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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

- 1 Corinthians

by William Barclay



The Letters Of Paul

There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227). It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church, and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.

The Difficulty Of Letters

At the same time, there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.

The Ancient Letters

It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last forever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.

"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.

I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are

going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.

I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe when I was

in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got my journey

money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things are going fine

with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a line, first to

let me know how you are, and then about my brothers, and thirdly,

that I may kiss your hand, because you brought me up well, and

because of that I hope, God willing, soon to be promoted. Give

Capito my heartiest greetings, and my brothers and Serenilla and

my friends. I sent you a little picture of myself painted by

Euctemon. My military name is Antonius Maximus, I pray for your

good health. Serenus sends good wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and

Turbo, Gallonius' son." (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek

Papyri, 36).

Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who will Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.

(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.

(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.

(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.

(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.

(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.

When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.

The Immediate Situation

With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation.... He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.

The Spoken Word

One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added his own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end). In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me." (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.

This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


The Greatness Of Corinth

A glance at the map will show that Corinth was made for greatness. The southern part of Greece is very nearly an island. On the west the Corinthian Gulf deeply indents the land and on the east the Saronic Gulf. All that is left to join the two parts of Greece together is a little isthmus only four miles across. On that narrow neck of land Corinth stands. Such a position made it inevitable that it should be one of the greatest trading and commercial centres of the ancient world. All traffic from Athens and the north of Greece to Sparta and the Peloponnese had to be routed through Corinth, because it stood on the little neck of land that connected the two.

Not only did the north to south traffic of Greece pass through Corinth of necessity, by far the greater part of the east to west traffic of the Mediterranean passed through her from choice. The extreme southern tip of Greece was known as Cape Malea (now called Cape Matapan). It was dangerous, and to round Cape Malea had much the same sound as to round Cape Horn had in later times. The Greeks had two sayings which showed what they thought of it--"Let him who sails round Malea forget his home," and, "Let him who sails round Malea first make his will."

The consequence was that mariners followed one of two courses. They sailed up the Saronic Gulf, and, if their ships were small enough, dragged them out of the water, set them on rollers, hauled them across the isthmus, and re-launched them on the other side. The isthmus was actually called the Diolkos, the place of dragging across. The idea is the same as that which is contained in the Scottish place name Tarbert, which means a place where the land is so narrow that a boat can be dragged from loch to loch. If that course was not possible because the ship was too large, the cargo was disembarked, carried by porters across the isthmus, and re-embarked on another ship at the other side. This four mile journey across the isthmus, where the Corinth Canal now runs, saved a journey of two hundred and two miles round Cape Malea, the most dangerous cape in the Mediterranean.

It is easy to see how great a commercial city Corinth must have been. The north to south traffic of Greece had no alternative but to pass through her; by far the greater part of the east to west trade of the Mediterranean world chose to pass through her. Round Corinth there clustered three other towns, Lechaeum at the west end of the isthmus, Cenchrea at the east end and Schoenus just a short distance away. Farrar writes, "Objects of luxury soon found their way to the markets which were visited by every nation in the civilized world--Arabian balsam, Phoenician dates, Libyan ivory, Babylonian carpets, Cilician goats' hair, Lycaonian wool, Phrygian slaves."

Corinth, as Farrar calls her, was the Vanity Fair of the ancient world. Men called her The Bridge of Greece; one called her The Lounge of Greece. It has been said that if a man stands long enough in Piccadilly Circus he will in the end meet everyone in the country. Corinth was the Piccadilly Circus of the Mediterranean. To add to the concourse which came to it, Corinth was the place where the Isthmian Games were held, which were second only to the Olympics. Corinth was a rich and populous city with one of the greatest commercial trades in the ancient world.

The Wickedness Of Corinth

There was another side to Corinth. She had a reputation for commercial prosperity, but she was also a byword for evil living. The very word korinthiazesthai, to live like a Corinthian, had become a part of the Greek language, and meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery. The word actually penetrated to the English language, and, in Regency times, a Corinthian was one of the wealthy young bucks who lived in reckless and riotous living. Aelian, the late Greek writer, tells us that if ever a Corinthian was shown upon the stage in a Greek play he was shown drunk. The very name Corinth was synonymous with debauchery and there was one source of evil in the city which was known all over the civilized world. Above the isthmus towered the hill of the Acropolis, and on it stood the great temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To that temple there were attached one thousand priestesses who were sacred prostitutes, and in the evenings they descended from the Acropolis and plied their trade upon the streets of Corinth, until it became a Greek proverb, "It is not every man who can afford a journey to Corinth." In addition to these cruder sins, there flourished far more recondite vices, which had come in with the traders and the sailors from the ends of the earth, until Corinth became not only a synonym for wealth and luxury, drunkenness and debauchery, but also for filth.

