Who Were the Corinthians?
“To those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (1 Corinthians 1:2 NASB).
By Tim Krupa
The Apostle Paul had an excellent relationship with most of the ecclesiae he dealt with, but Corinth was an exception. They were a problem.
Paul first came to Corinth while he traveled a pilgrim route we usually call “Paul’s Second Missionary Journey.” After going through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and stopping briefly in Troas, Paul headed for Macedonia (northern Greece). His Macedonian stops included Phillipi, Thessolonika, Berea, and Athens. He did not stay very long in these cities because the resistance of the Jewish leaders was immediate and physical.
Paul then headed south, ending up in Corinth, one of the largest cities in southern Greece. Now his missionary journey came to a pause. In contrast to the preceding stops, he stayed in Corinth for 18 months. This was a completely different situation from all the preceding, rather short stops.
There were probably multiple reasons for this extended stay. First, as indicated in Acts 18:10, there were a very large number of potential followers in Corinth. Second, the Corinthians must have needed help. Third, they must have been open to Paul’s teaching. Fourth, Jewish opposition to Paul was not as organized or spiteful as it had been in northern Greece.
Corinth was situated in an ideal spot for world-wide trade, located on an isthmus with access to the Aegean Sea on the east and the Adriatic Sea on the west. It had evolved into one of the most popular and influential cities around the Mediterranean Sea. A straight line drawn from Jerusalem to Rome, would almost pass-through Corinth, which was roughly halfway between the two cities. Corinth had a unique and well protected access to the Mediterranean shipping lanes. This meant the city was always filled with travelers, people with money, or inebriated sailors celebrating their shore leaves, and was active with questionable activities, such as smuggling and all forms of corruption.
This was the boiling pot that Paul came to. Imagine Paul being with them for 18 months attending many meetings and spending much time teaching. Paul finally headed east and eventually returned to where he started, Antioch in Syria.
But Paul did not leave it there. To continue his spiritual guidance, he wrote a series of letters to the believers in Corinth. There is good reason to believe that Paul probably wrote four letters to this ecclesia.
The First Letter
In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul wrote, “In my previous letter I said, ‘Don’t mix with the immoral’” (Phillips). This makes it quite obvious that “First Corinthians” is not the first letter Paul had sent them.
Perhaps a fragment of the first letter is contained in 2 Corinthians 6:14 through 7:1.1 In these 5 verses Paul continued the thought of being separate from unbelievers when he wrote, “What business can a believer have with an unbeliever?” (Phillips). Here, Paul spoke strongly about morality. His comment in 1 Corinthians 5:9 makes it clear that his message in the first letter was “don’t mix with the immoral.” Paul focused on the same subject in the two separate references.
(1) “Introduction to 1 and 2 Corinthians,” page 325. The New Testament, A Translation by William Barclay, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1969.
Letters Three and Four
Two more letters are contained in “Second Corinthians.” However, when reading Second Corinthians from chapter one through to sixteen, something seems odd.
In the first chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul was encouraging, comforting, and speaks to their sufferings. He said in 1:15 that his plan was to visit them again. However, in verse 23 he mentioned, “it was because I did not want to hurt you that I did not come.” Later, in chapter 2:4 he said, “I wrote that letter … with a deeply troubled mind … I wrote it in tears.” Paul continued the same tone of voice through Chapter 9. It is very comforting. “We are partners with you in your quest for joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24 Barclay).
Next, he referred back to that major incident of immorality discussed in First Corinthians. Paul wrote, “This punishment inflicted by the majority of the congregation is sufficient … You should therefore rather forgive him and encourage him. You do not want the man to be utterly overwhelmed by excess of grief” (2 Corinthians 2:6,7 Barclay). Paul acknowledged that the congregation had dealt effectively with the incident of immorality.
But in chapter 10, there is a big change. Paul became defensive and angry. After 9 chapters of support, he now started accusing them of criticizing him, not trusting him, and saying bad things about him. 2 Corinthians 13:1,2 (Barclay) reads, “I am coming to visit you for the third time. I warned you before … I will show no mercy.” This is a different attitude expressed by Paul. That change may be confusing. However, one suggestion helps explain the change of attitude. Chapters 10 through 13 should come before the earlier chapters.
In chapters 10 through 13 Paul is justifiably angry. Following his earlier letter, they had not corrected the situation of immorality. Paul wrote that he was going to return to Corinth one more time and straighten things out saying, “I will show no mercy” (2 Corinthians 13:2 Barclay).
Then, reading chapters 1 through 9 makes more sense. These chapters comprise the fourth letter. The Corinthians had finally taken corrective action. Paul added that due to circumstances, he was not able to return to Corinth. However, God had overruled, and Paul now said, “This punishment inflicted by the majority of the congregation is sufficient … You should [now] forgive him and encourage him. I urge you therefore to affirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6,7 Barclay). What a turn around.
The reordering of these chapters makes the story progress in a more logical manner. Still, the reality remains that the letters reveal the church of Corinth to have had nearly every imaginable problem within its congregation. They had to deal with divisions, idolatry, sectarianism, judging others, confusing traditions, marriage issues, understanding spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, etc., etc.
Paul, in his efforts to teach them, repeatedly referenced the Spirit of Jehovah, and the important role of the apostles. He spent wonderful sections of his letter on “love” and the doctrine of the “resurrection.” Our hearts go out to these dear brethren of Corinth. Their environment produced great barriers to be overcome in their efforts to follow Christ.
The remaining articles of this issue will highlight many of the lessons Paul brought to the Corinthians. What was Paul’s goal? What was his intention? He said it best in 2 Corinthians 4:11 (Phillips): “So that the life of Jesus may be plainly seen in our mortal lives.”