20. The Sanctity of Marriage (Exodus 20:14)
A few months ago, I was talking on the phone to my friend, John Maurer. In the midst of that conversation I said to John, “John you would not have been very happy with me. I did something which would make you cringe. Can you guess what that was?” John did not hesitate, even for a moment. He responded, “I’ll bet you’ve been using that Stanley wood chisel to scrape gaskets off of automobile engines again.”
To understand John’s response, you have to understand John. To John, my Stanley chisel is a wood chisel, only to be used for chiseling wood. He is a purist in that regard—I am not. To me, my Stanley wood chisel is a very fine instrument for scraping old gasket material off an automobile engine. The difference between John and me in this instance is that John believes everything should be used for the purpose it was made.
You may wonder what wood chisels have to do with the Seventh Commandment. As a matter of fact, my differences with John over the proper use of a wood chisel have a great deal to do with the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” The principle underlying this commandment is that of the sanctity of marriage. The difference between John and myself over the use of a wood chisel is also a matter of sanctification. To John, a wood chisel is to be sanctified—set apart for use only on wood. To me, a wood chisel can be used for any number of things, including, if necessary, automobile engines.
Throughout the Bible, God sets certain things apart; He restricts their use; He sanctifies them. Mount Sinai, from which God spoke to Moses and the Israelites, was sanctified, set apart. Neither man nor beast was allowed to draw too near to it (Exod. 19:12-13, 23-24). The Israelites themselves were set apart from the Egyptians and from all other nations. We will discover in our lesson that marriage and sex were also sanctified by God. The implications of the sanctity of sex and marriage are the subject of this lesson.
Our approach to this study will be to consider the progressively revealed truths of God about sex and marriage, beginning in the Old Testament, and then going to the New Testament. Finally, we shall attempt to distill the biblical teaching into a few guiding and governing principles. Finally, we will attempt to discover how these principles apply to our daily Christian walk.
Adultery in the Old Testament
The foundation for the sanctity of marriage and sex is laid early in the Book of Genesis, where we read of the first marriage.
Then the LORD GOD said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” And out of the ground the LORD GOD formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the LORD GOD caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at the place. And the LORD GOD fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. And the man said,
“This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:18-24).
Just as God gave life to all of His creatures in Genesis chapter 1, now in chapter 2 He gives a woman to Adam as his wife. It is God who brought Adam and Eve together as husband and wife. God not only created man and woman, He also created the institution of marriage. He joined the first man and the first woman together in marriage. This union involved the husband’s leaving of his parents42 and cleaving to his wife. The old dependent and submissive relationship of child to parent had to be set aside so that this unity of husband and wife could be established (v. 24). God has here joined a man and a woman so that they have become a unity. He has also set this unity apart, distinguishing it from the previous parental-child entity. In short, there has been both a leaving and a cleaving, a separation and a union. I believe that the sexual union of Adam and Eve consummated their marital union, and thus there is implied here a sanctity of both the marriage and the sexual relationship of Adam and Eve. From the very beginning of creation, to commit adultery was to violate the sanctity of sex in marriage.
The third chapter of the Book of Genesis is significant to our study as well. When the first sin was committed by partaking of the “forbidden fruit” God pronounced punishments which were appropriate to each party involved, as well as the consequences for all mankind. The important thing to note here is that God also promised salvation through the seed of the woman in the midst of the curse pronounced on Satan: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you will bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15).
Satan, to save his skin, would begin to understand that he must begin to wage war on the seed of the woman. We would thus expect him to wage war on the marital union, for it is through marital union that the seed will be preserved and the promised seed will come. We know, of course, that the Lord Jesus was not born of the union of Mary and Joseph, but by a supernatural conception brought about by the Holy Spirit. But the messianic line until Mary was preserved through the union of a man and a woman in marriage. Satan can be expected to attack the sanctity of marriage in order to wage war on the “seed.”
