United to Christ, United in Christ

United to Christ, United in Christ

This morning in our ongoing study of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we’re going to consider a Scriptural—which is to say a radical—understanding of freedom. My desktop dictionary defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” A definition along these lines seems to be what the Christians whom Paul is addressing have in mind for Paul begins this portion of his letter by apparently quoting what these believers are saying—and then challenging those assumptions. And I’ll mention yet again the role that that the broader Corinthian culture played for it continues to be relevant, namely that at this time “to Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice sexual immorality.”[1] So at one level, given the culture from which these believers came to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ, the nature of Paul’s battle to provide correctives to their teaching, practice, and feeling, especially in having to define what godly sexual behavior should look like, isn’t surprising. We should never underestimate the power of culture to shape how we think and act.

Beginning with verse 12 Paul twice repeats what was probably one of the guiding cultural principles that had conditioned these believers and against which Paul was having to assert his authority as Christ’s apostle, namely, “I have the right to do anything.” How very North American-sounding these Corinthians believers from 2000 years ago sound, don’t they?!

“I have the right to do anything”—that’s right, stick it to the Man!

“I have the right to do anything”—that’s right, what business of yours is what I choose to do or not do?

“I have the right to do anything”—that’s right, live and let live.

“I have the right to do anything”—that’s right, even if what I do is harmful to me, what should you care so long as I’m not interfering you’re your life?

My point is that as those who are living 2000 years after the time in which Paul was trying to correct these Corinthians, we’re actually not unsympathetic to the rationale these believers were using, for we can read their battle cry—“I have the right to do anything”—into the foundation of freedom from religious and political oppression our own country was built upon with the accompanying expectation that we as free individuals ought to have the power or right to act, speak, and think as we desire without hindrance or restraint from government or other individuals.

But Paul isn’t talking about political freedom, rather he is trying to indicate what our union with Christ by means of his Holy Spirit—and our corresponding union with each other—should entail. And though we, hopefully, have not gone as far astray as some of these believers in Corinth, we, too, must be taught what is the proper use of our freedom as Christians. So the first thing Paul does is to challenge the Corinthians’ understanding. After stating their position for the first time in verse 12, “I have the right to do anything,” Paul replies by saying, “but not everything is beneficial.” Not everything is favorable or advantageous. Not everything will result in good. In speaking of rights, I think where we can go astray or be misled in our thinking is in assuming that we can ever do something that is completely and utterly private or that will only have an impact upon ourselves. Even if, for argument’s sake, our only “crime” is that of choosing to live as hermits, isolating ourselves from all the world, we are, on the one hand, depriving those around us of gifts we could contribute that could improve society and the lives of others and, on the other hand, we’re choosing a lifestyle without the input from others which we all were created for and which we so desperately need as a kind of check-and-balance on our thoughts, ideas, and behavior. God made us for himself and he made us for each other and part of what this means is that we simply cannot function well—which is to say, we simply cannot function as he intended—if we withdraw from him and others. Christian author Frederick Buechner gives great insights into this dynamic in his autobiographical Telling Secrets.[2] Listen to what he has to say in the opening pages of this work:

I have called this book Telling Secrets because I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are…because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about. Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell.

We have been placed on this earth not only to live for ourselves but to live for God and for the sake of those whom God has placed in our lives. So, yes, we have the right to do anything—but not everything we choose is beneficial to us or to those around us.

Still in verse 12, Paul again quotes the Corinthians, “I have the right to do anything,” and this second time Paul responds with another rebuttal, “but I will not be mastered by anything.” There can be a fine line between mastering and being mastered, can’t there? At times what we start off thinking we’ve mastered, ends up mastering us. In our day we’ve come to better understand the complexity and multidimensional nature of human behavior. Whereas it used to be common to hear people say, for example, that the decision to take that first drink that led to our alcoholism was ours, we now know that perhaps even this seemingly self-evident observation isn’t as true as it first seems. For if we were raised in a home in which alcohol abuse was common, there may have been an environmental component to our taking that first drink in that it was a behavior viewed that was viewed as normal and therefore may have even been expected of us. Too, there may be a physiological component in that some of us may be more physically hard-wired to abuse alcohol. So not all first drinks are alike. But regardless of the cause of the behavior one is considering, Paul’s observation stands: once we’re mastered by something, we cease to control it and it begins to control us. And this can be true not only of alcohol, but of a variety of behaviors which, done responsibly can be good, but if they master us can be harmful, including drug use, watching television, exercise, and our sexual practices, the topic which we see Paul addressing time and again.

In verse 13 we’re provided another misguided guiding principle in this church: “You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’” What is probably behind this particular saying is that the Corinthians are reasoning—wrongly—that if our bodies and the food they take in will one day cease to exist, then ultimately, what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter, including indulging in sexually immoral practices. Jesus challenged a variation of this in his parable of the Rich Fool.[3] In this parable, the title character lived as though his life would never end, as he sought to build larger barns to store his grain with the thought that he’d be able to live off of his wealth for many years to come as he said to himself “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry,” not realizing that that very night his life would be demanded of him. Jesus concluded this parable by noting, “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Paul himself will later address this foolish attitude towards eating and drinking in chapter 15 of this letter.[4] The point is that though this earthly life can and does afford us pleasure at times, our focus shouldn’t be on earthly riches but on heavenly ones. So Paul challenges the Corinthians by responding, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Do we believe this? Do we really believe that our lives, even our earthly bodies, are meant for our Lord and that our Lord is meant for our body? I’ve mentioned before a theologian I’ve appreciated and benefited from, Anthony Hoekema. Hoekema observed that one of the most important implications of God having made all humans in his image is that all human beings are inescapably related to God.[5] I love that phrase. It indicates well what I believe Paul means when he says that the body is meant for the Lord for God who made us did so not so that we would live independently of him, but he made us in his image so that we would live in relationship to him. Another observation by Hoekema addresses Paul’s second point, namely that an implication of God making humans in his image is that God in Christ assumed a nature that was appropriate for him to assume. In other words, he couldn’t have assumed an animal nature because animals are not made in his image.[6] So though God is Spirit, and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth,[7] our spirits worship the Lord by means of our physical bodies. And in the person of Jesus Christ, God took on a human body, indicating how highly he values his image-bearers and desires us to live for him—so much so that he has sent his Spirit to dwell in our bodies, both individually and corporately.

Paul reminds these believers of another important truth in verse 14: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” Therein lies our hope. As we enter this season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a poignant reminder that though we are but ash; though we are but dust into whom God has breathed life, our gracious Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, by his life, suffering, death, and resurrection has provided a means of raising us from death for we are united to him by the Holy Spirit whom he sent to seal[8] and indwell us after he ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Therefore the power that raised Christ from the dead will raise us also for we are now united to, we are now one with him.

And there are several implications to the Spirit’s presence in our lives, namely the first half of verse 15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” This is a theme Paul will develop later in chapter 12 of this letter.[9] A properly functioning body is one body despite its many parts and what allows us as believers to be one body is that Christ has sent us his Spirit to unite us and make us one. We are his people. We are his body. We are his temple for his Holy Spirit indwells us and calls us to be holy as he is. But as we’ve seen, among the ways in which these believers were not behaving as Christ’s body and holy temple was by means of their unholy sexual behaviors including incest,[10] adultery,[11] homosexual behavior,[12] and now, starting in the second half of verse 15 into verse 16, yet another behavior is added, that of going to prostitutes. So, Paul asks, given that believers are members of Christ’s body, “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?” Have I mentioned that those to whom Paul is writing are believers—Christians—followers of Jesus Christ? And that therefore they have been saved by Christ—sanctified by his Spirit—justified by his blood—and thereby been called to be one in him? But, again, given that these Corinthian believers came to a saving faith in a context in which loose sexual mores were the rule, not the exception, Paul now is in the position of having to teach them what holiness requires. Simply because we have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ and have been subsequently given his Spirit to indwell us, doesn’t mean that we magically—or mysteriously—or automatically will understand what being his temple requires. We must be taught what a holy life entails. Every culture has components which are consistent with—or perhaps not at odds or in conflict with—holiness; but every culture also has components that go contrary to a holy life so God, by his Spirit and the teaching of his Word, must in-break every culture, shedding his light and his truth upon those areas that need correcting. Going to prostitutes, Paul has to teach these believers, is incompatible with following Christ. Oneness with Christ is incompatible with oneness with a prostitute. As Paul states in verse 17, “…whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” Our union with God is even more intimate than any union we could ever have with another human being for by Christ’s Holy Spirit we—in both our spirit and body—become one with him.

And not for the first time, as a means of supporting his point, Paul alludes to the God-created oneness that occurs between a woman and man coming together by quoting Genesis, “For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’”[13] Paul uses the marriage between a woman and man to indicate and illustrate the intimacy that exists between God and his people. This understanding isn’t invented by Paul but is found in the Old Testament Scriptures which refer to Israel, God’s people, as God’s wife[14] again indicating how intimate a relationship God has ever intended between himself and his human creation. And in his letter to the Ephesians,[15] after addressing the responsibilities of a husband to his wife and a wife to her husband, Paul again quotes this verse from Genesis, “31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” As a man and woman become one flesh upon marrying, so we as believers wonderfully and mysteriously become one with God upon accepting Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Therefore we, as believers in and followers of Christ, must constrain our sexual behavior to that which God has given in his Word and we must embrace what that Word teaches about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, namely that he is the only way to our Father and heaven.[16] To accept any other avenue to him is to act in an adulterous manner towards our Jealous God[17] who wants not only part of us, but all of us. Thus we must reject any approach to God other than that which he has provided in his Son.

Paul ends this section by again banging the drum he’s continuously had to beat in addressing these believers. In, sum, his message is stated at the beginning of verse 18 is “Flee from sexual immorality.” And then he goes on to explain his rationale and demonstrate how this follows from everything he has said thus far. First, “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” The various kinds of sexual immorality Paul has had to address and correct are not only physical but are also communal, involving another partner or partners. As such they are bodily sins in a way that more internal sins, such as say greed, are not. But second, Paul goes on to ask in verse 19, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” God’s Holy Spirit now tabernacles in, now indwells those who have believed in Christ. What this means is that by virtue of our union with Christ by means of his Spirit whom he has sent and given us, we now belong to God—and so we should act. As Paul goes on to state at the end of verse 19 into 20, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” This is what redemption means. The price God in Christ has paid to make us his own is to be tempted as we are, yet without sin, and then take on our guilty, our punishment, our death, our separation from God in our place, that we might be reconciled to God, become children of our loving and heavenly Father, and never experience separation from him, not in this life, not in the life to come. We have been redeemed by Christ and the purchase price of our salvation was nothing less than his own blood. So since we have accepted Christ’s redemption, we now belong to him. And so we should live by honoring God even with our bodies.

I want to end this morning with one of the most profound statements that can be found in Scripture concerning our oneness with Christ. It comes from chapter 17 of the Gospel of John and is otherwise referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. We are fortunate that in ancient times people tended to pray out loud and so we have this wonderful record of Jesus Christ’s prayer which is a statement not only of his intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, but also of the heavenly Father’s intimate relationship with us. Let us listen to this small portion of Jesus’ prayer to his Father in heaven in John 17: “22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Brothers and sisters, do you realize that our heavenly Father loves us even as much as he loves Jesus? Because of our oneness with Christ, because he has given us his glory, his presence, his Holy Spirit, we are one with each other as Christ is with the Father and Spirit; and we are loved by our Father as much as Jesus is loved by him. And if you and I live and love as God in Christ has called us to live and love, the world will take note of our unity rather than our hypocrisy. If we by the strength of God’s Spirit and by the strength and support we can offer one another demonstrate that we can be one despite our differences in age—and socio-economic status—and marital status—and occupations—and gifts—and political affiliations—etcetera, the world will notice and be drawn to God in Christ. So let us,

Use our freedom in Christ to live not as we desire but as God desires, choosing what is beneficial over what is expedient;

So let us Love the Lord, our God, with all of our heart, soul, minds, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves;

So let us not be mastered by anything, other than our kind Lord and merciful Master, Jesus Christ;

So let us remember that our bodies are meant for the Lord and, like Joseph fleeing from Potipher’s wife,[18] let us, too, flee from temptations to sexual immorality;

Let us remember that our bodies are God’s temple, both individually and corporately and as such, are meant to be used in ways that honor him;

So let us honor God, not only with our minds and spirits but also with our bodies.

Let us pray.

[1] Zondervan NIV study Bible Introduction, “Its Immorality,” p. 1774.

[2] pp. 2–3, emphases added.

[3] Luke 12:13–21: 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

[4] I Corinthians 15:32b: If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[Isaiah 22:13]

[5] Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994, p. 4.

[6] Ibid., chapter 3, in his discussion on Hebrews 1:3: The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

[7] John 4:24: God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.

[8] Ephesians 1:11–14: 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

[9] I Corinthians 12:27–31: 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

[10] I Corinthians 5:1ff.

[11] I Corinthians 6:9.

[12] I Corinthians 6:9.

[13] Genesis 2:24.

[14] E.g. in Ezekiel 16, Israel is referred to as an adulterous wife and prostitute; in Hosea 2, Israel is God’s unfaithful wife; Isaiah 54 speaks of the restoration of the LORD’s wife.

[15] Ephesians 5:17–33. See also 2 Corinthians 11:2:  I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.

[16] John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[17] Exodus 20:1–6: 1 And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[18] Genesis 39.

Leave a Reply