The Church at Corinth
A Story of Paul
Corinth was the most depraved and iniquitous city in Greece. The capital city of Achaia, the Roman province which embraced the southern half of Greece as Macedonia did the north, an important seaport and commercial centre, it contained within its bounds all those vices and abuses which a place of resort for seamen of all nations, a military base, and a centre of paganism, could be expected to contribute. Corinth of Paul's day was a relatively new city; the ancient Corinth of Greek classical history had been destroyed and its inhabitants put to the sword by the Romans in 146 B.C. Julius Caesar, only some ninety years before the Apostle's visit, had the city rebuilt and peopled by retired Roman soldiers. From this new beginning it prospered commercially and attracted trade from all nations. The Isthmian games, held in Corinth every fourth year, brought visitors from every part of Greece; the court of the Roman Governor of Achaia, established in the city, ensured the concentration here of all official business with all the coming and going which that entailed. As if the graft, bribery and corruption associated with all these institutions was not enough, the worst excesses of paganism were practised in the great Temple of Aphrodite, notorious throughout Greece, where three thousand priestesses pandered to all that was lowest in human nature. The depravity and immorality of Corinth had become the subject of a popular proverb and the name "Corinthian" was a synonym for drunkards and thieves and extortioners and worse. What the Cities of the Plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, were in the Old Testament, Corinth was in the New. Corinth must have appeared the most unlikely city to yield fruit to the Apostle's labours compared with Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea, where after intense efforts only a handful had believed to form small Christian communities. Then there was the immensely more moral and respectable Athens, where after a courteous and careful hearing only one or two had accepted the faith. In the riot of debauchery and violence and lust and degradation, Corinth would seem to offer no soil at all in which the seed of the Gospel could find lodgement and spring up and bring forth fruit.
Yet it was in Corinth that the Lord appeared in vision to Paul and bade him remain and continue his work in confidence "for I have much people in this city." (Acts 18.10). To the human observer the evidence was all to the contrary; no reasonable man would expect anything in the nature of a religious revival there. But the Divine viewpoint is different. "Man seeth not as God seeth, for man looketh upon the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart." God looked upon the corruption that was Corinth and knew that out of that unpromising material He could fashion vessels fitted to honour. These men and women, drawn from the morass of iniquity and depravity would become upright, clear thinking servants of righteousness, worthy citizens of the world that is to be. "Miracles of grace" someone has called them. Perhaps only Paul, working in the midst of that darkness and hopelessness, could rightly assess the wonder of that miracle.
It was after the disappointment of Athens that Paul, not waiting any longer for his fellow-labourers still on their journey from the north, made his way, alone, to Corinth. He probably went by sea. The distance by road between Athens and Corinth is only about forty miles, but sea travel, in those days as now, was cheaper, and the Apostle's finances were low. Four or five hours straight sailing in a merchant vessel on which he probably gained a free passage in return for assistance to the mariners en route would bring him to Cenchrea ‑ later to yield converts to his preaching ‑ the port of Corinth. A steady walk of eight miles would then bring him to the city itself. At first he encountered the outskirts, areas of wood huts, the homes of the poorer elements among the population. Then he came to the city proper, an imposing assemblage of noble buildings in stone and marble, adorned with statues and monuments and gleaming with gold and silver and polished bronze. He traversed its busy streets, thronged with merchants and soldiers, tourists and seamen, people of all nations. He stood and gazed upon its shops and trading establishments, its gambling dens and haunts of vice, the magnificent palace of the Roman governor, the Pro-Consul, and the brooding malignity of the great Temple of whose sinister reputation Paul cannot but have heard. Stout-hearted evangelist though he was, surely he must have wondered what possible opening there could be here for him, what possible work his Lord could have for him in this place.
Following his usual practice, Paul started by seeking out the local synagogue. Here at least he could be sure of finding men and women of his own race and his own religion. And here he met with an unexpected encouragement and commenced a personal friendship which was to have far-reaching consequences in later years. For the first time in his travels he met a couple who were already adherents of the Christian faith. Aquila was an Asiatic Jew, recently resident in Rome, married to a Roman wife, Priscilla. They had been affected by the decree of Claudius Caesar banishing all Jews from Rome. According to the Roman historian Suetonius this decree was issued in consequence of continued tumults and riots among the Jews in Rome instigated by one Chrestus. There is much debate among scholars as to whether this was the name of an otherwise unknown individual or, corrupted from Christus, is a reference to Jewish opposition to the introduction of Christianity in Rome, but no one really knows. But these circumstances, coupled with the fact that nothing is said about their conversion or baptism and the evident close association with them into which Paul entered at once makes it a reasonable conclusion that they were Christians already. It is fairly certain that the Christian faith arrived in Rome ‑ by what means or by whom is entirely unknown ‑ within a few years of the crucifixion and by now there was a substantial Christian community in the capital of the Empire. From these two, therefore, Paul must have had his first information about the city to which his thoughts so often turned and where at last he was to suffer martyrdom.
