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Study Resources :: Intros to the Bible :: The Epistles to the Corinthians

The Epistles to the Corinthians

Background and Setting

The epistles to the Corinthians were written to the church that resided in Corinth of Achaia. The city resides on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnesus to the rest of Greece. While an unavoidable passage for the land-born, north-south trade, Corinth's location also made east-west trade common because ships that traveled from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea would cut through this isthmus to save hundreds of miles of dangerous sea travel. The method of crossing the isthmus involved putting the ships on rollers and transporting them across the four-mile stretch of earth that connect the two land masses (a canal was not constructed in Corinth until the late nineteenth century). Corinth was both the political and the commercial capital of Achaia. The city was well-trafficked with travelers; and so, the population of about 600,000 people [1] was quite diverse. Some of the outcomes of this diversity were the prosperity of both religious syncretism [2] and immorality. Corinth had a reputation for its depravity, and the temple prostitutes of Aphrodite did not help in saving the city's bad name. There was even a Greek word, korinthiazomai (Corinthianize), which meant "to practice fornication."

Paul's Correspondence with the Corinthians

The account of Paul's first visit to Corinth is recorded in Acts 18:1-17. The Apostle Paul had found himself in Corinth after passing through Athens (c. AD 51). When he came to the city he found a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who were there because Claudius had expulsed the all Jews from Rome. Incidentally, they too, like Paul, were tentmakers by trade and so Paul stayed and worked with them. As it was his practice to go to the Jew first (Rom 1:16, etc.), he visited the local synagogue every Sabbath. Silas and Timothy met up with Paul after their extended stay in Macedonia. They brought support from the Macedonians so that Paul could be "occupied with the word." Paul's ministry to the Jews ended up being unsuccessful (they opposed and reviled him), therefore he decided to go to the Gentiles. He went to the house of Titius Justus, which was next door to the synagogue. After this, many Corinthians believed including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue. Then one night the Lord instructed Paul to continue with his message and not to be silent for he has many people in this city. So Paul's stay was extended.

After some time, the Jews attacked Paul and brought him before the tribunal, accusing him of persuading people to worship God in a manner that was contrary to the law. Yet the proconsul, Gallio, found it to be a petty accusation and exonerated Paul on the basis of it being a matter of Jewish doctrine and not public affairs. Some time after that, Paul departed Corinth after a year and a half of ministry there. He went to Jerusalem, and later ended up staying in Ephesus for three years (c. AD 53-55).

At sometime-before or while he was in Ephesus­-Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians. This letter, which preceded 1 Corinthians, is unfortunately no longer extant. The contents of this "previous letter" (as it is called) are not completely known, yet some of it may be drawn from 1 Corinthians. First Corinthians is a response to a letter that Paul received from the Corinthian church, which they wrote probably as a response to this previous letter. The apostle writes in 1 Cor. 5:9, "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people." All that can be concluded about the previous letter are the following three facts: the letter was written after Paul's stay in Corinth, but before the composition of 1 Corinthians (c. AD 53-54); the letter dealt (at least in part) with the issue of associating with the sexually immoral; and his letter was misunderstood or not taken seriously.

After the previous letter was composed, Paul received information from the Corinthians. From Chloe's household, he received reports of division (1 Cor. 1:11), not to mention other reports of sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1) and further reports of division (1 Cor. 11:18). Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus paid Paul a refreshing visit (1 Cor. 16:17), and he also received a letter from the Corinthians in which he was asked about various topics (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, and the other peri de, or "now concerning," verses 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).

With all of these reports and letters in mind, Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, which holds the canonical name "1 Corinthians." This letter was composed in Ephesus around AD 54-55, and was written as a response to the reports. Such topics as division, sexual immorality, lawsuits, marriage, Christian liberty, order of worship, and the resurrection are covered in this epistle.

Paul then deployed Timothy to the church of Corinth in order to scout the situation and be a representative of Paul's teaching (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11). We know not the details or outcome of this visit, though it is probable that it did not go well.

