1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
One of the problems with which Paul will deal in chapter 8 is whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan idols? We see a brief allusion to that issue in our text (6:13a). That, however, is hardly the primary issue for our text. In verse 13a, Paul mentions food and the stomach only as a way of introducing the issue of fornication (Greek: porneia—sexual immorality) and the body.
In chapter 5, Paul dealt at length with the issue of sexual immorality (porneia). He talked about a man—a member of the Christian community—who was living with the wife of his father, a sin that would be unacceptable even in the pagan community—a sin that was tainting the reputation of the church among the people of the city. Paul was concerned, not only for this act of public immorality, but also for the response of the church, which was to ignore the problem. He counseled that the church should remove this man from their fellowship (5:2). He said that they should “Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened” (5:7)—by which he meant that the church should be pure, free from immorality, just as the Passover bread was pure, free from leaven.
He further counseled that they should not associate “with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner. Don’t even eat with such a person. For what have I to do with also judging those who are outside? Don’t you judge those who are within? But those who are outside, God judges. ‘Put away the wicked man from among yourselves'” (5:11-13). In other words, on Judgment Day, God will judge those who are outside the church. In the meantime, the church must pass judgment on those inside the church, driving flagrant, unrepentant sinners from its midst.
Paul then moved in 6:1-11to a subject that appears, at first glance, to be completely unrelated to the issue of sexual immorality that he addressed in chapter 5 and will continue to address in 6:12-20. In other words, he appears to break the continuity of his concern about sexual immorality in 5:1-13 and 6:12-20 by inserting a section that has nothing to do with sexual immorality—a section in which he expresses a concern about lawsuits among believers.
However, the section about lawsuits is not the intrusion that it seems at first glance to be. In 5:12-13, Paul established the principle that, while the community at large must judge those outside the church, the church must judge those inside its fellowship.
However, in Corinth, the Christian community has been turning to those outside the church (civil courts) to judge disputes between members of the church. In other words, they have been inviting those outside the church to judge those inside the church (6:1-6). This public airing of the church’s dirty laundry damages the church’s reputation in the minds of unbelievers—making it much more difficult for the church to win new people to Christ.
Paul asks, “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another?” (6:5). He calls Christians to resolve their disputes internally, and says that it would be better for them to suffer wrong that to invite those outside the church to judge their internal affairs (6:7).
So while 6:1-11 addresses an issue other than sexual immorality, it is an extension of the concern of 5:12-13 that members of the church should judge disputes and immorality within their fellowship—and that they should not invite unbelievers to do this for them.
1 CORINTHIANS 6:12. LAWFUL, BUT NOT EXPEDIENT
12“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are expedient (Greek: symphero). “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be brought under the power (exousiazo) of anything.
“All things are lawful for me” (v. 12a). Scholars tend to believe that this phrase has become a slogan for Corinthian Christians—a slogan that they have been using to excuse their immoral behavior.
When Paul uses the word “lawful,” he is alluding to Jewish law—Torah law. Jewish people lived under Jewish law as revealed in the Torah. Jesus made it clear that he had not come to abolish the law or prophets, but had come to fulfill them (5:17)—had come to bring people into compliance with the will of God.
Jesus, while often seeming not to observe the law as meticulously as some (Matthew 12:1-6, 10-13; 15:1-9), was less concerned about rote observance than with bringing people into harmony with God’s will for their lives. He intended to move his disciples from rote observance of the law to adherence to the spirit of the law—adherence to the principles that fostered the giving of the law in the first place. That constitutes adherence to the law on a much higher level.
Perhaps a fitting metaphor would be a visit to a high school orchestra by a concert violinist. The students would be learning rules about music. While they might follow the rules, their music might nevertheless be amateurish. The concert violinist, on the other hand, would have long since internalized the rules and would thus be free to be guided by the spirit of the music instead of the rules that govern it. Her mature understanding would allow her to flow with the music and to render it beautifully. Observing her, the students would learn more about music than rules could ever teach.
While the church was, at first, composed only of Jews, it soon embraced Gentiles as well. The question was whether the church should require its members, even Gentile Christians, to observe Jewish law as a condition for membership. That was a matter of great concern in the early chapters of the book of Acts, and was addressed most dramatically in Peter’s vision as reported in Acts 10—a vision that led Peter to embrace Gentiles and to acknowledge that they had received the Holy Spirit and were fit candidates for baptism (Acts 10:34-48).
Paul was the great missionary to the Gentiles, so he had a special concern for them. He succeeded in persuading the Council at Jerusalem to determine that Gentile Christians should not be required to be circumcised, but would be asked only to “abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) (Acts 15:29).
Paul emphasized that we have been justified, not by our adherence to the law (which no one other than Jesus has ever observed perfectly anyway), but “by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:23-25a).
