Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Introduction to the Epistle of 1st Corinthians


The City of Corinth and Paul’s Initial Ministry There

The city shared the common Greek love of philosophy and speculation, but it could not claim to be the home of any renowned philosopher or school of philosophy. As D. Guthrie remarks (p. 421), Corinth was never famed for its contribution to the arts or philosophy, but it became infamous for vice and particularly licentiousness. Morally, the Corinthians were regarded as inferior, even according to the loose standards of the ancient pagan world. The fact that the city housed the temple of Aphrodite, (where at one time there lodged one thousand priestesses who were professional prostitutes,) was a major contribution to its immoral lifestyle, that Corinth. “To live as do the Corinthians” was a euphemism for the vilest kind of life (M. Tenney, p. 288.) However, J.A. Davis maintains (p. 959) that the reputation given to Corinth as an especially immoral place seems to have been largely created by the envy of other Greek city-states. Be that as it may, the fact remains that Corinth, as a large cosmopolitan urban center, was steeped in the pagan licentiousness and immorality of the ancient world. Perhaps M. Tenney summarizes it best when he writes (p. 288), “Wealth and dire poverty, beauty and wretchedness, culture and squalor rubbed elbows at Corinth.”

We read about two of the Apostle Paul’s visits to the city of Corinth in Acts 18 and Acts 20:1-3. The first visit to Corinth was made during what we usually term Paul’s second missionary journey. He arrived there after his visit to Athens, and at once preached in the local synagogue (Acts 18:4.) Paul encountered such intense opposition from the Jews, however, that he was led to declare to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6.) The account given in Acts does indicate that there were some converts from among the Jews; but Paul’s main success was among the Gentile population of Corinth. Acts 18:8 testifies, “many … believed,” and Acts 18:10 records God’s own assurance to Paul, “I have many people in this city.”

Paul spent eighteen months ministering in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:11.) He then crossed by ship over to Ephesus. Subsequently, the apostle journeyed to Jerusalem and Antioch, re-visited the scenes of his earlier missionary endeavors throughout Asia Minor, and then returned to Ephesus, where he remained for two years (Acts 18:18-23; Acts 19:1.) He wrote the Epistle we now know as First Corinthians while staying in the city of Ephesus, about the year 55 A.D. (W.C.G. Proctor, pp. 967-968.)

Before moving on to our next topic, we would do well to say a word about the composition of the Corinthian congregation. As noted above, Paul’s gospel ministry was mainly blessed among the Gentile population of Corinth, although there were some Jewish converts. Thus, from the outset, there was a Jewish Christian minority within the church made up of people who had formerly occupied influential positions in the Jewish community: Crispus, the former synagogue ruler, together with his entire household (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14), and Sosthenes, his successor to synagogue leadership prior to his conversion to Christ (Acts 18:17; 1 Cor. 1:1.) Furthermore, though the truth of the apostle’s generalization in 1 Cor. 1:26 (“not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble were called”) must be given its full weight, the Corinthian congregation seems to have had at least some socially, educationally, and economically privileged members. In addition to the influential Jewish members listed above, we might also note such individuals as Gaius, (whose means were sufficient to provide hospitality for the whole church,) and Erastus, (the city treasurer, Rom. 16:23) (J.A. Davis, p. 960.) Note: Scholars are in agreement that the Epistle to the Romans was written from Corinth; therefore, those whom Paul mentions as sending their greetings to the church in Rome were members of the Corinthian church.

The Purpose and Theme of 1st Corinthians

First Corinthians is the most varied in its content and style of all the Pauline epistles. The topics discussed range from schism to finance and from church decorum to the resurrection. Every literary device known to writing is employed in its pages: logic, sarcasm, entreaty, scolding, poetry, narration, exposition—in short, it is written in the same style as Paul would have carried on a conversation with the elders of Corinth had he been present with them (M. Tenney, p. 296.) One scholar remarks: This is the most businesslike of all Paul’s epistles. He has a number of subjects with which he intends to deal and he sets about them in a most orderly manner (D. Guthrie, p. 426.) But, as another scholar notes: Behind the discussion of every point is the tie of tender concern of the spiritual father for his children (1 Cor. 4:14-15.) These Corinthians were problem children, and for that reason caused the Apostle Paul much concern and much grief, but they were his spiritual children and his love for them never failed (E. Harrison, p. 275.) Indeed, Paul’s relation to the Corinthian congregation was of a very close and personal character. He was the first to plant the gospel there (1 Cor. 3:6; 4:15), and he watched the growth of the church with great personal interest. The two epistles we possess are characterized by a spirit of intense personal concern on the part of the apostle for the Corinthian Christians (W.C.G. Proctor, pp. 967, 970.)

