I Corinthians 6:12-20
January 18, 2009 - Second Sunday after Epiphany
“I never said I was in love with you.” So says a character in P. D. James’ latest novel. He’s speaking to a woman with whom he’s been having an affair for eight years. She wants to marry him, but he insists that he has never and will never even consider the idea. For him, it was all “just” sex and companionship, nothing more.
The first letter Paul wrote to Corinth is full of sex. The Corinthians have all sorts of issues, but one of the biggest is their distorted and confused view of sexuality. In the text we’ve read together this morning, Paul addresses the heart of that confusion. In particular, he wants them to see that there is no such thing as “just sex.” Sexual activity always involves more than just a bit of bodily pleasure, always touches a person in the core of her being, and always reflects one’s relationship with God.
Part of the Corinthian confusion is quoted by Paul in verse 12, “I have the right to do anything.” No, Paul did not say it. It was not the apostle saying “Everything is permissible.” That’s why it’s probably wrapped in quotes in your Bible. Paul was stating the Corinthians’ own slogan, and then giving his response. They thought, because in Jesus Christ they had been freed from the penalties of the Law, because they were spiritual, that they had the right, in Christ, to do whatever they pleased. What Paul means to say here is, “No way!”
So verse 12 gives two responses to “I have the right to do anything.” First, Paul says, “but not everything is beneficial.” Christian freedom is limited from doing that which harms others, that which is not beneficial to brothers and sisters in Christ. You can see that in what he just said about lawsuits at the beginning of chapter 6 and what he’s preparing to say about marriage and food in chapter 7. We do not have the right to do anything, if it hurts someone else.
Second, Paul responds to our supposed absolute freedom by saying, “I will not be mastered by anything.” An action may be permissible for a Christian, whether it’s drinking alcohol or going to the movies or eating gourmet food. But if that act takes control of us, if we are living solely to drink or eat or be entertained, then what might be permissible in itself is no longer right.
Verse 13 begins with another quotation from the Corinthians, another slogan they liked to use to justify their behavior. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The idea here is as ancient and as contemporary as can be. God made me this way. He made me with a stomach and He made food to eat. There can’t be anything wrong with putting the two together. From what follows, we see that this Corinthian slogan was really about sex. God gave me these desires and He gave me an outlet for them. What’s wrong with being who I am, with acting on my natural desires? That’s how God made me.
The rest of the slogan displays how far wrong the Corinthians had gone. When they said about food and the stomach, “and God will destroy them both,” it was a badly mistaken concept of spiritual life. They thought, not only did God make my body with these desires, what I do with my body doesn’t really matter. All that matters is what’s spiritual. The body is going to die, to be destroyed. Only my spirit will live on. So who cares what I do with my body?
Paul knew what their slogan really meant. His reply to “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” is a whole different pairing, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” The body matters. Your body was meant to be dedicated to the Lord and the Lord Jesus gave Himself for your body. That’s why the next verse, verse 14, is about the resurrection.
Verse 14 is the central, historical fact on which Christian faith is based, “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” How can anyone think the body does not matter, when the whole point of Jesus coming was to be raised from the dead in the body? Moreover, as Paul is going to celebrate at great length in chapter 15, the fact that Jesus was raised means that we will be raised too, in our bodies. It’s simply a mistake and a lie to think that our bodies, whether it’s stomachs or sexual organs, will be destroyed by God. Our bodies are meant by God to be forever.
Let me pause here and say the mistake Paul is addressing in Corinth is very, very much with us today. It’s in the world and in the Church. Whenever we begin to believe that our bodies are just shells or prisons we’re one day going to shuck off in order to be truly free, we’ve fallen into the Corinthian error. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian version of that mistake dreaming about how great it will be to float around in the clouds of heaven as pure spirits or a scientific version trying to figure out how to decant our minds into a computer’s memory so that we can live perfect virtual lives. It’s all wrong and it all leads to sin. God loves our bodies. His own Son took on a body and lives in it forever. We believe in the resurrection of the body. Anything else is heresy.
With that high view of our bodies, verse 15 asks the Corinthians and asks us, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” Not “members” in our modern, metaphorical sense of belonging to a social organization. In Paul’s time “member” meant one thing: “body part.” “Do you not know that your bodies are Christ’s own body parts?” As Christians, you and I are Christ’s limbs and organs.
