Introduction to 1 Corinthians
No other letter in the New Testament gives us a more practical picture of applying the Christian faith to the day-to-day issues of life and work than 1 Corinthians. Topics such as career and calling, the lasting value of work, overcoming individual limitations, leadership and service, the development of skills and abilities (or “gifts”), fair wages, environmental stewardship, and the use of money and possessions are prominent in the letter. The unifying perspective on all these topics is love. Love is the purpose, means, motivation, gift, and glory behind all work done in Christ.
The City of Corinth (1 Corinthians)
The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, which he founded on his second missionary journey (AD 48–51), is a treasure trove of practical theology for Christians facing everyday challenges. It provides Paul’s instruction to Christians grappling with real-life issues, including conflicts of loyalty, class differences, conflicts between personal freedom and the common good, and the difficulty of leading a diverse group of people to accomplish a shared mission.
In Paul’s time, Corinth was the most important city in Greece. Sitting astride the isthmus that joins the Peloponnesian Peninsula to mainland Greece, Corinth controlled both the Saronic Gulf to the east and the Gulf of Corinth to the north. Merchants wanted to avoid the difficult, dangerous sea journey around the fingers of the Peloponnese, so a great deal of the goods flowing between Rome and the western empire and the rich ports of the eastern Mediterranean were hauled across this isthmus. Almost all of it passed through Corinth, making it one of the empire’s great commercial centers. Strabo, an older contemporary of Paul, noted that “Corinth is called ‘wealthy’ because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other.”
The city had something of a boomtown atmosphere during the middle of the first century as freed slaves, veterans, merchants, and tradesmen streamed into the city. Though what we might now call “upward mobility” was elusive in the ancient world, Corinth was one place where it might be possible, with a few good breaks and a lot of hard work, to establish oneself and enjoy a reasonably good life. This contributed to the unique ethos of Corinth, which viewed itself as prosperous and self-sufficient, a city whose core value was “entrepreneurial pragmatism in the pursuit of success.” Many cities in today’s world aspire to this very ethos.
The Church in Corinth and Paul’s Letters (1 Corinthians)
Paul arrived in Corinth in the winter of AD 49/50 and lived there for a year and a half. While there he supported himself by working in tentmaking—or perhaps leather working  (Acts 18:2), the trade he had learned as a boy—in the workshop of Aquila and Priscilla (see 1 Cor. 4:12). He lays out his reasons for following this course in 1 Corinthians 9 (see below), even though he could have taken advantage of full-time support as a missionary from the start, as indeed he later does (Acts 18:4 and 2 Cor. 11:9).
In any case, his Sabbath-day preaching in the synagogue soon bore fruit, and the church in Corinth was born. The church seems to have been made up of not more than a hundred people when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Some were Jews, while most were Gentiles. They met in the houses of two or three wealthier members, but most belonged to the large underclass that populated all urban centers.
Paul continued to be keenly interested in the development of the church even after he left Corinth. Paul had written the congregation at least one letter prior to 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9) in order to address a problem that had come up after his departure. Members of the house of Chloe, who may have had business interests to attend to in Ephesus, visited Paul there and reported that the church in Corinth was in danger of coming apart at the seams over various divisions of opinion (1 Cor. 1:11). In entrepreneurial Corinthian style, competing groups were creating parties around their favorite apostles in order to gain status for themselves (chapters 1-4). Many were up in arms due to serious differences over the sexual behavior and business ethics of some of their members (chapters 5-6). Then another group of representatives from the church arrived with a letter in hand (1 Cor. 7:1, 16:17), querying Paul on a number of important issues, such as sex and marriage (chapter 7), the propriety of eating meat that had been previously offered to idols (chapters 8-10) and worship (chapters 11-14). Finally, Paul had also learned from one of these sources, or perhaps Apollos (see 1 Cor. 16:12), that some in the Corinthian church were denying the future resurrection of believers (chapter 15).
These questions hardly grew out of academic discussions. The Corinthians wanted to know how as followers of Christ they should act in matters of daily life and work. Paul gives answers throughout 1 Corinthians, making it one of the most practical books of the New Testament.
Strabo, Geographica 8.6.20.
Donald Engels, Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 49.
Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 4.
Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 5.
Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul’s Ministry: Tentmaking and Apostleship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 21–22.
Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 51–73.