Archibald Thomas Robertson

First Corinthians

From Ephesus A.D. 54 Or 55

By Way of Introduction

It would be a hard-boiled critic today who would dare deny the genuineness of I Corinthians. The Dutch wild man, Van Manen, did indeed argue that Paul wrote no epistles if indeed he ever lived. Such intellectual banality is well answered by Whateley’s Historic Doubts about Napolean Bonaparte which was so cleverly done that some readers were actually convinced that no such man ever existed, but is the product of myth and legend. Even Baur was compelled to acknowledge the genuineness of I and II Corinthians, Galatians and Romans (the Big Four of Pauline criticism). It is a waste of time now to prove what all admit to be true. Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, wrote I Corinthians.

We know where Paul was when he wrote the letter for he tells us in 1Co 16:8 : “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost.” That was, indeed, his plan, but the uproar in Ephesus at the hands of Demetrius caused his departure sooner than he expected (Acts 18:21-20:1; 2Co 2:12.). But he is in Ephesus when he writes.

We know also the time of the year when he writes, in the spring before pentecost. Unfortunately we do not know the precise year, though it was at the close of his stay of three years (in round numbers) at Ephesus (Act 20:31). Like all the years in Paul’s ministry we have to allow a sliding scale in relation to his other engagements. One may guess the early spring of a.d. 54 or 55.

The occasion of the Epistle is made plain by numerous allusions personal and otherwise. Paul had arrived in Ephesus from Antioch shortly after the departure of Apollos for Corinth with letters of commendation from Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:28-19:1). It is not clear how long Apollos remained in Corinth, but he is back in Ephesus when Paul writes the letter and he has declined Paul’s request to go back to Corinth (1Co 16:12). Some of the household of Chloe had heard or come from Corinth with full details of the factions in the church over Apollos and Paul, clearly the reason why Apollos left (1Co 1:10-12). Even Cephas nominally was drawn into it, though there is no evidence that Peter himself had come to Corinth. Paul had sent Timothy over to Corinth to put an end to the factions (1Co 4:17), though he was uneasy over the outcome (1Co 16:10.). This disturbance was enough of itself to call forth a letter from Paul. But it was by no means the whole story. Paul had already written a letter, now lost to us, concerning a peculiarly disgusting case of incest in the membership (1Co 5:9). They were having lawsuits with one another before heathen judges. Members of the church had written Paul a letter about marriage whether any or all should marry (1Co 7:1). They were troubled also whether it was right to eat meat that had been offered to idols in the heathen temples (1Co 8:1). Spiritual gifts of an unusual nature were manifested in Corinth and these were the occasion of a deal of trouble (1Co 12:1). The doctrine of the resurrection gave much trouble in Corinth (1Co 15:12). Paul was interested in the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (1Co 16:1) and in their share in it. The church in Corinth had sent a committee (Stephanas, Fortunatus, Achaicus) to Paul in Ephesus. He hopes to come himself after passing through Macedonia (1Co 16:5.). It is possible that he had made a short visit before this letter (2Co 13:1), though not certain as he may have intended to go one time without going as he certainly once changed his plans on the subject (2Co 1:15-22). Whether Titus took the letter on his visit or it was sent on after the return of Timothy is not perfectly clear. Probably Timothy returned to Ephesus from Corinth shortly after the epistle was sent on, possibly by the committee who returned to Corinth (1Co 16:17), for Timothy and Erastus were sent on from Ephesus to Macedonia before the outbreak at the hands of Demetrius (Act 19:22). Apparently Timothy had not fully succeeded in reconciling the factions in Corinth for Paul dispatched Titus who was to meet him at Troas as he went on to Macedonia. Paul’s hurried departure from Ephesus (Act 20:1) took him to Troas before Titus arrived and Paul’s impatience there brought him to Macedonia where he did meet Titus on his return from Corinth (2Co 2:12.).

It is clear therefore that Paul wrote what we call I Corinthians in a disturbed state of mind. He had founded the church there, had spent two years there (Acts 18), and took pardonable pride in his work there as a wise architect (1Co 3:10) for he had built the church on Christ as the foundation. He was anxious that his work should abide. It is plain that the disturbances in the church in Corinth were fomented from without by the Judaizers whom Paul had defeated at the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:1-35; Gal 2:1-10). They were overwhelmed there, but renewed their attacks in Antioch (Gal 2:11-21). Henceforth throughout the second mission tour they are a disturbing element in Galatia, in Corinth, in Jerusalem. While Paul is winning the Gentiles in the Roman Empire to Christ, these Judaizers are trying to win Paul’s converts to Judaism. Nowhere do we see the conflict at so white a heat as in Corinth. Paul finally will expose them with withering sarcasm (2 Corinthians 10-13) as Jesus did the Pharisees in Matthew 23 on that last day in the temple. Factional strife, immorality, perverted ideas about marriage, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection, these complicated problems are a vivid picture of church life in our cities today. The discussion of them shows Paul’s many-sidedness and also the powerful grasp that he has upon the realities of the gospel. Questions of casuistry are faced fairly and serious ethical issues are met squarely. But along with the treatment of these vexed matters Paul sings the noblest song of the ages on love (chapter 1Co 13:1-13) and writes the classic discussion on the resurrection (chapter 1 Corinthians 15). If one knows clearly and fully the Corinthian Epistles and Paul’s dealings with Corinth, he has an understanding of a large section of his life and ministry. No church caused him more anxiety than did Corinth (2Co 11:28). 

Taken from "Word Pictures in the New Testament" by Archibald Thomas Robertson