Introduction to Corinth.
What was Corinth like?
Corinth had a long history, reaching the peak of its influence in the eighth century B.C. There was a large and impressive temple of Apollo, built in 550 B.C. The Isthiam Olympic Games were held nearby, and athletes were highly respected in the city. Paul makes reference to athletes in his letter. Corinth was one of the earliest Greek cities to strike its own coins, from the seventh century B.C. The helmeted head of Athena, goddess of wisdom was on one side of the coins. It is thought that this was linked to the practice of wearing head coverings.
The city was situated on a narrow land bridge, only 4 miles wide at its narrowest, separating the main part of Greece from the Peloponnessus. All land traffic had to pass through Corinth. Also, at the eastern and western sides of the land bridge, ports were built, as sea traffic preferred to avoid the dangerous southern coast. Smaller ships were actually dragged on rollers across the land, and larger ships were unloaded, their cargo carried over, and then loaded onto another ship on the other side. Thus, Corinth became an important commercial centre.
The following is a description of the city:
Amongst the great provincial cities of the Roman Empire, Corinth was the most central, and was affected by all the various currents of the age. Standing on Grecian soil, it was a Roman colony, refounded by Julius Caesar in 46BC, the seat of Roman government and of Greek commerce. For profligacy the city had an infamous notoriety. Here vice is raised into a religion, and the idolaters of Corinth and set between fornicators and adulterers. From the filthiest slough of sin Paul’s converts at Corinth were extracted. Not even at Antioch had he seen the condition of the Gentile world, its pride and power, its fancied wisdom, its utter depravity, displayed so vividly. (Quoted in Explore the Book, by J Sidlow Baxter)
Corinth was destroyed by the Roman General Mummius in 146 B.C, following a Greek rebellion against the Romans. As mentioned, the city was rebuilt later, as a key Roman city. The Greek theatre was converted into an arena, complete with a water tank for mock sea battles. The city was cosmopolitan, although two-thirds of the population were slaves, and a small minority were wealthy merchants.
v1-9: Introduction and greeting.
v1: "Called"; Paul had been called to be an apostle, set apart by God for a particular work. To be called means to be called out; from the present evil world (Gal 1.4), by the gospel of God (2 Tim 1.9-10), with each other (Eph 2.19), and for a purpose (6.19).
v2: Paul had a special burden for practical sanctification; in our ministry (ch2), in our everyday lives (ch3), in our relationships (ch5-7), and in our service in the church (ch12-14). He introduces this theme immediately; he writes to the church, the 'called out' of God, "those sanctified", and those "called saints" (or "called saints"); in Christ we can experience the reality of sanctification, being set apart for Him.
We note that we are holy; God has called us saints. We are no longer sinners. ‘Jesus Christ did not come to teach men to be holy; He came to make men holy.’ (Oswald Chambers, So I send you.)
Jesus Christ is "their Lord and ours"; the Corinthians were therefore included in the whole church, and belonged to each other. Perhaps Paul was dealing with an issue of elitism. The emphasis here is that Jesus Christ is "our Lord" (v2, 7, 8, 9, 10); to be a Christian means to be submissive to Him, and to accept that He is fully God.
v3: As with most of his letters, Paul asks a blessing on those to whom he was writing.
v4: Paul recounts great blessings that the Corinthian church had experienced; the grace of God had been poured out on them through Jesus Christ. Paul is genuinely grateful for this, and praised God for all He had done.
v5-7: There are three aspects of blessing that Paul lists;
- you have been enriched in every way - in all your speaking and in all your knowledge;
- our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you;
- you do not lack any spiritual gift.
It seems that the church was gifted more than other churches, "you abound in everything" (2 Cor 8.7). For Paul, the abundance of revelations might have exalted him above measure (2 Cor 12.7); and perhaps the abundance of gifts in the church might have led to pride. Did they think that they deserved more from God?
The motivation was the revelation of Jesus Christ; when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he uses the same motivation. The expectation that Christ may return any time should drive us on in our service for Him.
v8-9: The return of Christ brings comfort and strength also. God will keep us blameless, and He will do it, since He is faithful. This is important, since Paul has hard things to say to the Corinthian Christians.
v10: "I appeal to you", reflecting the seriousness of the divisions in the church, and the depth of Paul's concern. He urges them to find unity, to be "perfectly united" in their "mind and thoughts", or attitudes and opinions. We are commanded to promote unity, and to avoid divisive attitudes (Rom 15.5-6). The responsibility lies with each one, and we are not to put the blame and responsibility upon others, avoiding it ourselves.
v11: The letter from Chloe's household raised certain issues and problems, which Paul deals with in 1.12-6.20; in the later part of the letter (7.1-16.9), Paul replies to specific questions they asked. We presume that Chloe's household was trustworthy, such that Paul gave respect to what they had written.
v12: The parties mentioned had allied themselves with key leaders; Paul the great thinker, Apollo's the eloquent preacher, and Peter the miracle worker; at root this is idolatry, putting a man in the place of Christ.
