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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- 1 Corinthians

by John Dummelow


1. The Corinthian Church.

(a) ’Corinth was in many respects the most important city in Greece under the Roman Empire. Whereas Athens was the educational centre, the seat of the greatest university in the world at that time, and the city to which the memories of Greek freedom and older history clung most persistently, Corinth was the capital of the Roman province, the centre of government and commerce, of actual life and development in the country’ (HDB).

It was situated on the narrow isthmus which connected Macedonia and Achaia, and possessed two great harbours, Lechæum looking towards the Adriatic Sea and Italy, and Cenchreæ (Acts 18:18; Romans 16:1) looking towards the Ægean and Asia. Though it lay a little inland it had all the advantages of a seaport, and, occupying as it did a central position on the lines of communication between Rome and the East, it was a great commercial clearing house. Small ships were hauled across the isthmus by a prepared way to avoid the voyage round the Cape, and travellers from Italy to the East landed at Lechaeum and re-embarked at Cenchreæ. It was thus a place where traders and officials were constantly coming and going. Its population was composed of Greeks and Romans, Jews and Orientals. Merchants and sailors were its most frequent visitors, staying for short periods on their voyages, and bringing to it the civilisation and the customs of many lands.

Corinth in St. Paul’s day was a Roman colony. Two centuries earlier the famous Greek city on the same site had been destroyed by the Roman armies; but after lying in ruins for a hundred years it had been refounded by Julius Caesar in 46 b.c., and had speedily regained more than its former greatness.

Besides its commercial importance Corinth was famous as the scene of the great Isthmian games, which every second year attracted a multitude of people to the city; and it was noted as the centre of the abominable worship of the goddess Aphrodite, in whose worship virgins sacrificed their chastity. The Corinthians were notorious even in the world of that time for their drunkenness and sensuality. They were also much given to faction and strife, being always anxious to discuss philosophical and moral problems, and to debate the qualifications and drawbacks of their public teachers. It is a significant commentary on their way of life that a man of Corinth was usually introduced on the stage in a state of intoxication, and that ’to live like a Corinthian’ had become a proverb to express a life of luxury and licence.

(b) The Founding of the Church. St. Paul’s first visit to Corinth was made in the course of his second missionary journey, and lasted eighteen months (Acts 18). After his failure to make any deep impression at Athens, the Apostle passed on to Corinth; probably in the autumn of 50 a.d., but possibly a year or two later, as the dates are uncertain. On his arrival he met with Aquila and his wife Priscilla, Jews lately expelled from Rome on account of their race and religion. They were tentmakers, like himself, so he wrought with them and stayed in their house. At first, according to his custom (cp. Acts 13:5, Acts 13:14; Acts 14:1; Acts 17:2), he preached in the synagogue, and endeavoured to persuade the Jews and the Greek proselytes that Jesus was the Christ. The arrival of Silas and Timothy reinforced him, and the work was not without effect, for several Jews believed, among them being Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, and Titius Justus, one of their proselytes. The majority, however, remained obdurate, and the Apostle had to withdraw from the synagogue. Eventually the wrath of the Jews culminated in an attempt to convict him before Gallio, the governor of the province, of teaching an illegal religion. The governor, however, dismissed the case, because the Apostle had not broken any Roman law, and the Greeks who were present gave a rough approval of his decision by beating Sosthenes, the new ruler of the synagogue, in sight of the judgment-seat. Thus protected by the law, St. Paul continued his work until the spring of 52 a.d., when he sailed for Ephesus and Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover.

After his departure from Ephesus, Apollos, a learned Jew of Alexandria, who had embraced Christianity, arrived there, and made himself known to the Church. His knowledge of Christ was somewhat imperfect, but having been instructed more fully by Aquila and Priscilla, who had accompanied St. Paul to Ephesus, he became of great assistance in the work of the Lord. It was his desire to go to Corinth, and after a time the brethren in Ephesus commended him to the community across the sea (Acts 18:27; 2 Corinthians 3:1). In Corinth his preaching was very successful (Acts 18:27), and his arguments proved attractive to many of the Corinthians, who preferred a more philosophical style to the plain words of St. Paul.