Timothy's visit gave Paul an urgency to change his plans and so he made a second visit to Corinth. From Ephesus he sailed across the Aegean to Corinth for a short and hasty trip. Even though the book of Acts gives no mention of this visit, Paul's own writings speak of a second visit (2 Cor. 13:1-2). This visit is commonly called the "painful visit" as Paul himself refers to it (2 Cor. 2:1). The outcome of this visit was not as Paul had wanted and definitely something that he did not wish to experience again.

Upon his return to Ephesus, Paul was provoked to write a third letter to the Corinthians. This is the so-called "severe letter." He gave the letter to Titus to deliver it to Corinth. Paul's reasoning for writing this letter is found in 2 Cor. 2:3-4:

And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (ESV)

He also wrote in order to test them. Paul wanted to find out whether or not they would be obedient in all things (2 Cor. 2:9).

Once the severe letter had been sent, Paul left Ephesus for Macedonia. En route to Macedonia, Paul sojourned in Troas, hoping to find Titus there to hear of the outcome of the severe letter. Being unsuccessful in this pursuit, he set out for the remainder of his journey to Macedonia. Upon arrival at Macedonia, Paul was greeted with more trials as they "were afflicted at every turn-fighting without and fear within" (2 Cor. 7:5). Thankfully Paul met Titus in Macedonia and heard the great news of Titus's visit to Corinth (2 Cor. 7:6-7, 13). So the severe letter was successful! It accomplished that which Paul had desired as is stated in 2 Cor. 7:8-9:

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it-though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. (ESV)

Being encouraged, Paul wrote a fourth letter to the Corinthian church. This letter (known as 2 Corinthians) was written around AD 56. Here Paul defends his apostolic authority, encourages the church to be unified with him, gives instructions about giving, and tells of his future plans. He mentions that Titus and others are going to make a visit (2 Cor. 8:16-18). Paul also makes sure to note that he, himself, is going to make his third visit to Corinth (12:14; 13:1, 10).

After staying in Macedonia he visited Greece for three months, making his third visit to Corinth (Acts 20:1, 2). Then he went back up to Macedonia and off to further ministry elsewhere (Acts 20:3ff.). In total, Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians and visited them three times.

Quick Overview of the Correspondence

  • First visit to Corinth lasting 18 months (c. AD 51)
  • Goes to Jerusalem, then travels to Ephesus to begin a three-year stay (c. AD 53-55)
  • Writes the "previous letter" [Corinthians A] (c. AD 53-54)
  • Hears of reports from the Corinthians
  • Writes "1 Corinthians" [Corinthians B] (c. AD 54-55)
  • Deployes Timothy to Corinth
  • The "painful visit" (Second visit)
  • The "severe letter" [Corinthians C]
  • Leaves Ephesus and meets Titus in Macedonia
  • Writes "2 Corinthians" [Corinthians D] (c. AD 56)
  • Visits Corinth a third time

Authorship

Both 1 and 2 Corinthians were undoubtedly written by the Apostle Paul. He established the church in Corinth, and was the self-proclaimed "father" of the Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 4:15). Intrinsically, Paul designates himself as being the author in both epistles (1 Cor. 1:1; 15:8, 9; 16:21; 2 Cor. 1:1; 10:1). As Hillyer points out, the epistles of 1 and 2 Corinthians are "unmistakably Pauline in the tone and character of their teaching and in their vocabulary and style." [3] These epistles were also kept in high esteem by the early church who upheld Pauline authorship.

Literary Structure, Coherence, and Unity

Both Corinthian epistles combined make up just over one third of the total Pauline corpus. The epistles follow the classic Pauline letter formula, beginning with an opening section (1 Cor. 1:1-3; 2 Cor. 1:1-2), thanksgiving (1 Cor. 1:4-9; 2 Cor. 1:3-11), body (1 Cor. 1:10-16:18; 2 Cor. 1:12-13:10), and a closing section (1 Cor. 16:19-24; 2 Cor. 13:11-14).

The question that a lot of scholars are trying to answer is, "Were the letters originally written in the form in which we have them today?" There is not much scholarly resistance that 1 Corinthians is a single letter. Some have noticed that Paul skips around various subjects in this letter: one minute he is exhorting the church to be unified, then sexual immorality and church discipline, lawsuits against fellow believers, marriage, Christian liberty, the Eucharist, church order, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. There is no smooth flow to the letter like that of Romans or Ephesians. The reason for this is not that the letter is in some type of conflated form, but that Paul was addressing problems and answering miscellaneous questions that the Corinthian church had. Undoubtedly, 1 Corinthians is a single and complete letter that fulfills its intended purpose.

