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The Epistles to the Corinthians

Updated on February 23, 2010

The Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians are the 7th and 8th books of the New Testament. They are letters written by St. Paul from Ephesus, and between them they give a vivid picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the early church and of Paul's sense of his mission and its accomplishments.

The significance of Corinth in the ancient world can scarcely be overestimated. It was one of the greatest cities of its time, with a population of 200,000 citizens and 500,000 slaves. The city lay on an isthmus between northern and southern Greece and served as a bridge for trade between the two sections of the country. Further, since Cape Malea, at the southeastern tip of Greece, was so dangerous to circumnavigate, ships were dragged on rollers across the isthmus where the Corinth canal now is. A great part of east-west Mediterranean trade therefore passed through Corinth, and it had a cosmopolitan and varied citizenry.

Corinth was an extremely wealthy and wicked city. It was the center of a number of pagan cults, the most notable being that of Aphrodite, whose temple crested the hill behind the city. The temple had a thousand priestesses, who were sacred prostitutes. They came down to the city streets every evening to ply their trade.

I Corinthians

Paul's work in Corinth is described in Acts 18:1-18. After he had left Corinth and was working in Ephesus, news reached him that all was not well in Corinth. He therefore wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians to deal with the problems there. Within the letter are moving accounts of the Last Supper, of the Resurrection and its effects, and of the proper relationship between men in everyday life.

The problems facing the church in Corinth were many. There were divisions within the church (I Corinthians 1:10-12), with members more concerned with arguing the claims of rival leaders than remembering Christ. There was intellectual pride (I Corinthians 1:25 to 2:16), as the Corinthians forgot the claims of Christ in their pride at their own cleverness. Immorality was blatant, so much so that a man was living with his own stepmother (I Corinthians 5:1). The Greek passion for litigation was everywhere in evidence. Members of the Christian church disputed with one another in the law courts instead of settling their differences in the fellowship of the church and the spirit of Christ (I Corinthians 6:1-8). Antinomianism was rife. Some Corinthians believed that because they lived under grace and not under law they had license to do as they liked (I Corinthians 6:12-20). Paul reminds them that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The Corinthians themselves raised questions about problems that troubled them; for example, the status of marriage (I Corinthians 7:1-39). Paul writes that he would prefer to see them remain unmarried so that they could concentrate on preparing for the coming of Christ. However, he allows marriage for those who do not have the self-discipline to live in single purity.

There was a question of Christian presence at the ritual of meat offerings to idols (I Corinthians 8 to 10). In the ancient world, if a man sacrificed to the gods in a temple, he received back some of the sacrificial meat and with it made a feast for his friends. The result was that most social occasions were held in pagan temples. The Corinthians wanted to know whether Christians could attend such parties. For Paul, such occasions were not for Christians.

There were questions about religious practices (I Corinthians 11-14). Originally, the Lord's Supper had been a common meal to which everyone contributed. It had since become a meal at which the rich refused to share with the poor, and true fellowship was destroyed. There was also disorder during the church services, with too many people seeking to speak at one time. The confusion was compounded because the Corinthians set a high value on speaking with tongues. Paul reminded them that they were all members of the body of Christ. As such, they should share equally in the Lord's Supper in the spirit of love. He also adjured them to keep order in their meetings and to speak only when moved to prophecy concerning the goodness of God and the betterment of the church.

The church's teaching on the resurrection of the dead was questioned by some Corinthians. To Paul, this was an essential part of Christian belief. He did not preach the immortality of the soul alone, but the resurrection of the whole man, body and soul. However, the risen body would not be in its present physical state but rather in a spiritual form resembling the transfigured body of the risen Christ. Thus he affirmed the preservation of the total man: that after death the personality would continue to exist, so that you will still be you and I will still be I (I Corinthians 15).

Finally, in I Corinthians 16, Paul pleads for a cause that is very dear to him: the collection of funds from his churches for the poor in Jerusalem. Such help and such a collection, he said, was a sign of the true unity of the church.

II Corinthians

The second letter, as we have it now, is probably actually two letters, arranged in the reverse order of that in which they were written. It is likely that Paul's first letter was not enough to ease the difficulties of the church in Corinth, and that he paid a visit to the city. However, it was a visit of such insult and insolence that it nearly broke his heart. On his return he wrote the sorrowful letter now contained in II Corinthians 10 to 13.

Paul's apostleship had been attacked; his message had been under fire; his appearance and his speech had been insulted; his very motives had been questioned. Against his will he set out to justify himself and his claims, and to insist that God had given him grace in which even his weakness had become strong.

This sad letter apparently had its effect. II Corinthians 1 to 9 was written after peace had been restored. Once again, in chapters 8 and 9, he presses the claims of the collection for Jerusalem. And in II Corinthians 2:5-11 we find Paul in the beauty of Christian forgiveness pleading for sympathy and understanding for the man who had been the cause of all his troubles.

I and II Corinthians are letters of problems, of troubles, of heartbreak, and of reconciliation. No other letters show so well what Paul was like as a man and as a pastor. No other letters show us so well what the early church was like. It has been said that they take the roof off and enable us to see into the life and the meetings of an early Christian congregation.

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