Epistle contains great love sonnet

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on February 1, 2016

Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians were probably written after his letter to the Galatians. There are two letters in the New Testament addressed to the church in Corinth. 1 Corinthians is probably a single, complete letter. 2 Corinthians is probably a composite of several letters strung together by scribes in the early church.

In this column, we will concentrate on 1 Corinthians. This is Paul’s second longest epistle in the New Testament and probably his second most important. (The letters in the New Testament are listed according to length; thus, 1 Corinthians follows the Epistle to the Romans.)

Paul seems to have had a love-hate relationship with the Corinthian church, which he had established during his second missionary trip in 50 CE. During that journey, he stayed in Corinth for 18 months. Corinth was the home of the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and it was a rather sinful city. It was also the capital of the Roman province of Achaia (most of modern-day Greece). The story of Paul’s mission there can be found in Acts 18:1-17.

His first letter to the Corinthians was written from Ephesus in about 55 CE, during his third missionary journey. Paul stayed in Ephesus for almost three years and met with Chloe’s people, who were from Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11). He also received a letter from the Corinthian church. It included a long list of difficulties about church life. Paul tried to help the Corinthians correct these abuses, calling on them to reflect on what it meant to be called from their pagan past into a new life in Jesus Christ.

His first pastoral concern was unity. There were arguments among the members of the Corinthian church as to whom was to be considered superior – Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ. (Cephas is the Greek name for Peter. It is doubtful that he was ever in Corinth, but some of his followers may have passed through it.) “Christ” was probably inserted into this list by Paul to emphasize that they were all baptized into Christ.

Paul answered these complaints. “Has Christ been divided?” he asked. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). He said unity in the body of Christ was essential to the church. There was only one Christ, who was crucified for everyone. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:5.

Chapters 12 to 14 may be the most important part of his epistle. They form a unit and give us a glimpse into worship in the first-century church. It starts with a discussion about the gifts of the Spirit. There are many gifts listed, such as wisdom, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues, but there is only one Spirit who allocates each of these gifts.

Paul continues his narrative with a beautiful analogy of the Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). There is one Body with many parts: each member has his or her own purpose and each works with the other parts of the Body for the proper functioning of the whole. The church is the Body of Christ. It has many members, having different gifts, but all working together to build it up.

At the end of chapter 12, Paul writes, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” What follows is probably the most beautiful passage in the New Testament, Paul’s great love sonnet, found in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is the central theme of this first epistle. Love builds up the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 8:1). As Paul so eloquently states in chapter 13, “If I do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Chapter 14 speaks about the gifts of prophecy and tongues. These gifts are given for building up the Body of Christ. The gift of tongues is important for the individual, but for building up the Body, it needs to be interpreted. Prophecy, on the other hand, builds up the Body as it is given. Paul continues with the need for orderly worship. “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40).

I encourage you to read this letter to the Corinthians from beginning to end. It is only 16 chapters in length. Let Paul’s words speak to you across the centuries. Visualize the people in Corinth who received the letter so long ago. Feel with them the impact of Paul’s words upon the life of their church. Let his words resonate in your hearts – and enjoy the dialogue.


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