In Genesis chapter 12 further revelation about man’s salvation is given as the benefits brought about by human (and ultimately divine) seed: “And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you; And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). God told Satan, Adam and Eve that the Savior of mankind would be the seed of the woman. Now, he tells Abram that the blessings He will give him and all the nations will come through his seed. Just a few verses away from the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, Abram places the “seed” in jeopardy, at least from a human perspective:
Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. And it came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen. 12:10-13).
Abram’s request was for Sarai to lie, representing herself as an eligible bride, and thus potentially putting her in another man’s bed in order to save his life. In effect, Abram was not only endangering the promises of God and the purity of his wife, but he was paving the way for men to unknowingly commit adultery with his wife. This is not one of the high points in Abram’s life.
There are other instances of sexual immorality in Genesis, but let us turn our attention to the bright light of Joseph’s character, in contrast to that of his close relatives.43 Joseph was a young man, with all of the sexual desires of any other healthy male. Away from his family, perhaps never again to return to his own people, how easy it would have been for him to succumb to the advances of his master’s wife:
And it came about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, with me around, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” And it came about as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he did not listen to her to lie beside her, or be with her (Gen. 39:7-10).
This incident reveals several important truths:
(1) Joseph knew he could not lie with this woman because she was the wife of another man. Marriage, in Joseph’s understanding, was an exclusive relationship. Not only did his master not give him authority over his wife, he could not have done so.
(2) We can see by Joseph’s words that adultery was not only wrong, but that he understood it to be sin.
(3) Joseph understood that, more than anything else, adultery was a sin against God.
(4) The immediate results of Joseph’s actions were painful, but the ultimate outcome was the blessing of God.
It is against the backdrop of Israel’s history as described in Genesis that the Seventh Commandment is given to the Israelites: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18).
From what we have already learned in Genesis, it is apparent that the Israelites understood what adultery was and that it was sin. Nevertheless, the rest of the Pentateuch (the Pentateuch is the five books of the Old Testament, written by Moses) provides us with a great deal of detail concerning sexual sins, and the various forms of punishment required by each. Let us briefly summarize this revelation.
Exodus 22:16-17—A man who seduces a virgin must marry her or pay the price of a virgin’s dowry.
Leviticus 18—Israel is to distinguish herself from practices of Egypt and Canaan by maintaining sexual purity (vss. 3, 24-30). Uncovering the nakedness of a relative is prohibited (vss. 6-18), as well as illicit intercourse (vss. 19-23). Sexual sin defiles the people (vss. 24, 30) and the land (vss. 25, 27, 28), thus resulting in expulsion from the land.
Leviticus 20—Israel is not to “play the harlot” by consulting mediums or spiritists, but they are to consecrate themselves to the God of Israel, who sanctifies them (vss. 6-8). Sexual sins and their penalties are spelled out in detail (vss. 10-21). Sanctification is then stressed, so that Israel must not practice the immorality of the Canaanites before them, lest they too be thrust from the land (vss. 22-27).
Numbers 5—A test is given to determine whether or not a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. The consequences of either guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 11-31).
Deuteronomy 22—When a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin at the time they were married, the parents can show her (blood-stained) garment as proof of her purity. The consequences of guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 13-21).
Taken as a whole, I believe that the above passages convey several vitally important truths, which we must pause to underscore:
(1) Adultery is a more serious sexual sin because it is a violation of a marriage. While the seduction of a virgin entails either marriage to the virgin or the payment of her dowry price to the father, sexual union with a married woman is punishable by death. While illicit sexual union is a sin, those unions which violate a marriage are taken more seriously. The reason seems to be solely because God has sanctified the marriage and the sexual sin has profaned it.
(2) Sexual impurity defiles both the persons involved and the land. Leviticus 18 and 20 emphasize the defiling nature of adultery, and warn that the practice of such sins will defile the land and will result in expulsion from the land, just as the Canaanites were expelled (cf. Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-26).
(3) Terms referring to adultery and sexual immorality are employed non-literally, referring to Israel’s infidelity to God. “‘As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people’” (Lev. 20:6). This is a point which the prophets of the Old Testament will take up and greatly expand upon in later times.
