So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. It is difficult to establish an exact chronological order but following on from the letters and visits to Corinth it is likely that the next letter to be written was while Paul was in Corinth, this time to the Romans. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.
Thoughts about Corinthians
There has been some speculation about where Paul was when he wrote these two letters and that then affects the dating. Does it matter? Well, possibly when it comes to interpreting the finest details but for our purposes here the popular assumption that Paul was coming to the end of his stay in Ephesus when he received letters and representatives from the church in Corinth provides the soundest basis.
Of all the places Paul visited in Greece, this must have been some of the toughest ground for planting a new church. There were very few Jews; there was a huge divide between rich and poor; the town was dominated by the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love; people there were proud of their own intellectual prowess. Nevertheless a church was established and continued to function after Paul’s departure.
Tales of argument and division; incestuous relationships; improper behaviour in church and disorderly worship which extended even to conduct at the Lord’s Supper; all of these things, on reaching the ears of Paul, gave rise for great concern. Even so the letter begins with a word of encouragement, focusing on the gifts with which they have been blessed. But the tone is set in the first few words: sanctified, holy, together. Paul is saying, ‘This is what you are called to; this is what you have been given – but now I must take you to task for the way you are failing in the task.
And so the first six chapters deal with the things which disturb Paul; the division, the cliques, the immoral behaviour, the lack of leadership. He reminds them of the wisdom which rises far beyond that which human thought can aspire to and challenges them to remain rooted in Christ. They should rely only on Christ and not exhibit pride. Neither should they consider themselves superior and free from moral laws.
In chapter seven Paul begins to answer some of the questions that were raised. His answer to the question of whether people should marry is coloured by his expectation that the Second Coming was imminent. He then goes on to deal with food first offered to idols. The principle is not freedom but rather consideration for others and, once again, placing Christ first; not succumbing to complacency.
Chapter eleven contains one of the controversial passages regarding the place of women. Local and more general customs come into conflict. It is important that Christian practice should not be misinterpreted. Paul’s comments are influenced by the common ground between Corinth and Ephesus where Paul was staying at the time. This was a specific instruction for a specific situation with no universal application. Most importantly it was about orderly worship, as were the instructions which follow regarding conduct at the communion meal. At this time the Lord’s Supper happened as part of a fellowship meal and it appears that behaviour was unruly with the greed of some causing others to go hungry
From there the line of thought moves into orderly conduct with regard to attitude to spiritual gifts and other spiritual matters, including further thoughts about the conduct of women in worship. In the midst of this rests one of the sublime passages in Paul’s letters – Love is central to the teaching; and to the desired conduct of the people.
In the concluding chapters Paul addresses the issue of resurrection – a difficult one for Jews and Greeks alike. In doing so he has left us a challenging passage, but one which emphasises that the Resurrection of Christ is at the foundation of our faith.
The second letter has a different emphasis. It seems that Paul had been under attack and he defends himself at length but still with the integrity of one who sees Christ as being first in his life. He wrote this letter a year at most after the first. He has also endured a painful visit to Corinth in that time. It seems that things were settling down in Corinth for the tone of the letter changes – but it remains intensely personal throughout and while there may have been less need for Paul to defend himself he continues to lay down an explanation which perhaps can be used wherever and whenever it is necessary. The first nine chapters deal with plans, travels and events as well as money concerns – particularly fund-raising. Chapters ten to twelve then provide the defence against the few critics who still spoke out in Corinth. The letter closes with a word of caution to make sure things are sorted before his planned visit which he hoped would be a much happier one.