The Book of 1 Corinthians: Introduction

February 14, 2024

by Peter Amsterdam

The city of Corinth, situated on a narrow land bridge between the Peloponnese region and mainland Greece, was a prosperous city in Paul’s time due to its location and harbors. The city of Cenchreae, about six miles to the east, was the gateway to Asia; Lechaeum, roughly two miles to the north on the Corinthian Gulf, led straight to the Roman Republic, in present-day Italy. A four-mile rock-cut track, built in 600 BC, connected the two port cities of Cenchreae and Lechaeum, which allowed cargo and even small ships to be hauled across the isthmus. Using the passage allowed ships to avoid the dangerous sea journey around the cape of the Peloponnese. Corinth was a natural crossroads for both land and sea travel.

Ancient Corinth had become the chief city of the Achaean League, a confederation of Greek city-states. It refused to submit when Rome demanded that the Achaean League be dissolved. As a result, the Roman army sacked and burned Corinth. The men of the city were killed, and the women and children were sold into slavery. The city remained desolate and uninhabited for 102 years after this defeat.

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar decided to establish a Roman colony on the site. Rome often established cities to solve the problem of overcrowding in Rome and to spread Roman civilization. The city was in a good location for commerce, and it had a natural defense in the high rocks that overlooked ancient Corinth. It also had a good water supply from springs, along with two harbors for East-West commerce. The new city was laid out on top of the former Greek city. Caesar colonized the city with members of the “freedman class.” Freedmen were slaves who had been granted freedom and were given a limited form of Roman citizenship. They were restricted from advancing in Roman society, but many of them became very wealthy and reached high status.

The city was soon transformed from a ruin and became wealthy. In Paul’s day, Corinth was known for its wealth and flamboyance. The new city had made it possible for freedmen and their heirs to acquire wealth by means of commercial ventures. These opportunities attracted settlers from all over the Roman Empire who could work their way up the social ladder.

Corinth was made up of a mixed population of Roman freedmen, Greek citizens, and immigrants who came from all over. It is likely that Jewish people from Palestine were among those who migrated there and were on good terms with the wider community. Even though Corinth had a diverse population, it was influenced by Rome, and its people considered themselves to be Roman. One author explains: When Paul visited, the city was geographically in Greece, but culturally in Rome.1 Corinthian architecture and the design of the city imitated Rome, with the temple dedicated to the emperor being of Roman design. Many of the inscriptions which have been found in the excavation at Corinth were in Latin rather than in Greek.

Every two years, the city hosted the Isthmian Games. This brought in many people from far and wide, which increased business activity in the city. It appears that these games may have taken place while Paul was there, as he refers to a race which is run and of athletes exercising self-control. During Paul’s time, the city grew in wealth and power and was therefore an important place to establish the church. From there, others would become believers and would join the mission to take the gospel far and wide.

As a seaport town, Corinth was known for its immorality. The name of the town became a byword for sexual promiscuity, and to be a “Corinthiastes” was to be a libertine or degenerate. According to Paul’s correspondence, immorality was a serious matter in Corinth. One author writes: Sexual sin there undoubtedly was in abundance; but it would be of the same kind that one would expect in any seaport where money flowed freely and women and men were available.2

Pauls Ministry in Corinth

Acts 18:11 reports that Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months. He probably stayed so long because Corinth was a major destination for traders, travelers, and tourists. It was an ideal location from which to spread the message. Some of those who visited or immigrated to Corinth would be open to Paul’s teaching. While there, he was able to support himself through his tent-making. Driven by the influx of visitors during the games, tents were likely in high demand for shelter, serving additionally as awnings for retailers and providing sailcloth for merchant ships.

Because of the immigration of people, both slaves and free, the population of the city was likely more open to something new like the message of the gospel. People would be seeking new attachments, as many of them had moved from their previous cities or countries and were unknown and living anonymously in a large city.

Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians. The first was written from Ephesus and was sent to Corinth with Apollos. This letter no longer exists, so we don’t know its contents. In AD 55 or 56, when Paul was in Ephesus, he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians (which is our 1 Corinthians). Soon after this second letter, Paul made a second visit to the city, which he called the “painful visit.”3 A few months later, he sent Titus to deliver his third letter to Corinth (which has, like the first, been lost to history). This was a letter of “many tears” in which he pleaded with the Corinthians to change their behavior.4 Titus reported that the congregation responded well. Paul’s fourth letter to Corinth was written approximately one year after his second letter. It is what we know as 2 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes…5

Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the call of God. A co-writer of this letter was Sosthenes, though after the first three verses, Paul uses the first-person singular and it becomes clear that Paul is writing, or at least dictating. He describes himself as called by God to be “an apostle.”

Most of Paul’s letters (except Philippians and Philemon) open with an affirmation of his authority. Here he makes the point that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus. In the New Testament, an apostle generally refers to those who were originally chosen by Jesus as disciples and to just a few others.6 Apostles were eyewitnesses to the risen Christ. They were especially called by God to become official witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and had been commissioned by Him to spread the gospel. Paul’s calling came to him through the vision of the risen Christ on the Damascus Road.7

Sosthenes is not called an apostle, but since he is called “brother,” he was likely known to the Corinthians. He may have been the leader of the synagogue in Corinth when Paul was preaching the gospel in the town. In Acts we read, they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal.8 When Paul was writing this letter, Sosthenes may been working with him and may have even carried Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

Paul's reference to himself as one called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus makes the claim that his calling comes from deep within the plans and purposes of God Himself. He makes it clear that he didn’t become an apostle by any of his own actions or desires. Rather he became an apostle because God willed that the message of Jesus was to be delivered through apostles. Throughout this letter, Paul returns to the topic of apostolic authority.

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:9

Paul identifies the recipients of the letter, and he greets them. He is writing to the church of God. Right at the beginning he reminds them that they are God’s church. The church doesn’t belong to any of its groups or leaders, but to God. Later in this letter Paul stresses the point by repeating “of God” eight times.

As Paul moves from the singular “church” to the plural, he speaks to all the people who make up the church at Corinth. The designation of God’s people as “sanctified” echoes the people of Israel who were called by God to be a “holy nation.” What happened “in Christ Jesus” results in a new community of people who are to be the “holy” people that they have been called to be.

Paul goes on to say that he writes to those who are called to be saints. Just as Paul was called to be an apostle, he now reminds the Corinthians that God has called them to a specific role in which they will reflect a holiness of life and of community. Later in this letter, he will focus further on the need for believers to behave as a holy people.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.10

Having identified those to whom the letter is sent, Paul greets them with “grace and peace.” This is a “wish-prayer” in which grace and peace are invoked upon those to whom he writes. The word “grace” is an important word for believers. In Paul’s writings it is often a shorthand for all of God’s care for His people and for all that believers receive from God and Christ—especially their salvation. The English word “grace” is generally understood as referring to the undeserved mercy and forgiveness of God toward sinful humanity that comes from His love.

Paul uses the word “peace” as part of the greeting in all his letters, and at the end of a number of them. Peace summarizes the blessings of becoming part of God’s people. It encapsulates the blessing of God’s covenant, and therefore this is much more than a prayer that the Corinthians should feel peaceful. It includes peace with God as a result of salvation. Paul’s wish-prayer is that the Corinthians should continue to experience Christ daily as the one who brings them to the Father.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 3.

2 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 3.

3 2 Corinthians 2:1–2.

4 2 Corinthians 2:3–9, 7:6–15.

5 1 Corinthians 1:1.

6 Mark 3:14–15.

7 Acts 9:1–7, 1 Corinthians 9:1, Galatians 1:12.

8 Acts 18:17.

9 1 Corinthians 1:2.

10 1 Corinthians 1:3.