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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible
1 Corinthians

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16

Book Overview - 1 Corinthians

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to 1Corinthians

Section 1. The Situation of Corinth, and the Character of its Inhabitants

Corinth was properly a small dynasty, or territory in Greece, bounded on the east by the gulf of Saron; on the south by the kingdom of Argos; on the west by Sicyon; and on the north by the kingdom of Megaris, and upper part of the isthmus and bay of Corinth, the latter of which is now called the Golfo de Lepanto, or the gulf of Lepanto. This tract, or region, not large in size, possessed a few rich plains, but was in general uneven, and the soil of an indifferent quality. The city of Corinth was the capital of this region. It stood near the middle of the isthmus, which in the narrowest part was about six miles wide, though somewhat wider where Corinth stood. Here was the natural carrying place, or portage from the Ionian sea on the west, to the Aegean on the east. Many efforts were made by the Greeks, and afterwards by the Romans, to effect a communication between the Aegean and Adriatic seas by cutting across this isthmus; and traces still remain of these attempts. Means were even contrived for transporting vessels across. This isthmus was also particularly important as it was the key of the Peloponnesus, and attempts were often made to fortify it. The city had two harbors, - Lechaeum on the gulf of Corinth, or sea of Crissa on the west, to which it was joined by a double wall, twelve stadia, or about a mile and a half in length; and Cenchrea, or the sea of Saron on the east, distant about 70 stadia, or nearly 9 miles. It was a situation therefore peculiarly favorable for commerce, and highly important in the defense of Greece.

The city is said to have been founded by Sisyphus, long before the siege of Troy, apd was then called Ephyra. The time when it was founded is, however, unknown. The name Corinth, was supposed to have been given to it from Corinthus, who, by different authors, is said to have been the son of Jupiter, of of Marathon, or of Pelops, who is said to have rebuilt and adorned the city.

The city of Corinth was built at the foot of a high hill, on the top of which stood a citadel. This hill, which stood on the south of the city, was its defense in that quarter, as its sides were extremely steep. On the three other sides it was protected by strong and lofty ramparts. The circumference of the city proper was about 40 stadia, or 5 miles. Its situation gave it great commercial advantages. As the whole of that region was mountainous and rather barren, and as the situation gave the city extraordinary commercial advantages, the inhabitants early turned their attention to commerce, and amassed great wealth. This fact was, to no inconsiderable extent, the foundation of the luxury, effeminacy, and vices for which the city afterwards became so much distinguished.

The merchandise of Italy, Sicily, and the western nations, was landed at Lechaeum on the west; and that of the islands of the Aegean sea, of Asia Minor, and of the Phoenicians, and other oriental nations, at Cenchrea on the east. The city of Corinth thus became the mart of Asia and Europe; covered the sea with its ships, and formed a navy to protect its commerce. It was distinguished by building galleys and ships of a new and improved form; and its naval force procured it respect from other nations. Its population and its wealth was thus increased by the influx of foreigners. It became a city rather distinguished by its wealth, and naval force, and commerce, than by its military achievements, though it produced a few of the most valiant and distinguished leaders in the armies of Greece.

Its population was increased and its character somewhat formed from another circumstance. In the neighborhood of the city the Isthmian games were celebrated, which attracted so much attention, and which drew so many strangers from distant parts of the world. To those games, the apostle Paul not infrequently refers, when recommending Christian energy and activity. See the note, 1 Corinthians 9:24, 1 Corinthians 9:26-27; compare Hebrews 12:1.

From these causes, the city of Corinth became eminent among all ancient cities for wealth, and luxury, and dissipation. It was the mart of the world. Wealth flowed into it from all quarters. Luxury, amusement, and dissipation, were the natural consequents, until it became the most gay and dissolute city of its times, - the Paris of antiquity.

There was another cause which contributed to its character of dissoluteness and corruption. I refer to its religion. The principal deity worshipped in the city was Venus; as Diana was the principal deity worshipped at Ephesus; Minerva at Athens, etc. Ancient cities were devoted usually to some particular god or goddess, and were supposed to be under their peculiar protection. See the note at Acts 14:13. Corinth was devoted, or dedicated thus to the goddess of love, or licentious passion; and the effect may be easily conceived. The temple of Venus was erected on the north side or slope of the Acrocorinthus, a mountain about half a mile in height on the south of the city, and from the summit of which a magnificent prospect opened on the north to Parnassus and Helicon, to the eastward the island of Aegina and the citadel of Athens, and to the west the rich and beautiful plains of Sicyon. This mountain was covered with temples and splendid houses; but was especially devoted to Venus, and was the plaque of her worship.

