1 Corinthians 6:12-20

12 “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. 13 “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. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 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! 16 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.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 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, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. [1]

Paul concluded his previous thought about the Corinthians taking one another to court by telling them:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. [2]

He means that among the congregation some of them, in their pre-believing lives, were so enslaved to particular sins that they could totally be described as thieves, or greedy, or drunkard’s, or cheaters, adulterers, homosexuals, and/or generally immoral. Their particular sins were so prominent in their lives those sins described their whole person, their entire being, their driving reason for getting out of bed in the morning and the things they dreamed about at night. The fundamental fact of one’s life was that he was a cheater. The fundamental fact of another’s life was that she was a prostitute. The fundamental fact of another’s life was that he was a con artist. They weren’t ashamed of their respective lives. It was the only life they knew, and the physical world was meaningless. They were souls trapped in meaningless bodies awaiting the release of death. So, whatever they did in those bodies was unimportant.

Paul concluded his list of sinners with the words, “11 And such were some of you.” Implicit in that statement is the fact of the gospel ultimately transforms a person’s life. And so, one cannot, according to Scripture, continue in the kind of life that he or she once lived because the fundamental fact of the salvation of Christ is that we’re delivered from bondage to sin. It does not mean that we may not fall into sin, but we’re freed from bondage to sin – from living as nothing but guiltless, oblivious sinners completely defined by our particular besetting sins. The Corinthians celebrated an incestuous relationship in their congregation. They tolerated the utterly shameful conduct of Christians suing one another in the Roman civil courts. Now, they are allowing members of their congregation to attend the pagan feasts and hook up with temple prostitutes.

Two words dominate Paul’s argument: “sexual immorality(porneia) and “body”; and two passages specifically indicate that the problem involves the two together: “the body is not meant for sexual immorality” (v. 13c); “he who engages in sexual immorality sins against his own body” (v. 18c). But his concern is not with porneia in general. Verses 15–17 argue that one may not “take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute,” implying that this is the specific expression of porneia with which Paul is here dealing. Some men within the Christian community are going to prostitutes and are arguing for the right to do so. Being people of the Spirit, they imply, has moved them to a higher plane, the realm of spirit, where they are unaffected by behavior that has only to do with the body. So, Paul proceeds from the affirmation of v. 11 to an attack this theological justification.[3]

This isn’t simply a question of Christian ethics. For Paul, the gospel itself is at stake. The Corinthians’ understanding of spirituality has given them a false view of freedom (everything is permissible) and of the physical body (God will destroy it). Paul’s response to this is in three parts: (1) In verses 12–14, he argues directly against their false premises. (2) In verses 15–17, he then builds on this theological base and argues against prostitution. (3) Finally, in verses 18–20, in case they have not yet quite heard it, he expressly forbids sexual immorality, but again on a theological basis.[4] In other words, what we do physically matters because: (1) We are free, vv. 12-13; (2) We matter, vv. 14-17; and (3) We’re purchased, vv. 18-20.

WE’RE FREE (12-13)

Paul doesn’t begin by attacking the illicit behavior but by confronting their bad, slogan-based theology. “12 All things are lawful for me” is clearly a slogan of the Corinthians (most English translations put the slogan in quotes). Paul cites it again in 10:23, in both instances qualifying it so sharply as to negate it. It’s possible they had taken the slogan from what Paul had taught them. He wrote to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1) speaking of their freedom from works-based salvation. For Paul freedom comes only from our union with Christ, so he adds to their slogan the qualifier, “but not all things are helpful.

As one commentator notes:

[Pagan] Temple precincts would frequently host dinners, after which prostitutes would be presented and offered to guests. It wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary either for a man to end a hard day’s work with a visit to a temple brothel. A man’s wife was for bearing heirs, for securing strategic political and social alliances, but not so much for sexual pleasure. Visiting prostitutes was a culturally and socially accepted practice among the people of that day. It was so customary that the Corinthian Christians had done everything they could to justify its acceptance.[5]

The Corinthian experience was not much different than our own modern Western cultural experiences, with the exception that they worshipped the Greco-Roman gods as extensions of their own wants and dreams. Today we have cut out the middlemen of the Roman pantheon and worship ourselves and our wants directly. The Corinthians were arguing they were free from all inhibitions and restraints – the basic mantra of our own modern sexually-permissive ethic. Christianity has a terrible reputation for being sexually stuffy going all the way back to the early church fathers who speculated that Adam and Eve only had sex after their fall from grace. Sexual sin is sin, but it is not the unforgivable sin, and Christians need to stop treating it as if it were. On the other hand, the Bible holds sex in the highest regard as gift of God to married couples. It is an immensely powerful thing that often has a tighter grip on any of us than we realize.

For most in our culture, the biblical view of sex rubs them the wrong way. They cannot abide what they consider to be such a restriction on their personal authority. “Authority” (exousia) is one of the crucial words in this letter, translated “lawful” in the ESV. Along with its companions (“wisdom,” “knowledge,” “spiritual”), this is an area of tension between the Corinthians and Paul. In 8:9 he speaks bitingly of “this exousia of yours,” which some were using to abuse others in the matter of going to the pagan temples; and the entire argument in 9:3–18 is over his own exousia to act in ways that had displeased them. What we have here, then, is a crisis of “authority” of another kind—over their “freedom to act as they pleased” without restraint. For Paul that is not freedom at all, but a form of bondage worse than before.[6]

With the qualifier “but not all things are helpful,” Paul turns the idea of “authority” upside-down. Freedom/authority is not for self but for our neighbors. The real question is not whether I have authority – whether something is right or even good – but whether exercising my authority is beneficial. Does using my freedom build me up and does it build up the body of Christ? Gospel-centered conduct is not based on whether I have the right to do something, but whether my conduct is helpful to those about me. If you are not willing to give something up, then it has a grip on you, you are enslaved to it. That’s what Paul means in verse 12b, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” The word “dominated” comes from the same root word translated “lawful,” so Paul has made a cleaver word-play to grab their attention.

“Free people serve, free people help others, because free people need people less, and so they can love people more. But when anyone has sex outside of a lasting commitment, he or she is not loving the other person. He or she needs the other person to get something for himself or herself. And thus, they’re not really free.”[7] Rather, they have given their needs authority over them. Most of what we identify as “love” is really our need for horizontal approval. Christians have all the true, perfect, eternal love they truly need from their vertical relationship with God in Christ Jesus by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But most of the time, we fail to realize that fact and chose to pursue horizontal approval any and every way we can. The Corinthian believers were actually enslaved by their exalted sense of spiritual exousia. They were enslaved to the very “freedom” they believed themselves to have.

The great sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s involved that very notion of “freedom.” But, in reality, was nothing more than people enslaving themselves to an idea just as the Corinthians had done. There is nothing new under the sun (Ec. 1:9). We end up letting others dictate our choices with slogans like, “All things are lawful for me” or “13 Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Just like with eating, they reason, it’s bad to deny the body its appetites. Here in chapter 6, Paul is addressing their bad theology attached to pagan temple prostitution and pagan feasting.

Later in the letter he will give more attention to the practice, but here, he wants them to see that to the believer, the human body DOES matter. God will destroy both stomach and food at the end of the present age, meaning the new earthly kingdom will have no universal law of “eat or die of starvation” and no feasting for mere bodily pleasure (like the pagan festivals). But that doesn’t mean – as the Greek philosophers taught – that there will be no human body in the New and True Kingdom. It’s not “food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” but rather “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

WE MATTER (14-17)

Paul was quoting another prevailing sentiment of his day, shaped by the philosophy of Plato who said it didn’t really matter what you did with your body, because your soul was the only thing that really mattered. Sex, many argue, is just something someone does with his or her body, but his heart, her soul— that’s with God, and that’s all that really matters. But this is precisely what the resurrection of Jesus showed is not true. He writes in verse 14, “14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” The human body is God’s great creation and so important to God the Son he permanently wed himself to a human body and calls it his own. He suffered bodily (as well as spiritually) for our sins. He submitted his body completely to God’s exousia and kept God’s commandments perfectly, earning for us the perfection we could never attain and without which no human can see God. He suffered bodily death and was raised into bodily life and ascended with his resurrection body to be “the Man in heaven” as the first fruits ensuring our bodily resurrection into a new sin-free creation.

