INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS

The main thrust of the letter is for pure, godly living. - Dr. John MacArthur.

Here, as in no other place, is the tension between the practical and theological so consistently maintained. - William Baird.

One of the most strategic areas in all of Greece was the isthmus of Corinth. This narrow land bridge is only four miles wide and is the only connecting link with the Peloponnesian Peninsula to the south.

The city of Corinth grew up on a high plateau on the south end of this isthmus. The city itself lay at the foot of the Acrocorinth, a mighty acropolis rising straight up into the sky to a height of 1800 feet.

Due to this central location, the city of Corinth achieved a position of prominence very early in the history of Greece. It quickly became a trading center for all of Greece. A tram was built so that smaller ships could be dragged across the isthmus on rollers and so avoid the long, dangerous passage around Cape Malea at the southern end of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Ports were built on either side of the isthmus and this served to further increase the prosperity of Corinth.

The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and lay abandoned for a hundred years until Julius Caesar ordered its rebuilding in 46 B.C. Under Roman Rule, Corinth became the capital of the entire province of Achaia. It now became the vanity fair of the ancient world. The Isthmus Games, held from times unremembered in the Coliseum of Corinth, were now re-instituted and brought athletes from all over the world.

And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, prostitutes, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, "Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth." Moreover, it is recorded that a certain courtesan said to the woman who reproached her with the charge that she did not like to work or touch wool: "Yet, such as I am, in this short time I have taken down three webs." -- Strabo, Geography 8:6:1.

The Temple of Aphrodite, located at the top of the acropolis, became renown throughout the Roman Empire for its 1000 temple prostitutes. Notorious for its immorality, the term korinthianzomai (to act like a Corinthian) came to refer to the act of fornication. Thus the city of Corinth could be described in four major points.

1. Commerce.

Because of its two major ports on either side of the isthmus, the city attracted a great deal of the shipping business. Added to this was its central location on the land bridge connecting northern and southern Greece.

2. Education.

Corinth had become a smelting pot of many peoples and cultures. Greek philosophy still reigned in the city and the inhabitants took great pride in their reasonings.

3. Sports.

The Isthmus Games were the most famous throughout the ancient world, even overshadowing the Olympics. These were held every second year and included chariot races and boxing as well as the more conventional track games.

4. Religion.

The worship of Aphrodite and her fertility cult had heavily influenced the thinking and morality of the Corinthians. Many had been brought up to believe that sex was a normal part of worship and that sexual deviations were "an acceptable alternative."

This was the setting for this epistle and it was into this setting that Paul same in the year A.D. 50.

 

PAULíS MINISTRY AT CORINTH

During his second missionary journey, Paul came from Athens down to Corinth. He would remain here for a year and a half and a church would be organized here during that time.

1. Paulís Ministry to Aquila and Priscilla.

After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a certain 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. (Acts 18:1-3).

Coming to Corinth, Paul fell in with a Jewish couple who had just recently arrived from Rome. We are not told that this Jewish couple were initially Christians. The reason that Paul teamed up with them was that they shared the same secular occupation -- they were tent-makers. Apparently Paul used this opportunity to get to know them and to lead them to Jesus.

This is Christianity in action. It isnít only to be taken out and dusted off on Sunday mornings and then placed back an a drawer after the morning service. Paul had short-sleeve Christianity. He was a witness for Christ on the job and he led his co-workers to Christ.

2. Paulís Ministry to the Jews.

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. (1 Corinthians 18:4-5).

The ministry at Corinth got off to a rather slow start because Paul was working full-time and could not devote himself 100% to studying and teaching. This changed when Silas and Timothy arrived in town. With the financial backing that they brought with them, Paul was able to move into high gear. In no time at all, he was holding Bible studies in the synagogue in and effort to win Jews over to Christ. It wasnít long before he ran into some serious opposition.

3. Paulís Ministry to the Greeks.

And when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, "Your blood be upon your own heads! I am clean. From now on I shall go to the Gentiles." 7 And he departed from there and went to the house of a certain man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. 8 And 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. (Acts 18:6-8).

The open door at Corinth slammed in Paulís face as the Jewish resistance to the gospel grew and solidified. But no sooner had one door been closed than another was quite literally opened. Paul moved out of the synagogue and right next door into the home of Titus Justus, a new convert. Paul didnít even have to take down the sign that announced his Bible studies. He merely drew and arrow pointing next door.

It reminds me of the story of a man who owned a small country store in a growing community. One day he learned that a big corporation was going to build a giant department store on the land immediately adjacent to his store. No sooner had the department store gone up than another corporation moved in and erected a large supermarket on the other side of his little country store. The man was wondering how he could possibly stay in business with this kind of competition when he came up with an idea. He went out and bought the biggest sign he could find and placed it over his store with the words, "Main entrance."

