Of all the people to whom Paul ministered in his 30-year service as the apostle to the Gentiles, the church at Corinth is set down as the one that caused him the most personal heartache. Paul founded the Corinthian church during his second missionary tour in the early A.D. 50s (Acts 18:1-17). Luke recorded that Paul had a fruitful ministry there, staying for almost two years.
However, the letters paint a darker picture. Once the church was established and Paul had moved on, it did not flourish quite like others did (Thessalonica, Ephesus, etc.). In its early years, Corinth was a debased city, full of debauchery. How bad it was during Paul’s time is debated, but if the kind of lifestyles these believers had before their salvation is any indication (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), then the city’s pagan history seems to have stay in force.
Over the course of a couple of years (A.D. 55-56), it seems that several communications traveled back and forth between the apostle and the church, but God preserved only the two we call “1 and 2 Corinthians.” In these letters we discover a congregation with deep factions (ch. 3), worse-than-pagan practices (ch. 5), abuse of the ordinances (ch. 11), and general spiritual apathy. In fact, Paul was so concerned about their spiritual well-being, it was not only letters that he sent to Corinth but personal representatives, as well. Between these two letters we discover that at least Apollos, Titus, Timothy all served there at different times at Paul’s request.
Yet, because of all this, 1 Corinthians is a treasure for the modern church and always relevant. In it, Paul not only addressed corrections that needed to be made, but he also answered several questions it seems they had asked him, providing us with teaching on a wide variety of topics in more detail than any other place in Scripture, including marriage and divorce, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. This letter is invaluable for sound doctrine and practice.
Chapter one begins with a traditional greeting and prayer of thanksgiving for the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-9). Given the topics that Paul would address in this letter, it is important to remember that he was convinced that most in his original audience were genuine believers, even if they were still spiritually immature. No matter their current condition, Paul admitted that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus…called be saints…[and] called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In his greeting Paul also mentioned Sosthenes, who, according to Acts 18:17, was “the president of the synagogue” in Corinth and one of the Jewish converts to Christianity.
Verses 5-7 (along with the lengthy discussion in chapters 12-14) indicates that the use of spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, tongues, and supernatural knowledge, were unusually high compared to other congregations. Unfortunately, these gifts that were meant to build up the church and point to Jesus built only pride and were used to create factions around personalities other than Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Paul, Apollos, and Peter had their devoted followers, while the “super spiritual” claimed their dedication to Christ alone. Verse 17 includes one of Paul’s rare mentions of water baptism. 1 It seems that, although he acknowledged the importance of water baptism, it was not something he found necessary to do himself. His primary mission was to preach the gospel of the cross. Others could baptize those who believed his message.
The chapter concludes with a lengthy monologue on the message of the cross and how it is received by unbelievers in this world. Six times in verses 18-31 Paul described the gospel and God’s ways as “foolish” or “foolishness” – “to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), the method of preaching (1 Corinthians 1:21), “to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). (The search for wisdom was a major activity in the cultured Greek world; see Acts 17:16-34.) To the Jews the “crucified Christ” is not just foolish but a “stumbling block” – the obstacle that (still) keeps them from God. Paul asked his readers to remember when they believed. It was not because there was something special about them, but because God graciously saved them, exactly the opposite that Greek wisdom suggested. Before, in their weakness and lowliness, they had nothing to boast about to their countrymen, but now, because of God’s grace, they could “boast in the Lord.”
- Most of the time Paul refers to “baptism” in his letters, refers to Spirit baptism at salvation, not water baptism afterward. Proper identification of this difference often clears up a lot of confusion in interpreting his writings. ↩