Here’s what we know as it relates to Paul, Apollos and the establishment and early years of the church at Corinth:
1. Paul started the church in Corinth somewhere around 50 AD. After 18 months, he left for Ephesus where he didn’t stay long before heading to Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 18:11,19-21).
2. Apollos showed up in Ephesus not long after Paul had left and after a brief time there he went to Corinth (v. 27-28). I get the impression from the text that he arrived there not too long after Paul had departed—let’s say ~AD 52.
3. Apollos is still in Corinth when Paul returns to Ephesus (~AD 53)—so if we’re right about when he got there he stayed there for a while. We know he stayed there long enough to make a significant impression upon one group of people (1 Corinthians 1:12, 5:1ff).
4. Most people believe Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the mid 50’s—that wouldn’t be too long after Apollos had left Corinth.
5. Summing up, it looks like a space of about five years from the time Paul first sets foot in Corinth until he wrote 1 Corinthians, A lot happened during that period. The church was established by Paul. He wrote them a letter (1 Corinthians 5:9ff). Apollos came and stayed a while. Paul received word from Chole’s household about the division at Corinth and possibly other problems (1:10ff, 5:1ff, 11:18ff). Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived with a financial gift (?) for Paul and some questions from the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:1,8:1,12:1).
In typical Lukan style we are furnished with summary statement about Apollos’ time in Corinth as he writes, “When he arrived, he was a great help to those who had by grace believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18:27-28). We really don’t know any particulars beyond that but we do know that Apollos did a good job at Corinth. He took his new knowledge about baptism and integrated it into his preaching and teaching. Then after he had been there some time, he moved on—to where we don’t know.
But we know that Apollos did a good job at Corinth. We know that Paul did a good job as well in his preaching and teaching. But if all of that is true—how did the Corinthians end up with the warped perspective of exalting different evangelists and apostles to the point that they were dividing the body of Christ (1:10ff)? In fact, they were “the church of the divided” as they had schisms over who they were following, how they were observing the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts and more. In all of this, they weren’t “defending the faith”—they were “dividing the body of Jesus.” How did they deteriorate to this condition?
There’s no single answer although there does appear to be a central one. They were immature, worldly and fleshly (rather than spiritual). All of this is in 3:1-4. When Paul was in Corinth they were new in Christ and understandably immature (v. 1-2). Now, they had no such excuse. They still acted out of a worldly perspective and it was wreaking havoc in the body of Christ.