The dubious distinction for the most well-known case of adultery would have to go to David, who sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah:
Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” And David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said, “I am pregnant.” Then David sent to Joab, saying, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked concerning the welfare of Joab and the people and the state of the war. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and a present from the king was sent out after him. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. Now when they told David, saying, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will let you go.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. Now David called him, and he ate and drank before him, and he made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his bed with his lord’s servants, but he did not go down to his house” (2 Samuel 11:1-13).
In these verses the sin of David is contrasted against the backdrop of the devotion and discipline of Uriah. Note these points of contrast:
(1) Uriah’s military devotion in the “front lines” of battle is contrasted with David’s complacency, who never even makes it to the battle.
(2) While David enjoys all the luxuries of the palace, Uriah refused to enjoy them, even when urged on him.
(3) While David enjoyed sexual intimacy with Bathsheba, even though forbidden, Uriah refused such pleasure, even when legitimate and encouraged by the king.
(4) While Uriah was willing to lay down his life for the king and the nation, David was willing to take Uriah’s life to save his own reputation and to satisfy his own sexual desires.
(5) Though David had many wives, he was willing to take the one wife that Uriah possessed.
(6) Though David was of the chosen seed, Uriah was but a Hittite. Uriah was a Canaanite, but a godly one, while David, the Israelite, acted like a heathen.
The Scriptures frankly tell us that sexual sin can be the source of other sins. It can dull the mind, like wine, making one insensitive to reality (Hos. 4:11-12). Here, David’s immorality led to the additional sin of murder. Sexual sin is also related to religious apostasy (cf. Num. 25:1-9).
The Old Testament prophets take up the themes already developed in the Pentateuch. The sexual immorality of Israel has defiled the people and the land, and necessitates their expulsion from the land. Spiritual adultery has also become rampant, and is condemned. Judgment awaits this nation, which is likened to a harlot. Her restoration is described as a marriage between God and His bride.
“Why should I pardon you? Your sons have forsaken Me And sworn by those who are not gods. When I had fed them to the full, They committed adultery And trooped to the harlot’s house. They were well-fed lusty horses, Each one neighing after his neighbor’s wife. Shall I not punish these people,” declares the LORD, “And on a nation such as this Shall I not avenge Myself?” (Jer. 5:7-9).
“As for your adulteries and your lustful neighings, The lewdness of your prostitution On the hills in the field, I have seen your abominations. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will you remain unclean?” (Jer. 13:27).
“I will also put an end to all her gaiety, Her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, And all her festal assemblies. And I will destroy her vines and fig trees, Of which she said, ‘These are my wages Which my lovers have given me.’ And I will make them a forest, And the beasts of the field will devour them” (Hos. 2:11-12).
Harlotry, wine, and new wine take away the understanding. My people consult their wooden idol, and the diviner’s wand informs them; For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, And they have played the harlot, departing from their God (Hos. 4:11-12).
Thus, because Israel practiced the same sins as the Canaanites, who lived in the land before them, they were thrust forth from the land, just as their predecessors, and just as God had warned:
“’Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your GOD’” (Lev. 18:24-30).
“’You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. As for a man or a woman, if there is a medium or a spiritist among them, they shall surely be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them’” (Lev. 20:22-27).
Adultery in the New Testament
Jesus did not have nearly as much to say about adultery and sexual immorality as did the apostles. Furthermore, He may even appear to be lenient on those guilty of immorality. Such could be the conclusion one would reach from a reading of John chapter 4, where Jesus spoke to the immoral woman at the well, or of John chapter 8, where Jesus refused to cast stones at the woman caught in the very act of adultery. There are several reasons for the difference in the emphasis of our Lord from that of the Old Testament, which condemned adultery and demanded the death penalty.
(1) Jesus had come to bear the penalty for sinners, and thus He did not come to condemn anyone, but to offer salvation to all (cf. John 3:16-17). At His second coming He will bring judgment to the wicked.