(c) Composition of the Church. The Church at Corinth was composed to some extent of Jews (Acts 18:8; 1 Corinthians 7:18; 1 Corinthians 10:32; 2 Corinthians 11:22), but chiefly of Gentiles (Acts 18:7; 1 Corinthians 12:2). The members were of all classes. Gaius, ’the host of the whole Church,’ and Erastus, ’the chamberlain of the city’ (Romans 16:23;—the Epistle to the Romans was written from Corinth), were among the better class, as was, perhaps, also Stephanas, ’the first-fruits of Achaia’ (1 Corinthians 16:15). But others were poor (1 Corinthians 1:26-28), and others were slaves (1 Corinthians 7:22). It is certain that here as elsewhere ’not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble’ were called (1 Corinthians 1:26). The majority seem to have been of humble station (1 Corinthians 1:27-28), and had to work hard for their living. Some of these Christian converts being of Jewish origin attached importance to Jewish rites (1 Corinthians 9:20), others prided themselves on their liberal views (1 Corinthians 8:8-9; 1 Corinthians 10:25, 1 Corinthians 10:27); many had been redeemed from vicious habits (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and had to keep strict watch over their lives (1 Corinthians 6:12-13, 1 Corinthians 6:20).

(d) The Rise of Parties in the Church. In order to understand the situation referred to in our Epistle, it is necessary to give a brief account of the factions which arose in the Church after the Apostle’s departure (1 Corinthians 1:12).

Four parties are there named—called by the names of the leaders they had adopted—a party of Paul, a party of Apollos, a party of Cephas, and a party of Christ. The followers of Paul were those who had remained faithful to the teaching of the founder of the Church, and probably included the earliest converts who had felt the power of his personal influence; but they made the mistake of opposing him to other teachers, and, perhaps, especially at first to Apollos, hence they received a special rebuke (1 Corinthians 1:13).

The party of Apollos evidently consisted of those who admired that eloquent speaker’s ability in the use of argument and language. Apollos seems to have captivated a number of the converts by his skill in harmonising the teaching of the OT. with the current philosophy, and his ingenuity in using the allegorical method of interpretation in applying the Hebrew Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. St. Paul may be contrasting the methods of Apollos with his own simpler style of teaching the Corinthians when he speaks of ’wisdom’ and ’foolishness’ in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31; 1 Corinthians 2:1-13. The nucleus of the party of Apollos would be composed of those whom he himself had converted; others would be attracted to it who were easily impressed by a flowing style and a philosophic presentation of the truth. The differences between the parties of Paul and Apollos arose half-unconsciously, hence their hostility would not be very pronounced.

The other two parties had a different origin. It would appear that, some time after St. Paul’s departure, representatives of that party in the Church at Jerusalem which maintained that acceptance of Christianity involved acceptance of circumcision and other Jewish rites, also came to Corinth. These Judaisers, as they are called, were always hostile to the wider developments of Christianity. They found fault with St. Peter for his liberal views and his attitude to the Gentiles (Acts 11:2) at an early period of the Church’s history. St. Paul, however, was the principal object of their aversion and ill-will. It is possible that they had never forgiven his persecution of the Christians in his unconverted days, and certainly from the date of his return to Antioch, after his first mission to Galatia, they opposed his admission of uncircumcised heathen to the fellowship of the Church (Acts 15:1; Galatians 2:4). We find them sending emissaries in his track to alienate the Jewish converts from allegiance to him and bring the Gentile brethren into bondage to the Mosaic Law (Galatians 1:7; Galatians 2:12-13; Galatians 3:1; Galatians 5:2; Galatians 6:12; Philippians 3:2). Some of these Jewish Christians had brought letters of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1) to Corinth, and had been received by the Church. They took occasion to exalt St. Peter (Cephas) as the chief of the Apostles, and tried to undermine the authority of St. Paul, insisting that he was not an Apostle, and that he lacked the qualification of having seen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1).

Thus was formed the party of Cephas, consisting, probably, of some of the Jews who had joined the Church, and, perhaps, of some of the proselytes, who, having first adopted the Jewish religion and rites, would be the more easily persuaded.

The party of Christ may have arisen as a protest against these three sections, whose members adopted the names of Apostles as party watchwords, or even as a separate and stricter Jewish party, maintaining the duty of all disciples of Christ to follow Him in His fulfilment of the rites of the Law (Luke 2:27; John 5:1, etc.). Its members seem to have become more extreme and fanatical as the strife went on, and to have maintained the strictest Judaistic principles: see further remarks in Intro, to 2 Corinthians 1 (b). We find in the Second Epistle that some of its members withstood St. Paul’s authority and denied his right to interfere in the discipline of the Church, and that it was with great difficulty that the Apostle asserted his position and regained his influence (2 Corinthians 10:7; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Corinthians 11:21-22, etc.).

