Book Overview - 1 Corinthians
by Peter Pett
Corinth was an important city situated on the landbridge between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, across which freight was transferred from ship to ship on its way to the world’s trade centres in order to avoid the dangerous and feared Cape Malea on the Peloponnese peninsula. It was thus itself an important trade centre and grew rich. It was a centre of the worship of Aphrodite which involved a high degree of sexual perversion, such that ‘a Corinthian’ became a byword for loose living, and it was famous for its schools where great men came to expound ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’, some of value and much of little value, and people followed their favourite philosophers and spent much time in discussing and arguing their case for their differing views. This was a popular leisure activity. It was also heavily influenced by mystery religions which drew men into exotic experiences. Another important thing in the life of Corinth was the Isthmian Games to which men came from far afield to partake in serious sporting activity. It was thus considered to be a highly civilised city, especially by its inhabitants. And it was, although very old, in essence a new city, simply because of its recent history. Its inhabitants were mainly without old roots, so that it was not bound by ancient customs. And then it received an unexpected visitor.
The Founding of the Church at Corinth.
At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas, the Jerusalem Council met to decide just what should be required of Gentile converts (Acts 15:1-29). Then, when Paul and Barnabas went from there and took their separate ways, Paul took Silas with him and set out on a second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). They began by revisiting some of the churches that had been founded on the first journey, delivering to them the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 16:4-5).
After being divinely prohibited from preaching in Asia (Acts 16:6) and Bithynia, Paul, Silas, and Timothy finished up at Troas, where Paul received the “Macedonian vision” (Acts 16:9-10) calling them over to Greece. This brought them to Philippi where a number were converted to Christ and a church was established. From Philippi, Paul and his party went to Thessalonica, then to Berea, and finally to Athens (Acts 17).
After a ministry in Athens, Paul went to Corinth, which was an ancient city of Greece, and the seat of government of the Roman province of Achaia. It was there that he first met up with a Jew named Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Like Paul, this man was a tent-maker. He and his wife had fled from Italy because of a command from Claudius that all Jews must leave Rome (Acts 18:1-3). Every Sabbath day Paul went to the synagogue, where he sought to evangelise Jews and Greek God-fearers (Acts 18:4). The latter were Greeks who were showing a deep interest in the God of the Jewish Scriptures without actually becoming proselytes and submitting to circumcision. Eventually he was joined by Silas and Timothy, who had just arrived from Macedonia. They providentially brought a gift from the Macedonians which enabled Paul to fully devote himself to the Word, so that he could give all his efforts to preaching Christ (Acts 18:5).
As regularly occurred, Paul’s preaching prompted a reaction from the unbelieving Jews, and it was so violent that he deserted the synagogue and began to concentrate on evangelising Gentiles (Acts 18:6-7). He moved his base of operations to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a Gentile God-fearer who lived next door to the synagogue (Acts 18:5-7). Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, became a believer along with the rest of his household, which would not have pleased the Jews, and many others were also converted and submitted to baptism (Acts 18:8). The Lord then appeared to Paul in a vision and assured him that there were many more souls to be saved in that city and that he was not to fear. He was to speak out boldly, rather than to hold back for fear of trouble (Acts 18:9-10). As a result, Paul extended his ministry in Corinth, staying a total of 18 months, a considerably longer period of ministry than usual, and establishing a flourishing church group.
The first letter to the Corinthians appears to have been inspired by a visit to Paul some few years later by a group from the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 16:17) bringing a letter from them (1 Corinthians 7:1). He was the founder of the church in Corinth, and they clearly supported him and were equally clearly concerned about the behaviour of certain church members. The church also had a number of questions that they wished to ask Paul. These he deals with in the second part of the letter.
But what concerns him in the first part of the letter is things he has learned about the church, especially in relation to divisions among them. They have divided into groups around the teaching of individual Christian teachers and are possibly in danger of forming differing, opposing churches, almost as though they were simply schools of philosophy founded for the discussion of general wisdom and knowledge. The consequence of this will be that instead of presenting a united message to the world, they are in danger of turning in on themselves and losing the centrality of Christ crucified. This results in Paul expounding on the importance of the preaching of the cross as the central truth and experience which unites all those who are true to the Gospel. These are the central facts around which they must unite. They must be one in Christ.
Other problems come out as the letter continues which include the fact that some of the Corinthians saw themselves as super-spiritual because they constantly spoke in tongues, which they considered to be the language of angels, and because they believed that they had received knowledge which made them superior to others, including Paul, possibly to such an extent that they believed that they were already living the heavenly life, which would completely come to fulfilment when their bodies dropped away. They were thus spoiling worship for others by their excessive use of tongues. This possibly also went along with a laxity in moral standards and a rejection of the idea of a bodily resurrection.
The letter gives the impression that many in the church were being swayed to follow them, and that therefore Paul’s instruction was urgently required. Things were not as they should be. But it was only when he later visited them that he found out how bad things really were (2 Corinthians 2:1-4).
the Third Week after Epiphany