This emphasis on grace could easily be misinterpreted, and that appears to be what has happened with these Corinthian Christians. They have determined that, since God’s grace is sufficient to cover their sins, they need not be concerned about sin.
Paul addressed this issue directly in his letter to the Roman church, saying, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life…. Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:1-4, 11).
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul quotes the slogan that these Corinthian Christians have been using to excuse their immoral behavior—”All things are lawful for me”—and uses that as a springboard to refute their application of it. He will quote this slogan again in 10:23 for the same purpose.
“but not all things are expedient” (symphero) (v. 12b). This word, symphero has been variously translated—expedient, profitable, good, beneficial. I prefer beneficial (NRSV). Expedience too often smacks of compromised principles, as in the phrase politically expedient.
Paul is saying that, while Christ has lifted the strictures of Jewish law, he did not intend to excuse sinful behavior—behavior destructive both to the sinner and to the church. An example close at hand is the man who is living with his father’s wife (5:1). Even the pagan community has been shocked at his behavior (5:1), which has also endangered his soul (5:5).
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be brought under the power (exousiazo) of anything” (v. 12c). Paul quoted their slogan in 12a to set up his response, “but not all things are expedient” (12b). Now he quotes it again to set up his response, “but I will not be exousiazo by anything.” The word exousiazo has the sense here of “brought under the power of” or “brought under the authority of.”
Elsewhere, Paul speaks of people being slaves to impurity—slaves to iniquity—slaves of sin (Romans 6:19-20). Now in this letter to the Corinthians, he says that he will not use his freedom from the law in such a way that he ends up as a slave to sin—under the authority of Satan. It is important to recognize that misusing freedom can result in slavery—the loss of freedom.
1 CORINTHIANS 6:13-14. THE BODY IS NOT MEANT FOR SEXUAL IMMORALITY
13“Food is for the belly, and the belly for food,” but God will bring to nothing both it and them. But the body is not for sexual immorality (Greek: porneia), but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. 14Now God raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up by his power.
“Food is for the belly and the belly for food” (v. 13a). This, apparently, is a slogan used by some Corinthian Christians to discount the significance of Jewish food laws.
As noted above, Paul will soon deal with the issue of food sacrificed to idols (chapter 8). Is it permissible for Christians to eat mean that has been sacrificed to idols? A slogan such as “food is for the belly and the belly for food” could be used to discount the significance of food sacrificed to idols.
When Paul addresses the issue of food sacrificed to idols, he will say that “no idol is anything in the world” (8:4), so it is permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols. However, he will add the caveat that believers must be sensitive to the way that others might interpret—or misinterpret—their actions. If someone might be injured spiritually by seeing a Christian eat meat sacrificed to idols, then the Christian ought not to eat such meat (8:13).
“but God will bring to nothing both it and them” (v. 13b). This seems to be another part of the Corinthians’ justification for doing as they please with regard to food. In their view, both food and stomach are temporary, and God will, in the end, destroy both. That being the case, it makes no difference whether they observe Jewish food laws—and it makes no difference whether they eat meat sacrificed to idols. Neither food nor stomach is important in the grand scheme of things. At least that is what they want to believe.
Paul quotes these Corinthian slogans to set up the point that he wants to make (13c).
“But the body is not for sexual immorality (porneia), but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body”(v. 13c). The stomach is not inconsequential, because it is part of the body, which is ultimately consequential. At the end of time, God will resurrect our bodies (15:12ff; Romans 8:13, 23). Therefore, we are not to “let sin reign in (our) mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (Romans 6:12). We are instead “to present (our) bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is (our) spiritual service” (Romans 12:1).
Given this view of the human body, it is obvious that God has made our bodies for high purposes rather than low—for the Lord rather than for fornication (porneia). To take something sacred, such as the body, and use it for low purposes, such as fornication, profanes that which is holy. It would be like profaning the Jerusalem temple by slaying a pig on its altar.
“Now God raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up by his power“ (v. 14). Their Greek culture made it difficult for Corinthian Christians to appreciate fully the doctrine of the resurrection. Greek philosophy taught dualism, which divides the human into body (seen as evil) and soul (seen as good). We will see that view reflected again in chapter 15, where some people were claiming that there is no resurrection of the dead (15:12)—a view that took root in Corinth, at least in part, because of the dualistic setting.
Paul needs to remind these Corinthian Christians over and over again that Christ was resurrected from the dead, and God will also resurrect us. That is the central belief of the Christian faith. Therefore, we must not discount the importance of our bodies.
1 CORINTHIANS 6:15-17. YOUR BODIES ARE MEMBERS OF CHRIST
15Don’t you know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! 16Or don’t you know that he who is joined to a prostitute (Greek: porne) is one body? For, “The two,” says he, “will become one flesh.” 17But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit.
