The First Epistle to the Corinthians
Paul's missionary work in Europe started with difficulties. Acts chapter 16 tells how Paul and Silas were thrown in jail. Paul was forced to flee from Thessalonica and Berea with fear of death (Acts 17). In Athens, which was the cradle of civilization at that time, the Gospel was just laughed at. With these lessons still in his fresh memory, Paul travelled from Athens to Corinth, a notorious port city. No wonder that he wrote to the Corinthians in this way:
"And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling"
(1st Corinthians 2:3, ESV)
With his heart trembling, Paul arrived in Corinth. There he had a chance to operate as the Lord’s messenger for a year and a half. This time is described in Acts chapter 18. God told Paul that, against all human calculations, He has many people in Corinth. The Lord did what he promised and got many hearts to turn away from paganism to Christ.
Soon the Jews closed the synagogue from Apostle Paul, but Paul continued preaching in the neighbouring house, owned by a pagan called Titius Justus (Acts 18:6-7). The gap between the Jews and other people, the gentiles, was deeper than we now could realize. The Gospel formed a bridge between these groups. Most of the Corinthian church members were former pagans, but there were also some Jews.
Difficulties that happened in other cities were also experienced in Corinth. In the year 50, Achaean Roman superior, Proconsul Lucius Junius Gallio needed to attend to the accusations from the town’s Jews against Paul. However, the Proconsul refused to deal with the legal case concerning religious matters. Paul was released, but he soon decided to continue his work elsewhere. Before that, he laid the cornerstone of the church in Corinth. Paul's letters to Corinth are among the most important parts of the New Testament.
The church of Corinth was difficult for Paul in many ways. Because of this, Paul was forced to do his utmost in writing those letters. This makes the Corinthian Epistles excellent reading.
Corinth - a sinful city
Corinth had an ancient and glorious history. It was located at a narrow neck of land between two seas. Immediately after the Greeks learned the skills of sailing, the location made the town an excellent seaport. During Ancient Greece (480-330 B.C.), Corinth was a thriving port living from shipping trade.
Then Greece was taken over by the Macedonians, led by Philip II and Alexander the Great, and after them by the Romans, more than100 years later. This meant a decline in the significance of Greek city states. Under the leadership of Corinth, they rebelled against the Roman Republic. The Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C. as a warning to all other Greeks.
One hundred years later, in the year 46 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar re-established the city as a Roman colony. The good location soon brought a new lease of life to the city. As early as 29 B.C., it became the capital of the Achaean province and the administrative city of the Proconsul.
In the days of Paul, the city was just like today’s major ports with all sorts of moral unaccountability and promiscuity. There were a lot of people with money, as well as plenty of poor people. Many new religious ideas flowed into ports. All of this had an influence on the church of Corinth, and also on the Corinthian letters.
The exchange of letters between Paul and the Corinthians
We only have some of the letters that Paul and the Corinthian church exchanged. We do not even know how many letters were originally sent. 1 Corinthians 1:11 and 7:1 mention the letters that Paul received from Corinth. In Corinthians 5:9, Paul talks about the letter he sent to the Corinthians.
It’s almost impossible to know for sure, but traditionally the exchange of letters is outlined as follows:
Before the first Corinthian letter, Paul had received information that all was not that well in Corinth. He had sent Timothy to the congregation (1 Corinthians 4:17), but Timothy had not been able to correct the situation. That is the reason why Paul wrote the first Corinthian letter. Even the letter from Paul did not solve the problems. The Apostle had to go to there. He is talking about leaving for a visit in 2 Corinthians 13:2.
The Apostle Paul's second visit to Corinth seems to have been a complete failure. Therefore, he had to take the risk and send out a very strong and fiery letter (2 Corinthians 2:4; 7:8). This letter broke the hearts of the Corinthians and brought godly sorrow and repentance. In the second Corinthian letter, Paul could now write to the church with love and conciliation (2 Corinthians 7:6-13). Because the 2 Corinthians also includes harsh words, many scholars assume that it was put together from several of Paul's letters.
We are not fully aware of all the letters exchanged. Neither do we know all the reasons for the dispute. Anyway, Paul had to struggle with the heretics in the church of Corinth, and he had to defend his position as an Apostle.
The first Corinthian letter was written in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8) during Pentecost in springtime. From what we know about the events in Paul's life, we can assume that the year was either 54 or 55. Readers of the Corinthian letters will see that Paul was in big trouble with the congregation of Corinth. However, he did not struggle in vain.
Masterful treatment of the congregation
The Corinthian church was a strange mixture of spirituality and wild promiscuity. Those who had various spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit thought that they had better knowledge than Paul. On the other hand, bad habits of the port tended to pervade the congregation. Some members of the church were living in gross public sin. It is delicious to read how Paul wrote to his beloved, problematic congregation.
Paul did not write moderately and politely, like he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, when he was contacting a congregation he did not know personally. Neither did he give space to anger like in the letter to the Galatians, where he defends the core of the Gospel. In the first Corinthian letter, Paul gives positive feedback to the Corinthians whenever he can. He writes gentle words and believes that the congregation will agree to follow his instructions. Only now and then does Paul use his words as a sabre, just like in the letter to the Galatians. In those occasions, Paul gives no space for them to act as they like (1 Corinthians 5; 1 Corinthians 14).
Outline of the letter
1:10-4:21 Disputes in the church of Corinth
5:1-6:20 Mistakes in the church’s code of ethics
8:1-11:1 Meat sacrificed to idols
11:2-14:40 Church Service
15:1-58 The Resurrection
16:1-24 Ending of the letter