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Introduction to 1 Corinthians

(PRACTICAL ADVICE TO A TROUBLED CHURCH)

I. THE UNIQUENESS OF I CORINTHIANS

 

A. It is quoted more often and earlier by the early church fathers than any other writing of Paul which shows its importance and usefulness.

 

B. In the Muratorian Fragment, which was a list of canonical books from Rome (a.d. 200), it is listed as the first of Paul's writings which also shows its importance.

 

C. Paul makes a distinction in this practical letter between his personal opinion and the Lord's commands. However, this is based on his knowledge of Jesus' teachings on any given subject. If he could he would pass on Jesus' words. He believed his opinions were also inspired and authoritative (cf. 7:25, 40).

 

D. Paul's guiding principle for church fellowship is that the freedom of individual believers, but also their commensurate corporate responsibility, is based not on law, but on love. The health and growth of the whole church supercedes any personal preference or privilege (cf. 12:7).

 

E. This letter (along with II Corinthians) gives us an early look into the NT church, its structure, methods, and message. However, it must also be remembered that this church was a problematic, non-typical congregation.

 

II. THE CITY OF CORINTH

 

A. Winter shipping lanes around the southern most point of Greece (i.e., , Cape Malea) were very dangerous. Therefore, a land route of the shortest possible length was crucial. The geographical location of Corinth on the four-mile isthmus between the Gulf of Corinth (i.e., , Ionian Sea) and the Saronic Gulf (i.e., , Aegean Sea) made the city a major commercial shipping, trading (specializing in types of pottery and a special type of brass), and military center. In Paul's day this was literally where the cultures of the East and West met.

 

B. Corinth was also a major cultural center of the Greco-Roman world because it hosted the bi-annual Isthmian Games which began in 581 b.c. (at the Temple of Poseidon). Only the Olympic Games in Athens, every four years, rivaled them in size and importance (Thucydides, Hist. 1.13.5).

 

C. In 146 b.c. Corinth was involved in a revolt (i.e., , the Achaean League) against Rome and was destroyed by the Roman General Lucius Mummius and the Greek population dispersed into slavery. Because of its economical and military importance it was rebuilt in either 46 or 48 b.c. by Julius Caesar. It became a Roman colony where Roman soldiers retired. It was a mimic of Rome in architecture and culture and was the administrative center of the Roman (i.e., , Senatorial) province of Achaia in 27 b.c. It became an Imperial Province in a.d. 15.

 

D. The acropolis of Old Corinth, rising more than 1880 feet above the plain, was the site of the temple to Aphrodite. To this temple were attached 1,000 prostitutes (Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20-22). To be called "a Corinthian" (i.e., , Korinthiazesthai, coined by Aristophanes [450-385 b.c.]) was synonymous to loose, riotous living. This temple, as most of the city, was destroyed in an earthquake about 150 years before Paul arrived, as it was again in a.d. 77. It is uncertain if the fertility cult continued in Paul's day. Since the Romans, in 146 b.c., destroyed the city and killed or enslaved all of its citizens, the Greek flavor of the city was superseded by its Roman colonial status (Pausanias, II.3.7). This Roman cultural context instead of Greek culture, makes a significant difference in interpreting I Corinthians.

 

III. THE AUTHOR

 

A. It was to this city that Paul the Apostle came on his second missionary journey; the account is found in Acts 18:1-21. Through a vision the Lord revealed to Paul that many would believe and that there would be no successful opposition to his ministry (cf. Acts 18:9-10).

 

B. Paul's missionary strategy was to plant a church in the major cities of his day, knowing that converted visitors, traveling salesmen, and sailors would spread the gospel as they went. It was up to the local church to take responsibility for the evangelism and discipleship of their area.

 

C. Paul found Aquila and Priscilla, also believing Jewish tent-makers or leather workers, in Corinth. They were forced out of Rome in a.d. 49 by Claudius' edict (Orosius, Hist. 7:6:15-16) against any Jewish rites or rituals (cf. Acts 18:2). Paul had come to Corinth alone. Both Silas and Timothy were on assignments in Macedonia (cf. Acts 18:5). He was very discouraged (cf. Acts 18:9-19; I Cor. 2:3). However, he persevered and stayed in Corinth eighteen months (cf. Acts 18:11).

 

D. Paul's authorship of this book is attested to by Clement of Rome, who wrote a letter to Corinth in a.d. 95/96 (I Clement 37:5; 47:1-3; 49:5). Pauline authorship of this letter has never been doubted, even by modern critical scholarship.

 

IV. THE DATE

 

A. The date of Paul's visit to Corinth has been ascertained by an inscription of the Emperor Claudius found at Delphi, which dates the proconsulship of Gallio as beginning in July a.d. 51 through July, 52 (cf. Acts 18:12-17), which would make the date of Paul's arrival about a.d. 49-50.