“Don’t you know that your bodies are members of Christ?“ (v. 15a). With this verse, Paul hits Greek dualism head-on. The body is not simply a temporary and inferior entity with which we are forced to live until our spirit is liberated at death. Our bodies (not just our spirits or souls) “are members of Christ,” so we are part of Christ’s body. Our bodies, then, are holy, set apart for a sacred purpose, even as Christ is holy, set apart for a sacred purpose.
“Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them members of a prostitute? (porne) May it never be!” (v. 15b). Note the similarity in the Greek word for fornication (porneia) and the word for prostitute (porne). That is a play on words that is impossible to convey in an English translation.
The moral climate of Corinth would encourage fornication. The temple of Aphrodite was famous for its prostitutes—although this might have been, in part, a slander perpetrated by a rival city. Nevertheless, temple prostitutes were certainly present. Also, Corinth was a major port city, so it stands to reason that there were many prostitutes available to service the sexual needs of sailors and other transients.
Because our bodies are members of Christ—and therefore holy—it follows that it would be wrong to use our bodies for unholy purposes. Because our bodies are members of Christ, it would be wrong to profane our bodies—and, by extension, Christ’s body—by linking our bodies to a prostitute.
“Or don’t you know that he who is joined to a prostitute is one body? For, ‘The two,’ says he, ‘will become one flesh'” (v. 16). In the last part of this verse, Paul alludes to Genesis 2:24, which says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh.” Jesus also alluded to this Genesis verse, saying, “So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, don’t let man tear apart” (Matthew 19:6).
Paul then uses the verse from Genesis to show that sexual union is neither casual nor fleeting. In the sexual union, the uniting of the flesh brings about a unity of personhood—the two become one—not just for the moment but for life.
“But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (v. 17). Just as a man and woman become one flesh through sexual union, so also the Christian becomes one spirit with the Lord.
Paul’s shift to the word “spirit” in this verse doesn’t mean that he has moved beyond his concern for the body. He has already established that our “bodies are members of Christ” (v. 15a). Now he notes that we are also “one spirit” with Christ. We are a holy people, created by God for God’s purposes. It would therefore be completely out of character for us to behave in unholy ways, such as bonding with prostitutes through sexual union.
1 CORINTHIANS 6:18-20. FLEE SEXUAL IMMORALITY!
18Flee (Greek: pheugete—from pheugo) sexual immorality! “Every sin that a man does is outside the body,” but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. 19Or don’t you know that your body is a temple (naos) of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
“Flee (pheugete—from pheugo) sexual immorality” (v. 18a). The word pheugo is usually translated “shun” or “flee” or “escape.” Paul is telling Christian men to run the other way when prostitutes approach—or when a friend suggests that they visit prostitutes.
Paul will later apply the same counsel to idols—”Flee (pheugo) from idolatry” (10:14).
I served two years as an Army chaplain in Vietnam. In Saigon and in cities that I visited on R&R, prostitutes would stand in doorways of business establishments along city streets. They were aggressive, not only calling out to passing soldiers but even reaching out to grab a soldier’s sleeve. I can imagine that young men in Corinth—and in other port cities—would be subject to the same kinds of propositioning. To Christians faced with temptations such as these, Paul says, “Flee! Run away! Remove yourselves from places where temptations flourish!”
“Every sin that a man does is outside the body“ (v. 18b). This may be another slogan that Corinthian Christians are prone to quote. If so, Paul quotes it as a way of setting up the counsel that he will give in verse 18c.
If this is not a Corinthian slogan, Paul is simply saying that no other sin contaminates the body in the same way that fornication does.
“but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body“ (v. 18c). Given that the Christian’s body is a member of Christ and therefore holy (v. 15), a Christian man who consorts with prostitutes (or other women to whom he is not married) profanes the holy sanctuary that God intends his body to be. This is a sin against the body, just as profaning the Jerusalem temple would be a sin against the temple.
“Or don’t you know that your body is a temple (naos) of the Holy Spirit which is in you” (v. 19a). Paul draws on the image of the Jerusalem temple when he tells the Corinthian Christians that their bodies are the temple (naos) of the Holy Spirit. There is another Greek word for temple, heiron, that encompasses the whole of the temple facility (which would include the Court of the Gentiles), but the word naos points to the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, God’s dwelling place.
Paul uses similar language in chapter 3, where he speaks of the church as the temple of God (3:16). Scholars tend to agree that, in that chapter, Paul is talking about the church—the community of faith—as the temple of God. The primary justification for that interpretation is that “you” in 3:16 is consistently plural, while “temple” is singular.
