What Is Paul Talking About? Part 1

corinthian commentaryDuring the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This is the first sermon in the series based on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

Grace and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

I have to confess. I did not originally want to preach on this text. In fact, for the following 3 weeks, our Epistle readings will be from 1 Corinthians, and I really wanted to avoid them. They are not easy passages to preach on. They deal with some difficult subjects. Then I thought, “Well, if I am intimidated by 1 Corinthians, then surely I am not alone. And it is kind of my job to help make God’s Word clear to you, and I’m sure I would benefit from preaching on 1 Corinthians, and maybe I’m just being a big baby about it. So without further ado or explanation, this is the beginning of a 4-part series on 1 Corinthians entitled “What is Paul Talking About?” This is a question I often ask when I am reading through 1 Corinthians, so I thought it was quite appropriate.

One reason why 1 Corinthians can be difficult to understand is because of the specific context in which it was written. As with all books of the New Testament, the author is writing to a specific group of people with a specific purpose in mind. We are not the original intended audience for 1 Corinthians. And yet, as I research more about the purpose of 1 Corinthians and the context of the people in Corinth, the more I realized that there are many similarities between the ancient city of Corinth and our setting today.

That’s also when I realized that I needed to preach on 1 Corinthians. In this letter to the Christian church in Corinth, Paul deals with the struggles of those Christians as they fought for their new identity in Christ. I believe 1 Corinthians is one of the best books of the Bible in helping Christians understand Jesus’ words that we are to live in the world but not of the world. What does that mean? How do you do that? 1 Corinthians helps us out.

city of corinthThe city of Corinth was an important and influential city in the Roman Empire with a strategic location in that it was a hub for travel either by land or by sea. It was a large city by ancient world standards, becoming the largest city in Roman Greece with a population of approximately 100,000 people. Corinth was an important center for Roman culture, but it had quite an unsavory reputation as a city with lax morality.

The city of Corinth had strong ties to the Greek goddess, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, specifically the erotic type of love. As such, Corinth was known to be a center for prostitution. The temple to Aphrodite would actually employ temple prostitutes as part of their religious ceremonies.

Corinth was also known for religious promiscuity, in other words, religious pluralism. Along with Aphrodite, there were many sanctuaries and statues dedicated to other gods. Many philosophical movements were well represented in Corinth as well, and we will be taking a closer look at some of those worldviews in the weeks ahead as they apply to each of the readings. Remember that Paul is addressing specific problems that the church was facing from the culture. In order to understand 1 Corinthians, we have to understand the culture.

1 cor christ crucifiedI believe Martin Luther sums up well Paul’s purpose in writing his 1st letter to the Corinthian church. He writes in his commentary: In this epistle St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be one in faith and love, and to see to it that they learn well the chief thing, namely, that Christ is our salvation, the thing over which all reason and wisdom stumbles.” Paul was promoting unity in the church, and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified. Therefore, I believe the theme verse of 1 Corinthians is in chapter 1, verse 18: For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For Paul, it was all about the cross and being united to God and to each other through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Alright- That’s enough of an introduction. We haven’t even gotten to today’s text, so let’s turn our attention to chapter six. Starting in chapter 5, Paul starts to address specific issues facing the Corinthian church. He deals with the sexual immorality of a man who is committing adultery with his father’s wife, most likely the man’s step-mother. In chapter 6, Paul begins by addressing the Christians who were suing each other in court, and he encourages them to seek unity with each other within the context of the church and not to use the court system.

Then we get to verse 12. “All things are lawful for me.” Paul is most likely quoting a saying that was being repeated by some in the Corinthian church who were taking their Christian freedom too far. They claimed that their relationship with Jesus was a matter of the spirit, whatever they were involved in physically would not really affect their life with Christ. This grew out of the Greek world’s philosophy of dualism: that spirit is good and important, and that the material or physical world is not good and is unimportant. In other words, the spirit is good. The body doesn’t matter. This led many people to feel that they can go ahead and indulge their body’s appetites without restraint, assuring themselves that it doesn’t really matter because “it’s what’s inside that counts.” Corinth was notorious for its “if it feels good, do it” approach to life.

feels goodDoes this sound familiar at all to you? I believe that is the prevailing worldview in our culture today. If it feels good, do it. Seek pleasure above all else. And I also see a separation of body and spirit in our world today, as if they are completely distinct. Many people describe themselves as “spiritual” and seek spiritual well-being, but their beliefs are not really connected at all to life in the body. Even phrases we sometimes use to soften death speak to this separation of soul and body and make the body unimportant. “That’s not really grandma. That’s just a shell.” As if our bodies are merely temporary housing for our soul or spirit, which is who we really are. And so, it doesn’t really matter what you do with your body because it doesn’t affect your soul or spirit.

