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Doug Van Meter - 20 August 2023

The Sanctity of the Saints (1 Corinthians 6:12–20)

In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, Paul gives instruction about the sanctity of the saints. In doing so he tells believers to pay attention to the importance of their bodies. And to the degree they do so, as the rest of 1 Corinthians reveals, the body of Christ is blessed. In other words, what the Christian does with his or her body effects the local body of Christ. To a large degree, the problem of sexual immorality in both the wider culture as well as within local churches is a similar challenge in our day and therefore this passage is of great relevance and importance to us.

Scripture References: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

From Series: "1 Corinthians Exposition"

An exposition of 1 Corinthians by Doug Van Meter.

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When we last studied 1 Corinthians, we learned about the sufficiency of the saints in 6:1–11. Paul was addressing those guilty of self-indulgently taking fellow church members to court. Rather than responding to conflict with the wisdom of the cross, they chose to respond with the wisdom of the world. Paul warned that this obsession with one’s rights was as self-indulgent and damning as the rampant sexually immorality of the world (v. 9). He ended that exhortation pointing them to the power of the gospel, which had saved them from such condemnation.

But, in v. 12, he returns to the problem of self-indulgence among some in the church, specifically those engaging in sexual immorality. In these nine verses, Paul gives instruction about the sanctity of the saints. He expects Christians to exercise holy stewardship of their bodies now that they have undergone a radical change of ownership. Through the price of the blood of God’s Son, the Christian has been freed from the slavery of sin, including enslavement to sexual immorality. Paul wants the Corinthian church to know that “Christian lifestyle is more than a private ‘inner’ state; it manifests itself in ‘bodily’ action and behavior in the public domain” (Thiselton).

The contemporary problem of sexual immorality in both the wider culture, as well as within local churches, makes this passage of important relevance to us. Though sexual immorality is so casually accepted today, Lewis Smedes rightly notes, “There is no such thing as casual sex, no matter how casual people are about it.” This passage makes this abundantly clear.

Christian, may we be renewed in our commitment to a life of sexual sanctity and thus sanity. If you are guilty, may the Lord lead you to repentance. And if you are not a Christian, I trust that the Lord will graciously bring you to himself through Jesus Christ, who lived a holy life in his body, who shed the blood of his body in death on the cross for sinners like you and me, and who rose from the dead so we can exclaim, “I have been bought with a price, and I will glorify God in my body.”

We will study this passage under two headings: (1) Freed from sexual immorality (vv. 12–17), and (2) Flee sexual immorality (vv. 18–20).

Freed from Sexual Immorality

Paul shows us, first, that Christians have been gloriously freed from sexual immorality.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

(1 Corinthians 6:12–17)

Paul emphasises that there is no excuse for sexual sin in the life of the Christian because the Christian has been washed, sanctified, and justified (v. 11). In other words the Christian has experienced spiritual freedom: freedom from the guilt of sin, freedom from the power of sin. And so, yes, freedom from sexual immorality (v. 11). This freedom is articulated in two major themes.

Freed from Trivialising

Verses 12–14 show that Christians have been freed from trivialising sexual sin:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.  “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.

(1 Corinthians 6:12–14)

The city of Corinth, as many ancient cities of the time, lived by a sexual ethic that trivialised God’s design for sexual relations between men and women and they even had slogans to that effect. In that culture it was quite acceptable to sleep with prostitutes.

A pagan philosopher of the day wrote, “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for daily concubinage, but wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our domestic property” (Athenaeus). This remains a problem in our day—even for professing Christians—though the principles here apply to any and all sins of sexual immorality.

The opening phrase of this passage (“all things are lawful for me”) present us with the challenge of deciding if these are Paul’s statements or quotations of common slogans. If the latter, where do the quotations begin, and where do they end? I am of the view, as are most interpreters, that Paul is quoting cultural slogans and rebutting them.

Paul has just reminded the church that some of its members have been gloriously delivered from a life of sensual and sexual debauchery. Through the power of the gospel, they have been “washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (v. 11). And with this transformation is an expectation of self-control rather than self-indulgence; self-restraint rather than sexual revolt. In other words, Paul expected Christians to live informed by the wisdom of the cross rather than the wisdom of the world. These three verses point us to that.

