Paul addressed this epistle to the church which was in the city of Corinth. He wrote it from Ephesus around A.D. 55–57 (more likely 57). Carnal Corinth was the sin center of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day. It was labeled “Vanity Fair.” Its location was about forty miles west of Athens on a narrow isthmus between Peloponnesus and the mainland. It was the great commercial center of the Roman Empire with three harbors, of which two were important: Lechaeum, about one and one half miles to the west, and Cenchrea, about eight and one half miles to the east. Since the time of Paul, a canal has been put through the isthmus, and Corinth is no longer an important city.
Even the ruins of Corinth were lost to history for many years. A fishing village had been built over them. In 1928 an earthquake uncovered them, and now much of the city has been excavated.
During that time in history when Greece was independent, Corinth was the head of the Achaean League. Later, in 196 B.C., Rome declared it a free city. In 146 B.C. Corinth rebelled and was totally destroyed by Mummius, the Roman general. Its art treasures were taken to Rome and for a century it lay desolate. One hundred years later, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar rebuilt the city in great elegance, restoring it to its former prominence and returning its former splendor.
In Paul’s day there were about four hundred thousand inhabitants in Corinth. It was located on this important isthmus, as we previously the commerce of the world flowed through the two harbors connected with the city of Corinth. The population consisted of Greeks, Jews, Italians, and a mixed multitude. Sailors, merchants, adventurers, and refugees from all corners of the Roman Empire filled its streets. A perpetual “Vanity Fair” was held here. The vices of the East and of the West met and clasped hands in the work of human degradation.
Religion itself was put to ignoble uses. A magnificent temple was built for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, or Venus as we know her by the Roman name. In it were a thousand priestesses who ministered to a base worship. Those thousand so–called priestesses were actually nothing in the world but prostitutes. Sex was a religion there. I believe that Corinth could teach this generation about sex. However, I think this generation already knows enough about that subject. We are overwhelmed with it ad nauseam today.
Not only was their religion debased, but the Greek philosophy was in its decay also. The city was given over to licentiousness and pleasure. The Isthmian games were conducted here. The people went on in endless discussions. It was into this kind of setting that Paul came, and later he said, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This was a people given over to pleasure, debauchery, and drunkenness. In fact, they coined a word in the Roman Empire which was to “corinthianize.” Believe me, when you would “corinthianize,” it meant that you went to the very limit in sin.
Against this corrupt background Paul preached the gospel in Corinth. He founded a church there and later wrote two epistles to them. Paul came to Corinth on his second missionary journey, and it was the terminus of his third missionary journey. Acts 18:1–18 gives us the account of eighteen months spent in Corinth. It was in Corinth that he met Aquila and Priscilla. They had been driven out of Rome by an edict of Emperor Claudius. Suetonius writes that this edict was issued because of tumults raised by the Jews who were persecuting their Christian brethren.
When Paul first came to Corinth, he preached in the synagogue. As usual, a riot was the result. Paul usually had a riot, revolution, and revival wherever he went. Corinth was no exception.
On Paul’s third journey he spent a long period of time in Ephesus. It was in Ephesus that he did some of his outstanding work as a missionary. Probably that area was more thoroughly evangelized than any other. However, this caused the Corinthians to become disturbed. They were baby Christians, and they were urging Paul to come to them. Apparently Paul wrote them a letter to correct some of the errors that had come into that church. They, in turn, wrote to Paul asking questions that they wanted answered about political issues, religion, domestic problems, heathenism, and morality. Paul answered them and responded to more reports which were brought to him. We do not have that first letter which Paul wrote to them. The letter that followed the reports brought to him is the letter we know today as 1 Corinthians. That is the epistle we are about to study. Later on Paul wrote the letter we now call 2 Corinthians.
The keynote of this epistle is the supremacy of Christ, the Lordship of Jesus. That is so important for us to note because that is the solution to the problems. You will find here that He is the solution to correct moral, social, and ecclesiastical disorders.
In this epistle we will also find the true doctrine of the Resurrection set forth. That makes this epistle tremendously significant.
A broad outline of this book divides it into three major divisions:
- Salutation and thanksgiving, 1:1–9
- Carnalities, 1:10–11:34 (Conditions in the Corinthian church)
- Spiritualities, 12–16 (Spiritual gifts)
The spiritualities are far more important than the carnalities. I think we need to realize that over nineteen hundred years ago the church in Corinth was beset with problems. They had lost sight of the main objective, and they had gotten away from the person of Christ. As a consequence, they were overwhelmed with these problems.
Our contemporary church is likewise beset with problems. It is almost shocking to discover that the problems of the church today are the same as they were in Corinth over nineteen hundred years ago. I believe that the real problem today is that we have lost sight of the centrality of Christ crucified. We have lost sight of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That was the problem then, and it is still the problem now. Our study of this epistle should be a relevant and pertinent study for us.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 44: 1 Corinthians. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)