I Corinthians – Introduction

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – 1 Corinthians.

By Carleton Toppe.

Published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1987.


Corinth: site and character

Modern travelers to Greece are much more likely to visit Athens than Corinth. More of the glories of ancient Greek architecture and sculpture are found there than in the modern city of Corinth, which is small and insignificant (population 20,000) compared to Athens with a metropolitan area population of 2.5 million.

When Paul arrived in Corinth, supposedly in the fall of A.D. 50 or 51, the situation was reversed. Athens had its cultural attractions then as today, but Corinth was the leading city in Greece. Some scholars estimate that Corinth had a population of 200,000 in Paul’s day. It was a thriving commercial center about 40 miles west of Athens, near the isthmus crossing where ship cargos were hauled back and forth 3.5 miles over land between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. (The waters at the southern tip of Greece were dangerous for the small vessels that transported goods from the Aegean cities to Italy. It was safer to take the sheltered Gulf of Corinth route to Italy.)

The two letters to the Corinthians were written to a city congregation with some big-city problems. Corinth was a bustling metropolis, where fortunes could be made, where life was more varied and interesting than in the hill country, but it was also more immoral. Too much wealth and the presence of many different nationalities and of many sailors on shore leave resulted in the lowering of moral standards. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Christians had to contend with the influence of boomtown immorality on their congregation.

Corinth did not enjoy the reputation for culture and learning that Athens did, but the popularity and influence of Greek philosophy and wisdom in the city constituted a danger for the Christian faith. Some of the Corinthian Christians were too “educated” for ordinary Christianity. They wanted a Christianity that challenged their minds.

The founding of the congregation

Acts 18:1-17 tells the story of the founding of the Corinthian congregation. Paul arrived in Corinth from Athens, where his efforts had met with only small success. His spirits were no doubt raised from the very start when Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple living in Corinth, offered him the hospitality of their home and invited him to join them in their work as tentmakers, since Paul was also trained in that craft.

He began his mission work on Sabbath days in the Jewish synagogue, where he was successful in persuading both Jews and Greeks. After Silas and Timothy joined Paul and he could devote more time to preaching, his success was so great that it aroused the opposition of the leading Jews, and they denied him the use of the synagogue. He then transferred his ministry to a home next to the synagogue, where “many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). Even the ruler of the synagogue joined the congregation, as did the city’s director of public works.

Alarmed by the success of the apostle, the Jews took Paul and hauled him before the court of the proconsul, Gallio. But Gallio, who had a better understanding of the principle of separation between church and state than many Christians have today, expelled them from his court. He was not going to judge religious differences. For once, the civil authorities protected the Christian missionaries.

Paul remained in Corinth for a year and a half. During this time he established what was perhaps the largest of his mission congregations. He and his coworkers also brought the message of the gospel to surrounding cities, such as the port city of Cenchrea, where another congregation was established. The mission in Corinth was a success.

Occasion and contents

Troubles soon arose in the Corinthian congregation, however. First, there was the matter of cliques in the congregation. The congregation was in danger of splintering into factions because groups attached themselves to certain pastors and looked down upon others. There was the Paul clique, the Apollos clique, and the Peter clique. And there was also the group that had little regard for pastors and their ministry; they claimed to be following Christ alone. To all of these cliques, Paul had to explain the Christian ministry and the proper attitude toward it.

The first bloom of their new faith was fading. Heathen ways began to reassert themselves. The congregation was in danger of lapsing into paganism. There were problems with Christians running to heathen judges to settle matters that Christians should be able to settle themselves. The influence of pagan friends and relatives threatened to draw them back to idol sacrifices.

Like many Americans who make much of their rights, there were Corinthian Christians who abused their Christian liberty. They advocated sexual freedom, they were ready to grant to the women in the church rights that would violate the order established by God, and they tolerated disorderly services.

Overestimating the gifts of the Spirit was another problem. The gift of speaking with tongues, for example, was much sought after, even though the gift of preaching the gospel was much more profitable for the congregation.

Paul devoted the longest chapter in 1 Corinthians to this doctrinal problem: there were members of the congregation who questioned the bodily resurrection.

