If we had not possessed any direct information that such a visit had been made, yet in itself it would hare seemed highly probable that Apostle Paul would not have remained three years at Ephesus without revisiting his Corinthian converts.
We have already remarked on the facility of communication existing between these two great cities, which were united by a continual reciprocity of commerce, and were the capitals of two peaceful provinces. And examples of the intercourse which actually took place between the Christians of the two Churches have occurred, both in the case of Aquila and Priscilla, who had migrated from the one to the other (Acts 18:18, 19), and in that of Apollos, concerning whom, "when he was disposed to pass into Achaia," "the brethren [at Ephesus] wrote, exhorting the disciples [at Corinth] to receive him" (Acts 18:27).
In the last chapter, some of the results of this visit of Apollos to Corinth have been noticed; he was now probably returned to Ephesus, where we know (1Corinthians 16:12) that he was remaining (and, it would seem, stationary) during the third year of Apostle Paul's residence in that capital. No doubt, on his return, he had much to tell of the Corinthian converts to their father in the faith, - much of joy and hope, but also much of pain, to communicate; for there can be little doubt that those tares among the wheat, which we shall presently see in their maturer growth, had already begun to germinate, although neither Paul had planted, nor Apollos watered them.
One evil at least, we know, prevailed extensively, and threatened to corrupt the whole Church of Corinth. This was nothing less than the addiction of many Corinthian Christians to those sins of impurity which they had practiced in the days of their Heathenism, and which disgraced their native city, even among the Heathen. We have before mentioned the peculiar licentiousness of manners which prevailed at Corinth. So notorious was this, that it had actually passed into the vocabulary of the Greek tongue; and the very word "to Corinthianize," meant "to play the wanton;" nay, the bad reputation of the city had become proverbial, even in foreign languages, and is immortalized by the Latin poets. Such being the habits in which many of the Corinthian converts had been educated, we cannot wonder if it proved most difficult to root out immorality from the rising Church.
The offenders against Christian chastity were exceedingly numerous at this period; and it was especially with the object of attempting to reform them, and to check the growing mischief, that Apostle Paul now determined to visit Corinth.
He has himself described this visit as a painful one; (2Corinthians 2:1) he went in sorrow at the tidings he had received; and when he arrived, he found the state of things even worse than he had expected; he tells us that it was a time of personal humiliation (2Corinthians 12:21) to himself, occasioned by the flagrant sins of so many of his own converts; he reminds the Corinthians, afterwards, how he had "mourned" over those who had dishonored the name of Christ by "the uncleanness and fornication and wantonness which they had committed." (2Corinthians 12:21)
But in the midst of his grief he showed the greatest tenderness for the individual offenders; he warned them of the heinous guilt which they were incurring; he showed them its inconsistency with their Christian calling; he reminded them how, at their baptism, they had died to sin, and risen again unto righteousness; but he did not at once exclude them from the Church which they had defiled. Yet he was compelled to threaten them with this penalty, if they persevered in the sins which had now called forth his rebuke. He has recorded the very words which he used. "If I come again," he said, "I will not spare" (2Corinthians 13:2).
It appears probable that, on this occasion, Apostle Paul remained but a very short time at Corinth. When afterwards, in writing to them, he says that he does not wish "now to pay them a passing visit," he seems to imply that his last visit had deserved that epithet. Moreover, had it occupied a large portion of the "space of three years," which he describes himself to have spent at Ephesus (Acts 20:31), he would probably have expressed himself differently in that part of his address to the Ephesian presbyters; and a long visit could scarcely have failed to furnish more allusions in the Epistles so soon after written to Corinth.
The silence of Luke also, which is easily explained on the supposition of a short visit, would be less natural had Apostle Paul been long absent from Ephesus, where he appears, from the narrative in the Acts, to be stationary during all this period.
On these grounds, we suppose that the Apostle, availing himself of the constant maritime intercourse between the two cities, had gone by sea to Corinth; and that he now returned to Ephesus by the same route (which was very much shorter than that by land), after spending a few days or weeks at Corinth.
But his censures and warnings had produced too little effect upon his converts; his mildness had been mistaken for weakness; his hesitation in punishing had been ascribed to a fear of the offenders; and it was not long before he received new intelligence that the profligacy which had infected the community was still increasing. Then it was that he felt himself compelled to resort to harsher measures; he wrote an Epistle (which has not been preserved to us) in which, as we learn from himself, he ordered the Christians of Corinth, by virtue of his Apostolic authority, "to cease from all intercourse with fornicators." By this he meant, as he subsequently explained his injunctions, to direct the exclusion of all profligates from the Church.