The writing of the Epistle of First Corinthians was occasioned by the disturbing report about the church communicated to the Apostle Paul by members of the household of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11.) Subsequent to their visit, the apostle received a delegation from the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor. 16:17), requesting his counsel on a number of questions confronting the church. In the first part of the Epistle the apostle immediately addresses the serious issues brought to his attention by those of the household of Chloe (chapters 1-6; also note 11:2-34); then, in the latter part of the Epistle he proceeds to answer the questions communicated to him by the delegation sent by the church (chapters 7-16.) A general outline of the Epistle is as follows:

Greeting and Thanksgiving (1:1-9) in which the apostle emphasizes the universal oneness of the body of Christ.

The Apostle Addresses the Disturbing Report Brought to Him by Household of Chloe (1:10-6:20; 11:2-34)

The Spirit of Divisiveness and Its Root Cause (1:10-4:21)

The Case of Incest and Moral Laxity (5:1-12; 6:12-20)

Failure of Christians to Settle Their Disputes in a Christian Manner (6:1-11)

Failure to Honor God’s Ordained Authority Structure (11:2-16)

Gross Abuse of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34)

The Apostle Answers the Questions Posed by the Church (7:1-11:1; 12:1-16:9)

Questions Concerning Marriage and Divorce (7:1-40)

Questions Concerning the Proper Use of Christian Liberty (8:1-11:1)

Questions Concerning the Proper Use of Spiritual Gifts (12:1-14:40)

Questions Concerning the Resurrection (15:1-58)

Questions Concerning the Diaconal Offering for the Church in Judea (16:1-9)

The Apostle’s Closing Admonitions and Benediction (16:10-24)

E. Harrison (p. 275) summarizes the message of the Epistle in these words: The greatest single overall emphasis seems to be on the unity of the local church as the body of Christ, which is brought out not only in connection with the discussion of the groups (i.e.; the factions within the church), but also in relation to the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. A corollary is the sanctity of the church as members of Christ, both corporately and individually, (note, especially, such passages as 1 Cor. 3:16-17 and 6:15-20.) We may add, it is in this Epistle that the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul most eloquently sets forth the supremacy of love as “the most excellent way,” which the Christian is called to follow (1 Cor. 12:31b-13:13

The Mystery Surrounding the Missing Letters

The References to Two Other Letters

Some time after his initial visit to Corinth, probably while he was ministering in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the church, a letter to which he alludes in 1 Cor. 5:9, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to have any company with fornicators.” As D. Guthrie points out (p. 426), the gist of the contents of that previous letter may be inferred from 1 Cor. 5:9-13.

The apostle had evidently issued a warning to the Corinthians to maintain a clear separation from those persons who continued to exhibit the pagan lifestyle that was characteristic of Corinth. (As we have seen, the city was renowned for its immorality.) Thus it was that in the letter in question Paul had urged the Corinthian Christians to avoid associating with immoral persons. Now, as he makes clear in 1 Cor. 5:9-11, whom Paul had in mind were those people who professed to be Christians, but who nevertheless persisted in living an immoral lifestyle. It was from such persons that the apostle called upon sincere Christian people to withdraw, not only to avoid being tempted to imitate their ungodly lifestyle, but also to serve as a witness against that lifestyle and so call them to repentance. But the church had misunderstood Paul’s meaning; they took him to say that, as Christians, they were to refrain from any and all contact with the immoral and unbelieving society in the midst of which they found themselves. The apostle addresses this matter, correcting their misunderstanding, in 1 Cor. 5:9-13.

Even as 1 Corinthians had a predecessor (the letter alluded to in 1 Cor. 5:9), so also, apparently, did 2 Corinthians. It is often referred to as the “painful” letter (or, the “sorrow-causing” letter.) Paul describes it as having been written with many tears and great anguish of heart (2 Cor. 2:4.) He even confesses to having experienced regret for a time that he had written it (2 Cor. 7:8.) (As M. Tenney points out (p. 299), 1 Corinthians does not seem to fit the description and is, therefore, unlikely to have been the “sorrow-causing” letter.) In an effort to seek to determine the possible content of this letter, we need to follow the apostle’s interaction with the Corinthian church subsequent to his initial visit—the time at which he found the church, as described in Acts 18:1-18. (Note: Re-constructing the apostle’s subsequent interaction with the Corinthian church is conjectural; but we may seek to piece it together based on the hints given in the Corinthian Epistles.)

