by Ed Gallagher
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18
This lesson covers Paul’s two letters written to the church at Corinth.
- 1 Corinthians, written from Ephesus, Spring AD 54
- 2 Corinthians, written from Macedonia (Philippi? Thessalonica?), late AD 54 or early AD 55
How many letters did Paul send to Corinth? Trick question. The answer: at least 4. Besides our 1–2 Corinthians, Paul mentions at 1 Corinthians 5:9 a previous letter (before the letter we call 1 Corinthians), and at 2 Corinthians 2:4; 7:8 he mentions a sorrowful letter, which does not sound like our 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately, we no longer have the “previous letter” or (apparently) the “sorrowful letter.” These various letters reveal a tumultuous relationship between Paul and the Corinthian Christians.
Who established the church in Corinth? Paul did. He lived there for 18 months (Acts 18:11), beginning in early AD 50. What do you know about the people that Paul converted? Paul says that not many of them had a high social position (1 Cor 1:26). They had been involved in various sins (6:9–11). They sometimes took each other to court (6:1–8) and generally seem not to have cared much for each other (ch. 8; 11:17–34; etc.). Some of them sought glory, even during a worship service (chs. 12–14). They mostly had a pagan background, not Jewish. Some of them seem to have been well-off: Gaius (1 Cor 1:14), who could host the entire church in his house (Rom 16:23); perhaps Crispus (1 Cor 1:14; cf. Acts 18:8; cf. also 1 Cor 1:1 and Acts 18:17); Erastus (Rom 16:23; see here). There is conflict between rich and poor (11:17–34).
After leaving Corinth, Paul eventually settled in Ephesus for 3 years (Acts 20:31; cf. Acts 19), probably AD 52–54/55, where he wrote 1 Corinthians (16:8), perhaps in Spring 54. (map) The “previous letter” (1 Cor 5:9) apparently addressed sexual immorality. After sending this previous letter, Paul heard a report from “Chloe’s people” (1 Cor 1:11), informing the apostle of the rise of different parties within the church. Paul also received a letter from some Corinthian Christians (cf. 1 Cor 7:1; perhaps carried by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus; 1 Cor 16:7)
What are some of the issues Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians? He covers a lot of ground: sexual immorality (ch. 5), marriage (ch. 7), eating meat sacrificed to idols (ch. 8), payment for preaching (ch. 9), the Lord’s supper (ch. 11), spiritual gifts (chs. 12–14), resurrection (ch. 15). This letter contains perhaps the most famous passage in all of Paul’s letters, the encomium of love in ch. 13. We might even say that this love chapter is the theme chapter for the entire letter, the foundation for how Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to live together in harmony, whether in the context of the Lord’s Supper, or spiritual gifts, or meat sacrificed to idols, or marriage, or whatever. The example of love is the cross of Christ, the foundation of Paul’s message (2:2).
After sending 1 Corinthians, Paul left Ephesus (2 Cor 1:8 implies he is no longer in Asia). He seems to be in Macedonia at the time of writing 2 Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor 7:5–16). Paul had told the Corinthians that he wanted to travel by land from Ephesus north to Macedonia and then south to Corinth (1 Cor 16:5–7; map). However, news from Corinth apparently led him to revise his plans; instead, he took a ship from Ephesus to Corinth, planning then on going up to Macedonia (2 Cor 1:15–16). But his visit to Corinth was a painful one. It is not clear what caused the pain, but there was conflict with a particular person (2:5–11). The result was that Paul wanted to avoid returning to Corinth soon (1:23; 2:1). He returned to Ephesus by ship. Paul had to defend this decision (1:15–23). Instead of visiting Corinth, Paul sent the sorrowful letter (not 2 Corinthians), and Titus carried this letter (2 Cor 2:4, 9; 7:6–8, 13–16). Paul went north to Troas, probably to meet Titus sooner and receive word about how his tearful letter was received in Corinth. He moved on to Macedonia (2:12–13), and received good news from Titus about Corinth (7:5–16). At this point, he wrote 2 Corinthians. (After all this, Paul returned to Corinth, from whence he wrote to the church in Rome, as discussed in the relevant lesson.)
Because of the circumstances in which it was written, 2 Corinthians is a very personal letter, revealing more of the heart of Paul than most of his other letters. Much of the letter deals with his relationship to the Corinthians. We find famous passages dealing with the old and new covenants (ch. 3), the glory of the gospel despite the weakness of the messengers (ch. 4), the ministry of reconciliation (5:11–21), encouragement not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (6:14–7:1). In chs. 8–9, Paul reminds the Corinthians about the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem.
The letter closes (chs. 10–13) with a long defense of Paul’s apostolic ministry against certain missionaries whom Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11), apparently Jewish Christians (11:22). Famous passages here include Paul’s “boasting” about all the trials he has endured (11:21–29), his report about a spiritual journey to Paradise by “a man in Christ” (probably Paul himself, 12:1–6), and his discussion of the thorn in his flesh (12:7–10).
What is God’s answer to Paul’s repeated prayer for help in 2 Corinthians 12:7–8? God’s reply is essentially, “no.” He will not remove the thorn, because God’s power is perfected in weakness (v. 9). What do you think about this answer? What does God mean that his power is perfected in weakness? We find a similar passage in 4:7–12, where the weakness of human nature (earthen vessels) makes manifest the surpassing greatness of the power of God. Human weakness displays God’s power because any success in ministry obviously derives from divine power. The frailty of our bodies, subject to disease and death, is consistently resisted by modern culture, which wants youth and vigor to last forever. But Paul teaches us to boast in our weakness (v. 9). Does this idea help us to face terrible medical diagnoses?
Paul’s two preserved letters to the Corinthians contain a wealth of teaching on how the gospel affects our lives here and now. Our lives should especially reflect love for one another (1 Cor 13), and we should allow God’s power to be displayed in our weakness (2 Cor 12:7–10).
Additional Questions for Discussion
Paul says that the foundation of his message is the crucifixion of Jesus (2:2). How does that concept inform the way he handles issues in the church such as Christians taking each other to court (1 Cor 6:1–8), or eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8), or the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–34), or spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12–14)?
What are Paul’s main points about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7?
How should love guide the behavior of Christians, according to 1 Corinthians 13?
What does 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 teach us about personal relationships? Compare 1 Corinthians 5:9–13.
In what way does Christ serve as an example of generosity, according to 2 Corinthians 8:9?
- Here is an article on the city of Corinth.
- Many scholars believe 2 Corinthians combines distinct letters from Paul to Corinth (brief description here and here).
- Here is an article on the message of 2 Corinthians.
Here are the Bible Project videos on 1–2 Corinthians.
Here’s a good video on location in Corinth, discussing Paul’s visit there.