The History Of Corinth

The history of Corinth falls into two parts. She was a very ancient city. Thucydides, the Greek historian, claims that it was in Corinth that the first triremes, the Greek battleships, were built. Legend has it that it was in Corinth that the Argo was built, the ship in which Jason sailed the seas, searching for the golden fleece. But in 146 B.C. disaster befell her. The Romans were engaged in conquering the world. When they sought to reduce Greece, Corinth was the leader of the opposition. But the Greeks could not stand against the disciplined Romans, and in 146 B.C. Lucius Mummius, the Roman general, captured Corinth and left her a desolate heap of ruins.

But any place with the geographical situation of Corinth could not remain a devastation. Almost exactly one hundred years later, in 46 B.C. Julius Caesar rebuilt her and she arose from her ruins. Now she became a Roman colony. More, she became a capital city, the metropolis of the Roman province of Achaea, which included practically all Greece.

In those days, which were the days of Paul, her population was very mixed. (i) There were the Roman veterans whom Julius Caesar had settled there. When a Roman soldier had served his time, he was granted the citizenship and was then sent out to some newly-founded city and given a grant of land so that he might become a settler there. These Roman colonies were planted all over the world, and always the backbone of them was the contingent of veteran regular soldiers whose faithful service had won them the citizenship. (ii) When Corinth was rebuilt the merchants came back, for her situation still gave her commercial supremacy. (iii) There were many Jews among the population. The rebuilt city offered them commercial opportunities which they were not slow to take. (iv) There was a sprinkling of Phoenicians and Phrygians and people from the east, with their exotic customs and their hysterical ways. Farrar speaks of "this mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting infusion of Phoenicians; this mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades-people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice." He characterizes her as a colony "without aristocracy, without traditions and without well-established citizens."

Remember the background of Corinth, remember its name for wealth and luxury, for drunkenness and immorality and vice, and then read 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Are you not aware that the unrighteous will not inherit the

Kingdom of God? Make no mistake--neither fornicators, nor

idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sensualists, nor homosexuals, nor

thieves, nor rapacious men, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor

robbers shall inherit the Kingdom of God--and such were some of


In this hotbed of vice, in the most unlikely place in all the Greek world, some of Paul's greatest work was done, and some of the mightiest triumphs of Christianity were won.

Paul In Corinth

Paul stayed longer in Corinth than in any other city, with the single exception of Ephesus. He had left Macedonia with his life in peril and had crossed over to Athens. There he had had little success and had gone on to Corinth, and he remained there for eighteen months. We realize how little we really know of his work when we see that the whole story of that eighteen months is compressed by Luke into 17 verses ( Acts 18:1-17).

When Paul arrived in Corinth he took up residence with Aquila and Prisca. He preached in the synagogue with great success. With the arrival of Timothy and Silas from Macedonia, he redoubled his efforts, but the Jews were so stubbornly hostile that he had to leave the synagogue. He took up his residence with one Justus who lived next door to the synagogue. His most notable convert was Crispus, who was actually the ruler of the synagogue, and amongst the general public he had good success.

In the year A.D. 52 there came to Corinth as its new governor a Roman called Gallio. He was famous for his charm and gentleness. The Jews tried to take advantage of his newness and good nature and brought Paul to trial before him on a charge of teaching contrary to their law. But Gallio, with impartial Roman justice, refused to have anything to do with the case or to take any action. So Paul completed his work in Corinth and moved on to Syria.

The Correspondence With Corinth

It was when he was in Ephesus in the year A.D. 55 that Paul, learning that things were not all well in Corinth, wrote to the church there. There is every possibility that the Corinthian correspondence as we have it is out of order. We must remember that it was not until A.D. 90 or thereby that Paul's correspondence was collected. In many churches it must have existed only on scraps of papyrus and the putting it together would be a problem: and it seems that, when the Corinthian letters were collected, they were not all discovered and were not arranged in the right order. Let us see if we can reconstruct what happened.

(i) There was a letter which preceded 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul writes, "I wrote you a letter not to associate with immoral men." This obviously refers to some previous letter. Some scholars believe that letter is lost without trace. Others think it is contained in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and 2 Corinthians 7:1. Certainly that passage suits what Paul said he wrote about. It occurs rather awkwardly in its context, and, if we take it out and read straight on from 2 Corinthians 6:13 to 2 Corinthians 7:2, we get excellent sense and connection. Scholars call this letter The Previous Letter. (In the original letters there were no chapter or verse divisions. The chapters were not divided up until the thirteenth century and the verses not till the sixteenth, and because of that the arranging of the collection of letters would be much more difficult).

