Theological Themes in 1 Corinthians
Some Corinthians thought that the body was of no consequence since they were spiritually joined to Christ. In their spiritual state, the state and possible pollution of the body was no longer a concern: they could eat meat that had been offered to idols (see 1 Corinthians 8-10), engage in sex with prostitutes (see 1 Corinthians 6:12-20), or eschew sex altogether (see 1 Corinthians 7:1).
Paul does not concede any dichotomy between body and spirit. In fact, he uses the spiritual connection believers have to Christ as a reason to urge his readers to shun fornication and instead, “glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Furthermore, he argues for a general resurrection of the dead that will result in imperishable bodies being raised up to new life in Christ. A Christian missionary who once persecuted the church nowhere disparages the human body in favor of a disembodied spirituality, and he urges the Corinthians not to do so either.
Body of Christ
Many of the issues dealt with in 1 Corinthians concern physical human bodies (for example, sexual relationships, prophesying with one’s head covered or uncovered, eating or going hungry at the Lord’s Supper, and the bodily resurrection of the dead). Paul’s way of addressing all of these issues is to move from a focus on individual human bodies to the implications of each person’s actions for the corporate body of believers. He identifies those to whom he writes as the body of Christ, and writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
The Corinthians had many ways of distinguishing themselves from one another and ranking themselves over against each other. Knowledge, wisdom, strength, spiritual gifts, loyalty to particular leaders: the people to whom Paul wrote had converted all of these things into means by which they sought status for themselves and assigned status to others. The letter of 1 Corinthians is a sustained argument against such attempts at ranking one another. The letter offers a vision of Christian community at the center of which is the Spirit embodied by Christ, the crucified one. This community is characterized by God’s choice of “what is low and despised in the world” (1 Corinthians 1:28) and by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
The Day of the Lord, in prophetic writing, is the day of judgment when God will intervene directly in world affairs. As described in Zephaniah, for instance, God will sweep everything away. In Matthew’s gospel God is described as gathering the elect on the day…
Along with many other Jews of his time, Paul believed that God was on the verge of a cosmic intervention by which all would be judged and the righteous would be saved from God’s wrath. The general resurrection of the dead had long been thought to be a feature of such a Day of the Lord, and Paul concluded that Christ’s resurrection signaled that the Day of the Lord was near. In several of his letters, Paul speaks of an imminent day of divine judgment, and three times in 1 Corinthians (1:8, 3:13, and 5:5), he refers to the approaching “day” or “day of the Lord.” At one point, Paul refers to himself and the Corinthians as those upon “whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Because of his conviction that Christ is about to return, Paul’s words to the Corinthians have both an urgency and an interim quality about them.
Former life contrasted with the new
Paul’s ethical advice gives evidence that he believes a fundamental change has occurred for the Corinthians. They have been washed, sanctified, and justified (see 1 Corinthians 6:11), and because of this, their relationships to one another have been reconfigured. One of the things that seems most puzzling to Paul in this letter is the reality that the Corinthians’ behavior looks so much like the behavior they exhibited before they were united with Christ. Paul contrasts their former way of life, characterized by various actions of self-aggrandizement, with a new way of honoring one another in community that characterizes (or should characterize) those in Christ.
The Corinthians had placed high value on knowledge and on spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesying. In 1 Corinthians, Paul urges the Corinthians to strive for love over all other things. As he describes love, it is more concerned with the other than with oneself.
Much of 1 Corinthians (see chapters 11 through 14) is Paul’s advice about how the Corinthians should conduct their public worship services. He gives advice on the Lord’s Supper, urging people to wait for one another and to share the elements of bread and wine equitably with one another. He also advises the community not to indulge in practices such as the uninterpreted speaking in tongues because these practices are unintelligible to outsiders. He concludes his advice on this topic with the words, “So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40).
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reasons from the resurrection of Christ to a general resurrection of the dead. Some in Corinth doubt that bodies will be raised. Paul acknowledges that the physical body decays but is unswerving in his conviction that “the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52) and that whatever the resurrection involves, it will feature a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44) for those raised.
The Corinthians apparently take pride in external manifestations of their spiritual relationship with Christ. Prophesying, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues are all part of their worship. Meanwhile, something as mundane as making sure everyone gets something to eat at the Lord’s Supper is left undone. Much of 1 Corinthians is given over to Paul’s attempt to convince the Corinthians that spiritual gifts are not instruments for demonstrating superiority over one’s brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, acting from the spiritual reality of being in Christ means acting with love, care, and mutual regard for other members of the body of Christ.