Here at Second Baptist Church of Richmond, we are reading through the entire New Testament in 2022. Since our reading schedule recently shifted to 1 and 2 Corinthians, I want to provide a basic framework for understanding these two books. Since they are actually epistles that the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the city of Corinth, let’s begin with some background information on Corinth.

Corinth was a prominent city in ancient Greece located about forty miles outside of Athens. As a port city and a Roman colony, Corinth was a center of commerce known for artisan products, such as bronze, and a thriving pottery business (cf., 2 Cor 4:7). Corinth was also a religious hub encompassing 24 temples of worship, including one dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite and another dedicated to all gods. It was important, therefore, for Paul to declare in 1 Cor 8:5-6, “Even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Corinth had a reputation for being a highly competitive city, both in terms of athletics and economics. It was the first Greek city to host Roman gladiatorial contests, and the famous Isthmian games took place nearby every two years. Thus, when Paul compared the spiritual discipline of a Christian to the training of an athlete (1 Cor 9:24-27), the analogy would have hit home. As part of the competitive economic spirit in Corinth, the wealthy often abused the poor. Paul countered this tendency by instructing wealthy folks who arrived early for church fellowship meals not to eat all the food before the poorer folks arrived (1 Cor 11:17-34). The competitive atmosphere of Corinth was further evident in the way that individuals regularly engaged in self-promotional practices such as public boasting. Paul countered this trend by insisting that Christians boast in the Lord rather than ourselves (2 Cor 10:12-18).

As for the church in ancient Corinth, Paul first established it with the help of Prisca, Aquila, Timothy, and Silas (Acts 18:1-11). The Corinthian church was composed mainly of poor and underprivileged believers (1 Cor 1:26), although a few were wealthy and prominent, such as Crispus and Gaius (1 Cor 1:14; Rom 16:23; Acts 18:8). Most Christians in Corinth were Gentiles, meaning they were not Jewish in background. This is why, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses whether Christians should eat meat that was previously sacrificed to idols in pagan religious ceremonies. Church members would have eaten such meat previously, due to their Gentile background, but they wondered if it would be inappropriate now that they were Christians.

The Corinthian church was riddled with problems. Indeed, it may have been the most troubled of all the early churches. One problem was division: different factions in the church were in conflict (1 Cor 1:10-11; 3:3-7) and church members were taking each other to court (1 Cor 6:1-8). A second problem was immorality: one church member was sleeping with an in-law (1 Cor 5:1-2) while other church members were visiting prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15-20). A third problem pertained to speaking in tongues: some were speaking unintelligible language with no interpreter during public worship services and it was causing confusion (1 Corinthians 12-14). A fourth problem was disbelief in the resurrection: some Corinthians were saying “there is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:12-20). A fifth problem was false teachers: they were spreading a different gospel and leading believers astray (2 Cor 11:4-5).

The main reasons Paul wrote First Corinthians were to restore unity in the church, to address the aforementioned problems in the congregation, and to answer questions that the Corinthians had posed to him (1 Cor 7:1ff.). Along the way, he offered vital teaching about the power of the cross (1 Cor 1:18-31), the church as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12), the way of love (1 Corinthians 13), the core of the gospel (1 Cor 15:3-5), and the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12ff.).

After Paul wrote First Corinthians, his relationship with the Corinthians worsened. In fact, he had a visit with them that he described as “painful” (2 Cor 2:1-2; cf., 2 Cor 7:8-12). Later, Paul wrote Second Corinthians in order to convey comfort amid their affliction (2 Cor 1:3-5; 4:16-18), to garner support for an offering he was collecting to assist impoverished Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8-9), and to defend himself against the false teaching of the “super apostles” who were undermining his authority and misguiding the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:17-3:3; 11:2-12:12). Despite the tension, the letter ends with one of the most beautiful benedictions in the Bible: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Readers of 1 and 2 Corinthians will realize rather starkly that there was never a pristine church, for the church has been flawed since its inception. Yet, readers will also be reminded that Christ is the steady foundation of the church’s unity, belief, conduct, and strength. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 3:11: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” The church is built on nothing less!


Pastor Noel Schoonmaker

Second Baptist Church

Richmond, Virginia