The lesson in the current manual is a collection of disparate topics – marriage, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and resurrection – brought under the umbrella idea of the purpose statement: “To help class members recognize the importance of living according to the doctrines of the gospel and receiving priesthood ordinances.” These ideas are too varied to expect to find a lesson from our past that gathered them together. Instead, as supplemental material, here is a lesson from Obert C. Tanner’s 1935 seminary text, The New Testament Speaks, providing the background to Paul’s writing of his epistles to the Corinthians, the source of most of the scripture quoted in the current manual.
PAUL’S LETTERS TO THE CORINTHIANS
The First Letter to the Corinthians. (I Cor. 13, 15.)
Nowhere else in all Christian literature are we brought face to face with the problems of an early Christian community, as in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians. It is as some one has said, “as if Paul had taken the roof off the early Christian churches and allowed us to look within.” Perhaps nowhere were the problems of an early Christian church so many or so intense as in Corinth. For Corinth was a cosmopolitan city. Situated on the narrow isthmus connecting Macedonia and Achaia, and separating the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, it was a center of commerce, and the busiest city in the Greek province. Its population, chiefly Greek and roman, contained multitudes of Jews and Orientals. Merchants and sailors thronged its streets, bringing customs and luxuries from many lands. Excessive feasting and drunkenness were commonplace. Immorality and gross license were the fashion. In addition, Corinth was the center for the abominable worship of the heathen goddess, Aphrodite.
Naturally the small church Paul had established in Corinth would be cosmopolitan in race and station in life, and thus it became at times a hotbed for dissension. Of all the churches Paul established, none needed such watchful care from him as the little church at Corinth. His visits there were longer, and his letters more frequent. Even after his death, Corinth remained a church noted for its internal strife. the great Clement of Rome admonished the Corinthian Saints to reread the letters of Paul.
Much of the correspondence of Paul and the Corinthian Saints has been lost, but it is possible to trace the nature of the correspondence through the letters of Paul which we have. Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth near the close of his second great missionary journey. now he was at Ephesus, the thriving commercial seaport of Asia Minor. many people were constantly coming to or going from the busy city. some of them were from Corinth directly across the Aegean Sea.
A few of the Corinthian visitors were Christians, who brought to Paul word of the affairs of the little Greek church.
The news disturbed Paul. The Corinthian Saints had divided into parties. Some declared themselves followers of Paul, some of Apollos, some of Peter, and still others of Christ; and division threatened the very existence of the church. (I Cor. 1:10-13) After Paul had left Corinth, Apollos, a learned Jew of Alexandria, who had embraced Christianity, but not from Paul’s hand, came to Corinth by way of Ephesus. Speaking in philosophical language, he had great effect upon the philosophy-loving Greek converts, and won them over to his peculiar allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, contrary to Paul’s teaching, which seemed in turn plain and commonplace. In addition, the Judaizers, active in Corinth as elsewhere, turned the Saints against Paul as one who lacked authority such as Peter possessed. the disputes of the factions were very bitter.
In addition to the problem of unity, business disputes among them had led to lawsuits in heathen courts. (I Cor. 6:1-7) Finally, immorality was reported to Paul as existing within the church.
Paul was already troubled by these abuses and the danger to the Corinthian church, and had written a short letter to them warning them against their immoral practices. This first letter in the correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians is lost, but we find evidence of its existence in allusions to it in the following letter. (I Cor. 5:9)
As Paul pondered the reports which were constantly coming to him, three Greeks from Corinth brought him a letter. (I Cor. 7:1; 16:17)( the letter was from the Corinthian Saints and was full of questions upon which they desired his opinion. We do not have the letter Paul received, but from his answers we can easily tell what the questions were. (I Cor. 7:15)
The questions were varied: 1. What were they to do about marriage? Was it good to marry? What should be done if either husband or wife were not in the Church? 2. Was it wrong to partake of meat that had been offered to idols? Must they inquire about their meat before they ate it when at the house of a friend? 3. What part were women to have in the Church? 4. What rules should be followed in partaking of the Lord’s Supper?
Paul’s first letter had not been well received. some had declared that it was not possible to live Paul’s demands; others, that he had no business to meddle in their affairs. So Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthians, called in the New Testament the First Epistle, and sent it by the hands of one of his co-workers, probably Titus. It was very likely written and dispatched in 55 or 56 A.D.
Chapters 1-6. The letter was necessarily varied in its content, and lengthy, for Paul had to deal with many problems. He had first of all to deal with the bad practices of which he had heard, the factions, immorality, vexatious law-suits, and to reestablish his own right to be heard. His attack is crisp and to the point. There should be no division among the followers of Christ. Plain teaching was better for them than vague philosophy. If Paul’s teachings had seemed simple, they were intended to be so, that they might be the more easily understood.
The immoral practices should be shameful to them. Their disputes should be settled by brethren, peaceably, according to all justice. It was shameful that members of Christ’s Church need resort to courts of law.
Chapters 7-15. Paul next turns to the question asked him by letter. A proper marriage, with a recognition of the mutual rights and obligations of a husband and wife, was right in the sight of God. Paul is careful at this point to make it clear that the views which he sets forth on marriage are his own opinions, and are not necessarily the voice of the Lord.
As to the eating of meat that had been offered to idols, no harm was done as idolatry was meaningless, but they must not do so if others would be offended by it. Paul advocated freedom, which recognized the rights and feelings of others.
