The city of Corinth, located 48 miles west of Athens on a narrow isthmus between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, was a bustling metrópolis with an estimated population of fifty to one hundred thousand residents. Full of “pagans…influenced and led astray to mute idols” (1 Cor 12:2, NIV), Corinth was not only a religious city but one full of sexual immorality and social injustice. Remarkably, Paul planted a community of Jesus-followers in Corinth. He ended up spending a total of eighteen months in this great metrópolis, teaching and nurturing the new community of disciples.
Paul was not alone in his efforts to turn these former pagans from their dumb idols to the worship of the one true Creator God. Aquila and Priscilla, a missionary couple who also played key roles in the formation of the Christian church in Corinth, came from Rome to Corinth, where they met Paul. Like Paul, they were tentmakers; Paul lived and worked with them in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3). Silas and Timothy were Paul’s missionary companions who stayed in Macedonia when Paul left for Athens (Acts 17:14). They reconnected with Paul in Corinth and also assisted him in preaching Jesus in Corinth (Acts 18:5).
Crispus was a leader of the Jewish synagogue in Corinth who became a follower of Jesus, “together with his entire household” (Acts 18:8). He was one of the few believers in Corinth who were baptized by Paul himself (1 Cor 1:14). Titius Justus was a Roman whose house was next door to the Jewish synagogue in Corinth. He was attracted to the Jewish religion, “a worshiper of God” (Acts 18:7). He hosted the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Corinth after Paul was no longer welcome in the Jewish synagogue. Stephanus, along with his household, was among the first converts to Jesus in Corinth (1 Cor 16:15). Paul baptized the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16).
Reading Acts, one gets the impression that Paul’s work in Corinth was a huge success and that his work for the Corinthians was accomplished. That would be a gross oversimplification. Thankfully, we have two of his letters to the Corinthians preserved in the New Testament to help fill in some gaps in the story. Paul’s letters tell that his work among the Corinthians was just beginning. After eighteen months working in Corinth, having raised a community of disciples, Paul left Corinth by ship, crossing the Aegean with Aquila and Priscilla, and began ministry in Ephesus (Acts 18:19). Paul left Aquila and Priscila in Ephesus while he headed for Jerusalem (Acts 18:21). He soon went to Antioch and shortly after that returned to Ephesus (19:1b).
Paul spent two and a half years of fruitful ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). While Paul was in Ephesus, he received news from “Chloe’s household” (1 Cor 1:11; cf 5:1; 11:18) that there was trouble in the Corinthian church. Paul heard that there was serious dissension within the community (1:12); sexual immorality (5:1–8; 6:12–20); legal disputes among believers (6:1–11); abuses of the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34); and controversies about the resurrection of the dead (15:1–58).
In addition, Paul also had received a letter from the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:1) with questions about sex, marriage, divorce, etc. (7:1b–40); eating meat that had been offered to idols (8:1–11:1); spiritual gifts in the community’s worship (12:1–14:40); and Paul’s collection for Jerusalem (16:1–4). Reading Paul’s many letters, one gets the impression that he wished he could be in multiple places at the same time. On one hand, “a wide door for effective work” had been opened for him in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:9), but at the same time, the situation in Corinth required his immediate return. In fact, in his absence, he sent Timothy (1 Cor 4:17-19).
Like the Corinthian church, we are all individually and collectively one big mess, requiring the Lord’s constant and abiding presence alongside us as we journey in this broken world. Paul was daily under the weight of his “concern for all of the churches” he planted. He knew that the work of evangelism did not end with baptism, but was just the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning and growing. This is why he wrote so many letters.
Paul’s ongoing relationship and correspondence with the Corinthians illustrate the need for a robust discipleship program in every church. The work of welcoming new people into the community of faith is a messy one that requires patience, sacrifice, empathy, and grace. There is no one-size-fits-all. There are no easy, quick, overnight conversions. The successful evangelist is not the one who shows up, preaches several sermons, baptizes a few, leaves town, and then moves on to the next assignment. The successful evangelists are those who form deep relationships with the evangelized, walk alongside them, and carefully and patiently nurture them into the faith over the long haul.