The sanctity of marriage - Deuteronomy 5:18

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 1st July 2001.

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Let me begin this evening by reading to you the beginning of an article I read in a newspaper last week. It is entitled "Why don’t we take sex more seriously?" And as far as I know the author is not a Christian. She writes: "There was a refreshing moment on Sunday morning’s Radio 4 [last week]. Reviewing a heavily political press, the International Development Secretary, Clare Short, picked out a story about an [American] based survey of infidelity. It indicates that the British are world champions at poaching other people’s spouses and partners. We are twice as likely to annex other people’s lovers as Americans and Germans, three times more likely than the French, and five times more predatory than the Italians. Only Greek men are worse…. We are adultery champions too, with nearly half our married men and women admitting affairs. ‘This is really interesting,’ said Ms Short. ‘This is the kind of thing we should be talking about.’… She is right, comments the author. We should take a holiday from blaming politicians to survey the wider realm of individual conduct and conscience and their binding effect on society. More childhoods are wrecked by lax and selfish parents than by government, and more misery is caused by lying lovers than by Railtrack or MAFF combined. Indeed, the solidity of marriage and family life is the citizen’s best buffer against the tyranny of leaders and the cold wind of economics. So if, as a nation, we are notable for personal treachery, it is worth talking about." And the article goes on.

Sex is very much on the public agenda nowadays. And it is rare indeed to find an author writing in a national newspaper saying that we should take sex more seriously and in its proper context. For the author goes on to tell us that sex should be reserved for the marriage context. But she is a voice that goes against the grain. As we’ll see, the overwhelming opinion about this subject is that sex is good and you should do whatever you want with whoever you want. And its into our sex mad society that this seventh commandment comes. And yes, like all the others, we’ll see it is just as relevant today as it was about 3500 years ago when Moses reaffirmed it.

At its heart, this command is there to protect family life. As we saw when we looked at the fifth commandment, God’s model is that the family is at the heart of society, and here we find that the marriage covenant is at the heart of the family. So to protect marriage is ultimately to protect society. And whilst the times may have changed, yet God’s timeless principles remain. And that is the case with the whole area of sex and marriage and we’ll see tonight that this law applies not just to the married among us, but to all of us. And once more, we need to beware the Pharisee in us. You see the Pharisee’s attitude is to ask what is the least I can do to make sure I follow this law and obey it. And he might answer: "Well, if I do not commit adultery then I have kept the law. As long as I don’t sleep with another man’s wife, then I’m OK." Jesus will say to us tonight: "Beware the Pharisee in you." This commandment goes much further than the bare act of adultery. It applies not just to our bodies, but to our hearts, our minds, and even our souls as well. Each of us has broken this command. And yet as Christians we’ll be wanting to apply this commandment to the full, not just up to literal obedience. And our aim tonight will be to look at the Bible’s positive teaching behind this command. We won’t be able to look in depth at the subject of divorce and remarriage, important though it is. Rather our task will be see God’s view of sex and marriage and then see his warnings about adultery.


Life in a Sex Mad Society

But before we turn to what God thinks about sex and marriage, it is worth pausing to see what we are being told every day in the culture in which we live, a sex mad society. Because we might think that our culture has a very high view of sex. Sex is everywhere isn’t it? It's become part of our humour, virtually every song you hear on the radio is about sex, Hollywood has realised that the best way to sell films is by having a sexual edge to them, and advertising is dominated by sex. Anything from shampoo to Kitty Kat is sold by sex. A few weeks ago, we went with Mark 2 to the cinema to watch a film called the Dish, which was a twelve certificate. Now there was nothing wrong with the film. But what amazed me was the advertising beforehand. For what was a twelve, I was appalled that advertisements for underwear, alcohol and perfumes, portrayed in obviously sexual ways, were shown for such an audience. So I wrote to the manager of the cinema to raise my concerns. And yet that, it seems, is now the norm, even for an audience where twelve year olds will be watching. But sex is the modern god, and we’re told to do everything we can to get it. And I guess many people would rejoice. Thank goodness for the sexual revolution of the sixties, they say. We’re now liberated to do what we want. Yes, our culture idolises sex. Surely it has a very high view of sex.

But does it? Well I’m not so sure. First, our culture trivialises sex, it actually makes sex very cheap. More and more, sex is seen as something you do just to fulfil that appetite or desire. The other person is almost incidental. You may have seen the film Indecent Proposal, in which a young happily married couple get into serious financial problems, and a rich millionaire offers to get them out of the problem. He will give them a million pounds if the woman sleeps with him for just one night. And the couple discuss it and the girl says, "Well it's only my body, it's not my soul." Sex is just a bodily function that you do when you feel like it just for the kicks.

