New Testament Backgrounds: 1 and 2 Corinthians

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“New Testament Backgrounds: 1 and 2 Corinthians,” Ensign, Feb. 1976, 56

New Testament Backgrounds:

1 and 2 Corinthians

1 Corinthians

Written To:

The members of the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth (Greece), which was a well-established unit of the early church. (1 Cor. 1:2; see also Acts 18:1, 11.)


The apostle Paul. (1 Cor. 1:1; see also 1 Cor. 9:1; 1 Cor. 15:8–9.)

Written Where:

From Ephesus (Turkey). (1 Cor. 16:8; see also Acts 19:1; Acts 20: 1–2.)

Written When:

Probably spring of A.D. 57. (Acts 19:1; 1 Cor. 16:7–8.)

Purpose of the Letter:

“Now, the people out in the world have a strange idea about these epistles of Paul and of the men who have written the epistles we have in the Bible. They apply them unto themselves, and they look upon them as being declared as messages to all the world. But this is not so. Definitely, each of these epistles was written to members of the Church—not to denominations, but to those who heard the words of the apostles of old, had received them, and had been baptized and confirmed members of the Church of Jesus Christ in that dispensation.

“Therefore, we should have the understanding when we read these epistles that the things said by the apostles are not things that apply to those who have not made covenants through the gospel of Jesus Christ and did not in that day.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, April 1967, p. 119.)

The ancient city of Corinth, the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, was not only located on the main east-west land route, but was also a major seaport of that day. It was a cosmopolitan community of Romans, Greeks, Jews, and others. The city was notorious for the wickedness and immorality that flourished there. Pagan religion centered in the worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (known to the Romans as Venus). The new members of the church were not only influenced by their former backgrounds, but were daily challenged by the world in which they lived.

Paul wrote to this unit of the church because contention and disobedience were causing dissension, division, and sorrow among the members. (1 Cor. 1:10–11, 1 Cor. 3:3, 1 Cor. 11:17–18, 1 Cor. 12:25, 1 Cor. 15:12.) Some matters that had been reported to the early church leader (1 Cor. 5:1) and other difficulties contained in a written query from the members (1 Cor. 7:1) were dealt with in this epistle. This was not the first epistle from Paul to the Corinthian saints. He mentions having sent them counsel regarding some continuing problems (1 Cor. 5:11; see also 2 Cor. 13:2), but since this is the earliest communication to the Corinthians that is extant, this letter has been designated as First Corinthians.

Major Themes:

The dominant themes of the epistle reflect doctrinal and other problems experienced by this early church group that might be categorized as follows:

I. The Principle of the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 1–4, 1 Cor. 12–14.)

Paul testifies to the fundamental basis for a personal conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel and the church of Christ. He reminds them that neither philosophical wrangling nor slothful performance in sustaining one’s testimony will suffice. “The things of God knoweth no man, except he has the Spirit of God.” (JST, 1 Cor. 2:11.) Later in the epistle he reviews for the Corinthian saints the gifts of the Spirit, the relationship of the gifts to certain priesthood offices, and their importance in achieving unity in the church. (1 Cor. 12; see also Moro. 7:8–18; D&C 46:8–30.) He further speaks of charity, or the pure love of Christ, which is required to appropriately use the gifts of the Spirit and to righteously and productively function in the Lord’s kingdom. (1 Cor. 13; see also Moro. 7:44, 47; Moro. 10:20–21; Ether 12:28, 33–34.) Paul also warns about the potential abuse of the gifts, especially the gift of tongues.

II. The Doctrine of Resurrection. (1 Cor. 15.)

The doctrine of a literal bodily resurrection had been challenged by some members in Corinth. Paul presents a catalog of witnesses of the resurrected Christ as evidence of the resurrection; he further cites the practice of baptism for the dead as testimony for the doctrine. (1 Cor. 15:29.) This principle of vicarious work for the dead is an important work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times. (See D&C 128.) The reasons for the resurrection and the resulting spheres of abode for the resurrected are briefly mentioned.

III. General Problems and Counsel Concerning Them.

A. Moral transgressors. (1 Cor. 5.) Paul directs the leaders and members in appropriate measures, including excommunication if necessary, to be taken for those who are known to be in violation of the laws of chastity and refuse to repent.

B. Settlement of civil cases. (1 Cor. 6.) He chastises members because of the worldly methods they are pursuing to settle civil disputes and claims. He further advises them to avoid all unrighteousness.

C. Marriage. (1 Cor. 7.) Paul treats several principles pertaining to marriage and how they are to be applied in varying conditions and circumstances. Direction is given for those who marry outside the church (1 Cor. 7:12–16; see also D&C 74) and for those who are called for a time to ministerial (missionary) service (1 Cor. 7:26–33). The Inspired Version greatly clarifies this.

D. Importance of unquestionable example. (1 Cor. 8–10.) The influence of idolatry and its attendant practices posed a number of challenges to the members of the church in Corinth. Warning is given that one might unknowingly justify the weak through unguarded and seemingly appropriate actions.

E. Corrupt practices not permitted in the church. (1 Cor. 11.) Abuses of the order and ordinances of the church, particularly the sacrament, are discussed.

F. Offerings for the needy. (1 Cor. 16.) Paul appeals to the church for offerings to assist the worthy poor in other branches of the church.