Her shrine appeared above those of the other gods; and it was enjoined by law, that 1,000 beautiful females should officiate as courtesans, or public prostitutes, before the altar of the goddess of love. In a time of public calamity and imminent danger, these women attended at the sacrifices, and walked with the other citizens singing sacred hymns. When Xerxes invaded Greece, recourse was had to their intercession to avert the impending calamity. They were supported chiefly by foreigners; and from the avails of their vice a copious revenue was derived to the city. Individuals, in order to ensure success in their undertakings, vowed to present to Venus a certain number of courtesans, which they obtained by sending to distant countries. Foreign merchants were attracted in this way to Corinth; and, in a few days, would be stripped of all their property. It thus became a proverb, “It is not for everyone to go to Corinth,” - ( οὐ παντὸς ἀνδρὸς εἰς Κόρινθον ἐστίν ; πλους ou pantas andros eis Korinthon estin plous).

The effect of this on the morals of the city can be easily understood. It became the most frivolous, dissipated, corrupt, and ultimately the most effeminate and feeble portion of Greece. It is necessary to make these statements, because they go to show the exceeding grace of God in collecting a church in such a city, the power of the gospel in overcoming the strongest and most polluted passions of our nature; and because no small part of the irregularities which arose in the church at Corinth, and which gave the apostle occasion to write this Epistle, were produced by this prevailing licentiousness of the people; and by the fact, that gross and licentious passions had received the countenance of law and the patronage of public opinion. See 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Acts 18:1. He was then on his way from Macedonia to Jerusalem. He had passed some time at Athens, where he had preached the gospel, but not with such success as to warrant him to remain, or to organize a church; see the notes at Acts 17:15; compare Acts 18:5. He came to Corinth alone, but found Aquila and Priscilla there, who had lately come from Rome, and with them he waited the arrival of Silas and Timothy. When they arrived, Paul entered on the great work of preaching the gospel in that splendid and dissipated city, first to the Jews, and when it was rejected by them, then to the Greeks; Acts 18:5-6. His feelings when he engaged in this work, he has himself stated in 1 Corinthians 16:2-5. (See the note at that place.) His embarrassments and discouragements were met by a gracious promise of the Lord that he would be with him, and would not leave him; and that it was his purpose to collect a church there; see the note on Acts 18:9-10. In the city, Paul remained for 18 months Acts 18:11, preaching without no hesitation, until he was opposed by the Jews trader Sosthenes their leader, and brought before Gallio. When Gallio refused to hear the cause, and Paul was discharged, it is said, that he remained there yet “a good while” Acts 18:18, and then sailed into Syria.

Of the size of the church that was first organized there, and of the general character of the converts, we have no other knowledge than that which is contained in the Epistle. There is reason to think that Sosthenes, who was the principal agent of the Jews in arraigning Paul before Gallio, was converted (see 1 Corinthians 1:1), and perhaps some other persons of distinction; but it is evident that the church was chiefly composed of those who were in the more humble walks of life; see the notes on 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. It was a signal illustration of the grace of God, and the power of the gospel, that a church was organized in that city of gayety, fashion, luxury, and licentiousness; and it shows that the gospel is adapted to meet and overcome all forms of wickedness, and to subdue all classes of people to itself. If a church was established in the frivolous and dissolute capital of Achaia then there is not now a city on earth so gay and so profligate that the same gospel may not meet its corruptions, and subdue it to the cross of Christ. Paul subsequently visited Corinth about 58 a.d., or six years after the establishment of the church there. He passed the winter in Greece - doubtless in Corinth and its neighborhood, on his journey from Macedonia to Jerusalem, the fifth time in which he visited the latter city. During this stay at Corinth he wrote the Epistle to the Romans. See the introduction to the Epistle to the Romans.