Trivial Pursuits

“All things are lawful for me” was seemingly a catch-phrase in Corinth and was perhaps foolishly bandied about by members of the Corinthian church. It is not a statement of Christian liberty. It is unthinkable that Paul would entertain the idea that it could ever be “lawful” to engage in sexual immorality. For this reason, we are on safe grounds to assert that he is quoting a slogan from the culture of the day. Such trivialising of ethics in our day is similar, including when it comes to sexual immorality.

People are obsessed with their rights and they assume that all their rights in society are God-given. I was bemused recently, while visiting America, to hear a contributor on a news show saying that the right to own a firearm is “a God-given constitutional right.” It might be a constitutional right, but I would require a lot of persuading to accept that it is a God-given right.

I remember in the early days of our democracy in South Africa hearing a lot both about our rights as well as our responsibilities. We don’t hear much about our responsibilities today, though there is tireless talk about rights. “All things are lawful for me” is the ubiquitous catch phrase of our day. And it is destructive if it is not tempered by Paul’s caveats: “but not all things are helpful” and “I will not be dominated by anything.”

Paul refutes the wisdom of the world with the countercultural rebuttal, “What is allowable is not necessarily beneficial.” Informed by the soul-transforming and allegiance-securing cross-work of Jesus, what is allowable is not always permissible. Further, what is acceptable as informed by the wisdom of the world may, in fact, be destructively enslaving.

In his second rebuttal Paul says, “What is legal may violate a higher law; what you think is freedom may indeed be the road to bondage.”

The word “lawful” may have a legal implication. After all, since prostitution was permissible—even encouraged—then why not? But the Christian answers to a higher law: the law of love. And when we love God and our neighbour, we will abstain from sexual immorality.

There is more to life than being technically right. What matters is serving the right Master. The Christian, faced with the world’s allowances, will be careful to consider whether a course of action is beneficial to his relationship with the Lord, whether it will strengthen his freedom to serve Christ or whether it will hinder it. That is, will the course of action bring him into bondage or will it bring him closer as a bondservant of Jesus Christ? And as Paul will argue in this passage, this is at the heart of sexual sin in the Christian life. There is nothing trivial about this worldly technical legality. Peterson paraphrases, “Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it’s spiritually appropriate. If I went around doing whatever I thought I could get by with, I’d be a slave to my whims.”

Trivialising the Temporal

The second slogan (“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”) indicates that some had imbibed the world’s wisdom that sexual behaviour is merely a product of a physiological or natural appetite, similar to the physical appetite for food. That is, when your stomach growls and tells you it is hungry, you satisfy that appetite with food. Likewise, when your body has an appetite for sex, you satisfy that appetite. It is all physiological; it is only natural. It is all so trivial. After all, it is temporal. So, what’s the big deal about using the services of a prostitute? A person is simply buying what the prostitute is selling to satisfy a sexual need, just as they would buy a loaf of bread to satisfy an empty stomach. Sexual indulgence is as natural and irresistible as is physical hunger for food.

But Paul’s rebuttal “denies the argument of a parallel between eating and digesting food as a natural process and practicing sexual immorality as a natural process” (Mare). Let me explain.

Paul’s rebuttal is in vv. 13b–14: “And God will destroy both the one and the other.” However, “the body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” For the first of eight times in vv. 13–20 Paul uses the word “body.” This is essential to his argument.

While acknowledging the reality of appetite, both for physical hunger and sexual desire, Paul points out that there is a huge difference. It seems he is saying that God will destroy the physical appetite for food and therefore the need for the stomach (v. 13a). (And perhaps he is indicating that God will also destroy the sexual appetite for flesh greedily consumed. After all, there will be no marriage in heaven and hence no need for procreation.)

Anyway, what we do with our bodies sexually is completely different than the functioning of the stomach. What we put in our stomachs might give us a bellyache, but misusing our bodies, which belong to the Lord, has profound consequences for our relationship with him. It will produce a profound relational ache, especially between the Christian and God.

