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The occasion for and circumstances surrounding the epistle
The Epistle to the Corinthians presents very different subjects from those which occupied us in the one addressed to the Romans. We find in it moral details, and the interior order of an assembly, with regard to which the Spirit of God here displays His wisdom in a direct way. There is no mention of elders or of other functionaries of the assembly. Through the labours of the apostle a numerous assembly had been formed (for God had much people in that city) in the midst of a very corrupt population, where riches and luxury were united with a moral disorder which had made the city a proverb. At the same time, here as elsewhere, false teachers (in general, Jews) sought to undermine the influence of the apostle. The spirit of philosophy did not fail also to exercise its baneful influence, although Corinth was not, like Athens, its principal seat. Morality and the authority of the apostle were compromised together; and the state of things was most critical. The Epistle was written from Ephesus, where the tidings of the sad state of the flock at Corinth had reached the apostle, almost at the moment when he had determined to visit them on his way into Macedonia (instead of passing along the coast of Asia Minor as he did), then returning to pay them a second visit on his way back. These tidings prevented his doing so, and, instead of visiting them to pour out his heart among them, he wrote this letter. The second epistle was written in Macedonia, when Titus had brought him word of the happy effect of the first.
The subjects and divisions of the epistle
The subjects of this first epistle are very easily divided into their natural order. In the first place, before he blames the Christians at Corinth to whom he writes, the apostle acknowledges all the grace which God had already bestowed on them, and would still impart. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. From verse 10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21 the subject of divisions, schools of doctrine and human wisdom, is spoken of in contrast with revelation and divine wisdom. 1 Corinthians 5, the corruption of morals, and discipline, whether by power, or in the responsibility of the assembly. 1 Corinthians 6, temporal affairs, law-suits; and again the subject of fornication, which was of primary importance for the Christians of this city. 1 Corinthians 7, marriage is considered. Ought people to marry? The obligation of those who had already married; and the case of a converted husband or of a converted wife, whose wife or whose husband was not converted. 1 Corinthians 8, should they eat things offered to idols? 1 Corinthians 9, his apostleship. 1 Corinthians 10, their condition in general, their danger of being seduced, whether by fornication, or by idolatry, and idolatrous feasts, with the principles relating thereto, which introduces the Lord's supper. 1 Corinthians 11, questions connected with their behaviour in religious matters individually or (v. 17) in the assembly. Afterwards, 1 Corinthians 12, the exercise of gifts, and their true value, and the object of their use, magnifying (1 Corinthians 13) the comparative value of charity; to the end of 1 Corinthians 14, ordering the exercise of gifts also, with which it is compared. 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection, which some denied, and specially that of the saints; and 1 Corinthians 16, the collections for the poor in Judea, with some salutations, and the principles of subordination to those whom God has raised up for service, even where there were no elders. It is of great value to have these directions immediately from the Lord, independent of a formal organisation, so that individual conscience and that of the body as a whole should be engaged.
But there are some other considerations as to the character and structure of the epistle which I must not pass by.
The character of the epistle as addressed to the professing Church and recognizing a local assembly as representing it
The reader may remark a difference in the address in the Corinthians and Ephesians. In the Corinthians, "To the church of God," etc., "with all that in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus." It is the professing church, the members being assumed to be faithful, at any rate in character such till put out, and with that, every one that owned Jesus as Lord, -- the house; hence 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. In Ephesians it is "Holy and faithful brethren," and we have the proper privileges of the body. This character of the epistle, as embracing the professing church, and recognising a local assembly as representing it in the locality, gives the epistle great importance. Further, I think it will be found that the outward professing assembly is dealt with to the middle of 1 Corinthians 10 (and there the nature of the Lord's supper introduces the one body of Christ, which is treated of as to the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12); comeliness in woman's activities in the first verses of 1 Corinthians 11; and afterwards from verse 17 what befits the coming together in the assembly, and the Lord's supper, with the government of God. Verses 1-16 do not apply to the assembly. Still, order in the local assembly is everywhere the subject; only, from 1 Corinthians 1 to 1 Corinthians 10:14, the professing multitude is in view, supposed however sincere, but possibly not so. From 1 Corinthians 10:15 to the end of 1 Corinthians 12 the body is in view.