Could you find my car by looking at the photo? You might guess that it’s in a parking garage, but you would struggle to find it until you had some additional direction. You would need to know the city and the facility. It could be at a hospital, mall, or office building.
You would never head off to find my car without those facts. Yet sometimes believers attempt to understand Scripture without adequate information. When we fail to take the original context into account we end up misunderstanding, misusing, and misapplying Scripture. As we start our study of First Corinthians 13, let’s dig into the context.
In a previous post, I talked about four areas of context that helps us understand a passage. (Read that post “Context is King.”) Let’s briefly consider each one for First Corinthians 13.
Literary Genre of the book
First Corinthians is an “occasional letter.” It was written to a specific people for a specific purpose. Therefore, we cannot completely and correctly understand the content without knowing to whom it was originally written and why. We cannot separate the application to our lives from the original intent.
Context of the book
The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Corinth from Ephesus roughly 5 years after he first established the church in 50ad. We know from internal evidence (1 Corinthians 5:9) this was probably Paul’s second letter to the church. He addresses specific theological and practical problems in the church. Paul had received reports from one of the member’s house (“from Chloe’s household, 1:11) and possibly from a delegation sent by the church (16:17). He wrote to correct serious doctrinal errors, heal division, call them to turn away from moral sins, and to exhort them to proper community life.
- Corinth was a wealthy commercial center. Pagan temples filled the city, including one to Aphrodite with 1,000 cult prostitutes. Since the Greek mindset dominated Corinth, the believers would have distrusted authority, accepted immorality as the norm, and struggled with individualism, making it difficult to unconditionally love and unselfishly serve their fellow believers.
- For background on Paul’s first visit to Corinth and the establishment of the church read Acts 18.
- The recipients of Paul’s letter were mostly Gentiles (12:2) though the church also had a small Jewish minority.
Immediate literary Context
First Corinthians 13 cannot be properly understood outside the larger section of the letter of which it is a part. In chapters 12-14, Paul apparently answers a specific question about spiritual gifts (12:1). Arguing and jealousy over spiritual gifts prompted Paul to discuss how God distributes the gifts and why. Chapter 13, “The Love Chapter,” provides the framework for their use.
1 Corinthians 13 for us
Agape love is more important and eternal than all the spiritual gifts. In fact, love should both guide and motive the use of our spiritual gifts. Otherwise, we accomplish nothing more than a disruption. Without love, our spiritual gifts are worthless. Let’s choose the “most excellent way” and serve in the body of Christ with love. Let’s love our fellow Christians like Jesus loves us.