Verse 19 says our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and in verse 15 that it’s a member of Christ! What Paul is saying is absolutely revolutionary! Absolutely radical! Our bodies are the place where God has chosen to live and the very thing he has chosen to make a part of himself! He’s bound himself so tightly to us, even our bodies, because he wants to be with us— for us to be his and for him to be ours— forever! No other religion would ever dare say anything even remotely close to that. Gods live in temples, not in human bodies. Gods keep their distance; they don’t wrap themselves up with people, especially not their bodies. But this One Ture God does! Our bodies have tremendous value to God, and they cannot be treated casually because they matter eternally![8]

At this point the Corinthians could be thinking to themselves that the body might have some significance but that still shouldn’t stop them from being able to enjoy a bodily act outside the bounds of their arranged marriages. Just like with eating, it’s bad to deny the body its appetites. The body might have significance, but sex doesn’t have to be all that significant, it doesn’t need all that emotional baggage. So, Paul presses his argument further in verses 15 and 16, “15 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! 16 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.’” Paul’s repeated use of the question, “Do you not know” strongly suggests he has taught them these things already in person and they have chosen to expressly reject his exousia in favor of their own.

As much as one would like to, he or she can’t ever go to bed with someone and leave his or her souls parked outside. This was Paul’s point in verse 18b when he said, “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” He’s not saying there’s nothing else that involves your physical body, because it’s obvious that a number of other things do also. He’s saying there’s nothing else that involves us— all of us, including our bodies, everything we are— quite like sex does. Our body matters because WE matter to the God who bought us out of slavery to sin and death. It matters because we’re free. It matters because we matter. But there is one last reason. [9]


The ancients were much more modern than people today give them credit for. Sex is indeed for the body (v. 13) — it’s a good thing, and it’s supposed to be enjoyed. But the other half of that statement must be called into question. Paul says in verse 13 that the body is meant not for sex, but “for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Ultimately, beyond and beneath all of one’s body and what one does with it is intended to reflect one’s commitment. Certainly, to the one you love, but even more deeply to the one who gave all to commit himself to you forever. Verse 17 said God joined man to himself, making man one with him. God is not a tyrant who makes arbitrary rules to kill man’s joy. He’s THE Lover who wants to be one with the love of his life— to have us— all of us, not just our soul.[10]

One way God personified that love was through the life of his prophet, Hosea. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. And Hosea, no doubt being human, perhaps had great hopes that his life would be a great reform project upon this fallen woman who would love him for rescuing her from her former wicked life. But that was not to be. She had little regard for him. The children she had of her marriage we’re probably not even his. She left him repeatedly for other men and, though he would go and seek her out, even if she came home with him, she would leave again.

The high point of their story was that she became so destitute in her wanderings, so indebted to others, that she was put on an auction block to be sold as a slave. There she stood naked and helpless as leering eyes ran over her seeing nothing but a commodity. And yet at the height of the auction, as the price rose higher, out of the crowd of leering men stepped the prophet. He called out boldly offering a price so high he could barely afford it. And he bought his errant spouse out of the marketplace, not to live with him as a slave, but to again be his wife with all the rights and privileges that she had so carelessly tossed away before.

As amazing a drama and a love story that Hosea’s life was, it pales in comparison with the great love story that vibrates throughout the universe – that animates our lives and that of the entire world. The one in which that Great Lover who, despite our spotty pasts and fickle hearts, whose love we spurned and whose heart we broke, didn’t just bid to get the love of His life back, but gave all— body and soul— to have us as his own once more.

And when we lift our heads and look at the cross, we know he is not out for vengeance against us. We’re not greeted by the righteous indignation we justly deserve, but by a kind smile and a warm embrace that says, “I love you more than you’ll ever know. Let’s go home.” “You were bought with a price,” verse 20 says, and “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.[11]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 6:12–20.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 6:9–11.

[3] Fee, 250–251.

[4] Id., 251.

[5] Um, 114. Kindle Edition.

[6] Fee, 252.

[7] Um, 115. Kindle Edition.

[8] Um, 117. Kindle Edition.

[9] Um, 117-118. Kindle Edition.

[10] Id., 118.

[11] Id., 120.