Difficult Passages: (Selected)

“Unto us which are saved. …” (1 Cor. 1: 18; see also 2 Cor. 2:15.)

This passage is used by some to establish that simply believing in Christ secures salvation (i.e., the condition of the one who is “saved”). Remember that Paul is writing to members of the church who have fulfilled the required ordinances; although the ordinances do not guarantee salvation, they open the door to eventually obtain it. The King James translators did not give the accurate sense of the present passive participle of the verb found in the Greek text of this scripture. A more accurate rendering of this verse might be, “unto us which are being saved,” suggesting that the securing of one’s salvation is an ongoing process, through faith and good works.

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak … for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (1 Cor. 14:34–35.)

These oft misunderstood lines were changed in the Inspired Version to read, “it is not permitted unto them to rule … for it is a shame for women to rule in the church.” (JST, 1 Cor. 14:3435; italics added.) In another instance the Prophet declared that “a woman has no right to found or organize a church—God never sent them to do it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 212.) The question is one of the priesthood’s divine commission and role in the establishment and direction of God’s church upon the earth. This in no way prohibits a woman from teaching and testifying in the church.

“All things are lawful for me.” (1 Cor. 10:23.)

Caution should be taken not to assume from this passage license to pursue any course one desires. The Inspired Version provides a clear understanding of what Paul intended, in full harmony with the ever-consistent principles of gospel truth: “All things are not lawful for me, for all things are not expedient; all things are not lawful, for all things edify not.” (JST, 1 Cor. 10:23.)

2 Corinthians

Written To:

The members of the church of Jesus Christ in Corinth (Greece). (2 Cor. 1:1.)


The apostle Paul. (2 Cor. 1:1.)

Written Where:

From Macedonia. (Acts 20:1–2; 2 Cor. 2:13; 2 Cor. 7:5–7; 2 Cor. 8:1; 2 Cor. 9:2–4.)

Written When:

Probably early fall, A.D. 57. (Acts 19:21–22; Acts 20:1–2; 2 Cor. 9:2.)

Purpose of the Letter:

Paul wrote to the Corinthian branch of the church again to confirm the intent of the previous epistle. He had earlier indicated his plan to come and visit the church (1 Cor. 4:19; 1 Cor. 16:5–7), but up to this point he had not been able to fulfill his promise (2 Cor. 1:15–16). He had, however, received a report from another church authority, Titus, concerning the response of the church members to Paul’s counsel. (2 Cor. 7:7–8, 13.) He reminded them that his sole intent was born of concern and love for them. (2 Cor. 2:4, 9; 2 Cor. 7:12.) Paul expressed further warning, lest they turn aside again (2 Cor. 11:3), and warned them of the apostates and transgressors in their midst who would attempt to cause division and continue their sinful ways (2 Cor. 11:2–15; 2 Cor. 12:20–21; 2 Cor. 13:2, 7).

Major Themes:

The writer reaffirms in this epistle the importance of living according to the direction of the Spirit of God. This theme is characterized by the expression, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6.) The following significant themes from this letter have been selected for emphasis:

I. Godly Sorrow. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation.” (2 Cor. 7: 10.)

Godly sorrow results from honest recognition of sin, influenced by the workings of the Spirit of the Lord. It is not the “sorrow of the world”—i.e., the fear or embarrassment of being discovered in wrongdoing, the hate of the inevitable fruits that result from transgression, the loss of self-respect, the bitterness of civil apprehension, judgment, and punishment.

President Spencer W. Kimball has written that “godly sorrow … changes, transforms, and saves. … Repentance of the godly type means that one comes to recognize the sin and voluntarily and without pressure from outside sources begins his transformation.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Bookcraft, 1969, p. 153.)

II. The Precept of Giving. Paul commends the saints at Corinth for their generous offering for the worthy poor, contributed through the church program of the day. (2 Cor. 8–10.) Personal blessings come as a result of voluntary giving.

“He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.

“Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:6–7; cf. Moro. 7:6–8.)

The promise of God’s sustaining blessings is also extended:

“And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:8.)

Difficult Passage: (Selected)

“There was given to me a thorn in the flesh. …” (2 Cor. 12:7.)

Many have speculated as to the nature of the “thorn” Paul speaks of. Some have suggested that severe physical maladies were his lot. President Harold B. Lee has declared that the test the ancient apostle experienced was to spiritually strengthen him, a lesson that applies in principle to all who are called to serve in responsible places in the Church:

“The Lord has told us in the scriptures that Satan is an enemy of all righteousness; because of that fact, those who are standing in high places in our Father’s kingdom will become the objects of his attacks. You may well expect, as the Apostle Paul understood, that you who preside in the various places in our Father’s kingdom will be subjected to the devil’s onslaughts. … Sometimes there is given infirmity, difficulty, hardship upon you to try your souls; and the powers of Satan seem to be enrolled against you, watching and trying to break down your powers of resistance; but your weakness, through those infirmities, will give you the power of God that shall rest upon you even as the Apostle Paul was reconciled and comforted by the thought that through his trials the power of God might rest upon him.” (Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, Oct. 1949, p. 57.)

Photography by R. Anderson

The public square of Corinth. Behind is the hill of Acro-Corinth, a fortress before Paul’s day. The platform in the foreground is perhaps where the Roman governor judged Paul.

Detail of the platform on which the Roman governor may have judged Paul.