To read 1 & 2 Corinthians is to read someone else’s mail. In contrast to Romans, these letters of Paul are very personal, and perhaps for that reason, very enlightening. What we have here are not fancy ideas dressed up in high-sounding words, but straight talk for a church working through everyday problems.
Actually, several letters passed between Paul and the Corinthians, including at least one between 1 & 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:3). As in listening to one side of a telephone conversation, one has to infer what issues and questions made up the correspondence, based on the two letters that survive.
Paul had written a first, unpreserved letter from Ephesus (during his long stay mentioned in Acts 20:31) in which he warned the congregation about mixing with sexually immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9). That was an ever-present danger in Corinth. Most of the believers there had come from pagan backgrounds (12:2), and perhaps some had previously engaged in the idolatrous practices—including ritual prostitution—of the city’s dozens of shrines and pagan temples. (The most prominent, the temple of Aphrodite, employed no less than 1,000 temple prostitutes.)
Paul’s first letter must have failed to achieve its purpose, because certain problems persisted (1:11; 16:17). Apparently the Corinthians wrote a letter back to Paul, perhaps to justify their behavior, but also to ask him about other matters. He then wrote 1 Corinthians and minced no words in condemning the congregation’s divisions and their continued tolerance of immorality. He also addressed their other concerns, as the repeated use of the words, “Now concerning,” indicates (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1).
But for all its stern language, 1 Corinthians also failed to correct the abuses. So Paul paid a visit to the church, but he was rebuffed (2 Cor. 2:1). Upon his return to Ephesus, he penned an extremely strident letter calculated to shock the stubborn Corinthians into obedience to Christ. (Most scholars believe that that letter has been lost. But some surmise that it has been preserved in 2 Corinthians as chapters 10–13.)
Paul sent Titus to deliver the bombshell and then waited to hear the outcome. But Titus delayed in returning. As time passed, Paul felt increasingly alarmed that perhaps he had charged the epistle with a bit too much explosive. When he could contain his anxiety no longer, he set out for Corinth by way of Macedonia. But en route he encountered Titus, who, to his relief and joy, reported that the church had at last responded obediently. Heartened by this news, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to bring healing to the relationship.
Christians today can profit by reading 1 and 2 Corinthians because they get behind the stereotyped images of what the church and the ministry are “supposed” to be. First Corinthians shows that churches are made up of real people living in the real world struggling with real problems. Likewise, 2 Corinthians shows that people in “full-time ministry” struggle with the same problems, doubts, and feelings as anyone else. As we read this correspondence, we need to ask, If Paul came to my church and my community, what issues and problems would he see? And what would he say?
Word in Life Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996).