But the second thing about our culture’s view of sex is that it trivialises people. A low view of sex leads to a low view of people. Marilyn Munroe once said: "The sex symbol becomes a thing. I hate being a thing. I’ve never liked sex myself, I don’t think I ever will. It just seems the opposite of love." Which is very understandable given that she had fourteen abortions! You see if sex is just an urge that must be fulfilled then people are just means to an end. And yet for all the sexual "freedom" of the last few decades, the big question is this: Are we better off? The facts tells a horrific story: Higher teenage pregnancy and abortion, higher rates of depression and suicide, especially among young men, and a generation of young people that are lost, hurt and confused about their identity. We’re a society longing for love, yet enslaved in sex. You see, at a glance, society has a high view of sex, and yet the reality is that it trivialises sex to a bodily appetite, and trivializes people to become mere tools for the experience. And so the actor Michael Douglas can say: "Sex is a wave that just sweeps over me, an impulse that is compulsive, over powering, and when the urge comes I am helpless every time, and I’ve run the most incredible risks for it." And we have to be realistic- that is the culture which we breathe in every day. But whose morality will we follow? Our culture’s or God’s? Well let’s turn to see what God says. And for the remaining time we’ll focus on what God thinks. And there are three points:


1) God’s View of Sex

2) God’s Gift of Marriage

3) God’s Warnings against Adultery



1) God’s View of Sex

So first then, God’s view of sex. Now sadly some Christians down the ages have given the impression that sex is bad or evil and that God is anti sex. Like the vicar who turned up to a school to give a talk on sex and had three points all beginning with ‘D’: It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, so don’t. Or like the Victorian bride who drugged herself on her wedding night and left a note by her beside for her new husband saying: "Do your worst!" Is that the attitude that God has to sex? Well certainly not. Let me read to you from Genesis 2 v 24: "A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh." One flesh refers both to the emotional and social union between a man and woman, and also the physical union. There is sex, right at the start of the of the world. God invented sex, he made it for us to enjoy. Sex is not the result of sin, as some people think. Rather, sex is God’s gift to mankind. And it says that we are giving ourselves unconditionally and wholeheartedly the other person for life, as we’ll see. And there is a whole book in the Bible devoted to sexual love, the Song of Songs. Jewish boys weren’t allowed to read it before they were sixteen, because it was deemed too erotic. Yes, God has a very high view of sex. He invented it and it is his beautiful creation. So if it’s his idea, then surely we should enjoy it to the full? Well, yes, but only in the God given context. Which leads us to our second point.


2) God’s Gift of Marriage

God’s gift of marriage. Marriage is the God given context for sex, but of course it is much more than that. Let me read to you from Genesis 2 v 24 again: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh." So what does the Bible understand by marriage? Well first there is a leaving- that is a married couple are a free independent unit. They have left their respective families and are now together. They are a new social unit in the community. Secondly there is a uniting- the couple come together in every area of life. Marriage is a wholesale commitment to one another for life, a place in which you can give yourself to one other person wholeheartedly. Some would say it is slavery. As one GCSE student mistakenly put it: "To be married to one person for all of your life is what is known as monotony." But the Bible sees marriage as God intends it as true freedom. As one writer puts it: "To be loved unconditionally without strings attached, and to love in return, is true freedom." And then there is the becoming one flesh. There is to be a personal unity at the very deepest level, not simply at the physical level but the emotional, mental and spiritual levels as well. As Jesus puts it when commenting on this verse, "two people have become one".

And that means four things practically speaking. First, marriage in God’s understanding is heterosexual, that is between a man and a woman. The Bible makes it clear that any form of homosexual marriage is not a marriage as far as God sees. Indeed, any form of homosexuality is contrary to God’s blueprint for human sexuality and relationships. Secondly, marriage is exclusive. If two become one in marriage, then there can be no room for a third party. Three won’t go into two. One man and one woman. Thirdly it is lifelong. Such a commitment is for life. It is a commitment for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health till death do us part. And the nature of that one flesh union is for life. That’s the why the Bible calls it a covenant, that is a promise which lasts, despite the circumstances. And as we’ll see it is used as an analogy of God’s love for us. He has married his people to himself. That’s the standard of committed, covenantal love! And then finally, God makes it clear that that this firm marriage commitment is the appropriate place for bringing children into the world. The secure environment of the marriage covenant is the right place for children to be reared. This is what Michael Portillo said about marriage a while back: "Governments should encourage marriage for the most compelling public policy reason of all: It works. It works to create a family unit which is, on average, more stable and long lasting than any other arrangement…"

So God’s standards are very high. And none of us should be in any doubt as to how hard marriage is and how serious a commitment it is. That’s why at the beginning of the marriage service we say to the couples that such a commitment must not be entered into "carelessly, lightly, or selfishly, but reverently, responsibly, and after serious thought." And it is also why God has decreed that the enjoyment of sex is to be reserved for that committed, lifelong relationship. God is not a kill joy, rather he loves us and wants to protect us. For to engage sexually outside of marriage, in whatever form, is actually to lie with our bodies. For if sex is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to another person in the deepest possible way with our bodies, then to mess with it is to lie and to do one thing with our bodies and say another with our mouths. And if you truly love someone, then the best way to show that love is to take them down the aisle, and give them your promise before God and friends and family. And then you can express your love for the other person completely in a marital union. So that is God’s gift of marriage. It is a beautiful gift, and something to be cherished.