(2) Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience, while most of the apostles addressed Gentiles. Judaism condemned adultery and sexual immorality, as can be seen from John chapter 8. The Gentiles were more like the Canaanites of Old Testament times—they were distinctly pagan in their sexual conduct and values. Thus, it was not necessary for our Lord to dwell on the sinfulness of sexual immorality, since the Jews of His day agreed with Him on this point.
(3) The Jewish religious leaders felt smugly self-righteous because they did not practice this form of sin, but they were guilty of other, more subtle, sins, which were more socially acceptable. The sexually immoral, such as the woman caught in the act of adultery, honestly acknowledged their sin, but the scribes and Pharisees were hypocritical, refusing to acknowledge their own self-righteousness. Thus Jesus majored on those sins which were more subtle, and which were more characteristic of the religious leadership of Israel.
If these Jewish leaders condemned sins which were overtly wrong actions, Jesus chose to focus on those hidden sins which were attitudes. Thus, in the gospels we see how our Lord pressed beyond the actual act of adultery to the attitudinal sins of adultery:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you, that every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if you right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. And it was said, ‘WHOEVER DIVORCES HIS WIFE, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DISMISSAL’; but I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:27-32).
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19).
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).
These three texts provide us with the essence of our Lord’s teaching on adultery and sexual immorality. Let us briefly consider the important truths our Lord taught on sex and marriage.
(1) Jesus teaches here that it is not enough to keep the Law in its letter, but must also keep it in spirit. We must begin by taking the Bible literally, and thus we acknowledge that any act of adultery must be avoided. But this does not take the Law far enough, as our Lord must continually point out to His listeners, and to His literalistic opponents, the scribes and Pharisees.
(2) Jesus thus teaches here that attitudinal sins precede sins of action (cf. James 1:13-15). He does not necessarily teach that attitudinal sins are as bad as action sins. From the standpoint of the harm done to men, action sins are more serious. (It is better for society that a man only think of murder than it is for him to take a life.) From the standpoint of our sin against God, attitudinal sins and action sins are both rebellion against God.
(3) The way to fully keep the Seventh Commandment is to view sexual sin as so serious (damning) that we are willing to take any measure required to prevent it. We must begin by understanding that plucking out eyes and cutting off hands will not cure sin or assure us of keeping the Seventh (or any other) Commandment. Hands and eyes are involved as precipitating causes of immorality, however. Visual and sensory (touch) stimulation are often the prelude to immorality. Having said this, let us note that eyes and hands are very precious body members. To remove either is a drastic action (as, for example, one would do in the case of cancer). If one were so serious as to be willing to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand then that person’s attitude is what it should be with regard to adultery. Our Lord is teaching us that we must, unlike our culture, take sexual sin most seriously. When we are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a sin, we will likely take the steps necessary to avoid it.
(4) Adultery is a violation of the union of marriage. It is significant that our Lord began by talking about adultery, but that He almost immediately came to the subject of divorce. It is also significant that He taught divorce causes adultery, except in the case where the divorce was based upon previous adultery. The inference is quite clear: since sexual union joins a man and woman in marriage, adultery violates that union. Thus, when a divorce is granted due to adultery, a later marriage on the part of the innocent (that is, not guilty of adultery) party is not viewed to be adulterous.
It is very important for me to be precise in what I say here. First, I believe that a Christian has the right to divorce a spouse for adultery, but that this is never one’s duty, and seldom one’s highest calling. I do not think that it is correct to conclude that adultery terminates a marriage, any more than it is correct to conclude that sin terminates our salvation. Thus, one should be careful not to think or say that since adultery is a sin against a marriage, it has also, de facto, terminated the marriage.
