Derek Radney and I gathered/wrote this material for the teachers in our church as we begin studying 1 & 2 Corinthians.
The Letters to the Corinthians and Us
Paul’s pastoral method in writing letters is extremely clear when one ponders the riches of these two letters. While Paul was writing to deal with specific immediate issues in the Corinthian church, which could have been addressed in a few pages, he allows these issues to form a theological agenda for writing. In other words, the issues prompting Paul’s writing provide a platform to discuss certain things in a larger context.
So while these letters were written for a specific church in a specific context, to be circled to a group of churches in the surrounding region, its application transcends the immediate and is directly applicable to us today. Just a general overview of the key themes illustrates this:
- In First Corinthians Paul calls the believers, who are divided because of certain arrogant leaders, to work together for the advancement of the gospel. He urges them to “drop their divisive one-upmanship, build up the faith of those who are weak, and witness effectively to unbelievers.
- In Second Corinthians Paul writes of the relationship between suffering and the power of the Spirit – in the context of his ministry, and the message of the gospel. In doing this he seeks to reconcile his relationship to the church in Corinth, which he loves dearly.
Corinth in the Time of Paul
The City of Corinth
Corinth was an ancient Greek city, dating back to beginning of the first millennium B.C. However, in 146 BC, the Romans totally destroyed it and burned it to the ground because the citizens there led a coalition of city states in rebellion against Rome. The city was gone for 100 years until Julius Caesar built a new Roman colony there in 44 BC. Thus, Corinth was established again as a very Roman city.
The architecture, political organization, and the very ethos of Corinth was Roman. Therefore, in the time Paul wrote to the church in Corinth “it was geographically in Greece but culturally in Rome.”
The Population in Corinth
The population was primarily made up of Romans, “Caesar colonized the city with persons belonging predominately to the ‘freedman class’ and with some soldiers.” As a result the city had a mixed ethnic population that included descendants of the original Greek population as well as former slaves from everywhere in the world – Egypt, Syria, Judea – all who had some familiarity with koine Greek. Furthermore, during the time this letter was composed approximately ‘one third’ of the population consisted of slaves, and Corinth was a main slave trade depot in that part of the world
The Social Culture in Corinth
In Corinth society was hierarchical and elitist. Wealth, status, and power were the dominant values. “Many inhabitants of Corinth were prosperous, and wealth and ostentatious display became a hallmark of Corinth.” The wealth of Corinth was largely owed to its location, which was of great commercial importance. Corinth had two large gulf harbors which made it a hub of commerce in that part of the world. In fact, wealthy Corinth became one of the most notable centers for banking and finance in the world.
At the same time, many of Corinth’s inhabitants were impoverished. One ancient traveler declined to enter Corinth once he learned of the “repulsiveness of the rich and the misery of the poor” in the city. But Garland notes that since it was largely a freeman’s city, “upward social mobility was more attainable than in other more established cities in the empire with their entranced aristocracies. Socially ambitious Corinthians could seize the opportunity to advance themselves.” Individual advancement and the pursuit of success were very possible in Corinth for everyone, and it was thus a high value.
The society revolved around displays of wealth and honor. People sought status by attaining patronage from the powerful through excellence in philosophical eloquence, business ventures, and political connections. It was a highly individualist, egocentric, competitive society dominated by leaders who consistently showed their power, honor, and status. This environment is most obvious in the writings of the ancient philosopher Diogenes, who wrote of his experience while in Corinth:
“That was the time, too, when one could hear crowds of wretched sophists around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, and their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting their poems while others applauded, many jugglers showing their tricks, many fortune tellers interpreting fortunes, lawyers innumerable perverting judgment, and peddlers selling what ever they had.”
The Religious and Philosophical Influences in Corinth
It was a melting pot of old and new religions flourishing together. There was worship of all the Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian mystery cults, magic, the imperial worship of Roman emperors, and Judaism. Aside from Judaism, most people worshiped gods from all sorts of religious backgrounds thinking that the more one worshiped the better. Therefore, the religious climate was strongly pluralistic and nationalistic. Among the many shrines and temples of Corinth the most prominent in the religious and architectural atmosphere was the Temple of Aphrodite.
The Church in Corinth
The Church at Corinth was in a mess:
- There were divisions in the church.
- There was sexual immorality.
- There was boasting of every sort, especially in spiritual gifts, knowledge, eloquent speech, and status.
- There was greed, idolatry, and even some who refused to submit to God’s design in gender roles.
