The Books of Corinthians

Our daily reading plan is moving at a good clip, and we won’t be slowing down until the end of the year. We knocked out Romans in five days, and now we’re on to eight days with 1 and 2 Corinthians.

Now 1 and 2 Corinthians were put after Romans for a very simple and practical reason: they are the next longest letters written by Paul.

The Minor Prophets have a thematic arrangement. They don’t follow either a chronological order (first written to last) or a size order (biggest to smallest) but instead a thematic order. The books are arranged so that God’s love is presented first (Hosea), then man’s sin (Joel to Micah), then the punishment (Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah), and finally the renewal (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

How the Epistles are Arranged

But the Epistles have a fairly strict utilitarian arrangement. They are arranged in what is both the most logical and yet meaningless way: author and size. Paul’s works come first, starting with the longest and basically going to the shortest. Then James’ one book. Then Peter’s two. Then John’s three. Then Jude’s. And then finally The Revelation, which is also John’s but it separated from the Epistles because it has a different literary style.

That being the case, Romans is put first because it is Paul’s longest. It is nice that this longest epistle is also the grandest epistle and a Gospel-proclaiming epistle, but that is largely coincidence (if anything in The Faith is a coincidence, that is; I have my doubts about that). 1 Corinthians is next because it is the second-longest by Paul, and 2 Corinthians is third because it is both the third-longest by Paul and is addressed to the same church.

A Different Approach

So that’s why the books are next to each other in the Bible. It is interesting to note, though, that these next-to-each-other books are as different as could be. Romans was written to a church Paul didn’t know, while 1 and 2 Corinthians are written to a church Paul not only knew but started. In fact, Paul is so close to the Corinthian Christians that he calls himself their father (1 Corinthians 4:15).

Romans is generic. It could have been written to any church and doesn’t include references to anything happening in that particularly church.  1 and 2 Corinthians are specific. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the Corinthians and the letters contain material tailored to the Corinthians.

Most importantly, Romans is a systematic presentation of the Gospel of the kind that a professor might have produced. 1 and 2 Corinthians is a rebuke of sinful behaviors that could only have been written by a pastor. A pastor who is at the very end of his rope.

Addressing Sinful Behaviors

And it is those sinful behaviors which characterize this book. They do for me, anyway. If I hear “Corinthians” (either 1 or 2), I think, “Sexual immorality of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.” Or “Divisions in the body,” or “Misuse of spiritual gifts” or “Worshipping bad teachers while hating Paul.” Maybe even “Whatever weird thing they were up to in Chapter 11.”

And this is for good reason. Those sinful behaviors are the topics of the book. “Coveting” was not a topic of Romans. It was something Paul mentioned in passing as he argued for sanctification, but it was never a topic. But these sinful behaviors are the topics of Corinthians, and they form the major divisions of 1 Corinthians.

In chapters 1-4, Paul deals with divisions. In 5, he deals with one of the worst examples of sexual immorality I’ve ever heard of. Chapter 6 starts with lawsuits among believers and comes back to sexual immorality. 7 is a discussion of marriage and relationship sins. 8-10 deals with “food sacrificed to idols”, 11 with gender roles and the Lord’s Supper, 12-14 with spiritual gifts, 15 with the truth of the resurrection of the dead (which the Corinthians had abandoned), and 16 with offerings.

In 2 Corinthians, there are a few more positive discussions, but Paul still has to encourage forgiveness (chapter 2), forbid comparisons between believers (10), and refute the false teachers who were misleading the congregation (11-12).

The Big Picture

And I can understand if people are turned off by these topics and their discussions. It happens to me as well. I have long said that Corinthians are my least favorite Epistles, and that is probably still true today. But I also understand that there is a lot of value in Corinthians. There is a lot of value not just in the discussions of how bad these topics are (though there is that value), and not just in the many, many beautiful statements in the books (though there is that value as well). No, there is also value in the “big picture” of the books.

As you know by now, I’m convinced that each book of the Bible has such a big picture, and that these big pictures are extremely important. But I can’t always find those big pictures, and that has been the case with Corinthians. I knew what was in the books, but I didn’t know what those books were really about.

This changed just a few weeks ago as I discussed 1 Corinthians with my small group. At that time, I stumbled across a vital fact. It is the vital fact that Paul always identifies some overriding spiritual principle in his discussions on these topics. In his discussion on divisions, he tells us that everything we have is “received” or given by God (1 Corinthians 4:7), a fact that eliminates arrogance. In his discussion on sexual immorality, he tells us that “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” and that we are “bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 5:6 & 6:19-20). When talking about food sacrificed to idols, he tells us that “the one who loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3).

Paul and…Tolkien?

For me, this is very “Tolkien-esque”. Some have said that J.R.R. Tolkien peppered a lot of references to a greater story in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, dropping hints of a larger world and history we never got to see in those stories. I believe Paul is doing almost the same thing here in Corinthians. The only different is that we do see this larger world and history in other books of the Bible.

We know exactly what Paul is referencing with all these comments: it is what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”. That is, God’s will being done, God’s rule being carried out on earth, things going in a way that matches God or aligns with God. Every spiritual principle Paul drops in these books is a reference to this Kingdom. The way of life Paul is condemning in these discussions is not just an un-Gospel but an anti-Gospel way of life.

And thus every discussion he has in these books, though it may seem tedious and gross on the surface, is actually a discussion of Kingdom. In fact, what we might say about Corinthians is that it is “the Gospel in a different way”. Romans was the Gospel in a straightforward, positive-image fashion. It explained what the Gospel is. Corinthians is the Gospel in a hidden, negative-image fashion. It explains what the Gospel is not.

It’s All Gospel

But notice that it is still Gospel. Negative, positive, or somewhere in between, what Corinthians gives us is a Kingdom way of life which in turn is a major part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, of what Jesus was accomplishing by both His life and His death.

So try reading it that way. While it may be tempting to be grossed out by the guy who married his father’s wife or the people who were getting drunk during the services, let’s instead see what is behind and underneath those discussion. Because it is a good, good thing. It is a Gospel.

Pastor Doug McCoy
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