There was one more problem. The congregation was overly concerned about its standing among its sophisticated pagan neighbors. Its leaders wanted to be able to boast about the “wisdom” they had discovered in their new religion. The letter repeatedly faults them for their concern about prestige.

No wonder Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians.


There is no need for us to establish or to defend the fact that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. The evidence for his authorship is overwhelming, even for unbelievers.

Background for 1 Corinthians

Paul heard about the problems in the congregation while he was in Ephesus, a city across the Aegean Sea from Corinth. Apparently he made a visit to Corinth from Ephesus, but his visit did not resolve the problems (see 2 Corinthians 12:14,21; 13:1). There was no substantial change.

Next, he wrote a letter from Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-11). This letter has not been preserved.

Then the Corinthians replied in a letter brought to Ephesus by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. The letter contained a number of questions, but it also conveyed a challenge to Paul. What did Paul know? Their letter apparently exhibited a superior spirit and even ridicule. It also gave evidence of a casual attitude toward immorality, an attitude with which we are all too familiar today.

Paul then wrote the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. No wonder it is a strong letter. His personal visit had not straightened out matters in Corinth. His first letter had only provoked a challenge, in addition to encouraging a number of questions. Paul had to write a frank letter that minced no words but still breathed the loving spirit of the gospel. It is an interesting letter, a practical letter, a letter much needed by Christian churches today.

From Paul’s 2nd Corinthians letter, we learn that his 1st Corinthians letter had an effect. The Corinthian congregation took his admonitions and his instruction to heart, even though not all faults were remedied and there was still an opposition movement. Nevertheless it was an effective letter. May it also be so for us latter-day Christians, for whom Paul, by the Spirit of God, also wrote this letter.


1. Introduction (Chapter 1, verses 1-9)
A. The apostolic greeting (Chapter 1, verses 1-3)
B. Thanksgiving for spiritual blessings (Chapter 1, verses 4-9)

II. Contending with a false conception of the Christian ministry (Chapter 1, verse 10 to Chapter 4, verse 21)
A. Divisions in the congregation (Chapter 1, verses 10-17)
B. Christ, the wisdom and the power of God (Chapter 1, verse 18 to Chapter 2, verse 16)
C. The function of the Christian ministry (Chapter 3, verses 1-23)
D. The character of apostles of Christ (Chapter 4, verses 1-21)

III. Various moral and spiritual problems in the congregation (Chapter 5, verse 1 to Chapter 14, verse 40)
A. Discipline problems in the congregation (Chapter 5, verses 1-13)
B. Two lapses from sanctification (Chapter 6, verses 1-20)
C. Marriage matters (Chapter 7, verses 1-40)
D. The problem of offense: meat offered to idols (Chapter 8, verses 1-13)
E. Paul’s self-sacrifice for the gospel (Chapter 9, verses 1-27)
F. A warning against association with idols (Chapter 10, verse 1 to Chapter 11, verse 1)
G. Propriety in worship (Chapter 11, verses 2-34)
H. Spiritual gifts (Chapter 12, verses 1-31)
I. Christian love (Chapter 12, verse 31 to Chapter 13, verse 13)
J. The proper use of spiritual gifts in public worship (Chapter 14, verses 1-40)

IV. The bodily resurrection (Chapter 15)
A. Paul’s witness to the certainty of Christ’s resurrection (Chapter 15, verses 1-11)
B. Denying the resurrection of the dead denies Christ’s resurrection (Chapter 15, verses 12-19)
C. Christ’s resurrection assures our resurrection (Chapter 15, verses 20-28)
D. The assurance of our resurrection has an impact on our lives (Chapter 15, verese 29-34)
E. The resurrection body (Chapter 15, verses 35-49)
F. The glory and the triumph of our resurrection (Chapter 15:, verses 50-57)
G. Therefore be active in faith (Chapter 15, verse 58)

5. Concluding comments and greetings (Chapter 16)
A. The collection for God’s people (Chapter 16, verses 1-4)
B. Paul’s immediate plans (Chapter 16, verses 5-9)
C. A welcome for Timothy and Apollos (Chapter 16:, verses 10-12)
D. Exhortations (Chapter 16, verses 13-14)
E. Recognize those who serve in the church (Chapter 16, verses 15-18)
F. Final greetings (Chapter 16, verses 19-24)