(5) Divorce causes adultery. How many times have we heard that adultery breaks the marriage union, that is, that adultery (legitimately) causes divorce? Our culture believes that the obtaining of a certificate of divorce legitimizes adultery. Our Lord teaches us here that divorce causes adultery. According to Matthew 19:9, if one divorces and marries another (except for the divorce based on the immorality of the other partner) that person commits adultery. The assumption here is that the divorce is obtained in order to marry another, or that it will ultimately result in marriage to another. Furthermore, the one who divorces their spouse also causes them to commit adultery, since a remarriage is assumed. Let those who would consider divorce an option carefully ponder the implications of their actions in accordance with our Lord’s words here. Let those who have already divorced and remarried remember that divorce and immorality (as all other sins save unbelief) is not an unpardonable sin. Let those who think this is an occasion or an excuse for sin read Romans chapter 6 very carefully.
When we leave the gospels of the New Testament and come to the epistles, there is a change which we should recognize and appreciate. First, we move from a Jewish to a Gentile culture. Pagan religion often intermingled sexual immorality with its “worship.” We therefore would expect to find some very specific revelation on the subject of adultery and sexual sin in the epistles. Second, we move from an Old Testament dispensation (centered around the nation Israel) to a New Testament dispensation (centered around a predominantly Gentile church). Israel’s sexual conduct set them apart from the Egyptians and the Canaanites. It also assured the integrity of the home and a righteous seed, through whom the Redeemer would come. This was now accomplished. What is it that makes sexual purity so important to the New Testament saint, who is not an Israelite, but a member of the church, the body of Christ? This is what we shall seek to learn from the writings of the apostles in the New Testament.
The apostle Paul has the most to say of the apostles on the subject of sexual purity. In the Book of 1 Corinthians he focuses on illicit sexual union and its relationship to the believer’s union with Christ:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “the two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:15-20).
Throughout the Scriptures, both Old Testament (cf. Gen. 39:9; 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51:4) and New, adultery is, first and foremost, a sin against God. From the Old Testament perspective, adultery was a violation of the sanctity of marriage, which God established, and which the Law sought to maintain. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 go much farther, showing the implications of a Christian’s sexual union with a harlot. When one comes to faith in Christ, when he is born again, that person becomes one with Christ. Thus, whatever one does, he does in union with Christ.
Sexual intercourse with a harlot, contrary to popular thought, is no casual matter, it is a union as well. Indeed, in verse 16 Paul makes a statement of monumental importance. He equates sexual union with marital union. When one enters into a sexual union, Paul reasons, one enters into marital union. For a Christian to engage in sexual intercourse with a harlot puts two unions in conflict: his union with Christ and his union with a harlot. Just as no man can have two masters, neither can one have two unions—one with Christ, and another with a harlot. Sexual sin has very serious theological implications.
In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul focuses on the relationship between the Christian husband and wife, and the way it portrays an important spiritual truth to the world:
So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:28-32).
While I have cited only a portion of this important paragraph (vss. 22-33), the important point to recognize here is that the relationship of a Christian husband and wife is to be a reflection of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church.
Finally, sexual purity is vitally important to the Christian life because it is directly related to one’s sanctification:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3-8).
Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:19-22).
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 Paul says that the will of God is for us to be sanctified. He then immediately turns to our sanctification as it relates to our sexual conduct. Our sanctification cannot be expressed or realized apart from a radical change in our sexual conduct—that is, a radical change in the way we conduct ourselves sexually, as contrasted with our former conduct and that of the pagan world around us.
In 2 Timothy chapter 2 Paul’s instruction is more general, but still very much to the point of sexual morality. Sanctification involves setting something apart for a special use. Sanctification involves purity, the absence of what is unclean. And, Paul says, it involves for Timothy the fleeing of youthful lusts, which surely include illicit sexual passions and conduct.
When we come to our last text, we come full circle: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). The marriage union which God established, God also sanctified. Sexual purity begins with highly esteeming that which God has given—marriage, and the one whom God has given—our mate. When we thus honor marriage, we will see to it that the marriage bed, the blessing of sexual union, remains undefiled by sexual union outside of that marriage, which profanes.
We can see, then, that throughout the Bible, the enjoyment of sex is restricted to marriage, and to that which is consistent with our position and calling in Christ. Let us conclude by seeking to isolate the principles which underlie and govern sexual purity, and then some of the practical outworkings of these principles.