Since his first visit to Corinth was the founding of the church, and since in 2 Corinthians he writes of his intention to visit the church at Corinth for a third time (2 Cor. 13:1), the apostle must have made another visit to the church, one that is not reported in the Book of Acts. This second visit may have been the one referred to in 2 Cor. 1:15-16, (Paul’s planned itinerary was to visit Corinth, then travel throughout Macedonia, and once again return to Corinth before journeying on to Judea.) The circumstances under which this second visit took place may have been as follows: Paul had made known to the church his intention of sending Timothy, in order to further instruct the church concerning apostolic injunctions that pertained to all the churches, the Corinthian church being no exception (1 Cor. 4:17.) Paul was fully aware that some within the church were arrogant and defiant, even of divinely appointed apostolic authority (1 Cor. 4:18), and he threatened to come with severity, if necessary (1 Cor. 4:19-21.) Indeed, the apostle feared that Timothy might well meet with opposition (1 Cor. 16:10.)

Apparently, Paul’s fears concerning Timothy’s mission were realized. Upon receiving Timothy’s account of what had transpired in Corinth, Paul set out to visit the church, as he had previously planned (2 Cor. 1:15-16) and in the manner in which he had previously warned (1 Cor. 4:19-21.) In light of 2 Cor. 2:5-11 and 7:8-12, it appears that upon visiting the Corinthian congregation, the Apostle Paul met with gross insult and open defiance, especially on the part of a certain unnamed individual, while the rest of the congregation either actively supported that individual or at least failed to come to the apostle’s defense and submit to his apostolic authority. Consequently, sometime during his travels through Macedonia (note 2 Cor. 7:5), Paul penned what has become known as the “sorrow-causing” letter. Based on 2 Cor. 7:8-12, in the letter the apostle must have rebuked the entire congregation in very severe terms and demanded that they discipline the offender.

We surmise that the letter was delivered to the church by the hand of Titus. Upon sending the letter, Paul experienced some remorse at having to invoke his apostolic authority in such strong terms and longingly awaited Titus’ return with news of how the Corinthian church had received his very stern letter. When Titus returned with the report that the church had responded favorably to the apostle’s admonition, exhibiting genuine repentance and calling upon the offender to repent, the apostle issues the letter that has become known as Second Corinthians (note 2 Cor. 7:5-7.)

Is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 the “First” Letter?

It has been suggested that 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is in fact the “previous” letter mentioned by the apostle in 1 Cor. 5:9, a letter that has become mistakenly inserted into the body of Second Corinthians. The grounds for such a contention are as follows: (1) 2 Cor. 7:2 (“open your hearts to us”) forms an excellent connection with 2 Cor. 6:11-13 (“our heart is enlarged … you also be enlarged”), seemingly lending support to the idea that 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 is an interruption in the sequence of thought. (2) Furthermore, 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 does deal with the subject of the believer’s relationship with unbelievers and could be misunderstood to mean that the Christian should have nothing whatsoever to do with any unbeliever.

Nevertheless, there are several factors that militate against the contention that 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 is, indeed, the “previous” letter that was inadvertently inserted into the text of Second Corinthians. (1) The passage of 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 warns against intimate associations with unbelievers, but it does not make mention of fornication or any other form of immorality. In 1 Cor. 5:9 Paul specifically reminds the Corinthians that in his previous letter he had exhorted the church to have no company with fornicators. (2) There is no manuscript evidence that lends any support to the contention; in all the ancient manuscripts the Epistle of Second Corinthians is intact, in none is the passage of 6:14-7:1 omitted. As D. Guthrie writes (p. 426), a theory of interpolation into the middle of an epistle without any supporting manuscript evidence is not without considerable difficulties. A chief difficulty would be answering the question, If 2 Cor. 6:13 and 7:2 form such a close-knit connection, why would anyone insert such an incongruous passage as 6:14-7:1 at this juncture of the Epistle? (3) Due regard must be given to the epistlatory nature of Second Corinthians. Such unexpected digressions (as 6:14-7:1) would be unpardonable in a treatise, but it is not altogether improbable in a letter. If the Epistle was composed at several sittings, it might well be that Paul paused for awhile after 6:13, and upon resuming the letter he dwelt on the problems of the Christian’s relationship with unbelievers before continuing where he left off (D. Guthrie, pp. 425-426.)

