This week we begin our study of The Apostle Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. We’ll start by taking a quick overview of who Paul was, what Corinth was like and a little about the early Christian communities Paul founded and wrote to.
Opening Reflection Questions
- What have you heard about the Apostle Paul? Have you read his letters for yourself? What do you think about him and his letters in the New Testament?
- Are you familiar with 1 Corinthians? If so, what comes to mind when you think of it?
Background to Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians
Who is Paul? Why did he write so many letters?
The Book of Acts provides a detailed account of Paul’s story, written by someone who was either a follower of Paul or at least had access to first hand records from Paul’s ministry. You can find this account in Acts 9:1-31 and Acts 13:1-28:31. Paul tells much of his own story in opening to his Letter to the Galatians. But here’s the short version.
- The man best known as the Apostle Paul was a Jewish Pharisee named Saul from the Greek city of Tarsus in what’s now Turkey. We was educated both in Jewish learning and Greek rhetoric (public speaking and writing). Paul is just the Greek version of the Hebrew name Saul.
- While in Jerusalem Saul joined the opposition to the early Christian movement, and began seeking out and arresting Jesus’ followers. While on his way to the city of Damascus in Syria to hunt down Christians he had a powerful spiritual experience of the risen Jesus. Saul then joined the Christian movement (much to the surprise of everyone) and eventually made his way to the Syrian city of Antioch.
- Paul’s beliefs about Jesus were shaped by his own spiritual experience of Jesus as well as teaching from disciples like Peter and Jesus’ brother James.
- He felt called to share the Gospel of Jesus with the non-Jewish people of the Roman Empire and made several missionary journeys to the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. He founded Christian communities in cities like Ephesus, Colossae, Phlippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and the region of Galatia. He only stayed in these places for a around 1-2 years, then maintained his connection with these new churches by letter.
- In these letters we see Paul deal with practical issues facing these early churches, encourage them in their mission, and correct errors in their beliefs or practices.
What was Corinth like?
Corinth was one of the great city states of Classical Greece but was completely destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. It was then left in ruins until it was refounded as Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. It quickly regained its status as one the busiest sea ports in the Mediterranean.
Corinth in Paul’s time was still a relatively new city where people had a greater opportunity to advance in society than in other places – it was a competitive environment where the rules of more established cities didn’t fully apply. We can see this reflected in the letter, where Paul deals with many issues related to social and religious status.
What were Paul’s Churches like?
Paul’s churches usually met in the home of the family with the largest house. A church community might include several smaller house gatherings that only met occasionally in one place. They met for worship on Sundays, and this worship (as we’ll see later in 1 Corinthians) included a community meal. Paul’s letters would have been read aloud in their entirety at a church gathering.
Introduction to the Letter (1 Cor. 1:1-9)
- Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus in Turkey around 54 AD in response to concerns brought to him by people from the household of a church leader named Chloe (1:11).
- The opening part of Paul’s letters always cover the main themes of what he’s writing about and help us understand the whole letter. In the opening of 1 Corinthians we hear Paul talk about the issue of spiritual gifts, which is the major issue at the heart of the letter (chapters 12-14).
- Notice also how Paul refers to Jesus 9 times in these opening verses. He is reminding this gifted but divided church about who is the centre of their faith. This focus on Jesus is seen throughout the letter. It would have also supported this community as they proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord” in a city where everyone else accepted the practical reality that the Roman Emperor ruled the world, ie. that “Caesar is Lord.” Indeed the word ‘Christ’ to Greeks would have indicated royalty, and Paul’s many references to Christ Jesus can be translated as “King Jesus.”
Dealing with Divisions and Finding Unity in Jesus (1 Cor. 1:10-4:21)
The major issue Paul begins with is the serious division within the church over various church leaders (1:10-17). The main divisions are highlighted in 1:12, where some look to Paul’s authority, some look to another missionary leader named Apollos, and others to the Apostle Peter (who is called by his Aramaic name Cephas). Paul stresses that Jesus is the true leader of the church, and that divisions over human leaders is foolish. Christians are called to united in Jesus, no matter what they think about the various human leaders of the church.
Paul then turns his listener’s attention to who Jesus is, and how the Gospel of Jesus is all about turning the world’s expectations upside down.
1:22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified:a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In chapter 2 Paul argues that many in Corinth have confused human wisdom (which values status and the appearance of power) with God’s wisdom (which comes through the humble and crucified Jesus). In Chapter 3 he talks about the true place of leaders in the church: that they are important and must be responsible, but everything ultimately rests on Jesus and God’s power. Every leader should also be assessed on whether they work on the foundation of who Jesus is and what he taught.
This section wraps up with chapter 4, but since we ran out of time at our in person section, chapter 4 will have to wait for the next post. Take care until then.