(1) The principle of sanctification. Sanctification is one of the great principles of the Bible, whether in the Old or the New Testament. Sanctification was, for example, the first great test which man failed in the Garden of Eden. Some have attempted to show that the sin committed in the Garden of Eden was a sexual sin. I think there is little evidence for this conclusion. I do, however, believe that the first sin is similar to that of adultery, and thus very instructive. Consider, for a moment, how that “forbidden fruit” (whatever it might have been) is similar to the “forbidden fruit” of illicit sex.
In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is very desirable. I find it interesting that the fruit of this tree of knowledge of good and evil was good, like everything else God created (cf. Gen. 1:11-12, 31). More than this, it was very desirable: “And out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9). It is no wonder, then, that Eve was attracted to the “forbidden fruit”: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).
In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is available. Just as God placed the “forbidden fruit” in sight and within the reach of Adam and Eve, so the “forbidden fruit” of sexual immorality is visible and available.
In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is forbidden. Just as God had clearly forbidden the partaking of the “forbidden fruit” in the garden, so He has clearly forbidden the “fruit” of sexual impurity.
In both cases, partaking of the “forbidden fruit” brings disastrous results. Satan made great promises about the benefits of partaking of the fruit of that tree, but he failed to tell all. Great were the consequences. Sin entered the human race and human history, and the consequences are evident all about us. So, too, the pleasures of sexual sin are prominently proclaimed, but the price for immorality is exceedingly high (cf. Prov. 2:16-22).
The “forbidden fruit was not forbidden because is was intrinsically bad. It did not look bad, it did not taste bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad, in and of itself. Remember that God made it, and that all He made was good. The forbidden fruit was forbidden, not because of any evil characteristic of the fruit itself, but because God “sanctified” or set it apart. He did not permit man to use it.
Sanctification, therefore, was the first test which God gave mankind, and it was this test which man failed. It is little wonder, then, that God has so much to teach man about sanctification in the Bible.
Abraham, and his seed, is set apart from the rest of mankind, and through Him Messiah will come and will bring blessing and salvation to all nations. The nation Israel is kept apart from other nations by her time in Egypt, and in the plagues, the Israelites are distinguished from the Egyptians. The covenant which God made with Israel on Mt. Sinai was a further means of sanctifying His people, to be a priestly nation:
“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (Exod. 19:4-6a).
To play out her role as God’s priestly nation, Israel had to be separate, sanctified, different from the surrounding nations. Those distinctions are spelled out in the Law, one of which is that of the maintenance of sexual and marital sanctity.
The New Testament portrays a very similar picture. Here, the church is the “bride of Christ,” with the responsibility of exemplifying the relationship of Christ to His church (Eph. 5:22-33). In order to do this, Christians must be holy, sanctified, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). The Christian life therefore involves making many distinctions and then living them out. We must distinguish between truth and error, between good and evil, between holiness and unrighteousness. We must even distinguish between what is personally permissible and what is personally beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). Furthermore, there must be a distinction drawn between what is personally permissible and what is detrimental to others (cf. 1 Cor. 8-10).
The differences between holy and unholy, clean and unclean are crucial. In a divine vision, God said to Peter, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). At times we are tempted to think that what God has called clean is really unclean (as was the case with Peter; cf. also 1 Tim. 4:1-5). At other times, we are tempted to call “clean” what God has called “unclean.” One of the most important decisions the Christian can make is to rightly distinguish between the holy and the unholy—the see what God has sanctified and what He has not. Sanctification is therefore one of the great, governing and guiding principles of the Word of God.
(2) The sanctity of marriage. If we have accepted the principle of sanctification in general, we must then see it in the particulars of our Christian experience. One of these particulars is that of marriage. Marriage, by God’s decree, is sanctified, it is a relationship that is set apart and restricted. The sin of adultery is dealt with so severely because it is a violation of the sanctity of the marriage which God has ordained and set apart.