Our bodies, like our stomachs, are temporal. But we dare not trivialise what we do with them. The stomach will be destroyed, but the body will be raised from the dead. What we do with our bodies matters. It matters more than our trivialising of sexual immorality realises.

Let me try to summarise.

At death, and entrance into the eternal state, the Christian will no longer be at the whim of physiological appetites. There will be no marriage in our glorified state, and therefore apparently there will be no sexual appetite (Matthew 22:29–30). Further, though I believe the glorified Christian will eat (Jesus ate in his post-resurrection body), we will eat from pleasure, not from the compulsion of appetite.

These appetites are temporary, and yet the Corinthians are allowing them to control them. They dare not draw the erroneous conclusion that the physical has no relationship to the spiritual in the Christian’s life. They dare not trivialise what is temporal, for it belongs to the Lord. Paul puts it most clearly when he says, “The body is not for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

Whatever else he is saying, Paul wants the Corinthian church to grasp that disabusing the body to fulfil carnal appetites is no trivial matter.

The Christian’s body is for the purpose of serving the Lord (cf. v. 20) and the Lord pays attention to our body, sustaining it with life. In fact, the body is so important that Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected by the power of God, as will be the believer (v. 14). Therefore to treat the body as simply a means to satisfy fleshly appetites is to trivialise what God prioritises. To summarise, “The body was created, not to fulfil sexual desires, but for the Lord’s sake, so one should use one’s body to please the Lord…. He is the Lord over the bodies of believers for their benefit, so that they might flourish” (Schreiner).

We can see how important the human body is by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. David Prior helpfully observes, “No other major religion in the world holds such a high view of the body, and the most obvious perspective on this truth is the very fact of the incarnation. That is the measure of God’s commitment to the body.”

Psalm 40, referred to by the author of Hebrews, records Jesus’ delightful submission to possessing a body prepared for him by the Father (Hebrews 10:5–10). Our redemption required Jesus’ perfect obedience in a flesh-and-blood body. That body was then crucified for sinners and, in that body, Jesus suffered the wrath of God for all who confess they have sinned in their bodies while repenting of sinning with their bodies. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead by the Father and, in his body he sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for those who will come to him—in their bodies—for his salvation. All who do are promised resurrected in their bodies when Jesus Christ returns in his body to wrap up human history fully bring God’s kingdom to pass.

In the light of these truths, we are to consider very careful how we use our bodies in response to appetites, particularly sexual appetites. There is nothing trivial about sexual immorality. Beware.

Freed from Thoughtless Perversions

Not only are we freed from trivialising sexual immorality; we are also freed from thoughtless perversions.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

(1 Corinthians 6:12–17)

The Lord said through his prophet, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). The same was happening in the church at Corinth. Church members were not thinking biblically. They were behaving as though they had little, if any, knowledge of their identity as Christians (a major theme in this letter). They were making decisions as though they were scripturally ignorant of the most glorious of biblical truths: the Christian’s union with Jesus Christ. This apparent scriptural ignorance had opened the door for the sins of sexual immorality. Paul brings this to their attention by the repeated question of disbelief: “Do you not know?” Paul says this ten times in 1 Corinthians with the majority of occurrences in chapter 6 (vv. 2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19).

This was a sarcastic/biting question designed to awaken them to their serious condition. It was as if Paul was saying, “What’s wrong with you? After all, you belong to the Lord. You are intimately in union with the Lord, and yet you are committing sexual immorality?”

It is as unbelievable as it is unconscionable as it is inexcusable. This repeated question indicates that, in the eighteen months Paul had spent with this church, he had instructed them about their identity in Christ and their union with him. But the apparent acceptance of sexual immorality in their midst indicates scriptural amnesia at best, scriptural ignorance at worst. They needed the reminder, as do we.

It is all too easy to get caught up with the busyness, frustrations, temptations, and cares of the world that we shove our Scripture-assigned identity to the side. To my shame, I have on more than one occasion watched television shows or movies that promoted a trivial treatment of sexual sin. I should have turned it off or left the theatre. Instead, I allowed my body to be exposed to images or philosophies that offended Jesus Christ who was in that theatre with me.

When a Christian watches or reads porn, he or she is living as though he or she no idea that the Scripture describes Christians as belonging to Jesus Christ, inseparably united to him. Christians are inseparably united to the one called “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

When a Christian commits sexual sin, he or she is doing it in the presence of Jesus Christ. It would be like—though far worse—a man going to a prostitute taking his wife along with him. If that sounds shocking, it is meant to be. We need to think. We need to think scripturally.

Of course, what is true of sexual sin is true of every sinful behaviour—that is, it is done in the presence of Jesus Christ—but Paul is at great pains to make the point that sexual sin is in a unique way so much worse because it involves the body, which is joined intimately and inseparably to the Lord Jesus.

To summarise, when we are born again by the Spirit of God, we are united to Christ, in an even deeper way than physically (vv. 16–17). Just as the sexual relationship between a husband and a wife is intended to form a permanent relationship (hence the quotation of Genesis 2:24 in v. 16), so being born again creates a permanent relational and spiritual bond between the repentant sinner and Jesus Christ. When we are cognisant of this biblical truth we will do precisely what Paul says next: We will flee (v. 18)!

Before examining what this running from ruin looks like, let us consider some important applications thus far.

First, we need to be careful in handling this text, lest we draw erroneous conclusions. One of those is the idea that a sexual relationship is ipso facto a marital relationship. In other words, the idea that if someone sleeps with someone, it unites them in marriage. This is not what Paul is saying when he quotes Genesis 2:24 in v. 16. He is saying that a sexual relationship unites two bodies in a way that has profound relational including psychological implications, but it does not necessarily create a marriage. For that to happen, there must be both a covenantal and consensual commitment. In other words, neither rape nor fornication results in the good gift of marriage.

Second, when it comes to sexual immorality, since, “there is no true oneness … there should be no one-flesh either” (Guinness).

Paul is arguing from the lesser to the greater. As profoundly relational as is the sexual union between a husband and wife, it is only a shadow of the glory of the most profoundly relational spiritual union between Jesus Christ and his people.

No doubt, a reason behind the plague of sexual immorality in our day is soul-emptiness that seeks fulfilment, wholeness, satisfaction through sexual activity. But as Mick Jagger testifies, it ends with the emptiness of, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” I dare say that, at eighty years of age, he is still just as empty. As are many eighteen-year-olds.

Third, Christians must guard their bodies from sexual sin by first guarding their minds. We must have sanctified minds if we will have a sanctified morality. As Schreiner points out, “Abstention from sexual immorality is for Paul a constituent element of sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3).”

There is on ongoing assault on the mind of the Christian, on many fronts, perhaps especially the attack on the Christian’s identity in Christ, arising from the profound salvific union we have with Jesus Christ. Paul marvels at this profound union in Ephesians 5:29–32. There, he tells Christians that Moses’ words in Genesis 2:24 (quoted in v. 16) indicate that the human marital relationship was a mere foreshadowing of the inexplicably profoundly personal and powerful and peaceful and permanent relationship that Jesus Christ has with his bride, the church. When we as Christians understand this union, then, when tempted to sin—and in this case, tempted sexually—we will respond with Paul, “Never!” (v. 15).

Think about this everyday as you read the Scriptures. Pray about this everyday as you begin your day, and as you face temptation at school, in the workplace, when you are alone with your smartphone. Remember this as you sit down before your large screen TV. Remember this when your boyfriend or girlfriend suggest sexual sin with the words, “If you loved me, you would.”

Flee Sexual Immorality

In the second major section, Paul urges his readers to flee sexual immorality.

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

(1 Corinthians 6:18–20)

Flee from Sin

When faced with fear, there are generally two responses: Flight or fight. In the area of sexual immorality, we should have a holy fear of this sin and we should respond with both fight and flight. We fight by flight!

As we have often been reminded, we need to be careful to recognise the distinction between the indicatives of Scripture and the imperatives of Scripture. That is, we need to discern statements of fact and the statements of commands that flow from them. So here.

Paul has identified statements of fact for the Christian. It is a fact that those saved by grace through faith have been united to Christ by the Spirit of God. We are intimately united to him, and our identity is determined by that. We don’t need to do anything for this to become a reality. It is what it is. But the manifesting of that indicative of identity before others does require imperatives of identity. Namely, we must flee from that which denies that we are in union with Christ. We are to flee from sexual immorality. “‘Do it so speedily that it is already done!’ … There is an urgency about it. Let there be no delay in obeying.” (Morris)

The word translated “flee” means to run from. It means to escape. It means to seek safety by flight. It means, to flee! We are not to stand around debating. We are not to enter into dialogue about it. We are to depart from it as though our life depended upon it. It does.

Paul tells us in v. 18 that sexual sin has unique consequences in that, unlike other sins, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” In a destructively unique way, sexual way is damaging to the body. Sexual immorality (translating the Greek word porneia) is “a sin against the body’s rightful ownership.” (Ciampa/Rosner). Though sexual sin may appear to be merely a satisfying of a bodily appetite, Jackman is correct that “the devil never tells us the fine print.”

Sexual immorality destroys bodies with disease. It destroys character It increases rather than decreases appetite It mars testimony and ministry For the Christian, it denies his great redemption. To that we turn now.

Flee to the Saviour

When the Lord exhorts us to run from something, he at the same time expects us to run to something else. So here: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (vv. 19–20). This is not a mere moral appeal to do better or to just say no. Rather, Paul undergirds his exhortation with gospel motivation, which is precisely how the Christian life is lived.

As he reminds them of the biblical truth of God’s ownership and their stewardship in view of that ownership, he implies that, when they sin with their bodies sexually, they are defiling God’s temple and their purpose is becoming defective.

Paul says that, when we sin against our body, we fail to live out our gospel secured purpose. When we commit sexual immorality, we are not fulfilling our purpose of glorifying God. When we commit sexual sin, we are denying and rejecting our calling to be sanctified saints. If we don’t run to the Saviour, then we will not flee from sexual immorality.

Paul not only reminds them of the immense privilege of being a dwelling place of God (see the corporate nature of this in 3:16) but he also reminds them of the invaluable price paid for this privilege. They were bought with a price and we know that price was the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, the blood of the one who has washed them and in whom they have been justified and sanctified (v. 11). Paul grounds his imperative in the indicative reality of the sanctity of the saints by the gracious work of God.

Brothers and sisters, our purpose is to reflect the presence of holy God who indwells us. Think about that incredible truth. God dwells in you, and therefore he dwells within us as a local church. We are to live sexually sane in a sexually insane world because we have been set apart to do so. “The proof of union with Christ is that we surrender to him all that we have, including every aspect of our physical bodies” (Jackman).

It matters what we do with our bodies, in many ways, including sexually. And it matters to the church body what each of us does with his or her body. “We must never forget the extent to which our behaviour affects the lives of those to whom we are connected” (Ciampa/Rosner). If we will glorify God, we must take seriously our responsibility for the sanctity of our body. But this will come about not merely by just saying no to sexual sin. It will only happen as we say yes to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Stephen Um comments, on the phrase “you are not your own” (v. 19):

But why would you want to be when the one who has bought you loves you like that? This might be the most compelling reason to take our bodies and what we do with them seriously. Not just because we’re free, or even because we matter, but also because we were bought by someone who gave all to have us.

Realising that Jesus used his body to ransom us, by living a perfect life, by laying down that perfect life on the cross, shedding his blood in a sacrificial death for us, and then, in a glorified body, rising from the dead, we have been redeemed. Let us therefore use our redeemed bodies for his glory as we await the completion of our redemption in a glorified body at his bodily return.

Non-Christian, perhaps you feel the guilt of sexual sin, or of some other sin. Hear the good news of the Saviour who longs to save sinners, transforming their lives enabling them to say, “Such was I, but I am washed, I am sanctified, I am justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (v. 11). Repent and call upon the name of the Lord today and then glorify him in your body and spirit, which will forever belong to God.