Much more debate has arisen in regards to the unity of 2 Corinthians. Many scholars say that this epistle was not originally a single work, but is at least made up of parts of two individual letters. Brown states, "Among the letters in the Pauline corpus, the unity of II Cor has been the most challenged.…" [4] One of the most popular views among scholars is that 2 Cor. 10-13 is actually a part of the "severe letter" that was mentioned above. The reason why some scholars adhere to this view is based on the difference between 2 Cor. 1-9 and 10-13. The first section has a sense of optimism, while the second has one of pessimism. Paul is first excited and has "perfect confidence" in them (2 Cor. 7:16), but in 10-13 he says, "For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish" (2 Cor. 12:20).

The last four chapters of the epistle do seem to fit the content of what we would expect of the "severe letter," but the evidence is less than convincing. More recently, scholars have been proposing the idea that chapters 10-13 were not actually part of the "severe letter" but part of a fifth and unknown letter. Anything dealing with Pauline chronology beyond what is evidenced is merely speculation. There is one opening section and one closing section in 2 Corinthians. There is no manuscript evidence that supports that the epistle was ever divided. One view that supports the book's unity is that chapters 10-13 were originally part of 2 Corinthians, but were written after Paul received news of further rebellion. This view simply seems to be a reaction to the scholarly studies in order to uphold the unity of the epistle. Though possible, it seems unlikely that Paul would receive information from Titus, begin writing his letter back to the Corinthians, then before finishing the letter receive more immediate news of the church behaving differently than was just reported. The epistle more appropriately seems to be a single unified letter written with all points in mind before the ink hit the paper. Gundry makes a valid point drawing the parallel of self-defense in both sections of the epistle and that the first part may be speaking to a "repentant majority" and the second part referring to a "still-recalcitrant minority." [5]

Themes and Theology

The theology of the Corinthian epistles are directly affected by their purpose. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in order to answer questions and address certain problems in the church. He was not expounding the great doctrines of soteriology like in Romans, rather he touches on many problems that do not have a close tie to each other, but they all had in common the fact that the Corinthians were experiencing them.

The issue of division and unity is addressed first (1 Cor. 1:10-4:21). The main body of 1 Corinthians begins with Paul's appeal to the church to agree that the divisions among them would be eradicated and that they would "be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). People in the church were associating with various leaders and making factions that were tearing down the body of Christ. The problem that Paul points out is that they were acting fleshly when they would take pride in their pastoral preference (1 Cor. 3:4-5). God is the one that does the work in the church and so God should receive the devotion of the church and not mere men who happen to be his instruments (1 Cor. 3:6-9).

Paul then addresses sexual immorality and its consequences (1 Cor. 5:1-13). He seems to have been astonished at the lack of morality displayed by the Corinthians. They were arrogant because they were able to tolerate a man who was committing gross sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:2). This was not a discreet sin of any kind, but one that not even the pagans would tolerate (1 Cor. 5:1). The apostle makes it clear that this sort of action should not be tolerated, but disciplined. The one guilty of the act should be delivered to Satan "for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor. 5:5). Paul orders the excommunication of the sinning one for two reasons: (1) that the sinner would be saved in end, and (2) that the sinning one would not "leaven the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6-8). The church as Paul states elsewhere is intended to be the pure and spotless bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-27), therefore the evil person must be purged from the church (1 Cor. 5:13; Deut. 13:5).

The apostle also condemns the filing of lawsuits against fellow believers (1 Cor. 6:1-11). A believer who has "grievance" against another believer should not go before the unrighteous to settle the problem, but the issue should be brought before the other saints (1 Cor. 6:1). The world looks into the church and sees that they have difficulty settling small issues, and so they are dissuaded from wanting to be a part of the church (1 Cor. 6:2). It is a shame that Christians wrong each other, and yet, will not suffer wrong in order that the name of Christ be kept pure. Paul expresses anguish because believers should be leading pure lives and the issue of lawsuits should not have been brought up.

When Paul addresses the subject of marriage, he notes that a man and his wife should not deprive each other of each other. He then lays down general principles declaring that it is better for an unmarried person to remain unmarried and for a married person to remain married. In other words, do not seek to change the position that you are in. Yet if an unmarried person does become married, he has not committed a sin. Paul's main point is that Christians should be free from anxiety so that they can focus on the Lord.

Paul also deals with Christian liberty. He says that it is not wrong for a person to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols because idols do not have a real existence. There is only one God, the father, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. The problem is that not every Christian has the conscience to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols; therefore, the Christians who do not have a problem eating food sacrificed to idols should take heed that their liberty does not become a stumbling block to the weaker brethren. Christians are to be careful that they do not destroy one of their own, one for whom Christ has died! Paul then uses himself as an example that though he had every right to receive support from the Corinthians, he refrained from it in order that he would not be a stumbling block to them. "'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up" (1 Cor. 10:23). Christians are to be careful that they do not stumble one of their brothers, and ultimately everything must be done to the glory of God.

The order of the church is also a concern of the apostle. He tells the wives that they must wear head coverings and discusses the relation between God, Christ, husband, and wife. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of God, and the husband is the head of his wife. When the church assembles they must partake of the Lord's supper in a correct manner. God has given spiritual gifts to the church so that the church members would complement each other and the whole body of Christ would function well. At this point the apostle reminds the church that spiritual gifts are worthless without true Christian love. The gifts of prophecy and tongues must be administered appropriately. All things should be done decently and in order since God is not the God of confusion but of peace.

The resurrection is essential to the Christian faith. One must not doubt Christ's physical resurrection; it is unreasonable to do so because there are hundreds of eye witnesses that affirm this. The resurrection of Christ is an essential tenet of the gospel-without it Christians would remain dead in sin and the faith is in vain. Christ is not the only one to be raised, but the saints, as well, shall be raised from the dead (or changed) to take on an imperishable inheritance. Death did not have victory over Christ and it shall not have victory over those with who are children of God.

The book of 2 Corinthians is structured quite differently than 1 Corinthians. Half of 2 Corinthians is a defense letter wherein Paul defends himself and then the ministry of the new covenant. Then he tells them of the news that he has received from Titus and prepares the church for the collection and his third visit.

The motif of suffering and affliction occurs much in 2 Corinthians. In his introductory statements, Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to be well aware of the affliction that they experienced in Asia. It is uncertain as to what this affliction may be, but because of it the apostle and his company despaired of life itself and felt that they had received the sentence of death (2 Cor. 1:8-9). When Paul wrote the letter, he was experiencing affliction as well as anguish because of his love for the believers in Corinth. Now the apostle makes an observation. Though they were afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, it was never too much for them to handle (2 Cor. 4:7-12). Paul also records many events and generalizations of difficulties, "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger" (2 Cor. 6:4-5; cf. more in depth 2 Cor. 11:23-28). Not only did the Pauline entourage endure suffering in Asia, but even when they came to Macedonia they were "afflicted at every turn-fighting without and fear within" (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul himself was afflicted with a thorn in the flesh, to keep him from being puffed up. In the midst of severe affliction, the Macedonian churches gave generously (2 Cor. 8:2). Yet, there is relief while one is in the middle of suffering. The apostle knew that the affliction he received here on earth is merely preparation for the eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison, and that is why it is better not to look at the things of this life because they will not last. Therefore one must look at the things which are eternal for they will outlive the earthly things (2 Cor 4:17-18). The afflictions reveal weaknesses on man's part, but sufficiency on God's-"My Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:7-10). In the midst of these afflictions, it is God who comforts the downcast (2 Cor. 7:6), and so, God ultimately delivered them from their affliction and will deliver them again (2 Cor. 1:10).

In the letter, Paul vehemently defends his ministry and apostolic authority. He begins the letter by reaffirming the fact that he is an apostle of Christ by the will of God (2 Cor. 1:1). Paul claims that they are men of sincerity, commissioned by God, and in the sight of God they speak in Christ. Paul and his fellow ministers do not need commendation letters because the Corinthian believers are their very epistles of recommendation (2 Cor. 2:17-3:2). God is the one that has made them sufficient as ministers, not themselves (2 Cor. 3:5-6). He asks the Corinthians to make room in their hearts for them because they have not wronged anyone (2 Cor. 7:2). In chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians, the apostle goes into hyper-drive trying to defend his ministry. Paul was accused of being weak in presence but bold in his letters. The approved minister is not the one that commends himself, but the one who is commended by the Lord. Paul compares himself to the "super-apostles" and states that he is not in the least inferior to them. He claims that he may be unskilled in speaking but he is not lacking in knowledge.

When he was in Corinth he did not take money from them, though he had right (cf. 1 Cor. 9), but instead the churches in Macedonia paid for him. In doing this, the Paul lowered himself in order that they would be elevated. For some reason the Corinthians viewed Paul's apostleship as suspect because he would not take their money. Paul did not fit the mold of an ancient teacher. The sophists thought of receiving money for teaching as a good thing, because if it was given freely it was worth nothing. [6] A different aspect of Greek thought suggested that no "upper class" citizen, especially a philosopher, should find themselves partaking in manual labor. [7] Since Paul was a tentmaker, received finances from Macedonia, and would not receive support from Corinth, the Corinthians saw his ministry as spurious, or at least inferior to the super-apostles. Because of their low view of his apostleship, he shows how it is actually the super-apostles that have not met the requirement of apostleship. He goes down to the level of the super-apostles and boasts according to the flesh, though it is admittedly foolish of him to do so (2 Cor. 11:12-22). They are Hebrews, but so is Paul; they are Israelites, but so is Paul; they are offspring of Abraham, but so is Paul (2 Cor. 11:22). Yet Paul advances over them when he asks if they are servants of Christ because he has endured far greater labors, and much more affliction (2 Cor. 11:23-28). The apostle continues by boasting in his weakness, because it is when he is weak that Christ is strong (2 Cor. 11:29-12:10). All in all, Paul demonstrates his superiority over the super-apostles and that he has performed the true signs of an apostle (2 Cor. 12:11-12).

Paul also deals with the subject of giving (2 Corinthians 8-9). In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul encourages the Corinthians to take a collection each week for the saints in Jerusalem. By the time of writing 2 Corinthians a year has passed, and the Macedonians have been faithful in generosity. Paul then tells the Corinthians that he is going to send Titus to them so that they too can excel in this act of grace. They are to follow Christ's example of humbling himself for the sake of others that their readiness (their eagerness to take on such a task) might be matched by their completion. This is not intended to be a burden, but as it says in Exodus 16:18, "Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack." Paul had defended the Corinthians based on their readiness to help the Jerusalem church, and this readiness inspired the Macedonians to give abundantly, yet Paul does not desire humiliation to come of this if the Corinthians do not give as they expressed they would. He makes sure that they knew that giving should be done willingly, not with reluctancy or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. They should not worry because they serve God, who is able to supply their every need and make all grace abound to them. Their generosity would prove to bring about enrichment and thankfulness to God.

The two epistles of Paul to the church in Corinth reveal a lot about the apostle and Christian faith. It shows us the conflict between an apostle and a struggling church. In the end, it seems as though the parties were reconciled and restored to unity once again, for the apostle made his third visit to Corinth where he wrote the wonderful epistle to the Romans which does not suggest any further conflict in Corinth.

Bibliography

[1] Charles Ludwig. Ludwig's Handbook of New Testament Rulers and Cities. (Denver: Accent, 1983), 131.
[2] Werner Georg Kümmel. Introduction to the New Testament. 17th. ed. (trans. Howard Clark Kee; Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 271.
[3] Norman Hillyer. "1 and 2 Corinthians," in The New Bible Commentary 3d ed. (ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), 1051.
[4] Raymond E. Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament. (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 548.
[5] Robert H. Gundry. A Survey of the New Testament. 3d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 371.
[6] Ralph. P. Martin. 2 Corinthians. (Nashville: Word, 1986), 344.
[7] Ibid.

Psalm 138:2

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