The sanctity of marriage is indicated by the statement in Genesis 2:24, that a man must leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. This union is set apart, it is to be distinct from the previous relationship of parent and child. When our Lord commented on this text He said, “Consequently they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). The Law pertaining to adultery also confirms the sanctity of marriage.
Just what is it that distinguishes a man’s relationship with his wife from other relationships? In other words, what is it that makes a marriage distinct, unique, sanctified? I believe that there are several ways in which marriage is sanctified:
Unity. The relationship between a husband and his wife is a union. The husband and wife become one. They become one in spirit, and sexually they become one in physical union. This sexual union consummates and symbolizes the union of marriage. Our Lord says that this union of husband and wife must not be severed (Matt. 19:6). The Bible seems to teach that this union is not severed by anything but death, anything including divorce. The union of husband and wife is one of the unique elements of marriage. This union is violated and defiled by adultery. Adultery mocks the union of a man and his wife, and the God who joined them together.
Intimacy. Closely related to the union of a husband and his wife is the intimacy which they experience in marriage. Physical intimacy is the most obvious, but there is also a spiritual and emotional intimacy. This intimacy can be both constructive and destructive. One can build up the other in those intimate areas of one’s heart and life, but one can also do great damage in the intimate areas as well. Who knows better how to hurt his mate than the one who has the most intimate knowledge of her?
Reproduction. When God brought man and woman together as husband and wife, He commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28). The reproduction of life is that function which is carried out within the marriage union, according to God’s design and decree. It marks out yet another way in which the marriage is sanctified.
Fellowship. When God had created a mate for all of His other creatures, He looked upon Adam in his solitude and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). God created Eve and brought her to Adam for fellowship, to be his helper and his companion. Marriage is sanctified in the degree to which a man and his wife have fellowship with one another.
There are two specific applications which I would suggest emerge from the observation of these unique areas in which marriage is sanctified, unique. The first is that the sanctity of marriage not only demands that we not defile the union in any way, including adultery, but that we actively seek to enhance the marriage. I would suggest that the categories of unity, intimacy, reproduction, and fellowship are four specific benchmarks of the quality of our marriages, and thus four specific areas for concentrated effort. I would further suggest that these four areas (there are probably others, too) provide the “glue” which holds a marriage together. Let us work at growth in each of these areas.
The second layer of application relates to the church. I would suggest that the four things which set a marriage apart from other relationships are the very four things which distinguish a Christian’s relationship with his Lord and with His body, the church. Time will not permit further exploration, but take note of how often unity (e.g. Eph. 4:1ff.,), intimacy and fellowship, and reproduction (evangelism, fruit bearing) are discussed in the context of one’s personal walk with the Lord or with the corporate union of believers in the body of Christ.
(3) The sanctity of sex. If the Seventh Commandment teaches the sanctity of marriage, it also teaches the sanctity of sex, for it is only in marriage that the pleasure and product (children) are to be experienced. Our culture is adamantly opposed to the sanctity of sex. Most Americans seem to think that human sexuality is to be used in the same way I use my Stanley chisel—the more uses to which it can be put, the better. Viewed from a contemporary secular perspective, sexual pleasure restricted only to marriage is a tragic waste, a failure to make full use of one’s sexual potential, and thus to deprive oneself of a great deal of sexual pleasure. Virginity is thus looked upon as a stigma, from which one should rid oneself as quickly as possible.
In my opinion, the rampant sexual immorality of our day is not primarily the result of greater temptation, of increased sexual desire, of greater opportunity, or even of the availability of the pill and abortion. The epidemic of sexual immorality is, I believe, the result of a failure to understand or appreciate the sanctity of sex and of marriage. For this and other reasons, the Seventh Commandment is of vital importance, not only to a pagan world, but to a carnal and permissive church.
Here we come to one of the very crucial implications of the sanctity of sex. When we sanctify sex, it is because we value it highly, not because we disdain it as something of little worth. We sanctify those things to which we attach great value. Our culture protests that Christians disdain and demean sex, that we have little appreciation for it. The opposite is true. We sanctify sex because we value it highly, as a good gift from the hand of a gracious God.