Although the Church in Corinth was part of Paul's apostolic sphere, they had also had contact with Peter. It seems that Paul was not so exclusive as to prevent other apostles from ministering to 'his' churches.
Addressing the problem of sectarianism, Watchman Nee says; 'As a protest against division among the children of God, many believers seek to divide those who do not divide as from those who do, and never dream that they themselves are divisive!' (The normal Christian Church Life.)
v13-16: A related matter was that of baptism; some had apparently argued that Paul had baptised in his own name; he puts the matter right. Whilst there is a clear command for all who trust in Christ to be baptised, it is less important who actually baptises us.
It was common practice in the early Church to baptise those who became Christians. This practice had been laid down by the Lord Jesus, and followed from Pentecost onwards.
Paul refers to Crispus who was previously synagogue ruler, see Acts 18.8. He was perhaps the first convert in Corinth, and Paul necessarily baptised him. Presumably the others he mentioned were also early converts. His practice elsewhere was to appoint leaders in the church, who would have continued to baptise.
v17: Paul's call was not primarily to baptise converts, but to preach the gospel; the next section (v18-25) emphasises the cross of Christ, being the heart of Paul's message.
v18: Paul was commanded to preach the message of Christ, and Him crucified. His confidence was that that was the only message of salvation, the message of truth and power. The cross of Christ brings us into relationship with God, and also we are "being saved" day by day as its power is at work in our lives.
The unbeliever rejects the message as foolishness; they are "perishing", as in John 3.16. This meant not only eternal death, but a life devoid of God's power and grace.
v19-20: In light of the cross, man's high esteem of human wisdom is irrelevant; God says that such wisdom is foolish. Human wisdom takes many forms; scientific, education, philosophy, hedonism, etc.
Corinth, being a major Greek city, was a place where wisdom was highly esteemed. Paul's comments therefore hit directly at the heart of their thinking. The gospel of Christ calls us to turn not only from sinful behaviour, but also from dependence upon human wisdom.
v21: The choice of the world is to reject God (John 1.10; Rom 3.18); in contrast the message preached was the means by which God saved those who believe. There are two options, and only two; to believe or to reject.
v22-23: The message of Christ and the cross was a stumbling block to those who wanted miracles, and foolishness to those who wanted wisdom. Broadly, the western mind seeks wisdom, the Middle-Eastern seeks a sign. Faith in Christ therefore demands humility as we put aside our human cultural ways of thinking, and submit ourselves to God's ways.
v24: To those who believe, Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God. Here is the answer to our deepest needs, and the ability to deliver that answer into our lives.
v25: In case any thought that following man's ways was a sensible alternative, Paul assures us that there is no benefit in following the way of wisdom or strength; God's foolishness is wiser, and God's weakness is stronger.
v26-29: The messengers, as well as the message, are despised by the world.
The Lord Jesus Christ was treated like this; He brought the wisest of all words, yet was considered foolish and even a liar; He did wonderful signs, yet was considered weak (Matt 27.42); He was chosen by God yet was rejected by men.
The wisdom and power of God are demonstrated in His choice of such instruments as are described here. Five types are described; foolish, weak, lowly, despised, nothings; the number five represents grace; so God's choice is the choice of grace; just as David chose five stones to slay Goliath, so God chooses five to bring down the giants of human wisdom and strength (2 Cor 10.4-5).
"Foolish"; ignorant, dull, stupid; Peter and John were described as "unschooled";
"weak"; physically impotent, in contrast to the athletes of Greece; Mephibosheth was lame in both feet;
"lowly"; of low birth, low reputation; Jephthah was cast out as the son of a concubine;
"despised"; treated with contempt, unwanted, unimportant; Is 53.3;
"nothing"; as if they do not exist Eccl 9.13-15;
It was said that over 2/3rds of the population of first century Corinth was slaves, and doubtless they would fit in with Paul's descriptions here.
Edward Gibbons (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15) comments; ‘the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanics, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves.’
But not all Christians were like this; Paul says "not many", rather than "not any"; so Jairus was mighty, Cornelius was of noble birth, Lydia was rich, Dionysius (Acts 17.34) was wise.
All had to learn the lesson that no flesh can glory in His presence. The message and the messenger alike are for God's glory.
v30: What Christ is, and what He has made us; for us He is wisdom from God; He is our righteous, sanctification (or holiness), redemption; He meets those needs that we struggle even to recognise; He is truly all we need.
v31: We have nothing to boast of; we must therefore boast in Christ.