How many letters did the Apostle Paul write to the Corinthian church? The answer is not as easy as it sounds. We have two letters to the church at Corinth in our Bible, but both of these letters mention another letter. Many scholars believe Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthian church, but only two of them survived. If they are right, the chronology of Paul’s correspondence and visits to Corinth looks something like this.
As recorded in Acts 18, Paul visited Corinth for the first time on what we call his “second missionary journey” and stayed for 18 months. Paul lived with Priscilla and Aquila, and established the church at Corinth (approximately 51-52 AD).
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.- Acts 18:1
And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. – Acts 18:11
#1 Letter – Lost letter from Paul
What: Often referred to as “The Lost Epistle,” this letter is the correspondence mentioned in 1Corinthians. Chronologically, it is the first letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 1Corinthians 5:9
When: After having returned to Antioch upon the completion of his second missionary journey, Paul establishes Ephesus as a base for the travels that we call his “third missionary journey.” He probably wrote this initial letter during his time in Ephesus.
Why: Word reached Paul of some troubles in the Corinthian church and he wrote to address those problems. Among other things, Paul tells them that they are “not to associate with immoral people.”
Letter from Corinth
What: This is the letter from the church at Corinth to Paul that is mentioned in 1Corinthians 7.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 1Corinthians 7:1
When: This letter would have reached Paul during his time at Ephesus.
Why: Several issues are creating controversy among the Corinthian believers and they seek Paul’s wisdom on resolving these issues.
#2 Letter – 1Corinthians
What: This is the letter we know as 1Corinthians. Chronologically, it is the second letter Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.
When: Paul dictated this letter to Sosthenes during his time in Ephesus toward the beginning of his third missionary journey (approximately 54-55 AD).
Why: Paul is responding to the issues raised by the letter he received from Corinth and the report he received from Chloe’s people.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 1Corinthians 7:1
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. – 1Corinthians 1:11
2nd Visit – Sorrowful visit
What: In a visit not recorded in Acts, Paul makes a brief second trip to Corinth from Ephesus on his way to Macedonia. This visit -(predicted in 1Corinthians 16 and referred back to in 2Corinthians 13) is sometimes referred to as “the sorrowful visit.”
5I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, 6and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost…- 1Corinthians 16:5-8
1This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 2I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them– 2Corinthians 13:1-2
When: Paul made this trip during his long stay in Ephesus when Ephesus was his base for his third missionary journey.
Why: Timothy visited Corinth and brought back some news that Paul believed he needed to deal with swiftly. Though he wrote in 1Corinthians 16 that he planned to come via the land route through Macedonia, Paul took the direct route across the sea, stayed briefly and traveled on to Macedonia.
10When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. 11So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers. -1Corinthians 16:10-11
#3 Letter – Severe letter from Paul
What: Often referred to as “the severe letter,” this is the letter that causes the sorrow mentioned in 2Corinthians 7. Chronologically, it is the third letter Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.
For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you. – 2Corinthians 2:4
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it–for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while–2Corinthians 7:8
When: Probably written during Paul’s second visit to Macedonia, after his second trip to Corinth and before he returns to Ephesus.
Why: Paul experienced something during his second visit to Corinth while on his way to Macedonia that concerned him and caused him to write this letter. Paul originally intended to return to Corinth on his way back to Ephesus. But Paul decided it was not a good time for him to visit Corinth and he returned to Ephesus by the land route.
15Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. 16I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. …. – 2Corinthians 1:15-16
23But I call God to witness against me–it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. 24Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. 2:1For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. – 2Corinthians 1:23-2:1
#4 Letter – 2Corinthians
What: This is the letter we know as 2Corinthians and is the fourth letter from Paul to the Corinthian church.
When: Paul wrote this letter during his third visit to Macedonia (probably from Philippi, approximately 56 AD), after Titus had arrived with encouraging news about the situation in Corinth. Instead of returning to Corinth, Paul sent Titus to Corinth. When Titus rejoined Paul in Macedonia, Paul rejoiced at the news Titus brought from Corinth.
5For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. 6But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. – 2Corinthians 7:5-7
For this reason we have been comforted. And besides our comfort, we rejoiced even much more for the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all. – 2Corinthians 7:13
Why: Paul wrote this letter to prepare for his coming to see them again (3rd visit), as he gathers a collection for the poor in Jerusalem.
1For it is superfluous for me to write to you about this ministry to the saints; 2for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the Macedonians, namely, that Achaia has been prepared since last year, and your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3But I have sent the brethren, in order that our boasting about you may not be made empty in this case, so that, as I was saying, you may be prepared; 4otherwise if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we–not to speak of you–will be put to shame by this confidence. 5So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, so that the same would be ready as a bountiful gift and not affected by covetousness. – 2Corinthians 9:1-5