 

B. The date of Paul's letter would then be sometime in the mid-50's. He wrote it from Ephesus where he ministered between two years (cf. Acts 19:10) and three years (cf. Acts 20:31).

 

C. A possible chronology of Paul's writings following F. F. Bruce and Murry Harris with minor adaptations:

 

 

  Book  Date Place of Writing Relation to Acts
1 Galatians 48 Syrian Antioch 14:28; 15:2
2 I Thessalonians 50 Corinth 18:5
3 II Thessalonians 50 Corinth  
4 I Corinthians 55 Ephesus 19:20
5 II Corinthians 56 Macedonia 20:2
6 Romans 57 Corinth 20:3
7-10 Prison Letters      
  Colossians early 60's Rome  
  Philemon early 60's Rome  
  Ephesians early 60's Rome  
  Philippians late 62-63 Rome 28:30-31
11-13 Fourth Missionary Journey   Ephesus (?)  
  I Timothy 63 (or later, Macedonia  
  Titus 63 but before    
  II Timothy 64 a.d. 68) Rome  

V. RECIPIENTS OF THE LETTER

 

A. The recipient of the letter was the fledgling church made up mostly of Gentiles. The population of Corinth was racially and culturally mixed. We know from archaeology and Scripture (cf. Acts 18:4-8) that there was a synagogue in Corinth.

 

B. Roman soldiers were retired there after they completed twenty years of military service. Corinth was a free city, a Roman colony, and capital of the Roman province of Achaia.

 

C. The letter seems to reflect several groups in the church:

1. intellectual Greeks who were still very proud of their philosophical traditions and were trying to wed Christian revelation to these old customs and intellectual traditions

2. Roman patrons and the socially elite

3. a believing Jewish contingent made up mostly of "god-fearing" Gentiles, who attended the synagogue

4. a large number of converted slaves

 

VI. THE PURPOSE OF THE LETTER

 

A. Paul heard of the problems that had developed at Corinth from four sources

1. Chloe's people, 1:11

2. a letter from the church asking questions, 7:1,25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,12

3. a personal visit from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, 16:17

It is possible that the letter (#2) was brought by these men (#3).

 

It is interesting that Murry Harris has outlined the book of I Corinthians based on Paul's received information about the church.

1. oral report from members of Chloe's household, resulting in Paul writing chapters 1-4

2. oral report from church representatives (i.e., , Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus), resulting in chapters 5-6

3. written questions from the church, resulting in chapters 7-16

 

B. The church had become factious, advocating different leaders: Paul, Apollos, Peter, and possibly a Christ party (cf. 1:12). Not only was the church divided over leadership types, but also over several moral issues and the use of spiritual gifts. A main point of contention was Paul's Apostolic authority (especially II Corinthians)!

 

VII. PAUL'S CONTACTS WITH THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH-A TENTATIVE PROPOSAL

 

A. How many letters did Paul write to Corinth?

1. just two, I and II Corinthians

2. three, with one letter being lost

3. four, with two letters being lost

4. some modern scholars find parts of the two lost letters in II Corinthians

a. previous letter (I Cor. 5:9) in II Cor. 6:14-17:1)

b. severe letter (II Cor. 2:3-4,9; 7:8-12) in II Cor. 10-13)

5. five, with II Cor. 10-13 being the fifth letter, sent after Titus' report relating the further bad news

 

B. Theory #3 seems to fit best

1. previous letter, lost (I Cor. 5:9)

2. I Corinthians

3. severe letter, lost (possibly part of which is recorded in II Cor. 2:1-11; 7:8-12)

4. II Corinthians

 

C. A proposed reconstruction

 

DATE

VISIT

LETTER

a.d. 50-52 Paul's Second Missionary Journey

a. On Paul's Second Missionary Journey he stayed in Corinth eighteen months (cf. Acts 18:1-11)

 

a.d. 52 Gallio was proconsul from a.d. 51 (cf. Acts 18:12-17)

 

a. I Cor. 5:9-11 seems to refer to a letter about an immoral situation in the church. This letter is unknown unless: (1) as some suppose, that II Cor. 6:14-7:1 is part of it or (2) that II Cor. 2:3,4,9 are epistolary aorists and refer to II Corinthians.

a.d. 56 (Spring)

b. Paul hears about problems in the church while he is in Ephesus from two sources: (1) Chloe's people, I Cor. 1:11 and (2) Stephanas, Forltunatus, and Achaicus, I Cor. 16:17. They apparently brought a letter from the Corinthian house churches containing questions

 

a.d. 56 (Winter) or
a.d. 57 (Winter)

 

b. Paul answers these questions (cf. I Cor. 7:1,25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,2) by writing I Corinthians. Timothy (cf. I Cor. 4:17) takes the response from Ephesus (cf. I Cor. 16:8) to Corinth. Timothy was not able to solve the problems in the church.

