Getting to Know the Early Christians
Paul Writes to the Corinthians
MOST of us enjoy sending and receiving letters. This is a fine way to keep in contact with distant friends and loved ones. The letters that first-century Christians wrote are especially interesting. In these letters, we see the kind of world they lived in and the pressures they faced. Reading such letters is a good way to get to know the early Christians.
For example, the two letters preserved in our Bibles that were written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth, Greece, reveal a fascinating world with a variety of people and problems. And they especially help us to get better acquainted with the apostle Paul, an outstanding Christian who pioneered the preaching of the “good news” in many parts of the Roman Empire.
Paul arrived in Corinth in the year 50 CE, just seventeen years after the death of Jesus. In those days the city was a hive of activity. Strategically located, it was a wealthy trade center and a magnet for colorful people of all nationalities.
It was also a world center of sports. The Isthmian Games, held there every two years, were considered second only to the Olympian Games. And the city was religious. Corinth was especially noted for devotion to the Greek goddess Artemis, and for the immorality associated with her worship. In fact, “to Corinthianize” meant “to practice whoredom.”
Paul’s preaching in Corinth provoked the usual opposition from die-hard Jews. But, finding receptive hearts, he stayed on. A year and a half later, when he finally left, there was a well-established congregation of Christians there. About three years after that, Paul wrote the letter that we now call First Corinthians.
Why did the apostle write the letter? For one thing, the Corinthians had sent him some questions that needed answering. But more importantly he had received disturbing news from Corinth. Divisions, wrong teachings, unclean practices and self-assuming men were threatening the spirituality of the young congregation. So Paul wrote this powerful but warm letter in order to correct matters. Did the Corinthians react favorably? To a degree, yes. Less than a year later he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, commending them for their better attitude.
Since these letters were inspired, they are not out of date. The principles in them are still valid. Hence, read these letters carefully if you want to understand the Christian standard for marriage, how to organize meetings for true worship, the principle of proper Christian headship and the need for all to be “united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) The first letter is famous, too, for its beautiful description of love and its masterful explanation and defense of the resurrection hope. (1 Corinthians, chapters 13 and 15) But, as already mentioned, these letters also help us to get better acquainted with the early Christians.
What kind of people were the Corinthian Christians? Some were of Jewish background, including Crispus who was the presiding officer of the Jewish synagogue when Paul first arrived in Corinth. (Acts 18:8) There were also non-Jews, some of whom formerly were deeply involved in the notorious Corinthian immorality.—1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Some slaves appear to have become Christians. So had some widows and unmarried folk, as well as married ones whose mates had not accepted the good news. (1 Corinthians 7:12-40) In other words, allowing for the differences in time and cultural background, the Christian congregation in Corinth does not seem to have differed greatly from many big-city congregations today.
However, the believers in Corinth were mostly new in the Christian faith, and this showed. They allowed one man to keep associating with them even though he was involved in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. Perhaps they thought that Christian freedom allowed for that kind of thing. Also, instead of being united they had split into factions, following men instead of following Jesus Christ. Wrong attitudes were seen in the way they celebrated the Lord’s Evening Meal, some of them even being intoxicated on that occasion!—1 Corinthians, chapters 1, 5 and 11.
Additionally, certain Corinthian believers were taking fellow Christians to court. Others, perhaps influenced by Greek philosophy, were teaching that there was no such thing as a resurrection. And some were proud, “puffed up,” apparently feeling they were somehow better than the rest of the congregation.—1 Corinthians 4:18; 3:18; 6:1-8; 15:12.
Does that sound like a lot of problems? Well, there were. But, remember, Paul had started preaching in Corinth only five years previously. True, Jehovah God had granted special gifts of the spirit to strengthen the congregation, but the Corinthians had shown more interest in the gift of tongues, a dramatic sign to non-Christians but of little value in building up the congregation. Hence, Paul encouraged them to cultivate the gift of prophecy, which would serve more to strengthen them spiritually.—1 Corinthians 14:1-12.
The motives of most of the Corinthian Christians were not bad. They had sent questions to Paul, so evidently they wanted to know the right way to do things. Also, Paul commended them: “In all things you have me in mind and you are holding fast the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (1 Corinthians 11:2) And when he wrote strong counsel, most appear to have responded readily, “being saddened in a godly way.” (2 Corinthians 7:11) But some continued to oppose Paul’s authority.—2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:4-6.
The Good Examples
Throughout the books various individuals make an appearance. Paul mentions a certain Sosthenes, who may have been a prominent Jew in Corinth before he became a Christian. (1 Corinthians 1:1; Acts 18:17) Members of the house of Chloe, also Corinthians, reported to Paul the bad situation that was developing in the congregation. What a fine example of courageously doing what is right! (1 Corinthians 1:11) The household of Stephanas, the first Christians there, was busy ministering to the holy ones—a fine example of hospitality. Stephanas, together with Fortunatus and Achaicus, is recommended by Paul to the Corinthians. “Recognize men of that sort,” he said.—1 Corinthians 16:18, 15, 17.
Then there was Apollos, a fluent and persuasive speaker. Paul asked him to visit Corinth, but he did not wish to do so at that time. Perhaps he had other obligations, or maybe he did not want to encourage the sectarian spirit that had developed in his name. (1 Corinthians 16:12) Faithful Titus, who would later represent Paul in Crete, represented him now in Corinth and brought good news about their change in attitude. (Titus 1:5; 2 Corinthians 7:14, 15; 12:18) The outstanding young man Timothy had been there, too. He helped in the initial evangelizing work in Corinth, and Paul hoped Timothy would get back there soon. (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10) Yes, the Christian community revealed in these letters was a busy one, an organization of real people concerned about serving God and ministering to one another.
The Apostle Paul
And busiest of all was the apostle Paul himself. We see him preaching to the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and with much trembling,” very different from the grim fanatic that many think he was. (1 Corinthians 2:3) Despite their serious problems, we sense Paul’s love for the Corinthians. He commended them when he could and expressed his joy when he heard how well they had accepted his strong counsel.—1 Corinthians 4:14; 11:2; 2 Corinthians 7:8-13.
Our hearts go out to Paul when we read about the hardships he suffered in the ministry—the beatings, the long journeys, the dangers, as well as a “thorn in the flesh,” perhaps a serious affliction of the eyes. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 11:21-27) “Besides those things of an external kind,” says Paul, “there is what rushes in on me from day to day, the anxiety for all the congregations.” (2 Corinthians 11:28) Many Christian elders will doubtless sympathize with his problems.
But Paul was not complaining. He mentioned these things merely to defend his authority against the “superfine apostles.” (2 Corinthians 12:11-13) Indeed, he was happy to endure such hardships, since this made it evident that he was serving in God’s power, not his own. (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10) Thus he furnishes a fine example of faith in action.
Paul said to the Corinthians: “I entreat you, therefore, become imitators of me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16) Even today, we do well to follow this exhortation. But to imitate Paul we have to get to know him—his faithful course, his feelings and attitudes, and his devotion to God. A fine way to do this is to read the two letters that he wrote to the Christians in Corinth. Why not start to do that now?