Background of I and II Corinthians
In 146 BC the Roman general Lucius Mummius crushed a Greek bid for independence from Roman domination by completely destroying the city of Corinth. A hundred years later, Julius Caesar sent a colony of veterans and descendants of freed men to rebuild the city that in time would grow to great importance. Corinth became the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. It had a population of about 600,000 people, and was well suited for trade and commerce because of its three seaports and its location on the isthmus between northern and southern Greece. It became the Roman capital of the Greek district of Achaiah. Because of its location, it drew a mixed population of Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Jews who had come to trade.
Corinth was a wealthy city given to commerce, art and entertainment. The Isthmus Games (second only to the Olympics) were held there (I Corinthians 9:25). The outdoor theatre located in the city seated 20,000 people, and the covered theatre could accommodate a crowd of 3000.
The population worshiped a variety of pagan dieties and many temples were located throughout the city. The two most popular gods among the people were Poseidon, god of the sea, and Venus, the goddess of love. Corinth was the central location for the worship of Venus, and the temple dedicated to her had 1000 temple prostitutes freely available to pilgrims who travelled to worship at her shrine. The Corinthian people were not given to the practice chastity or sexual purity, and their immoral habits were a great challenge to those who were converted to Christianity. The city was well known for its immorality, to the point that during that era the term "to Corinthianize" something meant to prostitute or desecrate that person or object. Aelian, a Greek writer of that period, said that when a Corinthian was portrayed in a play, he was always shown as being drunk.
The church was established in Corinth in about 50-51 AD by Paul when he was on his second missionary journey. He was assisted by Priscilla and Aquila, a Christian couple who had fled Rome because of the persecution of Jewish people there (Acts 18:3) and settled in Corinth. Paul also travelled with Timothy and Silas. Another worker who helped build the early church there was Apollos, who was taught by Aquila and Priscilla. The story of the establishment of the church in Corinth is found in Acts 18:1-19:1.
1 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers. 4 And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
5 But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6 But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." 7 Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, "Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city." 11 And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
12 But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat, 13 saying, "This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law." 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, "If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; 15 but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters." 16 And he drove them away from the judgment seat. 17 And they all took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began beating him in front of the judgment seat. But Gallio was not concerned about any of these things.
18 Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow. 19 They came to Ephesus, and he left them there. Now he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer time, he did not consent, 21 but taking leave of them and saying, "I will return to you again if God wills," he set sail from Ephesus.
22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch.
23 And having spent some time there, he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. 25 This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; 26 and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples.
The Members of the Church
Here we see Paul establishing a church made up of Jews who have left the synagogue but who face animosity from their Jewish countrymen for leaving, and Greeks who have a background in sexual immorality and paganism. Most of the people in these two groups were poor and from the lower ranks of society (I Corinthians 1:26). In addition to this, there were great social, cultural and religious differences between these new Christians.
Paul supported himself in his ministry by working with Aquila and Priscilla in their tent-making business. This is an important point to remember and it will become more relevant further on in our study of this book.
The Greeks had great pride in their intellectualism and oratory skills (I Corinthians 1:17; I Corinthians 2:1-5). They also were argumentative and clannish (I Corinthians 1:11-13). I Corinthians does not describe the Jewish Christians very much, but we already know how self-righteous, legalistic and bigoted they could be, so this congregation faced a serious challenge in trying to create unity between these two very different and difficult groups. We also know that Christians at that time and place usually met in homes, public halls or schools whenever it was safe to do so, and usually in secret (privately owned church buildings became more common by about 250 AD). We do not know how large in number this congregation was, but we do know from Paul's letters that it had people with varied backgrounds.
Background of I Corinthians Letter
The letter of I Corinthians was probably written in the winter of 54-57 AD, roughly three to five years after the church was established. Initially, Paul had been with them for about 18 months (Acts 18:11). This means that by the writing of II Corinthians he had been away from them for a few years.
At the time of writing, Paul was in Ephesus (I Corinthians 16:15-18), but several events took place that moved him to write and send this letter to them:
- He had received a report about the affairs of the church from Chloe's family, who were members of the church in Corinth (1:11).
