1. Author and Time of Writing
Events leading up to the Epistle
a) Formation and Development of the Assembly at Corinth
During his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul had come to Europe for the first time (around 51 – 54 AD). He also came to Corinth via Philippi, Thessalonica and Athens (Acts 18). There he remained for 18 months for the Lord “had much people in this city” (Acts 18:10). As usual Paul began his ministry of preaching the gospel in the synagogues of the Jews. Quite a few came to believe in the Lord Jesus. But when other Jews refused the message Paul withdraw from them and spoke to Greeks also. This is how a large assembly of Jews and Greeks came into existence in this city as a result of the apostle's activity (see 1 Cor. 4:15; Acts 18:4).
Corinth was a large seaport and commercial city on the Isthmus of Northern Greece and the Peloponnese with two well-known seaports (Cenchrea and Lech-ion). Its central location made Corinth to a centre of trade, culture and philosophy but also of entertainment, immorality and idolatry. The immorality of the Corinthians was proverbial.
The assembly in Corinth which consisted of Jews and Greeks was exposed to the influences of the surrounding world, in two ways: the first reason was that most of the Christians originated from a heathen background (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and, secondly, they were continually exposed to their evil surrounding. We learn by the epistle that the sexual immorality of the city of Corinth had influenced some of the assembly (1 Cor. 5:1; 6:15-18). Some believers saw nothing evil in eating meat that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8; 10:23-31). Others had no problem even to enter an idol temple (1 Cor. 10:14-22). There were problems among the Christians, too: party-spirit leading to disputes (1 Cor. 1:11; 3:4; 11:18); brother went to law with brother (1 Cor. 6:1-8); disorder in the meetings (1 Cor. 11:20-34; 14:33) and finally they even denied the fundamental Christian truth of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12.35). In addition to all this, some men stood up and tried to cast doubt on the Apostle Paul's apostolic authority (1 Corinthians 9).
b) Reason for writing the Epistle
After returning from his second missionary journey Paul started his third journey. During this journey he remained in Ephesus for three years. This is probably when he came to know more details than the ones mentioned earlier on. From the First Epistle to the Corinthians we learn that his information was based on two sources. Firstly he had heard of the contentions among the Corinthians by them which were of the house of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11). Secondly, the Corinthians had written a letter to Paul asking various questions which had been in their minds (1 Cor. 7:1; compare chap. 8:1; 12:1; 16:1).
Based on 1 Cor. 5:9 most of scientists nowadays assume that this very epistle has been preceded by another earlier letter of the Apostle Paul (which is no longer available now). Earlier expositors had not thought so. - This is possible but not proven, neither necessary to understand this epistle. It is very possible the Apostle referred to the Epistle to the Romans when saying “I wrote to you in an epistle” (see Rom. 16:22; also paragraph 3. Peculiarities.
2. Subject and purpose of writing
The Apostle Paul's authorship of this epistle has never seriously been doubted. According to teaching and style this epistle is typical of “Paul”. He mentions himself as author at the beginning and end of the epistle (1 Cor. 1:1; 16:21). And in chap. 4:15 he writes that “I have begotten you through the gospel”. By this he means that he has led the Corinthians to a living faith in God and this agrees fully with the facts in Acts, as we have already seen.
Around the year 95 AD Clemens from Rome testifies to the fact that Paul was the author of First Corinthians. Similarly, Polycarp (around 70 – 155 AD), Irenaeus (around 140 – 202 AD) and Tertullian (around 160 – 220 AD) do so.
By the end of his three-year-stay in Ephesus (while on his third missionary journey – 1 Cor. 16:8) around 57 AC the Apostle, guided by the Spirit of God, reluctantly started to write a very serious and extremely important epistle to the assembly in Corinth. First and Second Corinthians are the only two epistles in the NT directed to “the assembly of God” as such. Not only is the assembly addressed but also “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). This would stress the overall importance of this epistle for all Christians professing to belong to the Lord Jesus. This is probably why the title “Lord” appears much more in First Corinthians than in any other epistle of the NT (nearly 70 times). The uniformity and general validity of the Apostle's teachings are stressed in 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17 and 14:33.
First Corinthians contains the most precise instructions for the inward order and corporative comportment of the church of God under the guidance and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly the responsibility of the believers is spoken to over and over again (for example by the words “know you not…?” chap. 3:16; 5:6; 6:188.8.131.52.16.19; 9:13.24; compare chap. 10:1; 12:1).
The first part of the epistle (chap. 1 to 9) views the assembly under the aspect of a building, a holy temple for God (chap. 3:9-17). In this house of God godly order must rule. This is also why man's responsibility when building (chap. 3) and the order and discipline in the church (chap. 5) are mentioned here.
