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INTRODUCTION TO FIRST CORINTHIANS:
The four books of Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Galatians are widely considered to be the most important of Paul’s writings.
CORINTH’S FAVORED LOCATION:
The location of a city often plays a large role in determining its character. New York City, blessed with a great natural harbor and a solid rock foundation, became a prosperous metropolis. Chicago, positioned on rail and water traffic ways between the East Coast and the Midwest, did the same.
A quick glance at a map of Greece will reveal that Corinth had similar advantages. Northern Greece (the Greek mainland) is separated from Southern Greece (the Peloponnese) by a body of water called the Gulf of Corinth. The Peloponnese (pronounced peh-low-poe-NEESE) constitutes approximately one-quarter of the Greek land mass.
A closer look will reveal that the Peloponnese is not an island, but is connected to the mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth (an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger land masses). Corinth was located on the northern shore of that narrow strip of land at the narrowest part of the isthmus, which was only four miles (6 km.) wide at that point. Therefore, commerce moving by land from Northern to Southern Greece had to pass through Corinth.
Also, much ship traffic from Northern to Southern Greece stopped at Lechaeum (Corinth’s port city), where its cargo would be unloaded and transported across the narrow isthmus to be reloaded on another ship. That process spared the ships the long journey around the southern tip of the Peloponnesus, where treacherous weather posed a hazard to shipping. Corinth, therefore, was a vital traffic way for commerce by both land and sea between Northern and Southern Greece — and between lands to the west and lands to the east. Also, the plain to the west and south of Corinth was fertile, contributing further to the city’s prosperity.
The Romans conquered and destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C., but Julius Caesar began rebuilding it in 44 B.C. and it became the capital of the province of Achaia in 27 B.C. By the time Paul visited Corinth, it had long since regained its earlier beauty and prosperity.
Corinth suffers the reputation of “sin city,” in part because of the thousand sacred prostitutes once thought to ply their trade at the temples of Aphrodite there — and in part because Paul devoted considerable attention to sexual concerns in his letters to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5; 7:1-16, 25-40; 11:5ff; 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1; 12:21).
However, the temples of Aphrodite that have been excavated are relatively small, and modern scholars believe that Corinth’s bad reputation was, in part, due to propaganda from rival Athens. But any large city gives people a cloak of anonymity, and people who don’t expect to be held accountable for their sins find themselves sorely tempted. The transient population following trade routes through Corinth also brought vices. The same is true of most modern cities today.
The extensive traffic through Corinth caused it to be ethnically diverse, and many religions were practiced there. Philo tells of a significant Jewish presence in Corinth.
PAUL’S EIGHTEEN MONTHS IN CORINTH:
Acts 18:1-17 recounts Paul’s visit to Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey and his work with the Jewish community there. We can date this visit fairly precisely, because of the reference in Acts 18:12 to the Roman proconsul Gallio. Gallio held office in Corinth about one year, probably beginning in 51 A.D. Based on this, we believe that the appearance of Paul before Gallio in Acts 18 took place in the middle of the year in 51 A.D. (Murphy-O’Connor, 732-733).
Paul spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), arguing in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to draw Greeks (Gentiles) as well as Jews (Acts 18:4) to Christ. When the Jews opposed him, he left the synagogue to begin to work primarily among the Gentiles (Acts 18:5-7). However, Crispus, a leader of the synagogue became a believer, along with his family (Acts 18:8), so it is clear that Paul did not turn his back on Jews.
During his 18 month stay, Paul built a strong church in Corinth. As is true of most churches today, most of the people were quite ordinary. He said, “For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise” (1:26-27). Some, such as Erastus (Romans 16:3) and Chloe (1:11) were people of means.
The Jewish community continued its attack against Paul by preferring charges against him in civil court. The proconsul, Gallio, dismissed the charges as having nothing to do with Roman law. Gentile bystanders (not the Christian community) responded by beating Sosthenes, the synagogue leader (Acts 18:12-17).
LATER VISITS BY PAUL:
Paul made two later visits to Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1). He wrote at least three and probably four letters to the Christians at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, he speaks of an earlier letter which has certainly been lost to us. In 2 Corinthians 2:4, he speaks of another letter has probably been lost to us as well, although it is possible that some parts of it have been incorporated into First or Second Corinthians.
ISSUES THAT PAUL ADDRESSES:
• Chloe had written Paul that divisions had arisen in the church (1:10-17; 3:1ff.). Some were saying, “I follow Paul.” Others said, “I follow Apollos.” Still others said, “I follow Cephas (Peter).” Finally (and rightly), some said “I follow Christ” (1:12). Paul told them that they needed to “all speak the same thing and (to have) no divisions among (themselves), (so that they might) be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10).
