I taught 1 Corinthians last year, so the process of studying the book this year should have been: reread the book, see if I still agree with my notes, and present something similar to what I taught previously. With only a little over two weeks since teaching Psalms, there wasn’t really room for starting from scratch. The Holy Spirit had other ideas.
Last year when I taught 1 Corinthians, I found myself unsettled around a couple of things. One was the structure of the letter. It is so different from other letters Paul writes. Usually Paul splits his structure between teaching Theology and Application/Ethics. He typically moves from one to the other. With 1 Corinthians, he seems to mix the two together. The standard opinion in SBS is this is because Paul is addressing concerns from the church that have come to him by report and by letter, respectively. This never fit for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Paul had received a letter full of questions from the church in Corinth, and that he heard a report of what was going on there (1 Cor. 1:11; 7:1); I just don’t think this is the source of the structure of the book. Now to the non-SBSer, this might seem a bit dull, but stay with me. The other thing that didn’t sit well with me was the opening of the letter where Paul addresses the recipient. It says: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).
What raised questions for me was the language of “all those who in every place”. It seems like Paul has an audience in mind that goes beyond the church in Corinth. Now enter into my lecture preparation story a commentary by Kenneth Bailey called Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. In this book I found someone who could give direction to my unsettledness. Bailey believes Paul was doing something beautifully different with this letter. Paul is leaning into his past as a Hebrew, and writing this letter in the form of Hebrew Parallelism. This is a style of often poetic literature that is common in the Psalms and the Prophets. In using this repetitive style, Paul is linking his message to the imagery of his past, particularly with regards to the importance of the prophetic in guiding the people of God in the right way to walk before God. In the poetry of the Psalms, parallelisms are often clear, but in this letter (as also in the prophets) the parallelisms are found in the rhythm of ideas more than in the rhythm of verses and stanzas.
Why write in this style? Paul sees the “occasional” (or specific) issues of Corinth as common to all the churches in the Roman Empire that find themselves immersed in a pagan world. 1 Corinthians was meant to go beyond the issues of a few house churches in Corinth to be an encouragement to believers throughout the Empire. Corinth was a port of great importance in the time of the writing of this letter, and as such, it would have been easy to circulate the letter from there.
Paul expresses several ideas that are necessary for the believer living in the Roman Empire through a chiastic structure of parallelism. We can think of this structure as having an A-B-C-B-A pattern. The As are about “The Cross and The Resurrection.” The Bs are about “Sex and Worship.” The C is about “Life in a Pagan World.” Each of these main headings come with a sub-heading. (A) The Cross: The Unifying Power of God (1:10-4:13). (B) Sex: Men and Women Relating in the Human Family (4:14-7:40). (C) Life in a Pagan World: How Christians are to be in the World But not Part of It (8:1-11:1). (B) Worship: Men and Women Relating in the Church (11:2-14:40). The Resurrection: Hope in the Victory of Christ (15:1-58). Of course, these titles are interpretive, but it does become clear these are foundational issues that not only faced Christians thousands of years ago around the Mediterranean, but continue to face the church today. Paul uses a style of writing that creates an artistic beauty in the way that the ideas are placed alongside each other. This book is written to call its readers to walk in a way worthy of the life that has been given to them through Christ, just as the prophets of old called Israel to walk worthy of the covenant God had given them.
The introduction of this new approach to 1 Corinthians has shown me that there is always more to be discovered in my study of the Bible. There is so much beauty found within the pages of this Book. I need to see myself as a life-long learner and not assume that because I have taught something once, I am an expert. I hope that maybe what I have discussed here will help you to see this also. I hope that you might be encouraged to study a passage or book you thought you understood fully, and see if there is something new that God would have for you. All of this, whether assisted by academic wisdom or not, is done under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit, guide those who would seek to have fresh revelation from the Scriptures You inspired to have written.