But, notice how Paul starts the first letter:
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: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Cor. 1:2-3
The Church hardly looked like a sanctified bunch, and yet Paul greeted them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together.” Paul called them sanctified despite their sinfulness because they had been set apart by God to be holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ. They had been made holy through the washing of Christ’s blood. So, Paul reminded them that they were to live like saints since God had made them holy. And, Paul reminded them that they were to live like saints together.
In one simple greeting, Paul got to the heart of their problem and reminded them of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were living immoral lives, but God had made them holy to live holy lives! They were living divided as a church, but God had called them into fellowship with himself and with one another.
Paul’s Ministry in Corinth
On Paul’s second missionary journey, he left Antioch, traveled through Asia Minor by passing through Cilicia, Galatia, and Asia before sailing to Macedonia where he planted churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. After planting these three churches in Macedonia, he turned south into Achaia and spent time in Athens. After planting three churches in Macedonia and experiencing persecution there, only a few people believe the gospel in Athens, and so he left Athens in peace without a dramatically effective ministry there.
It was no accident that Paul positioned himself in strategic cities during his ministry. The places where Paul focused his ministry were lively cities and formed a strategic triangle enabling the gospel to be spread among the busiest trade routs in the world. He had good reason to spend much time there. Corinth was specifically profitable for a few reasons:
- As a major destination for traders, travelers, and tourists in the eastern Mediterranean, Corinth was an ideal location from which to spread the Gospel.
- Corinth was an idea place for Paul to practice his trade as a tent maker. Because of its location and festivals there was a high demand for tents for sheltering visitors to the athletic games, awnings for retailers, and sails for merchant ships. This also allowed Paul to exercise some measure of economic independence. Often Paul’s workspace would become a public forum to proclaim the gospel.
- Because of Corinth’s vibrant economy, it was a magnet for immigrants from all over the eastern Mediterranean who came to work in its flourishing manufacturing, marketing, and service sectors. This influx of people provided the ideal circumstance to spread the gospel word to all nationalities.
Key Leaders in Corinth
Priscilla and Aquila
Upon arriving in Corinth, Paul linked up with Priscilla and Aquila. Aquila was a Jew originally from Pontus (the northern part of Asia Minor). But, he had been living and doing business in Rome. His wife Priscilla was a Gentile, possibly from Rome. The two had been expelled from Rome because Emperor Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome in about 49 AD. The Roman historian Suetonius, writing 70 years after the event, said that Claudius expelled the Jews because there was consistent rioting ‘at the instigation of Chrestus.’ This is probably a reference to Jesus Christ. Thus, it appears that Christianity had reached Rome, and that it had caused a stir in the Jewish community to such a degree that all Jews were expelled. Aquila and Priscilla were Christians who had a tent-making business that most likely took them from Rome, to Corinth, to Ephesus. Paul worked for them as he also began his ministry preaching in the synagogue every Sabbath to persuade the Jews and Greeks that Jesus was the Messiah. We learn from the rest of Scripture that these two became great friends and ministry partners with Paul. They helped Apollos get his theology straight (Acts 18.24-26) and they were a tremendous help to all the churches that Paul ministered too (Rom. 16.4).
While Paul traveled to Jerusalem and Antioch at the end of his 2nd missionary journey, a Greek Christian from Alexandria came to Ephesus. He was very eloquent, but his theology needed some updating since he had not heard of any baptism but that of John the Baptist. Priscilla and Aquila had stayed in Ephesus to run their business after Paul stopped briefly there on his way to Jerusalem, and they pulled Apollos aside to explain to him what he lacked (Acts 18.24-26). After this, Apollos left and went to Corinth to minister there (Acts 19.1, I Cor. 3.6).
Several things suggest that Peter ministered in Corinth after Paul planted the church and before he wrote I Corinthians. First, Peter is mentioned in chapter 1 as one of the person’s that people in Corinth were claiming to belong to. Apollos and Paul were the others, and this suggests that people were dividing up along the various leaders that had ministered in Corinth. Second, Paul alludes to the fact that Peter had the right to minister with a wife. This lends support to, though it is not strong, the idea that Peter and his wife traveled to Corinth.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians from Paul
- Author: The Apostle Paul (I Cor. 1.1)
- Date: About 55AD from Ephesus on Paul’s 3rd missionary journey
- Occasion: Division in the Church
- In Ephesus, Paul received a letter with some questions from the Corinthians. The letter contained various questions concerning doctrine and practice.
- He also received verbal reports from ‘Chloe’s people,’ who may have carried the letter to Paul, and a band of three, Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (I Cor. 16.17) concerning the situation of the Corinthian church.
- Oral reports and the letter from the Corinthians brought about Paul’s letter.
