The Epistles of Paul, like the prophecies of Jeremiah or Amos, were often called out by the mistakes, errors, and sins of the churches which he had planted, and were intended to correct them. The newly planted churches were in the midst of heathens and were composed in great part of those who had early heathen training. It is not wonderful that converts from such populations, unused to Christian morality, knowing little of the Old Testament Scriptures, and without the New Testament, should sometimes go astray, or become the victims of false teachers. Yet the church of all ages has reason to be thankful for the circumstances which called out the collection of Inspired Letters on practical Christian life so essential to its instructions as we find in the Epistles of Paul. In order to gain the greatest profit from these it is necessary that the reader be informed concerning the conditions which called out each letter, what were the circumstances of each church, what were the wants the Apostle sought to supply and the sins he sought to correct.
I will endeavor to explain in the case of the church at Corinth, what were these conditions. Though letters were written to other churches planted by Paul earlier than the one we are now considering, the First Epistle to the church of Corinth is the first of the letters of this class that we reach in the present arrangement of the New Testament. In the eighteenth chapter of Acts the account is found of the planting of this church. At that time, about A. D. 54, the Apostle sojourned in that great city for the space of a year and six months, preaching at first in the synagogue and afterwards in the house of Justus. A large congregation was gathered as the result of his labors, composed in part of Jews, but with a much larger number of Gentiles. After Paul departed to other fields of labor Apollos, an eloquent and learned Alexandrian Jew who has been instructed in the gospel by Priscilla and Aquila, the companions of Paul, visited Corinth and continued the work. Paul "planted, Apollos watered" ( 1 Cor. 3:6 ).
The congregation which had begun its career so auspiciously was in a great commercial center, with a mixed and dissolute population, and could not but meet with many temptations. The city, situated on the Isthmus which connected southern Greece with the mainland of Europe, with the advantage of two harbors on either sea, and of a citadel as impregnable as Gibraltar on the lofty Acrocorinthus, had for centuries been influential in Grecian history but had in B. C. 146 been taken by the Romans and reduced to ruins. One hundred years later Julius Cæsar had founded it a second time, planting a Roman military colony on the old site, and the commanding situation soon restored its ancient prosperity and splendor. It was about a century after its second founding that it was visited by Paul. It was then the great commercial city in Europe with the exception of Rome, and no cities of the East surpassed it save Antioch and Alexandria. It is estimated to have had a population of about four hundred thousand people, as cosmopolitan as is usually found in a great commercial center; Romans, Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, sailors, traders and slaves.
It would be strange if there was a high standard of morals in the mixed population of a commercial metropolis, nor were morals held in high regard anywhere in the heathen world. One fact will illustrate the shameless condition of the city. At the date of this Epistle there was standing there a vast and renowned temple of Venus, called the temple of Aphrodite Pandemos, "the Venus of all the people," which had a thousand consecrated priestesses, every priestess dedicated to the service of Aphrodite, or in other words to harlotry. The temple of worship, consecrated to religion, was a gigantic brothel! Indeed, even in that dissolute age when immorality was the rule in all the heathen world, Corinth had so bad an eminence that the word "to Corinthianize" had become a synonym for an impure life. It is not wonderful that amid such influences some of the Gentiles who had become members of the Corinthian Church showed the influence of their old habits, nor that the apostle found it necessary to rebuke licentiousness again and again. See the Chapter V . and other passages here and there.
But what especially called out this Epistle were the tidings of divisions in the church which had been brought to him at Ephesus by members of the household of Chloe, one of the principal members. Paul had confined himself while at Corinth to the simple principles of the gospel and scrupulously abstained from the philosophical discussions so dear to the Greek mind ( 1 Corinthians 1:17-22 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ). Apollos, schooled in the philosophy of Alexandria, and not yet so thoroughly grounded in the gospel as Paul, evidently engaged in some philosophical speculations. It is also manifest that some of the Judaizing teachers who constantly followed in the footsteps of the great Apostle and sought to Judaize the churches, had come to Corinth, and by exalting Peter, in order to depreciate Paul, had formed another party. Hence there were various factions whose discords rent the body of Christ; one party claiming to be Pauline; another making Apollos its leader; still another claiming to be of Cephas, and still a fourth, whatever it may have been, claiming to be of Christ. The four chapters of the Epistle , the first in order, are a vigorous and indignant arraignment of these schisms.
Other questions discussed were suggested to him by a letter brought to him at Ephesus by Corinthian brethren begging a solution of various difficulties; on marriage, the veiling of women in assemblies, on sacrificial feasts, and perhaps on the nature of the resurrection from the dead. See Chap. VII. 1 . These questions and various irregularities which are rebuked will be duly considered in the Notes.
This Epistle was written at Ephesus while Paul was engaged in his ministry of three years in that city ( Acts 19:1-41 Acts 20:31 Acts 19:1 Acts 20:31 ). The time when it was written can be determined with no little certainty to have been the spring of A. D. 57. That this Epistle is genuine has been conceded by all respectable critics, both ancient and modern.