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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

- 1 Corinthians

by Editor - Joseph Exell


ALONE, and much disheartened by the unfruitfulness of his sojourn, St. Paul left Athens after his memorable address in the Areopagus, and sailed to Corinth. In about five hours his vessel dropped anchor in the bright waters of the Saronic bay, under the pine woods and low green hills of Cenchreae. A walk of about eight miles along the valley of Hexamili brought him to the city, nestling under the huge mass of its citadel — the famous Acrocorinthus, which flung its dark shadow over each of the city's double seas. In that city he spent more than a year and a half of his life.

The city of Corinth was no longer the old city so famous and so powerful in the days of the Peloponnesian War. After the decline of Sparta and Athens, she had held the hegemony of Greece, and had placed herself at the head of the Achaean league. In B.C. 196, Flamininus, after the battle of Cynocephalae, had proclaimed at Corinth the independence of Hellas. But in B.C. 146 the city had been taken, its buildings committed to the flames, its treasures rifled, and its inhabitants massacred by L. Mummius. After it had lain in ruins for a hundred years the prescient eye of Julius Caesar had recognized the beauty and importance of the site, and, wishing both to immortalize his own name and to call attention to his mythic descent from Venus — who, under her Greek name of Aphrodite, had been the patron goddess of the city — he rebuilt Corinth from its foundations; gave it the name of Julia Corinthus, and peopled it with a colony of veterans and freedmen.
With the advantage of its two harbours, Lechaeum and Cenchreae, and of the Diolkos, or land channel, over which ships were dragged to avoid the circumnavigation of Cape Malea, the town at once became important. It was "the bridge of the sea." Jews flocked to it for trade; Phoenicians, for commerce; Romans, in order to visit a place so famous and to buy "antiquities," genuine and spurious, for the Roman market; men of pleasure, to avail themselves of the immorality for which it soon became infamous. Greeks were attracted in large numbers by the renown of the revived Isthmian games. It was the Greeks who stamped their own character upon the majority of the inhabitants. They became proverbial for litigious shrewdness, intellectual restlessness, and, above all, sensual indulgence. The mixture of classes and nationalities in a seaport and emporium of commerce produces invariably an unfavourable effect, and Corinth — still continuing to be in a certain sense "the Star of Hellas," and the emporium of half the world — became known as the Vanity Fair of the Roman empire; alike the London and the Paris of the first century after Christ.
Into this city of six hundred thousand inhabitants — this seething mass of Jews, merchants, philosophers, ex-soldiers, retailers, and agents of vice — the lonely and suffering apostle found his way. With all their faults of head and of heart, these Greeks aroused his deepest interest. Evidently his stay in Corinth impressed his imagination. He draws many illustrations from their stadium, their races, their boxing matches, their courts of justice, their theatres, their garlands of Isthmian pine (1 Corinthians 9:24, 1 Corinthians 9:27; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Corinthians 2:14-16; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 9:25). He learnt to love the Corinthians with intense affection, though he never had to deal with any Church so inflated and so immoral, so indifferent to his sufferings, so contemptuous towards his teaching, or so tolerant of the opposition and the calumnies of his personal enemies and rivals.

The worst moral sins of the city were dishonesty, drunkenness, and above all, sensuality, which was directly due to the worship of Aphrodite Pandemos, and to the thousand female hieroduli, who were consecrated to her service. Against these sins again and again the apostle lifted up his voice (1 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Corinthians 10:7, 1 Corinthians 10:8; 1 Corinthians 11:21; 2 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 2 Corinthians 12:21, etc.).

The chief intellectual faults were a litigious spirit, restless speculation, eager factiousness, and inflated vanity. To these St. Paul would not pander for a moment. Perhaps because he had learnt experience from the failure of his more recondite and philosophical address at Athens, he determined to discard all human wisdom and eloquence, and to preach the gospel in its uttermost and humblest simplicity, knowing nothing among them but Christ Jesus, yes, and Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 1:18).