3) God’s Warnings Against Adultery

Now we have spent a good time seeing what God thinks about sex and marriage. But its only when we understand sex and marriage in their proper God given contexts, that we realise who important it is to rigorously obey this command not to commit adultery. And there are at least three practical applications of this command all of which apply to all of us, whether married or single.


a) Physical Adultery- First there is the obvious command in the plain sense, to avoid physical adultery, that is not to sleep with someone else’s spouse. Now we might be tempted to pass this one quickly by, saying: "It’ll never happen to us." Well we’d be very nave to believe we were beyond temptation. Those of us who are married need to work hard at being faithful to our spouses. We must be praying for strength to resist temptation if and when it comes. And those of us who are single also need to pray for strength to resist temptation. For any sort of sexual immorality, be it with a married person or with another single person, is wrong in God’s eyes. It is misusing God’s gift of sex in the wrong context.

By way of illustration, let me remind you of two Biblical characters. The first is Joseph. He was tempted by Potiphar’s wife to sleep with her whilst the husband was away. And it must have been very tempting. As well as the physical pleasure, there would have been great gain and prestige. He’d have been able to get favours from Potiphar’s wife. His years of slavery would be over. But what does he do? He says no again and again, until at last he flees. He resists and flees. What a great way to treat sexual temptation. Resist and flee. How easy it is to let ourselves get into situations which we could flee from, and instead we stay. No, remember Joseph, resist and flee. But remember, too, David and the episode with Bathsheba. What did David do? Instead of being on the battlefield where he should have been, he was in his house, and who should he see taking a bath on the roof of her house, but Bathsheba. And instead of turning his eyes away, he looked, and then looked again, and then made the fatal error. He went to her. His lust took over and his brain was left outside the bedroom door. The following chapters in 2 Samuel are a terrible catalogue of evil. Adultery leads to a baby which leads to murder which leads to guilt, and the upshot of it all is David’s family is completely ruined and he has no control over their actions. Even his daughter is raped by his own son. All as a result of David’s temptation and failure to resist. Sin looks so attractive, but it is deadly. Resist and flee. If you are tempted at this time, then flee. Don’t give in. And let’s not kid ourselves it could happen to us. Be prepared and resist and flee. Be a Joseph not a David.


b) Mental Adultery- But the second application is to mental adultery. Jesus in Matthew 5 shows how adultery need not simply be physical, it can also be mental. Jesus says: "I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Adultery begins in the mind, that is what Jesus is saying. And even if it is mental, then it’s as good as the act in God’s book. So cut it out he says: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of you body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." Be radical he’s saying. If something is causing you to sin, then cut it out. I guess the reason Jesus focuses on the eye, is that visual images are so powerful. Something we saw years ago can stay with us. So cut it out. Get rid of those magazines that cause you to lust, turn off the TV after nine if it’s a problem, or even, as one friend of mine did, throw it away. Disconnect from the internet if you cannot resist temptation. Whatever it is get rid of it, says Jesus. Ask God to help you resist the temptation. The reason? We’re in danger of hell itself. It’s not that by lusting once we’re heading for hell. Rather, if it takes over and dominates then we’ll find ourselves giving up on God and being spiritually lost. "If you sow a look, you reap a thought, sow a thought, reap an action, sow an action, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character and you reap a destiny." Be ruthless with sin, says Jesus, or sin will be ruthless with you.


c) Spiritual Adultery- But then finally there is spiritual adultery. As we saw before, God uses human marriage to explain his own love for us his people. He has taken us as his bride. But throughout the Bible there are constant allusions to the dangers of spiritual adultery. We can flirt with other gods, forsaking our first love. The people of Israel did it time and again, as the prophets made clear. And we too must guard against spiritual adultery. Well are you a spiritual adulterer? Are other things leading you away from your first love? It’s been well said that spiritual adultery is always the first step to physical adultery. Rather when we walk closely with our heavenly father, then we are less likely to fall for temptation. So listen to God’s warnings. Resist temptation. Do not commit adultery, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual. God’s warnings about adultery.

Well, I guess for many of us hearing God’s word on this area of sex and marriage is difficult. We know we have failed him, or else we have been badly hurt by others. But be assured that none of us are perfect in this area. Each of us have failed God and let him. We have not upheld his perfect standards and to some extent or another we have all committed adultery. And so I want to finish on a positive note. Corinth was a city that was corrupt beyond imagination. It was human cesspit of every sort of vice and evil. And yet in this most unlikely of settings, the glorious gospel of grace found root. Listen to what Paul writes to his friends in Corinth: "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolatrous, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." You see the wonderful news of Jesus Christ is that whatever we have done, we can be forgiven. If we’re dirty we can be washed, if we’re guilty we can be forgiven, if we are unholy, then we can be sanctified, and if we’re hurting then he will comfort. Jesus welcomes all with open arms, no matter what we have done. Do you know that forgiveness? Then come to Christ tonight and he’ll give you a fresh start. And then as forgiven, cleansed, renewed people, we can begin to live his way of freedom again.


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