Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire. It was a large, ethnically diverse, wealthy metropolis. But Corinth had a dark side: it was a sex-crazed, immoral city. Towering 1,500 ft. above Corinth was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each evening the temple’s 1,000 “priestesses” would descend into the city — they were nothing more than prostitutes. In fact, the term “Corinthian girl” was slang for a prostitute all over the Roman Empire. To “Corinthianize” was a word that meant to engage in sexual perversion. The whole city had that kind of reputation, and for good reason.
It is not surprising that the church at Corinth had to deal with immorality within the church (see 5:1). Neither is it surprising that Paul had received questions about sexuality from the members of the church. Apparently some of the believers in Corinth who had been saved out of immoral lifestyles (possibly even some former “Corinthian girls”) had concluded that sex had been so perverted in their culture that it would be better for them not to have sex at all (v.1-5).
This was such a concern that married couples were withholding themselves sexually from each other. Paul explained that depriving one another of natural, healthy marital sex was not the answer. The better solution was to redeem sex from the ugliness the culture had turned it into. That meant demonstrating equality and mutual submission within the marriage (v.4), focusing on meeting the sexual needs of your spouse unselfishly (v.3), being faithful to your spouse (v.10-11), and being a godly influence in your home, especially if your spouse is not a believer (v.12-14). Through the godliness of a faithful marriage partner, an unsaved husband or wife may come to Christ (v.16).
Among the single members of the church, some were apparently breaking their engagements and deciding to remain unmarried and celibate indefinitely. Paul indicated that choosing a life of singleness may not be the answer either. Marriage is God’s idea, and the only setting He has provided for sexual expression and fulfillment of the sexual needs He created (v.9). But marriage is a calling (v.17), and it is only for the called.
The apostle’s advice to the believers in Corinth reflected his gospel-centered zeal and his missional intensity — and possibly a God-given forewarning about impending persecution that the Roman government would soon bring upon Christians. Verses 26 and 29 summarize his concern: “I think in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is…the appointed time has grown very short.” Paul, with his unwavering gospel urgency, recommended that single Corinthian Christians should remain single so that they could be free from family responsibilities and able to give “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v.35). He was not forbidding single people from marrying (v.36), but he was emphasizing the urgency of eternal work (like pleasing the Lord and winning people to Jesus) over the things of “the present form of this world that is passing away” (v.31, like sexual activity and weddings).
The lesson I take away from this chapter is that I should make the most of the assignment God has given me as a husband and father. I want the quality of my marriage, the way I love and serve my wife, and even my sexuality to reflect the love and holiness of my Savior. And I want to make the most of my time to work for Jesus before He returns. I want Paul’s intensity and intentionality when it comes to the gospel. How about you?