Idolatry wasn’t the only problem the Israelites had during their wilderness wanderings. In 1 Corinthians 10, the chapter we’ve been exploring during this Lenten season, Paul tells us they also acted immorally, which led to the death of 23,000 in one day.
I think I know what day he’s referring to. It’s likely the same day we talked about last week, the day the Israelites decided they’d waited for God long enough and made a new god that they could worship and serve. Quoting Exodus 32:6, Paul writes, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play,” describing the ways the people worshipped their new god. And “play” there apparently didn’t just mean a rousing Euchre tournament or a marathon game of Monopoly, because after Paul’s first warning to the Corinthians to avoid idolatry like the Israelites, his second warning was to not “act immorally,” from the Greek word porneuo, which means “to give one’s self to unlawful sexual intercourse.”
Historians have told us that sexual intercourse was often part of idol worship, not just in ancient Egypt, where the Israelites had spent the last several centuries, but also in first century Corinth, where Paul’s intended readers were living. To warn them not only about idolatry but also about unlawful sexual intercourse was necessary to help Paul’s readers set themselves apart from the dominant culture in their new Christian faith. It’s the same reason he also talks about food sacrificed to idols later in Chapter 10 and also in other parts of his letter. The zeitgeist of first century Corinth would not be an easy influence to remove from the lives of believers or keep out of the early church.
I believe Paul also mentions sexual immorality here because of the particularly powerful and personal aspects of sexual sin that often trip people up. Earlier in the same letter, Paul tells the Corinthians that all other sin is committed outside the body, “but the immoral man sins against his own body.” It’s an argument Paul makes by playing with the word body. First, he says our bodies are members of Christ, and so whomever we give our body to in sexual activity (he uses the example of a prostitute) is like giving Christ to the same person. Then he reminds us that in marriage, two bodies become one. So, in the example of the prostitute, Paul asks, “Do you want to be one body with a prostitute?” Finally, Paul says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, that our physical selves house the spiritual presence of God. “Therefore, glorify God in your body,” he writes. Somehow, Paul seems to be saying that the physical and spiritual intermingling that happens in our bodies puts misuse of the body, and more particularly sexual sin, into some kind of special category.
But let me pause to say that this category is not special because it warrants greater condemnation or harsher judgment from God than other sin. I also don’t think Paul is saying this special category of sin is one that we should judge each other more harshly over or use as a litmus test to exclude or target people. Rather, the point is this: Jesus died in a physical body to save not only our souls but also our bodies. Christianity is nothing if not an embodied religion, with incarnation, or embodiment, as central to our relationship with God. When Paul asks, “Do you not know … that you are not your own?” he’s talking not just about our spiritual selves. He’s talking about our bodies. Bodies are a big deal to God. Your body is a big deal to God. And when it comes to sin that is against your own body, God cares deeply about the consequences.
Imagine using this thing that God cares so deeply about, that’s central to His relationship to you, that houses His spirit within you, in order to worship another god. Imagine the insult that would be; imagine how much that would damage your relationship with God. That’s what the Israelites were doing at the base of Mount Sinai as they worshipped their golden calf, and that’s what the people in Corinth were doing as they teetered between their new life in Christ and the old idol worship they were rescued from. It’s the immorality Paul warns against in 1 Corinthians 10, not just sexual promiscuity, but the other way Porneuo is used, “permitting one’s self to be drawn away by another into idolatry.”
So as we wander deeper into the wilderness of Lent, I wonder: when do you and I act immorally? Not if but when. When do we fail to glorify God with our bodies, sexually or otherwise? When do we allow ourselves to be drawn away into idolatry? When do our bodies themselves—with all the preening and primping, with the fixating on our flaws, with the counting of calories and the endless moisturizing—become idols that we prioritize over God?
And while this isn’t the ancient Middle East or first century Corinth, we certainly are surrounded by a culture that worships the body and sees sexual expression as its own kind of spirituality. Like Paul attempted to do for the Corinthians in his warnings in chapter 10, how do we ensure that the modern zeitgeist doesn’t seep into our souls and taint the expressions of our faith? How can we be sure it hasn’t already? Too often, we Christians worry too much about others’ immorality, especially when it comes to sexual immorality. While there’s certainly room for us to speak lovingly into the lives of those we care about when sins of the body are hurting them and leading them astray, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 10 seems more about self-evaluation. And if we think we’re without sin, he asks us to be especially vigilant. Because just as pride lurks beneath idolatry, that same pride can make us think we’re impervious to the temptations of sexual immorality while leaving us even more vulnerable. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
But we all do fall. Maybe not into sexual immorality, but as we’ll realize again and again during these Lenten wonderings and over and over again through the course of our lives, we are still so prone to sin. But thankfully, Jesus paid the debts of our life in the flesh by sacrificing his own body, as he explained during the last supper he had with his disciples before his death:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
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Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.