The divisions that plagued the Corinth church are still with us. Some people are dedicated followers of this pastor or that one. They tend to lose their zeal when that pastor dies, retires, or is called to another parish.
And then there are denominational loyalties. We are often Methodists or Lutherans or Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Catholics to a fault. Jesus Christ deserves our ultimate loyalty. In disputes about doctrine or polity, scriptural authority trumps denominational pronouncements.
Shortly before his death, Jesus prayed that his disciples might “be one” (John 17:11, 21-22)—a prayer that has gone largely unanswered—and not many of us are giving much attention to answering it.
• To those overly impressed by their intellectual prowess, Paul wrote that the only true wisdom is that which is given by the Spirit (3:6 ff.). He said, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (3:19).
• To those “puffed up” with their own importance, Paul said that even the apostles were only servants and stewards—”Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries” (4:1). He begged them to emulate his servanthood and stewardship (4:16).
When success comes our way, it isn’t easy to remember that we are only servants and stewards. Sex, money, and power are the big tempters (and today we should add alcohol and other drugs). They often ruin those who are riding high. Satan especially relishes toppling Christian leaders.
• Paul was particularly concerned with reports of sexual immorality (5:1-13)—in particular that “one has his father’s wife” (5:1). He counseled the church “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (5:5).
He further counseled them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9)—and told them “not to associate with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner.” He said, “Don’t even eat with such a person” (5:11). He said, “Put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (5:13; quoting Deuteronomy 17:7).
• Paul was dismayed to hear of lawsuits among members of the Corinthian congregation, and counseled them to settle disputes among themselves, enlisting the help of fellow Christians to adjudicate grievances. He reminded them that the saints would one day judge the world, and said, “If the world is (to be) judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (6:2b). Unbelievers are watching, and the witness of believers is compromised by public lawsuits among Christians.
• Paul reminded them of the sanctity of the body, which “are members of Christ. Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be!” (6:15). He said, “Flee sexual immorality!” (6:18). “Glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (6:20).
• Paul also reminded them of the sanctity of marriage (7:1-16). While he affirmed chastity (6:1; 7:7-8), he also said, “But, because of sexual immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (6:2). He called husbands and wives not to deprive their spouses sexually so “that Satan doesn’t tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (7:5).
He encouraged husbands and wives to remain together—even if the spouse happened to be an unbeliever—”For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the husband” (7:14).
• He encouraged Christians to walk in the way that God has called them (7:17-24). Accept your circumcision—or your uncircumcision. Accept your marital status—married or unmarried. Accept your place in life—slave or free.
• He says, “A wife is bound by law for as long as her husband lives; but if the husband is dead, she is free to be married to whomever she desires, only in the Lord” (7:39).
• He addresses the issue of things “sacrificed to idols” (8:1-13). Since idols are not real, it is permissible for believers to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The greater principle, however, is the believer’s witness. If someone would misunderstand and thereby be injured spiritually by seeing a believer eat meat sacrificed to idols, then the believer should refrain. It isn’t important whether or not we eat such meat. However, it is of great importance that our actions don’t trip up another person spiritually.
This principle of the believer’s witness remains an issue today, even though we are no longer tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. We nevertheless need to be sensitive to how other people, both believers and unbelievers, might interpret our actions. If someone might be injured spiritually by seeing us drinking alcoholic beverages—or wearing provocative clothing—or using crude language—or seeing an R-rated movie—then we should refrain from such behavior. The fact that a behavior might be permissible in some circumstances doesn’t excuse us from our responsibility to witness to others in ways that will be spiritually helpful.
• He follows up that principle by saying that he, as an apostle, has certain rights that he refrains from exercising for the good of the body of Christ (9:1-27). He has set the example.
• He reminds his readers that the Israelites were baptized in the Red Sea and ate the same spiritual food and drink, but nevertheless failed to please the Lord (10:1-5). They can serve as examples—bad examples—teaching us what not to do. Some were idolaters. Some committed sexual immorality. Some tried to test the Lord. Many grumbled (10:6-10). Believers will do well to refrain from these evil practices.
• A favorite verse: “No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (10:13). This verse has comforted and encouraged many people in times of adversity.
• A pair of verses with preaching possibilities: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are profitable. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own, but each one his neighbor’s good” (10:23-24). Whatever we do, we should do to the glory of God (10:31). If we will follow these admonitions, we will confer blessings on others, and will receive blessings in return.
• Paul says that men should not pray with head covered—and women should not pray with heads uncovered (11:1ff.). He also give direction with regard to the use of veils. He says, “If a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her for a covering” (11:14-15). I tend to believe that these issues had to do with practices that were acceptable and unacceptable in that time and place, but are not universally applicable. However, I state that as opinion rather than fact.
