Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2024
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Commentary
When Paul asserts that God’s dearly beloved people’s bodies are “a temple [naos]* of the Holy Spirit [Hagiou Pneumatos],” (19) he makes a claim that’s more extraordinary than most Christians may realize. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers might consider helping our hearers more fully appreciate that claim’s astonishing nature. Christians as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” might even serve as a sermon’s organizing image and principle.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Baker, 1988) says that “God’s presence … was associated with [Israel’s] temple … The paradox is that while God is completely unrestricted, the temple ‘was a place for [God] to live forever’.” Israel’s temple was also, among other things, the place with which God graciously chose to identify himself. When the Israelites viewed that temple, God intended for them to remember God’s presence in and to them.
Jesus’ relationship to Jerusalem’s temple was, to say the least, complicated. He showed great respect for it. But when Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final time he basically cleanses that temple (Mark 11:15-19). His accusers may even pick up on some of Jesus’ ambivalence about the temple when they falsely accuse him of threatening to destroy it (Mark 14:57).
However, much like the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple in around 586 BC, the Romans eventually destroyed Jerusalem’s second temple in 70 AD. So when Paul writes about temples to Corinth’s Christians, Jerusalem’s temple may be on its last legs – if it’s not already been leveled.
However, a restored temple remained in Paul’s Jewish contemporaries’ hearts and prayers. They remembered how Ezekiel 40-48 promised as ideal temple that would be purified from all contamination. Paul’s contemporaries anticipated that it would be the place to which the glory of God, that fled Solomon’s corrupted temple, returned. There was even some anticipation in Paul’s Israel of a messianic king who would build the perfect temple (BEotB).
That anticipation provides a biblical-theological link to the apostle’s insistence that in place of Jerusalem’s one temple’s stands hundreds if not thousands of temples. Countless places with God associates himself. Places in which God would live forever.
And, perhaps most startling, Paul writes about the perhaps thousands of places with which God graciously chose to identify himself. Places that God intended to serve as reminders of God’s presence to and in the world that God so passionately loves.
That identification, implies Paul, helps shape the way Corinth’s Christians think of those temples that are their bodies. He notes that, for example, while virtually every physical act may be “permissible” [exestin] for Jesus’ friends, not all things are “beneficial” [sympheri] (12) for us. Nor should those permissible things “master” [exousiasthesomai] the Spirit’s temple (12). Nor should actions that may be permissible be inconsistent with the purposes for which God created them (13).
Paul seems to have two activities in mind as he writes this. He’s speaking about the act of being sexually intimate and eating. While the act of eating or abstaining from certain foods has drifted off the theological stage for many of Jesus’ followers, sexual intimacy remains, for many, front and center.
We might even say that it’s the line in the sand over which some Christians have vigorously insisted no one may cross. Some Christians insist that biblical laws about sexual activity are inviolable. Sex, many insist, is strictly reserved for men and women who are married to each other. Other Christians insist that sexual activity between people who are committed to each other’s lifelong well-being is permissible.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul doesn’t take sides or even ask the kinds of questions that so deeply interest 21st century followers of Jesus. He, instead, basically asks, “Is a certain behavior not just permissible, but also beneficial, as well as an act of freedom and appropriate for those whom God creates in God’s image?”
The Message vividly portrays the apostle as insisting in verse 12, “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.”
Paul is here talking about Christian freedom. Christ hasn’t freed his adopted sibling to do whatever we want. Christ has set us free, writes the biblical scholar Frank Crouch “so that we can do whatever God wants us to do.” In other words, what we do with the Spirit’s temples matters very much to God.
Why is physical activity so important to God? In verse 13 Paul says, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality [ou te porneia], but for the Lord [to Kyrio], and the Lord for the body [to somati].” Whatever else the apostle may mean by this mysterious assertion, he at least seems to point to a very close link between God and human bodies.
A kind of Gnosticism or dualism has long haunted Christ’s followers and Church. We’ve long been tempted to assume that humans’ bodies are far less important than our souls. From that we’ve sometimes deduced that God cares far less about what we do with our bodies than what we do with our souls.
Paul views Christians’ bodies radically differently. In fact, he goes so far as to insist in verse 15 that our bodies “are members of Christ [melou Christou].” My colleague Stan Mast connects this mysterious statement to the concept of Christians’ “union with Christ.”
God graciously brings God’s adopted sons and daughters into such a close relationship with Jesus Christ that Paul can say we are “in Christ” (cf. Ephesians 1:3). Our whole selves, including our bodies, are so closely linked to Christ that the apostle can insist that they’re somehow “members of Christ.” God doesn’t just unite God’s dearly beloved people with other members of Christ’s body. God also graciously unites our bodies with Christ himself.
This too is very mysterious language. Preachers will need to the let the Spirit guide us to choose just how deeply to delve into theology of union with Christ. But we might say at least this: God longs to have such a close relationship with Jesus’ friends that Christians always ask whether what we’re considering doing will honor and bring glory to God.
That’s why Paul can so insistently answer “Never!” [me genoito] to the question of whether Christians may “unite” their bodies with that of a “prostitute” [pornes]. Such coupling, after all, gives a part of us that belongs to God to another creature.
However, this assertion contradicts the way much of our culture views sexual intimacy. We largely think of sexual activity as a strictly physical activity. Paul, by contrast, sees something almost spiritual about it. Sex isn’t about two people “hooking up.” It’s about two people “being on flesh,” with all of the spiritual overtones that verses 15-17 with their echoes of Genesis 2:24 suggest.
Is that why Paul suggests that sexual unfaithfulness is even more destructive than any other kind of unfaithfulness? “All other sins [pan hamartema ho],” he insists in verse 18, “a man commits are outside his body [ektos tou somatos], but he who sins sexually [porneoun] against his own body.”
The Message helps clarify this mysterious assertion. t paraphrases verse 18 as, “In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for ‘becoming one with another’.”
Sexual sins involve using our bodies that belong to a holy God, that God indeed “bought at a price,” and using them for decidedly unholy purposes. Sexual sins involve a kind of spiritual adultery that involve what God deeply loves in decidedly unloving activity.
When Jesus friends honor God with our bodies, we act like temples. We remind our world and culture that God is present and to them. When the Spirit’s temples honor God with our bodies, we also accept God’s identification with us. What’s more, we humbly but publicly insist that God cares passionately about every square inch not just of our world, but also of people’s whole selves.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection’s Prince Dimitri Nekhlyudov visits in prison with the maid Maslova he had impregnated and corrupted. She had become a prostitute, and then, as a result, a prisoner. Maslova has adopted a decidedly non-Pauline idea of sexual intimacy.
“So deep is her corruption,” writes Neal Plantinga, “that she rationalizes her profession as a key contribution to the well-being of society: according to her conception, ‘the highest good for all men — old, young, schoolboys, generals, educated and uneducated — was sexual intercourse with attractive women; therefore all men, even when they pretended to be occupied with other things, in reality desired nothing else.
‘She was an attractive woman, and it lay in her power to satisfy, or not to satisfy, this power, and she was therefore an important and necessary person’.”
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