In many respects, life in Corinth mirrors the environment in which some ecclesias struggle today; and Paul’s grief must surely reflect our own as we witness the decline of everything that is good, honourable, lovely and wise in this world. “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you” (2 Cor 2:3–4) such was the heaviness of spirit with which the Apostle penned the first epistle to Corinth.

Paul’s desire was that his readers should see Christ. He desired that they should see him as the:

  • Wisdom of God, whereas they sought the wisdom of the world
  • Righteousness of God, whilst they sought self-justification
  • Sanctification of God, where they flaunted their base immorality
  • Redemption of God, where their factions divided the body and sought redemption in other names.

Background

The city of Corinth was built in BC44 by Julius Caesar. It was situated on a narrow neck of land called an Isthmus, connecting the Greek mainland with a large area of land (almost an island) called the Peloponnesus. A steep mountain (about 600 metres high) named Acro-Corinthus rises dramatically on the narrow Isthmus. With the Mediterranean sea on its doorstep and excellent harbour facilities, trade poured into Corinth through her seaports of Cenchrea and Lechaeum, and from there by road into mainland Greece. Because of its strategic position it flourished and soon became a prosperous trading centre and capital of the Roman province of Achaia. With an affluent population of merchants, shipping agents and travellers passing through, Corinth had all the trappings of a thriving, rich and dynamic community all absorbed in extracting for themselves as much as possible from life.

This attitude involved (as it does today) the abandonment of morality, and luxurious indulgence of the imaginations and desires of the flesh, so that Corinth became literally a by-word for extreme and gross immorality. One writer states: “Two vices plagued the town: greed for material gain, and sexual lust. Corinth’s bustling wharves and docks, and its busy shops and factories fostered the one. The cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, entrenched here from time immemorial, fostered the other”. At the summit of Acro-Corinthus was the temple built for the worship of Aphrodite where a thousand women served as priestesses.

This was no frontier town that had sprung up over a few decades. Corinth was in existence and thriving in this way for over 1 000 years at the time when the Apostle Paul first passed through its gates. The population in Paul’s day (around AD50) is estimated to have been about 700 000 and we can scarcely imagine the daunting task facing the Apostle as he walked alone in the city streets amid the degenerate and materialistic crowds.

In light of all this background there were many of the Corinthians who “hearing, believed and were baptised”. Furthermore, Paul was told by the Lord “in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace; for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.”

In such a city—“I have much people…”! This should be great encouragement in our day in our cities where response to the preaching of the gospel seems so dismal at times and barren: there may still be “much people in this city” who, hearing the gospel, may yet believe and be baptised.

Establishment of the Ecclesia

Paul had arrived in Corinth from Athens at the time when Gallio was governor of the city and had sought accommodation and employment with a fellow tentmaker, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, recently arrived from Rome (Acts 18). When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was greatly encouraged in the Word and fearlessly presented the Truth throughout the city, having been Divinely commissioned to do so.

After about 18 months, Paul left Corinth and journeyed to Jerusalem, whilst Aquila and Priscilla moved to Ephesus, where Apollos became a convert to the Truth, and being “mighty in the Scriptures”, he moved to Corinth to strengthen the ecclesia there.

Development of the Problem

Paul later returned to Ephesus (Acts 19) and remained there three years. From such passages as 2 Corinthians 12:14 and 13:1, where he speaks of coming to them a third time, it appears that Paul made a brief visit to Corinth from Ephesus during this period. It seems that he may also have written a short letter to them on his return to Ephesus, in which he exhorted them to strictly exclude from the Ecclesia the influences of prevailing immorality which surrounded them (1 Cor 5:9,10) but his words of appeal were ignored; his mildness of manner was mistaken for weakness; and his hesitation to punish was ascribed to fear of the offenders. The Apostle was deeply concerned for the Brethren and Sisters he had left at Corinth.

Later, when he sent Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia, he urged them to visit Corinth if at all possible (Acts 19:21,22; 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10). Paul himself, at this time, was detained at Ephesus because of the magnitude of the response there (1 Cor16:8,9).

Finally, Paul’s worst fears were confirmed by the arrival of some from the household of Chloe, prominent members of the Corinthian Ecclesia, whose assessment of the situation could be relied upon. What they told him of the condition of the ecclesia caused him grave concern. They reported that the ecclesia was rent with party strife (1 Cor 1:11). There were four main factions—those claiming to follow Paul, a second group under the banner of Cephas (Peter), a third setting forth Apollos as their leader, and a fourth alleging that they followed only Christ. Whilst on the one hand this party spirit raged with unabated fury, on the other a case of blatant and gross immorality was reported in their midst (1 Cor 5:1), yet the ecclesia did nothing to correct the fault or to discipline the offender.

Others, Paul was informed, were dragging their brethren to law, and calling upon Gentile magistrates to prosecute them (1 Cor 6:1). In addition, some failed to see any need whatever to separate from the world, marrying unbelievers or freely participating with the world in its schemes, and even in its worship (1 Cor 6:12–20).

In addition to all this disastrous intelligence he had gleaned, there was one matter which he sensed would have tremendous implications if it were allowed to grow unchecked. It involved the undermining of his own apostolic authority among the Corinthians.

At about this time, Paul received a deputation of three brethren from Corinth which gave him some ray of hope. It was the brethren Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, probably bearing a communication from Corinth in which they posed a series of questions (1 Cor 7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1) concerning the possession of the Spirit gifts, Ecclesial order, resurrection and other doctrinal matters. All then was not completely lost: despite their spiritual decline, the ecclesia still had sufficient regard for him to accept his guidance in these matters. He would write an epistle answering their questions, but taking the opportunity also to rebuke, warn, admonish and appeal to them at this time of crisis.

Cause of the Problems

The basic cause of the problems in Corinth was their inability to convert their obvious knowledge of the Truth into a new way of thinking and acting. It was the absence of what Paul styles “the mind of Christ” that caused the problems in their midst: it was their apparent inability to examine themselves and analyse what was really their motivation in life. He exhorts them to develop spiritual thinking if they would be truly wise (1 Cor 2:10–16) but grieves that they are “yet carnal” (1 Cor 3:3). His words also take up the theme of the “body” (the word occurs forty-four times in this epistle), and he demonstrates how, in three stages, a transformed way of life should manifest itself in:

  • their attitude to the “members” of their natural body.
  • their attitude within the ecclesia—the Body of Christ.
  • their development of a character fit to be clothed upon with a spiritual body after the resurrection.
    Analysis

Salutation and Thanksgiving 1:1–9

“Glorify God in Your Body”

Reproof Concerning Schisms 1:10 to 4:21

Correction: Concerning inconsistencies 5:1 to 6:20

Instruction: Answers to Problems 7:1 to 15:58

Concerning the Marriage state 7:1–17

Regarding circumcision and slavery 7:18–24

Regarding virgins and marriage 7:25–40

“Now Ye are the Body of Christ”

Regarding meat offered to idols 8:1–11:1

Regarding conduct in the ecclesia 11:2–16

Regarding the Lord’s supper 11:17–34

Regarding Spirit gifts 12:1–14:40

“It is Sown a Natural Body, It is Raised a Spiritual Body”

Regarding the Resurrection 15:1–58

General Matters chapter 16

Collections for the Jerusalem poor 16:1–24

Paul’s travel plans 6:5–12

Final exhortation and greetings 16:13–24

As our attention is directed over the coming days to this 1st Epistle of Paul to Corinth, let us intelligently hear the words of the Apostle and spiritually discern them as they echo down the centuries of time. Let us not be carnal, but developing the mind of Christ, demonstrate the spirit of Christ within his Body, the Ecclesia, that we may be partakers together with Christ when death is swallowed up in victory and God is “all in all”.