Aquila and Priscilla were 'tentmakers' ‑ weavers of goats' hair into sailcloth and tent cloth, a trade for the products of which there was always a good demand in the seaport towns of the Empire. This was Paul's own trade also. Every Pharisee had to learn some manual craft even although his chosen vocation as Rabbi or Doctor of the Law would normally mean that he would not have to work at it, and Paul as an erstwhile Pharisee had conformed to the rule by learning this particular trade. At times such as this, when he needed do something for his own support, this was the occupation he took up. It was logical therefore that he should join forces with his new-found friends and find accommodation in their home, labouring during the week, and on the Sabbath preaching Christ in the synagogue.
It was thus that Silas and Timothy caught up with him at last, having chased him almost the entire length, north to south, of Greece. Luke remained at Philippi still. Dissolute Corinth as yet had heard nothing of the message; probably no one outside the Jewish community so much as knew of Paul's existence. All his efforts at the moment were directed to the conversion of his fellow Jews. Comparison of Acts 18.4 with verses 5-6 appears to infer that at the first his message was received, if not with enthusiastic support, at least with a measure of acceptance, sufficient to give hope of good results. The advent of Silas and Timothy, however, together with an evident intensification of the practical implications of Christianity, evoked strong opposition even to the extent of blasphemy. Perhaps some of the permanent officials of the synagogue felt that this apparent continuing influx of Christian missionaries was carrying things too far and threatened to disturb the security of their own position. Paul realised that he was going to get no farther with these stubborn co-religionists of his; he had seen the same thing so many times before. "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean" he exclaimed. "From henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles".
Justus, a Greek who professed Judaism and was a member of the synagogue, and who had now accepted the Apostle's message and become a Christian, offered the hospitality of his house, which was conveniently next door to the synagogue. Here the Apostle continued his preaching and here the Corinthian Church was born. One notable convert was Crispus, the presiding minister of the synagogue, who "believed on the Lord with all his house". The duties of his office had included selecting readers and teachers for the synagogue services and examining discourses and pronouncements for their orthodoxy and faithfulness to Scripture tradition. The secession of Crispus must have given the rest of the synagogue officials quite a jolt. "And many of the Corinthians hearing believed and were baptised". These were the Greek citizens now finding acceptance into the growing church. One wonders why Luke uses the particular term "Corinthians" instead of the general one "Greeks" as he does elsewhere in the narrative where other cities are concerned. Is it possible that he used the word in the light of its general meaning throughout Greece as a term of opprobrium, denoting the lowest and most degraded of men? Did he mean to indicate that many of the converts Paul gained at this time were in fact from the dregs of society, the most depraved and degraded of men and women, gathered from lives of every type of crime and immorality known in Corinth? It is possible! The writings of Paul to this very Corinthian church in later years show that the believers there had in fact been guilty of all these things and found it hard in some cases to resist relapses into their bad old ways. The terrible indictment of paganism which forms the early part of Paul's Epistle to the Romans was written when he was at Corinth on a later occasion, and what he knew of the city and its people and its practices must have formed the inspiration for that indictment. It is probably true to say that the motley crowd assembled in the house of Justus must have appeared to the Apostle about the most unpromising - and perhaps unlovely - collection of would-be Christians upon which he had ever set eyes. It might have been with very good reason that the Lord spoke to him at the time and told him that He "had much people in this city".
Despite this apparently unpropitious start, the work of the Apostle Paul at Corinth was the most gloriously successful of his entire missionary journey. Neither in Asia nor in Greece did he achieve such results at any other place. By the time he left Corinth eighteen months later there was a large and flourishing community which, for all its faults—and they were many and have become proverbial in later Christian thought and homily— was for ever after very dear to Paul's own heart. The two Epistles to the Corinthians reflect so much of the frailties and weaknesses of human nature that the figures that move through their pages are real and personal to all of us. They are so like real men and women, even Christian men and women, beset by shortcomings and mistakes like all people, that we cannot but feel quick sympathy with them. Time and time again they fell into grievous error; time and time again their father in God admonished them, sternly and judicially, yet with love and tenderness. In so many ways the church at Corinth prefigured in miniature just what the church of Christ in the world was to be like in later days.
In the meantime the members of the synagogue next door were not idle. They were biding their time. That time came when the Roman Pro-Consul ('deputy' in Acts 18.12) retired and was replaced by a successor. Now is the time for an attempt to get rid of Paul and his evangelising, the synagogue Jews must have thought, while the new man is feeling his way and will not want to risk upsetting established officials or institutions. So they laid their plans and somehow had Paul arrested and arraigned before the new governor. "When Gallio was deputy" (became pro-consul) "of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat, saying 'this fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law' ".