The Corinthians, however, either did not understand this, or (to excuse themselves) they affected not to do so; for they asked, how it was possible for them to abstain from all intercourse with the profligate, unless they entirely secluded themselves from all the business of life which they had to transact with their Heathen neighbors.
Whether the lost Epistle contained any other topics, we cannot know with certainty; but we may conclude with some probability that it was very short, and directed to this one subject; otherwise it is not easy to understand why it should not have been preserved together with the two subsequent Epistles.
Soon after this short letter had been despatched, Timothy, accompanied by Erastus, left Ephesus for Macedonia. Apostle Paul desired him, if possible, to continue his journey to Corinth; but did not feel certain that it would be possible for him to do so consistently with the other objects of his journey, which probably had reference to the great collection now going on for the poor Hebrew Christians at Jerusalem.
Meantime, some members of the household of Chloe, a distinguished Christian family at Corinth, arrived at Ephesus; and from them Apostle Paul received fuller information than he before possessed of the condition of the Corinthian Church. The spirit of party had seized upon its members, and well-nigh destroyed Christian love. We have already seen, in our general view of the divisions of the Apostolic Church, that the great parties which then divided the Christian world had ranked themselves under the names of different Apostles, whom they attempted to set up against each other as rival leaders.
At Corinth, as in other places, emissaries had arrived from the Judaizers of Palestine, who boasted of their "letters of commendation" from the metropolis of the faith; they did not, however, attempt, as yet, to insist upon circumcision, as we shall find them doing successfully among the simpler population of Galatia. This would have been hopeless in a great and civilized community like that of Corinth, imbued with Greek feelings of contempt for what they would have deemed a barbarous superstition.
Here, therefore, the Judaizers confined themselves, in the first instance, to personal attacks against Apostle Paul, whose apostleship they denied, whose motives they calumniated, and whose authority they persuaded the Corinthians to repudiate. Some of them declared themselves the followers of "Cephas," whom the Lord himself had selected to be the chief Apostle; others (probably the more extreme members of the party) boasted of their own immediate connection with Christ himself, and their intimacy with "the brethren of the Lord," and especially with James, the head of the Church at Jerusalem.
The endeavors of these agitators to undermine the influence of the Apostle of the Gentiles met with undeserved success; and they gained over a strong party to their side. Meanwhile, those who were still steadfast to the doctrines of Apostle Paul, yet were not all unshaken in their attachment to his person: a portion of them preferred the Alexandrian learning with which Apollos had enforced his preaching, to the simple style of their first teacher, who had designedly abstained, at Corinth, from any thing like philosophical argumentation. (1Corinthians 2:1-5) This party, then, who sought to form for themselves a philosophical Christianity, called themselves the followers of Apollos; although the latter, for his part, evidently disclaimed the rivalry with Apostle Paul which was thus implied, and even refused to revisit Corinth, (1Corinthians 16:12) lest he should seem to countenance the factious spirit of his adherents.
It is not impossible that the Antinomian Free-thinkers, whom we have already seen to form so dangerous a portion of the Primitive Church, attached themselves to this last-named party; at any rate, they were, at this time, one of the worst elements of evil at Corinth: they put forward a theoretic defense of the practical immorality in which they lived; and some of them had so lost the very foundation of Christian faith as to deny the resurrection of the dead, and thus to adopt the belief as well as the sensuality of their Epicurean neighbors, whose motto was, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
A crime, recently committed by one of these pretended Christians, was now reported to Apostle Paul, and excited his utmost abhorrence: a member of the Corinthian Church was openly living in incestuous intercourse with his stepmother, and that during his father’s life; yet this audacious offender was not excluded from the Church.
Nor were these the only evils: some Christians were showing their total want of brotherly love by bringing vexatious actions against their brethren in the Heathen courts of law; others were turning even the spiritual gifts which they had received from the Holy Spirit into occasions of vanity and display, not unaccompanied by fanatical delusion; the decent order of Christian worship was disturbed by the tumultuary claims of rival ministrations; women had forgotten the modesty of their sex, and came forward, unveiled (contrary to the habit of their country), to address the public assembly; and even the sanctity of the Holy Communion itself was profaned by scenes of revelling and debauch.