This is more or less what Paul did. The results were so effective that even the leader of the synagogue was converted along with his entire family.

4. Godís Promise of Protection.

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. (Acts 18:9-11).

As the hostility against Paulís ministry began to intensify, I think that Paul might have begun to feel just a bit intimidated. After all, he well knew what severe persecution could be like. He had been stoned and beaten and imprisoned for his preaching.

It is at such a time of need that the Lord appears to him in a vision and promises to protect him from harm while he is at Corinth. The fulfillment of this promise of protection is seen in the next paragraph.

5. The Hearing before Gallio.

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."

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."

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. And Gallio was not concerned about any of these things. (Acts 18:12-17).

The Jewish opposition against Paul came to a head one day and the Jews took Paul before the Roman Proconsul, Lucius Junius Gallio. This was a serious matter. Gallio was the Proconsul of all of the Greek peninsula. A guilty verdict from him could not be overturned short of the Roman emperor himself. A guilty verdict from him would mean that the gospel would be outlawed all throughout Greece. That hadnít been the case up to this point. Christianity had not yet come under the attack of Rome. Christians were not being persecuted by the state. That decision now rested in the hands of Gallio.

Gallio refused to even hear the case. He declined to become embroiled in a Jewish controversy. He dismissed the case and set Paul free.

Imagine the scene. The Jews are gathered together against Paul. They are led by Sosthenes, the new ruler of the synagogue -- the old synagogue ruler had retired by converting to Christianity. They are furious with Paul. They are crying out for his blood. But suddenly the tables are turned. Paul is released and some of the Gentile bystanders give vent to their anti-Semitism by taking Sosthenes and beating him in the court before the judgment seat. The synagogue leader who tried to have Paul beaten is himself condemned.

The narrative is given to us for a reason. There is a lesson here. It is that God always keeps His promises. Remember that God had promised Paul back in verse 10 that He would keep him from harm. That promise was fulfilled in Gallioís judgment hall when the mob gave Sosthenes the beating that was meant for Paul.

You need to hear this because God has made some promises to you. He has not promised that you will never be beaten for your faith. But He has promised that He will always be there to pick you back up. And He has promised that He will give you the strength to take whatever comes your way.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13).

You are going to go through some hard times. They may not come all at once and they may not come soon, but one day they will come. You can be assured that, even when troubles do come, God is still in control He is in charge of the universe and nothing can come your way that has not first passed across a nail-scarred hand.

 

OCCASION FOR THE EPISTLE

In 1 Corinthians 16:8 Paul mentions his plans to remain in Ephesus until Pentecost. While waiting at Ephesus, Paul receives news from Corinth by way of a visit from several Corinthian believers. There seem to have been at least two groups who visited Paul and who reported of the situation at Corinth.

1. An Official Delegation.

And I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. (1 Corinthians 16:17).

From what Paul says a few verses earlier, it is evident that Stephanus was one of the founding members of the church at Corinth. He seems to have headed up an official delegation from the church that carried a letter to Paul asking key questions that were at issue in the church.

Now concerning the things about which you wrote... (1 Corinthians 7:1).

This letter from the church at Corinth to Paul asks questions about divorce and remarriage (chapter 7), about the eating of foods that had been sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10), about the proper use of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14) and about the doctrine of the resurrection (chapter 15).

2. An Unofficial Delegation.

For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. (1 Corinthians 1:11).

Another group of people had also paid a visit to Paul. This groups had been sent by Chloe, possibly members of her family or her servants. They reported problems that were in the church that may have been omitted by the official delegation. This problems included...

Paul writes this epistle in response to these problems and questions, sending it with Timothy who is charged with making certain that his teachings are carried out (4:17).

 

THE RELEVANCE OF THIS EPISTLE FOR TODAY

There is no other epistle in the New Testament which so directly deals with the problems of the church in the 21st century United States.

Each of these areas had its counterpart in the city of Corinth. Paul will deal with each of these areas within this epistle. When doctrines are presented at all, they will appear in a very practical form. This is a picture of shirt-sleeve Christianity.

That is what Christianity is all about. If your Christianity only works on Sunday morning, then it doesnít work. It isnít real. Real Christianity continues throughout every day of the week. Real Christianity touches every aspect of your life.

Real Christianity says that God loves you just the way you are, but that He also loves you too much to leave you the way you are. If you have been born into His family and have become one of His children, then your life is in for a change. He is the God who changes lives. He can change yours.

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