 

c. Paul made an emergency, painful visit to Corinth (not recorded in Acts, cf. II Cor. 2:1). It was not successful, but he vowed to return.

 

    c. Paul wrote a severe letter (cf. II Cor. 2:3-4:9; 7:8-12) to the Corinthian house churches which was delivered by Titus (cf. II Cor. 2:13; 7:13-15). This letter is unknown, unless, as some suppose, part of it is in II Cor. 10-13.
 

d. Paul planned to meet Titus in Troas, but Titus did not come, so Paul went to Macedonia (cf. II Cor. 2:13; 7:5,13), possibly Philippi (cf. MSS Bc, K, L, P).

 

    d. He found Titus and heard that the church had responded to his leadership and he then wrote II Corinthians in great thanksgiving (cf. 7:11-16). It was delivered by Titus

a.d. 57-58 (Winter)

e. Paul's last recorded visit to Corinth seems to be referred to in Acts 20:2-3. Although it does not mention Corinth by name, it is assumed. He stayed there during the winter months.

e. The marked mood change between chapters 1-9 and 10-13 is explained by some scholars as more bad news (possibly the revitalization of old opponents and the addition of new opponents) from the Corinthian house churches after chapters 1-9 had been written (F. F. Bruce).

 

VIII. CONCLUSION

 

A. In I Corinthians we see Paul, a pastor, dealing with a problem church. In this letter and in Galatians, we see him apply universal gospel truth in different ways, based on the need of the church: freedom for the Galatian churches/limits to the Corinthian church.

 

B. This book is either a series of "cultural dinosaurs" or a wealth of principled truth applied to a particular historical/cultural setting. We must be careful not to confuse truth and cultural applications of that truth. For a good discussion of this very important hermeneutical issue see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart's How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 65-76 and Gordon Fee, Gospel and Spirit.

 

C. This book will push you to the limit of your spiritual ability to interpret the Bible. It will force you to rethink aspects of your theology. It will open a window to God's will for our day, practically speaking, as few other biblical writings.

 

IX. BRIEF OUTLINE OF I CORINTHIANS

 

A. Introduction 1:1-9

1. Greeting, 1:1-3

2. Thanksgiving, 1:4-9

 

B. Reported problems at Corinth, 1:10-6:20

1. Factions within the church because of the misunderstanding of Christian leadership's (i.e., , Paul, Apollos, Peter) motives and message, 1:10-4:12

2. Shocking immorality, 5:1-13

3. Christian lawsuits, 6:1-11

4. Christian freedom limited by responsibility, 6:12-20

 

C. A letter from Corinth asking the nagging questions, 7:1-1-16:4

1. Human sexuality, 7:1-40

2. Relationship to an idolatrous culture and Christian freedom, 8:1-11:1

3. Christian worship and spirituality, 11:2-14:40

4. Insights on eschatology, especially the resurrection, 15:1-58

5. The contribution for the mother church in Jerusalem, 16:1-4

 

D. Concluding remarks

1. Paul's (and his fellow ministers) travel plans, 16:5-12

2. Final exhortation and greetings, 16:13-24

 

X. SUGGESTED READINGS ON PAUL'S THOUGHT

 

A. The Mind of St. Paul, William Barclay, published by Harper & Row

B. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F. F. Bruce, published by Eerdmans

C. The Origins of Paul's Religion, J. Gresham Machen, published by Eerdmans

D. Paul, An Outline of His Theology, Herman Ridderbos (translated by John De Witt), published by Eerdmans

E. Epochs in the Life of Paul, A. T. Robertson, published by Baker

F. A Man In Christ, James S. Stewart, published by Harper & Row

G. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, published by IVP

H. Paul in the Roman World, The Conflict at Corinth, Robert M. Grant, published by Westminister, John Knox Press

I. Philo and Paul Among the Sophists, Bruce W. Winter, published by Eerdmans

J. After Paul Left Corinth, Bruce W. Winter

 

READING CYCLE ONE

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book at one sitting. State the central theme of the entire book in your own words.

1. Theme of entire book

2. Type of literature (genre)

 

READING CYCLE TWO (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the entire biblical book a second time at one sitting. Outline the main subjects and express the subject in a single sentence.

1. Subject of first literary unit

2. Subject of second literary unit

3. Subject of third literary unit

4. Subject of fourth literary unit

5. Etc.

 

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Bible Study Methods