2. The First Epistle.

(a) Circumstances of its Origin, and Date.

Our First Epistle to the Corinthians is one, and that not the first, of a series of letters written by St. Paul to the Corinthian Church, in view of the party quarrels which rent it, and the difficulties of belief and conduct which perplexed its members. In the interval between St. Paul’s departure from Corinth, after founding the Church, and the date of this letter, he had revisited the Churches of Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:23), and from there had come to Ephesus (Acts 19:1). At Ephesus he remained for more than two years (Acts 19:8-10), reaching the city perhaps in 53 or 54 a.d., and leaving it late in 56 or 57 a.d. During his residence there he seems to have received tidings from Corinth that some of the Christians had fallen back into immoral habits, and he wrote a letter to the Church, in which he directed the members to exercise discipline upon the offenders. To this letter (which is not now extant) he. refers in 1 Corinthians 5:9, ’I wrote unto you in my epistle to have no company with fornicators’ (RV). This letter was not well received by the Corinthians. Some of them, misunderstanding the counsel, declared that it was impossible to follow it without going out of the world (1 Corinthians 5:10), and others flatly denied his right to interfere at all (1 Corinthians 4:15, 1 Corinthians 4:18-19). In reply they wrote a letter, frequently alluded to and even quoted from in the canonical First Epistle (1 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 8:1-10; 1 Corinthians 10:25; 1 Corinthians 11:2), in which they temporised in regard to the cases of immorality, asking for further information, and submitted a number of problems on which they requested his opinion. This letter was probably brought by three of their number, Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:17).

Meanwhile, however, St. Paul had also heard of the factions in the Church. The news had been brought by servants of Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), lady evidently well known to the Corinthians, though whether she was herself a Christian does not appear. The tidings caused the Apostle much pain and anxiety. He sent Timothy to Corinth by way of Macedonia (Acts 19:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17) to ’bring them into remembrance of his ways in Christ.’ About the same time he wrote the First Epistle and sent it—perhaps by the hands of Titus and the brother mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:18;—by the shorter sea route, that it might arrive before his young comrade, whom he commends to their care (1 Corinthians 16:10). The letter contains first of all a remonstrance regarding their divisions and an exhortation to unity, and secondly detailed answers to the problems and questions submitted in the Epistle from the Church. It was probably written and despatched early in 55 or 56 a.d.

(b) Synopsis of Contents.

Introduction 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.Greeting and thanksgiving.
I. 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 6:20.Problems suggested by the reports of Chloe’s people.
(a) 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21.Parties and party spirit in the Church.
(b) 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.The case of immorality.
(c) 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.Christians and litigation.
(d) 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.The obligation of purity.
II. 1 Corinthians 7:1 to 1 Corinthians 16:4.Problems submitted in the letter from Corinth.
(a) 1 Corinthians 7:1-40.Marriage, divorce, and celibacy.
(b) 1 Corinthians 8:1 to 1 Corinthians 11:1.Food offered to idols:
(i) 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. The principle of self-denial
(ii) 1 Corinthians 9:1-27. St. Paul’s own example
(iii) 1 Corinthians 10:1 to 1 Corinthians 11:1. Historical illustrations and practical advice.
(c) 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.The veiling of women in Church.
(d) 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.The proper observance of the Lord’s Supper.
(e) 1 Corinthians 12:1 to 1 Corinthians 14:40.Spiritual gifts:
(i) 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. Their nature and relations
(ii) 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. The most excellent gift of charity
(iii) 1 Corinthians 14:1-40. The gift of tongues subordinate to prophecy.
(f) 1 Corinthians 15:1-58.The fact and the doctrine of the Resurrection.
(g) 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.The collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
(h) 1 Corinthians 16:5-24.Personal messages and conclusion.

