1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The city of Corinth exists today, with a population of about 40,000. Modern Corinth is just over a mile from the site of the ancient city of Corinth, which was destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries. It is situated on the Gulf of Corinth, a major inlet of the Ionian Sea, which separates Greece from southern Italy to the west.
Now there is quite a bit of backstory to the text of 1 Corinthians which warrant our time and careful attention. Paul’s first interaction with the Corinthians was recounted in Acts 18:1-11 (we will not read this text). Paul spent a year and a half church planting in Corinth, partnering first with Aquila and Priscilla and then Silas and Timothy. The text of 1 Corinthians reveals that Apollos had some influence on the Corinthian church as well, so the Corinthian church was formed from hardy spiritual stock. In his church planting efforts, Paul first of all focused the gospel message on the Jews, then the Gentiles, and his ministry was exceedingly fruitful.
But the letters to the Corinthians were written some time later, after Paul had left Corinth. Two or three years later, Paul found himself in Ephesus, and while he was there he received word that the Corinthian church was having many spiritual struggles. Thus Paul began a bit of correspondence with the Corinthians, but some of these letters were lost. We see in 1 Corinthians 5:9 that prior to the epistle of 1 Corinthians, Paul had written an earlier epistle to Corinthians, and either the church or an individual in the church had written back. Now Paul writes again, in the epistle we call 1 Corinthians, and the Holy Spirit inspires this new letter both for the benefit of the Corinthians and for Christians of all ages. We briefly note that Paul most likely wrote another letter after 1 Corinthians, which has also been lost; thus, 2 Corinthians is his fourth letter. So of the four or possibly more letters which Paul wrote, we have the second and fourth, called in our Bibles first and second. I mention this not to be confusing, but so that as we study the text you understand that we are reconstructing some of the conversation which has been lost to history.
The issues at Corinth reveal that Christians around the world are susceptible to the poison of a sinful culture. Corinth was a center of hedonism. In the words of Carson and Moo: “…a young and hungry trade-based city like Corinth… attracted serious social climbers. Corinth became a magnet ‘for the socially ambitious…[for] status-hungry people’.”[i] So in many ways, Corinth was an avant-garde society, looking very much like the pluralistic society in which we live. Citizens of Corinth lived to impress their peers with wisdom and materialism and social tolerance and advancement, thus leading to a decay of theology and morality.
As Paul introduces the epistle, both Paul and the Corinthians were aware to some degree of the major issues plaguing the church. Thus, 1 Corinthians is called an “occasional” letter, meaning that Paul wrote it to address specific issues in the church.[ii] Paul will get into those issues fairly quickly, but let me mention that because we are disconnected from Corinth by space and time, we will not be immediately aware of the issues until they are specified. So please understand that even in Paul’s introduction, there is an urgency to his tone that serves as a bit of a warning of the chastening words to come.
[i] Carson ad Moo pg. 427
[ii] Carson and Moo pg. 415