(ii) News came to Paul from various sources of trouble at Corinth. (a) News came from those who were of the household of Chloe ( 1 Corinthians 1:11). They brought news of the contentions with which the church was torn. (b) News came with the visit of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus to Ephesus. ( 1 Corinthians 16:17). By personal contact they were able to fill up the gaps in Paul's information. (c) News came in a letter in which the Corinthian Church had asked Paul's; guidance on various problems. In 1 Corinthians 7:1 Paul begins, "Concerning the matters about which you wrote..." In answer to all this information Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and despatched it to Corinth apparently by the hand of Timothy ( 1 Corinthians 4:17).

(iii) The result of the letter was that things became worse than ever, and, although we have no direct record of it, we can deduce that Paul paid a personal visit to Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 12:14 he writes, "The third time I am ready to come to you." In 2 Corinthians 13:1-2, he says again that he is coming to them for the third time. Now, if there was a third time, there must have been a second time. We have the record of only one visit, whose story is told in Acts 18:1-17. We have no record at all of the second, but Corinth was only two or three days' sailing from Ephesus.

(iv) The visit did no good at all. Matters were only exacerbated and the result was an exceedingly severe letter. We learn about that letter from certain passages in 2 Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 2:4 Paul writes, "I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears." In 2 Corinthians 7:8 he writes, "For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it though I did regret it; for I see that that letter has grieved you, though only for a while." It was a letter which was the product of anguish of mind, a letter so severe that Paul was almost sorry that he ever sent it.

Scholars call this The Severe Letter. Have we got it? It obviously cannot be I Corinthians, because it is not a tear-stained and anguished letter. When Paul wrote it, it is clear enough that things were under control. Now if we read through 2 Corinthians we find an odd circumstance. In 2 Corinthians 1:1-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 everything is made up, there is complete reconciliation and all are friends again; but at 2 Corinthians 10:1-18 comes the strangest break. 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14 are the most heartbroken cry Paul ever wrote. They show that he has been hurt and insulted as he never was before or afterwards by any church. His appearance, his speech, his apostleship, his honesty have all been under attack.

Most scholars believe that 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14 are the severe letter, and that they have become misplaced when Paul's letters were put together. If we want the real chronological course of Paul's correspondence with Corinth, we really ought to read 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14 before 2 Corinthians 1:1-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15. We do know that this letter was sent off with Titus. ( 2 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 7:13).

(v) Paul was worried about this letter. He could not wait until Titus came back with an answer, so he set out to meet him ( 2 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 7:13). Somewhere in Macedonia he met him and learned that all was well, and, probably at Philippi, he sat down and wrote 2 Corinthians 1:1-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15, the letter of reconciliation.

Stalker has said that the letters of Paul take the roof off the early churches and let us see what went on inside. Of none of them is that truer than the letters to Corinth. Here we see what "the care of all the churches" must have meant to Paul. Here we see the heart-breaks and the joys. Here we see Paul, the shepherd of his flock, bearing the sorrows and the problems of his people on his heart.

The Corinthian Correspondence

Before we read the letters in detail let us set down the progress of the Corinthian correspondence in tabular form.

(i) The Previous Letter, which may be contained in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and 2 Corinthians 7:1.

(ii) The arrival of Chloe's people, of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, and of the letter to Paul from the Corinthian Church.

(iii) 1 Corinthians is written in reply and is despatched with Timothy.

(iv) The situation grows worse and Paul pays a personal visit to Corinth, which is so complete a failure that it almost breaks his heart.

(v) The consequence is The Severe Letter, which is almost certainly contained in 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14, and which was despatched with Titus.

(vi) Unable to wait for an answer, Paul sets out to meet Titus. He meets him in Macedonia, learns that all is well and, probably from Philippi, writes 2 Corinthians 1:1-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15, The Letter of Reconciliation.

The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians deal with the divided state of the Church of God at Corinth. Instead of being a unity in Christ it was split into sects and parties, who had attached themselves to the names of various leaders and teachers. It is Paul's teaching that these divisions had emerged because the Corinthians thought too much about human wisdom and knowledge and too little about the sheer grace of God. In fact, for all their so-called wisdom, they are really in a state of immaturity. They think that they are wise men, but really they are no better than babies.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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