Scholars also tend to agree that, in 6:19, Paul is talking about the individual as the temple of God. We should note that “you” in 6:19 verse is also consistently plural and “temple” is singular, so there is no difference between 3:16 and 6:19 in that regard. However, the context (the issue of consorting with prostitutes) makes it clear that in 6:19 Paul is saying that individual Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“which you have from God?” (v. 19b). The Holy Spirit (mentioned in 19a) is a gift from God—a treasure that God entrusts to each Christian.
For most of us, something we receive as a gift has special meaning, because it reflects the love of the person who gave it. That is especially true if the gift is something that we especially wanted or needed. Each time we see or use it, it reminds us of the one who gave it to us—and of the love and thoughtfulness that inspired the gift.
What could be a more wonderful gift than the gift of God’s Spirit dwelling within us—God’s presence always with us? What could be more wonderful than knowing that God is available to us to guide and direct our ways—to help us in ways that we could never help ourselves? What could be a more wonderful gift than having God transform that which seems mundane—our bodies—into a holy temple? What could be more wonderful than knowing that the God who created the heavens and the earth considers us precious—beloved children?
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (v. 19c – 20a). The way the verses divide between verse 19 and 20 is unfortunate. These two pieces belong together and should be treated together.
The language in these verses originated in slave markets, where people would buy slaves for a price. Those slaves would then come under obligation to obey their new masters. In this verse, however, Paul is not referring to the kind of involuntary servitude represented by those slave markets, but to the voluntary servitude that the Christian assumed when becoming a Christian.
Paul doesn’t specify what he means when he says, “bought with a price,” but that should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Gospel. The verb “bought” is aorist, which points to a past action that has been completed. In a Christian context, “bought with a price” alludes to Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross.
The idea behind “bought with a price” is that of substitutionary atonement— a concept that pervades both Old and New Testaments. Atonement has to do with making amends for sins or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sins. It also has to do with restoring relationships that were broken by sin.
The idea behind substitutionary atonement is that our sin creates a conflict for God. On the one hand, God is repulsed by our sin, but on the other hand, he loves us. On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to invite us into full fellowship while we are tainted with sin, but on the other hand, he cannot bring himself to dismiss us totally.
So, in keeping with his holiness (which demands that we be punished) and his love (which demands that we be reconciled), God devised a process by which he can make us holy once again so that he might receive us into full fellowship. This process is known as substitutionary atonement—”substitutionary” meaning that God will accept a substitute to absorb the punishment for our sins and “atonement” meaning that we can be restored to full fellowship with God.
Christians have often spoken of atonement as “at-one-ment,” to convey the idea that atonement has to do with becoming one with God. This is in keeping with the Latin word, adunamentum, which has to do with establishing unity and is the Latin word behind our English word, atonement (Encarta).
In the Old Testament, atonement took the form of animal sacrifices. God required Israelites to sacrifice animals in a sacred ritual to atone (make amends) for their sins (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 1:4; 4:20-21, etc.). The idea was that people deserved to die for their sins, but God permitted them to sacrifice animals in their place. The death of the animals satisfied God’s need for justice, which in turn made it possible for him to forgive the people’s sins.
The idea of substitutionary atonement is also prevalent in the New Testament, and is the rationale behind the death of Jesus:
• “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
• Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36).
• “being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).
• Christ is our “Passover”—our Paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).
• “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
• Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
• “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
• “Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2).
Substitutionary atonement not only satisfies God’s needs for both justice and mercy, but it also dramatizes the dreadful nature of our sin and its consequences. It helps us to understand that our sins are not just minor mistakes for which a passing apology is all that is needed. It helps us to understand that “the wages of sin is death” and that we are in desperate need of “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
“therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (v. 20b). Paul now comes to his conclusion. He has established that:
• The body is not an inconsequential entity (by comparison with the spirit), but that God intends to raise our bodies from the dead (v. 14).
• Our bodies are members of Christ, so we should not “make them members of a prostitute” (v. 15).
• Whoever engages in fornication becomes one body with his partner (v. 16).
• Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (v. 19).
• We are not our own, but were bought with a price—and must obey our master, who is God (vv. 19b – 20a).
THEREFORE, we must glorify God in our bodies. That has all sorts of implications for current day Christians. It suggests that we should dress modestly instead of provocatively. It suggests that we should care for the health of our bodies as carefully as we would maintain a temple.
But the most obvious implication of Paul’s “therefore” is that we should glorify God in our bodies by avoiding illicit sex.
This is a word that is especially needed in our 21st century world. Our world constantly tells us that we have a right to engage in whatever sexual activity that appeals to us, but Paul says otherwise. He implies that a Christian who engages in illicit sex dishonors God, and says that we need to glorify God with our bodies. That is a hard sell in our pagan environment, but we are under obligation to proclaim it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Corinthians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Hayes, Richard B., Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Horsley, Richard A., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1984)
Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians, Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1985)
Nash, Robert Scott, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009)
Rogness, Michael, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Soards, Marion, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan