The First Epistle to the Corinthians
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles(*) tells us that the preaching of the Gospel reached Europe through St. Paul when he saw the vision of the Macedonian by night asking him to come over to Macedonia (North of Greece) and help them. St. Paul and Silas sailed from the seaport of Troas (West of Asia Minor) crossing the sea to the island of Samothrace, then to the port of Neapolis in Greece, and from there they reached Philippi (founded by Philip, the father of Alexander The Great, 357 BC). This was the first European city traversed by a Christian missionary and where the first Christian Church was established(1). The first believer in this city was Lydia, the seller of purple. The preaching of Paul & Silas led them to imprisonment in Philippi. However, God opened the doors of the prison and freed them; a miracle that led the prison guard and his family to the faith and to their baptism after they heard the famous verse “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:16-40)
Afterwards, Paul & Silas founded the Church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), then moved to Berea (Acts 17:10-12), then sailed south to Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and crossed the small gulf to Corinth (the Capital of Achaea, and its port Cenchrea), which was a main city in Greece and was the trading center between Rome, Ephesus, and Alexandria. It was also a city of bad reputation and a center for evil and immorality. This did not deter St. Paul but increased his zeal to evangelize its people and invite them to believe in the Savior of the world.
In Corinth, Paul met with Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. They were Jews who emigrated from Rome by order of Claudius (who meant to ethnically cleanse Rome from the Jews). Paul abode with them since he was a tent maker like them. They became a great help to Paul and served in many regions and he wrote about them in his letter to the Romans, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom. 16:3,4).
Silas and Timothy traveled from Perea to Corinth where they joined Paul who had started preaching in the Jewish synagogue. However, he found resistance and defiance from the Jews so that he shook out his clothes saying, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean (of my responsibility). From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). Nevertheless, Crispus the head of the synagogue believed with all his family (1Cor. 1:14), also Justus and many others believed and were baptized (Acts 18:7,8). God strengthened Paul in a night vision saying “Do not be afraid but speak and don’t be silent. For I am with you and no one will harm you for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9,10).
When Gallio reigned over Achaia the Jews presented to him Paul to be tried as a trespasser of the law. But Gallio did not want to interfere in a trial that concerned them as Jews, and he kicked them out. The Greek men beat Sosthenes the leader of the synagogue and Paul went out free (Acts 18:12-17).
Paul remained in Corinth for a year and a half “teaching them the word of God” (Acts 18:11), and there he wrote his first epistles (about 51-52 AD), the two Epistles to the Thessalonians(2) who were new in their faith. These are considered to be written before all the books of the New Testament, except the letter of St. James.
During his third missionary trip (that extended four years, from mid 53 to mid 57 AD; in which he traveled 3500 miles by land and sea till he reached Illyricum, north west of Greece), St. Paul went to Ephesus for the second time and stayed there for three years. During this time a Jew named Apollo, who was an Egyptian from Alexandria, came to Ephesus. The book of Acts mentions that he was an eloquent man, knowledgeable in the scriptures. He was an expert in the way of the Lord and was fervent in spirit, speaking and teaching precisely the way of the Lord knowing only the baptism of John. He started preaching in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of the Lord more accurately (Acts 18:24-26). Afterward, Apollo came to Achaia (Greece) and helped a lot with the grace of God those who believed, because he strongly rebuked the Jews in public, proving from the books that “Jesus is the Christ” (Acts18:27,28).