• Paul has heard of unacceptable practices at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. The divisions mentioned in 1:10-17 crop up again here (11:18-19). The Corinthian believers don’t share. They bring food from home, but poor people go hungry while wealthier people get drunk. Paul rebukes them severely for this lack of consideration (11:20-22).
• To help them understand the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper, Paul tells them what Jesus said and did when instituting the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26). In doing so, he expands our understanding with a verse not found elsewhere: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26).
• Paul warns about eating the bread or drinking the cup “in a way unworthy of the Lord.” Those who do so will be “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27).
The King James Version says eating and drinking “unworthily” instead of “in a way unworthy of the Lord.” That is an unfortunate translation, because it caused people to believe that they couldn’t participate in the Lord’s Supper unless they were sinless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the grace of God, we are all sinners. Believers (most would say baptized believers) can take the Lord’s Supper as long as they eat and drink in a worthy manner—i.e. reverently, remembering Jesus’ broken body and shed blood (11:25). Paul clarifies this further by saying, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy way eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he doesn’t discern the Lord’s body” (11:29). He says, “Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33).
• Some of the Corinthian believers were guilty of pride with regard to spiritual gifts, such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, different languages, and interpretation of languages (12:8-11). Paul emphasizes that these gifts are distributed by the Spirit (12:11)—the implication being that we have no reason to be proud, because our gifts are granted rather than earned.
• Paul emphasizes the unity of the body of Christ. Just as our hands, ears, and eyes are all vital parts of our human bodies, so also each believer is a vital member of Christ’s body (the church). Just as we don’t despise our hands or ears or eyes, we cannot despise any believer. “When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (12:26).
• Paul again mentions various gifts or offices—apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administration, and various languages (speaking in tongues) (12:28). He encourages them to seek the best gifts, and then shows them a “most excellent way” (12:31)—the way of love, which is the greatest gift (13:1-13).
• He further offers a corrective to those who especially prize speaking in tongues, saying:
“Follow after love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts,
but especially that you may prophesy.
For he who speaks in another language speaks not to men, but to God;
for no one understands; but in the Spirit he speaks mysteries.
But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification, exhortation, and consolation.
He who speaks in another language edifies himself,
but he who prophesies edifies the assembly.
Now I desire to have you all speak with other languages,
but rather that you would prophesy.
For he is greater who prophesies than he who speaks with other languages,
unless he interprets, that the assembly may be built up” (14:1-5).
While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God to people. Prophecy is for edification (the building up of the church), exhortation (teaching, preaching, encouragement), and consolation” (providing comfort to a person in need) (14:3).
Paul acknowledges that he speaks in tongues (14:18), but then goes on to say, “I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in another language” (14:19). He warns that, if the whole church is speaking in tongues, an unbeliever in their midst will not be edified, but will rather conclude that they are crazy (14:23)—negating their witness.
• He talks about the need for orderly worship (14:26-40), and concludes, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (14:40). The Presbyterians have taken that to heart. When I went to Princeton Theological Seminary (a Presbyterian school), their bookstore stocked a T-shirt that read:
“Presbyterians do it
decently and in order.”
• Some members of the Corinthian church did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (15:12), so Paul devotes chapter 15 to that issue. He says:
“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (15:3-4).
He goes on to list those who saw the resurrected Christ: Cephas (Peter), the twelve, a group of five hundred believers, James, all the apostles, and lastly to Paul (14:5-10; see Acts 9:1-19 for an account of Jesus’ appearance to Saul, who later became known as Paul). He says:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised.
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain,
and your faith also is in vain….
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.
Then they also who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If we have only hoped in Christ in this life,
we are of all men most pitiable.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead.
He became the first fruits of those who are asleep” (15:13-14, 17-20).
He then discusses the resurrection body (15:35-58), and gives the assurance:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“Death, where is your sting?
Hades, where is your victory?” (15:54-55)
He says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:56-57).
• He mentions “the collection for the saints” in Jerusalem, and encourages the Corinthians to save regularly so that they might support that collection (16:1-4)
• He tells them his travel plans, which include a visit to Corinth (16:5-12).
• He admonishes, “Watch! Stand firm in the faith! Be courageous! Be strong! Let all that you do be done in love” (16:13-14).
• He concludes by greeting several people by name, and saying to all:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen” (16:23-24).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Corinthians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Harris, Murray J., The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)
Hayes, Richard B., Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
Horsley, Richard A., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1984)
Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians, Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1985)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome, “Corinth,” Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: A-C, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006)
Nash, Robert Scott, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009)
Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Soards, Marion, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
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