Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Historical Setting
Corinth was ruled by the aristocrats under a Council of eighty members and developed good relations with all the other city states, becoming a member of the Peloponnesian league. For a hundred years she prospered and had friendly relations with her antagonist, Athens.

The site of ancient Corinth was first inhabited in the Neolithic period (5000-3000 BC), and flourished as a major Greek city from the 8th century BC until its partial destruction by the Romans in 146 BC, but in 44 BC it was rebuilt as a Roman city under Julius Caesar. Roman Corinth prospered more than ever before and may have had as many as 800,000 inhabitants by the time of Paul. It was the capital of Roman Greece, equally devoted to business and pleasure, and was mostly populated by freedmen and Jews.

Corinth was one of the city states of Greece with a very strategic location. The location was on the Isthmus of Corinth which separates the Peloponnesian peninsula from the Greek mainland. Having this location gave Corinth a major military and crucial trade advantages. The Isthmus of Corinth is the land bridge between the Gulf of Corinth with the Sardonic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. The Isthmus is approximately 4-6 miles across. During the ancient times boats were moved over land between the bodies of waters in order to save time. Boats being moved from shore to shore brought also the sailors who sailed the boats and their money.

God sent Paul to Corinth because it was a magnet for many different nationalities. Even though this city was extremely immoral with many different gods, social, cultural, and religious diversity (including Jews) and degraded life styles, it could be very instrumental in spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Corinth, a relative new city, with wealth and all levels of society was open to new ideas. It was not entrenched in tradition. Not only did Corinth have all these different gods; it also had become a major gathering for Jews who were expelled from Rome. Paul used Corinth as his main launching point for his mission to the west.

The heart of the city, the forum, was filled with temples and shrines to the emperor and various members of his family, built alongside temples to the older Greek gods such as Apollo. Apollo's son, Asclepius, the god of healing, had a shrine there as well as at Epidaurus, the ancient site of miracle healings and the worship of Aphrodite. Corinthian philosophy expected and promoted the citizens to indulge their desires: dishonesty, impurity, greed, lust and self-centeredness.

During the worship of Aphrodite the ceremonies included some of the most disgusting practices. These centered on sexual relations with temple prostitutes both males and females with drunkenness, loud rhythmic music using cymbals, gongs and bells. All worked together to bring the worshippers to an ecstatic frenzy. For the female prostitutes it allowed them to have a place of wealth, power and freedom that typical women of the day were not afforded. Corinth (“to behave like a Corinthian”) came to represent gross immorality and drunken debauchery. The name of the city became synonymous with moral depravity. Into this depraved culture comes the apostle Paul.

Paul lived in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:1-18), working as a tentmaker and converting as many Jews and pagans as he could. Here he first became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, who became his fellow workers. Paul brought to the people of Corinth good news of Jesus Christ who gives his followers forgiveness of their sins. Here is a city of great importance but also steeped in gross immorality. He spent considerable time teaching the converts to live lives worthy of their calling. Paul heard some very disturbing reports after leaving Corinth of sin invading the lives of the church members. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to a previous letter which we do not have but may have been included in the letter that is second Corinthians.

In the early verses Paul sets out the purpose by which the members should seek to live. Let’s look at the principles the new life bring into the life of the believer:

  1. We are sanctified in Christ Jesus
  2. We are called to be Holy
  3. We are to have unity with all believers everywhere
  4. We are enriched in every way
  5. We are called into fellowship with Jesus and each other.

Some of the major issues of the church in Corinth faced were:

  1. These Christians were being drawn back into the sinful life styles
  2. Infighting everyone was taking sides (Factions)
  3. Quarreling
  4. The members had little understanding or foundation in the teachings of the Old Testament and its preparation for Christian Gospel
  5. Incest
  6. Heresy
  7. Many others

What can we learn by studying 1 Corinthian letter? First we should learn we are called out of life of sin to a life of holiness and purity. Reading this letter one will come away with the sense people today are still showing up with the same attitudes, sins and behaviors. Paul addresses the issues straight forward without avoiding the hard conversations yet he did it with a caring spirit. So often we are not willing to see ourselves as God sees us and we are willing to deceive ourselves. We cannot change what we do not accept. Sinful practices in the church destroy lives in the church and nullify the witness to a lost world. Church leaders should address sin issues with candor and care. We have a responsibility to help members grow in Christ and away from our former lives in the world. Ignoring sin only worsens the situation but speaking truth into the lives others may be the kindness way of helping them. Reading this letter should be used as a time of self evaluation and reflection.