About the same time that all this disastrous intelligence was brought to Apostle Paul by the household of Chloe, other messengers arrived from Corinth, bearing the answer of the Church to his previous letter, of which (as we have mentioned above) they requested an explanation; and at the same time referring to his decision several questions which caused dispute and difficulty. These questions related are as follows.
1st, To the controversies respecting meat which had been offered to idols;
2dly, To the disputes regarding celibacy and matrimony; the right of divorce; and the perplexities which arose in the case of mixed marriages, where one of the parties was an unbeliever;
3dly, To the exercise of spiritual gifts in the public assemblies of the Church.
Apostle Paul hastened to reply to these questions, and at the same time to denounce the sins which had polluted the Corinthian Church, and almost annulled its right to the name of Christian. The letter which he was thus led to write is addressed, not only to this metropolitan Church, but also to the Christian communities established in other places in the same province, which might be regarded as dependencies of that in the capital city; hence we must infer that these Churches also had been infected by some of the errors or vices which had prevailed at Corinth.
The letter is, in its contents, the most diversified of all Apostle Paul's Epistles; and in proportion to the variety of its topics, is the depth of its interest for ourselves. For by it we are introduced, as it were, behind the scenes of the Apostolic Church, and its minutest features are revealed to us under the light of daily life. We see the picture of a Christian congregation as it met for worship in some upper chamber, such as the house of Aquila, or of Gaius, could furnish.
We see that these seasons of pure devotion were not unalloyed by human vanity and excitement; yet, on the other hand, we behold the Heathen auditor pierced to the heart by the inspired eloquence of the Christian prophets, the secrets of his conscience laid bare to him, and himself constrained to fall down on his face and worship God; we hear the fervent thanksgiving echoed by the unanimous Amen; we see the administration of the Holy Communion terminating the feast of love. Again we become familiar with the perplexities of domestic life, the corrupting proximity of Heathen immorality, the lingering superstition, the rash speculation, the lawless perversion of Christian liberty; we witness the strife of theological factions, the party names, the sectarian animosities.
We perceive the difficulty of the task imposed upon the Apostle, who must guard from so many perils, and guide through so many difficulties, his children in the faith, whom else he had begotten in vain; and we learn to appreciate more fully the magnitude of that laborious responsibility under which he describes himself as almost ready to sink, "the care of all the Churches."
But while we rejoice that so many details of the deepest historical interest have been preserved to us by this Epistle, let us not forget to thank God, who so inspired His Apostle, that in his answers to questions of transitory interest he has laid down principles of eternal obligation. Let us trace with gratitude the providence of Him, who "out of darkness calls up light;" by whose mercy it was provided that the unchastity of the Corinthians should occasion the sacred laws of moral purity to be established forever through the Christian world; - that their denial of the resurrection should cause those words to be recorded whereon reposes, as upon a rock that cannot be shaken, our sure and certain hope of immortality.
In the concluding part of this letter we have some indication of the Apostle’s plans for the future. He is looking forward to a journey through Macedonia (1Corinthians 16:5), to be succeeded by a visit to Corinth (ib. 2-7), and after this he thinks it probable he may proceed to Jerusalem (ib. 3, 4). In the Acts of the Apostles the same intentions are expressed, with a stronger purpose of going to Jerusalem (1Corinthians 16:21), and with the additional conviction that after passing through Macedonia and Achaia, and visiting Palestine, he "must also see Rome". He had won many of the inhabitants of Asia Minor and Ephesus to the faith: and now, after the prospect of completing his charitable exertions for the poor Christians of Judea, his spirit turns towards the accomplishment of remoter conquests.
Far from being content with his past achievements, or resting from his incessant labors, he felt that he was under a debt of perpetual obligation to all the Gentile world. Thus he expresses himself, soon after this time, in the Epistle to the Roman Christians, whom he had long ago desired to see (Romans 1:10-15), and whom he hopes at length to visit, now that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and is looking forward to a still more distant and hazardous journey to Spain (Romans 15:22-29). The path thus dimly traced before him, as he thought of the future at Ephesus, and made more clearly visible, when he wrote the letter at Corinth, was made still more evident as he proceeded on his course.
Yet not without forebodings of evil, and much discouragement, and mysterious delays, did the Apostle advance on his courageous career. But we are anticipating many subjects which will give a touching interest to subsequent passages of this history. Important events still detain us in Ephesus. Though Apostle Paul's companions had been sent before in the direction of his contemplated journey (Acts 19:22), he still resolved to stay till Pentecost (1Corinthians 16:8). A "great door" was open to him, and there were many "adversaries," against whom he had yet to contend.