CORINTHIANS, LETTERS TO THE

Corinth was an important port in the Roman province of Achaia in the south of Greece. It was a lively commercial centre, and was well known for its colourful lifestyle and low moral standards (see CORINTH). Paul stayed in Corinth for eighteen months during his second missionary journey and established a church there (Acts 18:1-21). Since many of the people who made up the church came from a background of vice and immorality (cf. 1 Cor 1:26- 27; 6:9-11), it is not surprising that problems arose in the church.

Background to 1 Corinthians

After leaving Corinth, Paul heard that some of the Christians had moral difficulties, so he wrote them a letter to pass on helpful advice. The letter has not been preserved (1 Cor 5:9). Paul saw problems arising in the Corinthian church and sent Timothy to Corinth in an effort to deal with them. Paul at this time was in Ephesus, and Timothy travelled to Corinth by way of Macedonia (Acts 19:1,22; 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10). Meanwhile some Corinthian believers visited Paul in Ephesus. They told him that factions had appeared in the Corinthian church, because people had foolishly made favourites of different teachers (1 Cor 1:10-13). Paul heard also of immorality in the church (1 Cor 5:1) and disputes between Christians in the public law courts (1 Cor 6:1). Not long after this, a group of representatives from the Corinthian church arrived in Ephesus with questions about other problems (1 Cor 7:1; 16:17). With all these matters before him, Paul decided to write at length to the Corinthian church. The letter is known to us as First Corinthians. Paul probably sent it to Corinth direct by boat, for he expected it to get there before Timothy (1 Cor 16:8-10).

Contents of 1 Corinthians

After his introduction (1:1-9), Paul deals with the immature and worldly attitudes that the Christians had shown through their quarrelling. The divisions were not because Paul had done anything wrong (1:10-17), but because the Corinthians had placed too much emphasis on human wisdom (1:18-31). Paul then shows the difference between worldly wisdom and spiritual wisdom (2:1-16), and rebukes the Corinthians for their lack of spiritual growth (3:1-9). He warns that whether people help build up the church or help destroy it, they are accountable to God for their actions (3:10-23). Therefore, they should make sure that they have the right attitude towards God’s servants (4:1-21). Additional rebukes follow when Paul deals with the moral faults in the church: first a case of sexual immorality (5:1-13), then the matter of legal disputes between members of the same church (6:1-11). He gives a specific warning against the temptations of prostitution in Corinth (6:12-20). In answering the questions raised by the representatives from Corinth, Paul begins by dealing with difficulties in marriage relationships (7:1-16) and problems faced by the unmarried and widows (7:17- 40). Concerning food offered to idols, Paul urges the Christians not to misuse their freedom (8:1-13). Whatever their rights, they should follow his example and deny themselves their rights for the sake of others (9:1-27). They should remember Israel’s disastrous experiences with idolatry (10:1-13), and realize that idol feasts are a form of idol fellowship (10:14-22). Christians must consider the effect their behaviour will have on their fellow believers (10:23-11:1). Concerning public worship, Paul talks about the orderliness that is required when people pray or prophesy (11:2-16) and when they eat the Lord’s Supper together (11:17-34). He speaks of the variety of spiritual gifts in the church (12:1-31), emphasizing that Christians must exercise such gifts in love (13:1- 13). In particular he deals with the gift of tongues, because some in Corinth were misusing it (14:1-40). Another misunderstanding in the Corinthian church concerned the resurrection of believers at the return of Christ. Paul points to Christ’s resurrection as the guarantee of the resurrection of all who are united with him (15:1-28). Whatever the nature of the resurrection body, it will be patterned on Christ’s and suited to life in the eternal kingdom (15:29-58). Having reached this triumphant climax, Paul concludes his letter with a few final instructions and personal notes (16:1-24).

Background to 2 Corinthians

Paul planned to visit Corinth after finishing his work in Ephesus (Acts 19:21; 1 Cor 16:5-9). (Altogether Paul was in Ephesus three years; Acts 20:31.) When Timothy returned to Ephesus from Corinth, the news he brought was bad. Neither Paul’s letter nor Timothy’s visit had solved the problems. In fact, the situation had become worse, with the result that Paul made a quick trip to Corinth (as he had warned; 1 Cor 4:19-21) in an effort to deal with the rebels. There was much opposition to Paul in Corinth, and the trip was very painful for him (2 Cor 2:1). This was only Paul’s second visit to Corinth, and is the trip he refers to in 2 Cor 13:1-2 when he was about to visit the city a third time. Upon returning to Ephesus, Paul heard that his visit, instead of helping to improve matters, had only made his opponents more rebellious. Rather than rush back in anger and perhaps later be sorry for his rashness, he wrote a letter. It was a very severe letter and was taken to Corinth by Titus. Though referred to in Paul’s writings, the letter has not been preserved (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8; 12:18). Having finished his work in Ephesus, Paul planned to go north to Troas and Macedonia, and then go on to Corinth. Titus was to return from Corinth via Macedonia and meet Paul in Troas, but Paul was so anxious to get news of the Corinthians’ response to his severe letter, that he went across to Macedonia to meet Titus sooner (2 Cor 2:12-13; cf. Acts 20:1). The news Titus brought was good. The severe letter had brought the desired results and the Corinthians had at last submitted (2 Cor 7:5-6). With much relief, Paul wrote again to the church in Corinth, sending off with Titus the letter that we know as Second Corinthians (2 Cor 8:16-18).

Contents of 2 Corinthians

Paul begins the letter by encouraging the Christians in their various trials (1:1-11) and by explaining why he had made the painful visit and written the severe letter (1:12-2:4). Though the church had dealt with the person who had stirred up the rebellion, Paul wants them to be forgiving now that the man has repented (2:5-11). As he praises God for the triumphant end to the recent troubles (2:12-17), Paul is reminded of the glorious liberty of the Christian gospel (3:1-18). He emphasizes the sincerity and confidence of the true servant of Christ (4:1-18), particularly in view of the glorious future Christians can look forward to in the afterlife (5:1-10). Yet Christians have an obligation in the present life to make the message of Christ known to others (5:11-21), no matter what opposition they meet (6:1-13). Paul then speaks again of matters discussed in previous correspondence. He warns of some of the dangers in ungodly society (6:14-7:1), and expresses his joy at the Corinthians’ response to his severe letter (7:2-16). He writes at length about the collection of money to be sent to the poor in Jerusalem; for the Corinthians, in spite of making a good start the previous year, had now become lazy (8:1-15). He discusses arrangements for the collection (8:16-9:5) and speaks of the blessing of Christian giving (9:6- 15). The final section of the letter deals with Paul’s status as an apostle; for the Corinthians were still troubled by travelling preachers who claimed that they were apostles but Paul was not. Paul contrasts spiritual power with worldly boasting (10:1-18), and asserts that he is not inferior to others (11:1-15). He records his experiences as an apostle (11:16-33), especially one experience that was a genuine cause for boasting (12:1-10). In view of his plan to visit Corinth again soon (12:11-21), he urges all in the church to examine themselves so that he might not have to use his apostolic authority to discipline anyone (13:1- 14).

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