Contents of the Epistle:
St. Paul wrote his first(3) epistle to the Corinthians from Ephesus and Titus delivered it to them. It is one of his lengthy epistles (16 chapters) and it carries many principles that guided the Church throughout the ages, beside his explanation of many important issues that became an essential part of the Christian doctrine. This epistle contains the oldest text on the foundation of the Eucharist (1Cor 11:23-26) [written years before the gospels of St. Matthew (or St. Mark)]. Also, it sheds light on the resurrection of the believers and the nature of the resurrected body (1Cor 15), the gift of speaking with tongues (1Cor 12, 14). It contains the famous chapter on Love (Charity, 1Cor. 13), and also contains unmatched rules in dealings, relationships, and permissible and forbidden issues (1Cor. 6:12, 10:23). This is in addition to confronting some of the problems of the Corinthian Church such as divisions and sectarianism (1Cor. 1:10 – 4:21), and other issues such as trials in front of unbelievers (1Cor. 6:1-11), the control and isolation of deviated behavior with emphasis on sanctification of the body and control of its instincts (1Cor. 3:16,17; 5; 6:13-20; 9:27). It also offers a response to the inquiries regarding marital affairs and celibacy (1Cor. 7), and the sacrifices offered to the idols (1Cor. 8, 10). The epistle is divided into a sequence of standalone sections, each of which deals with a specific topic, making the epistle easy to study.
While sending grace and peace to the people of God’s Church in Corinth who are sanctified in Christ Jesus who are called saints, St. Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ (like the rest of the 12 apostles) and mentions the name of his companion Sosthenes (he could be the head of the synagogue mentioned in Acts 18:17 after he accepted the faith). Before he criticizes the negative situations in the Corinthian Church, he praises what is positive, praising God for His grace given to the Church who should live on the hope of the coming of Christ, “waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end …”(4)
2- Confronting the Divisions in the Church (1:1 - 4:21):
St. Paul knew of the divisions in the Church from the Chloe’s household (1:11) (and may be also from Stephanas, Fertunatus, and Achaicus when they were visiting Ephesus 1Cor 16:17). Some said they were followers of Paul, others of Apollo, others of Peter (Cephas was his Aramaic name)(5), and others considered themselves the only followers of Christ. He was immensely disappointed. He refuted their reasoning, and implored them to “all say one saying and not to have divisions among themselves but to be … in the same mind …” (1:10). He argued with them saying, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). It is only Christ who has reconciled us by his crucifixion and in His Name we are baptized. [Paul thanked God that he did not baptize except a few (1:14-16), “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach” (1:17)].
Those who followed Paul because he was the founder of their Church and the holder of wisdom, were the Gentiles to whom Paul opened the door of faith. Those who followed Apollo were attracted by his eloquence and his competence in the books and his ability to refute the Jews (Acts 18:24-28). The followers of Peter saw him as the leader of the Church and a genuine disciple of Christ, denying Paul his worthiness. Paul confronted these groups by condemning the wisdom of speech referring to the scriptures (Is. 29:14), “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1:19). Because the world in its wisdom did not know Him, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1:21).
Whereas the Jews were asking for a sign (miracle) to accept the faith, and the Gentiles looked for wisdom (i.e. the intellectual and philosophical argument), the Gospel came neither through this nor that but through the “crucified Christ”, as if it were a sign of weakness and defeat. That is why the Jews were stumbled and the Greeks saw the cross as ignorance, but the true believers saw the cross as the power and the wisdom of God. Through the cross and the resurrection came the salvation from sin and victory over death, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25), yes, “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Therefore, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise ... and ... mighty.” (1:27,28).
Concerning Paul’s preaching, he confirms that his words and his preaching were not through intellectual conviction with human words but by the testimony of the spirit and strength (2:4) “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (2:2), and the source of his teaching and preaching was not the human wisdom but what “the Holy Spirit teaches” (2:13). The natural man who relies on his wisdom does not accept what comes from the Spirit of God, for he considers it ignorance (2:4). Without the Spirit of God we loose the wisdom that is from above, with which we know the things of God, and His plan for Salvation, which did not occur to any human mind, what “God has prepared to those who love Him” (2:9). If the leaders of this world had this wisdom they would not have crucified the Lord (2:8).