Proper order should prevail in all meetings, especially those in which the Lord’s Supper was observed. Paul could not approve of the Corinthian meetings as they were being held, because the so-called “parties” were sitting apart in them. further, in the common meal which at that time preceded the Sacrament, each was selfishly eating and drinking that which he had brought, while some were hungered, being too poor to provide food. Even drunkenness had been found at such gatherings. This Paul severely rebuked, declaring that unless the Sacrament be taken with an humble spirit it would prove harmful and not beneficial to them.
Paul had heard that much jealousy existed over spiritual gifts the various Corinthian Saints exercised. Especially were the Corinthians jealous of those who could speak in tongues, as also of the officers of the Church. Paul rebuked them, showing the necessity for many gifts and many officers, each as necessary to the Church as the various parts of the body are to the body. It is a skillful comparison. Order must prevail in the Church.
Paul’s view on woman’s part in the Church is interesting, in view of the mutual duties and obligations of husband and wife which he taught. Paul did not extend the equality within the home to the affairs of the church. In forbidding women to take part in church meetings, Paul was in keeping with the times in which he lived. The Jews had never allowed women an active part in worship, and in the temple precincts Jewish women had the same prohibitions as heathens. In the Greek world wives had few rights, practically none outside the home. Paul was considered very liberal in preaching a single moral standard for husband and wife, and for allowing women to freely mingle with men in the places of worship. We must not judge the situation except in its historical light; not by modern standards.
Perhaps some in Corinth had been troubled over the question of the resurrection. At any rate, we are indebted to Paul for the discussion of the resurrection, which has come to us through his letter. Writing less than twenty-five years after the resurrection of Jesus, and many years before the earliest of the gospels appeared, Paul’s account of the resurrection is an important independent proof of the resurrection. it is in full agreement with the alter gospel accounts, which were written without knowledge of Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. Paul recites the proofs of the resurrection and declares them indisputable, especially as so many of the witnesses were still alive. He again tells of Christ’s appearance to him as evidence of his proper authority to preach. Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of all men is the best found in all early Christian literature. (I Cor. 15)
In the words of Dr. Goodspeed, “Nowhere does Paul appear as a more patient and skillful teacher than in First Corinthians, and nowhere does the early Church, with its faults and its problems, rise before us so plainly and clearly as here.”
The Second Letter to the Corinthians. (II Cor. 1:1-11; 11:16-33.)
Despite all the care Paul had given to his great letter to win back the Corinthian Saints, it failed. The Corinthians remained as aloof from Paul as before, and continued to belittle him and his teachings. The faults of the church continued, the factions now uniting against Paul’s influence. Especially did the doubt at Corinth center about Paul’s calling to the ministry. The brethren murmured at his refusal to accept money from them, to aid him in his teaching.
Paul was disturbed. Although no account of the fact exists, many authorities believe he made a personal visit to Corinth. (II Cor. 13:1) If so, the visit was also unsuccessful in restoring harmony. At any rate the continued trouble at Corinth caused Paul to write a burning letter, the third, to the Corinthians. It appears in the New Testament as chapters 11 to 13 of Second Corinthians. The letter is bold, full of indignation at their persistent misunderstanding, and irony at their foolish reasoning. The Corinthians had been boasting of the work of Peter and the apostles to the disparagement of Paul. Now Paul shows them that he can boast, that he, too, has had revelation and inspiration, that he has accomplished a great work and undergone great suffering. “Foolish as boasting is, he will for once outboast his opponents. In purity of Jewish descent he is fully their equal, and in point of services, sufferings and responsibilities as a missionary of Christ, he is easily their superior.” [Goodspeed]
He promised to come again to Corinth for the third time, and this time he would show his authority by exerting it against the offenders.
The letter was sent by the hand of Titus. Paul awaited anxiously his return. Becoming impatient, Paul set out through Macedonia to meet him. At length they met, and Paul was relieved at the news. His letter and the work of Titus had convinced the Corinthians. They were repentant. In his joy at the news, Paul wrote another letter to them. It is Second Corinthians 1-10. It is the fourth and last letter on record to the Corinthians. It is a letter of reconciliation and comfort. He is content with their new attitude. He is also willing to forgive those leaders who had fought so hard against him. He speaks of his own great anxiety and of his search for Titus. The letter contains a warmth of affection. He is sorry for the harshness of his previous letter.
It is natural that the harsh letter written by Paul be kept out of circulation for a time, at least until those mentioned in it were dead. But when Paul’s greatness was later realized, anything which Paul had written seemed valuable, and the harsh letter was published. It was placed, however, after the fourth letter, so that its words might be softened by introducing the conciliatory letter first. It is in these last letters of Paul that he has written us a brief autobiography of his life, for which we can be truly grateful.
Questions for the Chapter Review:
1. In what ways do Paul’s letters reveal to us the problems of the early Christian Church?
2. Why was Corinth a city where the founding of Christ’s Gospel would prove difficult? What was the care Paul gave to this branch of the Christian Church?
3. From what city did Paul write to the Corinthians? How did he learn of conditions there?
4. List some of the causes for lack of harmony among the Corinthian Saints. What have we learned previously of Apollos? What disturbance did he cause in Corinth?
5. List the questions which the Corinthian Saints asked of Paul. What answers did he give?
6. What were Paul’s teachings and attitude toward women?
7. What were Paul’s teachings concerning the resurrection? Of what value are these teachings to us?
8. what were the effects of Paul’s letter which is known to us as First Corinthians?
9. Tell of Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians.
10. Under what circumstances was Paul’s letter, Second Corinthians, written? Why was this letter placed before the third?