- However, it is clear from I & II Corinthians that there were a number of letters between Paul and the Corinthians. Paul probably wrote 4 to them in all, 2 being part of Holy Scripture.
- The main reason why Paul wrote this letter is thatthere were divisions in the church as a result of factions that had arisen because the Corinthians had not shaken the love of individual status, power, and honor that the surrounding culture loved.
- In this sense, I Corinthians is very relevant for the American church. Their issues are our issues. Their misunderstanding of the gospel is in large part our misunderstanding of the gospel.
- Wisdom and Power
- The Character of Christian Leadership
- The Unity of the Body of Christ
- The Work of the Holy Spirit
- Ethics and Love
- The Resurrection and this Present World
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians from Paul
- A. Author: The Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 1.1)
- B. Date: Late 55AD or 56AD from Macedonia on his way to Jerusalem.
- C. Occasion: Healing a broken relationship with the Corinthian church.
- Paul’s physical absence from Corinth created a vacuum of theological and administrative leadership. Paul continued his relationship through writing and occasional visits.
- In the first two of the four letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, Paul challenged important persons in the church for their unethical behavior and close association with idolatry. As a result some of the members became angered and opposed his leadership.
- Upon hearing of the situation in Corinth, Paul decided to change his plans and make an emergency visit to Corinth. This visit turned out to be bitter for Paul. He was the object of attack by someone in the church community and no one took up his defense.
- Paul then must have retreated back to Ephesus where he wrote a sorrowful letter which is alluded to in 2 Corinthians 2.4 and 7.8. Again, this ‘painful’ or ‘tearful’ letter was lost. But this letter apparently called the church to take action against the offender.
- Paul had Titus deliver this ‘painful’ letter to the church in Corinth. After this letter was written, Paul’s life was put into grave danger in Asia, so much so that he attributed his survival to the hand of God. Paul then planned on meeting Titus in Troas where he could receive a report about Corinth. He never managed to find Titus there, and so he went on to Macedonia.
- Eventually, Paul and Titus met up in Macedonia and Titus reported good news about the repentance of the majority of the church and their love for Paul’s ministry. Therefore we can conclude that the sending of the ‘painful’ letter and Titus helped begin the mending process between Paul and Corinthian church.
- At some point after Paul’s difficult visit and probably after the letter carried by Titus arrived, those who claimed to be ‘super-apostles’ arrived in Corinth and began to influence the church, and undermine Paul’s ministry in that area. In response to this, Paul composed the letter that we know as 2 Corinthians.
- Suffering and the Cross of Christ
- Ministry of the New Covenant
- Endurance amid Adversity
- The Transforming Presence and Power of the Spirit
- Repentance Expresses Itself Love and Unity
- Christ the Savior is also Christ the Judge
A ‘time-line’ of the letters to the Corinthians:
- Corinthians A = A letter Paul sent to them first, alluded to in I Corinthians 5.9
- Corinthians B = I Corinthians, carried by Timothy
- Corinthians C =The painful letter of II Corinthians 2.4 & 7.8 carried by Titus
- Corinthians D = II Corinthians
-  1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1.
-  Frank Thielman, The English Standard Study Bible, 2187.
-  David Garland, The New American Commentary, 21.
-  The freedperson occupied a particular niche in society – a transitional category between slave and free. Socially they were superior to the slave but still obligated to their former owner in some sense. As patrons they had special opportunities to use the specific skills they learned as slaves to start their own businesses or profession. Therefore a freedman might thus accumulate considerable capital and use their skill to earn special honor. (See Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 21-22.)
-  Garland, 22.
-  H.D. Betz, 2 Corinthians, 53.
-  Meeks, 47-48.
-  Barnett, 3.
-  Alciphron, Letters of Parasites, 3.60. [Quoted in Barnett, 4.]
-  Garland, 23.
-  Dio Chrysostom, Orations, 8.9 [Quoted in Garland, 23.]
-  In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. Her priestesses were women who represented the goddess and sexual intercourse with them was considered just one of the methods of worship.
-  This same tone begins 2 Corinthians as Paul greets those in Corinth as saints.
-  1 Thessalonians 2:9
-  Acts 17:17; 19:11-12.
-  2 Cor. 2:12-13; 7:5; 8:1-5; 9:2
-  See his original plan in 1 Cor. 16:5-9.
-  2 Cor. 1:23, 2:1, 12:14, 13:1, 2:5-8, 7:11-12
-  2 Cor. 7:12
-  2 Cor. 7:14
-  Acts 20:1
-  2 Cor. 2:12-13
-  2 Cor. 7:6-7
-  2 Cor. 2:6
-  2 Cor. 7
-  2 Cor. 11:5, 23; 12:11