From chap. 10 onwards the church of God as the body of Christ is the main subject (1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12.3.27). With the body of Christ the main thought is unity. This unity is not contrary to the diversity of members and their functions but rather shows a living polarity.
Besides the three synoptic gospels only 1 Corinthians gives us detailed instructions concerning the Lord's Supper. First Corinthians 10:16-22 teaches us regarding the Lord's Table. At his table the members of his body express communion with Him and with each other. Chapter 11:23-33 presents the Lord's Supper. With the breaking and eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup in remembrance of him the Lord's death is announced until He comes. Both passages stress the responsibility of the ones partaking. Chapter 10 stresses the collective and chapter 11 the personal responsibility of the believer.
Two more paragraphs need special mention: chapter 13 is often called “the canticle of love”. In God's wisdom chapter 13 comes very fittingly between the information on spiritual gifts (chapter 12) and the instructions on how to rightly live out these gifts in chapter 14. Chapter 14 mentions the gift of prophecy and the gift of speaking in tongues. This last gift was over-estimated by the Corinthians.
The second paragraph is the detailed essay on resurrection in chapter 15. This ends with the revelation of the mystery of the transformation of the living saints at the rapture of the church.
Relation between Paul and the Assembly at Corinth
Out of both Epistles to the Corinthians modern science has reconstructed a complicated but in no way uniform picture of the relation between the Apostle Paul and the assembly at Corinth. Reading 1 Cor. 5:9 one thinks to prove that Paul must have written another earlier epistle to the Corinthians. The epistle however has been lost and part of this epistle against fornication would be contained in 2 Cor. 6:14 to 7:1. Yet this very epistle was not understood and resulted in the epistle mentioned in 1 Cor. 7:1. Upon this, one says, Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians and then made the “visit in heaviness” (2 Cor. 2:1) announced in 1 Cor. 4:19; 11:34; 16:5f. Nowhere in the NT do we find another mention of this visit. After this visit Paul is supposed to have written another epistle with tears (2 Cor. 2:4; 7:8) which, according to some, has been partially preserved in 2 Cor. 10 to 13 (so-called epistle of 4 chapters). And only after that Paul is supposed to have written the Second Epistle to the Corinthians as “epistle of reconciliation”. Yet another assumption connected with this theory is that 1 Cor. 5 does not speak of the same person as 2 Cor. 2 and 7.
The question as to whether Paul thinks of an earlier yet no longer existent epistle (in 1 Cor. 5:9) is not easy to answer. And yet the NT and especially the epistles to the Corinthians furnish a much easier picture. Paul wrote the First Epistle with a very burdened heart for he continuously had in mind the very sad events and conditions in this assembly (1 Cor. 3:2.17; 4:13-16; 5:2; 11:22). Paul had intended to visit a second time (1 Cor. 4:19; 11:34; 16:5f). But because he knew that such a visit would lead to hardship he refrained from it in order to spare the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:15.23; 2:1). He instead sent Titus to Corinth. After Titus' return Paul wrote the second epistle whilst staying in Macedonia. When Paul wrote in anguish of heart and in much affliction (according to 2 Cor. 2:4 and 7:8) he hinted at his first epistle. There he especially thought of chapter 5 regarding the serious case of fornication. It is therefore not necessary to think of another epistle “in between” the two existing ones. The person mentioned in 2 Cor. 2 and 7 must be seen as identical with the adulterer of the first epistle. The Holy Spirit does not lead his inspired writer to introduce a new, hitherto unknown person without any explanation. The Holy Spirit rather refers to the facts already known to the reader. In 2 Cor. 12:14 and 13:1 Paul mentions the “third time” he speaks of his third intention to come although as a matter of fact this would have been his second visit only. According to Acts 20:2-3 this visit probably took place during Paul's three-months-stay in Greece. For during this time Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans from Corinth. In it he speaks of his forthcoming journey to Jerusalem (Rom. 16:25). He also mentions Phebe, a sister from Cenchrea who was a servant at the church there (Rom. 16:1) and his host Gaius (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14).
4. Overview of Contents
I. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Introduction: Greetings and Thanks
II. 1 Corinthians 1:10 - 4:21 Divisions in the Assembly
III. 1 Corinthians 5:1 – 6:20 Moral Disorder in the Assembly
IV. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40 Single and Married Life
V. 1 Corinthians 8:1 – 11:1 Sacrifices to Idols; the Lord's Supper
VI. 1 Corinthians 11:2-34 The Position of Woman; the Lord's Supper
VII. 1 Corinthians 12:1 – 14:40 The Body of Christ and the Spiritual Gifts of the Members
VIII. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 The Fact of Resurrection
IX. 1 Corinthians 16:1-24 Conclusions: Information and Greetings