- He had also received a letter from the church asking him questions on a number of topics (7:1).
- He had urged Apollos to go and help them resolve their problems but Apollos had declined (16:12).
- He had received news from several brethren from Corinth who had brought him a gift from the church (16:17).
Some interesting facts about I Corinthians:
- Next to Romans, it is Paul's longest letter.
- Compared to his other letters, it is the most varied in content.
- Corinthians contains the strongest rebukes of any found in other letters written by him.
- This was actually the second letter he had written (5:9), the first was lost and we have no record of it.
- I Corinthians gives us the clearest picture of the life and problems of a local church in the Gentile world during the first century.
Outline of I Corinthians
The concern of I Corinthians was not doctrinal (who is God, the nature of salvation, when the end will come, etc.) it was pastoral in nature. These weak, immature, divisive Christians needed a mature leader to show them why and how they should lead the Christian life.
I Corinthians contains an introduction followed by the discussion of nine vital concerns this church had to deal with:
- Introduction - 1:1-9
- Concerns regarding division - 1:10-3:4
- Concerns regarding leadership - 3:5-4:21
- Concerns regarding immorality - 5:1-6:20
- Concerns regarding marriage - 7:1-40
- Concerns regarding freedom - 8:1-11:1
- Concerns regarding worship - 11:2-34
- Concerns regarding spiritual gifts - 12:1-14:40
- Concerns regarding resurrection - 15:1-58
- Concerns regarding the collection/Close - 16:1-24
Like a good elder, Paul shepherds this confused, disobedient church by teaching them what the Lord requires from them in different areas of Christian living.
Events Between I and II Corinthians
There is no absolute agreement about the order of these events, but something resembling this occurred between the writing of the first letter and the second one Paul writes to these brethren.
It seems that the Corinthians resolved most of the problems that Paul mentioned in his first letter to them. After a time, certain Jews came into the church and began to stir up trouble which in turn required a visit from the Apostle Paul (2:1). This would now be his third visit to these people (12:14). These Jews were creating problems in various ways:
- They were presenting themselves as legitimate Apostles (11:13).
- They stirred up strife and division.
- They criticized Paul and challenged his authority (11:19-20).
- They tried to build up a following for themselves among established churches but did not evangelize.
- They taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation along with the keeping of Jewish ceremonial laws.
- They criticized Paul for receiving money for his work in an effort to undermine him before the Corinthian church. This is important to note because Paul refers to these accusations in his second letter.
Paul had written I Corinthians from Ephesus and then left for Macedonia (II Corinthians 2:13) in order to collect money for the churches there (II Corinthians 8:1-4). At this point he fell ill (II Corinthians 1:8-11). While Paul was recovering, Titus arrived in Macedonia and gave Paul a report describing the effect of his letter to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 7:5-16). In this report Paul is made aware of new problems (personal attacks, etc.) taking place and he writes II Corinthians to deal with these new issues. He gives this letter to Titus for delivery (II Corinthians 8:16-24). Later on Paul will visit Corinth again for a few months and during this time will write a letter to the Romans and, perhaps, one to the Galatians as well (Acts 20:2-3). His stay at Corinth will be short lived, however, as a plot will be formed to harm him and he will have to escape by changing these travel plans (Acts 20:2-3).
During this time we see Paul's work as an Apostle include the very real tasks of caring for the needy (organizing a special collection for the poor), teaching (through the writing of epistles), mentoring (training and directing Titus), resolving disputes and divisions (the specific counsel he gives in II Corinthians) and preaching along with church planting (establishing and nurturing the churches in that region).
Outline of II Corinthians
Unlike l Corinthians, II Corinthians is a subjective book. I Corinthians teaches the church how to do things and how Christians conduct themselves in various situations. II Corinthians reveals what it is like to be an Apostle. The book can be outlined in the following way:
- Introduction - 1:1-2
- Apostolic Experience - 1:3-11
- Apostolic Explanation - 1:12-2:11
- Apostolic Ministry - 2:12-7:16
- Apostolic Fellowship - 8:1-9:15
- Apostolic Defense- 10:1-13:14
In the next chapter we will begin our study of II Corinthians by following the outline above.