Section 3. The Time and Place of Writing the First Epistle to the Corinthians

It has been uniformly supposed that this Epistle was written at Ephesus. The circumstances which are mentioned incidently in the Epistle itself, place this beyond a doubt. The Epistle purports to have been written, not like that to the Romans, without having been at the place to which it was written, but after Paul had been at Corinth. “I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech,” etc. 1 Corinthians 2:1. It also purports to have been written when he was about to make another visit to that church; 1 Corinthians 4:19, “But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will.” 1 Corinthians 16:5,” now I will come to you when I pass through Macedonia, for I do pass through Macedonia.” Now the history in the Acts of the Apostles informs us, that Paul did in fact visit Achaia and doubtless Corinth twice; see Acts 18:1, etc.; Acts 20:1-3. The same history also informs us that it was from Ephesus that Paul went into Greece; and as the Epistle purports to have been written a short time before that journey, it follows, to be consistent with the history, that the Epistle must have been written while he was at Ephesus. The narrative in the Acts also informs us, that Paul had passed two years in Ephesus before he set out on his second journey into Greece.

With this supposition, all the circumstances relating to the place where the apostle then was which are mentioned in this Epistle agree. “If after the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?” 1 Corinthians 15:32. It is true, as Dr. Paley remarks (Horae Paulinae) that the apostle might say this wherever he was; but it was much more natural, and much more to the purpose to say it, if he was at Ephesus at the time, and in the midst of those conflicts to which the expression relates. “The churches of Asia salute you,” 1 Corinthians 16:19. It is evident from this, that Paul was near those churches, and that he had contact with them. But Asia, throughout the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles of Paul, does not mean commonly the whole of Asia, nor the whole of Asia Minor, but a district in the interior of Asia Minor, of which Ephesus was the capital; see the note at Acts 2:9; note at Acts 6:9; note at Acts 16:6; note at Acts 20:16.

“Aquila and Priscilla salute you,” 1 Corinthians 16:19. Aquila and Priscilla were at Ephesus during the time in which I shall endeavor to show this Epistle was written, Acts 18:26. It is evident, if this were so, that the Epistle was written at Ephesus. “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost,” 1 Corinthians 16:8. This is almost an express declaration that he was at Ephesus when the Epistle was written. “A great and effectual door is opened to me, and there are many adversaries,” 1 Corinthians 16:9. How well this agrees with the history, may be seen by comparing it with the account in Acts, when Paul was at Ephesus. Acts 19:20. “So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” That there were “many adversaries,” may be seen from the account of the same period in Acts 19:9, “But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them and separated the disciples,” Compare 1 Corinthians 16:8, that Paul purposed to tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. But this must have been written and sent away before the riot which was raised by Demetrius Acts 20:1-2. The reason why Paul purposed to remain in Ephesus until Pentecost, was, the success which he had met with in preaching the gospel, 1 Corinthians 16:9. But after the riot excited by Demetrius, this hope was in a measure defeated, and he soon left the city. These circumstances serve to fix the time when this Epistle was written to the interval which elapsed between what is recorded in Acts 19:22-23. This occurred about 56 or 57 a.d. Pearson and Mill place the date in the year 57 a.d.; Lardner, in the spring of the year 56 ad.

It has never been doubted that Paul was the author of this Epistle. It bears his name; has internal evidence of having been written by him, and is ascribed to him by the unanimous voice of antiquity. It has been made a question, however, whether this was the first letter which Paul wrote to them: or whether he had previously written an epistle to them which is now lost. This inquiry has been caused by what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:9, “I wrote unto you in an epistle,” etc. Whether he there refers to another epistle, which he wrote to them before this, and which they had disregarded; or whether to the previous chapters of this Epistle; or whether to a letter to some other church which they had been expected to read, has been made a question. This question will be considered in the note on that verse.

Section 4. The Occasion on which this Epistle Was Written

It is evident that this Epistle was written in reply to one which had been addressed by the church at Corinth to Paul; 1 Corinthians 7:1, “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me,” etc. That letter had been sent to Paul while at Ephesus, by the hands of Stephanas, and Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who had come to consult with him respecting the state of the church at Corinth, 1 Corinthians 16:17-18. In addition to this, Paul had heard various reports of certain disorders which had been introduced into the church at Corinth, and which required his attention and correction. Those disorders, it seems, as was natural, had not been mentioned in the letter which they sent to him, but he had heard of them incidentally by some members of the family of Chloe, 1 Corinthians 1:11. They pertained to the following subjects:

(1) The divisions which had arisen in the church by the popularity of a teacher who had excited great disturbance, 1 Corinthians 1:12-13. Probably this teacher was a Jew by birth, and not improbably of the sect of the Sadducees 2 Corinthians 11:22, and his teaching might have been the occasion why in the Epistle Paul entered so largely into the proof of the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. This case was a flagrant violation of the gospel; and yet it is not improbable that it had been palliated, or vindicated by the false teachers; and it is certain that it excited no shame in the church itself. Such cases were not regarded by the dissolute Corinthians as criminal. In a city dedicated to Venus the crimes of licentiousness had been openly indulged, and this was one of the sins to which they were particularly exposed. It became necessary, therefore, for Paul to exert his apostolic authority, and to remove the offender in this case from the communion of the church, and to make him an example of the severity of Christian discipline.