The volatile suspicious character of the people made the apostle feel the necessity for being most carefully on his guard. He was determined to set an example of the most lofty and disinterested self-denial. He had been trained to a trade, like every other Jewish boy, in accordance with a wise rule of the rabbis. His trade was the humble and mechanical trade of tent making; and finding a Jewish compatriot named Aquila, who worked at this trade, with his wife Priscilla, he entered into partnership with them. They had been expelled from Rome by a decree of Claudius, in A.D. 52, and had probably been converted to Christianity by the unknown disciples who had founded the Roman Church. With them St. Paul formed a happy and lifelong friendship, and by toiling with them, he was able to earn a living, which was, however, so scanty that it often barely sufficed even for his simple wants (Acts 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 9:4, 1 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 7:2; 2 Corinthians 11:9).

After a time he was joined by Silas and Timotheus, who not only aided him effectually in his mission work, but also brought a welcome supply for his needs from the Church of Philippi, the only Church from which he ever consented to accept pecuniary aid (2 Corinthians 11:9; Philippians 4:15).

The mission was successful. Crispus the ruler of the synagogue was baptized, with all his house. The Jews, however, as a body, showed such determined opposition, that he had to leave their synagogue altogether and turn to the Gentiles. He went with his converts to a room near the synagogue, which was placed at his disposal by a proselyte named Justus, and there, amid much physical weakness and mental depression, he preached for many months. His labours brought about the conversion of many Gentiles (Acts 18:8), and the founding of Churches, not only in Corinth, but also at Cenchreae and other towns of Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1; Romans 16:1).

The Jews, filled with bitter hatred against him, seized the opportunity offered them by the arrival of a new proconsul — Marcus Annaeus Novatus (Gallic), a brother of Seneca — to accuse him of acting contrary to Law. Gallic, indeed, dismissed their accusation with true Roman contempt; but the strong indignation of the apostle against his obstinate and infatuated fellow countrymen breaks out in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16), the earliest of his extant Epistles, which, like the Second, was written from Corinth.

After staying for some time longer at Corinth, he sailed to Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem, and, returning from thence to Antioch, set out with Timothy and others on his third missionary journey. Fulfilling his promise that he would revisit Ephesus, he made that city his headquarters for nearly three years (Acts 20:31).


It was during the latter part of his residence in the Ionian metropolis — probably a little before Pentecost, A.D. 57 — that he wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians. His intention had been to leave Ephesus shortly and to sail to Corinth. After a brief stay with the Church, he purposed to visit Macedonia, and then to return to Corinth, in order that, after a second visit, the Church might help him forward on his way to Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 1:15-17). The news which he received from Corinth frustrated this plan He had informed them of it (apparently) in a lost letter, in which he had also given them a rule "not to company with fornicators," of which they had mistaken the due significance. But in ch. 16. he had silently indicated his change of plan, and this had led his opponents to charge him with insincerity and frivolity (2 Corinthians 1:17).

But the reason for this change of plan had been the account of the evil state of the Church at Corinth, which he had received, first from Apollos; then from a letter which the converts had addressed to him; and lastly from some members of "the household of Chloe."
From Apollos he must have heard generally that some of the brethren were only too likely to succumb to the perils of the heathendom by which they were surrounded; and he must have told the apostle that there was pressing need for him to meet the yearning wish of all the most faithful converts by paying them a visit as soon as possible.
The letter of the Corinthians themselves revealed the existence of some genuine perplexity and of many eager and unhealthy speculations.

1. They had asked many questions about marriage and celibacy; about second marriages; about mixed marriages; about the marriage of wards and daughters.

2. They wished for direction in the bitter disputes which had arisen between "the strong" and "the weak" on the question of "meats offered to idols."

3. They had asked whether men or women ought to appear in the assemblies with their heads covered or uncovered.

4. They had difficulties about the relative value of spiritual gifts, and the way to regulate the phenomena of glossolaly ("speaking with the tongue ").

