many of them slaves, and the seductions of the gay city often proved too strong for resistance.

The report of these evils, brought to Ephesus by Apollos on his return from Corinth, called out a letter from Paul which is lost, but which is referred to in 1Co_5:9. Additional tidings came in a letter from the church to Paul, asking advice on the following points:

1. Celibacy and marriage. Was married life a lower condition than celibacy, or was it wrong in itself? Were marriages allowable between Christians and heathen? Should a Christian wife or husband abandon a heathen spouse?

2. Meats offered to idols. Idol sacrifices were festivals. Gentile converts refused to abandon the society of their heathen friends, and mingled with them at the idol feasts; while a meal at a public festival was a substantial help to the poor. Might Christians attend these festivals? Might they buy in the market the resold meat which had been offered to idols?

3. Rules in assemblies. Should men cover their heads? Should women appear uncovered? Might women speak and teach in public?

4. Spiritual gifts. Which was the more important, speaking with tongues or preaching? What should be done when several began to speak at once?

5. The resurrection. Some maintained that it was purely spiritual and that it was already past.

6. They also desired to hear something more about the collection for the poor in Judaea, and to have Apollos sent back.

The bearers of the letter, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, together with those of the household of Chloe (1Co_1:11), also brought tidings of the factions which had divided the church and the quarrels over the different preachers. Certain Judaic teachers had come, with commendatory letters from Jerusalem, claiming the authority of Peter and impugning that of Paul, declaring that Peter was the true head of the Christian Church and Paul an interloper. A fourth distinct party is supposed by some to be indicated by the words “I of Christ” (see on 1Co_1:10). It also appeared that the assemblies of the church had become disorderly; that the agapae and the eucharist were scenes of gluttony, brawling, and drunkenness; while the gatherings for worship were thrown into confusion by the simultaneous speaking of those who professed the gift of tongues. Women were speaking unveiled in these assemblies. One prominent church-member was living criminally with his stepmother.

On the receipt of this letter Paul abandoned his intended visit to Corinth, sent Titus to inform the church of his change of plan and to arrange for the collection, and dictated to Sosthenes the first epistle to the Corinthians. Notwithstanding the subscription of the letter, “written from Philippi,” a mistake which grew out of 1Co_16:5, it was written at Ephesus, as appears from 1Co_16:8, 1Co_16:19. He begins by stating his complaints against the church (1:10-11:20). He then answers the questions contained in their letter: Marriage (7:1-40); Sacrificial feasts (1Co_8:1-13). From this he diverges to the insinuations against his character and authority, noticing the charge based upon his refusal to receive pecuniary support, and asserting his unselfish devotion to the Gospel (9). He returns to the sacrificial feasts (10). Then he passes to the regulation of the assemblies (11). The different spiritual gifts and their mutual relation are discussed in ch. 12, and Love is shown to be greater and more enduring than all gifts (1Co_13:1-13). The subject of speaking with tongues is then taken up, and the superiority of prophecy to the gift of tongues is asserted (14:1-40). Ch. 15 discusses the resurrection, and the epistle concludes with references to certain personal and incidental matters, including the collection.

Authorities are generally agreed in placing the date of the epistle a.d. 57. Its authenticity is conceded on all hands.

The key-note of the epistle is struck in two correlated thoughts - the supreme headship of Christ, and the union of believers as one body in and with Him. The former thought finds expression in Paul's humble disclaimer of all merely personal authority, and of all right to a hearing save as Christ's agent and mouthpiece. The power of preaching resides in its theme - Christ crucified - and not in its philosophic wisdom nor in the personal culture of its preachers. The gifts and graces of the Church are due to Christ alone. The other thought is the standing confutation and rebuke of all the errors and abuses which have invaded the Church. Faction, fornication, litigation, fellowship with idolaters - all are sufficiently condemned by the fact that they break the sacred tie between the Church and Christ, and between individuals and the Church. Union in Christ implies divine order in the Church. The sexes fall into their true relation. The subordinations of the heavenly hierarchies are perpetuated in the Church. Confusion is banished from public worship, and the mystery of the eucharist is expounded in the mutual love and helpfulness of the participants. Diversities of spiritual gifts are harmonized and utilized through their relation to the one body and the informing power of one divine Spirit - the Spirit of love. Christian expediency, involving individual sacrifice for the common welfare, becomes an authoritative principle. This unity finds its crowning exhibition in the resurrection, in which believers share the resurrection of their Lord, and enter into final and perfect communion with His glorified life.

It has been truthfully said that no portion of the New Testament discusses so directly the moral problems of that age or of our own. Many of the same questions emerge in the social and church-life of modern times. Such are the rally of cliques round popular preachers; the antithesis of asceticism and christian liberty; of christian zeal and christian wisdom; the true relation of the sexes and the proper position and function of woman in the Church; the assertion of individual inspiration against the canons of christian decency; the antagonism between individualism and the subordination of the members to the body; the resurrection in the light of modern science; aestheticism and morals.

No epistle of the New Testament, therefore, should be more carefully studied by the modern pastor. 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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