Is 2 Corinthians 10:1-13:14 the “Sorrow-causing” Letter?

Of all the letters the apostle wrote to the Corinthians, the severe letter is the most obscure, since only its general character is indicated and nothing of its contents. A fairly common position among critical scholars is that this letter is not lost, but has been preserved in 2 Corinthians 10-13. Such scholars point to the following evidence in favor of their position: chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians seem out of place in the sense that these chapters are filled with criticism and invective, whereas the opening chapters are characterized by gratitude for restored relations and by affection for the Corinthians. This exchange of tone from warmth to censure is regarded as something Paul would not have done, for by doing so he would have risked the good will he had sought to build up with his conciliatory tone in the first nine chapters of the Epistle. The most complete exposition of this view was propounded by J.H. Kennedy, who actually maintained that neither 2 Cor. 1-9 nor 2 Cor. 10-13 should be regarded as a complete letter; rather, 1-9 is the beginning of one letter and 10-13 is the end of another. It is in 10-13 that we are to see the severe letter, though it has not been fully preserved (E. Harrison, pp. 270-271.)

There are a number of objections to Kennedy’s view, which also apply to all other theories that hold 2 Cor. 10-13 to be the ‘sorrow-causing” letter. (1) To suppose such a state of affairs (i.e.; that the “sorrow-causing” letter has become attached to what we know as the apostle’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians) involves the charge of gross carelessness on the part of the Corinthian church in allowing the epistles of the divinely-inspired apostle to become mixed up. (2) The manuscript tradition unanimously supports the integrity of 2 Corinthians as we now know it. There is no manuscript evidence that even suggests that the original Epistle of Second Corinthians ended with chapter nine. (3) Furthermore, chapters 10-13 make no mention of the individual who had caused Paul so much grief, and against whom he had demanded disciplinary action to be taken by the church. However, this individual is referred to in the earlier chapters of 2 Cor. (2:5-11 and 7:5-13) where the apostle expresses his gratitude for the church’s compliance with his demand for discipline and now asks that leniency be shown to the repentant offender. (4) Still greater doubt is cast on the theory proposed by Kennedy and others when chapters 10-13 are carefully compared with Paul’s brief comments about the nature of the “sorrow-causing” letter. The apostle describes that letter as having been composed “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears” (2:4.) But, as A. Menzies notes with reference to chapters 10-13, “It was certainly in no mood of humiliation or mental anguish … that he wrote these chapters” (E. Harrison, p. 271.) We may add yet another item, (5) for the most part, in chapters 10-13 the apostle is warning the church of a threat posed by false teachers who disparage Paul’s own apostolic credentials while claiming themselves to be apostles of Christ (11:13.) As Harrison remarks (p. 278), If these outsiders arrived just as the church had been restored to right relations with Paul, the annoyance of the apostle is the more readily understood. It is easier on this supposition, to account for the concentration of Paul’s blast against them at the close of the epistle, after he has taken account of the repentance and restoration of the church as a whole.

If the sorrow-causing letter is not to be identified with 2 Cor. 10-13, the only alternative is to assume that that letter is now lost. There were undoubtedly other letters of Paul that have been lost, (as for instance the letter to Laodicea, referred to in Colossians 4:16,) and there is no reason to think that all Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians has been preserved. This view is faced with fewer difficulties than those that point to some sort of interpolation theory. It may be presumed that since the letter in question apparently dealt with some personal opponent of the apostle it did not contain subject matter of sufficient general interest to the church at large to be preserved (D. Guthrie, p. 437.)


Davis, James A.; “1-2 Corinthians,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Groscheide, F.W.; “Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1953 (Fifth printing, June 1968.)

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Eighth American printing, January 1979.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)

Hodge, Charles; An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Reprinted, November 1972.

Proctor, W.C.G.; “1 Corinthians,” The New Bible Commentary, edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1953 (Reprinted, October 1967.)

Tenney, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth printing, February 1967.)