St. Paul warns the Corinthian Church that their division and bias to certain people reveals that they are still behaving according to the flesh. In alerting them he mentions that both Paul and Apollos were at the end servants: one cultivated and the other irrigated, but “only God made things grow” (3:7). If we considered the Church God’s building, then, Paul would be the wise builder, according to God’s grace, who put the foundation, and Apollos built upon it. But the only foundation is Jesus Christ. Anything built upon it would be tested as if by fire which distinguishes the gold from the straw.
Let us then denounce the wisdom of this world (which is foolishness to God) and beware not to ruin the Church, God’s temple, because “If anyone defiles the temple of God (through division and sectarianism), God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (3:17). “Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos … or life or death …” (3:21-23). Therefore, don’t boast in people, and don’t follow anyone, you are not ours, but, on the contrary, we are yours, and we are all in Christ as Christ is in God.
St. Paul ends this part of the epistle by an appeal and a warning. He learned that some people did not respect him, and even feel superior to him. They thought he had the intention not go to them again, but will send them his disciple, Timothy (4:27) and cut back his ties with their Church. He started telling them that he and his brothers the apostles were nothing but servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries (sacraments) of God. They were not heads of denominations or sects, and although his conscience is clear, this did not mean that he was innocent. Ultimately, “it is the Lord who judges me” (4:4) because He knows everything and “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (4:4,5). Therefore, do not hasten and judge before the time.
Then, he continued his admonition: “concerning me and Apollos, we both served you. Why then do you boast on account of one of us, and brag as if you came to the faith alone without us. Is it because we submitted ourselves for your service, you elevate yourselves above us? We have accepted to be ignorant, for you to become wise in Christ; to become weak so that you become strong in Christ. We have relinquished our dignity for you to receive dignity in Christ, “To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands(6) … ” (4:11–13). Is this what we deserve from you?
St. Paul explains that he did not mean to embarrass them with those words, but to warn them, and get their attention like a father does to his beloved children “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (4:15). He confirms that he will come to them speedily, hoping that Timothy(7) will succeed in his task to remind them of his “ways (of life) in Christ” (4:17) that they may imitate him as he imitates Christ (4:16, 11:1, Phil 3:17). St. Paul will confront those who are “puffed up” to see what they rely on. He says that it is not the words of the messenger that are important but the work that relies on the power of the Spirit, “For the Kingdom of God is not in word but in power” (4:20). Based on their behavior, he will come to them “with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21).
(To be continued)
(*) The Fellowship has published Short Notes on the Bible # 20 & 21 in the last quarter of 2003 on St. Paul’s missionary trips (Parts 4, 5 of Acts). The maps published with these “Notes” may help the reader to follow the events mentioned in the present “Background”.
(1) The Coptic Synaxarium commemorates the building of the first Church in Philippi, after the name of St. Mary, on the 21st of Baoni (around June, 28).
(2) Although some scholars tend to believe that St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians was his first epistle.
(3) From 1Cor. 5:9-11 text, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people … But now I have written to you …”, some scholars believe that St. Paul wrote a brief epistle to the Corinthians before that which the Church considers his first Epistle, and that it was lost. It was not considered among the Canonical Epistles because of its extreme shortness and its theme, which is the single issue of not having company with sexually immoral people without specifying them. This raised the question of how to follow this principle; Does this mean that Christians should live isolated from this world? This issue was clarified by St. Paul in Chapter 5.
(4) Also, he concludes his epistle with the Aramaic phrase “Maranatha”, which means “Come O’Lord”, looking forward to His last coming (1Cor 16:22).
(5) These three apostles, however, were faithful to Christ, joined together in Holy Communion and orthodox teaching, and did not seek their own glory, but the glory of God.
(6) “So, because he (Paul) was of the same trade, he stayed with them (Aquila and Priscilla) and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:3). “Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me” (Acts 21:34).
(7) Notice that at the end of the epistle, St. Paul repeats reminding them to take good care of Timothy, “let no one despise him” for his young age. They should fully respect him “for he does the work of the Lord as I also do” (16:10).