(5) the Corinthians had evinced a litigious spirit, a fondness for going to law, and for bringing their causes before heathen tribunals, to the great scandal of religion, instead of endeavoring to settle their difficulties among themselves. Of this the apostle had been informed, and this called also for his authoritative interposition, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

(6) Erroneous views and practices had arisen, perhaps, under the influence of the false teachers, on the subject of temperance, chastity, etc. To the vices of intemperance, licentiousness, and gluttony, the Corinthian Christians from their former habits, and from the customs of their countrymen, were particularly exposed. Those vices had been judged harmless, and had been freely indulged in, and it is not improbable that the views of the apostle had been ridiculed as unnecessarily stern, and severe, and rigid. It became necessary, therefore, to correct their views, and to state the true nature of the Christian requirements, 1 Corinthians 6:8-20.

(7) the apostle having thus discussed those things of which he had incidentally heard, proceeds to notice particularly the things respecting which they had consulted him by letter. Those were.

(a) Marriage, and the duties in regard to it in their circumstances, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In order to enforce his views of what he had said on the duty of abstaining from the use of certain food, if it was the occasion of giving offence, he shows them 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.

These principles he illustrates by a reference to their joining in feasts, and celebrations with idols, and the dangers to which they would subject themselves by so doing; and concludes that it would be proper in those circumstances wholly to abstain from partaking of the meat offered in sacrifice to idols if it were known to be such. This was to be done on the principle that no offence was to be given. And thus the second question referred to him was disposed of, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 shows the inferiority of the highest of these endowments to a kind, catholic spirit - to the prevalence of charity, and thus endeavors to allay all contentions and strifes for ascendancy, by the prevalence of the spirit of love. In connection with this Acts 17:32, and in the Corinthian church it had been either called in question, or greatly perverted, 1 Corinthians 15:12. That the same body would be raised up had been denied, and the doctrine that came to be believed was, probably, simply that there would be a future state, and that the only resurrection was the resurrection of the soul from sin, and that this was past; compare 2 Timothy 2:18. This subject the apostle had not before taken up, probably because he had not been consulted on it, and because it would find a more appropriate place after be had reproved their disorders, and answered their questions. After all those discussions, after examining all the opinions and practices that prevailed among them, it was proper to pierce the great argument for the truth of the religion which they all professed on a permanent foundation, and to close the Epistle by reminding them, and proving to them that the religion which they professed, and which they had so much abused, was from heaven. The proof of this was the resurrection of the Saviour from the dead. It was indispensable to hold that in its obvious sense, and holding that, the truth of their own resurrection was demonstrated, and the error of those who denied it was apparent.

(9) having finished this demonstration, the apostle closes the Epistle 1 Corinthians 4:17. In the mean time the church at Corinth wrote to him to ascertain his views on certain matters submitted to him 1 Corinthians 7:1, and the reception of this letter gave him occasion to enter at length into the subject of their disorders and difficulties. Yet he wrote the letter under the deepest solicitude about the manner of its reception, and its effect on the church, 2 Corinthians 2:4, “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears,” etc. Paul had another object in view which was dear to his heart, and which he was laboring with all diligence to promote, which was the collection which he proposed to take up for the poor and afflicted saints at Jerusalem; see the notes, Romans 15:25-26.

This object he wished to press at this time on the church at Corinth; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. In order, therefore, to ensure the success of his letter, and to facilitate the collection, he sent Titus with the letter to the church at Corinth, with instructions to have the collection ready, 2 Corinthians 7:7-8, 2 Corinthians 7:13, 2 Corinthians 7:15. This collection, Titus was requested to finish; 2 Corinthians 8:6. With Titus, Paul sent another brother, perhaps a member of the church at Ephesus 2 Corinthians 12:8, a man whose praise, Paul says, was in all the churches, and who had been already designated by the churches to bear the contribution to Jerusalem, 2 Corinthians 8:18-19. By turning to Acts 21:29, we find it incidentally mentioned that “Trophimus an Ephesian” was with Paul in Jerusalem, and undoubtedly this was the person here designated. This is one of the undesigned coincidences between Paul‘s Epistle and the Acts of the Apostles, of which Dr. Paley has made so much use in his Horae Paulinae in proving the genuineness of these writings. Paul did not deem it necessary or prudent for him to go himself to Corinth, but chose to remain in Ephesus. The letter to Paul 1 Corinthians 7:1 had been brought to him by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus 1 Corinthians 16:17, and it is probable that they accompanied Titus and the other brother with him who bare Paul‘s reply to their inquiries.

The success of this letter was all that Paul could desire. It had the effect to repress their growing strifes, to restrain their disorders, to produce true repentance, and to remove the person who had been guilty of incest in the church. The whole church was deeply affected with his reproofs, and engaged in hearty zeal in the work of reform, 2 Corinthians 7:9-11. The authority of the apostle was recognized, and his Epistle read with fear and trembling, 2 Corinthians 7:15. The act of discipline which he had required on the incestuous person was inflicted by the whole church, 2 Corinthians 2:6. The collection which he had desired 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, and in regard to which he had boasted of their liberality to others, and expressed the utmost confidence that it would be liberal 2 Corinthians 9:2-3, was taken up agreeably to his wishes, and their disposition on the subject was such as to furnish the highest satisfaction to his mind, 2 Corinthians 7:13-14. Of the success of his letter, however, and of their disposition to take up the collection, Paul was not apprised until he had gone into Macedonia, where Titus came to him, and gave him information of the happy state of things in the church at Corinth, 2 Corinthians 7:4-7, 2 Corinthians 7:13. Never was a letter more effectual than this was, and never was authority in discipline exercised in a more happy and successful way.

General Character and Structure of the Epistle.

The general style and character of this Epistle is the same as in the other writings of Paul. See the introduction to the Epistle to the Romans. It evinces the same strong and manly style of argument and language, the same structure of sentences, the same rapidity of conception, the same overpowering force of language and thought, and the same characteristics of temper and spirit in the author. The main difference between the style and manner of this Epistle, and the other epistles of Paul, arises from the scope and design of the argument. In the Epistle to the Romans, his object led him to pursue a close and connected train of argumentation. In this, a large portion of the Epistle is occupied with reproof, and it gives occasion for calling into view at once the authority of an apostle, and the spirit and manner in which reproof is to be administered. The reader of this Epistle cannot but be struck with the fact, that it was no part of Paul‘s character to show indulgence to sin; that he had no design to flatter; that he neither “cloaked nor concealed transgression;” that in the most open, firm, and manly manner possible, it was his purpose to rebuke them for their disorders, and to repress their growing irregularities. At the same time, however, there is full opportunity for the display of tenderness, kindness, love, charity and for Christian instruction - an opportunity for pouring forth the deepest feelings of the human heart - an opportunity which Paul never allowed to escape unimproved. Amidst all the severity of reproof, there is the love of friendship: amidst the rebukes of an apostle, the entreaties and tears of a father. And we here contemplate Paul, not merely as the profound reasoner, not simply as a man of high intellectual endowments, but as evincing the feelings of the man, and the sympathies of the Christian.

Perhaps there is less difficulty in understanding this Epistle than the Epistle to the Romans. A few passages indeed have perplexed all commentators, and are to this day not understood. See 1 Corinthians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Corinthians 15:29. But the general meaning of the Epistle has been much less the subject of difference of interpretation. The reasons have probably been the following.

(1) the subjects here are more numerous, and the discussions more brief. There is, therefore, less difficulty in following the author than where the discussion is protracted, and the manner of his reasoning more complicated.

(2) the subjects themselves are far less abstruse and profound than those introduced into the Epistle to the Romans. There is, therefore, less liability to misconception.

(3) the Epistle has never been made the subject of theological warfare. No system of theology has been built on it, and no attempt made to press it into the service of abstract dogmas. It is mostly of a practical character, and there has been, therefore, less room for contention in regard to its meaning.

(4) no false and unfounded theories of philosophy have been attached to this Epistle, as have been to the Epistle to the Romans. Its simple sense, therefore, has been more obvious, and no small part of the difficulties in the interpretation of that Epistle are wanting in this.

(5) the apostle‘s design has somewhat varied his style. There are fewer complicated sentences, and fewer parentheses, less that is abrupt and broken, and elliptical, less that is rapid, mighty, and overpowering in argument. We see the point of a reproof at once, but we are often greatly embarrassed in a complicated argument. Psalm 25:9.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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