Think about this carefully, for it is of the greatest importance. Women, why do keep your silver in a special place, bringing it out only for “special” occasions? The same could be asked about your best china, or that very special dress (maybe even your wedding dress). Men, what about that special car, or gun, or golf club? If you owned a Mercedes Benz, would you loan it to a neighbor to go hunting in, or to haul firewood? We all restrict the use of (we sanctify) those things which we most highly prize.
Teenagers, culture is lying to you. Our culture does not value sex, it thinks of it as very common, so common that virtual strangers will share life’s most intimate treasure. How tragic it is to see young people seduced (philosophically and physically), so that they will share that most treasured gift with those who cannot even be named or numbered. The sanctity of sex in marriage clearly calls for the sanctity of sex before marriage. May God grant you the conviction to stand against the flood of cultural and peer pressure.
In conclusion, let me suggest three additional ways in which the sanctity of sex is to be applied in a practical way. First, since the sanctity of sex reflects its value, its beauty, its goodness, let us never think of sex as something dirty and defiling. Some people seem to disdain sex in marriage as much as the Bible disdains it outside of marriage. The Bible speaks otherwise. In both the New and Old Testaments we are urged to let the pleasure and enjoyment of sex within marriage serve as a godly defense against sexual immorality:44
Drink water from your own cistern, And fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone, And not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Prov. 5:15-20).
Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3-5).
Second, in order to avoid the evils of sex, we need to minimize our exposure to those things which only stimulate lustful thoughts and sexual temptations. Specifically, I am referring to what Paul has written in the Book of Ephesians, which especially relates to sexual impurity:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:1-14).
Third, we must beware of that teaching (either by direct statement or by inference, or by silence) which holds that any and every sexual pleasure can be enjoyed by a married couple behind closed doors. I understand that “possessing one’s vessel in sanctification and honor” (1 Thes. 4:4), and “holding the marriage bed in honor,” “keeping the marriage bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4) implies that not every sexual practice of the pagan world is permissible or beneficial for the Christian. This may be a matter of personal conviction, over which there is some disagreement, but marriage does not make every sexual practice holy.
May God grant that we hold sex and marriage to be sacred, and may God enable each of us, by His grace and through His Spirit, to move ahead in the process of sanctification, to the praise of the glory of His grace.
42 One may wonder why only the husband is to leave his father and mother, and not the wife. Some of this may be cultural, but I think the primary reason is that in those days especially (and in other cultures still today) the woman is under the authority of her parents, and her parents authority over her is simply transferred to her husband. The man, on the other hand, is under his parents’ authority as a child, but when he “leaves” them he terminates that “chain of command” and establishes a new “chain of command,” being the head of his wife and the family which may follow.
43 In Genesis chapter 34, Dinah is apparently forcibly raped by Shechem, a deed to which Jacob’s sons violently reacted as an abomination (cf. 34:7). In chapter 35, Ruben lay with one of his father’s concubines (35:22). In chapter 38, Judah engaged in sexual union with his daughter-in-law, whom he thought to be a Canaanite cult prostitute (38:14-23). His indignation at discovering his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock (not knowing yet it was by him), reveals that sexual immorality was clearly condemned (cf. v. 24). The incidents in chapters 34 and 38 indicate that the Law of Moses only codified what was already understood to be wrong.
44 In saying that sexual pleasure in marriage is one of God’s safeguards against immorality, I am not saying that the husband or wife who gives freely of themselves in a sexual way thereby guarantees the sexual purity of their partner. I have heard it cruelly stated or implied that had a mate satisfied his or her partner in marriage, adultery would have been prevented. While depriving a partner tempts them, fulfilling a partner does not necessarily keep them from sexual sin. We need only look at men like David and Solomon, who had so many wives they couldn’t keep up with them, but still sought after more (such as David sought Bathsheba).
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