There may not have been a more troubled church in the first century than the church in Corinth. In his first letter to them, Paul corrects their errors, answers their questions, and encourages them with statements of confidence. In this article, we will address some matters of background and introduction: the writer, recipients, and purpose of the letter. Next week, we will begin a survey of the contents of the letter.
Paul identifies them as “the church of God which is at Corinth…those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints…” (1:2).
Corinth was a wealthy, busy metropolitan city in the days that Paul helped start the church there. East/west trade routes intersected north/south trade routes there. Corinth handled both land and sea commerce. It was a Roman colony, which meant that it maintained as much of a Roman flavor as it could. Each of these colonies would have been as “a Rome away from Rome.” As such, Corinth would have been heavily populated with transplants from the imperial city as well as retired Roman soldiers. Every two years the Isthmian Games were held near Corinth, which brought a large influx of athletes and fans from all over the world.
But Corinth also had a much-deserved reputation for moral bankruptcy. Among other attachments to paganism, t boasted a temple to Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. In the Old City (before it was destroyed in 146 BC and rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 46 BC), historians write of one thousand temple prostitutes who assisted the worshipers. So debauched was the culture, that the term “Corinthianize” came to be applied to those who gave in to the practice of using prostitutes, and later came to be used to describe general moral decay. The sins out of which the Corinthian Christians came attest to the type of society it was (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Christians existed in Corinth because of the work of Paul, Silas, and Timothy on Paul’s second evangelistic journey (Acts 18). Paul arrived in Corinth alone after leaving Athens (18:1). Timothy and Silas had been left in Macedonia (18:5). His being without companions, coupled with the reputation of Corinth, it’s little wonder that Paul was with them in weakness, fear, and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3).
Paul stayed with and worked alongside Aquila and Priscilla as tentmakers (Acts 18:2-3). As was his custom, Paul spoke each Sabbath Day in the local synagogue, but was largely rejected (18:4-6). In turn, he began localizing his teaching in a house right next to the synagogue and converted many, including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue (18:7-8; cf. 1 Cor. 1:14).
Though he was at first uneasy about staying, he remained a year and a half (18:9-11; 1 Cor. 2:3-5). Typically for Paul, Jewish opposition caused enough trouble for him that he eventually moved on (18:12-18). Following his departure, problems would divide the church and prompt the apostle to address these problems in the letter we are studying.
“Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Virtually no one, including many of the most vehement critics of the Bible, question Pauline authorship of the book.
The letter was written from Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8). However, since Paul’s first visit to Ephesus was short (Acts 18:19-21), it is unlikely that he wrote this letter then. However, he spent 3 years there on his third journey (Acts 19:1-41; 20:31). The letter was probably written during that time, about 57 AD (see Gareth Reese, 1 Corinthians, pp. 1-6).
At the time of writing, the church at Corinth was a troubled group. Some concerned members had written Paul a letter informing him of existing problems (1 Cor. 1:11; 15:12). Also, there had been additional correspondence from the church to Paul that included a number of questions that they wanted Paul to answer (7:1). Paul’s discourse on these problems and questions forms the outline of the book.
- Division (1-4): They were becoming factious over preachers (1:11-14; 3:4-7).
- Immorality (5): There was a case of sexual sin among them that they not only refused to deal with, but were proud of their tolerance of it (5:1-2).
- Lawsuits (6): They were taking each other to small claims court (6:2) and in the process harming the reputation of the church (6:4-6).
- Marriage Questions (7): Should they marry at all? What about being married to an unbeliever? What about widows who want to remarry?
- Matters of Christian Liberty (8-10): Should they eat food that had been offered to idols? Is it acceptable for preachers to be paid for preaching?
- Disorder in Worship (11): They had questions about head coverings and problems with the Lord’s Supper.
- Spiritual Gifts (12-14): Their attitudes toward them needed to be adjusted. The chaos in their assemblies needed to be calmed.
- The Resurrection (15): Some were actually denying it.
- Personal Matters (16): Paul writes of his travel plans and offers final greetings.