5. They were perplexed with material difficulties about the resurrection.

6. They asked about the collection for the poor in Jerusalem.

7. They invited Apollos to pay them another visit.

There were many points in this letter which gave ground for anxiety; but this was as nothing to the grief with which St. Paul heard the tidings brought by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaieus — tidings which he should have heard from the Church, but which their letter had passed over with a reticence which was little honourable to their faithfulness and sincerity.
First of all, he learnt that the Church was rent by a deplorable party spirit. Apollos and others, especially some emissaries front or representatives of the mother Church of Jerusalem, had visited Corinth during St. Paul's long absence, and the consequence had been that various factions had rallied round different teachers. One party still adhered to the name of Paul; others preferred the stately rhetoric and Alexandrian refinements of Apollos; others claimed allegiance for the name of Cephas; and some Judaeo-Christians, probably of the narrowest school, vainly wished to monopolize for their section the name of Christ himself.
Then grave scandals and abuses had been caused in the Church meetings by the forwardness of women, by the egotism of rival orators, and most of all by the disordered and almost insane abuse of the impulse to speak with the tongue.
Further, the very agapae which were held in connection with the Eucharist had been shockingly disgraced and profaned by greed, selfishness, envy, gluttony, and even by the besetting Corinthian vice of intoxication.
Worst of all, uncleanness had not only found its open defenders but a considerable section of the Church, in its inflated sophistry, had condoned and abetted a case of incest so flagrant that the very heathen cried shame upon it.
It was under these almost heartrending circumstances that St. Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians. The Epistle, which is very characteristic of the apostle, is in many ways most deeply interesting, and especially for these reasons —

1. It shows the powerful self control of the apostle in spite of his physical weakness, his distressed circumstances, his incessant troubles, and his emotional nature. It was written, he tells us, in bitter anguish, "out of much affliction and pressure of heart .... and with streaming tears" (2 Corinthians 2:4); yet he restrained the expression of his feelings, and wrote with a dignity and holy calm, which he thought most calculated to win back his erring children.

2. It gives us a vivid picture of the early Church before the days of its organization and episcopal government; and it entirely dissipates the dream that the apostolic Church was in an exceptional condition of holiness of life or purity of doctrine.

3. It shows how the most trivial details can be decided by great and solemn principles. Problems however dark, details however intricate, become under St. Paul's treatment both lucid and orderly in the light of eternal distinctness. St. Paul shows that the rule of charity and the voice of conscience are sufficient to decide all questions.

4. It is addressed to a Church predominantly Gentile, and thus shows us the method adopted by the greatest of Christian teachers when brought face to face with the problems suggested to the minds of converts from paganism.


The authenticity of the Epistle is beyond all doubt. It is attested from the very earliest times, and among others by St. Clemens Romanus (A.D. 96), within forty years of the date when the letter was written. Alike the external and the internal evidence is so indisputable, that not a single writer of the smallest importance, however "advanced" his school of criticism, has ever ventured to question its cogency.
Many of the questions which are sometimes discussed by way of Introduction to the Epistle — such as the supposed unrecorded visit to Corinth, the nature of the factions, the matter and style, etc. — will be found discussed in the following notes.


The outline of the Epistle — owing to the circumstances in which it originated — is very simple. It is as follows: —

1. Greeting. 1 Corinthians 1:1-3.

2. Thanksgiving. Vers. 4-9.

3. The folly and sin of PARTY SPIRIT. 1 Corinthians 1:10-20.

4. The incestuous offender. 1 Corinthians 4:21-13.

5. The sin of going to law before the heathen. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

6. The sin and shame of fornication. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20.

7. Answers to the inquiries of the Corinthians.

(1) As to MARRIAGE and CELIBACY. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40.

(2) As to IDOL OFFERINGS. (1 Corinthians 8:1-1; with a long illustration from his own example of self denial, 1 Corinthians 9:1-14.)


(a) The covering of the head. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
(b) Disorders at the agapae and the Eucharist. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
(c) The use and abuse of spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:1-30.
(d) The supereminence of love. 1 Corinthians 12:31-13.
(e) Use and abuse of the gift of the tongue. 1 Corinthians 14:1-40.

(4) As to the RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58.

3. Conclusion. Messages, greetings, and final blessing. 1 Corinthians 16:1-24.

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