(c) Outline of the Epistle. After saluting the Church and giving thanks for their Christian graces (1 Corinthians 1:1-9) the Apostle deals with the evils of which he has heard. First of all (1Co 1:10-4:31) he points out the scandal and danger of party spirit in the Church, reminding them that Christ is the only Master, the Apostles being only preachers of Christ. He shows them that the preaching of the Cross is powerful to accomplish their salvation, and that it is the only true wisdom to those who have understanding. The Corinthians, however, are still carnal, and do not know the truth, as is shown by their partisanship. Let them realise that Christian teachers are fellow-workers with God, servants of Christ, and let them give up this strife and rancour. The Apostle then passes on (1 Corinthians 5) to deal with the case of incestuous marriage, and bids the Church put out of its membership the man who has caused the scandal. Litigation before heathen judges is forbidden (1 Corinthians 6:1-9) because it is both foolish and morally wrong, exhibiting the spirit of their unconverted past, rather than the new spirit of love and peace, and then the Apostle urges them again (1 Corinthians 6:10-20) to purity of life.

The rest of the Epistle seems to deal with problems of Church life suggested by questions in a letter from the Corinthians to St. Paul. The subject of marriage is dealt with first (1 Corinthians 7), the Apostle commending the married state to all who prefer it, and forbidding divorce on grounds of difference in religion. Meats offered to idols formed a cause of scandal to many, and the Apostle (1 Corinthians 8) points out that while a man might well enough eat such meat with a pure conscience, his action might give offence to another who regarded the eating of such food as sin, in which case it was far better to avoid it. This suggests a reference to his own example (1 Corinthians 9) of self-denial. He has the right to look for material aid from the Church, but he refuses to exercise it, and practises the same self-denial in this respect as in respect of his bodily appetites. He then (1 Corinthians 10) returns to the subject of idolatry, showing its dangers by reference to Jewish history, and urging his converts to keep from its degrading influence.

The next subject taken up (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) is the place of women in the worship of the Church, after which the Apostle deals with the observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), reproving the abuses which disfigure their sacred feast, reminding them of the manner of its institution by the Lord Jesus, and exhorting them to reverence in its use. The use and abuse of such spiritual gifts as prophesying and speaking with tongues is dealt with in its turn (1 Corinthians 12-14), and the Apostle, while commending the moderate and careful use of all the gifts, bids them cultivate above all (1 Corinthians 13) the most excellent gift of charity. Then follows his teaching as to the fact and the doctrine of the Resurrection, in which he shows how intimately belief in the Resurrection of Christ (and consequently of the dead, of whom He is the first-fruits) is bound up with their Christian faith and new obedience, and how all their Christian practices and actions and aspirations were inseparably connected with it. Turning next to the manner of the Resurrection, he points out that as it is with the seed sown and the wheat reaped, so is it with the mortal body and the spiritual body. Through the grave man’s body passes into a new and higher form, and then ’when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.’ The letter concludes (1 Corinthians 16) with directions about a collection for the poor in Jerusalem, the Mother-Church, and with personal messages “to various friends of the writer.

(d) Authenticity. This Epistle is accepted as St. Paul’s by almost all schools of biblical criticism, including those often regarded as sceptical and extreme. The internal and the external evidences are both exceptionally good. The Epistle accords with the circumstances under which it is presumed to have been written, and presents a true picture of the nature and habits of the Corinthians. Its tone is real, its exhortations and counsels arise naturally out of the circumstances, and it reveals the Apostle in many characteristic moods. As regards the witness borne to this letter in early Church history, it is sufficient to say that Clement of Rome, writing to this same Church of Corinth about 97 a.d., quotes from it and bids them read it again for their guidance.

(e) The Master-thought of this Epistle and of the Second Epistle is the union of Christ and the Christian. ’I am crucified with Christ,’ he says (Galatians 2:20): ’nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Christ and the Apostle are so united in mind and spirit that the very life of Christ, so to speak, pulsates in Him. He has yielded Himself so completely to Christ’s influence, and drunk so deeply of His spirit, that he acts, speaks, thinks, and suffers ’in Christ.’ The sense of personal union with Christ sustains him in all his efforts, and he desires to realise Christ’s presence abiding with him in increasing degree.

’Flow on my soul, thou Spirit, and renew me, Fill with Thyself, and let the rest be far’ (Myers).

What he has thus experienced in his own life, he assumes that his converts have in some degree experienced also (1 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 8:12; 2 Corinthians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:17). He realises indeed that their union with Christ is but imperfect and dimly realised by themselves; he can treat them only as ’babes in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3:1). But though they do not comprehend this fact of their spiritual life, he is assured that Christ is indeed already dwelling in them (2 Corinthians 13:5); and he desires that they may receive more and more of the influence of Christ, until they live in complete and conscious union with Him. From this controlling thought of the union of Christ and the Christian the Apostle deduces the two dominant ideas—the necessity of union with one another, and the necessity of purity of life (see paraph. 2 Corinthians 4:13-15).