So the rest of verse 15 is pretty graphic. “Shall I then take the members [the body parts] of Christ and unite them to a prostitute?” Prostitution is in view here, but it applies to other kinds of sexual immorality. Paul means that when you or I engage in illicit sexual relations, we are dragging Jesus into that bed with us. We’re taking the body parts of Jesus Christ and fornicating with them. No wonder Paul says “Never!” The Greek words translate perfectly well as “No way!”
That’s why Paul wants us to know in verse 16 that there is no such thing as “casual sex.” Just the mere act of intercourse accomplishes what God established for male and female relations way back at the beginning. He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 when he says, “The two will become one flesh.” God meant it to be true for husband and wife, but Paul says it happens even in prostitution, even in a one-night stand, even in adultery, even in a teen-age encounter in the back seat of a car. Sexual relationship makes you one flesh with the other person, unites you in a deep, intimate and permanent way that there’s no going back on. It can’t ever be casual. It can’t ever be “just sex.”
I repeat, God meant that kind of intense intimacy for husband and wife. That’s what it says in Genesis. He meant it to be enjoyed. He meant it to be good. You and I need to be very careful not to behave in ways that ruin God’s intention and tie us into all sorts of destructive relationships that were never meant to be.
What matters most here, however, is our relationship with God. Immoral sexual activity can truly mess us up in regard to each other, but Paul’s big point is that it ruins our intimacy with God. Verse 16 says that wrong sex unites you in that relationship, makes a person one flesh with a prostitute, but verse 17 explains that the aim is to be united with the Lord, to be one with Him in spirit. Don’t let casual, wrongful sexual unity mess up your unity with Christ, because it sure can.
That’s why Paul starts verse 18, with the warning, “Flee from sexual immorality!” Run away from it. Escape. Get out of there. Break away. Leave it behind. It will ruin you and it will ruin your relationship with the Lord.
The rest of verse 18 needs some explaining and some translation correction. Most translations read something like, “All other sins a person commits are outside the body.” There’s a couple problems here. First, the word “other” is not there in Greek. It’s a mistake to put it in, because it profoundly changes the meaning. Putting “other” in makes it sound like sexual sin is somehow different from other sins, maybe somehow worse. That’s not true here and not true in general. The sentence actually says, “All sins a person commits are outside the body.” The problem is, that’s not true either.
What we’ve got here, and what most translations fail to account for, is another Corinthian slogan. Paul’s not saying that all sins are outside the body. It’s what the Corinthians liked to say. In the TNIV, there should be quotation marks around it, and the words, “You say,” like in verse 12.
The Corinthians wanted to believe that all their sins were merely external. They didn’t really affect their souls, their spirits. A little prostitution, a little gluttony, a little lie, a little theft. We’re still good people down deep. That’s just what we do on the outside. Inside we’re pure, holy spirits just waiting to get out of these bodies that do such bad things. It’s the same silly externalizing of one’s actions that makes people think today that they can lie or abuse someone or have an affair and still be, on the inside, a “good person.” It’s not true and what Paul wrote to follow it means to say it’s not true.
When verse 18 continues, “but the one who sins sexually sins against that one’s own body,” it’s Paul’s answer to the falsehood that sin is just external to us. He means to say, “That’s just dumb, you Corinthians. It’s obvious that sexual sin sinks deep. You’re sinning against your own body, your own self. It’s going to affect you, affect you way down where it will hurt for a long time. It’s stupid to think such sins are just on the outside.” It’s not that sexual sin is worse than other sins. It’s just that it’s so obviously self-involving and self-destructive. I invite you to talk to anyone who has gone very far down the path of sexual sin, whether it’s prostitution or pornography or adultery or homosexual behavior. It goes far, far down into your body and into your soul. You can’t keep it on the outside of yourself. It comes deep into you to mess you up for years to come.
After the warning, Paul offers his last reasons for lives of sexual purity, whether a right relationship in marriage or a chaste single life like his. Verse 19 asks us, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Your body is meant to be a holy place, a place where God dwells and is worshipped. Why then, would you not want to live in a way that honors God’s presence in you?
We have a contemporary problem with verse 19, because there’s an element in our culture that has changed it’s meaning. My first experience of this was a conversation a few years ago with a young man living on the street. He was telling me why he didn’t smoke, or do drugs, or something like that. I can’t remember. The reason he gave is, “because my body is my temple.” Since then I’ve become aware, and an Internet search confirms that, especially in new age circles, the description of the body as “my temple” is fairly common. Participants in yoga classes are encouraged to chant the phrase, “My body is my temple,” as they seek relaxation and a healthy state of mind.
You see, of course, the change from the biblical thought. Whereas Paul calls me to recognize my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, the repackaged notion is that my body is my temple. The contemporary mind transforms the biblical idea that my flesh and blood are an arena in which to worship God into the thought that in my body, by caring for my body, I may worship myself, take care of myself.
Paul’s thought connects back to what he said in chapter 3 verses 16 and 17. The Church as whole, the Body of Christ, is a temple for God’s Spirit. So his thoughts at the end our text focus that down so as to aim at us individually. We are both corporately and individually a temple of the Holy Spirit. Both good relationships with each other in the Church and individual holiness in the world are ways we worship God with our bodies.
All of this unpacks to show that the Christian view of sex is not at all negative, despite all the warnings and prohibitions we read here. God created us with bodies and said that His creation was, “very good.” He made our bodies to be holy places, temples, and He wants to bless them with His own presence. He wants to live in you and me, in our bodies, through His Holy Spirit.
God’s own Son took on a human body like ours and in the process gave the body even more dignity and honor. God really did live in a human body in Jesus. And He wants to give that same honor to each of our bodies. Our bodies are temples, not our temples, but His temples. My body is not my temple. It’s the temple of God, a place where I can honor and praise Him with every breath, with every action.
And on the day which some churches are recognizing as Sanctity of Life Sunday, it’s well to remember that this all leads to the end of verse 19 and the beginning of verse 20. “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” It’s absolutely wrong to begin a discussion of abortion with the thought that a person’s body is her own possession, hers to do with whatever she pleases, whether or not that involves another life. If you are a Christian, you are not your own. Your body is not yours to do with as you please. You, and that includes your body, belong to God.
Take a rather homely image of this and imagine you’ve borrowed something from a friend, say an automobile. You know it’s not yours, so you treat it differently. You’re careful not to ding the doors when you open them. You don’t eat French fries as you drive and toss the wrapper in the back seat. If you take your dog to the vet, you cover the upholstery carefully. And when it’s time to give it back, you run it through the car wash and fill the tank with gas. You’re caring for someone else’s possession, so you treat that vehicle with respect and honor which you might not give your own car. That’s exactly how God would like us to regard our bodies. You’re driving a vehicle that belongs to Him.
The reason your body is not yours, as verse 20 begins, is that “you were bought with a price.” The price for your body was Jesus’ own body, dying on the Cross so that all the sins you’ve committed with your body might be forgiven. The price was Jesus’ body raised from the dead so that you could have a new life in your body, so that your body can be raised with His. He bought you with His own flesh and blood. You are not yours. You’re His. That’s why Psalm 139 today speaks so wonderfully of how we can’t remove ourselves from God and He knows every last detail of our lives. The same thing shows up in our Gospel lesson from John 1 as Jesus demonstrates to Nathaniel that He knows even his deepest secrets. We belong to Him and every single, last action we do is meant to praise Him.
So Paul concludes, “Therefore, honor God with your body.” “Honor” there is doxazō, the word we get “doxology” from. It means to glorify, to worship. Glorify, worship God with your body. Your body is not a prison from which to escape, nor is it old clothing you can treat however you please, do whatever you want with, like painting the house in an old shirt. What you do with your body matters, matters forever because your body will be forever. God lives in your body and it will be raised to live with Him.
A wonderful old line in the marriage rites of the English church has gone missing since the 18th century. But for a couple hundred years before that, those married in the Anglican church said to each other, as part of their wedding vows, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” “With my body, I thee worship.” What a wonderful expression of God’s intent for married sexual life, that through our flesh and blood we should give worth and honor to each other. It might be a very good thing to bring those words back into our understanding of marriage.
It would be an even better thing if everyone of us would make those old words our own daily prayer to God. “With my body I Thee worship, Lord.” May you and I seek His help to live those words out in every motion and act of these glorious and beautiful temples with which our Father blessed us, for which our Savior died, and in which His Spirit will live for eternity.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj