We’re making our way through this book of the bible, verse by verse through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church of God in Corinth, a very cosmopolitan Greek city. It was a Greek city with a lot of influence, a lot of money, and a lot of temptation. As we have discussed earlier, Corinth was home to pagan temples of worship, temples to false Gods, most principally the temple to Aphrodite, where thousands of temple prostitutes would come out into the streets and tempt passersby with their wiles. The city was full of fleshly temptation.
But not only that, Corinth was a city with philosophical prestige. They had renowned philosophers and rhetoricians, whose oratorical ability was esteemed and whose wisdom was prized. To be somebody special meant that you were full of worldly wisdom, the wisdom of Corinth.
And it is into this context that the young church was birthed. Paul, having heard of the problems in the struggling church, pens this letter to address the clear problems that he sees. He addresses their pursuit of worldly wisdom, saying that instead of worldly philosophy we must preach Christ and him crucified. He addresses their prideful boasting and divisions, and instead reminds them of the true unity that believers have, unity because of the cross and because of the Holy Spirit. Paul addresses their toleration of serious sin, commanding them to cast out the leaven of unrepentant sin before it leavens the entire congregation. And he addresses the selfish attitudes that are motivating church members to take each other to court, robbing and defrauding one another.
And then, as we saw last time, Paul confronts the Corinthian believers about their misuse of their bodies. They had a deficient view of the body, why it was created and what is its purpose, and that deficient view had let them engage in sexual immorality. Bad theology lead to bad ethics. So, Paul corrects their sinful behavior with good theology. Your body is not your own, Paul says, you were bought for a price, so glorify God in your body.
And then we get to tonight’s text in chapter 7. In one sense, Paul is transitioning to something new, but in another sense, he’s addressing the same kinds of issues. Tonight, we will see that having good theology doesn’t lead neither to sexual indulgence, nor necessarily to celibacy. Good theology about marriage and the body will lead to the proper use of the body for the good of the spouse, the good of the marriage, and for the glory of God.
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 7, verses 1-7:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
Our text begins with what is a transition in the body of this letter. Paul starts in verse 1 with “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” Paul had been addressing the problems that he saw in Corinth, but now he is transitioning in the new several chapters to addressing questions that the Corinthians themselves had posed to Paul in a letter that they had previously written to him.
And throughout chapter 7 Paul will be addressing the topics of marriage and singleness and, as we shall see, Paul’s general exhortation for whatever their marital status is, is for believers to stay as you are. Stay as you are. Remain in the status that you were at at the time of your calling to Christ. If you were single, you can remain single. If you need to marry, then marry. If you’re married, stay married. If you’ve become a Christian and you’re married to an unbeliever, stay married and don’t seek singleness. If you’re widowed, stay single. Christianity is not limited by the marital status of any person. Stay where you are, and bloom where you are planted.
That’s the general encouragement from Paul throughout this chapter. Remain as you are. I know there are different situations, some of which are complex, that can require careful consideration, and Paul will later address some of these difficult situations. But for the majority of us, Paul’s message is clear: remain as you are, and be faithful where God has placed you.
Tonight, in verses 1-7, we’ll see Paul specifically addressing the married believers at Corinth.
And the first point for us to notice in our text is the:
- The flaw in the Corinthians’ thinking. The flaw in the Corinthians’ thinking.
Look again at verse 1: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”” This text has a notorious history of interpretation. Some have taken this passage, which has some admittedly difficult Greek syntactical questions, and used it to go down the wrong path. The truth is, Satan has been very effective in twisting scriptural teaching regarding marriage and sexuality from the very beginning.
We see problems surrounding the bible’s teaching concerning marriage even before the close of the New Testament. Paul warns about and condemns those who forbid marriage in 1 Timothy 4:3. There were some that were apparently arguing that the truly spiritual position is to be unmarried.
Further, later theologians and teachers have gone astray by interpreting passages like this one as saying that sex is a sin, and always comes from sinful desire, so it is best to avoid it altogether. It’s not good for a man to touch a woman, they might say, which is a euphemism for not engaging in physical intimacy, even with one’s spouse.
There is a strong stream in the early church of theologians arguing for forced celibacy. They might argue that Jesus himself taught that in Heaven the angels will neither marry nor will be given in marriage, so neither should we. Shouldn’t we seek to be angelic now and of a higher spiritual maturity, by doing away with that fleshly appetite and all the temptation that comes along with it?
Even some of the church’s best theologians were not immune to this kind of logic. Augustine himself was wrong in his understanding of marriage and physical intimacy. He and others would teach that sex was ONLY to be engaged in for the purpose of producing children, and even then, it must be done in a way that does not engage sinful lustful desires. Singleness was taught as the mature route, and marriage only for the weak ones, the ones that lacked self-control over their urges, the ones that lacked true maturity.
Indeed, one church father named Origen went so far as to even emasculating himself, physical removing part of his flesh in order to battle against the sexual temptations he found within himself.
And the Roman Catholic church has promoted this kind of spiritual hierarchy for centuries. Marriage is fine and good, but the REALLY holy ones are those that take a vow of chastity, those that become monks or nuns and devote themselves solely to the church.
As we will see, such thinking is contrary to Paul’s logic in this chapter, and actually under-values the work and gifting of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.
So, back in Corinth, we see that Paul quotes the Corinthian believers’ own logic to them. Your translation probably has it in quotation marks, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” The Corinthian believers had gone off into the realm of teaching that sexual relations, even in marriage, is not good, perhaps even sinful.
We don’t know exactly why they got there. Perhaps they were using Jesus’s teaching about angels to get there. Perhaps they argued that Jesus and Paul were single, and we want to be holy like them, so we should seek to be single as well, or if we are married, we can just act as if we are single, and remain celibate in our marriage. However they got there, they swung the pendulum too far.
Yes, Corinth was a place of perhaps unique sexual temptation, and yes, the believers were probably feeling all sorts of guilt about their past indulgences before they were saved. But as Christians are so prone to do, they have over-compensated and swung to the other side of the spectrum.
Paul has just finished blasting sexual sin in the preceding chapter. But, ff improper sexual indulgence is sin, IT DOES NOT MEAN that it is automatically HOLY to abstain from and all sexual relations. And that’s what some of the Corinthian believers were doing. They were abstaining from ALL sexual relations, even within marriage. And that’s a problem, as we see in our second point
- Paul’s Warning about temptation. Paul’s warning about temptation. Look at verse 2:
“2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”
Paul here warns the Corinthian believers about the perennial temptation toward sexual sin that results whenever a husband and wife are not regularly coming together. We weren’t made for celibacy within marriage. It is not good.
Turn with me to the beginning of Genesis. Let’s go to Genesis 2 and see both the flaw in the Corinthians’ thinking and the origin of Paul’s warning about sexual immorality.
Genesis 2 shows us of the creation of man and woman, and shows us that man did not come up with the idea of marriage. Marriage was not invented by men who can’t control their urges, nor was it invented by women who were lonely. Marriage was God’s idea, and it is a good idea.
Genesis 2, I’ll start reading in verse 18:
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
So, we see here something significant. During the creation week God has made everything that was made, and declared each of those things good. The birds and fish? Good. The plants and trees? Good. The stars and moon? Good. The land and sky? All Good. But the first thing that God says is NOT good, is that Adam is alone. So how does God make it evident that Adam’s being alone is not good? By showing him how everything else has a complement. Verse 19:
19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam[g] there was not found a helper fit for him.
So, God parades all the animals in front of Adam, for Adam to see that each of them has a partner, a complement. But Adam did not have a helper made for him, he didn’t have a complement fit for him. Verse 21:
21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made[h] into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and [cleave to his wife] or hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
So, God made from Adam a woman, fit for him. Designed for him, to be the appropriate complement and helper for him. Therefore, a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife. Leaving and cleaving is a crucial concept here, and this concept is present before the fall, before the presence of sin in the world.
Back in 1st Corinthians, Paul is battling against the idea that a man and woman shouldn’t cleave. They shouldn’t come together. They shouldn’t hold fast to one another, that’s what some of the Corinthian believers were saying.
And Paul reminds them that to neglect the marriage bed is to open the marriage up to temptation. Satan always wants believers to neglect what God has made, or to misuse it in some fashion.
So, he will first seek to get you to act on your sexual desire OUTSIDE of the marriage covenant. And if he can’t get you to forsake your marriage covenant, he can use another ploy of injecting confusion about the covenant, to get you to think that sex in marriage is a result of the fall, and is something to be avoided if you are REALLY holy.
But Paul’s teaching here reminds of that it was God who invented sex, and it was within the security of a marriage covenant that sex was meant to be enjoyed. And Paul’s main point in verse 2 is that when we neglect the good gift that God has given, we open ourselves up to temptation.
So, what are we to do about it? That’s the third point that we see in verse 3:
- Paul’s Exhortation to faithfulness. Paul’s exhortation to faithfulness.
3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
Rather than abstaining from marital relations because of some mis-guided views of holiness and celibacy, Paul urges that married couples should give themselves to one another. We could literally translate it as the husband and wife should give to their spouse “the payment that is due,” or give them what is proper.
That’s the cleaving part of Adam and Eve coming together in Genesis 2. God did not design two people to be married but to remain apart. That’s detrimental to the marriage and detrimental to each other’s spiritually.
Rather, we are to understand that when we take our wedding vows, we are submitting ourselves to certain obligations, we are taking upon ourselves the responsibilities that come with such a marital union. One of those responsibilities is the giving of oneself physically to the other.
To withhold oneself physically from your spouse, without just cause, is to sin against your spouse. Each part of that sentence is important so I will say it again. To withhold yourself physically from your spouse, without just cause, is to sin against your spouse by needlessly exposing them to Satan’s temptations toward sexual immorality.
I say without just cause because there are some situations in damaged relationships that require more delicate care and prudence. There are situations where sin produces such damage that things can’t play out as they should. I’ll talk more about those situations in a later sermon.
But for now, we should recognize that God has, as it were, built into the marriage a pleasurable and spiritually-edifying aspect of the physical union that serves as to fortify the marriage against these sexual temptations. And when we neglect our duties in this area, we’re putting our spouse in a position of vulnerability.
Yes, each spouse is responsible for withstanding temptation when it comes, but we are each also responsible not to cast stumbling blocks in front of our spouse, and we do that when we unnecessarily withhold ourselves in the marital union.
It is also significant for us to notice that Paul’s emphasis here is NOT on selfishly demanding what you owe me. This is important. Rather, his emphasis is on the self-less concern of what I owe you.The husband should give to his wife what is due her, and the wife should give to her husband what is due him. That perspective is crucial in marriage. Rather than demanding what one is owed, we seek to make sure that we serve our spouse well with what is due them.
It’s always a delicate dance for pastors to speak both with clarity and also avoid crassness when addressing such topics of physical intimacy, and so I have found a wonderful quote from an old pastor named Charles Bridges that I want to share with you. Commenting on Proverbs 5, which is about a man drinking from his own cistern, Bridges says this:
“Tender, well-regulated, domestic affection is the best defense against the vagrant desires of unlawful passion.” I love that; his way with words says so much, in a poetical way. “Tender, well-regulated, domestic affection is the best defense against the vagrant desires of unlawful passion.”
We’re not to withhold ourselves, but to be tender, enjoying a well-regulated pattern of domestic affection, so that neither we nor our spouse comes under unnecessary temptation toward sexual immorality.
But Paul doesn’t just stop there. He doesn’t merely say that we should be well-regulated because of temptation. He also shifts the perspective of the Corinthians further.
Let’s look at our 4th point and see
- Paul’s Perspective about authority. Paul’s Perspective about authority. Verse 4:
4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Paul here is combatting the Corinthian understanding of autonomy, and it sounds downright modern. “My body my choice” doesn’t seem to fit within what Paul is saying.
In this verse Paul is giving further rationale for his commands concerning marriage. To unnecessarily withhold yourself from your spouse demonstrates a faulty understanding of your own authority.
He’s already broached that subject at the end of the last chapter: you are not your own. You were bought with a price. We are not sovereign over our bodies, Lords of our own making, able to choose to use our bodies in any way we please. Rather, believers have been bought by Christ, and now are to use our bodies in a way that glorifies the Lord, which in marriage means that we lovingly give ourselves to our spouse. We seek to love them and seek to honor them, in part because your spouse has a legitimate claim of authority over you, and you over them.
One commentator says it this way, regarding Paul’s re-framing of authority and possession within the marriage: The implication of Paul’s logic is “that, in the mutuality of sexual relations, the body of one is the free possession of the other. But this, too, needs to be heard in light of what is said next. The emphasis is not on the “possessing” the body of the other; rather, in marriage I do not have the authority over my own body, to do with it as I please. Therefore one cannot deprive the other (verse 5)…
With [this] emphasis on the full mutuality of sexuality within marriage, Paul puts sexual relations within Christian marriage on much higher ground than one finds in most cultures…where sex is often viewed as the husband’s privilege and the wife’s obligation. For Paul the marriage bed is both [uniting] (the two become one), and also an affirmation that the two belong to one another in total mutuality.”
That means that what Paul is saying is countercultural, for both Greek culture in Corinth, and American culture today. Sex within marriage is not ultimately for the physical pleasure of one or the other. Rather, marital relations are to be a God glorifying act of mutual submission and self-service, where both seek to outdo each other in showing honor and love, and where the marriage union is affirmed and strengthened.
This understanding of the martial union undergirds the logic of Paul’s next point in verses 5 & 6. Look there and see with me Paul’s Concession.
- Paul’s Concession to the norm. Verse 5 again:
5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul’s understanding of the marriage union is to be one that is regular and consistent in its physical expression. You can hear it in the verse.
“Don’t deprive,” or we might translate it as an ongoing present, “Stop depriving one another.”
For a short time
just for the purposes of prayer,
but then come back together
The normal pattern within marriage is to be regularly coming together phsycially.
Paul concedes that there may be seasons in the marriage where it might be prudent to abstain from sexual relations. But those seasons ought to be the exception from the norm. It is not normal nor healthy for a married couple to spend extended seasons physically apart. It’s dangerous, and brings with it special temptations from Satan.
It’s also worth noting that Paul’s verb here at the beginning of verse 5 (stop depriving one another) is the same verb as chapter 6 verse 7, where Paul tells them to stop robbing or defrauding one another. The same is true here. Those Corinthians refusing to go to bed with their spouse were robbing their spouse of what was due them. And by doing so, were putting themselves and their spouse in undue temptation.
To do such is a violation of the 7th commandment. The commandment prohibiting adultery implies that we would do everything we can to protect the sanctity and purity of marriage, especially our own. And to unnecessarily withhold oneself for an extended period of time is to unnecessarily endanger your spouse and your marriage.
So, Paul says in verse 6: “6 I say this as a concession, not a command.” That is, Paul’s encouragement about breaking from the normal pattern of physical intimacy for an agreed upon time of prayer is a matter of prudence, not law. That’s an important distinction.
And it does belong to the category of prudence, and not law, because it belongs to the category of giftings, and not command.
That’s our final point:
- Paul’s Recognition of Giftings. Paul’s recognition of giftings. Verse 7:
7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
Paul introduces the idea of the charismata, or the spiritual gifts here, and the category of gifting in the area of marriage and singleness is an important area that we will spend more time on in later sermons.
What he’s saying here is a reflection upon his current status. His preference would be that everyone would be like he is, single, and thus able to focus exclusively on kingdom service without the encumbrance of a spouse.
But, unlike those in Corinth that were proclaiming the superiority of singleness OVER and against marriage, Paul here re-frames the discussion in terms of giftings from God. IF it is indeed a spiritual gift from God to be single AND it is also a spiritual gift from God to be married, then nobody should lead us astray to think that one is better than the other.
It’s not inherently better to be single, nor is it inherently better to be married. The Corinthians were their flawed in their spirituality because were deficient in their understanding of God’s gifts. Marriage is a gift that comes with special privileges and obligations, and singleness is a gift that comes with special privileges and obligations. Being single, as we will discuss in coming weeks, is not deficient or of less value; nor is being married sub-spiritual, or merely for those that can’t control their urges.
Each of us has a gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Wherever you are, God has called you, so flourish where you are. Stay as you are. If you’re married, don’t seek to rid yourself of marriage, and if you’re single, you don’t have to get married. You’re free to, but you don’t HAVE to. That’s because neither is better than the other, but both are a gift from God.
So that brings us to the end of this passage, and offers us a moment of reflection. A few questions of application.
First question: For the married among us, am I being faithful to my spouse and my marital obligations? Am I being faithful to my spouse and my marital obligations? Physical intimacy is certainly much more than a duty, but it is not less than so, and sometimes we need to be reminded of our duty for the good of the marriage, and the good of our own spiritual state.
Second, related question: am I doing what I should be to honor and protect my marriage? Am I doing what I should be to honor and protect my marriage? We’re called to honor and love our spouse, to cherish them, to love them. Am I diligent to love my neighbor as myself, when my spouse is my closest neighbor? Sometimes we can find it easier to go and demonstrate our love for our neighbor across the street, rather than first loving the one closest to me. Don’t coast in your marriage, don’t give in to the temptation to drift and grow cold, to retaliate by withholding yourself physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
And for the singles, are you doing what you can to promote the sanctity of marriage? That means not indulging in sexual immorality of any kind, and seeking the good of those married people around you.
I’ll be speaking more about marriage and singleness in the coming sermons, so I won’t linger there tonight.
But for all of us, we probably recognize that we fall short in many of these areas. We’re quick to hold a grudge, and to withhold ourselves from our spouse. We’re guilty of letting our eyes wander, to be discontent with the spouse given to us, to covet what has been given to our neighbor, even to covet the marriage that belongs to someone else.
We’re all guilty of withholding from our spouse what is due them, or not honoring the marriage bed as is proper.
But the good news of God is that we have a way to be forgiven. Even though we were unfaithful, Christ has been faithful. Even though we are the sinful spouse, Christ has been perfectly loyal, seeking out the good of his spouse, not even withholding his own body for her, but laying down his body for the good of his bride, the church. He became nothing, like a servant, so that by his being made low, His bride might be made perfect.
This is the gospel. Believers, be refreshed by it. Live in it. Rejoice in it. How you have been forgiven of so much selfishness, and instead treated as if you were perfect and spotless. What a kind and gracious husband we have, what a patient and tender king. Let his love and his sacrifice for you, motivate you toward even greater love and service to your spouse. And if you’re single, let Christ’s devotion to you propel you forward in your devotion to him.
Both singleness and marriage proclaim the gospel. Marriage proclaims the intimacy found in the gospel, picturing the union of Christ and his bride. And singleness proclaims the sufficiency of the gospel message itself. Union with Christ is enough for life and godliness. Christ is sufficient.
But for those who are outside of Christ, then hear in Paul’s text a warning against your selfishness. You’ve sought to fulfil your desires, rather than seeking first to serve another. You’ve bowed at the idol of self, rather than laying down your life for others. And your sin is not merely sin against another man or woman, not merely against your spouse. Your sin is ultimately a violation of God’s holy law, and an affront to his perfect character.
Apart from faith in Christ, you stand condemned by his law, and liable to the punishment of eternal death in Hell. Don’t let that be your fate. Repent and trust in Jesus Christ, turn from sin and turn to the savior who can save you from the guilt of your sin and save you from the life of misery to come.
His offer stands for any to take. Believe. Repent. Trust. And you too can be made a part of Christ’s bride, and forever experience the love of our faithful bridegroom.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1987), 310.
 Charles Bridges, Exposition of the book of Proverbs (Banner of Truth, 1974), 58.
 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 311.