There were some Christians who were justifying their practice of engaging in prostitution by appealing to this very argument and to Christian freedom. “All things are lawful for me.” And later on, Paul quotes them “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other.” The intended meaning there is again, that it doesn’t matter what I do with my body. It is just going to be destroyed anyway.

Paul pulls back the reins on their definition of Christian freedom. Yes, a Christian is free from the curse and condemnation of the Law, but as he says in Romans 6, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Freedom from the law does not equal freedom to break the Law. “All things are lawful” but not all things are helpful or beneficial for you. “All things are lawful” but I will not be enslaved by anything. In other words, Paul is telling them that now that they have been freed from sin by Jesus’ death and resurrection, they are willingly enslaving themselves to sin, in this case, sinning with their bodies.

Paul then goes on to show both how the body is important and how sexual immorality is wrong. And note here that is not just talking about prostitution, but any sexual activity outside the boundaries of marriage between man and woman.

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. The Biblical view of the body is that it is important and essential to who you are as a human being. You are not fundamentally just a soul possessing a body. You are fundamentally body and soul. That is how God created you- from the dust of the ground and with his life-giving breath. Your body is created by God and is to be honored. After all, the body is not just going to be destroyed. It is going to be resurrected on the Last Day. We will not live forever as disembodied souls. We will be raised to new life as body and soul just as Jesus himself rose from the dead in his body.

Not only that, Paul continues, do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? In your baptism, you were united to Jesus. He is the head of the body, the Church, and you are its members. Paul will pick up on this analogy later on in 1 Corinthians as well. It is one of his favorite analogies to describe the relationship we have with Christ and with each other. Since you are united to Christ and His Holy Spirit dwells in you, Paul reaches the logical conclusion to sexual immorality. Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! But that’s what you are doing! 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.

Paul calls sexual immorality an abuse of the body and of the sexual union which God created for our good. Not only that but it violates the very holiness and presence of God. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? Now that their bodies had become the Spirit’s residence, the Corinthians could not live for themselves.

temple amusement parkI like how one author sums up the competing viewpoints in this passage. It asks of you two question. Do you believe your body is a playground? Your body as a playground implies that our mission in life is to satisfy our own desires above all things. Or do you believe that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit- to be used for God’s good purposes? Your body as a temple implies that you are a child of God and should live accordingly.

We know where Paul stands. You are not your own. You were bought at a price. So glorify God in your body. I don’t know if there is another New Testament saying which brings together in compact form both the essence of the Gospel and its implications for Christian life.

For starters, there is the pure Gospel message. You were bought at a price. What was the cost? You were purchased not with gold or silver, but with the holy, precious blood of Jesus, and with his innocent suffering and death. God’s grace for you did not come cheaply! It cost God the Father his one and only Son. He gave up His body for you. Through his death, you have been redeemed and rescued from slavery to sin and Satan. This is not just Good News; it is the best news.

Therefore glorify God with your body. Paul says “body” here because he has been talking exclusively about the body. He could just as easily have said “Therefore glorify God with your life.” This is the response to the Gospel. This is not a conditional statement. God’s grace has already been given to you. You were already bought at a price. You are free. But Christian freedom does not mean indulging in sinful pleasures. You have died to sin and been raised to new life. You now belong to God that you may serve him in holiness and righteousness, as God originally intended for his creatures. The Gospel not only frees you from sin, but it also frees you for service.

There is an allegedly true story from Civil War days before America’s slaves were freed, about a northerner who went to a slave auction and purchased a young slave girl. As they walked away from the auction, the man turned to the girl and told her, “You’re free.”

With amazement she responded, “You mean, I’m free to do whatever I want?” “Yes,” he said. “And to say whatever I want to say?” “Yes, anything.” “And to be whatever I want to be?” “Yep.” “And even go wherever I want to go?” “Yes,” he answered with a smile. “You’re free to go wherever you’d like.”She looked at him intently and replied, “Then I will go with you.”

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, thank you for paying the price for my redemption. Give me strength to resist temptations to sin. Help me to see my body as a temple of Your Holy Spirit and glorify You in all things. Amen.