Lucius Junius Annaeus Gallio was a refined, cultured, genial member of a distinguished Roman family, popular among his contemporaries at Rome and celebrated for his kindly disposition. His brother, the philosopher Seneca, wrote of him "No mortal man is so sweet to any person as he is to all mankind." He represented the best type of Roman administrator, just and impartial in upholding the law and not influenced by either the praise or the threats of those with whom he had to do. He certainly gave the complainants in this case short shrift. Without waiting to hear Paul's defence he brusquely quashed the proceedings. Had it been an accusation of crime against property or person, of flagrant immorality or an offence against the laws of the State "reason would that I should bear with you" he said. It does not seem that Gallio rated the sincerity of these Jews very highly. He was perhaps better briefed than they had imagined. "But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law" (the law of Moses) "you look to it, for I will be no judge of such matters." It is clear that Gallio saw through their subterfuge at once, and made it crystal clear at the outset that they were not going to use Roman jurisprudence to serve their own sectarian ends; not while he was Pro-Consul, anyway. "And he drove them from the judgment seat." The word indicates a forcible expulsion; it is evident that at his signal the Roman lictors (guards) hurried their exit by the indiscriminate use of their staves, and the discomfited schemers found themselves in the street with nothing achieved, and a few painful bruises to boot.
Popular feeling in Corinth was evidently with Paul. By way of sequel to these ineffective court proceedings a number of Greek citizens laid hold on Sosthenes, who had evidently succeeded Crispus as ruler of the synagogue. They carried him to a position in the street immediately in front of the court where Paul had been arraigned, and administered a sound beating in full view of the representatives of law and order. The proceeding was undoubtedly altogether illegal, and carried out at the place constituted somewhat of a slight upon the dignity of Roman rule, but "Gallio cared for none of those things." Despite his customary good nature and courtliness, it is apparent that on this occasion he was thoroughly disgusted with the machinations of Paul's enemies and decided that one salutary lesson at the outset might save him a lot of trouble in the future. It would only need a hint to the centurion to ensure that the lictors on guard would watch the administering of the beating impassively and abstain from interference; without much doubt Sosthenes and his supporters would 'get the message' as it is said today, and be more careful in future. Certain it is that the Christian community in Corinth had no further trouble with their Jewish antagonists. Paul remained at Corinth for eighteen months, probably evangelising much of the district round about in addition to his work in the city. Before he left, a companion church existed at Cenchrea, eight miles away. The magnitude of the work achieved, compared with that at other centres, is indicated by the fact that the New Testament records the names of some seventeen notable converts originating from Corinth. At least five of them, Aquila, Priscilla, Erastus who held the important official office of City Treasurer, Gaius, and Phoebe the deaconess of Cenchrea, in after days travelled the world serving the interests of the developing faith. Paul sailed away at last, accompanied by his co-labourers Silas and Timothy, and his more recently acquired friends Aquila and Priscilla, doubtless feeling that this experience was the highlight of his journey. The most unpromising soil had yielded the richest harvest.
From Cenchrea the little party sailed to Ephesus on the Asiatic mainland, where Paul was well received and made a promise that he would return. It is evident that he felt the urge now to get back to his home church at Antioch; he had been away long enough. Leaving Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus, probably to foster the development of the work Paul had accomplished, the original trio took ship to Caesarea, the port for Jerusalem. They did not stay long, apparently long enough only to make some contact with the Jerusalem Christians, and then they were on the road again for Antioch.
So ended the second missionary journey. Paul and Silas had been away from home for some two years of which eighteen months had been spent at Corinth. It had been an eventful two years. They had met and enrolled Luke at Troas and left him to work at Philippi. They had taken the youthful Timothy from Lystra and brought him to Antioch; found Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth and left them to serve at Ephesus. Six other converts, made during this journey, were later to join the Apostle in his further works; Aristarchus and Secundus of Thessalonica, Sopater of Berea, Phoebe of Cenchrea, Erastus and Tertius of Corinth, all figure later on in the history. The two Epistles to the Thessalonians were written during this sojourn in Corinth; they were the first of the present books of the New Testament to be written.
The stalwart form of the Apostle was probably a little bent; he must have shown some outward evidence of the appalling physical sufferings he had endured during that two years but his spirit was as unconquerable as ever. He was still and for all time God's man, commissioned to plant the Gospel in regions where it had never yet been preached and to lay the foundations of the worldwide Christian church. Both he and Silas were bound to be glad of a rest and respite under the ministrations of their own brethren at Antioch. They rehearsed to the assembly the triumphs and achievements of this notable mission that had its real beginning when Paul in his dream at night saw that Greek stranger reaching out appealing hands across the sea and heard his urgent plea "come over into Macedonia and help us."