(f) Special Teaching of the Epistle. There are many points of Christian belief and practice which this Epistle sets in a unique light, (a) One most important feature is the independent witness it bears to the facts of Christ’s life and death and resurrection. Especially does the Apostle dwell upon the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 1 Corinthians 15:20, 1 Corinthians 15:23, 1 Corinthians 15:57, etc). The letter was written before our Gospels, within about twenty-five years of the death of Christ, and in all matters of fact it confirms the statements of the Gospels.

We learn from it too that the sacraments were duly celebrated, although some disorder was mingled with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Baptism was administered to those who confessed their faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12-16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13), and the Lord’s Supper was observed by the breaking of the bread and the giving of the cup, and was to be prepared for by self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:23-29). Associated with the Holy Communion and prior to its celebration was the agape or common meal, at which the members of the Church shared the food which each had brought, and ate together in token of their unity as members of one family. It was in connexion with the agape that the abuses had arisen which St. Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians 11.

The doctrines of Christianity are not set forth here in a formal way, but are brought forward incidentally as they bear on Christian life and practice. Belief in God the Father (1 Corinthians 8:6), in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 11:1), and in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), is the foundation of the faith. Christ crucified is the great subject of preaching (1 Corinthians 1:23). Christ has ransomed man (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) He has died for their sins according to prophecy (1 Corinthians 15:3); He is the perfect example for them to follow (1 Corinthians 11:1), and the chief object of their love (1 Corinthians 16:22). Christ’s death is the power of God unto salvation (1 Corinthians 1:24), and the great motive to holiness of life (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). His Resurrection is the basis of belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:16); the ground of the hope of immortality (1 Corinthians 15:18); and the pledge of the forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).

The Epistle bears witness also to the ideal unity of the Church of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Corinthians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 11:18), to the fact of forgiveness bestowed by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3), to the great Christian doctrines of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and of the life everlasting (1 Corinthians 15:53-57). Closely connected with doctrine is duty; and the Christian virtues of self-denial (1 Corinthians 8:13), unity (1 Corinthians 1:10), love (1 Corinthians 13), and purity (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), are inculcated in many passages, of which those indicated are mere specimens. What is insisted upon throughout is that the whole purpose of the death of Christ was to produce the life of the Spirit in the souls of men(1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Corinthians 2:2-5; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23, etc.).

The public worship described is spontaneous and unrestrained. Each one prayed or sang or exhorted as the Spirit moved him, sometimes in a sort of raptured utterance which was unintelligible to the others (1 Corinthians 14:12-17). We can understand that while such worship was often hearty and helpful and productive of deep impressions (1 Corinthians 14:25), it was liable to much abuse, and was in fact frequently spoiled by rivalry and disorder, and even by blasphemy (1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Corinthians 14:11, 1 Corinthians 14:16, 1 Corinthians 14:23, 1 Corinthians 14:30). The Apostle lays down strict rules for its proper conduct on the principle that all things should be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). There seems to have been little or no organisation in the Corinthian Church at that early stage. Had there been responsible heads of the Church some of the causes of disorder could not have been present. Perhaps we may see an attempt on the Apostle’s part to get such recognised ’elders’ or ’bishops’ appointed (cp. Philippians 1:1), in his advice to the Corinthians to submit themselves to such as the house of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 16:15-16). The principle of discipline was recognised in the Church, and the penalty for gross sin was expulsion by a solemn service (1 Corinthians 5:3-5, 1 Corinthians 5:11). But there seems to have been some difference of opinion as to the authority by which the sentence was to be pronounced when the case arose: this caused delay, and the Apostle had to assert his right to exercise discipline when the Church as a whole was lax.

It is mainly the dark side of the Church life which is disclosed in this Epistle; but there was also a bright side. There was life in the Church; its members possessed the gifts of the spirit; they were growing in grace and in the knowledge of God (1 Corinthians 1:4-9), and the Apostle could give thanks in spite of all drawbacks for the many aspirations and efforts and achievements which gave promise of better things to come (1 Corinthians 1:4, 1 Corinthians 1:8).

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