Rather than spend a lot of time introducing 1 Corinthians, I thought I’d comment on a few things about the setting of the letter as well as to help give you a good pair of lenses by which to view the letter.
Concerning the Corinthian church…
The apostle Paul planted the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey which you may read about in Acts 18:1-17. One of the things we learn from Acts is that Paul had a hard go of it. In fact it was difficult enough, that he may have considered abandoning the effort. However, we read in Acts 18, that Jesus appeared to Paul to comfort him, saying, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack or harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Though this may not have been all Jesus told Paul, it was significant and encouraging enough that Paul remained, and in the midst of more opposition, continued to preach. Eventually, Paul was publicly charged with sedition by the Jews before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. Though Gallio dismissed the charges, Sosthenes who was both a convert to Christianity and the synagogue ruler was beaten before the town.
Concerning the occasion and content of 1 Corinthians…
Paul, at the writing of 1 Corinthians, is living in Ephesus. He had written an earlier letter which they misread, and have both written back to Paul and sent members of the church with the letter of questions regarding the current circumstances. In addition, Paul has received verbal reports of trouble and unrest in the Corinthian church. Both to answer their questions and to deal with his own concerns for them, Paul has written the church.
In 1 Corinthians, there are a number of questions and issues which Paul raises and speaks to that may sound very obscure, outdated, irrelevant, or just ridiculous such as his discussion on gender roles and head coverings. As you read, resist the urge to discount what he is saying. Reflect on the context of the circumstances into which he is writing, understand, and then seek to apply it to today. Just because he is speaking to a specific circumstance does not mean it is irrelevant. Indeed there is much in 1 Corinthians which could’ve been written today.
Among those questions which Paul addresses are the following:
- The ongoing denial and refusal to confront or repent of sexual sins,
- Division and bi-partisanship (Peter, Paul, Apollos, Christ…),
- How a Christian is to handle conflict,
- Spiritual-gift snobbery; super-apostleship, elitism, giftedness,
- Idolatry and compromise with the culture,
- Significant confusion about their view of the people especially as how their view relates to the dignity of the human body.
Lastly, Concerning what you need to need to know about Corinth and the church in Corinth…
There are peculiarities to the specific situation which, if we understand them, we will better be able to apply the letter to our lives. Here are a few thoughts:
- Corinth is a CROSSROADS. The city is situated at the isthmus which joins the southern half of Achaia with the European mainland. At this point the isthmus is 3 miles wide, and narrow enough that dragging your cargo ship along a causeway from the Aegean to a gateway to the Adriatic was thought to be a brilliant idea which of course they did.
- Corinth is NEW. It had recently been destroyed in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and rebuilt as a Roman colony.
- Because of there was not a long-standing social order. Corinth was a city of serious OPPORTUNITY. Corinth had been repopulated by Roman citizens and freedmen and so, it did not have time to develop an established noble class. Because the social order was determined more by merit than by class, Corinth was a place of great potential for an unconnected Roman citizen or a freed-man.
- This new city of great opportunity attracted many who were DRIVEN TO SUCCEED. Achievement and notoriety become extremely important for multitudes of achievers who need to set themselves apart from other gifted achievers. This is a kill or be killed, entrepreneurial city.
- Because of the urgency of opportunity and success, Corinthian culture was all about the IMMEDIATE. ‘Right now’ is the most important time and consequently the immediate is more REAL than any long-term commitment or discipline this leads to financial, relational, and moral blindness and compromise as its citizens are driven to ‘get it while you can’.
- All this money and opportunity grew an AFFLUENT AND EXCLUSIVE society. Corinth was highly focused on the outward appearance and both the display of your material wealth as well as your social connection demanded that you work your relationships to your advantage by getting into some circles while keeping others out of yours.
- Lastly, Corinth was a PROMISCUOUS. society. As a center of opportunity and affluence the society was decadent. In fact, to Corinthianize became a bi-word for the decadence of the wealth and moral permissiveness which worked in its citizens.
- All of these traits were being brought into the church.
I hope this helps. You can read 1 Corinthians in 45 minutes. Take some time and do that while keeping these thoughts with you. See you Sunday!
All in All: The Message of 1 Corinthians was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church