For those of you who appreciate a puzzle, I’ve decided to make the pictures in the intros connected in some obscure way to the content of the blog post (or the chapter). If you make the connection, post your answer to win…respect.
Meanwhile, stalwart B2Y member and contributor Malcolm Green gives us an excellent introduction to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I strongly recommend you give it a read, as it should help you appreciate the context of this epistle.
An Introduction should not seek to replace a Commentary or even to summarise the contents of the work to which it is prefaced. Rather, it should survey the landscape and launch the reader into an exciting journey. This is certainly what awaits us with Paul’s first Corinthian letter.
Corinth had been destroyed by a Roman army in 146 BC and subsequently re-founded by Julius Caesar a hundred years later as a Colony, which means a self-governing municipality for demobbed Roman legionaries. But it was much more than that by Paul’s day. Situated in the middle of Greece, accessible from both east and west, it was at a crossroads of trade routes and a bustling cosmopolitan city. It was the seat of regional government and the Roman governor. On what we call his Second Missionary Journey Paul travelled down through Macedonia into Greece proper and after Athens went on to Corinth, where he stayed to preach for eighteen months. It was there that he met Aquila and Priscilla, who were to prove invaluable helpers in his subsequent missionary work. He was also joined by Silas (our Patron saint) and Timothy.
Aquila and Priscilla accompanied Paul back to Asia by sea and remained in Ephesus, while Paul went on to report back to Jerusalem and then to Antioch. Meanwhile, in Ephesus a learned Jew from Alexandria named Apollos began preaching Jesus, but in the context of John’s baptism (it would be fascinating to know the detail of what this involved). Aquila and Priscilla took him in hand, taught him “more accurately the way of God” and at his request send him off to the believers in Corinth, where he proved a powerful preacher, continuing Paul’s work. On his Third Missionary Journey Paul came back to Ephesus, where he preached amid considerable controversy for two years. He then travelled once more to Greece overland through Macedonia. We have no details of his activity there, but he must have spent the majority of his three months’ stay in Corinth.
All this you can read about in the 18th and 19th Chapters of Acts.
From Ephesus in AD 57 Paul wrote what is probably the most quoted of all his letters. First Corinthians was not the first of his letters to the congregation he had founded. It testifies to an ongoing relationship and Paul’s earnest desire to ensure that his new converts make progress in their new faith. Not only a relapse into paganism but also a failure to live out the new life in Christ are his principal concerns. In this letter we read a stern injunction against factionalism in the church: “No labels!” he warns. Disorderly and selfish behaviour at worship is sharply criticised. How to deal with a congregation member leading an immoral life? What about food that has been sacrificed to pagan idols and is now offered for sale in the market? When disputes arise between members, what if any is the role of the secular courts? Should a converted Christian spouse divorce a pagan partner?
With Paul there is always a profound theological basis for his counsel to his fledgling believers. So it is here in First Corinthians that we find the classic words of institution of the Lord’ Supper, his praise of the diversity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, the discourse on the resurrected body to which all Christians look forward in faith and hope and, of course, the eulogy on Christian Love, which along with the Sermon on the Mount, is probably the best known of all New Testament passages.
Letters were not posted, collected and delivered daily in the ancient world. Paul would have had to wait weeks and months before he could find someone taking ship for Corinth and could be trusted to deliver the papyrus roll. So letters were composed over a long period and added to as occasion arose. In the case of our First Corinthians this enables us to gain a panoramic overview of a new, enthusiastic but turbulent church in a big city, the wise counsel from a distance of the mature but anxious Christian teacher and the underlying conviction of the economy of God’s saving purpose for all mankind, through which we can and will triumph, knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord.